Saturday, December 21, 2013

two tales from Georgia

I keep meaning to post something about Georgia, even though I left more than two and a half months ago. Part of the problem is that I was there for about thirty days, which is too long to distill into a blog post. I thought I'd limit it to a couple of short paragraphs about two episodes that stick foremost in my brain, and even that ended up being a bit lengthy. Here it is, anyways.


Ushguli is a cluster of four tiny villages up in the mountains. A characteristic of towns in this area are Svan towers, which are tall, stone defensive towers that date back to medieval times. Some are still in use today, and some are in ruins. Since all of the other buildings are of a more modest height, and because the town sits on various hills and slopes, some of these towers have quite a commanding presence. The rest of the buildings seem like they were built and repaired anytime between aforementioned medieval times and this year, but if you look at Ushguli, or certain parts of it, from just the right angle, I think it looks exactly as it must have looked centuries ago. 

It's only about 46 kilometers from Mestia, which is sort of the main town in the area, but the road between them is in such bad shape, it takes about three hours to crawl there in a car. For some reason, lots of people choose to visit Ushguli on a day trip. The scenic drive notwithstanding, this isn't a particularly smart use of time, because more time is spent commuting there and back than in town. The sadder thing about this is, there's really no commerce except for a couple of cafes and small souvenir shop, so most day visitors don't contribute anything to town welfare. At least, that was my impression. The only person I could communicate with was the teenage daughter of the homestay I ended up in, and even then I didn't feel comfortable asking prying questions about town and family lifestyle. Some people seemed okay with the tourists, others not so much. One man who ran a guesthouse was super friendly, even after I established that I was already lodging elsewhere. I bumped into him a couple of times during my wanderings around town, including the morning after the first snowfall of the season (it was September), when he was standing in the road with a small herd of befuddled cows who clearly hadn't expected to find their breakfast buried under snow and ice, and didn't quite know what to do about it. I also ran into him again later that evening as said cows were being milked (by hand). One charming result of the lanuage barrier is that some conversations were limited to simply establishing where I come from, and I was dubbed thereafter on more than one occasion as "California." "Hello California!" Another resident wasn't so pleased to see me after I turned into what I guess was her courtyard, thinking it was a street; the organic layout of town sometimes made it hard to tell what was what. I heard a rap on a window and turned to face a woman who was gesturing at me to go back the way I came. I can understand. It's got to be annoying when your daily existence includes being regarded as a curiosity by a steady stream of gawking, camera-toting tourists. And daily existence in Ushguli looks to be kind of hard. I was invited into one other house other than my homestay that was just one big room for everybody and everything, with a rickety outhouse precariously situated over small waterway running through town. Fortunately I didn't have to use it and put my balancing skills to the test, or expose myself to the chilly breezes blowing through the slats. Lots of folk keep livestock, some of whom wander around the streets during the day, but one morning I found a dead pig in the river. I have no idea how it got there. Maybe it just dropped dead from the cold. At any rate, someone was down one valuable pig that morning, and there was probably no chance of salvaging it at that point.

I ended up lodging with a private family for four nights. The mother showed up when the van arrived to pick up a young German couple who had arranged to stay with her, and scooped me up as a bonus lodger. We followed her like a string of ducklings through muddy streets to their home next to a Svan tower used for storage. We had rooms in the upper level, which was so cold we could see our breath. The bathroom, family living quarters, and a long, low wood-burning stove were on the lower level, through a trap door and down a short flight of steps so steep they were really more a ladder; each step had a semicircle cut out on alternating sides to accommodate a leg. All the taps were left running to keep them from freezing, and we lost power for a good chunk of a night and a day; I figured that out after creeping down the ladder one more morning to use the toilet, and encountered my hostess lighting the stove in the dark - she gave me a smile and handed me a flashlight. Humble abode notwithstanding, she served us two enormous, multi-dish meals twice daily, everything cooked on and in that stove alone. Georgia in general scores high on the Tastyfood-o-Meter, but Nani's meals always come to mind first when I think back on all that gastronomical goodness. 


