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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Frohes Fest!

Christmas time is here at last! My flight home leaves tonight...But, by this time tomorrow, I will be in Chicago...or on my way back to Green Bay! And that's exciting. Too bad I'm missing "real" Christmas at home. But, I have not missed Christmas in Austria, even though I am traveling on the 25th.

It should be noted for those Americans reading this blog that in Austria (and other parts of Europe, of course) that Christmas is not celebrated on the 25th, like we are used to, but on the 24th.

Last year's X-mas tree in WI
My personal theory is that the midnight mass on the 24th (so, the beginning of the 25th) was such an important part of the celebration that, when people stopped wanting to stay up until midnight for mass, they just moved it up to an earlier time on the 24th  - but gifts are opened on the 24th as well. And the Christkind (actually an angel, not the newborn baby Jesus) brings the presents, sort of like Santa Claus, but the kids just leave the room for 15 minutes and come back and there are miraculously presents sitting under the tree. Personally, I think it's a lot easier on the parents to just make the kids go to bed and wait until morning - if you're naughty and sneak out of bed, you break the deal anyway...

Sometimes December 25th is a day to visit family in Austria. Other times, they just don't do anything. And on the 26th (St. Stephen's Day), they go back to church. St. Stephen was a very important saint in Austria.

So, what did I do on Christmas Eve - considering I'm still Amstetten until this evening? I did a little channel surfing, and discovered The Last Unicorn (dubbed into German, of course) was playing on RTL. Very Christmas-y, if you ask me.

The Last Unicorn was my absolute favorite cartoon when I was little. The last time I saw it was as a college Freshman when I brought it back to the dorm from the Appleton Public Library and tortured my friends with it. Totally worth it. Although, I did realize how child inappropriate this film is. Lots of cartoon nudity and heavy subjects. But it is still awesome. In a cornball Peter S. Beagle fantasy way. The German version was totally better, too. Basically, I can't watch American movies in Germany/Austria because they are always dubbed, and it pisses me off when the lips and the voice of the actors do not sync. I have no fear of that in cartoons, however. The German versions of cartoons are actually better. The Simpsons, anyone?

After The Last Unicorn, I went to midnight mass (actually at 11 - wimps) and, this, too, seemed improved by being in Austria. First, the church itself is old and really cool. Second, since I am unfamiliar with the Apostle's Creed, the Lord's Prayer, etc., in German, trying to follow the mass kept me on my toes. Third, the music is better. It's not this dopey new wave Christian Youth stuff, but real music, but Haydn and Handel and Mozart and other composers.

Considering this, my early New Year's resolution is to go to church more - in Austria. A) It is a great way to pick up some German vocab. B) It might be an OK way to meet people. C) I joined the church choir, and must admit, I have not actually shown up to mass to sing with them (but I do go to the practices on Monday nights). After half the choir and two teachers at school asking me why I don't go to mass and sing with the choir, I realized that church choirs sing at church. And as a member, I am expected to do the same. My bad.

One question: if God knows everything, can he tell when I'm being facetious?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

"Hey, Vanessa - No, Not You. The Other One"

I'm one of those people who grew up with relatively few people sharing my name.

Unlike all the "Sarahs" and "Katies" and "Emilys" etc., etc. I spent the first seven years of school never running into another Vanessa. This made me feel special. And unique. And, ultimately, superior.

Much as I hate to admit it now, I was  - for better or worse - possessive of my name. When I met my first "other" Vanessa in 7th grade, I was a bit taken aback. And uninterested in being friends with her. Because she stole my name.

Now, I have been over this stupid complex for quite a while. I bump into other Vanessas now and then...but none more than in Europe. Although the name "Vanessa" has been in the top 100 baby name list in the USA since the 1970s, it seems as if Wisconsinites prefer to give their daughters different names - like variations on Catherine (Katherine, Catrina/Katrina, Katie, Caitlin, Katelyn, etc., ad nauseum) as an example.

However, I think - in general - the name Vanessa is a more popular one in Europe. Why do I say this? I keep bumping into other people with my name. Not that I mind, or anything. But it does lead to some confusion. Especially, as the English assistant, I hear my name being called by students all the time - for help, to answer a question, and so forth. But more often than not, that, "Hey, Vanessa!" I hear in the hallway is intended for another student.

