Thursday, August 29, 2013

Weekly Interlude 13: Scrambled Eggs and Other Firsts

Wiener Staatsoper, State Opera House
I find it fitting that the same week Ithaca College (my alma mater, whoa) began classes again, I had my first job interview and completed my German course. It doesn't feel like my friends back home are going back to school; how can it be that after about 17 years of school, I can suddenly feel so removed from it? This week is just another week, albeit a rather eventful one: I made scrambled eggs for the first time in my life only two days ago!

But perhaps most important, as a recent college grad: The Job Interview. This was for a part-time job as a teacher at Musical Munchkins, a music school for kids ages five months to seven years. Honestly, I didn't think the interview went very well on Monday; it was only 20 minutes, and I didn't get to use any of my zinger sentences, to explain my philosophy on music education, or to discuss my (thoughtfully crafted) Strengths and Weaknesses. It felt more like a business meeting than anything (which in a way, I suppose it was), and I left feeling a little down. I then spent all week formulating Job Plan B, until today, when I got back to the apartment and discovered I was asked back for a SECOND INTERVIEW! That will take place tomorrow, and then who knows what the next year could look like? Here's to the randomness of life :)

Russian WWII memorial in 1st district
Graduation Part II: Today I finished my 4-week intensive German course. On one hand, this means I won't have to wake up at 7:30 a.m. anymore, but on the other hand, I now have to fill my mornings with activities to distract me (hello, Practicing!). After taking this class, though, I feel so much more confident about my abilities to speak German. I mean, I still need to work on expanding my vocab, but that will come. If anyone would like to visit me in Austria, I'll be able to order you coffee, help you shop, buy you museum tickets, and even translate some conversations with friends for you.

A beach in Vienna?
Last week, I joined classmates from the DeutschAkademie on a Spaziergang, an hour-long walk around the first district, before meeting for drinks (by the fake beach along the Danube Canal...this land-locked country certainly has solutions!). That evening, I ended up speaking solely in German for four hours! That's a lot of Deutsch. My brain was just about fizzing over by the time I left, but the whole evening was so much fun. I felt like I was talking and communicating with people my own age for the first time since I left in June. It's also pretty cool to meet people from all over the world -- there were people from Kazakhstan, Brazil, Ukraine, Spain, etc.

Vienna pretends it has a beach...
That Spaziergang marked a turning point for me in terms of my German speaking skills and confidence. It proved to me that I could actually hold long conversations in German, that I could communicate. I can speak this language, and people will often know what I mean! Since that evening, I've conversed more in German than I ever have; I even went to a museum and out for drinks with some classmates. Tonight, to celebrate our "graduation," many of us are going to a heuriger (wine tavern) in Grinzing, a region just outside the Vienna border, near the Vienna Woods, known for these taverns. I hope to keep up with many of these new friends, especially the ones staying in Vienna. This was the most international group I'd ever spent time with, and they were fascinating and fun! I mean, at first everybody seems so different, but when you boil it down, move beyond the surface, we're all pretty much the same. Plus, we automatically have something in common if we're in Vienna and learning German...

Karlskirche, 1st district church
So what other "firsts" can I share with you from this week? Tuesday was the first time I watched Lillian and her friend BY MYSELF on a playdate. Her little friend only speaks German, so it was fun to use a combination of languages (including the nonsense ones they made up) to communicate. Let me just say, trying to solve arguments or prevent tantrums auf Deutsch was wild. It only happened twice when I had to actually go over and say, "Alle stop! Alle stop!" and then explain how we needed to share (teilen). And when my imperfect but calm German didn't work, I put on my Distraction Professional hat and suggested we have a picnic with the plastic food on the floor. Such an abrupt change of topic worked, and the girls completely forgot about their argument! Whew.

