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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Was für ein Unter – schi – ed

These posts are a bit out of order, but I'll try my best...

In mid-March, the 2nd form of the HAK took a ski trip to Saalbach/Hinterglemm. I accompanied them. It was my first time ever skiing. Of all the people I talked to about going to Austria, each of them said (with little variation), "You must go skiing!" So I did.  

Here you see the big lift up to the ski area -->

<-- And here you see the little town of Hinterglemm. Saalbach is about 3km from Hinterglemm, and if you need such things as medical assistance, you'll have to go to Saalbach. If you want to drink away the pain, you can stay in Hinterglemm. It has plenty of Après-Ski opportunities...

I must admit, the ski week seemed like one of the rare times during my stay in Austria where I could actually speak German, because I was not surrounded by Austrians wanting to improve their English (like at school), but Austrians in their natural *habitat* for not just several hours but days at a time! I think I spoke more German in that week than I have the entire rest of the time I've been here. Perhaps this means I am self-segregating while in Amstetten - and I should be more outgoing, or whatever - but I maintain that the Austrians confident in their English abilities will still try to sneak English into conversations regardless.

The whole school trip experience was really amazing, and more like what I had expected my time here to be like. By that, I mean the speaking German all the time part. As reluctant as I am to admit, I must say that Austrian German (and various dialects) and Standard German are different enough in a spoken context to be confusing to me. The longer I'm here, the better I get at understanding what people are saying.

One fun cultural experience was games. The teachers taught me how to play Lügen, or "lying," which is similar to the card game Cheat (otherwise known as Baloney, or its saltier name, Bullshit) where players try to get rid of all of their cards by placing them in a pile face-down in the middle of the table. The player doing this makes a claim as to what the cards are, i.e. two Jacks, three Queens, etc. The cards are laid in sequential order, 2 through Ace (or Ace through King). If you don't believe the person who put down the cards, you can call "Cheat!" or "Bullshit!" and have the other person turn the cards face-up. If they're wrong, they take the whole pile of cards. If you're wrong, you take the pile!*

Lügen is played with dice rather than cards, and something akin to a Yahtzee cup is used to obscure the number on the dice from the rest of the players. The numbers go from 31 through 65, with doubles (11, 22, 33, 44, 55 and 66) being the next sequence. The trump number is 21 (Mäxchen). Again, order is important. However, only the person next to you can call you out on whether you're lying. for example, if one player rolls  a 4 and a 3 (43) but needs to roll a 65 or higher, they can say whatever they want. If the next person doesn't think they can roll higher, they can call the person out. If they're right, the person who just rolled loses a chip, but if they're wrong, they lose two chips!*

I also watched the teachers play a sort of Bridge that was too complicated for me to actually figure out and play with. First, there were seven of us, and only four at a time can play. Second, although I have subsequently learned the names in German for the cards, I didn't know them at the time. The deck we played with was very ornately decorated with designs that, to me, looked almost like Tarot cards. They were very cool, but confusing.

The names of the face cards and suits in Austrian (A) German and Germany (D) German are:
Jack - Bube (Knave)
Queen - Dame (Lady)
King - König (King)
Ace - (Ace) 
Hearts - Herz (heart)
Diamonds - Schelle (A) or Karo (D) (bell, or square)
Clubs - Eichel (A) or Kreuz (D) (acorn, or cross)
Spades - Blatt (A) or Pik (D) (peak, or leaf)

The Germany German names are derived from the French deck of cards (what we use in the USA). The Tarot card-type cards are the traditional Bavarian cards. Photo below (from Wikipedia):

The top parts of the cards are Bavarian, the bottom parts are French  
Also, of course, on the skiing trip, I went skiing. That was a brand new experience for me, and I really enjoyed it - once I go used to the skis. I didn't make it past the bunny hills all week, but I felt really proud by the end to be able to ski down the hill and directly to the lift (rather than skiing past it and having to climb back up the hill) five times in a row...yes, I know that sounds pathetic. But, please. Give me my joy! I was also surprised to find that Alpine skiing is hardly an aerobic sport, but mostly about muscle control. I don't exactly know what I expected, but I guess I expected more cross-country skiing...for whatever reason. Delusion? By the end of the week, I had a major Muskelkater (Charley horse) but this is all an expected part of the sport. Plus, once I got home I could totally ice it with the vodka I bought in Poland ;) You might ask why this has not been drunk yet? I'm not actually a fan of vodka...

