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Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Fur Coat

my fur coat on the hanger
Is is a widely know fact, among those who frequent Vienna, or live here, or have anything at all to do with the city, that every real Wienerin owns a fur coat. It is a rite of passage, a mark of class and sophistication. A woman goes from being a "Fräulein" (or, if age has already exacted its toll, from being a "Frau") to being a "Dame" once she owns a fur coat.

Now, these coats come in all shapes and sizes. There are full-length mink, beaver, ermine; there are fur-trimmed wool coats, half-length rabbit or raccoon, or simple stoles to be worn at the opera - in the balcony. Or front row center. The choices are endless, even if the bank account isn't. For those of you interested, a floor-length mink costs about €10,000, and was most likely caught and bludgeoned to death in Siberia. The killing of animals for the fur trade is illegal in Austria, but the selling of furs is perfectly legit, provided the animals died and were sewn together in a different country. And the demand is high, obviously.

I have my own fur-trimmed winter coat, and, since I packed it and brought it all the way from Wisconsin, I'm glad this year I've gotten to wear it quite a bit, what with the extremely cold month of February we've been having in Europe. And I honestly don't get the excuse to wear it in the USA I do here; besides, it's such a beautiful coat.

At this point, many of my loyal readers (who?) might be scratching their head right now. Really? you could be thinking. Vanessa? The vegetarian? Owning a fur? That doesn't sound right. Why would she have anything to do with fur? Let me tell you. It's an interesting story, which is why I thought it would make an interesting blog post.
in front of elevator in my building

It all started my freshman year at Lawrence. The drama department was having a costume sale in the Voyager room across from the old Grill in the Union. There wasn't much all that exciting up for grabs, except this coat, which was sitting humbly (yet provocatively) on a hanger. Price? $10. I realized then that it would become mine.

I have no idea why no one else wanted it. Perhaps it was destined for me, perhaps I was the first one to get down to the sale that day. Perhaps all the other hippy-vegan darlings of my alma mater were too principled to lay down ten bucks for something that was once an animal. It doesn't really matter. As soon as I laid down my ten dollar bill, I secured the coat against my person and dashed back to my dorm. I did a little dance in the stairwell before getting to my room and opening the door to my roommate, who was on Facebook when she should have been studying for art history.

To me, it was obviously vintage - at that point, I didn't quite know how vintage - and by that sheer fact made even better.  Being vintage, whatever animal it had been was obviously murdered before my lifetime, and therefore pardonable, in my code of ethics. I've been wearing vintage outfits, and specifically, vintage coats (my great-grandmother's until it fell apart, and then ones from second-hand shops), since high school.

fur cuff - the other side is disintegrating :(
Unfortunately, this year, as I have worn the coat like a winter coat (its intended purpose) and have not been very gentle, the fur on the cuffs first started to shed, and then started to come out in clumps. It's like my coat is going through chemotherapy. Luckily, the collar is as good as new (basically) and the cuffs are detachable, so my project for next winter is to get them off and find a suitable, attractive replacement. 

Noticing how badly the fur is falling apart prompted me to do a Google search on it, to see if I could figure out a few more things about it. I've thought about taking it to a furrier in Vienna to have it appraised, but since it's no longer in the best condition, and the furrier might chide me about not taking good care of it, I balked. That's probably the only way to know for certain what kind of fur it is, however.

The only clue the coat itself has given me is the tag in the lining: THE PETTIBONE & PEABODY CO. it reads. I asked my dad about it, since he grew up in Appleton and he remembers there being such a store when he was a little boy. His mother shopped there. It is there no longer, much like many of the old department stores of yesteryear, being bought up or run out of business by chain stores and the like., perhaps. Anyway, my Google search came up with some very interesting results, particularly this blog and this souvenir book sold by the company before its demise. It appears that Pettibone and Peabody was one of the oldest retailers in the state of Wisconsin, and opened in 1865. It was Appleton's premier retailer until it H.C. Prange Co. (now Younker's) bought it out in 1946. Thus, for the tag to still read "Pettibone & Peabody Co." it must be at least 65 years old, any may be even older. No wonder the fur is disintegrating, right?