Stadtpark, a stop on the Spaziergang
Perhaps the craziest "first" of all is the Scrambled Eggs Fiasco. Now, I don't eat eggs. I don't like them because they smell, and they're too spongy. But Jennifer told me in June that sometimes Lillian will eat scrambled eggs for dinner, since she's a pretty light eater. That very day, I emailed my mom to find out how to make scrambled eggs (and, incidentally, grilled cheese. I know, I'm crazy.) and discovered that they're just about the easiest thing in the world to make. This past Tuesday night was the first time I ever had to make them, though. So here we go:
St. Stephen's Cathedral

Round 1: I added too much milk. Cue me standing over the stove, trying to coax this half-coagulated, milky, eggy mixture into something Lillian will eat. Turn up the heat -- starts smoking too much for my comfort. Turn down the heat -- too low, nothing's happening. Lillian is upstairs with her dad, asking over and over again, "When is dinner ready? I'm hungry." I try not to panic. I go to my laptop, search for my mom's old email, determine my mistake, and begin another batch.

I prefer Sachertorte to scrambled eggs
Round 2: They seem to take forever, but after only a splash of milk, this pan-ful actually resembles scrambled eggs! I put some onto a fun blue plate, add a dollop of creamed spinach on the side (these poor Austrian children), and bring it to the table. Dinner's ready! We sit down (I, thankfully, am eating something other than eggs). Lillian takes a bite and decides she is not hungry. Of course. I decide my hard work should not go to waste, so I take a bite of the eggs, and guess what? I still don't like them :)

Hundertwasser apartments
The last "first" of this week is happening tomorrow: I'm getting a roommate! My friend arrives in the morning, and I'm picking her up at the airport. I'm looking forward to having a friend in a similar life-position as me -- both singers, both living in Vienna, both looking for jobs, both learning the language. She's a wonderful person, and I can't wait to have a person with whom to immediately share thoughts and experiences.

So it's clear to me that somewhere along the way, I started living in Vienna. I do mundane, daily activities here. I'm not really a tourist anymore, and this hardly resembles a relaxing vacation. Amidst my erratic work schedule, I've established my own routines. I can better understand and hold conversations in German. Isn't it funny that the exact week college started again, I started really living my new life?
Vienna & the Danube, as viewed from Kahlenberg (mountain)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Weekly Interlude 12: A Random Assortment

Lilies and Black-Eyed Susans, painted by me
Last weekend marked my last trip to Langelois with Jennifer and Lillian, and let me just say, we went out with a bang. I finally saw the operetta Wiener Blut, and Jennifer was fantastic! The whole cast was unbelievable, and even though I couldn't understand any of the German dialogue, I still thoroughly enjoyed myself (and laughed along with the people who could understand the language). I'm always so inspired by live performance; to me, singing is as much a visual and kinesthetic art as an aural one.

Wiener Blut, performed outside at a castle
To get to Langelois last weekend, I took a bus with the orchestra and some other audience members in need of rides -- and I bumped into an acquaintance from my semester abroad! This woman was friends with my voice teacher from that semester, and it turns out she's also friends with Jennifer and is the operetta director's wife! Small world. She is a wonderful person and gave me much advice last year on everything from grad schools to how to memorize a part sung entirely on "ah." We sat on the bus together; turns out she's flying to the States in a few days to spend a year teaching at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, so we found ourselves discussing the merits of Diction textbooks and the logistics of Skyping home with such a big time difference.
The most delicious grape juice ever!!

Hopefully not my last Marillen Knödel
This friend also introduced me to another of her friends, who ended up loaning me a blanket during Act II of Wiener Blut. (The show was outside at a castle -- beautiful, but absolutely freezing after a while. My jean jacket, sweater, and scarf were not enough!) I generally tend to isolate myself or avoid interaction with lots of new people, but I actually enjoyed going with the flow that evening. It's amazing the stories you'll hear or the things you'll learn when a friend introduces you to another friend, who then introduces you to the other five people sitting at the table, und so weiter (and so on).
Good-bye Langenlois :(

After the show, I met some of Jennifer's in-laws. They're from the province of Styria and (I think) only speak German, so I sat next to Jennifer, fiddling nervously with the stem of my wine glass, and tried to follow the conversation. And I do believe I was mildly successful! Not that I could contribute anything, but I certainly understood more than I ever have in a German conversation before. And they were so incredibly nice to me, asking if I understood, including me in their stories, asking if I liked the production. This weekend reminded me that, while it's easy to hole up in my apartment and watch Chuck or Gilmore Girls episodes, it doesn't make transitions any easier. It's human contact I need, so it's human contact I'll find!