Speaking of vodka, the students (though they were all 16) were not allowed to drink on the trip. Since it was a week intended to promote exercise and physical well-being. Which excludes alcohol. However, this does not mean that no students went drinking. They were given free time to wander about the sprawling metropolis of Hinterglemm, and, according to some very candid students, it was no trouble to grab a few beers away from the watchful eyes of their chaperons...

We stayed at a Jugendheim, sort of like a youth hostel that caters especially to school groups and young people, which was very nice. We received full board - and ate excellently - although because I and the biology teacher, Hermann, are both vegetarian, we got a lot of guff from the owner. He was a character! Quite outgoing, and, once it was revealed that I was American (no riddle there once I open my mouth), he refused to call me by my name, preferring instead the moniker "America."

Other news? Oh! The students did a competition one night, which was HILARIOUS!!!! It was the basic camp-style team stuff, where one team tries to beat the other at refilling glasses with straws, making paper airplanes and doing goofy dances with Coke bottles on their heads (by the way, Coke still actually comes in bottles in Austria! And is made with real sugar, not corn syrup!) and the like. I was incredibly amused. And, the best part, I think, was when the teachers all sang "Once and Austrian Went Yodeling" as a sing-a-long. I hadn't heard that song for ten years! It tickled me that Austrians would know it.

view from inside the lift "box"
*NB: Regional differences apply. I use the rules I am familiar with... :)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Föhn: or, Frühjahr in Amstetten

Spring has sprung in Amstetten!

The Eiscafés have opened their doors, the normal cafés have put out their outdoor dining tables and chairs. Lovers are loving each other with more fervor than ever. Animals are out and about. My favorite walking path has again become accessible. And, best of all, Austrians have begun preparing their gardens for the season. Gardening, as any Austrian can tell you, is a national obsession. 

But, I must say, Austria, your winter output is a pittance, at best. I expected massive snow storms, fierce winds, having to muster all of my strength to make it out of doors - sort of what the weather was like in December, or like your average Wisconsin winter (FYI - snowfall is recorded in inches, temperatures in Fahrenheit). And, yes, I've already been told this year's winter was affected by the Föhn (or Fön - incidentally also the word for "hairdryer"), that pesky southern wind* that whips up from Italy and through the Alps and makes skiing more difficult because it eats up all the snow...

There are other hypothesized consequences of the Föhn. According to studies at the Ludwig-Maximillians-Universität in Munich, during a Föhn year, the suicide rate in Central Europe can increase up to 10%. A famous example: on September 18, 1931, Hitler, living in Munich and working on an electoral campaign, complained of being in a bad mood. A colleague said it was probably because of the Föhn. Later that day, Hitler returned to his Munich apartment to find his neice, Geli Raubal, dead from an apparent suicide.

An example of the Föhn wind near Karlsruhe: photo borrowed from© Bernhard Mühr 
On a cheerier note, the weather has been gorgeous this past week. On a more obvious note, except for a spike in temperature on Wednesday, I didn't notice any difference in weather from the past few months - due, of course, to the Föhn.

*NB: Known in other parts of the world by different names: the Chinook in the Rockies, the Zonda winds in Argentina, the Santa Anas in California, and the Sirocco in the Mediterranean are each famous types of Föhn winds. Unfortunately, I am not an expert on'll have to ask a meteorologist if you'd like more information - other than geographic location. :)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Hungarian Holiday

Budapest philharmonic, which has terrible acoustics 

Recently, I went to Budapest with two friends to celebrate a birthday.

