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Friday, June 24, 2011

Famous Austrians IV: Fritz Lang

Fritz Lang with monocle
One of my absolute favorite directors, Fritz Lang, is the latest "famous Austrian" to be honored on this blog. Expressionism is one of the art movement I find myself most drawn to, and I closely relate my own artistic output closely to Expressionism.

Because Lang is so often associated with Berlin, having worked for UFA during the Weimar era before leaving Europe for Hollywood, it is unsurprising that many might mistake him for being German. On the contrary, Fritz Lang was born and grew up in Vienna, born to a Catholic father and Jewish mother, and attended the Technische Universität, studying art and civil engineering.

My obsession with silent film began with Lang: Metropolis, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, M and Die Niebelungen, to name a few. Also his talkies: Lilliom staring Charles Boyer (another fave - made while Lang was in France after fleeing Nazi Germany), Hangmen also Die, and Clash by Night with Marilyn Monroe.

Although many "film critics" consider much of his stuff to be simple, moralistic film noir, I don't really give a damn. His films are stunning visual masterpieces that can be simply enjoyed, or analyzed to bits...the choice is yours, and I have mine. 

Plus, what fashion sense (see photo)! 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Auf's Klo: "Nichts Menschliches ist mir fremd"

universal sign for toilets

This popular quote by the poet Terence (c.190-158 B.C.), "Nothing human is alien to me" has a new, slightly anal meaning to me, after watching one of the weirdest - and incredibly Austrian - TV shows I've ever encountered. Namely, a documentary on the potty.

The 45 minute show, part of the Panorama series on ORF (the "educational" network...sort of like Austrian PBS) went through a number of topics related to the toilet: the history of the water closet and indoor plumming; the artistic value of public restrooms in Vienna; the lives of Austrian sewage workers; and the biographical account of a woman-janitor who made her living cleaning toilets.

I must admit, it was educational. I learned all about the Nachttopf (chamber pot), the invention Wasserklosett, WC or Klo for short (the indoor plumbing part), and the bidet - originally much more a status symbol than a hygiene apparatus. Also, I had no idea that public toilets could be considered works of art. I suppose Hundertwasser was, after all, Austrian.
Hundertwasser's We Live in Paradise

My favorite quote from the show - an interview with one of the sewage workers:

Interviewer: "Was ist am schwiereigsten in Ihren Beruf?"
                 {What's the toughest part of your job?}

    Sewage worker: "Schaufeln."
{The shoveling.} 

And there you have it - a particularly disgusting revelations was "Italian Week" where the sewage workers (shoveling the human feces out of the underground system) pointed out all of the spaghetti still visible through several breakdown processes - I don't need to go into them specifically. All I can say is 1) GROSS!!! and 2) Austrians totally have anal fixations. Perhaps this is where we get Freud's claims about the human psyche...he was right about one thing: his research demographic!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Plötzlich Shakespeare

Cute and enjoyable, "Suddenly Shakespeare" is another novel by David Safier - the author of Mieses Karma.

This time, however, the female protagonist Rosa finds herself, thanks to a past-life regression session with a carnival stunt man, all of a sudden living at the end of the 16th century: in the body of William Shakespeare! The gist is that Rosa once lived as Shakespeare, the Bard, the greatest English language writer the world has ever seen (according to popular opinion). Her quest is to find the meaning of true love. And she does find it - very touching. Very sentimental (but also quite funny). I found the story trite at times, but also, considering the audience, fun and and enjoyable read. Very similar to Mieses Karma, but with the past life regression trick.

However, I must comment on one big gaping error in the plot: Shakespeare's greatest love ("soul mate") was supposed to be his wife, Anne Hathaway, who has died in the novel. In reality, Anne Hathaway survived her husband - although she was eight years his senior - and was bequeathed his "second best bed" in his will. Takt that as you wish. Other historical details (I am particularly picky when it comes to historical, or even "historical" novels) are well documented enough - for example, the Earl of Essex's close relationship with Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare's best friend Kempe...

According to certain para-psychologists (also known as occultists) would argue against certain aspects of reincarnation present in Safier's novels. I, however, do not have the knowledge base nor the gumption to truly attest one way or another for or against reincarnation - aside from my own opinions, which are more or less
as informed as I am in general. Thus, I will skip that debate (I know what's good for me).

Again, this was a novel written in German (like Mieses Karma) and recommended to my by a student, who said that these novels convinced her of the truth of reincarnation. And perhaps other things helped along the way? Such as personal experiences, etc.? I can only guess.