ritual animal sacrifice 

Seeing this was a result of good timing and a bit of dumb luck. Getting around Georgia (and Armenia) on a budget involves lots of rides on marshrutky, which are minibuses that ply a set route on some sort of schedule. They are pretty easy to manage for longer-haul destinations, but trickier for the shorter, locals runs, especially if connections are involved; destination placards are almost always only in Georgian (or Armenian), no one seems to really know what the schedules are, and without knowing any Georgian or Russian, it's sort of hard to communicate with the drivers. My main impression of marshrutky drivers is that they are almost universally grouchy guys who smoke a lot. I had one completely wasted day in Yerevan because I couldn't figure out the marshrutky schedules and connections for a day trip that wasn't even that far out of town. Which is all to say that by the time I got to Telavi near the end of my time in Georgia, I decided that hiring a tour guide with a car for a day would be a more efficient use of time and money than wrangling marshrutky. The guy I called (David L.) already had a client (E) for the following day, but she was okay with another guest, so off we went the next morning. 

So part of the dumb luck was that it happened to be a Sunday during Alaverdoba. I don't entirely understand Alaverdoba; it's basically a harvest festival, centered around Alaverdi Cathedral, but I think its roots go way back to pre-Christian times. It's still celebrated today with an animal sacrifice. When David was a kid, the sacrifice could happen on church grounds, but that's no longer allowed. People can bring the animal to church to be blessed by a priest, but then need to leave church grounds in order to do the deed. Or have it we visited the cathedral, David pointed out the butchers standing by the side of the road, waiting for trade to drive up. They all hold a big knife to advertise their services. One of them was a grizzled old guy in an apron who had been at his trade for so long that David remembered him from when he was a kid. We hung around a bit waiting for someone to make an offering, but it was too early in the day for much action. Even Butcher Man, with all his years of experience, couldn't predict what was going to happen. I was slightly relieved, and I think E was as well; we both kind of wanted to see it, but also kind of didn't want to see it. Eventually we continued on to our next destination, another church (not a cathedral). Arriving just after the service was finished, we were invited to have lunch with the priest and very tiny congregation in the garden. We even got blessed by the priest. It was a subtle blessing, just words and a toast at the lunch table. It really seems to have been given as a gesture of welcome and well-wishing to guests, more than anything else.

This church is fairly small, located up a hill in what amounted to the burbs, and was surrounded by fields full of walnut trees and grazing cows. And if I understand correctly, it's located on the site of what used to be a temple to the moon. This made the setting all the more appropriate as a family with a live sheep in tow showed up just as we were about to leave. So we had a front row seat to the whole thing. The sheep is led around the church, and blessed by the priest, who recites some words, lights a small candle, and presses it to the sheep's forehead. The family also brings offerings of homemade sweet cake and wine, which are given to the church. (Lunch had included meat, wine, and cake offerings). Then the sheep is slaughtered, butchered, cooked, and eaten, shared with family, friends, and the church, all in a picnic party setting right there by the church (or side of the road, well away from church grounds, in the case of Alaverdi Cathedral). As befits a sacrifice, all must be consumed or given away; the family isn't supposed to save any for later.

David had made sure it was okay for us to watch the whole thing, so we hung back a respectful distance to take it all in. Curiously, as the sheep was being blessed, on church grounds, right next to the church, there was a baptism going on inside the church; I was standing outside but near the door, so I could see and hear one, and hear the other as well. It was simultaneously incongruous, and not. The sacrifice itself was pretty business-like; it wasn't as gruesome as I thought it would be, but it's not something I need to see again. The guy who brought in the sheep simply took a knife, held it down, and sawed its head off. It didn't struggle or make a peep. According to David, this is normal with sheep. I'm just going to have to take his word for that. We left as the sheep was being butchered and preparations for a cook fire were being made, but before we could take off and leave the family to its party, we had to hold up our end of the deal for being allowed to watch - eat some bread and drink homemade wine, both offered from the trunk of the car.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Thursday, September 19, 2013

cows, crosses, Ladas

It might be a little hard to see, but this cow has a cross on a chain draped over her horns.

There are three things in abundance in the Caucasus - monasteries, cows standing right in the road, and Ladas. I think there were more Ladas in Armenia than Georgia, but that's beside the point. Someone had a theory that the cows stand in the road so the passing cars will whisk away all the flies. They really couldn't care less about the cars. Most of the time they don't bother moving, causing everyone to honk (it doesn't make a difference) and swerve around them. And when they do move, it's never quickly; they just lumber off in their own sweet time.

