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Working it out in the world, and sometimes writing about it.

Monday, March 10, 2008


I knew absolutely nothing about Vienna, Austria when I arrived there. I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s true. I’m even more ashamed that I forgot (because I knew it at one point) that composers Haydn, Strauss and Mozart were all Viennese homeboys, considering I’ve played their pieces and even listened to them here in Italy. Before I came to Florence, I had decided not to sign up for any of the school trips, mostly because they were so expensive. $400-500 for three or four days just wasn’t in the budget. But my professor, Francesco, of my psychology of culture shock “highly recommended” the trip because Vienna went through a cultural culture shock after the fall of the Berlin wall. So, I revisited the fieldtrip booklet and read through the activities. I had no idea what the Schoenbrunn Museum was or the Belvedere Palace, but as soon as I read we would be going to a Viennese symphony concert, I was sold.
I’d never ridden a train, let alone a sleeper train. The cabins are extremely tiny. We’re talking 6x5x10. I climbed in my bed at 11 PM in Italy, and woke up at 7 AM the next morning to bright Austrian houses whizzing by.
Our first day involved dropping by the hotel and storing out luggage. One guy’s response to the inconvenience of not being able to check into our rooms until later in the day was, “This is a four-star shit hole.” How classy.
Francesco navigated the wonderful Underground railway system and we took it to downtown Vienna. He pointed out the incredibly diverse architecture (neo-classical, modern, Roman, Gothic) and then we swung by the Vienna’s beautiful “duomo”, really called the Stephansdom. It’s not so much a dome as it is a building with a pitched roof like many traditional churches. The outside was grimy, like the inside of a dirty fish tank, but the roof shone safety reflectors. The roof is a mosaic of colored tiles, yellow and green, black and white. They’re the brightest part of the entire duomo. Inside, it looks like a German fairy tale threw up. Tons of tall, arched, stained glass windows and carved stone statues dominate the cool building. Numerous wrought-iron chandeliers dangle from the hundred-plus foot ceiling. It was a relief to experience architecture outside of Italy to see what the rest of Europe had to offer.
After our brief visit to the duomo, we grabbed some lunch. I had wienerschnitzel and I had absolutely no idea what it was when I ordered it. All I knew was that Francesco recommended it and I was in no position to question his recommendation in a restaurant called “Wiener Wald”—“Wiener World.” It turned out to be amazing fried veal, something I never would have ordered back home. Way to go, comfort zone! Expand.
For the life of me, I can’t figure out the name of the museum we visited next. I’m inclined to say it was the Belvedere Palace, so we’ll go with it. This was where Emperor Franz Josef II lived with his wife, Elizabeth (Sisi). The downstairs of the museum is entirely dedicated to dishes and flatware. Thousands of pieces. Painted porcelain created especially for Marie Antoinette (one of the reigning couple’s daughters), a dish set commissioned by Sisi for her husband at their summer palace depicting wildlife, including ducks, and sets of dishes made entirely out of silver were some that especially stuck out. When Sisi got bored of a silver set or it went out of style, she had it melted down and then redesigned to her liking. Throughout the hour and a half we spent listening to the audio guide and wandering through the rooms, all I could wonder was where all the dishes, silverware, and platters were stored when not in use.
Upstairs, I learned that storage space was not a problem. There are over a thousand rooms in the palace, and, when in full swing, there was a staff of over 5000 making sure palace life for the Emperor and Empress ran smoothly. I admit, I thought the family was pretentious and wasteful beyond belief when I was viewing the dishes, but upstairs, my opinion changed. It turned out that Sisi had as much to do with politics as her husband did, and both the she and her husband were very involved in commissioning artists and essentially “making artists.” Also, Sisi had a room devoted to exercise, which appalled her staff, but she didn’t care—she exercised her little heart out. She was a tiny little thing.
Our group had split up earlier in the tour, and a girl I had met at lunch, Jackie, and I ended at the same time. We had a moment of panic because we couldn’t find anyone else and weren’t sure if we knew how to get back to the hotel. We wandered around the downtown area and then stumbled across the Underground entrance. Thanks for the excellent guidance, Francesco.
That night we took a bus out to the hills of Austria and had, what tour guide books would probably call, an authentic Austrian meal. It consisted of wine served in a beer glass which was larger than our glass of water, meat, eggs and potatoes, sauerkraut, and finally, strudel. Throughout the meal we were accompanied by an accordion player and the cutest 75-year old violinist ever. He knew the most random English songs, including “This Land is My Land” and a song from “Grease.” They played a waltz and Jackie and Francesco waltzed and that inspired some other Italian diners to ask some of the girls in our group to dance. During dinner, I got to know Andrea and Kerin, two New Yorkers that attend Pace University. By the end of the meal, we had more than a few inside jokes and my cheeks hurt from laughing so hard.
After the meal, Francesca, one of the women that works at the front desk of FUA and also a “chaperone” on the trip, took us back to the center to go to some bars. Excellent, just what I wanted. I wound up going to an Irish pub with Andrea, Kerin and Jackie, and sat people watching while the girls met men so they would buy them drinks. I huddled at my little table and watched a soccer match on the plasma. Call me social and shy, I don’t care. J
The next morning, we headed to the summer palace, Schoenbrunn Castle. We toured more rooms that contained the actual furniture and clothing of the family. The upholstery and tapestries were great and all, but what was spectacular was the “backyard.” It measures 8x14 kms. It has more than a handful of fountains and includes a zoo, running trails, and a café at its highest point, to which we hiked and at which we ate. At the very top, all of Vienna is visible. If felt like I was standing in the entrance to a postcard.
