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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Some Like it Hot

...however, I do not. A sudden heatwave has come over Austria, and it sucks.
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as women
Today's high is 29 C -- that's 88 F. Yucky. Beach weather is what I'd call it, though I don't know of any beaches in the area around Amstetten. Although nice for sunbathing, it's hard when the weather is this hot to move around much without breaking into a sweat. And I don't sunbathe. My complexion  - a freckling strawberry blonde - is too pale for any good to come of that.

Today is also my last day of school...this, above all else, is reason to celebrate! As a kid, I loved the last day of school (don't all kids?) and would relish walking home with an empty backpack (no school work!) or nearly empty - a few broken crayons at the bottom having been overlooked in cleaning it out from the day before. I always cleaned out my desk (ergo, backpack) the day before the last day of school so I could relish the empty backpack feeling the real, very last day. Being somewhat of a pack rat, the feeling of nothing weighing me down is to this day is not a feeling I can experience too often if I have a bag to carry. And even if I don't.

Being free from school as a teacher is  really exhilarating, perhaps even more so than as a student. We are free from tests and papers and books and planning and the nervous energy that comes from standing in front of an audience for hours on end, hoping you do well enough to make your point known, whether that be the dialog of a play, the joke of a stand-up comic, the evening news, or the lesson at hand. But only for a few days. Contrary to popular belief, teacher work a hell of a lot during the summer...when else do you think we get all of our lesson planning done? In our sleep?

In three weeks, I will be headed out to Zell am See in western Austria to do more of the same: teach English. In the past year, I've realized how much I honestly enjoy it, and am happy to welcome a new teaching experience (and Austrian experience!) to my repertoire.

NB: The film Some Like it Hot was one of Marilyn Monroe's greatest comedic successes. Interestingly enough, it was written and directed by Billy Wilder, who was Austrian. His other films include many of my favorites: Ninotchka with Greta Garbo, Sunset Boulevard, Sabrina, Ball of Fire with Gary Cooper, The Seven Year Itch (also with Marilyn), and Love in the Afternoon. According to IMDb, Wilder apparently shared an apartment with fellow Austro-Hungarian ex-pat Peter Lorre during his early years in Hollywood.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Regionalmusikschule Amstetten: Schulkonzert

Ballet recitals are a thing of my childhood. I remember being a very poor ballet student, never being coordinated, talented or practiced enough to take much pride in my recitals. This is something I regret now, of course, seeing the amazingness of Natalie Portman in Black Swan, or even some of my students participate in their own recitals here in Amstetten.

I was invited last Friday to see the year-end recital for the Amstetten regional music school by one of my students. It was interesting on several levels:

1. The recital was just about 3 hours and took practically every lesson the school offers into account: a Kindergarten choir, a brass band concert, an abridged ballet (Le Corsaire by Adolphe Adam), and a jazz/tap/modern dance recital.

2. Being able to see other aspects of students outside of school: their talents, their personalities, what they spend a lot of time doing, what they're passionate about. Dancing, playing the saxophone or drums, etc.

3. It's refreshing to know that not all Europeans are super-classy and dignified. The image Americans have in their heads is a bunch of Austrians at the Vienna Philharmonic in tuxes and ball gowns staring through opera glasses at the performers and clapping daintily after each set. This recital, however, saw plenty of families from the Kindergarten group get up and leave as soon as their kids jumped off the stage. Americans, though we can be crass, are not the only crass human beings on the planet.

4. I found one more thing to do in Amstetten!

I was pleasantly surprised at the level of enthusiasm and hard work that went into the recital, and found it very worthwhile to attend. Bravo!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Kochprüfung, or the Perks of Being a Native English Speaker

This past Monday, I was invited to be a guest at one of my student's cooking exams at the HLW.

Short for Höhere Lehranstalt für wirstschafltiche Berufe (Higher School of Commercial Occupations), it used to be known...maybe 10 to 15 years the girls' school. More pejoratively put, the Knödel Akademie (Dumpling Academy) because the girls learned cooking, cleaning, hotel management, etc. for work in tourism-related jobs. Or how to be a cleaning lady or cook. Or just how to be a good Hausfrau. 