I returned to Georgia from Stepanavan, Armenia. The bus station is right next to a roundabout, and as I was waiting for the marshrutka to leave, I watched a farmer herd a bull, a cow, and a calf down the street, going against traffic. They went through the roundabout, and started up another road, still going against traffic, but slowly heading into the other lane. A Lada Niva 1600 4x4* was coming down the road a little too quickly, and put on the brakes sorta late, resulting in a fast approach to our bovine family. Too fast. For just one second, the bull charged the Lada. In one smooth move, he turned left, lowered his head, and took a couple of quick steps right towards the car. And then it was over. The car slowed, the bull evidently decided it was no longer worth his time, and the family continued across the street. Hard to say what would have resulted, had the charge continued. Judging by the state of many of the Ladas chugging down the roads here, they are built to take a substantial amount of abuse. Some might think their longevity may have something to do with the amount of religious images and crosses that adorn many a dashboard. I'm not inclined to believe this, but I am pleased that at least some of the cows are similarly arrayed.

* I really sort of covet one of these now. They have two of the attributes I respect the most - functionality combined with a completely outdated style.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Thumbs up Scotland

I camped in Scotland for about three weeks, mostly on Orkney, Skye, and Harris. Three weeks of rain, drizzle, damp, socks that just wouldn't dry out, and some fierce wind that at one point had me trapped in my tent for close to twelve hours. I spent the time swaddled in my sleeping bag watching Game of Thrones on my iPad and eating the only food I had available that didn't require the stove, caramel Hob Nobs. And the midges. They too had me trapped on more than one occasion, the worst being the first of two nights on Hoy (subsequently followed almost immediately by aforementioned wind storm). There were so many swarming the campsite, the only thing I could do was pitch my tent as fast as possible, and dive in, leaving everything else outside. It sounded like it was raining lightly as they converged on my tent, sniffing me out. More often than not I would unzip the flap in the morning to a small swarm bobbling around the entrance, and would scramble to get through the low flap to dash to the toilet blocks. Despite best efforts to keep the little buggers out of my tent, I think a couple got trapped in with me one night and had themselves a midnight snack. I had more bites on my face and neck than I could count. I started running my fingers over them, and soon gave up. Being one of those unfortunate souls who has strong reactions to bug bites, I didn't look very good for about a week. And if they weren't bad enough, I also has to contend with earwigs. After noticing them in more than one location, I started giving my rucksack a really good shaking out before packing up each day, but as I was packing up for the final time in Inverness, I discovered a number of earwigs had taken up residence in, of all places, my tent poles. I popped two sections apart, and out fell an earwig. I did it again, and out fell another earwig. They may be mostly harmless, but they have a really off-putting appearance, and an unpleasant tendency to appear exactly where they are not wanted. So I started checking each pole section. They were all vacant until the last (of course) - I peered down the pole, and there they were. Some of you may recall the scene from Aliens, where the diminished group of survivors has sealed the door against an approaching alien assault, but confusingly the motion detector indicates there is movement inside the perimeter, and finally someone thinks to peek up through the ceiling panels...oops, alien swarm. Like that, except in miniature. I dislodged them with a quick puff of air, tied up the pole bag tight, and shoved it into a friend's freezer. I figured that would kill off any remaining unwanted lodgers.

But lest that sound utterly dreary, there was also lots of sunny dry weather, luscious green scenery, bizarre scenery (Harris), Skara Brae, standing stones, Neolithic tombs, a wide variety of really pretty cattle, Highland games on Skye with more kilts and pipes than you can toss a caber at, fried meat, fried carbs, meat stuffed into carbs, and my cheapo camp version of a cream tea - a package of cheap scones, a container of clotted cream, and a basket of blueberries. And I tried haggis, but it was sort of a gourmet presentation of haggis, arriving with its traditional plate brethren, tatties and neeps, in a very tidy three-tiered tower in the middle of a puddle of gravy. Not really what I wanted. I was hoping for three discrete blobs of food. As it was, I couldn't really distinguish the taste and texture of the haggis from everything else on the plate. I guess it was tasty.

