Monday, November 18, 2013

Weekly Interlude 24: The Great Toilet Plunger/Christmas Market Quest

OBI, the Home Depot of Vienna
Last week, I left a toilet plunger on the S-Bahn.

Let me backtrack. The bathtub in my apartment hadn't been draining very well for a while, so Jennifer and Gerhard loaned me their plunger to try and fix the problem. I was tired that evening when they dropped me off at the train station to go home, so I got on the S-Bahn thinking, "Now, don't forget to take the plunger when you get off!" And what did I do? Forgot the plunger. So some lucky person (or the trash or the Lost & Found) scored a plunger last week!

Just to put public transportation in Vienna in perspective, the U-Bahn is the subway, the Straßenbahn is the tram system, and the S-Bahn is the train system that takes you from Vienna out to the suburbs. (The S stands for schnell, which means "fast.") The S-Bahn I was on that night went all the way to Laa an der Thaya, a town far north of Vienna. So basically, this Traveling Plunger could be all the way at the Czech border by now.

The Am Hof Christmas Market
The Am Hof Christmas market
Needless to say, I needed a new plunger because drain problems don't fix themselves. After a little help from a friend, I found the Home Depot of Vienna, called OBI, and set off on an adventure to find it in the south-east corner of the city. It lay between two U-Bahn stops, and I chose the one that looked more direct on my map. What I didn't know was that the sidewalk ends on the side of the street opposite OBI, making it impossible to cross the faux-traffic lanes to get to the orange building (that stands, literally, right across the road; how frustrating!). Instead, I had to cross a different street, walk 2/3 of the way over to the other U-Bahn stop, cross the road again, walk back up the street, turn left along a curving side street, and march across the parking lot. This would have been a little absurd even if I hadn't been wearing a pair of nice fashion boots with heels; I hadn't worn heels since I left in June, so my feet were in so much pain by the time I got to the store.

I now know three words for toilet plunger in German: Stöße (shter-seh), Ausguss (ows-gooss), and, my personal favorite, Saugglocke (zowg-glawkeh). Plus, despite my broken, blistered feet, this story has a happy ending -- my shower drains perfectly!

Baubles at a Christmas market
A tree at the Rathausplatz
Besides scouring the city for plungers, I've also been searching for Christmas Markets, which opened on Friday. Christmas has always been my favorite holiday, and my excitement over it has skyrocketed since a) Austrians don't have Thanksgiving so it's totally acceptable to delve into Christmas before December 1, and b) Vienna is the ideal city for Christmas lovers. I realize that people back in the States are trying to focus on Turkey Day, and many people won't even acknowledge Christmas until December, but seeing as I won't even be living in my apartment for Thanksgiving week (a temporary displacement), Christmas is the way to go for me. Here, look, I'll celebrate Thanksgiving: what am I thankful for? Christmas.

I wish my camera could capture the magic of Christmas markets (Christkindlmarkt) in Vienna, but it simply can't. Just imagine wooden stalls decorated with lights, featuring beautiful artisan crafts and masterpieces, holiday trinkets, traditional Tirolian food, Austrian gingerbread, and (best of all) warm holiday drinks. The air smells like onions, sausages, and mulled red wine (Glühwein); you can stand at tall, wooden tables and enjoy your food and drink while chatting with friends.

Austrian pastries and Christmas drinks
My first Christkindlmarkt mug!
When you pay for a drink at these Christmas markets, you can either keep the mug (which is unique to each market) or you can return it and get a few euros back. I kept my mug from the Rathausplatz; I didn't take a picture, but it's white with a Christmas tree, the golden Rathaus, and an angel, all connected by blue music notes on a staff. It's very festive. The drink I had in it? Hot chocolate, like no other hot chocolate you've ever tasted. The man at the stall scooped a ladleful of chocolate from the chocolate fountain into my mug, mixed it with warm milk, and topped it with Schlagobers (whipped cream). Swiss Miss, you've been benched.

A stall at the Rathausplatz
Baubles at a Christmas market
The traditional Christkindlmarkt drinks are Glühwein (mulled red wine) and Punsch (warm fruit juice, such as grapefruit, with rum). Good thing I have a few more weekends here so I can try the Punsch and perhaps collect some more mugs. This is already shaping up to be a better holiday season than my last four -- it's hard to get excited about the holidays when you have finals right beforehand.

