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Monday, August 22, 2011

Café Europa: Life after Communism

wrong one, but it'll do
I recently finished a book I bought while visiting a friend in Poland. Café Europa, its contents as well as how it and I found each other, are of equal story-telling merit. Thus, I must begin with our first encounter:

It was a dark and stormy night... No, wait.

Krakow, bleak December. Just a minute.

Imagine you have decided to visit your friend from university who is teaching English in Poland, while you are teaching English in Austria. Imagine that you decided to pick the perfect time to visit, when you had a bit of time off from work because of one of the many, many Catholic holidays Austria celebrates: The Immaculate Conception. Which just happens to be 8 December. Perfect.

You arrive in Krakow early in the morning, having left before dawn on a bus with no heat from the small town where your friend teaches. It is snowing and freezing and it is quite possible you have not felt this kind of cold in several years - if ever - a dry, scratchy cold, sort of what you get in the plains of the American Midwest...for example, North Dakota.

Your friend suggests keeping warm above all else. You agree, your survival instincts kicking in. You dash into the mall next to the bus terminal, and suddenly everything becomes familiar...civilized...except that all of the shop signs are written in Polish. Aside from that, this could be any mall in any city in the world. It is very warm, and you think about buying a cup of coffee, but your friend scoffs.

"Don't you want to see the real Krakow?" she asks.

"Of course," you acquiesce.

You trot along the main square, survival mode breaking out again and quashing your enjoyment of, admittedly, a very beautiful city. The facades of the buildings seem to belong to the middle ages. The locals are dressed in fur and waterproof boots. Smart of them. You are in your normal black boots (decidedly not waterproof after going through snow drifts) and parka and woolen hat with a Green Bay Packers logo. Your friend suggests going to an English language book store, one of her favorites, she professes. Now you are only thinking about warmth. But, certainly, book stores are always nice, too.

Slavenka Drakulić
And here is where you find: Café Europa. The front cover looks interesting, but the back cover hooks you. Café Europa happens to be a collection of essays about life in post-Communist eastern Europe. Score! you think. This is just your ticket. For some reason, you have had a mild obsession with former Soviet bloc countries for the past two or so years. And the author, Slavenka Draculić, is not only a prominent Croatian writer and journalist, she hails from the former Yugoslavia (having spent most of her life in Croatia while it was still part of Yugoslavia). Living in Vienna when she wrote most of the essays (between 1992-1996), you think, again, this is perfect, since you, too are living in Austria. And you are not disappointed.

Draculić's prose is simple, yet poignant, informed to a high degree without being pedantic, and hilariously funny. Think the Croatian, female David Sedaris, but replace "being gay" with "living under Communism" and throw in feminist themes for good measure. Definitely the most satisfying 49 złoty ever spent.

*For those interested (and planning on visiting Krakow) here is the book store's website.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Famous Austrians VI: Felix Salten

Felix Salten is less famous than his work of fiction, Bambi, a Life in the Woods.

Yes, the Disney movie Bambi is actually originally Austrian! Who'd a thunk?

Salten was born in Budapest in 1869 to a Jewish family, but moved soon after with his family to Vienna. At the turn of the 20th century, he was involved in the Young Vienna movement (Jung Wien, promoting art noveau ventures) and various other artistic endeavors. He made his living as a theater critic, but wrote and published plenty of original poems, plays and stories.

Perhaps this comes as no surprise to those who know how much Austrians love nature and the natural world. Bambi: eine Lebensgeschichte aus dem Wald is similar to the movie in many ways, excepting that Bambi is a roe deer in the Austrian version, but a white-tailed deer in the American version (the difference in species being the difference in continents). The novel also goes into much more detail about Bambi's life, following him into old age, having him philosophize about life, death and the mysteries of the universe. The novel was also meant for an adult audience, and after translation became a huge book club success in the United States in the 1930s. Hitler believed the story was an allegory for the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany (and occupied Austria) and banned the book in 1936.

