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Greetings from Vienna, #4

January 8th, 2004


In this really really long issue:


Old Business:

Betwixt and Between
Ur, I had promised to send this out between Christmas and New Year's; but as we can all see from the date, it is way past New Year's. Entschuldigung.[2] Or as the Romans say: mea maxia culpa. As for the reason behind the delay, you'll have to dive into the newsletter proper and check out item number three.

You Say "Stephansdom" and I say "Stephansplatz"
And neither of us should say "Stephansdomplatz", which I did in issue #3. This is entirely incorrect, even in German, where the Danube Steamboat Navigation Company Captain's Cabin is considered a single word.[3]

The Phantom U-Bahn
It turns out that the U5 existed on paper in several forms, but has gotten cancelled or incorporated into other U-Bahn lines at least four times. Check out the link "" for more details

Where's the Prosciutto
My description of a prosciutto-less pasta carbonara have made folks wonder if Karin is a vegetarian. Far from it; though she is not the all-meat, all the time stereotype that many in the States envision the average German or Austrian when hearing about Schnitzel this, Wurst that, and Spec the other. I meant to say that we have had to settle for non-Italian meats in the pasta as I hadn't gotten around to looking for "real" prociutto. However, there is a supermarket in the 6th district that specializes in Lebenmittel italienisch[4], and I will wander by there at some point and see what I can find.


Paul's Greetings from Vienna
Part the Fourth: The Best Laid Plans

New Format:
If you got this far, it means that you actually have some time on your hands, and are willing to spend it on my semi-literary (and sometimes merely semi-literate) musings on life in (yet) another culture. However, based on feedback from some of you, I have added the summary section at the top of the newsletter, which is meant to give the casual reader an idea of what is to be missed if one chooses not to plunge right in. There is a rather tricky balance that I want to strike in the summary between actual information and a teaser for the main part of these newsletters. We shall see how well I accomplish this. As always, feedback is welcomed and appreciated.

Vienna Waits for You
We had a lovely visit with Andy Arenson, his wife Karen Alfrey, and his parents Gerry and Judy Arenson. I had dinner with them on the night of their arrival, Wednesday, December 17th, and they met Karin when we got together on the 20th for dinner. I met Andy and Karen in Houston some years ago, and they relocated to the Bay Area in 2001-2002. Sadly for us, they moved to Indianapolis to follow employment opportunities, so this was the first time that we'd seen each other in quite some time. Much amusement was had by all, and they got on fabulously with Karin. Unbeknownst to me, Karen took two years of German in school, and Andy's parents lived in Hong Kong for several years. So when we ended up at a Chinese vegetarian restaurant in the 3rd district, Chinese, English, German, and several combinations thereof were employed with great abandon, and comedy ensued. Check out another obligatory tourist photo. IMG_2722_karenA_karinN_andyA_gerryA_judyA_Vegetasia
Karin & I have promised that we'll make a side trip to Indianapolis if we end up in Bloomington for any early music workshops.

Remember back in issue #1, when I had our schedule for the 24th and 25th of December all mapped out? Well, it didn't exactly go as we'd planned. It seems that Karin & I share another common trait: we tend to reserve our severe illnesses for the holidays. Now, I had diligently been getting my flu shots for the past several years. Between that and dousing myself with vitamin C in multiple forms, I'd managed to fend off serious colds and flus. The one major exception was when I came back from Europe in March 2003 and came down with a 103 degree (F) fever. Well, I didn't have a high fever this year, but I did start to sniffle and cough once the beginning of December hit. This was, in hindsight, a very good thing as Karin didn't start exhibiting major symptoms—including fever—until I was already on the recovery side of the cycle.

All through December, Karin also had the sniffles. A week after the Advent Concert (see issue #3), with the majority of her (teaching) classes finished for the year, her immune system finally decided to go on strike. She ended up canceling a final class for students in Vienna as we watched her temperature climb past 37 degrees (C). In the meantime, I began considering the possibility that we might miss not only the 24th with her folks, but possibly the 25th and 26th with the two grandmothers. Luckily, with grocery stores right around the corner, I could pop out and stock up on various necessities, not the least of which were more facial tissues (Kleenex is not a big brand here). Of course, I had to do this before the stores shut down for two and a half days (see below). After some discussion with her parents, we decided to not even try and go to Wiener Neustadt for the 24th, but aim to go down in time for lunch on the 25th by train. This would give Karin an extra day of recovery time. This was all well and good, but it meant that we were celebrating Christmas at home: we needed our own tree! So back out I go, to the courtyard of the local grocery store where the Christmas tree lot was doing a brisk trade at noon on the 24th.

