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Greetings from Vienna, #5

January 16th, 2004


Hello again from the Winter Wonderland of the Danube. This issue has a much higher proportion of Old Business vs. New, but I hope to keep everyone's interest up without resorting to cheap (but effective) ploys such as dropping tantalizing hints in the summary and not revealing the mystery until well into the message. Wait, what am I thinking? I have no shame about this, no journalistic code of ethics to consider. Cheap ploys away!

New (and not so new) in this issue:

Old Business:

The Big Picture vs the Little Monitor
Your pleas have been heard. Henceforth (and retroactively), pictures posted on my site will no longer require days of scrolling to see it all. I cannot promise the same for these newsletters. You have been warned. :-)

Dwarves vs Elves
Karin calls the little pine cone figures that from our Christmas tree—with pointy hats and fluffy, white beards—"wichtel", which she'd translated as "dwarf". I thought they looked like elves from the North Pole, albeit with red instead of green caps. According to the dictionary, "wichtel" translates to "brownie", the mythical woodland creature related to gnomes, kobolds, goblins, and dwarves. Karin insists that her decorations are "nice brownies" and not the nastier kobolds or goblins. With that I would heartily agree, given their inoffensive appearances. Another potential domestic dispute avoided. Whew!

Descend vs Unearth
Karin wants it to be known that absolutely no digging, either actual or figurative, was required for getting out the Christmas ornaments. They live on top of one of the wardrobes during the other 351 days of the year.

Schneeberg vs Sneeberg
"Schneeberg" is the name of the mountain near Wiener Neustadt. "Sneeberg" is how Austrian children who can't make the "sch" sound correctly might call the same mountain. Just pretend that I lisp when I type German.

Karin vs Karen, or "Zucchini 9-1-1"[1]
In my story about Andy Arenson and the "offending vegetable", I incorrectly attributed his rescue to his wife Karen. This was not quite so, says my wife-to-be. After Andy's cry of "Not!", he did put the zucchini on Karen's plate. Karen was already full, so Karin (being a zucchini fan) ate it, becoming his ultimate rescuer. In fact, there was a second piece of zucchini, which went directly to Karin. We just wanted to make sure that everyone got the story straight.

"Recorder Babies" vs ???
One of the joys of writing these newsletters is being able to share my impressions with old friends and new. Among the newest are the families of Karin's students, specifically those of the "recorder babies" (as mentioned in the Advent Concert from issue #3) with whom we'd shared dinner over the Christmas holidays. It is from them—specifically one of the recorder students—that this item addresses. She has very rightly pointed out that at the age of 8, she is no longer a "baby", and wouldn't it be nice to become a "recorder teenie"? While I agree that "baby" is no longer appropriate,[2] I am not sure that I (nor her parents, I suspect) am ready to promote her into full fledged teenage-hood. Next thing you know, she'll be wanting to borrow the car, hang out with her friends down at the mall, and watch R-rated movies. [Note to Austrian readers: this is what happens to American teenagers. I'll leave it up to your own imaginations to translate these things into their Austrian equivalents.] Luckily for us, American advertising jargon provides a new word that exactly frames the "lost" years of 8-12: "tweens". So from now on, I will use "recorder tweenies" for Karin's older students, and reserve "recorder babies" for the younger set.

Paid Worker vs Volunteer
As it turns out, Karin did not quite give me the full story on those "volunteers" who shovel snow in front of apartments. Most of these people are "Hausmeister", or what we might call the "Super"[3] in the States. In return for a free or reduced rent unit in the building, they perform all the basic building maintenance tasks, which include clearing the sidewalk. Now, I also wondered when they can start working in the morning. Again, according to Karin, they are allowed to start at 6 AM, and must stop at 10 PM. However, there is some rule that requires the sidewalks to be cleared by 6 AM. This is a classic catch-22.[4]

Pancetta vs Prosciutto
A friend who grew up in Italy tells me that "pasta carbonara" is properly made with pancetta or guanciale, not prosciutto. That will go into the PalmPilot and I shall be able to go to the Italian grocer, hold my head up high, and say in a loud voice, "I'd like some pancetta, please. In fact, give me some prosciutto for the missus." A shopping and cooking report will follow in a future issue. Stay tuned.


Paul's Greetings from Vienna
Part the Fifth: Schneesdämmerung

So I have now experienced the complete life cycle of a snow storm in Vienna. As of now—the evening of the 15th—there are only traces of snow left in my neighborhood. The occasional piles of unmelted snow are more ice than snow, and many are more gravel and sand than ice. We had scatter showers yesterday, during what was otherwise a beautiful, sunny day. I understand that this kind of weather—rain while the sun is out—is known in Texas as "the devil is spanking his wife". The temperature has climbed well above freezing, and seems reluctant to leave the comfort of the 5-10 degree Celsius range. It appears that the Hausmeister's job is not over. Now they get to sweep up all that gravel and sand. I'm not sure where it all goes. I can't imagine that it all goes into the storm sewers, but I don't see how they can recover more than a fraction of the material that was put down during the two major snowfalls.