While in exile in Switzerland during the Nazi occupation, Salten wrote a sequel, Bambi's Children. He also sold the rights to Disney at this time. The film version came out in 1942. According to legend, Disney originally wanted to create a live-action version, but discovering it would be too difficult to film deer (um, duh?) he opted for a cartoon feature. Bambi: eine Lebensgeschichte aus dem Wald is also considered one of the first environmental novels. Environmentalists can disagree all they want; the Bambi Effect has turned plenty of people into vegetarians.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Magistratsabteilung, or: The First Canto of Hell

One of the first things I need to do in Vienna, after I settle in, is to register with the police and obtain my residence permit (Auftenthaltstitel) for this year.

Austrians love bureaucracy. It is one of the things that makes them happy, I think. I am starting to believe all the things I've read about Austrians and paperwork...almost as bad as the French! Having dealt with both, I still think the French are worse (I had to go to the French Consulate in Chicago 3 times, and even then they did not give me the "right" visa). Nevertheless, a thorn in my side may be what the MA 35 (Magistratsabteilung) becomes.

First, I arrive in Vienna, thinking I need to register with the American Embassy. Since Vienna is a lot bigger than Amstetten and I can't just walk down the street to register with the authorities. Fine by me. But, I have no idea where to go. So I go to the first logical place - the place they tell you to always go first when you're traveling abroad: the American Embassy. I take the U-Bahn to a place near the University, and walk out along the street looking for an official-looking building. Obviously, the one with iron bars, 6-foot high barbed wire and guard dogs is the American embassy. Easy to find, at least.

I saunter into the interrogation booth waiting room, confident for the first time in several months because I (me!) possess an American passport. Well, so what? So do at least 100 million other people. Plus, the guards tell me, You don't go to the American embassy to "register" you go to the consulate. On the other side of town. Bye-bye now.

Right. So I run up to Parkring from Boltzmanngasse (inconvenient seeing as I have to take 2 street cars and it takes 20 minutes from door to door) to get scanned - again - and interrogated. I wave around my passport, which indeed helps this time - I get to go to the front of the line! But it's a small victory, because the guy behind the desk tells me I'm in the wrong place. Again.

Fortunately, the gentleman behind the desk does give me an informative sheet of paper with an address and a list of services the Magistratsabteilung 35 provides. "This," he explains, pointing to the bolded heading, "is the place you want. People coming to the consulate want to get out of Austria, not stay here." Fair enough, good sir.

By now, I have wasted my whole morning running around. Yes, literally. It is now just after 11:00, and the problem with bureaucracy, the biggest problem, is that these buildings, which house "employees" to do "services" for the public have very short working hours. 8-11:30am. M-F. Or, if you're lucky, they'll stay open until noon. With another 1/2 hour on public transport ahead of me, I won't get to the MA in time to do anything but be handed a number. So the finishing of my quest needs putting off for another day.

Next day: out the door by 8 to get to the MA 35 in time to get my papers finished. YES! Today is the day, I tell myself. Today I will arrive home with a brand new Auftenthaltstitel and a feeling of accomplishment!

From the street car stop, I walk along a row of imposing metal and glass high-rises straight out of 1984 into #93-C and swarms of sweating, tired-looking people (it is August), crying babies and that smell you always get in European waiting rooms from the one or two people who are for some reason anti-deodorant.

I grab a number and am directed by the woman behind the desk to take the elevator to the fifth floor. From there, I wait for my number to be called. About an hour. I walk into the room to a weary-looking man behind a desk, who despite his "casual" summer office apparel (Tevas and a short-sleeved plaid shirt) does not have a "casual" attitude. He informs me that 1) I missed the deadline to extend my visa and will thus have to sumbit an Erstantrag rather than a Verlängerungsantrag. But he seems to take pity on me...I think? and decides he can go through with my request as soon as I get all of my forms copied and signed in triplicate. I may use the pay-per-copier outside his office. 20 cents a page.

