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Friday, April 20, 2012

Famous Austrians XII: Rainer Maria Rilke

Rilke was born in Prague in 1875 (while it was still part of Austria-Hungary) and grew up there with an unsuccessful father and a terribly unhappy mother who, mourning the death of Rilke's baby sister, dressed him in girl's clothing as a child, the start of his depressive, repressive and Freudian outlook on life.

In fact, in 1897, he met and fell in love with Lou Andreas-Salome, who had studied psychoanalysis with Freud, and the two of them shared an intellectual bond and traveled together extensively, most importantly to Russia in 1899, where Rilke met Leo Tolstoy. Unfortunately, Lou was already married, so Rilke had to settle for Clara Westhoff, a sculptor he met on an artist's retreat in 1900.

In 1902, he moved to Paris to work with Rodin, and ended up meeting Cezanne, continuing to work with both artists. He was quite prolific in Paris, writing in French as well as German, and stayed there until 1910 when he decided to travel again, to Spain, Trieste, and then to Germany. in 1914, World War I broke out and Rilke was stuck. He lived in Munich until he was called up in 1916 and attended basic training in Vienna. He used his connections in high places to skip out later that year.

Rilke moved to Switzerland in 1919 and finished his lyrical poems. He fell ill in 1923, and was diagnosed with leukemia shortly before his death in 1926. For some reason, roses and mythology have often played large parts in Rilke's work.

Here (in German) and here (in English) you can read the Dunio Elegien, one of his most famous works.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

On to Italy: Trieste

After Ljubljana, we took the bus to Trieste (you can only get there by bus from Slovenia) to see more of the Adriatic coast. Interestingly, it was also in some ways a history lesson, considering Trieste was one of the oldest parts of the Habsburg empire, having been "collected" in 1382 by Leopold III.

Though once part of ancient Illyria, and more Slavic than Italian (the city was only annexed in 1918), Trieste is today a part of Italy for mostly political rather than cultural reasons. An important port during the Renaissance and the crossroads between Venice and Vienna, Trieste became Maria Theresia's favorite way to keep the Slovenians and Croatians under her thumb, by promising trade and wealth and baroque buildings painted yellow. French troops occupied the city during the Napoleonic Wars, though the city retained relative autonomy because for some reason (unlike the other large Habsburg cities) German-speaking Austrians could not be persuaded to move there. For example: only 5% of the population in Trieste spoke German at its peak (most spoke Slovenian) compared to 51% in Prague, and roughly 60% in Budapest.

I just finished a history of the Habsburgs borrowed from the library - can you tell?

Here are several photos of Piazza Unita d'Italia:

Anyway, on to the present, with just another dip into the past! Since ancient Illyria was invaded by the Romans, there are plenty of delightful ruins left by Cesarean occupants, like this lovely amphitheater:

And the most delightful experience: around the amphitheater there are lots of stray cats (as pictured below) and a little boy with his grandparents came up to the railing and started saying, "Meow!" He reached out to pet one of the cats, when his grandmother said, "Non toccare il gato!" (Don't pet the cat). The cat ran away and the the little boy waved, saying, "Ciao, meow!"

And, of course, there is a castello in Trieste. We went and took pictures. There was also a museum, which houses Roman artifacts, but none of my pictures really turned out.

Another Roman arch

We also took a trip out to Miramare, built in 1856, which was the summer home of Archduke Maximillian (brother of Franz Josef) - the one who inherited the title Emperor of Mexico from the Spanish side of the Habsburgs, and upon arrival in Mexico was executed. It's not easy being emperor of a country you've got no emotional ties to...

We took a tour of the castle, and the gardens, and had a picnic. The weather held for most of the day, and we were rained out at night, when we had to duck into a bar to get out of a downpour. Yes, unfortunately, it was not the Italian weather most of us anticipate, but it is April. And you know what they say about April showers...!

a break in the gardens

All in all, Trieste was a bit of a disappointment after Ljubljana, mostly because it rained more, but also because the vibes of the two cities are so incredibly different. To me, Trieste seemed very static, stuck in the past, a sort of shy younger sister to Venice, whereas Ljubljana had a much younger, more resourceful and less staid atmosphere. Even as an outsider who had never before been, I could tell: things are changing in the former Yugoslavia. Tourists? Stability? A capitalist economy? It's on the verge of something.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

On the Last Legs of Austria-Hungary: Ljubljana

For my Easter break, I ended up going to two cities that once compromised the southern edges of Austria-Hungary: Ljubljana and Trieste.

I was highly impressed by Ljubljana. Slovenia's landscape is a lot like Austria's, with sloping hills rolling into mountains, green fields, and the like. The climate is much like Italy, and the architecture is of the same Habsburgerish Vienna/Budapest/Prague feel in some spots, with other influences mixed in.

 The city (I'll be honest, there really is only one city in Slovenia) is incredibly clean - definitely cleaner than Vienna - due to a concentrated effort by the government to encourage and improve access to recycling and proper sanitation.

The river of Ljubljana cuts through the city. The area where we stayed was in the student district, which gave me a distinct nostalgia for my Lawrence days...though this area's definitely cooler than College Ave. We also took a tip from the guidebook and went to the old Austrian military barracks, which have been since turned into bars and artist communes for people who cannot otherwise afford rent. Very alternative - and pretty damn cool.