Public transit proved somewhat of a frustration, being both expensive and running on either a limited or non-existent schedule. There are no public buses at all on Skye and Harris on Sundays. Not wanting to be stuck in one place for the day, and after an assurance from a local that it was perfectly fine, I gave hitchhiking a whirl. Hitching goes against my nature, as I'm both shy and don't like asking people for help. I never felt completely at ease standing on the side of the road with my thumb out, but it turned out an overall very positive experience. Most of the lifts were from other holiday-makers. Some took me only a few miles, just as far as their next destination, and others let me tag along on driving tours. One couple bought me a lunch. One lift on Skye was from a local with a very playful dog in the backseat, who spent the entire nine mile drive offering me a soggy ball over my shoulder. One couple picked me up right after a downpour, even though I was wearing soaking wet waterproofs. And twice I netted rides in what I think was under one minute.

The best hitching was on Harris. Somehow, several random meetings in campsites and while hitching wove themselves into a thread that ran though the very few days I spent there.
On the day I arrived, I met a father-son duo at Horgabost campsite. I also exchanged silent greetings with a Swiss couple at the same site who were camped next to me.
This same Swiss couple picked me up the next day while I was hitching, and also offered to give me a lift to another campsite on the opposite side of the island the following day.
Later that day I was scooped up by a pair of sisters with an interest in blackhouses. Since my destination campsite had a blackhouse, and it was a short detour from their day drive, we all stopped by the campsite to check it out, and got a tour from one of the owners. Coincidentally, this campsite also has seasonal yurts, and one of the sisters had lived in a yurt, so naturally there was a yurt show-n-tell.
A couple of days later I took the bus to Scalpay for what turned out to be a soggy, boggy hike that was basically a Bad Idea. The trail was so wet and disintegrated I had trouble following it, zig-zagging all over the place, and it took me longer than expected to complete the circuit. Even the sheep were smart enough to avoid the worst parts, whereas I clearly was not. By the end I was tired and frustrated, had long missed the last bus to Tarbert, and it was too far to walk. I figured I would get across the bridge connecting Scalpay to Harris, and hope that at least a few cars would pass on an otherwise lightly trafficked road. In the middle of the bridge a car caught up to me, and lo and behold it was a father and son pair from the first campsite. "Hi, do you need a lift somewhere?" Talk about good timing.

I have to note that my hitching luck was only on the isles. Being relatively small, isolated land masses with narrow roads, they are the perfect hitching environment. The given population at any time is comprised of friendly locals and jolly tourists. I had no luck at all trying to catch a lift on the mainland out of Shiel Bridge to Inverness. I ended up gritting my teeth and popping for bus fare.

I did receive an unexpected cultural bonus on bus rides on Harris, where many of the older locals take the bus, and most, if not all, speak Gaelic. I had a couple of rides surrounded by Gaelic murmurings that I assumed were village gossip to which I was not at all privy.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

I'm in Armenia!

And for the second time in less than one week, being befuddled by a somewhat baffling alphabet. Georgian and Armenian are simultaneously kinda similar and completely different, and trying to learn both concurrently might be scrambling my brain a little.

I'm in Yerevan earlier than expected. After chatting with the guy who runs the Tbilisi guesthouse, including a weather check, I decided at short notice (9:00 pm at night) to come to Armenia first (leaving at 8:00 in the morning) and to return to Georgia in a week or two. I've sort of been flying by the seat of my pants for the past few weeks. I have a general itinerary in mind, but the when, how, and even where are decided sometimes on a daily basis. The downsides - an occasional worry about finding accommodation, and at times paying premium prices for last minute tickets (I'm looking at you, British rail companies*) - are offset by the advantage of really having complete freedom to do whatever I want when I want, instead of being locked into a booked itinerary and route. It's also making me confront and challenge my inner control freak, and pushing me out of my comfort zones a bit, which I want to do. I relinquish control to transport timetables, weather, and whimsy.

Here's a little story from yesterday. It requires three introductory points.

1. I'm easily identifiable as a foreigner here. This despite efforts to wear understated and unbranded clothing, not having a camera dangling around my neck, not carrying a guidebook and map openly in my hand, and in general making a very conscious effort to not look lost even when I am. I don't know how they know. Possibly from some combination of footwear (unfashionable but functional), small backpack (ugly but a daily necessity), canteen (hydration is important, and it's approaching sultry temperatures here), and sun hat (it's also quite sunny). Or maybe it's just my looks.