The boys, of course, went to the Gymnasium or the HAK - Handlesakademie (business academy), but these days, in our enlightened times, boys and girls are allowed to choose wherever they want to go to school. The Gymnasium is from ages 10-19, and is more or less an academic track that would include American middle school and high school, but is more rigorous: think AP (Advanced Placement) or IB (International Baccalaureate) classes, but without the "regular" option. The HLW has academic classes - but not as rigorous - and the students learn cooking (no more cleaning, thank God) and have either a foreign language concentration, a nutrition concentration, or a business management concentration. The HAK also has academic classes, but students also learn accounting, business management, leadership skills, and so forth. The HLW and HAK are meant to get students ready for a) a job right after graduation in their chosen field or b) university studies. So, these schools are more like high school + associates degree. This actually makes it easier for graduates of these schools to find a job abroad, especially the USA, considering they are basically a year ahead of anyone their age graduating from an American high school...something I should never have mentioned in class, because now they all want me to get them "in" to the USA - or at least they ask me endless questions about America.

On to the cooking exam! Each of the 4th year students at the HLW is supposed to do a cooking exam, a serving exam and an accounting exam as part of their diploma/graduation. In the fifth year, they then do language exams: German, French and English, with which they have the option of an oral or written exam. It's a great idea to split the exams between the two years, I think, because then the students aren't so stressed out they can't perform well. With the serving exam as well, they get the chance to do their exams in a foreign language, or just in German. 

That's where I come in - one of the girls in the 4A wanted to do her exam in English, so she invited me.

The table settings were chosen by each of the five girls doing their serving exams, and the food was prepared by each of their partners in the kitchen. We had a lovely aperitif (pear bellinis) and an appetizer, tomato bruchetta on olive ciabatta, before the servers came to introduce themselves. At the end of the meal, the cooks also introduced themselves. 

Being invited to the cooking exam is quite an honor in Amstetten. The mayor was at this one, as well as certain other dignitaries, local business people, and the former superintendent of schools for Lower Austria. Also, teachers and other community members are allowed to participate.

The menu: 

Schmankerteller aus der Region
(assorted regional specialties)

Karfiolcremesuppe mit Flambiertem Karottenconfit
(cream of cauliflower soup with flambéed carrot compote)

Pikant gefüllte Roulade von der Maishendlbrust
(spicy roast chicken breast)
(fried potatoes with wild garlic)
(pear-mushroom ragout)

Dukatenbuchteln auf Vanillespiegel
 (yeast dumplings with vanilla custard)

Kaffeespezialitäten - Pharisäer
(coffee specialties - Irish coffee with rum and whipped cream)

A 2010 Riesling from the Weingut Stadt Krems was served with the meal. Everything was delicious and our server tried very hard to do everything bilingual. She got nervous and made a few mistakes, but I would give her and A for effort - knowing that she did something outside of her comfort zone, and put extra effort into her exam. Extra effort should always be rewarded.

One addenda: I felt very awkward at the meal because, although I made it very clear that I'm a vegetarian, I was still served chicken. Each of the five students cook and prepare the same menu (to keep it fair, I guess). And I understood this, and wanted to be nice about it, so I had a bit of the chicken, but pushed the rest around on my plate...which the person sitting next to me noticed. 

Oops. Austria is one of those countries where you are supposed to eat EVERYTHING on your plate, and to leave something behind is rude, and indicates that you don't like the food. Well, I was hoping to go unnoticed, but by that time, I didn't want to embarrass anyone, or become further embarrassed explaining dietary restrictions that hadn't seemed to bother me until then, right? I just said that I wasn't used to eating so much in one sitting (which I'm not - four courses is a lot) and told the students that it was very delicious. 

Which it was - especially the pear-mushroom ragout. And the wine! 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Famous Austrians III: Johannes Brahms

Not actually Austrian, but close enough for my purposes :)
Johannes Brahms

Brahms was born in Hamburg, spent his professional life in Vienna, famous for his Hungarian Dances, the Zigeunerlieder and the Lullaby mothers around the world sing to get their children to sleep. A leading romantic composer, and might I say, damn good-looking in his youth!