A funny side note: it seems that Canadians are particularly fascinated with reincarnation, and particularly believing that they are reincarnations of certain famous people (don't as me why) including the woman who believes she was once Alexander the Great, and the woman who more recently declared she was the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe. Edgar Cayce also had something to say on the subject. In any case, in any incarnation, we are us - and we make of our lives what we deem necessary, and good. We do not - and cannot - live in the past. Fame, after all, is still a four letter word.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Wild Poppies, or: Recollection

poppies in a field in Amstetten

I know that I will have many memories of my time in Austria. One of the fondest, and yet more mundane, will be of my daily walk/run along the Ybbs. I have finally brought a camera along and will share with you some of what I see every day:

Doubtless, these photos (and, by extension, this blog) will help me remember much of what has happened this year. It's a curious thing, memory. There have been countless studies done on how people retain memories, a very recent one picked up as a topic on NPR's Talk of the Nation about our earliest memories: why do young children remember things from very early in life, yet as we age, we forget most of what happened to us before the age of four? Here is the article that accompanied the program on NPR's website.

Since I can get streaming radio on my computer, some of the copious free time I've recently been blessed to have (seeing as it is now summer vacation for me) has been eaten up by my "catching up" on certain things I miss from America. Including, yes, NPR programming. 

The show (as well as the transcript) was quite interesting. The expert brought in said that several memories of early life are attached to emotions. If a person experiences a strong emotion during an event, he or she is more likely to remember not only the event, but more details of the event as well. The most powerful emotions are often fear or anger (dangerous situations and arguments are easier to remember than calm or happy situations) as are shocking or new situations. This made me think about my own earliest memories, one that involves the German language, actually. 

I remember as a very young child watching news footage of the Berlin Wall being torn down. I was two, almost three, most likely watching the evening news with my parents. I remember the television we had at the time, an old analog dial set that fit snugly within the shelves of our entertainment system, next to my dad's record player and enormous white speakers. It's been a tradition in my family ever since I can remember to watch the news together at 6pm, huddled around the TV in the living room. And before the advent of cable, this was even easier - fewer channels, and less crap to watch. We did eventually get cable, but that was long after I had started elementary school.  

calf put out to pasture
I remember images bursting onto the screen, the ones that have become stock footage now - people in the dark mounting the wall, taking sledge hammers to the side, East Germans walking triumphantly past guards, waving at the cameras. My parents sat in shock, probably in disbelief. Watching these images, they knew that the Cold War - and ideological terror of the "other" that had existed since before they we both born, mounted in bomb scares, fears of traveling abroad, the destruction of "the American way of life," that had urged hate and conspiracy and espionage - would soon be over. 

And it happened overnight, quickly and without warning. That is why my parents sat shocked. I'm sure they discussed it afterward. This would change the way they viewed the world. the way millions of people viewed the world. And this was the era before the 24-hour news network, before streaming video and internet and chat rooms and information all the time, anywhere and everywhere at the click of a mouse. They could read more in the papers the next morning, watch the news again the next evening, when the reporters had submitted new information. They had to wait - they may have waited on tenterhooks. 

cow (mommy)
Although I, a child, could not contribute meaningfully to a conversation about international affairs, the collective breath of the world expelling what it had been holding back for over 40 years, I understood that something important had happened. Berlin. I remembered the name. It held weight for me. When I was older, old enough to look up things in an encyclopedia (we had a set in the house, circa 1992) I discovered many things (now all outdated) about Berlin: it was a city, divided, the new capital of a reunited Germany.

I feel that this experience grounded my interest in the German language, in Germany, in Berlin.  I wanted to see for myself what sort of a city this was, what happened there, how people lived. It seemed like a city with a fantastic history, a place making history, alive, being shaped, becoming renewed. As a teenager, exposure to the stories of Christopher Isherwood and Cabaret and pop culture like Nena, propelled my interest in learning German. Of course, these were not my only reasons, but more to add to my list. I had already taken French, and wished to continue. To pick up a second foreign language, I had the choice between German or Spanish, and (as I've heard from many other students of German) the odds were against Spanish, mainly because it was seen as the lesser of all the offered foreign languages (all the dumb kids took it). This is, of course, unfair to the Spanish language, beautiful in its own way; I have grown fond of Spanish after having learned it - given it a chance.
preparations for Sonnenwende (Midsummer's Night)

German, anyway, and French, were my chosen university majors. These choices allowed me to study abroad. And where did I choose? Berlin, of course. I was not disappointed. I fell in love with the city a bit, I think. I still have fond memories of my time there. The city was alive, changing, making history. Vibrant. Charming. Magnificent. A big city, but not too big, like London, or too seedy, like L.A. Plenty of history, but still plenty of future, too. 