2. People speak to me in Russian. I don't know if this is because they think I'm Russian, or because Russian is a common second language for many here, and therefore the default language with which to engage a foreigner. I think it's mostly the latter, especially with older folks.

3. Snacking on sunflower seeds is popular here, both in Tbilisi and Yerevan (I assume elsewhere as well). The sidewalks are lined with women (usually) who have a small table or crate with a selection of seeds, and small paper cones. Park benches as often as not have a spray of sunflower seed shells underneath them. Both of these cities have more park benches than I've seen anywhere else, and most of them are occupied most of the time. These people are highly advanced in the art of leisure.

So I'm sitting on a bench, discreetly referring to my Kindle e-book guide to figure out some eating options, and I realize there's a little old lady in front of me speaking some Russian words. At one point a couple of years ago I knew some emergency Russian, but time and German lessons have pushed that vocabulary deep into the dusty crevices of my brain. So I just smile at her, and maybe say something to the effect that I'm American. I don't really remember. She chatters on a bit and then reaches onto her bag and gives me a handful of sunflower seeds, says goodbye in Russian, and wanders on. I sit there eating my seeds and wishing that I'd  had the guts to ask if I could take her picture (taking photos of people is also out of my comfort zone), because she's a character. After a bit I move down the street, and there she is, sitting on a low wall. So I ask if I can take her picture, at first she demurs, but then relents, and here it is. I wish she had been smiling, because she had a great cheerful smile, with lots of gold teeth. But I think she also looks sort of distinguished, if serious, in this picture. I have no idea why she decided to talk to me and give me some sunflower seeds, but I'm glad she did.

A short write up of Scotland some point. Spoiler: it rained.

* And, British rail tip: The guy sitting next to me on the London to Inverness train fed me a useful tidbit of info. If one's train is 30 minutes late, one is entitled to a return of half the fare. If an hour late, one is entitled to a return of the entire fare (in the form of a voucher). Both my trains being on time, I did not get a chance to test this out. So, if you have an expensive rail ticket, hope that your train runs late.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Monday, July 22, 2013

Ich bin Wwooferin. And three months in Austria come to an end.

I wwoofed on a farm in Upper Austria for about 2.5 weeks. The main product was milk, and although the twice-daily milking is done with machines, my dear diary moment was learning, at long last, how to milk a cow by hand. I only did it for a couple of minutes; time is money, and both my technique and aim need a lot of work, but I can now check this off my bucket list. The close second for awesome activities was making cheese and topfen. We made and ate so much cheese, I almost cheesed myself out. Almost.

This farm had lots of varied activities, and a menagerie of animals including cows, calves, one bull, two goats, two horses, sheep, rabbits, ducks, an unknown and ever increasing number of chickens, two swans, fish in ponds, several cats, and bee colonies, Other things I did, in no particular order: trimmed wine grape vines, collected honey from bees, picked berries and cherries, made jam, got bitten by a hungry swan, mowed the lawn, hauled and stacked firewood, made yogurt, milled grain for bread, helped prepare dough for baking, ate more whole grain bread than I suspect is healthy for any individual, stacked hay using a giant mechanical spider-like claw, shoveled manure, laid down new bedding, and squished potato beetles by hand. Also, I discovered that cows have scratchy tongues. I did not know that before. They are like cat tongues, just a thousand times bigger and way more abrasive. 

Out of all the farm residents, my favorite was Momo, a little black cat with emerald green eyes. Sometimes she would just appear out of nowhere and keep me company. One day I was up a ladder trimming the grape vines, and she walked up the ladder to the top, easy as pie. Such a cool little cat. 

And so three months in Austria come to an end. Traveling can always be bittersweet. It's sad to leave such a pretty place and so many new friends. But soon I'll get to see new places and old friends. Tomorrow I go to the United Kingdom where the plan is to go up, up, up north to Orkney, and maybe even as far as Shetland.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

small creatures Saturday

It was back to Eichgraben on Saturday for another trifecta of wwoofing fun at the apiary. We did some hive maintenance, a little bit of roadworks, and checked in on a litter of two-day old Russian Blue kittens (closely supervised by Mama Blue. Also, not exactly "work"). And I picked up a jar of holunderblütensirup processed since the last time I was there.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

schnitzel: take two

The last time I was in Vienna I went to Schnitzelwirt and ordered a schnitzel without a side salad. My waitress seemed a little perplexed, but didn't press the issue. When my dinner arrived, I realized my mistake - unless all you really want is two slabs of breaded meat, so big they overhang the edges of the plate, accompanied by only a lemon wedge, you really need a side salad to balance it out. I've sort of been haunted by this incomplete meal ever since, and finally got a chance to make it right on a lazy Sunday. In a perfect alignment of the schnitzel stars, I even got the same waitress as before.