Ljubljana Castle is one of the more famous sites the city has to offer:

Either as adopted patronage from St. George or some earlier myth or legend of the Slovenian people, there are TONS of dragons all around the city. The castle has dragon emblems all over the place, and they sell dragon key chains, dragon gummy candies and dragon key chains in the gift shop. One of the most famous dragons is the dragon bridge, which is done in the Jugendstil (art nouveau) style. Ljubljana is also famous of being the smallest city with the largest amount of Jugenstil architecture (move over, Vienna!) in the former Austria-Hungary.

dragon step

dragon bridge

We went to the Serbian Orthodox church as well - problem was, it was Holy Monday, so everyone was in there praying. Actually, there weren't a lot of church-goers, possibly because, as the deacon (or whatever he's called, this guy who let us take pictures when the service was over) said, Slovenia was communist as part of Yugoslavia, and there are not a lot of people living there anymore who are religious for that reason. In fact, he said (after discovering we were Americans) that the largest population of Serbians - and Serbian Orthodox Christians - live in Chicago. Imagine that!

And here are some random pictures:

Monday, April 9, 2012

Worlds Apart and Worlds We Live In

Last week, I went to a talk at the university given by Swanee Hunt, the former American ambassador to Austria during the Bosnian War (1992-1995). She recently wrote a book (possible her memoirs...I picked up a copy but haven't looked at it yet) and, certainly, part of the reason for the talk was to promote it, but I'm sure her other reasons for coming back were to reconnect with old friends and acquaintances from her time in Vienna as ambassador.

No matter her reasons (though I had anticipated a completely different type of talk), I found what she had to say interesting and rather enlightening. First, she called Angelina Jolie a saint for directing and producing In the Land of Blood and Honey. Then she went on to explain the personal disconnect she was feeling during her time as ambassador, after she began keeping a journal which her husband had recommended she do during her post. She had wanted to be posted to India as ambassardor (I guess as a foreign service officer, one must take what one can get) and, at the beginning, she wanted to do her best in the post she was given, i.e. do a good job so President Clinton would reassign her to where she really wanted to go after a few years posted in Austria.

At the time, there was no American ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was considered too dangerous. After the break up of Yugoslavia, the Bosnian lands had been claimed by Serbia; thus, it wasn't even officially a country. Despite ethnic cleansing and snipers stalking the streets of Sarajevo, the EU said "Hands off!" to the United States. NATO and the UN knew bad things were happening to the Bosniaks, but didn't know how to do anything about it.

Thus enters Swanee Hunt.She mentioned, during a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp, she had a crisis of conscience: here she was at this state dinner eating off of gold-rimmed bone china, boozing it up and rubbing elbows with big wigs from around the world patting themselves on the back for how far the world had come in 50 years, when, 800 km away, the same damn thing was happening in Bosnia.

She knew, because a stack of memos a mile high were waiting for her on her desk, all about the Bosnia situation.

That's when Swanee Hunt decided to tell the president. Bill Clinton didn't want to do anything, until a car bomb exploded, three American diplomats were killed, and, upon attending the funeral, met their children who were all about the same age as Chelsea. The rest, as they say, is history.

It's interesting to think of this, since many of the refugees from the conflict ended up living in Austria. I have several Bosnian students who, though they weren't alive at the time, do have parents who lived through the conflict. It's amazing to me to think of living through a civil war - or any war at all. For though we (the United States) are still at war, it is so far removed from my self, my daily life and my being that, aside from an academic, philosophical, or political discussion, I sometimes forget there's any conflict at all.

To be honest, that scares the hell out of me.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Les Contes d'Hoffmann

My first Theater an der Wien opera was Les Contes d'Hoffmann, which is a great Offenbeck opera based on the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann, who is really one of my favorite German writers. The music is splendid, and the story line is charmingly Twilight-Zone-y with a twist of writerly dilemma which I find myself prone to on occasion.

The story starts in the Keller of Hoffmann's college town (Nuremberg?), where all his students love him, and he regales them with stories every night and drinks himself to oblivion. He's a blocked poet, mind you, and his muse has come to rescue him from being a hack, a lovesick fool, and an alcoholic. The muse disguises herself as his best friend, and attempts to lure him away from other loves, specifically his current obsession, the actress Stella.

Hoffmann has a doppelgänger, Lindorf, who is his evil side. Lindorf urges Hoffmann to tell the students of his three great loves: Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta. Each of the women have their own act. Olympia is actually an automaton and Hoffmann is plagued by Lindorf disguised as Coppelius, the co-creator of Olympia, who sells him glasses that make Olympia seem like a real woman (from Der Sandmann). Antonia is a singer whose mother was also, but died, from a mysterious illness caused by singing, and whose father is a neurotic who does not allow Hoffmann to see her, nor does he allow her to sing. Dr. Miracle is this act's Lindorf, and he comes to "cure" Antonia, only to force her to sing until she dies (from Rat Crespel). Giulietta is a courtesan who steals men's shadows. Hoffmann falls in love with her, and is willing to give her everything. He even kills for her, but all in vain. She only pretends to love him, and steals his image from a mirror (from The Adventures of New Year's Eve and The Lost Reflection).

Back at Lawrence, I took a whole class devoted to Hoffmann, and really loved it. Hoffmann is one of the original suspense/horror/fantasy/sci-fi writers, and his stuff is: original, though-provoking, freaky-ass weird, and forward-thinking. Many of his themes have to do with scientific advancement, but also with traditional Germanic fairy tales and fantastical figures, such as alps, fairies, dwarfs, trolls and the like.

This staging was interesting, and a bit "out there" as far as Vienna theater is concerned. It took a lot of risks, if I may say. I liked it for the most part, but found it lacking in some areas. The director is William Friedkin who also directed The Exorcist. Um, yeah. There were puppets involved, and too many computer screen backdrops for my blood. Also, I was mildly scandalized by the soft-core porn in the third act. Simulated sex on stage can quickly turn from provocative to distracting to just plain gross, in my opinion.

All in all, I enjoyed the production. Despite directing the opera like one would direct a film, Mr. Friedkin, unless he tried harder, could not ruin an operas so great as Les Contes d'Hoffmann.