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Sunday, December 25, 2011


Fröhliche Weihnachten!

To celebrate the season, I've been going to the various Christmas markets Vienna is famous for, and collecting pictures along the way. Here are some "iconic" ones:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Die Goldene Stadt

I just got back from a weekend in Prague with Jake and Jen. It was a lot of fun. I sort of did the same things I did last time in Prague. I felt strangely familiar with the city, actually, and since neither of them had been to Prague before, I played tour guide - much to my surprise.

Unfortunately, since it's December and getting pretty cold outside, and since winter is fast approaching and there is less and less daylight the closer we get to the winter solstice, this trip was quite a bit different than the one I went on last year. It might even be a good idea to explain why I did go. Well, ever year for Maria Empfängnis, that is, the Immaculate Conception (and basically every other Catholic holiday), Austria calls off school. In that way, it's a good opportunity to travel. But it is still in December.

Last year at this time, I went to visit Sarah in Poland. The weather this year was much more convenient for traveling - warmer. We haven't had any snow yet, not a flake! It has been cold enough to snow, but that gray, cloudy Vienna sky clears out every time the temperature drops - and then darkens again above freezing for rain.

ANYWAY, here are some photos from Prague. All of the Christmas decorations were out, and Christmas markets, too! Exciting stuff - and a bit like we hadn't left Vienna in that way. But of course, the fare is different, but still. there was Glühwein.

We mostly did the touristy things, like go to the astrological clock, climb the tower, visit Charles Bridge, drink lots of beer, eat lots of heavy Czech food and visit Prague castle and the old town. All in all, a relaxing trip!

 In that way, I think it's easier to visit places you've already been again and again - you know what to expect, you know what you like, you feel comfortable and you don't have to think about planning or worry about having a terrible time. That's why people do it, of course.
The Astrological Clock

But it can get a bit boring to go to the same places all the time. I don't know that I'd really like to do places I've already been again soon. While I still have the opportunity to travel around Europe this year during the time I'm teaching, I think I'd like to see places I've never been yet. That's one of the reasons for traveling in the first place, isn't it?

Maria Theresia got her fingers into Prague, too.

St. Vitus in Prague Castle

light through rose window in St. Vitus

rose window, St. Vitus, Prague

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Desperately Seeking Dog

This note has been posted in the teachers' room at school for a few weeks now.

Translation? Loosely, it says: "Attractive Male Miniature Dachshund seeking straight-haired Female for puppy purposes. Pedigree preferred." With name of "owner" attached, so you know whom to contact if you come across a miniature Dachshund in the mood...

Friday, December 16, 2011


Superstition - it's not just a Stevie Wonder song. Austrians seem especially keen on exploring them, actually, which I find fascinating in a quasi-pagan sort of way. Several examples have recently cropped up in my life. I'll share a few of them with you.

Two of my teachers asked me to do a lesson on superstitions around the world, for example, the number 13 vs. the number 7, breaking a mirror, black cats, opening an umbrella in the house, spilling salt...the list goes on. In my search for cohesion in the topic, I stumbled upon this website, which has a nice little A-Z list of superstitions.

The list my students came up with was pretty basic, and unfortunately the accompanying book lesson (from the less than stellar More!) had a completely awful version of The Monkey's Paw which is an excellent story if you read the original short story by W.W. Jacobs. But, the kids also came up a few unexpected superstitions: wearing red in China symbolizes good luck, and white bad luck; in Serbia, hiccups are caused by people talking about you.

My landlady has a book called "Guided by the Moon" (in English, written by an Austrian) which outlines all of the things you're supposed to do or not do depending on the cycle of the moon.

For example, clipping your nails after sunset on a Friday will keep you from having hang nails or ingrown toenails. Cutting your hair when the moon is waxing will make it full and beautiful - if the moon is waning, you will go bald. Felling a tree on New Year's Eve Day in the morning will make the wood easier to work with - and more durable - if you are planning on making furniture or tools out of it.

Christmas trees need to be felled during the waxing moon in December. If they are, they will keep their needles for months. Always water house plants on a water day (when the moon is going through on of the water signs - Pisces or Cancer, but not Scorpio). Do gardening: planting, weeding, harvesting; on an earth day (when the moon is going through one of the earth signs - Virgo, Taurus or Capricorn).

Sure, these superstitions can be a little silly, and I doubt whether most people actually still believe in them. But remember, this is Freud's country, and a lot of weight is still given to dream interpretation! I suppose anything is possible.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Ein kleines Update...

For those keeping up, my landlady recently moved back in from being abroad in the USA with her daughter to help take care of her new grandbaby. Over a weekend, my living situation dramatically changed. I'm sure it will all be great, but at the moment, I'm still in the struggling, "gotta get used to this" mode. The biggest struggle is sharing not only with Jo, but with her family - especially the other grandbabies that live in Vienna!

I like kids, don't get me wrong. But I haven't had to deal (up close and personal like) with babies since my 10th grade babysitting gigs stopped. Seriously. Listening to little screams the minute I get through the door from work is almost making me reconsider having my own kids. At least in the near future...although, they are pretty adorable when they're not screaming their heads off. Like most people.