As below...
Now that the snow has melted, an old pedestrian hazard returns to Vienna: dog poop. The Viennese love their dogs; and the dogs love Vienna. Dogs love Vienna so much that they leave their calling cards everywhere. There is suppose to be a law about cleaning up after your animal. I have yet to see this in action. I have heard of people being fined for what their dogs do in New York and San Francisco, but Vienna seems to be behind on enforcement. Unlike Paris, with it's "Green Team" zipping around on steam cleaner equipped motorcycles and erasing all traces of of the dog "insult",[5] Vienna has no such emergency response teams. While it was snowing, the dogs tended to do their business in the snow, which, because of the prompt actions of the Hausmeister, would not be on the sidewalk. But now, it is once again "caveat ambulator".

...So above
And just when you think you were safe by keeping your eyes on where you were stepping, things start to fall on your head. An unexpected hazard during snow season are "roof avalanches" or "Dachlawine" as it is known in German. This word is on warning signs attached to multicolored poles that are themselves clipped to buildings. These signs are to warn you that chunks of snow might be falling on your head if you walk too close to the side of the building. After Karin explained this to me, I started looking more carefully at the buildings around me, trying to discern if they have gutters, and if so, are they designed to capture melting snow. While I have not come to any conclusions about the latter question, I have noticed that there are many buildings with no apparent gutter systems, but very steeply pitched roofs. It is unclear to me if they are designed to shed snow as it lands, thus avoiding build-ups altogether, or if I should avoid walking too close to them after the next snow storm. Curiously, regulations for new buildings, or at least houses, require the installation of what I call "snow breaks". You can see them in this picture:
I don't recall seeing anything like them on either Hometimes, based in often nippy Minnesota, or This Old House, which has renovated many an old New England home that had to stand up to the winters of the American Northeast. It also turns out that the "Dachlawine" sign is used to let passers-by know that work is being done on the roof (or at least up high), and things might come falling off. This would've come in handy when we were considering getting the Christmas tree downstairs by pitching it out the window.[6]

Kegeln, Take Me Away![7]
There are some really interesting mixes of cultures here, ones that are not obvious to the American observer. To be accurate, this phenomenon is not unique to Vienna, or even Austria. Europe as a whole is experiencing these shifts as they start to become more multicultural, in the American sense of the word, where the different cultures are mixed, not just placed side by side. I first experienced this when I saw a Chinese man working in the open kitchen of an Italian restaurant in Venice. In Austria, where there have been a sizable Chinese population since the late Sixties, when the Cultural Revolution convinced many to leave China altogether, this mixing has created some curious hybrids.

Just last night, Karin and I had dinner at the "Pizzeria - Ristorante Barbaresco" in the 1st district. The hostess and also sole waitress looked very Chinese, but this was not a surprising in and of itself. Not until I looked at the menu did I suspect that all might not be what they seemed. It began, innocuously enough, with Italian standards and house specialties such as osso bucco, carpaccio, and pizzas. However, the last item on the risotto page was "Risotto Cantonese". I could distinctly hear the "One of these things is not like the other" song from Sesame Street going through my head.[8] I then flipped through the rest of menu and found the chow mein section.[9] We were definitely not in Kansas anymore.[10] Just at that moment, our waitress came back with our drinks, so I asked her (in German) if she spoke Chinese. Turns out she's from Hong Kong and speaks great Mandarin, so we had a nice chat; her and I in Chinese and her and Karin in German.

However, I'm really writing about yet another restaurant. This one is a Chinese restaurant, and it is in Wiener Neustadt, not far from Karin's parents. We went there a week before Christmas to celebrate the birthday of Karin's father. Now, next to this restaurant was a sign that said "Kegelbahn". I had no idea what this meant, except that there was a door from the front dining to the next building. My first thought that it was some sort of bar next door. My second thought was that there was going to be some sort of surprise gathering there, after dinner. There was a surprise, but it wasn't a bar. It was a bowling alley for skittles, or nine-pins. Here are pictures of the lanes and Karin's dad bowling:
IMG_2686_alley IMG_2684_reißner_family

It's My Birthday, and I Pay 'Cause I Have To
This one is a puzzler to me. In Austria. The birthday person is the one paying for the meal. This can lead to small birthday dinners, or in the case of a birthday coinciding with another group gathering such as a rehearsal, the birthday person might have to at least stand a round of drinks. It was this tradition that was the impetus for the surprise birthday party for Karin's grandmother. As far as Reißner Oma knew, she was only taking her two kids and one daughter-in-law to lunch. The rest of the family was invited to coffee at her house afterwards, in a gather not unlike what we did on Christmas day. Unbeknownst her, the rest of the Reißner clan showed up early to the restaurant, with presents. This was, after all, her 80th birthday. As you can see from this picture:
she was definitely surprised. And of course, we did not make her pay for us.[11] Here is a picture of her with Karin and cousin Irene:
Afterwards, back at Reißner Oma's house, what began as a snowball fight turned into a snow blizzard fight when cousin-in-law Franz decided to escalate to a snow shovel:
This was the result:
Yours truly suffered some collateral damage:
You can see Karin behind my left shoulder. Here is a better picture of her being a good tea-, or rather, juice-totaler for the time being:

A Room With A View (but no maids)
Across the parking lot from the music school in Weikersdorf is a small building. The last the I saw it was after Karin's pupils' Advent Concert. At the time, it looked pretty lively, with young people (teens and early twenties, from what I could tell) popping in and out, as well as the blare of loud music whenever the door was open. So I asked Karin if this was some outbuilding for the local "Gymnasium" (equivalent to American 5th-12th grades). No. Was this a bar for minors? No. Private home? No. I ran out of guesses at this point, and Karin explained that it was the local "Youths' Room;" I don't know if it was a "Jugendklub" or "Jugendzentrum." It was a place for and run by the youths themselves. They are allowed in once they reach a certain age, I think 15, but it could be younger. I asked if there was an upper age limit and Karin said, "no, but you know it's time to go somewhere else when everyone is wondering why the 'old guy' still around." Harsh. We're not sure if the utilities are paid for by the community, but all the maintenance is done by the kids. So if they mess it up, they have to clean it up, or it stays a mess. It's a place for them to have parties and maybe even stay out late without taking over someone's home. I find the idea very cool, but don't think that it would export particularly well to the states. I just don't see the average American teen being responsible enough to at least keep such a space minimally organized.

Broadband vs Bathtub
So there I was, in the bathroom (the part of the house with the sink, the tub, etc., but often not the toilet, which is in the W.C.) taking a shower, when I noticed that the dishwasher sized appliance bolted to the wall above the faucet end of the tub had some letters on it. As most of you know, I wear glasses, which you can guess that I don't wear while showering. And some of you know that I'm blind as a bat without them, so many details around showers and tubs often escape my notice, because I simply can't seem them clearly. Now this "thing" on the wall had some big clues as to what it did. There was the hot and cold water pipes running down from it to the tub controls, and onto other pipes; a wire coming out of one side and plugged into the wall; and this square gauge on the front, without numbers but a color stripe: blue from about 9:00 to 10:30, intermixed blue and red from 10:00 to 12:00, and red from 12:00 to 3:00. This was obviously a temperature gauge, or at least a gauge for how much hot water was in this hot water heater.

Some time later, I actually looked carefully at the gauge, and noticed that at the bottom was the text "Austrian email". Now, my house in California is a pretty connected place. I have broadband coming into the house, wireless networking, cordless phones. But even I did not have anything like a wired hot water heater, and sending email from my shower, at least when the water is running, is certain doom for my laptop and potential electrocution for yours truly. Then, reality asserted itself and I asked Karin what "email" meant in German, though I had a pretty good guess once I pronounced it as a German word. So note for the non-German speaking traveller in Austria: if you wander into an "Emaillewarengeschäft", do not expect to find copies of Eudora or Outlook. You will find housewares ranging from cups and plates to bathtubs and sinks, and maybe the occasional hot water heater. You might also find art objects and collectibles. In short, enamel-ware. Good luck shopping.


That's all for now. Until next week.





[1] 1-4-4 in Austria, or maybe 1-3-3. This will be discussed in a future newsletter.

[2] Karin & I both have much more appreciation for the correct use of this word.

[3] "Super" is short for "building supervisor". There are many jokes in America about how not super the Super is.

[4] For the Austrians who may not know this, "Catch-22" is a novel, and later a movie, about American soldiers who flew bombers out of Italy during World War II. The title refers to a possibly real rule #22 in the US Army which says that a soldier may be excused from active duty if he can show that he is crazy. However, any sane person would want to get out of fighting, so if a soldier declares that he is crazy, he must be sane, and therefore won't be excused. "Catch" in this case means "Haken" as in "da muß irgendwo ein Haken sein". Hope this help.

[5] I understand that in the States, diapers manufacturers use "insult" to refer the stuff that ends up in their products during normal use.

[6] This was Karin's idea, which she defends on the grounds that it was the least amount of effort, and made the least mess in the apartment. I chose to bundle the tree up in the tablecloth and carry it down the stairs.

[7] Can you tell that I watched a lot of commercials on American TV in the 70's?

[8] "Sesame Street" a popular children's educational TV program. The German language version is called "Sesamstraße".

[9] "Chow mein" is the English transliteration of the Chinese for fried noodles.

[10] From "The Wizard of Oz", a book and film. Dorothy, the main character, is swept up along with her house by a tornado in Kansas and dropped into the land of Oz. When she first looks outside, she says to her dog, "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas any more."

[11] Karin much prefer the American tradition of having the birthday person not pay. Within a given group of friends and relations who always go to the same places, the amount of money spent per year should be about the same. However, the American way spreads that out through the year, instead of one lump sum on your birthday. This is probably much worse if your birthday is near Christmas. Talk about a double whammy!



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