I came home with a tree that was around four and a half feet tall (call it 1.4 meters) and started on the chicken soup (still the best thing for a cold) after shifting some furniture around to give the tree a prominent place in our living room. Karin roused herself to unearth tree decorations and we worked on those as the soup cooked. I though the most interesting decorations were the ones Karin made herself. She started with sheets of beeswax, then stamped out shapes with cookie cutters, and finally added clove spikes around the edges. Although several years old, they are still very aromatic, especially when warmed by the lit candles nearby. There were also "dwarves" made out of pine cones,[5] angles and stars made out of straw and red thread (very Scandinavian), and gilt-edged red ribbon. You can see the tree—with presents, and the whole living room (with our Advent[6] wreath lit).
IMG_3754_tree_candles_lit_presents IMG_3758_dinner_table_tree
And so, we had a small, quiet Christmas Eve, and we watched one of our new DVD's, then turned in, with slightly less stuffy noses.

The 25th was sunny day, and hopes of a white Christmas in Vienna was dashed. The temperature had been huddling around freezing for several days, and though there were sprinklings of snow throughout the previous week and areas outside Vienna had gotten some new snow, Vienna itself was clear. At least we wouldn't have any problems getting down to Wiener. Neustadt by train. Or so we thought. We ended up having a minor adventure finding the right train, which should've been straightforward as Karin takes this train every week during the school year. Turns out that there was a some sort of accident on one of the tracks in the mountains, and the only line open was with the slow train, which stopped some fifteen times between Vienna and Wiener Neustadt. And we had to hike from the train station back towards the underground station—with lots of stairs—to catch this train. This wouldn't've been so bad except that Karin is still coughing and I am hauling the ingredients for a Chinese meal for the 26th, and Karin's mother's guitar. Puff, puff. We get to the right platform just as the next train arrives, which was fortuitous, and we did have some pretty scenery.
You can see the Sneeberg in the middle of the background. There is a train that goes up to the top of the mountain (which doesn't run in winter, alas), and we plan on a visit in the spring.

So we arrive at Karin's folk's, and have turkey for lunch. Wait. Rewind. We arrive at Karin's folk's and we sing Christmas carols, with me accompanying on guitar. Luckily, I did manage to download some midi files of popular German carols, hitherto unbeknownst to me, and was not entirely sight reading chords. Did you know that in German speaking countries, the scale goes "C-D-E-F-G-A-H"??!!! And their "B" is our "B-flat"??!!! Arrrrgggghhhh!!!! I did know this, at least in the academic sense, but the only time this was an issue was when reading facsimiles of Bach's cantatas or typing German language liner notes into iTunes. Sigh. Some of the carols had a second version that Karin copied out and transposed down—anywhere from a major third to a major fifth—to accommodate either her recorder or the vocal ranges of her family. Thankfully, my musical duties ended after only a couple of song, and Karin's mother took over (much to the relief of everyone else, I suspect). And then we opened presents. Even I got something (besides chocolates): money for a "warm pullover". Ok, now we get to the turkey. And the chocolate cake.

So after dessert, part one, we lazed about the house a bit until it was time to go see Karin's paternal grandmother, "Reißner Oma". We did walk over there—about five minutes, using a brisk pace, which is the only one I have when the temperature is -8 degrees Celsius. I think I walked off an entire cookie. At Reißner Oma's, we got to have coffee and, surprise, more desserts, sing carols with the rest of the extended Reißner clan, and then settle down to a dinner of cold cuts, bread, and cheese. Karin has two paternal aunts and five female cousins. All the cousins but one have children, and the hold out is pregnant. Including the little ones, we had 25 people spanning four generations.[7] As the newest boyfriend/SO, I was given the traditional task of grating fresh horseradish for dinner. As I later found out, I was the fastest person at this job, which rather impressed the cousins.[8] I am told that the four husbands (and one boyfriend) are rather timid in the kitchen, aside from making coffee. Alas, I could not both grate the horseradish and document this seminal event. But, I do have pictures of:

Did I mention that I took some photos. :-)

After dinner, it was desserts, round three. Goodbyes, when they were finally said, lasted nearly as long as the meal.[10] But at last, we all finally made our way home, which was the attic guest of Andreas' house, in the case of Karin and I. Because I had to get up in the morning to make....