However, he was a bit of a grump, not unlike his idol Beethoven. He loved nature and animals, was BFFs with Strauss,  thought Franz Liszt was too big for his britches, contested that Wagner was a big blow-hard (truer words were never spoken!) and never married, although he had an odd relationship with Clara Schumann (wife of composer Robert Schumann), several affairs and one engagement to Agathe von Siebold. He was incredibly famous during his lifetime, sold oodles of music and became very wealthy, supporting up-and-coming music students as a patron. Frei aber einsam - free but lonely - is not only one of his compositions, but also possibly the way he felt toward the end of his life.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Run with It

This past Sunday, I participated in my first "real" competitive Austria, no less! I ran a 10k women's run sponsored by dm (a German drugstore), the Österreichischer dm Frauenlauf. A friend of mine convinced me to do it, and seeing as a friend of hers could sign us up for free to do the run (via an internship with Nike), I figured I had nothing to lose!

Seeing as I've been training since March, I'm pretty proud of having participated. I used to run quite a bit, but since coming to Austria, I let myself go. I blame the stress of moving away from home and living in a new country, lack of gym facilities, and those damn Austrian cakes! That's not to say I haven't gotten any exercise at all between August and March...I just didn't get as much as I used to when I was in college and a) I could step out of my dorm and practically be on the Fox River trail, or b) I had to walk all of two blocks to the YMCA.

With my goal in mind, however, I've been running almost every day - and I realized that I actually missed it! Although I don't think I'll use the Österreichischer dm Frauenlauf as a foray into the world of professional sports, I will undoubtedly use it as a stepping stone to further fitness adventures. I might even do it again next year!  

Friday, May 20, 2011

Que Sera, sera*; or, a Few of My Favorite Things** about Austria

"The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time."
 - Abraham Lincoln

Yes, it's that time again - time to freak out about where my life is going. It's become one of my special talents, and now I'd like to share it with you. Or, at least, share the news I've got. Next year, I will be staying in Austria, as the Fulbright Commission has renewed my contract. In Austria, you are allowed to ask for an extension of your teaching assistantship (other countries only allow one year per Fulbright grant), and I have done just that. For the time being, it looks like I will be in Amstetten again next year. In the meantime, this summer I will be working at a camp in Zell am See, which is near Salzburg.

This is both an exiting thing and a thing that makes me nervous. First, it is good, because I will be able to strengthen relationships I have made here, most importantly with my schools, and also with the friends I have made and even with the landscape itself. Amstetten doesn't lend itself to poetic rhapsodizing exactly, but I have enjoyed my time here, and, as my mother tells me, traveling to the big city of Vienna for the weekend is a definite improvement over traveling to the "big city" of Sioux Falls for the weekend, which is what she did at my age (her first teaching job was in a town of 1000 people in western Minnesota). What makes me nervous is that after this year I don't know what I'll be doing. I will be 25 years old at the end of next school year - which seemed impossibly old to me when I graduated from high school, and in some ways still seems old to me.

I had hoped while in Austria to improve my German. Although I have learned many things about Austria, Austrians and Austrian culture, I don't think I can speak German any better than I could when I got here. I suppose I could come to one of these conclusions: a) I need a formal setting to learn anything, b) I only think I need a formal setting to learn anything, which is actually keeping me from learning anything, c) I will never truly get the hang of Austrian German and - a nod to the American stereotype - I don't need to because everyone speaks English here anyway, or d) another year is all I need to perfect my German.

Having now spent the past seven months here in Austria, I'd like to take the time to consider my experiences, and prepare myself for the months ahead, to hopefully continue enjoying Austria, and the things it has to offer.

Here is a list I've thought about - and compiled, obviously, - which expresses what I like about Austria:

1. The Countryside: on my daily walk around Amstetten, most recently since the weather has become nicer, I've had the chance to see some beautiful scenery - the river Ybbs, wildlife on the Nautrerlebnispfad (sometimes just squirrels and ducks, if they count). Farm fields within the city limits and I mean livestock, too! Sheep AND cows. On my walk I often see a cow and her calf out to pasture less than a kilometer from the hospital. Scoff if you'd like, but I have never in my life see something like this, not even in Wisconsin! Livestock within the city limits simply doesn't happen (health codes and all)...