Peppers from Langelois
This evening, I'm going to a get-together with the DeutschAkademie. We'll meet at 6 p.m. and take a walking tour and finally end up in the 3rd district for drinks and more conversation. So after I finish writing this blog, I'm going to brush up on my German notes (oh yes, apparently I have a test on Friday) and get ready to go! Every day I speak more and more with people from my class, and I get weirdly proud of myself for it. As my aunt says, there's nothing like a language class to meet people. I guess speaking a foreign language is like diving off a diving board: walking up to it, standing on the edge while it bobs up and down, looking into the formidable water below is terrifying. But once you're airborne, once you take the plunge, it's exhilarating, and suddenly, you find yourself climbing back up to do it again.

That is not to say that it's suddenly easy. In fact, German grammar --already spearheaded by bizarre word order, four cases, and separable-prefix verbs -- just became particularly kompliziert. I feel like there's either a zillion ways to say what I want, or there's no way to say it, and I'm forced to find another (awkward) route into the meaning. Sometimes (actually, frequently), just to get my point across, I leave out articles, make up prepositions, and pretty much just blast my way through the sentence using only nouns and hand gestures. I take comfort in the fact that at least my aural and reading comprehension skills are definitely improving...

On a completely different note, the past few days have actually been mildly chilly in Vienna (I guess 70 degrees after 95 for a month straight feels cold). Since I only packed enough clothes for a two-month summer stay, my wardrobe is a little lacking in the warm department. I have to strategically figure out how to get some warmer clothes over here as inexpensively as possible...But for now, I bought some leggings and a hot pink sweatshirt at H&M, which should tide me over for a while. Only, I looked up the weather for the next three days, and it's supposed to get hot again!

Wild West festival in Austria?
Lillian's witch-puppet
Last Thursday was a religious holiday in Austria (Maria Himmelfahrt, not quite sure which one that is), as Austria is an extremely Catholic country. So while everything was closed, I headed over to Perchtoldsdorf to spend the afternoon with Lillian. There was a festival going on in the next town over, so we biked over there (Lillian was my first human passenger!!). Turns out it was a Wild West themed festival... SO RANDOM. There were women in big saloon dresses, men in cowboy hats and fringed leather vests. Free drinks for people dressed as either cowboys or Indians. A band played country music while people danced. It was possibly the most bizarre, out-of-place experience I've had here thus far! Not to mention all the American, British, and Canadian flags on the walls and the banner that said West Point Military Academy. I think Austria is confused...

While this week has been a random assortment of events, there's a possibility that the Great Vienna Plan will become even more refined next week. Stay tuned...

Evening in Perchtoldsdorf

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Weekly Interlude 11: The Great Vienna Plan

The Great Vienna Plan has launched! Though still stumbling on its gangly little legs (despite the grand name I gave it) and lacking a few concrete details, it is, nonetheless, a PLAN. I am now a college graduate with an Official Plan, which is, in and of itself, a huge relief to me (and to my parents, I'm sure).

In short, I am officially staying in Vienna until December! The main reason I decided to stay was actually not because of all the potential auditions I'd been researching but rather because Jennifer told me she'd be interested in working with me -- we're talking intensive voice lessons, three times a week. And frankly, that's just not something you pass up. I'll continue to be Lillian's nanny in order to pay for rent and the lessons; now I'm trying to find a job for grocery money :) And the big news on that front is...I have a job interview in a week and a half!! Not only is this my first Real World job interview, but it's for an English-speaking music school in 1st district Vienna for children ages 5 months to 7 years. If I get this job (not to jinx it or anything), I'll have to return to Vienna after Christmas and stay until June.

Schönbrunn Palace
Lillian & co. will be in the States during September, so I'll have that month off. (Hence the job search to keep me busy.) There's a volunteer church choir at the Augustinerkirche, which I'm trying to figure out how to join. (There was a time not too long ago when I swore I would never sing in a chorus again, but I really miss regular rehearsals and making music with other people.) My friend Eliza, a fellow soprano who studied abroad with me, is moving to Vienna at the end of August, too, and I can't wait to see her! It'll be nice to have a friend here working through similar musical, cultural, and linguistic issues as me.