Later that afternoon we went to the real Belvedere Palace. It houses one of the best collections of Impressionist art in Europe, Francesco says. Jackie and I roamed and I discovered some great artists, or whom I had never heard before, including Gustav Klimp. His piece “The Kiss” is stunning, but I probably like it more because of the explanation behind it. I also found a Van Gogh and Monet I really liked. After we left the museum, Jackie and I headed to Hotel Sacher, made famous by the mistakenly created chocolate cake by the apprentice chef hundreds of year ago. We had the cake and Turkish coffee. I’m not a coffee drinker, but the coffee was amazing, probably more amazing because it’s boiled three-four times and is served in a copper boiling pot. You then pour it into a very dainty tea cup. Che fantastica!
That night we headed to the symphony. I tried looking nice, but it didn’t work, with a borrowed black blouse and brown pants. Whatever, you don’t need to look good in order to listen to music. The concert hall was a lot different from what I expected. It wasn’t theater seating, but the stage was elevated. The orchestra is well-known for its lack of a conductor—they like to tout that their musicianship is so wonderful that they don’t need a conductor. And indeed, they didn’t.
They played Strauss, Mozart, Schrammel, and Lumbye. I knew some of them, but others were completely new and wonderful to me, like “The Sigh Galop” and “The Champagne Galop.” During a few of the arias, a male opera singer and a female opera singer came out and sang. Two ballet dancers also livened up the already quick and funny “Champagne Waltz.” Many of the pieces had humor written into them, and it was interesting to watch the people in our group react. Some seemed to think it was inappropriate to laugh, and then there was me…I was laughing and clapping and I didn’t care if it was gauche at all. All the other symphony-goers seem to be in the same mindset as me. The only negative aspect of the experience was the constant chattering of my hotel roommates, who were sitting in front of us. After repeated shushing and chair-kicking by me and Jackie, Jackie told them to be quiet. One told the other that she was a bitch and to fuck off. Aah, I love people sometimes.
After the last piece ended, Jackie and I spent some time onstage taking pictures in the first violin seat, at the piano, and with the bronze statue of Strauss.
The rest of our group went out after the concert to bars, but Jackie and I went with Francesca and Francesco to dinner at Hotel Sacher. Francesco called us his guests, and paid for us. I ordered real goulash (during dinner, Francesco told me how to make it!). It was unbelievable. My dad and I are going to have a kick making it this summer.
Francesco is a character. I’ve now heard the story of his old French-Polynesian girlfriend three times. He does enjoy talking about himself, but if you listen long enough, you’ll hear some really interesting things. We laughed a lot and Francesca got a little tipsy. During our dinner the previous night, she had gotten a little drunk and taught us Italian swear words. I am now armed against too-forward Italian men. J
The rest of the night, after dinner, was spent bar hopping. Never again. We ran into my roommates/rude concert-goers….awesome. I didn’t get home till 3 AM. I woke the next morning to vomit in the sink. That’s what you get for yelling at a bar tender to give you some Coke in your five shots, I think.
Our last day we spent at the Kunthistorisces Museum, the highlight of the trip for me. I had a bit of a panic attack for an hour in the museum, but when I calmed myself down, I made my way up the marble staircase (everything is marble in Vienna) to the café to journal for the remaining hours at the museum. Shortly after I sat down, two older Viennese gentlemen and an older woman asked if they could join me. I said of course, and for the next two hours, we discussed American politics in detail of the past and present, art history, and Washington State. They beseeched me to order whatever I wanted, because they were “rich and retired.” I declined, but they ordered me mélange, Viennese coffee, and an apple strudel, despite the fact that I’d already finished off an espresso and cherry strudel.
Tony, the man who dominated the conversation, has been going to the museum for 40 years. He says that the paintings are old friends and when one of them goes on loan, he misses it, but when it returns, he always notices and appreciates it.
He took me to one of Rafael’s famous paintings of Mary and the baby Jesus, of which the Uffizi has another version that Tony said is the less perfect of the two. He described why it was such an innovative painting, why it was unique, etc. A group of German tourists were in our way, and so, being a very large man, he scouted out a good viewing spot for me and didn’t bother lowering his voice to describe everything to me. Then he swung me around the rest of the upper floor pointing out his favorites and why.
I had to leave to catch my train back to Florence, so we did the European two-cheek kiss thing and I left.
I was so pleased that this opportunity was mine and had been a result of something negative and turned out so wonderful. It has since occurred to me that throughout our entire weekend in Austria, we hadn’t met any Viennese people besides clerks and admissions officers. We met Irishmen, Italians, Germans, but no Austrians, no Viennese. I was able to carry on a conversation about where I’m from, why I believe what I believe with complete strangers. I was proud of myself. It was an experience that I didn’t have to share with anyone else. It was me and I liked that. When I left, I liked myself a little bit more than I have recently. I owe Tony one.
One long (10 hours) train ride home in an impossibly hot top bunk, we arrived back in Florence at 6 AM. I had class at 9.
Yes, the weekend was expensive, but worth it. I didn’t spend much at all, picked up some new artists, met some great people, and started to make my way out of the hole I felt I’d dug for myself. I think, in the long run, it helped that I didn’t know a lick about the city, because around each turn, I learned something. I plan on reading up on Franz Josef and Sisi when I get home. I also want to get some books on Klimp. I want to learn about the place I went, see what I saw in hindsight. If you get a chance, go to Austria. Plus, who doesn’t want to go where The Sound of Music was filmed?

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