A Chinese Lunch, or With Six You Get Egg Rolls
All of this came about because after making dumplings for the folks (see issue #2), Karin's mother requested that make something else using her wok. Fried rice of course, I promised her. However, my German classes kept me from being in Wiener Neustadt on Thursdays and Fridays, so I'd had no chance to fulfill my promise. I was then appointed chef du jour for lunch on the 26th. Now I had to plan an entire menu. Yikes. Hot and sour soup seemed a reliable standby, but I've never actually made it myself. To the source; to wit, Dad. So after some preliminary shopping in Vienna's Chinatown, I called my father in Houston to review my menu. Having gotten the thumbs up on my shopping list, as well as sage advice on prep,[11] I was ready to make lunch.

So on the morning of the 26th, I'm up around 8:30 and zooming around the Reißner kitchen. Mrs. Reißner very kindly makes me a fresh cup of coffee and offered me some cake, and then retreated to the living room as I took over her kitchen and covered all available surfaces with bowls of this and plates of that. At one point, Karin came in and told me that her mother felt very odd not to be working in the kitchen as lunchtime approached. I did get her to help with cleaning the carrots and cutting the cauliflower into florets, which she seemed very happy to do. Mr. Reißner left to go pick up his mother-in-law (Kessler Oma), who was going to be sampling my cooking. Double yikes. No pressure. After much gnashing of teeth on my part, and several curiosity filled wanderings by on the part of the rest of the family, we sat down to lunch just before 1.

We had fried rice with carrots, peas, corn cauliflower and chinese sausages, Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce, and hot and soup a la Paul. Everyone seemed to enjoy the meal, and seconds were asked for. The broccoli was a surprise hit with Karin, who is otherwise not a fan of the Italian variety. Everyone also made great use of their chopsticks (except Kessler Oma, who used a fork). Except for the broccoli, there was Too Much Food. This should surprise no one who's seen either myself or my parents cook. My one mistake was that in my eagerness for authentic Chinese ingredients in the soup,[12] I'd miscalculated on proportions and ended with hardly any "soup" to speak of, serving a kind of wet stew. This was cause for amusement at the meal, and did not stop anyone from asking for more.

For a Chinese dessert, I decide to play it safe and bought a package of assorted Chinese sweets: sesame cookie, Chinese peanut brittle, etc. Maybe it was just me, but I sensed relief around the table when I brought out the package and everyone realized that there was enough there for each person to get a taste, and not more. That afternoon, as per the original schedule, we trundled off to Kessler Oma's house to have Christmas with her and her other daughter's family. Desserts and cold cuts, take two. We skipped the carols, but I did end up playing several children's games with Karin's maternal cousins (who are much younger than the other ones), as well as taking over at the Parchessi table for Mrs. Reißner.

And that was Christmas with the family, 2003.

E.T., Föhn home!
During all this, the temperature had been holding around the -5C mark, with mostly cloudy skies. The snows from the last storm stayed on the ground and local creeks and canals were partly or completely iced over.
IMG_2733_hammerbach IMG_2737_ducks_on_ice
And so it stayed until the 28th. That night, the famous Föhn from Italy blew in, and it was +8C on the morning of the 29th. I had the same feeling back in 1988 when I realized (two hours after the fact) that I'd experienced my first earthquake in Cupertino.

You Want to Shop When?
A sign on a big, local market reads (in translation): "Monday-Thursday 8 AM - 7 PM, Friday 8 AM - 8 PM, Saturday 8 AM - 6 PM". During Christmas, the official holidays were half of the 24th through the 26th. January 1st is an official holiday, as well as the 6th, as was the 8th of December. Most stores are closed on those days, not just banks and government institutions. Plus Sundays. Part of what made Christmas so hectic was not that we were sick, but that if I'd forgotten something in my shopping, there was no chance "nip down to the corner store" and pick up some bread or some such. If we didn't have it in the apartment, it's wait until morning or wait for two days. Sigh.