Schloss Schönbrunn
Speaking of linguistic issues (no pun intended), there's nothing like living in a foreign country to make you suddenly very protective of your native language. As an avid reader and writer, I've always loved words and the infinite ways to craft language; in learning German, my language skills have been whittled down to the bare bones, the simplest statements -- streamlined, but certainly NOT efficient. My personality typically goes AWOL when I speak German. Or my meaning will jump ahead of my mouth, and I'll earnestly lean forward and motion with my hands while the words stutter from my lips, so stilted and awkward, until I have to stop entirely and regroup. I'm getting used to letting my sentences hang or letting other people finish them because my meaning is clear, though my words have vanished. Words vs. Personality: hopefully, they'll start to work together soon.
Working hard or hardly working?

I did embrace Viennese culture last weekend when I packed up my Deutsch materials and plunked down at Café Schwarzenberg for a couple of hours to study. I ordered a coffee and a glass of fizzy pear juice, which was SUPER delicious, until a bee fell in it about 2/3 of the way through. O nein. Eine Biene ertrinkt in meinem Birnensaftgespritzt. But despite the drowning hornet, I managed to retain some of my vocab words. (There are SO MANY words! The more I learn this language, the more I realize I don't know.)

View from the hill at Schönbrunn
I also tried studying at Schönbrunn Palace, which is one of my favorite places in Vienna. There's a huge hill behind the palace with a fantastic view of the city, which is where I plopped down to study. It worked well until my friend (who was in Vienna until the end of July and is now spending a semester in France) called me. And suddenly, studying seemed superfluous.

Public Library
Today, in my quest to improve my aural comprehension skills, I headed to the public library in Vienna, got a library card (I made the transaction entirely in German!), and checked out three Harry Potter audio books. Sensing a theme with my reading materials? I though it would be a good idea to read along with the book while I listen to the CD, thus cementing what I see with what I hear. I'll keep you posted on how that experiment goes.

Some Schönbrunn gardens
Since I'm going to be in Austria for four more months, I decided I needed to make this apartment I'm staying in a bit more...mine. I went to a giant Bed Bath & Beyond equivalent and hit up the sale tables -- I now have three small flowered glasses, a purple cereal bowl, and a white-with-fruits-on-it bowl. In addition, I printed a bunch of photos and taped a row of them to the wall at the head of my bed. I also made a calendar with some of my favorite pictures and quotes. And if that creativity wasn't enough, I made a small collage of some family photos.
Gloriette pavillion, behind Schönbrunn

So I'll continue plugging away at this Great Vienna Plan. I do hope it becomes a little less lonely (or just a little more comfortable) by September. And I'm working on that by talking more with the people in my German class. See? I'm a planner. Every Problem must have a Solution. Every Solution must have a Plan of Execution. No need to stress. Keine Panik. I have a Great Vienna Plan...


These stars are all over Vienna, noting the birth/death places/dates of famous composers.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Weekly Interlude 10: Extreme Weather and Intensive German

Flowers battling the heat in Stadtpark
In February 2012, when I was studying abroad in Vienna, Europe experienced a Deep Freeze with record-low temperatures. This was right when my aunt visited me, and I remember teaching her the warmest way to wrap a scarf before we set off to battle our way around the frozen tundra.

1st District Vienna
Now Vienna is experiencing a major heat wave, with record-high temperatures. The city glistens. Air shimmers. Trees sag. Sweat drips. People on the streets move slowly, as if wading through a sticky wall. But still, the sun shines energetically, cruelly indifferent to our suffering. Last night, I woke up at 2 a.m. to Donner und Blitz -- big slashes of lighting and claps of thunder accompanied by immense winds. You'd think it would have cooled down the city (or my bedroom) at least a little. But no. The sun is at it again today. And, of course, my shower isn't working, and there's no air conditioning in this old city apartment. It's just baths and fans for me until further notice.