The time has come to shrug it off. Or, perhaps ask myself - who am I, really?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Cookie Time

Today I broke down and bought a cookie sheet at the local NKD.

What is it about chocolate chip cookies that makes them SOOOOOOOOOOOO fascinating? Perhaps it is their American origins...the uniquely American cookie. The All-American Toll House. Anyway, I have been progressively feeling this homesickness thing. I cannot attribute it to anything specific, but I think the combination of small town life (where I still don't really know a lot of people) and the fact that I lived at home last year (as opposed to living at Lawrence - the transition from dorm to single living was easier my first time abroad, I think) is making my separation angst more...severe.
Also, seeing as it is Christmastime, my thought is that I could contribute a little treat to the classroom. A double whammy: Christmas treat mixed with Americana - and why not? I like brining treats into class - it breaks up the monotony. So, not only have I decided to make chocolate chip cookies, I have decided to make 200+ chocolate chip cookies for my many students. 
You may be wondering why I chose chocolate chip cookies? They are not particularly Christmas-y. Yes. But they are easy cookies - you don't have to roll them, the recipe is easy to double (triple and quadruple, too) and I've made them so much, I have no fear of baking them with metric measurements and Austrian ingredients. Plus the whole aforementioned symbol of America that this cookie stands for.

If you don't believe me, all the Europeans I know call them "American cookies"  - they even sell them in the grocery store as such! But, truly, there is nothing like a home-baked chocolate chip cookie. In my opinion.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Christmas Carol - Vienna

Last Thursday, I went to Vienna with the students to see a version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol at the International Theatre. By "International," they mean English-language theater.

And, yeah, it was interesting. Enjoyable. The students seemed to like it - and actually get the jokes, etc., which is a good sign! It's hard to gauge how much of their refusal to talk in class is confusion over the English language and how much is refusal to talk because they are either a) embarrassed/unsure of their abilities or b) buyers-in to the too-cool-for-school mentality. Hey, teenagers will be teenagers.

We were 70 or so, and completely filled the theater. Elfriede told me that there were ten students who were supposed to come, but cancelled. They had to bring chairs in for us in fact, so who knows where those extra students would have sat?

The performance itself was good - inasmuch as it was well acted and basically faithful to the story I know and love. My biggest problem was with Scrooge - the guy was about four feet tall, and emaciated with a shriveled face...if he had been two feet taller, I think he would have been perfect.

I mean, I'm not a sizeist or anything. But, well, the Scrooge I grew up with was the Alastair Sim version - released as Scrooge in the UK but known to me by its original title - and I still consider it the best version of A Christmas Carol. He was only 5'10" but looked taller. And, of course, there are the mythical performances of Basil Rathbone (6'1"), Albert Finney (5'9") and, of course, Michael Caine (6'2").

This is a tribute to the fabulous Muppet Christmas Carol, of which I could similarly rhapsodize. I mean, really, it merges the best of two worlds: Muppets and Michael Caine. Oh, and it also parodies holiday sentimentality, but in a family friendly, musical way that is imperceptible to anyone under 12. And most over 12, if we wish to be mean about it. But, really, no one can top Gonzo the Great as Mr. Charles Dickens. Especially not the narrator in the cramped English theater in Vienna.

Afterward, we went to the Christkindlmarkt near the Rathaus (city hall). And, like all Christmas markets, there was food, and Glühwein and little trinkets to buy, homemade soaps, crafts, hats and mittens...other things people normally give for Christmas. 

Now, I'm getting a little jaded with these things, because they've been up for a whole month now, and I've been to no fewer than a dozen Christmas markets all around Austria and Poland - there are several in Vienna alone. The one near the Rathaus is the largest.

Christmas is getting closer and closer. And I'm getting ready to go home. I'm wondering how reentry will feel. The last time I was in Europe, I stayed on the continent for an entire calendar year - not going home for Christmas (obviously) - but I think going home is necessary right now. The more I think about it, the better it sounds. Which, oddly enough, didn't happen when I was in Berlin. I was too excited (?) to go home. There is none of that this time, and I wonder whether this is because I am older (and, presumably, wiser) and I've done the whole "Europe" thing...or if it's a creeping, unconscious form of homesickness. Or if there are other factors at play. Unless I go to a psychotherapy session, perhaps we'll never know...