Once upon a time, I held up London as the place where I couldn't go shopping after the sun had set. This view changed for me last year when I discovered that London now had supermarkets that were open until 10 PM! That and the 24 hour place (!!) around the corner from the British Museum (near which I usually stayed when visiting London) had irrevocably changed my shopping patterns, at least for groceries. If I chose to not eat out, I make that decision after the museums closed and still have plenty of time to go to the store.

These days, I almost always have a sack for groceries with me (most places will charge you for a bag, I think this is a Good Idea), so that should I pass a store where I needed to get something, I can pop in and grab it. I suppose that those of you reading this who grew up in the heart of big cities like New York or Boston would not find this behavior alien. But I am a boy of the suburbs, with our big refrigerators and the extra freezer in the garage, and the weekly trips to the supermarket which filled the back of the station wagon, and I am still getting used to this nearly daily shopping routine. Guess I'm going to get a lot of practice.

I taught I taught a a putty-tat?!
"Why the heck do you call it Sylvester?" I asked Karin and some of her fellow Austrians. This was the 29th, and we were having dinner with the parents of two of her "recorder babies". Karin said it was a common name for popes. I was pretty certain that this was not correct, at least not as the answer to my question. After a bit of research, we discovered that December 31st is the name day of Saint Sylvester, who was Pope Sylvester the First. His claim to fame is the purported conversion and baptism of Constantine I, the first Christian Roman emperor and the one who converted the entire Empire to Christianity. Now this is the first time that I've heard New Year's Eve called anything other than, well, New Year's Eve. I would surely like to know if anyone else in Europe also calls it Sylvester, and if there is yet another name for it elsewhere.

As for what we did to celebrate the start of another year? Well, the family Reißner, plus the two SOs, went to see "Pension Schöller", written at the end of the 19th century and a perennial favorite with German speakers. The story is about a high living but poor medical student who is trying to get money of of his rich uncle. The uncle wants to visit a real sanitarium, which the nephew arranges by purporting that his own pension is actually a such a place. With such guests as the actor who can't say the letter "L" and says "N" instead, the world traveling adventurer and hunter, his African sidekick, a nosey novelist, a retired army major with a Napoleon complex, the chances for mistaken impressions abound. Comedy ensues. Despite my inability to understand most of the dialog, the relatively stock characters and the physical comedy was universal. I was even able to get some of the verbal humor, especially when our speech impaired actor was talking about "Winniam Shakespeare", "King Near", and "Romeo and Juniet".

After the play, Karin's parents and the two of us went to a football pitch in the next town where Mr. Reißner plays. There, the local fire department was putting on fireworks. They some competition from the kids, the neighbors, and the women's prison down the street, which had it's own show going. After mulled wine with the fireworks, we went back to the Reißners and had some champagne. And thus, we celebrated the passing of 2003 and welcomed in 2004.

Let It Snow × 3
So Christmas and New Years both pass with nary a flake in the sky. If you count the Föhn, we actually lost snow. But this was all about to change. Sometime in the wee hours of the 5th, the sky opened up. In the space of about 12 hours, we had something like 10+ inches of snow, at least as measured on the top of Karin's car. I know that this isn't much, especially compared to what I've been hearing about in New England, bit it was nice get a White Christmas, if only a couple of days late. I was actually awoken by the sound of someone shoveling snow on the sidewalk below our window. I thought it was still the middle of the night, but it was after seven, and the volunteers from each building who does this aren't allowed to start before six. I don't know how late they are allowed work, but the sound is quite loud when you factor in the sand, gravel, and salt that's spread to reduce icing and add traction. As you can see, our street didn't get the snow plow.
I also wandered over to the Stadtpark that day and got some more tourist pictures: the Waltz King in the snow, the Kursalon, and some friend who like the snow.
IMG_2744_johann_strauss_stadtpark_snow IMG_2746_stadtpark_kursalon_snow IMG_2747_penguins_statue_stadtpark_snow
We've now had another snowfall yesterday, the 7th, and I am waiting to see what the morning brings. Woohoo![13]

Personal Update
If you've actually read everything up to this point, congratulations and thanks. If you've skimmed your way down because something in the summary section piqued your interest, good. That was the idea. I suppose that the most important personal update is that Karin and I are engaged. We haven't set a date yet, but we might know as early as next week. Since Karin isn't taking time off for this, the available slots in her schedule are limited. As for the other matter, all I will mention at the moment is: December 31st-6mm, January 7th-9mm.