1st District Vienna
On the bright (or pleasantly shady?) side, I wake up every day now at 7:30 a.m. when the sun hasn't quite geared up yet and head to my German class! I signed up for the intensive course, which runs from this past Monday through August 29. Four days a week, three hours per day, I join nine other people from all over the world and learn about such things as Genetive Präpositionen and Konjunktionen, all the while expanding my Vokabeln. In general, I've discovered that my grammar is pretty solid, but my vocabulary is fairly lacking. So every afternoon, I write sentences with the new words I've learned so that I can remember everything:
  • Wegen der Hitze, bin ich müde. (Because of the heat, I'm tired.
  •  Pass auf! Die Biene wird dich stechen!  (Watch out! The bee will sting you!)
  • Als ich dein Gesicht zum ersten Mal gesehen habe, bestaune ich es. (The first time I saw your face, I marveled at it.)
  • Die Leuten haben gedacht, dass Sirius Black ein Verbrechen begangen ist. (The people thought that Sirius Black committed a crime.)
  • Das ist das Kind, das sehr oft Eis isst. (This is the child who often eats ice cream.)
Perhaps the coolest part of this class is the fact that German is the common language. I'm the only one from the US, and the only other native English speaker is a guy from Ireland. The others are from Turkey, the Ukraine, Spain, and Hungary. Many study and/or work in Vienna, so they generally have more speaking experience than I do, but they're all so friendly that it's not a huge deal to start a mini conversation with them. It's hardest for me to understand the girls from Spain; their Spanish-German accent sounds about 90% Spanish, and the words fly at 100mph. Good thing they don't seem to mind when I ask them to repeat everything!

Stadtpark; statue of Johann Strauss II
Side note: Today in class, we talked briefly about different ways to pay for things in our home countries. I had no idea that "cash back" is nowhere near universal, so I had to explain to my group how it worked! And with limited vocabulary, it went something like, "This book costs five euros, and I want 20 euros 'cash back.' So I pay 25 euros with my debit card and immediately get 20 euros in cash."

Somewhere new! 1st District Vienna
After class today, I wandered around the first district and ended up in a part I had never seen before (I'd always passed under it on the U-Bahn). I stumbled upon Shakespeare & Co., an English bookstore found in many European cities. Books towered precariously and haphazardly from every surface. Believe me when I say it was difficult to navigate with a backpack on! Of course, I felt a little guilty looking at books in English right when I'm trying to improve my Deutsch, so I left fairly quickly.

I needed to go grocery shopping, but the heat was doing me in at this point. My water bottle was warm; my back was soaked with sweat from my backpack; my legs felt a little wobbly. So I meandered back to the U-Bahn, ducked into a grocery store, and took refuge in the frozen foods aisle in Billa. Temporary relief, but so wonderful.

As I sit here writing and eating watermelon, with the fan pointed directly at me and my eyes drying out, it's hard to believe that I actually wore a sweater last weekend. Not outside, where I would've melted in about a second, but in the Loisium, the several-hundred-year-old wine cellar in Langenlois. We took a two-hour tour in the chilly underground cellar, which Lillian actually really enjoyed (she got to use her pink flashlight, and the audioguide was like a phone that told stories!).

Loisium wine shop
Endless racks of Sekt (Champagne)
When I told my friend about this, she asked what people do when they tour wine cellars. Well, first there was a light-and-water show, where we had to pretend to be a grape so that we could understand part of the initial process (getting the juice out of the fruit). Then we toured the actual cellar, which was quite extensive, while the audioguide provided historical and statistical information. Then we visited the house of the people who owned the vineyard in the 19th century and followed that up with a visit to the workshop where they handmade barrels to store the wine. The end of the tour opened up into the wine shop, where you could buy anything from Grüner Veltliner wine (a white wine unique to this region of Austria) to a wine calendar. I personally bought a wine-sized bottle of grape juice, which is nothing to laugh at, let me just say! This juice is the greatest drink I've ever had in my life, and it's nothing like Welch's or MinuteMaid. My white grape juice is smooth and velvety and light and sweet. In short, DELICIOUS. I wish I could type you a taste to sample...
Lillian found her shadow!
More modern wine barrels

I'll spend the rest of this week imagining I'm back in that cool, earthy cellar and not stuck in this heatbox. It's time to do my German homework. Infolge der Hitze, will ich meine Hausübungen nicht machen. (Because of the heat, I do not want to do my homework.) Ich gehe lieber an den Strand. (I'd prefer to go to the beach.)

[P.S. If you want to listen to something beautiful, check out Morgen by Richard Strauss, my latest obsession. Translation here, which makes it even better.]

