Previous Newsletter | Next Newsletter | Complete Archives

Greetings from Vienna, #3

December 18th, 2003


Old Business:

[Sic] Transit
There are five U-Bahn lines, not six. However, they are numbered: U1, U2, U3, U4, and U6. Go figure. (No one can tell me what happened to U5). Also, I reversed the directions of the #1 and #2 trams. #1 goes clockwise. #2, counter-clockwise. If you have been trying to navigate Vienna based on my previous email, shame on you for not getting in touch with us. :-)

Ice is Nice
Someone asked me about the plunger-like object in the lower left of the Krampus picture. That is not a plunger, nor does the hand wielding it belong to a plumber's friend. That is the "ball" for the game of "Eisstockschießen"[1], which my dictionary translates as "ice-stick shooting" or "Bavarian curling". The "plunger" is related to the "stones"(??) used in curling, and is composed of three parts: the handle—"Stiel", the body—"Stockkörper", and the sole—"Laufsohle" or ground plate—"Grundplatte". The sole fits over the body like a shoe and is in contact with the ice. The handle is the stick coming out of the "plunger". The three parts can be independently changed based on the field conditions and the type of game being played, but the whole thing is limited to 4.3 kg.

There are three different games. In the team version, two teams of four try to get their "plunger" closest to a marker known as a "stave" ("Daube"). A judge awards points based on how close they get. In the individual version of this game, each player gets four tries to get as close to the stave as possible, but the descriptions imply that each try is a different setup, which Karin and I interpret to mean a different starting distance from the stave. In the other individual competition, players go for distance with the best two out of five tries. However, everyone has to use the same body and sole; only the handle can be customized. So there you have it. Something else you can do as Winter grips the northern hemisphere.[2] There is also a version of this game played on asphalt.

Hair-drier, der Wetter[3]
Karin corrected me on the whole "Fön" business. "F-o_umlaut_n" is a hair-drier; "f-o_umlaut-h-n" is the warm wind from Italy, which comes at "special times". The normal winds in Vienna come down or up the Danube. These are the swirling winds which give Vienna a reputation for windiness. The "föhn" messes with the weather generally.

Gotta (not) Dance
Karin also corrected me on the order of Weihnacht activities. Specifically, there is no dancing scheduled. There will be singing of carols after the presents are opened, and in very religious households, appropriate passages from the bible would be read. I plan on introducing a new tradition: that of reading "A Visit from St. Nicholas ", better known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas". I have already found a German verse translation, which I am hoping to get one of the other family members to read. I've also been told that I will be singing, in German. I have requested "Silent Night" and "O Tannenbaum", which seems to pass muster, but only if I also accompany others on the guitar. And me with my chord book sitting in the guitar cases. In my house. In California. I wonder how you say "fake book" in German.

Much thanks to those of you who have sent me notes on American Advent traditions. It shows how lapsed a Catholic I am. What I find interesting is just how much Catholicism permeates life here. It's one thing to read about this in history books, but it is entirely different once you're here. In many ways, this is the first time that I have consciously immersed myself in these traditions, and they fascinate me. Watch this space for updates.

New Business:

The Adventures of Paul in Vienna
Part the Third: Snow Days

As I write these words, it is 00:00, Central European Time (GMT+1), Wednesday, December 17th. The snows started on Monday, after several days of below freezing weather, followed by a gradual warming. At first, it didn't look good for our heros. The thin layer of overnight snow was rapidly disappearing as I headed out to class that morning. By noon, when my class ended only drifts of snow, real and plow-made ones, could still be seen. Throughout the afternoon, as I went about my usual routine of internet cafe, dance class (we've been working on dances from Playford's "The Dance Master"), and grocery shopping, occasional flurries would tease me, and then hie themselves away to parts unknown.

I went home early, as Karin & I were attending a special session of her meditation class that evening. By the time we headed out again, the snow had come back in earnest. As we headed out to the southern edge of Vienna (somewhere in the 23rd district, as best as I can reckon), the snow was coming down harder. During the class, I could see the snow out the window, lit by a streetlight and going nearly sideways. Given that we're were doing a "fire" ceremony inside, this seemed all the more appropriate weather.[5]

By the time we left, there was at least a hands-breadth of snow on the ground, which worked out to just over an inch an hour. Call it three cm/hr. I am comfortable in saying that everything was blanketed in snow. Including Karin's car, which we had to brush clean before leaving. If it hadn't been for the fact that we needed to get Karin's mother and her friend back to the train station, there might've been a snowball fight. As it was, we merely attempted to douse each other with the snow that we were brushing off. Of course, it was also fair game to "brush" the snow onto the part of the car the other person is cleaning, preferably if that area has already been cleared, of course. :-)

As we drove home, the snow died down quite a bit. Unsurprisingly, this morning saw a considerable amount of it swept/pushed aside. Nevertheless, I decided to bring my camera along, knowing that I'd wanted to get to the Christkindlmarkt at the Rathausplatz, as well as the Weihnachtmarkt over in Spittelberg, in the borders of the Sixth and Seventh districts. My clever plan was to get me ultimately to the Haydn Kino on Mariahilfer Straße, a movie theater specializing in first-run, English language films. I had decided to see the "Return of the King" in English before taking Karin to see it in German. This worked just fine for "Finding Nemo".