I point to this earliest of memories, watching the news with my parents as a toddler, to be part of the reason I am here now, in Austria, continuing to learn German. Continuing to be fascinated by the German language, by the history and culture of Central Europe. There are so many things that could be said about how destinies are shaped. Some say it is purely the past which determines the future. Others say the past is only and example to be learned from. I would argue that memories, being an exquisite form, a representation of the past controlled and controllable by the possessor of said memory, are the greatest tool in shaping one's destiny, if past and future being in equal parts relevant help us determine who we are. Or who we shall become.

train tracks

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Which Classical Composer Do You Find Most Attractive?

Ludwig van Beethoven
  4 (33%)
Joseph Haydn
  0 (0%)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  2 (16%)
Franz Liszt
  5 (41%)
Niccolo Piccinni
  0 (0%)
Franz Schubert
  1 (8%)

Votes so far: 12
Poll closed 

Here are the results of the Classical Composer Poll...

P.S. You can find pictures here!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

900 Jahre Amstetten

This year, Amstetten is turning 900 - kind of amazing, huh?

photo courtesy of
The town has begun to celebrate in May, with posters displayed all around the downtown area, espeically the Hauptplatz. Other festivites include: a farmer's market in, a tractor pull (I feel like I'm back in Wisconsin!) and live bands on the weekend. One ice cream shop even has as "Mostviertel" flavor, which I have not tried.

Amstetten has been populated since prehistoric times, through the Roman settlement of the Danube (at one point, a fort dedicated to Jupiter stood in the area); Schloss Ulmerfeld, erected in 995, lies at about a 15 minute bus ride from Amstetten, and was at one point considered the seat of Amstetten...back when the ruling body came out of Passau. Amstetten was first known as "Passauer Markt Amstetten" in 1111, the date at which Amstetten was "founded."

The town was protected by the bishop of Passau during the Ottoman-Habsburg wars, but nevertheless razed twice, once in 1509 and again in 1529, and basically abandoned from 1542. Later, a hospital was founded (around 1660). I am not sure if this is the same hospital that exists in the town now, and sometimes serves as doctor-training/residency facilities. If it is, I'm sure it's not the same building.

Amstetten wasn't much more than a market until 1858, when the Empress-Elisabeth-Rail was put into operation. That meant a direct train route from Vienna to Linz (currently still running, thank God) and easy access to other larger cities, including Salzburg, Munich, Budapest, etc. Also used by the Nazis, which unfortunately led to the bombing of Amstetten by the Russians. Which ruined most of the cool architecture. I, for one, continue to be outraged. In fact, another unfortunate news case for the city (after just getting over Frtizl, really!), Hitler was, up until very recently a citizen of honor in Amstetten, due mostly to oversight by past and present mayors and city council members. He is no longer.

Today, roughly 23,000 people live in Bezirk Amstetten (including the surrounding towns of Preinsbach, Allersdorf, Eisenreindornach, Greinsfurth,Viehdorf, Neufurth, Boxhofen, Ulmerfeld, and Pittersberg). The town of Amstetten has a population of circa 13,000.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Mieses Karma

This novel, translated into English as Bad Karma, was recommended to me by one of my students. The plot, roughly, is about Kim Lange, a TV talk show moderator in Berlin, who is hit and killed by a rogue satellite and reincarnated into an ant - because she was really mean to other people. Throughout the novel, she tries to become reunited with her family, her husband and young daughter, and gather good karma to eventually be reincarnated into a person. Or reach Nirvana. Whichever.

I would describe the novel as Bridget Jones' Diary meets a primer on Buddhist philosophy -- but without a lot of actual "philosophy" attached. It's mostly a chick-lit driven plot. Reading how Kim is still obsessed with this man she had an affair with right before her death basically explains how she was reincarnated into a bug. I enjoy the novel, and found it an entertaining read, but I wouldn't put much weight into the description of reincarnation. It doesn't actually follow any spiritual tradition...unfortunately. And it's no Cloud Atlas, another novel dealing with reincarnation on, I think, a more metaphysical and philosophical level.

I can say with conviction, however, that I would read more David Safier (his other two novels, Jesus lebt mich and Plötzlich Shakespeare also deal with reincarnation and past life regressions) over most other chick-lit novels, including the English-language writers Meg Cabot, Sophie Kinsella and Laura Weisberger. And, yes, although I hate to admit it, I've read them all, Shopaholic included. Everyone likes a little trash and escapism every once in a while, and if you say you don't, you either need to relax or check your ego.

The message of Mieses Karma is a great one. Any pop-fiction dealing with reincarnation on a level where the average person can understand is bound to not only bring the issue of spirituality and reincarnation into the mainstream, but also to allow people to think about life after death in a way that maybe they hadn't before. To paraphrase this review: I will never step on another ant as long as I live.