Monday, June 10, 2013

wwoofing mit Bienen

I signed up with WWOOF Austria, and spent part of the weekend in Eichgraben, helping out with some bees. As far as I can tell with my limited experience, bees really don't require too much maintenance. The hives at this place are fairly small boxes, with rectangular hanging frames that the honeycomb is built on.The only thing we ended up doing with the hives was adding some expansion room; we opened each to add new frames with a sort of starter comb inserted so the bees could get busy(er) building more combs, and then stacked another box on top. The starter combs are basically a sheet of wax with a shallow honeycomb matrix, and if I understood the bee lesson correctly, the size of the matrix ensures production of worker bees, rather then drones. However, this was my first time working with bees, and some of the finer points may have slipped by. It's entirely possible I have no idea what I'm talking about. But I didn't get stung, which I'm taking as a sign that I did something right.

Other small tasks included cleaning up old comb frames in preparation for new starters pieces, and we also started a batch of elderflower juice (Holunderblütensaft). We filled a big bucket with blossoms, added water and citric acid, covered it with a cloth, and left it to steep in the corner. I wasn't there long enough the witness the next step.

Thursday, June 6, 2013


There's too much rain in Central Europe right now, and many towns are flooded. The Danube levels running through Vienna are very high, but since the Donauinsel provides efficient flood control, only the riverbanks and walking/cycling paths are under water (at least that's all I've seen). You can see partially submerged trees in these photos, as well as the water level risen almost to the bridge in the background.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

new pathways, neural and otherwise

I've been in Vienna for just over a month now. I've learned a little German, enough that I've stopped being completely flustered when someone addresses me and I don't understand what they say. I only become minorly flustered, and sometimes even manage to keep my composure enough to squeeze a little language lesson out of some people. One of the staff at the Kunsthistorisches taught me the common term for a timed entry ticket (Zeitfenster), and also the fancy term (Eintrittsgelegenheit). The next time I went back I correctly asked for an Eintrittsgelegenheit, but for the Schatzkammer (which is another museum across the street) instead of the Kunstkammer (which is in the Kunsthistorisches, and requires a Zeitfenster for entry). At least I got half of the sentence correct. What else? I've eaten more than half of the würstel offerings at Bitzinger, although I think I need to slow my consumption a bit, because sometimes I feel like I'm eating my way through a barnyard. I've watched some opera, including a punk-infused production of Handel's Orlando at the boutique-sized Kammeroper. With a whopping five-person cast, and a small orchestra, it was a refreshing change from the sprawl of the Staatsoper productions, and also a lot better. So far I've only been watching the Staatsoper via their continued live telecasts, but sort of fizzled out on those a bit. And I've wandered through town. I try to explore a little at least a few days a week. I just take the metro to a random destination, get out, and wander around. Or I hop on trams and buses and gaze out the window as they wind through the streets. Vienna's public transit is so efficient, it's impossible to get lost.

So basically, it's been a good month. So good, I gave myself another. The next level of German starts Monday morning. I think I'll celebrate with a handful of pastries and a melange, the ubiquitous coffee drink of Vienna's cafes.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Austria has lots of holidays in May. The first is May Day, and the next three are religious holidays, Ascension (Christi Himmelfahrt), Pentecost (Pfingsten), which this year fell on a Monday, and then we have Corpus Christi next week. Since we had no class Monday, I went to Salzburg for the long weekend. I took the relatively new and rather nice Westbahn train, which runs only from Vienna to a couple of stops shortly past Salzburg. It's sleek and roomy, they have jaunty conductors, free wifi that actually works, and it's cheaper than the ÖBB options. You can buy tickets online or directly on board. After once getting stuck with a €50 fine for buying a ticket on board an Italian train, I'm nervous when anyone tells me this can be done, but here it really is the case. Although (travel tip #1), be advised that you need a chip-and-pin credit card, or cash. A regular American-issued swipe card won't work. Travel tip #2 is that the Spar supermarket in the Salzburg Hauptbahnhof stays open on Sundays and holidays, which most other markets in Austria do not do. Judging by the number of people shopping for travel snacks, it must rake it tons of money.