Regardless, I'm pretty tickled about this. Not only is it super vintage, it's my favorite era - I was guessing realistically that it was from the 1960s or later (and donated post mortem by some Lawrence aluma/us) - but in my heart of hearts, I knew the style screamed 1940s - and I was totally right. Maybe even 1930s, but I won't get ahead of myself. 

For those  of you unconvinced, please please  follow my links! And this one while you're at it. And then if you're still not convince, that's not my problem. 'Cause haters gonna hate.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

La Cenerentola

As a reward for signing up for the Wiener Staatsoper newsletter, I got the best birthday present ever from a company: a free opera ticket! I got to choose my ticket, and ended up getting a center balcony seat to Rossini's La Cenerentola, a comedic interpretation of the Cinderella story, at the Volksoper. Very nice.

What was not so nice was the coat check lady, who, waited on about six old people before she took my coat, looked me up and down and said, "You have a seat in the BALCONY?" (full price for the ticket was €80), to which I replied, "Indeed I do." I fought the urge to stick my tongue out at her.

It was my first time to the Volksoper as well. My landlady doesn't like the Volksoper, but I thought the production was charming. Really, La Cenerentola is more of an operette, seeing as there are only six characters, and the show has only two acts. The story goes that a girl is enslaved by her stepfather to do the housework and care for her two ugly stepsisters. Then, one day, the prince comes into the village disguised as his valet and he and Cenerentola fall in love. Unbeknownst to the sisters, however. They take the valet for the real prince, and fight over him. That's most of the thing. And then, at the end, good triumps and Cenerentola and the prince are married and live happily ever after, at least until curtain call.

I loved the performance, in fact. The part of Cenerentola is sung by a Contralto or Mezzo Soprano. Being a Mezzo, I liked that. Also, the costumes were outrageous - they did overdone baroque to a T. The physical humor between the stepsisters was also magnificent. Those ladies can do acrobatics! And, come to think of it, the sets were a bit bland, which fit with the smallness of the production (in contrast to Die Zauberflöte) and contrasted finely with the costuming. But, I cannot forgive the lack of attention to color scheme: one sister had a peachy costume, the other had a mint green one (otherwise identical) and the father had a forest green costume. The walls were also green, and there was JUST TOO MUCH GREEN! I would have done the walls in gray or blue, and the father in purple. Cenerentola's ball gown was white (Disney inspiration, anyone?) and the prince wore red, which made the whole thing too Christmas party for me - thus, blue walls. Or gray.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Wiener Schmäh


There's something about Vienna - its gloomy February days where, sometimes, the clouds roll in for weeks at a time, making the narrow streets denser, darker, more Medieval - that contributes to that certain, characteristic Viennese sense of humor.

Referred to as Wiener Schmäh by the locals, this gallows humor is melancholy, sarcastic, and just often enough, mean. The term comes from the German verb schmähen which means "to abuse, taunt; to vilify someone." The mentality is said to stem from the working-class denizens of the 19th century who had a more or less Dickensian look on life. Well, can you blame them? Dickens knew what he was writing about! He does have an adjective named after him.

Part of this is evident in what Freud liked to call Schadenfreude, that is, feeling good about yourself when someone else is suffering. Austrians like this. They also like correctness. By that, I mean they like being right. It gives them a sense of self-satisfaction. In fact, a typically Austrian habit is having things your way. Just like at Burger King. 

In the mind of an Austrian, there is a right way and a wrong way to do everything. Their way is right, yours is wrong. However, it is justifiable to do things your "wrong" way, as long as you follow the Austrian's "right" way rules: thus enters bureaucracyI would argue this can be traced back to the Habsburgs. All that empire hoopla.  I can't even remember how many times I've been told, "You're doing it wrong," by an Austrian. From how I pronounce my "ä"s to what type of cake I order at a cafe - yes, I am getting a slice of Linzertorte because that is what I like. You are not going to eat it, so shut up. It's still a free country, even if socialist (joke!) - everything seems to be up for grabs. 