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Weekly Interlude 9: Auditions and Apricots

Black-Eyed Susans
There's nothing like a voice lesson to help cheer me up and inspire me. As cheesy as it might sound, having a voice lesson after months of no voice lessons is like finding water in a desert. Or like walking into an air-conditioned building in the dead of muggy summer. Jennifer was kind enough to give me a lesson yesterday afternoon, and let me just say that she's as great a teacher as she is a singer.

My voice teacher at Ithaca College (Dawn Pierce, who is a phenomenal performer and teacher) was a genius, and I graduated with all the tools I needed to be my own teacher for a while. This is mega-important in the real world because teachers do not come cheaply! It's crucial to be able to solve your own problems as a singer, not only for financial reasons but also because, ultimately, YOU are the only one who can teach yourself how to sing. Voice teachers are actually guides: they can't get inside your instrument and tinker around until things line up; only you can experience your instrument.
Danube River, running through Krems

That being said, it is important to have a trusted pair of ears and an objective opinion. Enter the Voice Teacher. Personally, I think I'm still a little bit too reliant on voice teachers because I tend to get too fixated on one element of singing, and then everything else is thrown slightly out of whack, thus evoking my frustration. (Granted, I'm MUCH better than I used to be at remaining calm and speaking gently to myself.) I hadn't had a lesson since the beginning of May, and working with Jennifer yesterday afternoon clarified things for me. The lesson forced me to step back and look at the bigger picture, the instrument as a whole. Where all my energy had been directed into one place (my tongue) before, yesterday it was able to release and direct to other places of interest (breath, freedom of sound). I mean, tongue tension and tongue position can be fascinating, but when you obsess about them for too long, singing becomes miserable.

So now I have two new songs I'm going to learn, as well as the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria, which I'll keep working on. Hopefully, I'll have another few lessons with Jennifer between her performances in Langenlois and when she departs for the States in September.

Krems, Wachau Valley
So all this singing brings me to my big news, which is that I've decided to stay longer in Vienna! I signed up for a 4-week German class (placing WAY higher on the placement test than I expected, so we'll see how that goes) with DeutschAkademie, which runs from this coming Monday through August 29. Meanwhile, I'm looking into some auditions with local choruses: Schoenberg Chor (they don't sing only atonal music, thank God), Augustiner Kirche Chor, Theater an der Wien, u.s.w. My voice teacher here from when I studied abroad has put me in touch with some of her students who may be able to help me with the process.

Apricot squares, minus a sample
I don't know how long exactly I'll be in Vienna, but it'll certainly be for a few more months. I need to apply the German to real-life situations once I learn it in class! I think it could be fun to finish out the year learning the language and just getting used to the audition process, whether or not anything comes of it. What are your thoughts? Do you think I should stay for a whole year, like my sister does? Six months? Three months? Six weeks? It's just this pesky homesickness that's getting in the way of making plans!
Apricot tree

On a totally different and much less serious note, last weekend in Langenlois, Lillian, Jennifer, and I went apricot and cherry picking! I filled up a HUGE bucket with said fruit and then spent all day Monday cooking. I made six jars of jam (apricot, cherry, and apricot-cherry), apricot chicken, a pan of apricot squares (in a circular pan), one apricot pie (with a croissant-like crust), and one apricot cake. Needless to say, my freezer is full!

Marillen Knödeln
Apparently, the Wachau Valley (the region where Langelois is located) is famous for its white wine and its apricots. The family and I went out with some colleagues of Jennifer to a café in Krems, the nearby (small) city, and indulged in some Marillen Knödeln, or Apricot Dumplings. Too sweet to be a real lunch but savory enough to be ruled out as a real dessert, they were delicious and filling. I'd expected them to be thick and doughy or slimy, but they were just right. It was more like a warm, firm, sugar-sprinkled dough surrounding a soft, hot apricot. Gerhard -- who had been raving about these all day and promised me a life-changing food experience -- joked that when he was a kid, they'd have one Marillen Knödel for an appetizer, four for the main course, and two for dessert.
Krems - I love the colorful buildings!

In less than three hours, I'm heading off to Langenlois again. Jennifer has performances for the next three weekends, so I'll spend the weekdays in Wien and the weekends in Langenlois.

I would also like to announce that I've finished Harry Potter und der Gefangene von Askaban!! Perhaps HP is the reason for my unusually high placement score? Now it's time to begin Harry Potter und der Orden des Phönix... :)