Having been to Budapest almost four years ago with a group of Americans (part of a cultural tour to Eastern Europe while I was a student in Berlin), I figured I knew what to expect. In fact, I absolutely LOVED Budapest when I was there in 2007.

What about the city appealed to me? For reasons I have trouble fully explaining, I just liked it. Budapest has been called the "Paris of the East" and, having lived in Paris, I can agree. Not wholeheartedly, but certainly to an extent.

The neoclassical buildings, the picturesque Danube, the romance of  the chain bridge at night, the ruined beauty of a lost empire (I had not yet been to Vienna...) intermingled into this portrait of a mysterious and inspired, yet impoverished, capital city. I'm really a sucker for the underdog. Also, there were practically no tourists - especially compared to Berlin and Prague. This especially appealed to me, as a tourist who looks down on other tourists (love it or hate it, I bet you do, too, sometimes!).

Franz-Josef strikes again!

This  time, however, I can't say I was feeling Budapest. An observation was made to me the other day, that Budapest is Vienna under 60 years of grime (i.e. Communism) and, from my recent experience, I can totally agree. I think I can still appreciate, however, the Hungarian attitude: despite hardships (ones that many former Communist countries have had to deal with), Hungarians are still optimistic and fun-loving - as far as I can tell. Our tour guide Agnes was quite the character.

I have a great admiration for countries - people - who have lived under Communism (and lived through Communism). During my visit to Poland, I picked up Café Europa
by Slavenka Drakulić, a journalist and former inhabitant of the former Yugoslavia. Her style is bitingly witty, poignant and honest. The book is a collection of essays written between 1992 and 1996 about her experiences of, opinions on and wishes for former Communist eastern European states. Though to date I have not finished Café Europa (other things getting in the way, as they seem to do for me), I can tell that what she has to tell me will affect all of my perceptions of eastern Europe - I think it already has.
Apparently the spot of "original" love locks - Cologne copied Budapest's idea, according to Anges

I went with Stella (who had been this summer) and Jade (who was going for the first time). I think in a way it was a different (interesting?) cultural experience because they are both English, and, despite what we like to think, though England and America seem to be so close to each other in terms of language, culture, mores, etc., we are different, in ways that are often imperceptible.

I think, in fact, I've become more aware of these cultural differences because of my teaching post. Because my teachers ask me all the time, "Is this correct?" or, to read between the lines, "Is this British?" I normally dissent by saying "X is American. Y is British. Both are correct, depending on whom you ask." And that has saved me a lot of grief in the teacher's room. Not to say one is better than the other is diplomatic, if you ask me. I've actually discovered several teachers (and students) who prefer the American way to the British way, but there are plenty of sticklers who think British is best.

I really couldn't care less, to tell you the truth, how non-native speakers prefer to conduct themselves in English, as long as they don't take personal offense to the fact that I'm American (something, in case you haven't  nocticed, I can't exactly help).

But I do love getting to know different cultures from traveling. Including British cultures (I've been led to believe there are several, from my contacts). And I think this ties in nicely to my point on eastern Europe. It's entirely unfair to judge a culture (for good or bad) until you've experienced it first-hand.

Here ends my rant. Feel free to enjoy the rest of this post rant-free.

From here, there will only be photos :) And minor explanations of the photos, where necessary...

Stella & Jade on the bridge

view from the top of bridge

the Hungarian "White House" where the prime minister lives (incidentally white)

<-- this is the Ministry of Defense building, and those bullet holes are real - from WWII!

A Communist monument aka the "penis statue"

Budapest's St. Stephen's Cathedral
One of my faves: the Plague statue
A view of Parliament

the Fisherman's Bastion

Some King - Stephen?