2. Fresh food. Like much of the rest of Europe, Austria offers many delicious options for fresh, local produce, honey and dairy products (that's the benefit of having cows in the middle of town, perhaps?) and although many basic products are more expensive than they would be in the USA, organic products are not only more abundant in Austria, but also less expensive than organic products in the USA. And, the price difference between organic and regular products in Austria is smaller than in the USA (for example, the difference between regular milk and organic milk per liter is 5 cents, rather than 20 cents, i.e. a gallon of regular fresh milk in Austria is about $5.26; a gallon of fresh organic milk is roughly $ compare averages, a gallon of fresh regular milk in the USA is about $3.79; a gallon of fresh organic milk is just over $6).

3. Having pride in one's work, and the abundance of handmade articles, hobbies devoted to do-it-yourself, etc. I find it quite admirable that so many Austrians knit, sew their own clothing, garden - and produce the food they eat by themselves - and build their own houses. Also, the importance of family in Austria. I was surprised to discover how many of my students live with their grandparents. That is, in the same house, three and sometimes four generations under one roof! They reassured me that it's often the case to have two to three households in one house, though. Mom and Dad will live on the bottom floor while Grandma and Grandpa live on top. Everyone does their own thing, but gets together for dinner, church, and so forth. When the houses get too small to hold everyone, they build additions on! This is something that happened in America during the pioneer days, but I doubt whether most Americans would willingly live in their parents' homes for extended periods of time after they got, for the rest of their lives. Owning one's own home, car, etc., buying the "best" and "newest" and being able to flaunt each of these things to your neighbor is something Americans not only enjoy doing, they also sort of expect this, not as a privilege, but as a right of passage. Independence can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be isolating and stressful, and unnecessarily so.

4. The Mountains. Although I live in the Alpenvorland and not the actual Alpine region, there are a few hills in Amstetten. Since going to the actual Alps on the school ski trip, and discovering how incredibly breathtaking they are, I've decided that I really, really love mountainous areas. I like them so much that I would probably choose to live in a mountainous landscape over many other landscapes. One of the reasons I look forward to a second year in Austria is to get out into the Alps more, something I'll be able to do quite easily this summer when I work in Zell am See.

5. Being able to speak German every day, of course! Although, I do speak a lot more English than I am accustomed to doing in a foreign (non-English speaking) country. And more than I really should, especially outside of class. But sometimes I feel like my teacher personality comes out, and to help the students improve their English, I can't help but keep my German to myself. But then again, maybe this is just and excuse.

As for next year, it will be in many respects the continuation of this year. Less abrupt and defined than my year abroad, which saw me go to Germany and France. Here, I find nothing hemming me in (such as a looming bachelor's degree), or any expectation beyond what I expect of myself. Of course, two years of "bumming around Europe" is probably enough for me before I enter the so-called "real world" (by the way, I would consider both terms cliche, and culpable in undermining the spirit of youth and discovery - unless you are literally doing nothing. I, thank God, am doing something, rather than nothing, in Europe).

Who knows what the future will hold? I guess I'll just have to take it one day at a time.

*Song made famous by Doris Day, who sang it in Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much
**Song made famous by Julie Andrews, who sung it in every Austrian's favorite***, The Sound of Music
***Just kidding! Ironically, most Austrians I have talked to do not actually like, or have never seen, The Sound of Music

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Back to Austria

...and fianlly, we got to Austria! We stayed the weekend in Vienna before Callie had to go home. In which time, we saw Don Giovanni, ate way too much "typical Austiran cuisine" i.e. delicious yet fattening cakes and delicious yet fattening fried foods...and Knödel, which are OK (depending on my mood, delicious even) when my mom makes them every once in a while, but overkill when they are one of two vegetarian options at not one but several restaurants...

For those Austrians in the audience, YES, MY AMERICAN MOM MAKES KNÖDEL!! We have German heritage, which is incredibly common in Wisconsin. 

Me and Callie in the Staatsoper Wien 

One of the things I had been waiting to do with Callie is what she called the "palace tour" : all the remnants of Austria-Hungary we could puzzle together in a weekend. Our itinerary was:

1. Don Giovanni at the Staatsoper - set in Venice, written by Mozart, you can't get a much better finish to our trip than this! The very idea of seeing the opera basically incorporates everything we did for two weeks...