In my wanderings, I managed to get pictures of four different kinds of Christmas markets:

  1. Wide promenade of the big shops near Kärtnerstraße:
  2. Christkindlmarkt at the Rathausplatz:

    Christkindlmarkt train:

    Rathaus Advent Calendar:

    decorated tree:

    Karin and my favorite "Punsch" stand:
  3. Weihnachtmarkt in Spittelberg:
  4. A ten-booth Weihnachtmarkt pitched in a 50' x 50' square off of Mariahilfer Straße:

    Check out the snow:

(two days later)

It is now Thursday, December 18th. Yesterday, Andy Arenson, his wife Karen Alfrey, and his parents Jerry and Judy arrived in Vienna for a week's visit. We met at Stephansdomplatz early in the evening and I took them on a short tour of Kärtnerstraße and the Christkindlmarkt. See the obligatory tourist photo: We'll be getting together at least one more time before they go back, and Andy and Karen will have the distinction of being my first stateside friends (besides the dancers who also came to Vienna back in February) to meet Karin.

Back to School (a slight rant)
German is the fourth language that I'm learning to speak conversationally. By this point, I have a fair idea of the difference between nouns and verbs, subject and object (I don't want to starting thinking about predicates yet), 1st person vs 3rd person, and even formal vs familiar. I don't know what expectations the rest of my class had for an intensive course in German as a second language, but most of them came woefully unprepared. I was the only person to have brought a dictionary in the first couple of classes, and the Thai girl (who stopped coming after day one class), didn't even bring paper and pencil or pen. I'm not sure what our instructors (they switch off days) thought of this, but they couldn't have been impressed.

And remember what I said about all of us being able to speak English? That doesn't seem to help much as some of my classmates' knowledge of English was no more than giant dictionaries of simple sentences; black boxes which gave answers that seem to work in the world, but which workings are entirely opaque. While this leads to unintentional amusement—as when one person gave the same answer when asked for the names of her husband and her mother—the drag on the pace of the course is frustrating. I'm hoping that the next course in the series go a bit faster. Sigh.

A Week in the Life
Some of you have asked for more details on what's going here—somehow worried that because Karin doesn't show up in every other sentence of these letters, we're not getting along or we're not spending enough time together. Just to get this on the record: Karin & I are doing great!! And like any other couple where each has full, independent days, our time overlaps are in the mornings and evenings. Before I started my classes, I went with Karin to her parents' house on Thursdays and Fridays, as she teaches music school near there two days a week and it's easier to spend the night than take the train or drive back. Since my class takes up Tuesday through Friday mornings, I haven't been going with her. Karin also teaches music in Vienna, gives private lessons at the apartment, and attends classes of her own, in recorder, harpsichord, and baroque violin.

She also has rehearsals in the evenings. She plays violin in two folk music groups and her home town orchestra, and the recorder in a recorder ensemble, all of which have rehearsals. The Viennese folk music group has monthly performances ("Stammtisch") at a local "Gasthaus". I always go with her but we obviously don't get to spend much time together there. Last time, I recorded them in preparation for a future CD project, so I was busy as well. We do have a baroque dance class together, and we try to meet at a cafe in the late afternoon or early evening on days when she doesn't have time to come home between her classes and rehearsals.

Having said all that, we often make lunch or dinner together, and I mean together. There is approximately 18 sq. ft of available floor space and 27 linear inches of counter space in her kitchen. Even something as simple as grilled sandwiches on the "not George Foreman" grill requires a high degree of coordination between us to get the ingredients out of various containers, prepared, assembled, and finally grilled. Preparing pasta carbonara (sans real Prociutto, alas) with a salad of iceberg lettuce and yellow bell peppers using one pot, one serving bowl, one chef's knife (Paul), one steak knife (Karin), one colander, one cutting board (9" x 7"), and one garlic press is worthy of the air traffic controllers working in metro New York City. That was Tuesday dinner. Afterwards, Karin went to bed early and I worked on restoring my iTunes folders.

For Karin, this is a rather light week. Even though it is the last school week of the year, most of her teaching efforts had been put into an Advent Concert of her Thursday and Friday students in the towns of Weikersdorf and Bad Fischau. Karin likes to organize these student concerts with unifying themes, and for this one, the them was "Bridges". The first bridge was one of music that connected the neighboring towns, and the last was the Golden Gate Bridge. Karin framed the concert with a story of an Austrian woman named Anna who falls in love with a Chinese-American man named Chris while they attended a dance course in Vienna. Alas, Chris had to go back to San Francisco, but Anna can't stop thinking about him, and finally decides to go to him in America. The story was set as short scenes with music; so the dance course had a closing ball with a grand march and a landler, Anna's decision to go to America was preceded by "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" and followed by "Off to California", and so forth.