Monday, December 13, 2010

There are Wolves among the Apples...

This email was sent by the school administration recently, trying to address thievery from the communal break really amused me. Probably because I can totally see high school kids doing this.

For full effect, friends and family, I have translated the email into English (blue script).

Apfel / Brot bei der Jause
Seit Beginn des Schuljahres bieten wir täglich einen Apfelkorb an.
An Montagen gibt es Vollkornbrot und teilweise Aufstriche.
(Ein Dank an das EW-Team und die Wirtschaftsleitung!)

Leider hat die Zahlungsmoral zuletzt stark nachgelassen!
Nicht vergessen: Apfel 20 cent, Brot 10 cent!

Apples and Bread during the Break
Since the beginning of the school year, each day we have offered a basket of apples. On Mondays there is also multi-grain bread and spread (Thanks to the Marketing team!)

Unfortunately the self-service payment practice has slackened!
Don't forget: Apples 20 cents, Bread 10 cents!

Es wäre schade, wenn wir dieses Angebot wieder einstellen müssen.
Ich kann aber den Abgang nicht aus anderen Budgetmittel abdecken.

Es geht einfach nicht, wenn jemand
·         statt 20 cent lediglich 2 cent in die Kassa wirft ….
·         eine für uns wertlose Münze vom letzten Urlaub entsorgt …..
·         ein Zettelchen einwirft auf dem geschrieben ist: 20 cent …..
·         etc. etc.

It would be a shame if we would have to cease this offer.
However, I (Administration) cannot cover the deficit through other means.

It is simply not possible to:
- give 2 cents instead of 20 cents to the cash box...
- get rid of worthless coins from last year's vacation...
- put in an IOU with 20 cents written on it...
- etc. etc.

In der Vorwoche wurde beinahe jeder dritte Apfel und jedes dritte Brot nicht bezahlt.
(genau waren es 31%)

Mein Vorschlag:
·         Die Fehlbeträge bis jetzt sind anderwärtig gedeckt worden.
·         Einige werden vielleicht ihr Gewissen bereinigen wollen.
Die sollen einfach den Fehlbetrag der letzten Zeit nachzahlen.
·         Was von jetzt bis Weihnachten mehr einbezahlt wird (über unsere Warenkosten), wird nicht zum Abdecken der Verluste der letzten Zeit verwendet.
Diese Mehreinnahmen werden einem wohltätigen Zweck zugeführt .
(in Absprache mit den SchülervertreterInnen).
·         Ab Jänner wirft dann wieder jeder/jede genau den Betrag ein, der vorgeschrieben ist!

Last week, nearly every third apple and every third piece of bread was not paid for
(precisely 31%)

My suggestion:
- The earlier shortfalls will be otherwise covered.
- Some of you may wish to clear you consciences. 
In which case, simply pay your debts.
- All that will be paid-in from now to Christmas (beyond the cost of our wares) will not be used to cover the losses heretofore sustained.
These additional receipts are to center on a beneficial purpose (in consultation with the student body president)
- From January on everyone will have to chip into the prescribed amount!

Yeah...sounds pretty formal for a school email, eh? Like a real estate contract. That means they are serious in Administration! And, no, I do not even touch the apple basket at school. I bring my own ;)

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Winter has come to Amstetten.

And, as I'm sure you can guess, to much of the rest of Europe as well - lots of snow and cold and worldwide reports of mega ice and snow storms (or so my mother told me in a panic, worrying that I had frozen to death in some snow drift between here and Krakow...)

On the way to school

 Here are some pictures I took while the snow fell a couple of days ago. We have a little less than a foot on the ground far as I can guesstimate - right before I left for Poland, it had snowed four days in a row...

I mostly took pictures around school...finally remembering to put my camera in my bag!!!!

And seeing as it was snowing, I didn't want to take too many pictures. When I was in Dresden a few years ago, I took pictures in the rain, and that shorted out my camera. I'm trying to be more careful with my electronics.