2. Schönbrunn palace and gardens: this was my 3rd time seeing Schönbrunn, but it just gets better with familiarity. Every trip I discover another portrait of Sisi I hadn't remarked upon before. Sure, she was Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary, etc., but that woman had a bit of a complex. Vain much? Also, many a story* and portrait of a young Marie Antoinette - I have yet to visit Versailles, but that, too, is on my list of places (and palaces) to see. 

3. Hofburg: the Royal apartments, extensive royal kitchen wares/place settings/silverware collection, and even more pictures of Sisi! I had never been to Hofburg, so it's yet another thing to check off my list. In hindsight, perhaps Schönbrunn would have been good enough.

The inspiration for "Franzi"
4. The Spanish Riding School (and the Lippizaner horses)...we didn't take a tour, just loitered in front of the stables (like 90% of the other tourists) and came up with a fabulous idea to sell to Disney. About a gay Lippizaner named Franzi. It will be the next Bambi, I guarantee! I'm sure at least GLAD will be smitten with the idea.

5. Sachertorte and coffee at the Sacher Hotel although expensive - put it on our list of splurges made throughout the trip ;) - one simply must eat Sachertorte at the Sacher Hotel. Anything less just will not do in Vienna!

Enjoying a Melange in the Sacher hotel

Other, less important cakes


6.  Wandering around Vienna, partly getting lost and partly killing time.

*Oh, about that story. While we were in Schönbrunn, we ran into SIX guided tour groups, each in a different language: German, Dutch, Polish, Russian, Spanish and Italian. We couldn't escape them! And When you have to share a palace with 400+ people snapping photos of the ballroom with their wide angle zoom lenses, suddenly it doesn't seem like much of a palace...BUT! The story, which I overheard from the German guide in the music room was, that as a young boy (I think he was 10 or 11), Mozart came to Schönbrunn with his sister to play for the royal family. Marie Antoinette, just a few months older than Mozart, developed sort of a crush on him. Mozart (the little brat) later told his father that Marie cornered him in the ballroom and gave him a peck on the cheek - this has not been substantiated...Mozart probably made it up. Daddy Mozart then told the Empress, who was less than thrilled. Years later, as the queen consort to Versailles, Marie (now 16 and married to Louis XVI) wrote to her mother to ask if she could contact the Mozarts and engage them to play a concert at Versailles. Maria Theresia wrote back to her daughter (as always, heavy handed), saying ABSOLUTELY NOT! Marie Antoinette dropped the idea. Five years later in 1777, when Mozart did eventually make it to Paris, he did not stop over in Versailles to pay the Queen of France a visit. Perhaps he still had a guilty conscience...

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Cinque Terre: Another Look at Italy

Callie and Sarah: Vernazza from the pier
I have so many pictures of the Cinque Terre - mostly because of all of the beautiful scenery - and, seeing as we mostly just hiked and ate delicious food and drank too much wine I can't think of a reason to give my usual lengthy explanations of any of them.
I will, however, clarify what the Cinque Terre is, for those unfamiliar: it is both a national park in Italy (protected wildlife and all that...camping, hiking trails, etc.) and five towns near the national park, which, if I may, are basically an Italian Door County (i.e. tourist destination) with overpriced restaurants, charming views, cozy B&Bs, and the odd cultural event.

Onto the photos:

VERNAZZA (where we stayed)


lemon groves

more lemon groves

Vernazza from the trail
Callie and Sarah on the trail

from the trail
at the train station

Funny story: there was this refrigerator on the trail
We had to wait for it to pass before we could continue. Guess that proves people really do live up in these hills...

Me and Sarah on the trail

My happy-face Latte :)


A church in Manarola - we did not go in.

Callie & Sarah on the Vineyard walk

view of town


The "Via dell'Amore" - Way of Love :)


Portofino: where the movie stars hang
And last but not least, Portofino (not technically part of the Cinque Terre, but part of the Italian Riviera)!
We went to scope it out...and maybe hope to do a little celebrity stalking ;) - but to no avail! Ah, well.