Hungarian flags, presumably for 15 March - Hungarian national holiday 

The National Museum

Monday, March 21, 2011


A few weeks ago now, the fifth (last) form students at the HAK presented their Matura projects in the mozArt in Amstetten. The place is normally a dinner theater/cabaret set/concert hall which caters to the Amstettner crowd...and various surrounding small towns, of course. 

The projects were actually divided between two nights, and I came on the second night because two of the girls presenting the second night invited me to their presentation (no one invited me the first night). As part of their graduation requirement, the students of the HAK are expected to develop some sort of business model, website, advertising campaign, fundraising campaign etc., etc. for a local company. They begin in the summer of their junior year and submit the projects after the first semester of their final year. They then present the projects during the second semester. A final written report is due at the end of the year (in German and English - I've been helping some of the students rewrite their English portions). 

Failing an attempt to scan the program onto my computer, I will have to list off the projects with a little description:

1. pauwa KG - three girls put together a website for a local carpenter/interior designer
2. Lebenskunst - two students got together with the Lebenshilfe Amstetten (an assisted living care facility for people with developmental disabilities) to teach the residents art. The art was then sold to make money for the Lebenshilfe. 
3. Schulfilm - two girls made a film about the school, for future students to see, but also as a remembrance of their time at the HAK.
4. Businessplan Zeithofer - three girls put together a fundraising effort for this other guy who wants to start a carpentry/interior design business.
5. Carla Amstetten - two girls put together a website for the second-hand store in Amstetten (Carla - stands for Caritas Laden: charity store).
6. Eine neue Orgel für St. Stephan - three girls put together a fundraising effort to buy St. Stephen's church in Amstetten a new organ (incidentally, where I sing in the choir!).
7. K-BoxS - this was probably the funniest/most random: three girls designed a website for a company which designs observational equipment for horse stalls - to make sure the horses are going poo-poo in the right spots... 
8. Time for Books! - To spike interest in reading in younger people (i.e. HAK students), three boys put together a book sale to fundraise money to get a well-known Viennese author (I forgot which one...I'll get back to you on that) to come to the school to do a reading. He writes fantasy books.
9. "Du bist Schön" - two girls put together a website for a local company that produces organic beauty products.
10. Young meets old - three students put together a survey/service activity to get young people (elementary school age) to get in contact with older people (living in the nursing home near Amstetten).
11. Schülerheim -  three students took a survey of students living in the Landschülerheim (for students who go to the Landschule, or outdoor school).
12. Businessplan SportimOrt - three boys developed a business plan for a sports store that comes to you!
13. Multimedia FF Ardagger - three boys put together a multimedia presentation to promote the Ardagger volunteer fire department (Freiwillige Feuerwehr).

All of the students did a great job presenting. I found it pretty amazing that they had such a varied collection of projects. And, it's good to see yet another difference between the American and Austrian school systems. One interesting aspect of the HAK is that they are the only school type to expect a project like these from graduates. Other schools are pushing to do similar things, but as of this year, the HAK is the only one requiring graduation projects. I can't imagine any American public school making students do projects like these - at least not without a big fat fuss from all sides. 

NB: I spoke too soon in this post when I said there was only one theater in Amstetten. Apologies.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Is the World Spinning, or Is It Just Me?

The other night, I had some very strange dreams. Although I often have strange dreams, I feel that I rarely remember them now unless they are truely bizarre. This one dream was about refugees, firing into glass houses, young people paralyzed, with legs amputated below the knee. Another involved the fat lady from MTV's 90's classic show Daria - don't ask me why.

Perhaps I've been worrying about the anti-union bill running around the Wisconsin senate. Or perhaps the Dalai Lama retiring has put my nerves on edge. Or the crisis in Libya - amid prior crises in Tunisia and Egypt - which doesn't seem to be getting better, although its North African neighbors seem to be adjusting more easily each day. Not to mention the triple whammy going on in Japan right now.