So enjoy! The photos are pretty representative of what I see every day...and, according to the locals, will see every day for the next four months. At least while I'm in Amstetten...

Friday, December 10, 2010

Poland - Cieszyn, Krakow and in between

Last weekend, I went to visit Sarah in Poland.

She lives in Cieszyn, Poland, right on the border with the Czech Republic. The train station is in Cesky Tesin - the part of town where Sarah lives is in Poland.

It was great! Apart from the INSANE winter storms that battered Central Europe (20 cm of snow, -15C...) on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, it was wonderful. I just ended up wearing 3-4 layers of clothing everywhere I went.

It was so refreshing to see Sarah! So wonderful! I really wish we could have spent more time together, but because Poland does not celebrate the Immacualte Conception (at least as a national holiday where one would get out of school), Sarah had to work on Monday. Which led me to Krakow for the rest of my weekend...

Unfortunately, I forgot my camera at home (doof) and will thus have to wait for Sarah to send me the ones she took to share any pictures with YOU (my unknown virtual audience whose existence I take for granted). In  the meantime, I'll just tell you what happened.

Friday -
I get on a train to Vienna right after school. It is snowing like mad, and I realize - as the train pulls up - that I have left my camera on my desk in my apartment, and if I go back and wait for the next train (in one hour), I will miss the train that goes to Krakow (and through where I need to transfer to get to Sarah's) in Vienna. So, I suck it up and figure I'll just buy post cards.

In Vienna, I find the train I need, initially confused by the fact that the prompter in the train station says "Warsaw" when I need to go to Krakow (in Poland, the trains are very, very bad). Nevertheless, this is my train, and I get on it. Inside, there is a young man (Austrian) about my age. I figure I have nothing to lose by sitting with him (better than screaming children, which I so often get on the Salzburg-Wien commute which passes through Amstetten). This young man falls asleep within twenty minutes of the train taking off. Soon, I find myself doing the same.

Hours later, I am awakened by his cell phone. On the other end is his girlfriend. They begin their conversation in German, but soon switched to English. Presumably because her German is not very good. I pick up a Polish magazine thrown into the cabin by a conductor (or train staff member - pick the term you will) and "read" it (i.e. look at the pictures). The young man, now in full conversation with his girlfriend, tells her, "I wish you would stop being such a bitch."

And then she retorts something. And he asks, "What did the doctor say?" and I think, Oh my God! This is just like  Hemingway's short story Hills Like White Elephants! I am in the midst of a conversation where two people discuss an abortion, but neither is willing to say the word! My life is a novel! And then he placates her by telling her he will do all the cooking. When he gets there in six hours.

And she continues. And he says, "Yes. There is another person in the cabin. Yes. She's a woman." And he looks at me. I hide behind my Polish magazine. "Yes," he says, "but she's nothing special." To which I want to scream or say some witty remark which will sear him. Yet, I do not. Because my first thought is, He thinks I don't know English! And, well, what's the point in being nasty? I won't ever see him again, and we still have four hours together in a train.

But then, once he finishes his conversation, he leans over and expects me to talk to him. He asks me if I speak German, which I do. And he asks me where I'm going. I tell him. He asks me more questions, and I reveal I also speak French. He whips out his French homework and asks me to take a look. What the hell? I figure I don't have anything else to do, so I help him.

Then, a Czech guy come into the cabin. He doesn't say anything at first, just eats a sandwich and reads the newspaper. Then, the food cart comes along, and both of them order a cup of tea. The Czech guy and the Austrian guy start speaking in English. And then the Austrian guy turns to me and translates what they had just said into German! This, I thought, is too rich. From the innocent gesture of picking up a magazine, the Austrian guy assumes I am Polish! So I play up the facade as well as I can. Plus, if I told him I was American at this point, he might feel bad about what he said earlier. Or he might not, which would be worse. Problem is,  the Czech guy reveals he is in a Ph D program in Polish literature. So...if I say anything, I'm toast. Fortunately, I think I fooled them both. Well, probably just the Austrian.

I make it to Sarah's in one piece. It is snowing and freezing, and I haven't been this happy to see a familiar face in a long time.

Saturday - 
Sarah and I wake up at the crack of dawn to make it out to Stramberk, where we have reserved "beer baths" at a spa and the ruins of a medieval castle. We end up taking four trains to get to a town 50 km away from Sarah's town - and it takes us 3+ hours...well, welcome to the Czech Republic! The train system here rival's Italy's. And Poland barely has a train system.

So, once we get to Stramberk, we end up following a school group into town. Which was the best of all possible plans...from the train station the way into the town is anything but straight forward. Problem is, we follow them to the salt mines rather than the castle...oops. We backtrack to the town square and ask in the information center. We walk up to the castle and run into...the Czech version of St. Nicholas and the Krampus (see left)!

The Krampus, for those unfamiliar, is St. Nick's evil sidekick - the one you get when you are bad. In Austria, bad boys and girls are beaten by the Krampus. In Poland, their faces are just smeared with coal (to humiliate, I suppose, rather than to beat and humiliate...oh, Austria!) In the Czech Republic, I guess it's a mix between the two. Some boys were posing for a photo op to be "beaten" by the Krampus-thing. When Sarah sends me the pictures, I can share...

After the castle we went to the spa and had our "beer baths" which were delightful - except for the beer. I'll  put it this way: they soaked us in beer (well, a skin remedy made from hops), and then they gave us beer to drink. I am just not up for drinking beer in the bath, in the middle of the day, I guess. I was sort of afraid to get drunk...and then drowsy...and then drown. Sarah didn't make much of dent in hers, either.

After our baths and our "relaxation time" (i.e. pass out after too much beer time), Sarah asked about getting massages...because she had wanted a neck massage. Well, I figured I might as well get one, too, if I could, because otherwise I would just be bored waiting...and, really, who could turn down a massage? So, we go to the other building (had to get dressed and slosh around in the snow) and there is one masseur - very Czech. He asks us to strip down. And, I guess, he was only offering one type of massage: full body.

Well...we did have a catch. The last train to leave Stramberk (for the night) was a bit after 5pm. Meaning we had to get to the train station by then or stay the night in Stramberk. It's a nice town, but not that nice...and it was after 3pm at that point. The masseur promised us it would take 75 minutes for us both. So we strip down, and get massages...

not me
At first, he tries to talk to us, but his accent (and word choice) is far too confusing to actually hold a conversation. We get across that we are American, and from Chicago (true for Sarah, not for me) and are teaching (she in Poland, I in Austria). He asks other questions which we sort of evade (out of confusion) and then he just goes at it. he switches between me and Sarah. And for my back, he whips out this vacuum suction thing - because my back is so bad (?) and afterward, he tells us that he is a medical masseur and had a degree and a certification and everything. And Sarah and I both have horrible back problems which we need to have checked out - go to a spa at least once a month - and if we don't we will both be cripples by the time we're 30. And we should have told him about our back problems before he started. He needed time to assess our backs if we were doing more than just a relaxation massage. Oh, and to add insult to injury (that vacuum thing), Poles are cockroaches. The Czech are far superior.

Sunday -
Sarah, Linnae (the other American teacher living next door to Sarah) and I head to Krakow. Again, we must wake up at the crack of dawn and catch a bus to Krakow. I get a nice snooze in on the bus, despite frozen feet and no interior heating. We make it to Krakow around 10am and I can't help but thing JESUS CHRIST, IT IS F%$#ING COLD HERE! Indeed, I feel that Poland most reminds me of North Dakota. And, yes, I have been to North Dakota - in December, even. I have relatives in Fargo.

The nicest thing about Krakow is that the downtown is so small, everything is really close. The train station is right next to the main square, and so is my hostel. After we take care of business (drop my stuff off at my hostel and Linnae figures out where her hostel is - for when she stays in Krakow overnight before traveling down to Italy for Christmas), we wander around the square.The Christmas markets are up, and so Sarah, Linnae and I wander around and get a snack. There are these pieces of hot smoked cheese available - a Krakovian delicacy, I told - and some hot punch thing. I am all over this, as my fingers feel like they are going to fall off. The cheese is delicious (served with cranberry (?) or other berry jam). It reminds me of cheese curds and Wisconsin!! And then I take a swig of the punch. It is a mixture of tea and vodka (yech!) and I drink it all because I need to do something to numb the cold. Sarah told me she was poisoned last year by this same combination (by which she meant she also found it disgusting). I think you have to be Polish to truly enjoy the vodka-tea thing.

After that, we went to the English bookstore a few blocks from the main square. I bought a book entitled Cafe Europa, which I am incredibly excited to read. I also found a novel based on the life of Frida Kahlo, but I didn't want to buy too many books and not read them...I have a bad habit of doing I only bought one book.

We went to lunch after that. Sarah and I had mulled wine (much more my style than hot tea and vodka) and Linnae had a glass of white wine. I had a yummy but bizarrely Polish Greek salad. Sarah had apple strudel and Linnae had a sandwich. Afterward, we went to the Krakow National Historical Museum to check out the nativity scenes that are a Christmas tradition in Krakow (see right). They are really awesome little things made mostly out of colored tin foil and sometimes porcelain figures, wood, other things. There is a contest every year in three categories: small, medium and large. Some are artistic statements, some are done by school children, and most of them are somewhere in between.

After the museum, Sarah and Linnae had to catch the bus back to Cieszyn (unfortunately) and I was left to go back to my hostel alone. Where, despite the mega party going on for someone's birthday, I went to bed early to recover from my vodka-tea hangover.

Monday - 
I tried to go to a museum, but, like most everywhere else, all of the museums in Krakow are close on Mondays. Which I figured from Prague. And this made me glad I decided to stay until Tuesday, when I could actually go to a museum. I was most interested in the National Gallery or other art museum.  I am very curious about Polish art.

Anyway, I ended up walking around the Wawel castle (closed for the season, so I could not get in) and the Jewish quarter. Which is mostly concerned with Auschwitz and other Holocaust paraphernalia, which I am not really interested in. I really see no point in making a tourist attraction out of millions of people's suffering and all that. I avoided Auschwitz like the plague, for one because I would be outside all day in freezing temperatures in the dead of winter, and it would be, well, sacrilegious to snap a bunch of photos (well, OK, no camera for me, but still...) and I just think it would be full of bad vibes and completely depress me. But I am interested in bagel shops...plenty of those in the Jewish quarter.

That evening, I went to a Chopin concert, one of those things that's advertised in hotels for rich British and American, etc. tourists. But the price was good - 50 zloty (the equivalent of 10 euros) - and I love Chopin. And I had nothing better to do. I loved it.

Tuesday - 
I attempted to go to the National Gallery/Museum in Krakow to learn about some Polish history and see some Polish paintings. Unfortunately, it was closed, moved, or something equally bizarre. There was one gallery open - the antiquities! So, since I was already at the museum, I paid the 6 zloty to go in to see the very small but comprehensive collection. They had a bit of everything: Assyrian, Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek and Roman.

After the museum, I went to lunch. I walked around until I found a vegetarian restaurant that serves "traditional" Polish fare - sans the grease and pork products! It was good. I had cheese and potato pirogies and a salad that was sort of like coleslaw, but...not.

After lunch, I made my way to the English cinema off of the main square. The weather was still awful, so I figured I'd rather do something cultural than just sit in the hostel - might as well have stayed home. So, I watched Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part I  with Polish subtitles. I liked it. Having read the books but being a little old to be a part of the HP craze, I liked it. And, well, perhaps to be expected, I had this painful bout of homesickness that lasted for much of the film - I started crying at the beginning - and I think it just reminded me of my sister, or Christmas, or something. I really haven't had any homesickness in Austria, and I'm going home for Christmas anyway. But Harry put me over the edge, I think. Or, Dobby did. I don't want to spoil the end for those who haven't seen it...I have a bad habit of doing that anyway.

After Harry, I went back to the hostel and watched some good old Polish MTV - former East Bloc Cribs is definitely not up to par with American Cribs. A good portion of one episode was devoted to the contents of this pop star's refrigerator and bath tub in her apartment in Warsaw.

Wednesday -  
Home again, home again, jigiddy-jig.