Not, Hell, Aktion, Sellerie
"Not" is perhaps the most important German look-alike word to understand correctly. In German, it is pronounced very much like the English "note", and means "emergency". Armed with this bit of insight, the English speaker will no longer be confused by red boxes with handles at the tops and bottoms of escalators clearly labeled "NOTSTOP". Andy Arenson, friend and intrepid visitor, brought up this one while we were in the U-Bahn station. Once Karin explained this (I'd just assumed that the boxes were emergency breaks, but hadn't thought through the linguistic implications), we all couldn't stop laughing for quite a while. Later at dinner, Andy proceeded to say "Not" to the entire table and gesticulated with a piece of wayward zucchini in his chopsticks, indicating that he was in dire need and that someone else had to take one for the team. I believe that his wife Karen relieved him of the offending vegetable and pronounced it quite delicious.

"hell" means light or well-lit. If one wishes to refer to the Inferno Regions, use "Hölle" (h-o_umlaut_l-l-e). I imagine someone saying "It looks like hell in here," and a German listener turning off the lights. I guess that works, too.

"Aktion" is a cognate for the English "action". In Austria, it also means "sale item". German is just a more direct language than English.

"Sellerie" is another cognate that might trip someone up. My dictionary translates this as "celeriac", or "root celery". Here, you get the root. Celery as we know it in the States is called "Stangensellerie", "stalk celery" or literally "sticks of celery". Root celery is great in soups, but I'm not too sure about having it raw in a salad.


Once again, apologies for the long delayed issue #4. I hope to be back on a weekly schedule with #5. Wish me luck.


Tchuss! -paul



[1] Literally "the night before New Year's (day)". Karin tells me that nobody says this, as it is too complicated. Ur, see footnote two. My Oxford English/German dictionary translates "New Year's Eve" to both "Sylvester" and "Neujahrsabend". Karin says that "Neujahrsabend" would be the evening of January 1st, which is, of course the wrong time to celebrate the new year. I am so confused.

[2] "Excuse me" or "I'm sorry." My meaning encompasses both senses.

[3] Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänskajüte

[4] Italian foods.

[5] I think they're "elves", but Karin is adamant.

[6] Speaking of the Advent wreath/candle, I've noticed that everyone who's emailed me about American Advent traditions invariably put the candles in the context of church services. While I was certainly unfamiliar with the specifics of the tradition in the States, the one major difference is that according to Karin, many people in Austria light Advent candles at home, as we did, not just in church. I don't think that anyone has yet told me of similar, home-based Advent activities in the US.

[7] Just to keep everyone straight, and to help identify people in my photos, I've actually gone and made a PowerPoint slide of the Reißner family tree, using the Org Chart template. I wanted to put in pictures with the names, but I can't get PowerPoint to do what I want. Typical Microsoft product.

[8] I told the cousins about the horseradish festival in Tule Lake, California, where they have a horseradish grating competition. The contestants do all the grating in a closed telephone booth, and if I recall correctly, they grate until they can't stand the fumes any more. The winner is determined by the amount of horseradish grated.

[9] This is so confusing. The "Reisner" family is not related (as far as they know) to the "Reißner" family or to the "Reissner" branch. I am waiting to meet some unrelated "Reizners".

[10] 25 choose 2; from shy handshakes (most by the little ones to me) to full hugs and double kisses. You do the math.

[11] Soak the dried shitake mushrooms at least half a day. The water from that can and should be used for the soup. Don't bother saving the water from any of the other dried ingredients (wood ears, dried lily blooms). Rinse canned bamboo shoots thoroughly, otherwise they might leave a sour aftertaste. Stir fry the mushroom and the pork before adding to the soup, this will make them more flavorful. At the end, thicken the soup (with corn or potato starch), then turn off the heat and add the beaten eggs.

[12] Almost authentic. I started with canned chicken broth as a base, and I didn't use curdled pig's blood. However, my dad informed me that real hot and sour soup would require curdled duck's blood. Feeling certain that even if I could manage to describe this item in German, it would not be had in Vienna, I skipped this item. It was not missed.

[13] I know that this feeling will go away, especially with each time that we have to dig Karin's car out of her parking place. But I'm going to enjoy it while I can.



Except where otherwise noted, all contents © 2004, Paul T.S. Lee.
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