My life at the moment seems filled with the mundane (toilet plungers) and the extraordinary (Christmas markets) -- an exciting combination that keeps me on my toes!

The Rathausplatz Christkindlmarkt

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Weekly Interlude 23: The Spirit of Discovery

A Christmas window on Kärntnerstraße
This has been a delightful weekend filled with friends (old and new) and holiday cheer. On Friday, two of my friends came from Graz and the Czech Republic, and then this afternoon, I met up with a girl who is studying abroad with IES (the study abroad program I used in 2012). Last night, I spent three hours with my coworkers at Musical Munchkins, preparing for our winter holiday concert. Add in some ukelele playing, some Christmas carols, and some Apfelstrudel, and we have a pretty great weekend.

Holiday lights (unlit) on Kärntnerstraße
My friend Marjorie, who teaches English in the Czech Republic, recently started a blog called The Ukelele Diaries. She's planning to take a video of herself playing the ukelele and singing a different song in every city she visits, beginning with Vienna. She asked me if I'd like to sing in her video, too, so click here to see us singing "Edelweiss" at Schönbrunn Palace! Filming credit goes to my friend Lizzy, an English teacher in Graz. It was scary, at first, to plunk down in the middle of a public place and start singing/strumming, but after a few takes, I became more comfortable. (Please ignore the squinting; it was such a sunny day!) A few people stopped to listen or smiled when they walked by, though most people just ignored us or admired from a distance. That's okay, though, because the experience, ultimately, was just for us. It was a remarkably liberating experience--and empowering--to make music in a public place. It also inspired me to explore my burgeoning interests in folk music and improvisation, so for the last two days, I've been playing more piano and experimenting with some Irving Berlin.
A hole-in-the-wall church

The window display at Mühlen Brot
After singing at Schönbrunn, we took the U-Bahn back to the city center and strolled up Kärntnerstraße, the main shopping thoroughfare that leads directly to St. Stephen's Cathedral in the heart of the city. City workers were putting up the holiday lights over the street, which was very exciting to watch. I'll have to go to the city center sometime after 4:30 p.m., when it's dark, to see them lit up. We then stopped by Mühlen Brot, a very small bakery that sells the BEST apple strudel (Apfelstrudel) in the city. I bought a piece and savored it as I made my way to work.

Teaching on Friday went well, and I felt for the first time since beginning in September that I did every single class justice that day. My last class went particularly well, and I'm so proud of myself. Normally, when I teach, I feel completely out of my comfort zone--but, as my voice teacher at Ithaca College used to say, fake it 'til you make it! This has basically been my mantra since June, and I finally felt like it was paying off on Friday.

Delicious sweets at Gerstner Café
A Lipizzaner horse
On Saturday afternoon, the Musical Munchkins staff had a three-hour meeting to work on the Holiday Music Party, which takes place in early December. Since it's the tenth-year anniversary of MM, the party will be held at Porgy & Bess, the famous jazz club in Vienna. Not only will we be leading the children in group versions of songs such as "Five Little Monkeys" and "This Old Man," we'll be doing so with a jazz band playing in the background! Saturday was mainly to meet with the arranger, Mickey, and to figure out the order and arrangements of all the songs. Students playing and/or singing solos also stopped by at various intervals and performed with Mickey and his guitar. Later, the teachers worked out their own solos. If you remember, I'll be singing "Sleigh Ride," which I'm very excited about. Working out jazzy riffs will also fall under my ukelele-inspired quest to tap into folk and improv roots. After spending three hours listening to "All I Want For Christmas Is You," "White Christmas," and "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," I am READY for the holidays to begin! (I believe the Christmas markets open next weekend...)
1st district Vienna on a Sunday

