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Greetings from Vienna, #2

December 11th, 2003


Old Business:

Somebody pointed out that "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" is, in fact, a Halloween special. Doh! It just goes to show that I have mentally shifted the holiday season back to accommodate the ever earlier Christmas start. Luckily, I also have "A Peanuts Thanksgiving". As a double bill with "The Addams Family", Karin should be all caught up on the meaning of Thanksgiving.

Also, many thanks to those who've updated me on their address, especially those of you who had a home vs. work email preference.

On to the New:

The Adventures of Paul in Vienna
Part the Second: What day is Christmas on, anyway?

"Weihnacht" is normally translated to "Christmas" in English. However, this glosses over rather a lot of cultural, as well as religious differences between the Anglo-American and the Continental traditions. In particular, I see this as a difference between predominantly Protestant vs. Catholic ethos. "Weihnacht" appears to derive from "Weihe", which means "consecration", "dedication", "ordination", and even "solemnity". "Nacht" I think we all know. To the Viennese (and most Europeans), "Weihnacht" is the 24th of December, when they do most of their "traditional" celebrations, which then culminates in the midnight Mass.

As an example, here is the Reißner[1] family schedule (as far as Karin & I know):

Christmas tree purchase:
At least a week ago; stored in the garden (outside) too keep it fresh.
Christmas tree decoration
Morning and early afternoon of the 24th. After the decorations are complete, including the placement of presents, the room which the tree is in is closed off from the rest of the house. Especially to the kids. Children are usually not a part of this ritual, which is perfectly understandable where presents are involved. They are, in fact, often packed off with other members of the family, perhaps to go to the "Christkindlmarkt" or "Weihnachtmarkt". Another activity around this time is to go to the cemetery to visit family graves. This part sounds rather like All Saints Day or All Souls Day, as they are still celebrated in parts of the US. (I'm thinking specifically of New Orleans.)
Christmas dinner preparation:
All day the 24th, and quite possibly all week leading up to the 24th, as this is the big family meal of the season, if not the entire year. It is apparently tradition to have only soup for lunch on the 24th, in anticipation of the feast ahead. Due to my class schedule, I've been unable to do more cooking at the Reißner residence since the Thanksgiving dumplings. I might be called upon to provide Chinese fried rice for this occasion. Stay tuned.
Unveiling the Tree & Christmas dinner:
This happens around dusk. As in some English and American traditions, Austrians put real candles on their trees and they are lit in preparation for this presentation. This is also when everyone opens presents. There is also music and dancing, which, presumably one should be unable to do after dinner and unwilling to do at church. After much food and merriment, I think we get to sit around and talk. Then it's off to church for Mass.
Other celebrations:
Both of Karin's grandmothers are still alive, and normally, each wants to have a Christmas meal at her house. This would mean a trip by the clan to one grandma's on the 25th, and the other on the 26. However, Karin's maternal grandmother is currently in poor health, so there is a good chance that her celebration will be folded into the main one on the 24th, and we'll go visit Grandma Reißner on the 26th.

Other Christmas traditions:

Karin has introduced me to Advent candles, which are menorah-like in their lighting procedures. They are placed in a wreath-shaped stand, with four candles on the "wreath" and a central candle. On the four Sundays before Christmas, you light the center candle and one for each of the Sundays as you approach Christmas. We lit ours for the first time on the 30th. Going by this reckoning, the Christmas season can start as early as the 26th of November, when the 24th falls on a Sunday itself.[2] The candles are normally of different colors, with the first Sunday candle being red. Purples and lavenders are also appropriate, I'm told.

Krampus & Nicolaus The first-time American visitor to holiday Vienna will be confronted with many familiar scenes: People dressed up in red suits and caps. Christmas music. Decorated trees. However, there are also a couple of things that will seem out of place. For instance, many shops will have little, stuffed devils or demons for sale. They look, for all the world, like Smurf dolls which are red instead of blue, and have horns. Personally, I thought this was some sort of extended Halloween sale item that could be fobbed off on less discriminating kids for Christmas. However, the sheer ubiquity of these demon dolls, as well as the image of a large version of this same demon on my Advent Calendar[3] finally prompted me to ask Karin about it.

It turns out that, at least in Austria, Santa has a bag-man to do his dirty work. Instead of giving out presents and lumps of coal, St. Nick passes all the naughty boys and girls to "Krampus". Krampus looks like your traditional, goat-headed devil or demon, with horns, and a long, pointed tongue which is forever hanging out of his mouth. He carries a bundle of branches in one hand, which he uses to BEAT THE KIDS who are extra naughty. As Karin says, the lump of coal is the best thing a child can get from Krampus. :-) I think Krampus is my definition of real "compassionate conservatism". :-) :-)

As for Nicolaus, he also hands out "care packages" as well as presents. These are wrapped in red paper, and contain apples[4], peanuts, candies, and/or cookies. Santa dress-alikes stand outside of major stores on Kärtnerstraße, the main shopping/tourist street in central Vienna, connecting the Opera House to St. Stephen's Cathedral ("Stephansdom"). I've seen a number of them handed out to kids.