At the end of the concert, Karin had promised to reveal two surprises. The first was myself, the Chinese-American boyfriend (and the only non-Austrian for miles around, as far as I can tell); the second was the announcement that she will be spending the 2004-5 school year with me in the States. A number of the younger students were rather stunned to realized that this "story" was a rather thinly disguised version of how Karin and I met. And while quite a few of the younger students were sad (one was, however, outright grumpy) that Karin will be gone for a year, the parents were unanimously congratulatory, recognizing this opportunity for her. We have already had one set of parents tell us that they will drop by when they come to California for their vacation in 2004 (and their daughter can also get a extra, summer lesson from Karin). We've also been invited to dinner by another set of parents (whose daughter was the "grumpy" one). Between the concert, the announcement, and me, Karin seems to have broken through from formal to informal relationships (from "per Sie" to "per du", as they say here) with several sets of parents, much to her surprise and delight.

Side note #1:
After Anna and Chris re-unite on the Golden Gate Bridge, Chris takes her to a bar in San Francisco where there happens to be a Vampires' Ball. The Vampires apparently love all different kinds of music, so there are rock-n-roll tunes mixed with waltzes. For those of you who know about the Bal des Vampyres in the Bay Area, I have promised Karin that we'll go in 2004 and send pictures back to her students. We can't decide if Karin got this idea because she heard about the ball from me, or if she came up with it on her own.

Side note #2:
Despite Iraq II[6], Americans (United States-ians?) remain welcomed in Europe. The number two question I get from people here is "What's wrong with your President Bush?" This use to be number one until the Recall. The new number one is: "What do you think about having an Arnold as Governor"?

More German Words to Confuse (and Amuse) Americans
In English speaking countries, "toast" usually means "a slice of bread product, heated to the point of turning brown (or worse), by the use of a toaster, oven, grill, pan, or open fire". In German speaking countries, "Toast" is a grilled sandwich. Most places that serve "Toast" has some sort of "house" style sandwich, often with just cheese.

In America, a "hot dog" is usually a specific sausage, sometimes known as a "frankfurter", which is served in a long bun (the "hot dog" bun) or roll that is slit long-ways, not completely through, so that the sausage can sit in the valley formed by the top and bottom of the bun. Various condiments can be loaded on to this object, from ketchup (not for me) and mustard to onions, relish, sauerkraut, chile, and/or cheese. At provenders where hotdogs are served, one might also order a polish sausage, a hot link, or bratwurst, which are also served on buns. However, none of these other sausages would be referred to as a "hot dog".

In Vienna (I have no idea about Germany), a "hot dog" is any sausage served in long bun or roll, where one end of the bun has been cut away, and a sausage shaped hole made in the bun with any one of several nozzles (think helium balloon filling tanks and how they work) that also pipes in ketchup, mustard, or cheese. Finally, the sausage is inserted into the bun, creating a sort of super-sized pig-in-a-blanket. So if you ask for a "hot dog" at a Viennese "Wurstelstand", be prepared to tell them what kind of sausage you want in it. Conversely, if one asks for a specific sausage, they might ask if one would like it sliced—"schneiden" or "Schnitt"—which also can come with a slice of bread, or "hot dog". Advantages of the Viennese "hot dog": much cleaner, and also much easier to manage one handed, which is good for food on the run. Disadvantages: very difficult to augment with bulkier condiments.

In American, I tend to see "pommes frites" used a pretentious replacement for "fried potato". In Vienna, "Pommes frites" means french fries. Other combinations of shaped potato and hot oil have distinctive German and Austrian names. While the French might be justifiably annoyed at whole "french fries" business, they can't complain about the fact that German speakers pronounce it as the French would, by dropping the terminal "e-s" in both words. Just when I have gotten trained into pronouncing all the letters in words, they throw this at me. Sigh. Come to think of this, I think the Italians also use "pommes frites" for french fries.

"Speck" is understood by German speakers as bacon, though it is technically the fat of the bacon . "Weihnachtspeck", however, is not some sort of specialty bacon made for the holidays. It is a vernacular word referring to the weight one gains during the holidays, literally "Christmas fat".

Whew. This was much longer than I had expected. #4 will come out between Christmas and New Years. Until then, a very Merry Christmas, Happy Chanuka, and general Holiday Greetings. Now I can go work on Christmas cards. Doh!

Tchuss, -Paul

[1] "-i-e-s_zet-e-n"

[2] Translated from the German by, then retranslated by Karin with a little help from me. The original url is

[3] I know, it's suppose to be "das Wetter", but it's not as funny. So I have an erratum in my errata. Sigh.

[4] Those of you who get this reference, consider yourselves old geeks.

[5] Taking and giving energy to the fire, allowing oneself to feel the light, supporting the light of the others there. No shakras were harmed during this ceremony. :-)

[6] Iraq II, Electric Boogaloo. Coming on DVD to a store near you.



Except where otherwise noted, all contents © 2003-4, Paul T.S. Lee.
Creative Commons License See my copyright page for specific permissions granted under the Creative Commons License.