I dragged all my camping gear with me on this trip, and figuring I better well use it for all that effort, stayed at one of the campgrounds in the Salzburbs. I will give it high points for cleanliness, but it catered mainly to caravan campers, and I thought €12 was a little steep for someone who showed up on foot with a dinky tent. I also think I should have received a refund for being subjected to the small child wailing at the top of his lungs in the very echoey bathroom while his mom was giving him a sponge bath. Before each wail, you could hear him suck in full lungfuls of air - then there was a slight pause of impending doom - and he would let rip. Having just finished a shower and wearing nothing but water droplets, I was trapped in a shower stall, unable to escape. It was truly awful. Maybe it was karmic payback; apparently as a toddler I once spent an entire flight screaming for no apparent reason, although I have no recollection of this event.

Other than having my hearing damaged, I don't have a whole lot other to report. I spent my time sitting in the grass by the Salzach river, letting ants crawl over me, wandering around town, and up the Kapuzinerberg and the Mönchsberg, where I did pass a rather fit-looking elderly nun charging down the path with hiking poles. Everyone uses hiking poles here, even on concrete. I was also passed by a group of cyclists on another path, most of whom were sporting lederhosen. I was unable to get my camera out in time to take a photo. There was quite a lot of lederhosen on display around town; it just seemed to be part of guys' everyday wardrobe. I didn't expect to see that, and it was kind of a nice surprise.

Right before I left there was a spectacular thunderstorm. I was waiting at the campground to pick up my bag out of luggage storage, and had been listening to the sky growling, watching it turn from blue to grey, and feeling the temperature drop over about a half hour. Suddenly it opened up and unleashed a torrent of garbanzo bean-sized hail which completely covered the ground before turning into a straight up downpour. Thirty minutes later all was clearing up and blue again, leaving nothing but piles of sturdy hailstones and a steaming pavement in its wake. Just in time for me to jog to the bus stop to head back to Vienna.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

the trying life of a bored archduchess

Sometimes I wander through museums, only to realize I've read a roomful of information placards with barely a passing glance to the object on display. I was fighting this impulse in the Kunsthistorisches (KHM) picture gallery the other night, but curiosity on the subject matter kept drawing me in. KHM placards, in addition to being informative, can be very amusing.

In case you are wondering what the result is, this portrait is easily googleable.

I bought myself an annual card to the KHM, since it's a screaming deal when compared to a single entry ticket, and gets me access to several other branch museums in both Vienna and Innsbruck. It's open until 9pm on Thursdays, and since most of the tourist groups clogging the inner stadt have either succumbed to fatigue, or are foraging for schnitzel and sachertorte by evening, it was blissfully almost deserted. I think I know what my Thursday schedule will be for the remaining time in Vienna. I did notice that not all exhibits have bilingual placards, which is a bit of a relief, as it frees me of any obligation to try and learn something. Although the Neue Burg does have a small exhibit demonstrating how all the beautiful armour etching is done, so I'm going to have to go back armed with a dictionary.

Monday, May 6, 2013

sunday at the harness races

I spent part of Sunday afternoon watching harness racing at the Krieau. I failed to find the entrance to the track from the enormous park near the Prater, so rather than waste time wandering around, I backtracked to the U-Bahn and caught a train to the Krieau station. Emerging into a glass-bedecked, and almost completely deserted office park, I thought I once again was in the wrong place, but after a short wander through the buildings, there was a drastic change in architecture, and the far side of the track materialized in front of me. I think it would be a gas to learn how to do this, but I'm not sure how to go about that at the moment. The picture is from the warm-up laps. Since everyone is spread out a bit, it's more interesting than the race pictures.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