Once I return to submit my triplicated forms, Mr. Casual has already moved onto someone else. And I thought I was special. Over his shoulder, he tells me to wait a little longer. My number will be called again shortly.

I sit back down. 10:42, my watch reads. Not bad. This gives the guy over an hour. And he did say "shortly" so I wait and watch the screen for my number.

At 11:12, I am sick of staring at a screen, so I whip open my book. I read one chapter, and then two. And by the time I know it, I've read 50 pages but my number has not been called. It is nearly 2:00. Supposedly the MA 35 has closed. I look around the waiting room to see a Turkish couple buying sandwiches from the vending machine. Has anyone told them the MA 35 closes at noon? A woman comes up to me and asks why I'm  there. I tell her about renewing my visa, and that Mr. Casual told me to wait. OK, she nods. It'll be another minute.

Around 2:30, a younger, plumper woman comes to get me. She scans my fingerprints. She takes out my triplicated forms. She prints out a form and tells me to go to the cashier to pay for my Antrag. I can almost taste my victory!

I run up one flight to the cashier, who takes my €80 and hands me a receipt. I rush back down to the plump woman, who asks me for a Mietvertrag. A what? She repeats herself. I tell her I don't have one. She gets her colleague in from next door, who translates for me into English: a contract.

Yes, thanks for that, but just because you translate it for me doesn't mean it will magically appear in my backpack. I only have a Meldezettel - a residence registration form. Which has the same information, but is apparently completely different.

No dice, the ladies say.

Then the new one says something mean about me in German, thinking I won't get it, and the plump one laughs. I feel like calling them a couple of cows - in German - but I realize that would hurt my case, and seeing as I now have to return to the MA 35 to finish my business, the least I can do is hold my temper until I'm out of the building. Play the bureaucrats' game and sometimes, when they feel like it, they might just let you win.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

It's a Good Life

The end of summer camp has brought me to where it all began nearly one year ago...Vienna.

Well, depending on one's definition of "beginning." For argument's sake, I will stick with the beginning of my Austrian experience, not the beginning of this blog (for which I was still in Wisconsin), nor the beginning of my international adventure, which began in Chicago...or, Paris if the flight over doesn't count. In any case, there are several points at which I could begin, and all would remain legitimate. But there's one I choose specifically, because it has more weight than others. More significance.

Vienna is significant, because it was the first place I visited in Austria ever in my life - about four years ago now, when I was a student in Berlin. For this reason, among others, I suppose, I have continually compared Vienna to Berlin, in my mind, but also aloud to anyone who will listen. Perhaps this only makes sense to me, but perhaps it also makes sense to others who have lived in both cities. I shall extrapolate.

Both cities are German-speaking and vibrant, though Berlin is slightly larger (4.4 million in the metropolitan area to Vienna's 2.4 million) and a lot less expensive. Vienna was gauged as the second most expensive city to live in (in the EU), after Rome, in Mercer's 2011 Cost of Living Survey.  Vienna is the city of culture, tradition - a place for everything and everything in its place. Berlin is subversive: art for art's sake, not art for tradition's sake. Unadulterated creativity rather than double-checking with superiors...It seemed to me when I first visited Vienna that, although it was a beautiful city, it did leave something to be desired when compared to Berlin. I guess I just liked Berlin better. Now that I am living in Vienna, I suppose I shall truly see the difference.

But I digress. My musings are probably less interesting to the audience than photos of my new apartment. To appease:

my room

my bookshelf already filled with crap

my desk likewise filled with crap

the hall

the balcony

the dining room

the living room

the kitchen
I am subletting from a woman who is currently in the USA helping her daughter with a newborn baby. I could not afford such a nice place on my own (and certainly not in Vienna). While she's gone, I'm doing a sort of house sitting job. The apartment is right downtown, very spacious and nice. I haven't been here very long, but so far I have no complaints, and am looking very forward to the coming year. Not that Amstetten wasn't great, but...Vienna is Vienna.