School is school. My schedule is a lot different this year than last year. I'm teaching until 6pm twice a week (for Wahlpflichtfächer, or mandatory elective courses) which is a bit tiring, especially since last year I only taught in the mornings, having every afternoon free. It's a little depressing leaving and coming home in the dark - at this time of year, at least. 

Also, for those interested, I will officially not be coming home for Christmas. Unfortunately, I didn't book a flight early enough to get a good deal, and last-minute flights are ungodly expensive. This means I will be in Vienna for Christmas, or, failing that, traveling to somewhere close by. Hopefully to places I haven't been yet. I just got back from a weekend in Prague, and although that was really a lot of fun, despite chilly December weather and a couple of snafus, I'd been to Prague twice before. The upside is I got to play tour guide!

I'd like to get to some of the out-of-the-way places before I leave Austria. I've been thinking of doing places I haven't been yet, at least for day-excursions, like Eisenstadt, Innsbruck (I've only ever been in the train station), Southern Tirol (Bozen, for example) and other places I've heard good things about. Well, I guess Eisenstadt really only has a palace...but that's good enough for me. I can get my kick living vicariously through the former empirical nobility, can't I? 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

American Passages

Living in Austria has taught me a lot about being an American. It's curious in a way that an Austrian film recently released and chosen by my students to see would not only center around the United States and the "American Way of Life" but in doing so give me pause, leaving me to question how I fit in to this picture.

Last night, I went to see American Passages, the new film by Austrian documentary film director Ruth Beckermann at the Votivkino in the first district with the 7th form (juniors) Wahlpflichtfach (English elective class). All the girls (there are only girls in this class) were late, buying popcorn at the concession stand, trudging into the theater after the lights had dimmed and the previews started, sloughing off their winter gear in the row behind me, reserved just for them.

The film we were set to watch was about the American dream, I suppose. Or the inverse-American dream. As a whole, the film had little storyline, not much to connect images to dialog, aside from the fact that the interviews collected from around the United States served as the common denominator. The interviewees were of diverse cultural backgrounds, many of them underprivileged or part of the minority somehow. Pans of Harlem residents celebrating Barack Obama's 2008 presidential win, a bride-to-be in Mississippi telling the audience how she and her husband met, a gay couple living in Arizona explaining how they came to adopt a set of twins and a former pimp and compulsive gambler at the roulette table of a Las Vegas casino all take part in the aural and visual melange Beckermann gives us. The names are not given - just the stories and the circumstances in which they came about. The footage is coherently edited and flows from picturesque landscapes to portraits of denizens, but the stories seem dislocated, abstract, aborted, unfulfilled. Scattered. It is never fully explained who these people are - why they are important. They are all Americans. I suppose in its way, that is enough.

On Beckermann's part, I felt a very skewed version of reality confronting me from the silver screen. A one-sided commentary on the United States from an Austrian: a foreigner who has had little other, actual cultural contact with the USA. I couldn't help but feel her lack of objectivity on the subject not only prejudicial but lacking in professionalism. Displaying each side of the American story coherently and without injecting her own preconceived notions of what she expected to find seemed absent to me. The "documentation" was not unbiased.

My discomfort with the portrayal of Americans was perhaps underscored by the audience. As a scene of a Memorial Day celebration in Mississippi took up the screen, a woman sang the Star Spangled Banner and, upon saying a few words about the armed services - men and women who make the ultimate sacrifice for their country - she began to cry at the podium. Snickering began in the theater, and in some cases, I'm sure I heard full-blown laughter.

Perhaps she has lost a loved one in Iraq or Afghanistan. Perhaps she loves her country so much, her empathy overwhelmed her. Perhaps it was just too stinking hot on that May day in Mississippi that she couldn't keep her emotions in check. Because it was not explained, we will never know. Despite why she began to cry, it is to me unfathomable that her reaction should be mocked and ridiculed. This woman, in giving respect to her country and the US Armed Forces deserves respect in return.

This may sound hypocritical, and on some level it probably is. Before I spent any considerable amount of time abroad, I was an America-hater, too. It was a pretentious and rather ugly form of self-hate that I hope I've grown out of. Yes, I hate the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I hate that all of (what I perceive to be) the bad aspects of American culture (junk food, SUVs and unchecked consumerism being high on this list) have been exported to Europe, and lauded by young Europeans. I hate that non-Americans assume the United States does not have or has not produced anything worthy of the title "culture" but I now realize that, as an American, I am not defined by what my country does or is, unless this is what I allow. I, one person, am not responsible for 300 million. Perhaps the president is, but I am not. I can hate things about America, but I cannot hate being an American. What else do I have?

I've heard from many Austrians that they don't understand American patriotism. They don't have any idea why a person would sport the Stars and Stripes on a t-shirt or bumper sticker, why they would send care packages to the overseas troops. Or why the Pledge of Allegiance must be recited every day in school. I can't exactly explain it myself, but I do think that there's nothing wrong with loving one's country, and being proud to be where you're from.

Xenophobia and dogmatic patriotism are not all right, but most Americans, including the woman who was filmed, are not crazy patriots or bigots because they commemorate the soldiers who served in any war for their country. And since the equivalent of First Amendment rights came so much later to Austria, it's no wonder to me that there's a cultural gap - that freedom is inherent to the human condition, and that it can - by definition - safely mean two different things to two different people.