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.