Life in Vienna When I arrived in mid-November, there was a warm spell and temperatures were in the low teens and high aughts, Centigrade (high 40's to low 50's F). This past Monday, it finally dipped below freezing, and the wind stopped being my friend. The Viennese call their wind the "Fön"[5], which actually means "hair-drier". The prevailing winds come down the Danube, and the geography around Vienna causes them to swirl around the city in every direction. I daren't estimate the wind-chill adjusted temperature, but I'm sure it goes down at last five degrees C. Karin calls me wimpy. I say that I'm just being honest in my response. Cold is cold. Brrrrr. However, we haven't gotten any snow yet, so everyone will have to wait for pictures of the Christkindlmarkt, appropriately blanketed.

Public Transit Vienna's got this one figured out. The local transit options are: buses, trams, and subways (U-Bahn). There are six U-Bahn lines, which serve the central districts, and extend out in the major cardinal directions, which is distorted by the Danube flowing northwest to southeast. Trams usually run along major streets. The Ring, which encircles the central, 1st district of Vienna, is served by the clockwise #2 tram, and the counter-clockwise #1 tram. Other trams and buses further divide Vienna into walkable sections, with the trams serving mostly older neighborhoods, and buses serving newer ones. So far, this is just a matter of historical accident and some reasonable planning in modern times. However, what really makes the system work, in my opinion, are the single ticket system, and the scheduling.

Travelers need to only purchase a single ticket for any given trip, regardless of the number of transfers. Transfer points are any designated stop that are shared by two lines, regardless of what kind of transit it is. For example, I can take a bus from the bus stop around the corner from Karin's flat, transfer at the U-Bahn station (the end point for this bus route), and go to central Vienna, all on a two Euro ticket purchase from the bus driver. 1.50 if purchased from a machine at the station. Now, I'm not allowed to pause my journey, or go from one station to another outside of the system; e.g. walking. So if I take the bus, then get off one stop before the U-Bahn and walk to the U-Bahn, I would need to get a new ticket.

The linch-pin to all this is that it is mostly on the honor system. There are no gates which require a validated ticket to open. Buses, trams, and U-Bahn stations all have time stamp machines with which you "clock" your ticket. Instead of expensive equipment like that on the Metro in DC or BART in the SF Bay Area, Vienna has ticket inspectors. If someone in plain clothes comes up and flashes the appropriate badge, everyone has to show a valid ticket for the current trip. On my last trip here, I saw someone getting ticketed for this. And just recently, there was some sort of crack down where virtually everyone coming off a train was being checked. However, since they were in uniform, Karin believes that it was not a normal sweep for free-loaders.

So the one ticket thing is really great, but the scheduling is the real key to making the system useful. Everything starts around 5:30 am. The U-Bahn runs every five minutes or so; my local bus comes by twice every 15 minutes. These frequencies change for morning and evening commute hours, as well as lunch. At around midnight, the last U-Bahn leaves from all the end stations. When they come to central Vienna, they all stop at transfer points so that people changing lines can cross those stations, and then proceed to the ends of the lines. At those end-points, the last buses and trams also wait for the last train before they complete their final run for the day. Starting around 1 am, Night Buses start running from the Ring every half hour, until about 5 am. There are about 20 of them, connecting the 1st district with the periphery of the city, and they always make a complete circuit of the Ring before heading out. So if you find yourself out late in one end of Vienna, you can simply walk (longer than usual) to a Night Bus station, ride it all the way to the Ring, get off and wait for your own Night Bus, and head home, all for two Euros. Slick.

Did I mention the really cool escalators? If an escalator doesn't have any traffic (there seems to be infra-red sensors at the top and bottom), then it slows to a crawl, but not a stop. When someone steps onto a slowed one, the speed goes back to normal. Apparently, the escalators used to stop completely when no one had been on them for a while, but it turns out to use a lot more power to start one going than to just speed it up from a crawl. Way slick.

Hmmm. I was going to write more about the Christkindlmarkts, but I think it'll have to wait until next time.


Bis dan, Tchuss.


PS I am in internet cafe music hell. It's a pan flute version of "You Light Up My Life". When I first started using this place, they had the best of Sinatra playing. Sigh. Now we have a harp version of Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven". I'm gonna go postal.


[1] "R-e-i-ß-n-e-r" is Karin's maiden name. I am told, in no uncertain terms, that "R-e-i-s-s-n-e-r" is not her maiden name. That's used by another branch of the family, and she has a cousin: "Karin Reissner", there. The spelling divergence was due to some family disagreement back in her grandfather's generation. I think.

[2] If I've worked this out right, it means that the first Advent Sunday is also the Sunday after Thanksgiving.


[4] Small, red apples that are very sweet.

[5] "F-ö-n". Approximately pronounced "fune".



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