speak and spell

I enrolled in an intensive German class. Despite completing less than half of an assessment test, and getting even some of those answers wrong, I managed to place one level above absolute beginner (A1.2). For three hours a day, five days a week, over next month, I will sit in a small room with a handful of students and crunch my way through basic sentences and conversations, no doubt violating every single grammatical rule possible along the way. And German has a whole lot of grammar. We're an international bunch. Other than our (extremely patient) Austrian teacher, there is a Russian, an Iranian, a Korean, a Sudanese, and me. It's going to be a challenge, but I'm looking forward to it. I always feel a little ashamed, and frankly kind of stupid when I meet bilinguals or polyglots. Foreign languages have always been difficult for me, hence, I have never managed to learn one. But I told myself I would achieve conversational proficiency in at least one other language before leaving this mortal coil, and now is the perfect time. I'm actually a little relieved to have some daily structure and a project of sorts to work on, rather than simply wandering aimlessly about town all day, every day. And if I like the course, I'll enroll in the next level, which means I would continue to stay in Vienna. I'll make that decision in the next week or so.

In the meantime, since it's nice to have easily achievable goals in tandem with loftier, ambitious, and brain-cramping goals, I've challenged myself to eat every sausage on tap at the Bitzinger würstel stand. Okay, so it's not really too much of a challenge. I just started at the top of the menu posted in the window, and will work my way down one by one. I like getting them sliced up on a plate with a puddle of mustard and a slice of brown bread, but I suppose if I complete one round of the menu in that fashion, I can circle back and eat the hot dog variants; which are exactly what they sound like, except with superior buns.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

one week in

A brief summary of the past week.

Arrival. I was slightly concerned that I would have problems arriving in Europe on a one-way ticket, caused in part by a friend's recent detention by immigration at Heathrow when she dared to land with a one-way ticket. Austria apparently has no such qualms. I had my passport stamped and handed back to me with a cheery "Alles gut!" No questions, no landing card. I waltzed out of VIE faster than I've ever walked out of SFO.
Next. Alles was nicht gut. I ate something, touched something, or three weeks of manic activity caught up to me, and I got sick. I spent the next 36 hours asleep, except for brief respites when I was throwing up, and a short wobble down the street to the grocery store for liquids. I'm going to look on the bright side, and say that I got it out of my system before this adventure gets going.
After that. Puttered and wandered about. As I have no income, I'm trying to become a connoisseur of the free and cheap (more than I was before). The Wiener Staatsoper helped me out by undercutting their normally dirt-cheap standing room tickets with a free telecast. Nothing like enjoying high culture with the sound and fumes of traffic plowing up Kärtnerstraße ten feet behind you. I also finally made it to Theater an der Wien for the first time, but just barely. The ticket office was a madhouse, and I unfortunately chose the Abendkassa & Vorverkaufen line which consisted entirely of well-dressed elderly ladies who all seemed to be purchasing huge stacks of tickets totalling hundreds of euros. That'll remind me to always mind my surroundings, even when in line at the opera. I made it up to the balcony in time to snag a spot with a very steep view of the stage, and a really terrific view of a rail full of lighting equipment.
And next. It's back to school. More on that later.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

a new day

Today begins a new chapter in my life. I have no job, and a one-way ticket overseas. The emotional simmer of excitement, sadness, and just plain scared is tempered by the fact that all my (ex) coworkers are happy for me. That a fair number are also consumed by green-eyed jealousy helps. I'll miss you guys. Thank you for the many great lessons you have taught me.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

icelandic critters, wild and otherwise

I was looking through some photos of last year's trip to Iceland, and figured I'd post some animal photos.

I love driving in Iceland. There's barely any traffic. You can go for kilometers without seeing another car, but that doesn't mean you don't have to keep your eye out for other kinds of traffic.

Being in a car isn't a guarantee against the infamous summer arctic tern attacks. They'll come after you either way. After escaping unpecked the summer before, I finally received a jab on the head this trip. The novelty of being graced from above from one of Iceland's most aggressive summertime residents quickly wore off, because it actually hurts. Also, it was attacking me from behind, so I couldn't see it coming. I beat a hasty retreat from the short hike I was attempting. Arctic tern 1, Cheese Skipper 0.

While camping at Möðrudalur, I started hiking towards Herðubreið for an evening stroll, and suddenly realized I had an unexpected companion trotting alongside me. At some point we reached a stream that had some steep banks, where I stopped to look around, and the dog stopped next to me. I looked at her and asked "How do we get across?" As if she had been waiting for me to ask, she promptly scampered over to part of the bank where it was easier to cross, and waited for me. Good dog! Although she sort of ditched me a bit later.

And here's a few other residents who crossed my path. Or I crossed theirs.