St. Stephen's Cathedral, city center
This afternoon, I met up with an IES student (a friend-of-a-friend situation). We bought lunch at a Würstelstand (sausage stand) and then roamed the first district for a bit. The weather was milder than frigid, rainy Saturday, though not quite as nice as sunny, balmy Friday. We passed the Spanish Riding School, where the famous Lipizzaner horses perform and then looped around the Ring (the main street encircling the first district) before popping into the Staatsoper to pick up a November Spielplan (schedule). Even though it was a Sunday and everything (besides cafés and tourist shops) was closed, the streets were still packed. Holiday decorations twinkled in every window, and I stumbled upon both Figlmüller (rumored to have the best
schnitzel in the city) and a hole-in-the-wall church on Kärntnerstraße. Apparently, there will be a mass at the church every day this week. It's nice to know that after a total now of nine months in Vienna (between my semester in 2012 and my experiences since June), I can still find new, exciting places. There's always more to discover.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Weekly Interlude 22: Little Luxuries

Perchtoldsdorf center - so colorful!
The promptness of my blog updates is inversely proportional to how busy I am--hence the late update. Remember in September when I was writing about how difficult it was to fill my time? I knew I'd regret whining sooner or later...

A bike path in Perchtoldsdorf
My voice lessons with Jennifer are some of the high points of my week. Setting aside a (child-free) hour to dedicate solely to this craft is such a breath of fresh air. I'm not only improving my stamina and strengthening my instrument, but also learning to think about music--and singing--in an entirely different way. Some of the notions I've had my whole life about how to sing are just so counter-productive. It's exciting to change my perspective and see positive results.
Perchtoldsdorf center

I spent a bit of time with Jennifer and Lillian in Perchtoldsdorf center one day last week and took some more pictures of the town. It was a beautiful day for a walk--and a bit warm. Lillian rode her new pedal bike, and then we went to a café for lunch. It felt very luxurious, as I rarely ever eat out!

A delicious Drechsler Frühstück
On Saturday, however, I did go back to Café Drechsler with Eliza. We'd been planning for several weeks to get a "Drechsler breakfast" and then park it in the café all day. In Austria, buying just one coffee serves as your ticket to hogging a table all afternoon. We arrived around 11 a.m. and bought our Drechsler Frühstück -- scrambled eggs with ham, two rolls with butter and apricot jam, choice of coffee/tea/hot chocolate, small glass of orange juice. We sat in a little side room set away from the noise of the main café area (by default; it was the only table available at the time but turned out to be very peaceful!) and ate very slowly. I've never had such a glorious breakfast, which is extremely odd, considering how I strongly disliked eggs, ham, orange juice, and coffee before coming to Vienna in June....But I'm just going to go with it! We ended up staying until about 3 p.m., at which time we walked through a bit of the Naschmarkt and then went back to the apartment. Eliza and I keep talking about how we want another Drechsler breakfast. At 11 euros a pop, however, we need to pace ourselves.

Me as a Pants Role
Eliza as Salome
Meanwhile, Eliza and I went to that Halloween party last Thursday night. She and I definitely wore the best costumes: she fashioned a dress out of seven scarves and called herself Salome (from Richard Strauss's opera Salome), and I dressed as a Pants Role. I guess I also kind of looked like an equestrian. Either way, both were difficult to translate into Deutsch, so I ended up telling people I was Cherubino from Le Nozze di Figaro. The party was fun, though a little stressful because some people only spoke German, and I actually haven't spoken in German in a very long time. My class in August was the high point; between Musical Munchkins and Lillian, there's rarely a need for me to speak anything but basic Deutsch. This idea, ironically, has allowed me to speak more freely (perhaps I can accept now that I'll make tons of mistakes?), and my basic sentences sound more fluent than ever!
Holiday decorations in the mall

On a separate note, Christmas is the next holiday coming up in Vienna, and the city has already started to prepare. I walked into the mall in the 23rd district (right on the border of Perchtoldsdorf) yesterday and saw holiday decorations already in full swing! Musical Munchkins is also organizing a winter holiday concert, in which I'll be singing "Sleigh Ride," so needless to say, Christmas is on the brain. Which brings me to the fact that I'll be home in less than six weeks... :) 

I can't believe I've officially been living in Vienna for five months now. Where does the time go? Next thing you know, it'll be July 2014, and I'll be moving back to the U.S. But for now, I'm going to keep Livin' the Wien.
So happy at Drechsler!