Yet another pinpoint of globalization is the fact that I can watch Jon Stewart in Austria, read up on American pop culture and bring in articles from the New York Times for my classes. Bananas from Ecuador in the local Penny Markt, MADE IN CHINA written somewhere on 3/4 of what I own, and who's to say it's stopping there? Is it a good thing to get what you want at as cheap a price as you can by undercutting the rights of everyone else in the world? Is this hell, or are we still in the hand basket?

I guess I need some cheering up. 2012: 9 months and counting.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Quid est mihi faciendum?

At Christmas, I got a Latin Phrase-A-Day calendar to help me get back into the swing of Latin in case I end up taking the LSAT. I guess that was the impetus, but I haven't been exactly diligent about my Latin review - and Phrase-A-Day doesn't exactly lend itself to high academic purpose. Example:

January 1, 2011: Bonum anno novum! - Happy New Year!
                         Typical. I think all the Page-A-Day calendars start this way...
January 8, 2011: Ira furor brevis est (Horace) - Anger is a brief madness
                          Not bad. One of my favorites.
January 23, 2011: Ubi est dies natalis tuus? - When is your birthday?
                            Important stuff! I'd like to ask the Pope his star sign...
February 4, 2011: Hac fine septimanae te vocabo - I'll call you this weekend.
                            I doubt this ever came up in conversation in Ancient Rome...unless the "calling" was over
                            the hill variety...SUEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!
February 14, 2011: Te amo - I love you
                              For Valentine's Day, and just like in Spanish. See, Latin can be useful!
February 22, 2011: Serus es - You're late
                              At least we know the Page-A-Day people have a sense of humor.
March 8, 2011: Quid est mihi faciendum? - What do I do?
                         Even if the phrase is dumb, I'm getting a good review of the declensions!

So why did I even get this Page-A-Day calendar? What am I doing wanting to take the LSAT? Long story, but I'm good for those.

It all started when I was 13. Yes, really long story. In 7th grade, I took one of those career aptitude tests that's supposed to tell you where your interests lie so you can figure out what you want to "be" when you grow up. Mine told me, based on the questions I answered from a 5-point scale, I should look into becoming:

1. A performance artist (i.e. clown, acrobat, stand-up comic, etc. - I took "clown" pretty seriously)
2. A lawyer (clowns and lawyers are basically the same thing anyway)
3. A clergy member or religious coordinator

These all came as a shock to me, because I didn't really feel as if any of them fit me; the only one that sounded half way fun was clown, which, aside from working at a circus that treats its animals poorly, it probably would be lots of fun. I tried to teach myself to juggle.

I never spent much time juggling, but I did do plenty of performance work in high school. I was a member of the Green Bay Girl Choir, acted in several plays at my high school, and generally became a ham. One aspect of being a lawyer that appealed to me (rather than becoming a clown) is the obvious financial merits of opening up your own law practice. And helping people, of course. But I figure, most lawyers are in it for the money unless they work pro bono, so the whole helping people bit is basically out the this despicably cynical of me? Perhaps, but I guess at the end of the day, I'd rather make people laugh than defend them in court...that is, my 16-year-old self would have.

On to the next phase of my story: I basically forgot about becoming a lawyer and had immersed myself in language study rather than law. In March 2010, I had an interview in New York to do an internship in Berlin - through the DAAD (Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst). Mom and I decided to go together and make a little trip out of the interview, Sunday-Wednesday so we could enjoy some of the city.

I didn't get the job, obviously, but on the way back to the hotel from the interview (it was beautiful out, so we decided to walk), this woman in Gucci sunglasses sitting in a lawn chair on the sidewalk asked me if I'd like my fortune read. I was a little nervous about the interview, so I figured, what could it hurt? $20 for a face reading? Well, whatever that is, sign me up!

We walked up the stairs into the woman's building, up two flights to a little alcove decked out in what you'd imagine of a carnival side show from the 20's - moons and stars on a purple painted wall, posters of the odd and esoteric. No crystal ball, which disappointed me, but a table, two chairs and three decks of tarot cards.