Linzer Torte
 Unfortunately, I seem to have adopted a bit of that cynicism. Maybe it's because I'm getting over a cold. Maybe it's because the weather turned from below zero temperatures (Fahrenheit) for weeks on end to being in the 30's and 40's within a few days - should make me happy, but my sinuses are disagreeing - but I've been feeling a little geschmäht recently. A little victimized. A tad, wee bit under the weather - in the grumpy sense of the phrase. In fact, I've been a regular cynical grouch. I'll just have to wait for something bad to happen to someone else, and then I'll feel better.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Die Zauberflöte

I am slowly but surely trying to update my blog so it reflects my "life"! (I don't know why I put "life" in quotes, it just seems appropriate.) 

Around Christmastime, one of my teachers gave me free tickets to Mozart's Die Zauberflöte  (The Magic Flute) at the Wiener Staatsoper  - she has season tickets, and for some inexplicable reason, hates this opera. Well, all the better for me, I guess, since I got to go! And I actually got a seat...normally I buy a Stehplatz, or standing ticket, because they are super affordable (€3-4) and I don't really mind standing. The view is actually pretty good, and in fact better than some of the more expensive "seats" where you sit on one side of the stage or the other and thus can't see anything except the orchestra pit. I end up standing whenever I get one of those, anyway.

True to the opera, this production was fanciful - there was a revolving box as the stage, as you can see from the picture - and excellent quality, as is practically everything staged at the Staatsoper. The one problem was that during the Queen of the Night's famous solo, her crown fell off. I was with a friend, and we laughed, which was mean. But, on stage, she didn't break her concentration, and didn't hit a false note. Now that is stage presence.

According to some, the Vienna State Opera is the premiere in the world. I would agree, except I don't think I should agree too quickly. I haven't seen much opera outside of the United States and Europe. Though, this one in Vienna was definitely head and shoulders above the production I saw at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in 2007, complete with a giant papier-mâché rhinoceros (actually, the only thing that really stuck out to me about the whole thing). 

For those of you with the opportunity to go to an opera in Berlin, I highly recommend the Berliner Staatsoper (the State Opera seems to get more funding and better singers and directors). I saw a most magnificent version of Der Freischutz there.

As for the Wiener Staatsoper, they are highly respected, and tend not to take many risks (so, for those of you into avant garde theater, look elsewhere). Personally, I am never disappointed with a performance. 

If you are not familiar with the plot, Wikipedia gives a good summary. I love it because of all of its mystical undertones, especially having to do with the Free Masons (Mozart was one) and Zoroastrianism. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Pearl of the Danube

The moniker of "Pearl of the Danube" is actually the nickname of Vienna's sister city, Budapest, where the Danube plays more of a role in the city's feel and look. That is, the Danube actually runs through the city, and there are two banks, unlike in Vienna, which was really only settled on one side of the Danube.

Thus, on my third trip to Budapest, I noticed certain things I hadn't before, and was reminded of other impressions I'd gathered earlier as well.

Because the Danube so beautifully flows through Budapest, walking along the riverside, I was struck by how much Budapest reminds me of Paris. It's interesting that the placement of a river in a city could do so much to change its atmosphere. Budapest is a lot lighter, more open, and some ways, thus, friendlier, than Vienna. Other factors play into the "friendliness" bit too, however.

The Vienna Innere Stadt basically retains its Medieval atmosphere, with crowded cobblestone streets, and juxtaposes them with mammoth 18th century architectural structures designed by Maria Theresia during her rule of Austria-Hungary. Budapest has the same sorts of things, but also - as you will see - monolithic structures built into the stone of the Pest hills, which make it unique and splendid.

Also, whereas everything in Vienna is neatly preserved and beautifully maintained, due to corruption in government and overall lack of money to do anything like maintain UNESCO World Heritage sites, Hungary is in fact the opposite of Austria: a topsy-turvy Oz. Vienna through the Looking Glass. Everything is of the same construction: in that way, they truly are twinned cities architecturally. But since Vienna gets all that income from tourists, she has a reason to look nice. I do feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland nodding and smiling to shopkeepers chatting in Hungarian, or old women walking their Vizslas. Budapest's history with communism has left her bedraggled: still beautiful, but more solemn. And much the worse for wear.

Here are some photos. Unfortunately to me, all of the pictures of monuments end up turning out the same, no matter how you photograph them, or from what angle. You may have a different opinion.