I sat down to my reading. Here's what she told me:

1. I am energetic and hardworking. I am not getting everything I want out of life just yet.
2. I would be traveling far away some time soon (within the next few months).
3. I would become a professional of some sort - she saw me as a lawyer.
4. I would have twins - she saw an odd number of births for an even number of pregnancies, or something like that.
5. I had not yet met the love of my life - but don't worry, he'll be along soon enough.

Take this as you will - with a grain of salt, as this lady's money-making scheme, as inevitable truth, as a glimpse into what may be rather than what will's all up to me to decide how I want to take the information given to me. But, for you skeptics, I'll say this: that is when I renewed my interest in getting into law school!

I haven't signed up to take the LSAT yet, because I'm still on the fence as to what direction I want to take my life. And it's tough doing things remotely (from Austria). I've been hearing lots of things from other teaching assistants about how much they love it here - how they're planning to spend the rest of their lives, if not in Austria, elsewhere in Europe. I don't know if I can say with certainty that I want that, too. Such a decision (made after 6 months in the country) seems rash to me. An Austrian law degree would mean sticking it out in Austria (such things are little transferable) and an American law degree would mean sticking it out in the USA (presumably, though, there are more options there).  Call me fickle, naive, or a spoiled brat, but I want options! I guess I just want it all.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Do Austrians Have to Unclog Drains?

On my day off, I am unclogging a drain.

Glamorous, I know.

I realized on Friday, when I came home from school to discover the toothpaste I used to brush my teeth before I left to teach was still floating around my sink basin, no less than four hours after I had expectorated it from my mouth, that my sink is not draining properly.

Those of you who are fans of This Old House (you have nothing better to do?), may be aware of all sorts of nifty tricks that I, frankly, am not. Drano is typically my go-to solution in the USA. But, despite the apparent existence of this product in German-speaking areas, Amstetten stores do not seem to carry it (perhaps I do not know where to look?). Plus, Drano is really, really bad for the environment.

Thus, I need to revert to these old-fashioned solutions to unclog my drain:

1. Plunger - this method is particularly messy (with water still in basin - not the same water from Friday, FYI) and inadequate.
2. Baking soda and vinegar - as every good 5th grade science fair entrant knows, these two seemingly ordinary household items, when combined, create massive "volcano-like" explosions. Perhaps enough of a reaction to sluice my hair, soap scum and dead skin cells out of the sink drain? Not quite, on its own.
3. Boiling water - according to Wikipedia, this works just as well on stubborn clogs as Drano at a cheaper and more environmentally-friendly rate. This method requires 2-3 hours of boiling pots of water on the stove and continually pouring them down the drain. Aside from the energy cost to heat the water, I guess it's a greener option. At least I'm not putting borax and aluminum shards down my drain...

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Windmills: Volendam, Edam, Gouda (more than just cheeses!)

Jake and I went on a windmill excursion to Volendam, Gouda and Edam (both famous for their cheeses :D) while we were staying in Amsterdam. Since I have so many photos, I thought this might break it up for those of you with low computer screen tolerance...

And, of course, more pictures! :)

We went to Volendam, Edam, and Gouda and visited a cheese factory, the windmills (they promised us there would be a historical reenactment - I'm really into those - but I guess since it's the off season, they didn't bother) and a wooden shoe factory. It was all a bit too commercialized for me. And that upset me, but it was all right in the end. I brought home some delicious cheese anyway - so their hard sell marketing worked on me, at least!

At the cheese factory:

me in front of windmills

And the farm area:

cute sign, right?

a goat

And the wooden shoe factory:

Here is a the guide (wearing a traditional Dutch fisherman's outfit) demonstrating how to make the shoes on a machine. He mentioned that they would take 10 hours per shoe in the "old days" before this type of technology. Yikes!

wine holder - my kind of wooden shoe!

<-- rows of shoes

And photos of downtown Volendam: