Friday, January 31, 2014

Weekly Interlude 28: (And-a-Half)

Bryn Terfel!!!
It's taken me so long to get my act together and write this blog entry that I've decided to simplify matters and make a series of bullet points. MUCH has happened in the last week-and-a-half, and MUCH MORE is coming up in the next week!
  • I met Bryn Terfel last week! The Welsh bass-baritone played Scarpia in the Wiener Staatsoper's latest version of Tosca. If you remember, Tosca is my absolute favorite opera; I've seen it at least five times in the last two years, and I can say that Bryn Terfel is my favorite Scarpia thus far. He was brilliant in every way -- powerful and sadistic and mesmerizing all at once. Afterwards, he signed autographs in the bookstore, as opposed to coming by the stage door. He sat at a little table with a beer and a pen, talking to everyone while one of his CDs played in the background. He had a great sense of humor, and I felt bold enough to ask for a picture with him!
  • On Saturday night, I went to a ball with two of my friends, Susanna and Lizzy. It was Susanna's high school ball, though alumni often come back. Let me just tell you how wildly different it was from any kind of school dance you'd find in the States. There were three rooms: the main room with live music, round tables, and a ballroom dancing floor; a smoky lounge upstairs (complete with cocktail bar); and a disco room off the ballroom (also filled with smoke, as well as strobe lights and a DJ). A school event condoning smoking?!?! Well, this is Europe. Central/Eastern Europe, to be precise. They haven't exactly picked up on the latest news that smoking kills. But nonetheless, it was lots of fun, even though I had to shower at 3:30 a.m. in order to get the stench of cigarettes out of my hair and skin. I'd also like to add that these high schoolers can DANCE -- and I mean waltz, salsa, foxtrot, cha cha, you name it. They can waltz in the ballroom just as well as they can grind in the disco room. I danced the Quadrille at midnight -- a huge success, despite the directions being tossed out in German (eins, zwei, drei, vier, ZURÜCK! zwei, drei, vier...)
  • Musical Munchkins hosted its end-of-term recital over the weekend. Although my kids are too young to play/sing in the recital, I saw a few of them there to watch their older siblings. One of them even gave me a lovely lilac bulb as a thank-you for the semester! Now I need to hunt down a pot and some soil in this frigid January...right now, I'm substituting with a large wine glass.
    Graz's Clock Tower
    The colorful city of Graz
  • I went to Graz on Tuesday (returning Thursday) to visit my friend Lizzy, who currently lives there and teaches English in a nearby town. Graz, the City of Design, is the capital of Steiermark, one of the nine states in Austria, and lies a two-and-a-half hour train ride south of Vienna. In fact, Graz is the second-largest city in the country (Vienna is, predictably, the largest), boasting a whopping 250,000 people. It's a very student-friendly city (there are six universities), and it reminded me of a Soviet-influenced Bologna. Much of the architecture in Graz sports Italian influence, particularly the archways so common in Bologna. To give you some idea of what Graz looks like (beyond the pictures featured here), imagine Renaissance architecture given a facelift with Baroque architecture, interspersed with surprisingly colorful Soviet cinder-block apartment buildings (thanks to the post-WWII reconstruction).
  • Graz's main attraction is the Clock Tower, which resides on Castle Hill. You can see it from almost anywhere in the city. Apparently, Napoleon once wanted to take the bell from the Clock Tower, but Graz's citizens stole it the night before Napoleon planned to get his hands on it. Well done, Graz! Since it was so snowy when I went, the stairs up to Castle Hill were closed; we took the elevator instead, not that I minded... Castle Hill affords the most beautiful views of the city, made even more so, I think, by the layers of fluffy white snow.
    A pit marking the center of Graz
    Overlooking Graz from Castle Hill
  • The picture here that looks like a giant parking meter is actually a giant, fake pit -- as in, peach or nectarine. A fruit pit. It marks the very center of the city, a "point zero," if you will. We found it hiding inconspicuously off in a courtyard, but there you go.
  • Lizzy and I went to a cafe and ordered hot chocolate. But not just any hot chocolate. You choose a flavor (I chose Cashew-Caramel; Lizzy chose Cinnamon-Honey), and they bring you a cup of steamed milk and a chocolate bar in your desired flavor. Then, you melt the chocolate bar into the milk, wait two minutes, stir it up, and experience a tiny sliver of heaven. I cannot begin to say how amazing that hot chocolate was. In fact, it was so good, I drank too much at once and promptly started choking. But it was worth it.
  • Today marked my last day teaching at Musical Munchkins for the semester; classes resume in a week. Tomorrow I'm flying out to London, where I'll stay for a few days with my cousin, and then I take the Chunnel over to Paris to visit a friend there. I can only imagine how chock-full Weekly Interlude 29 is going to be...perhaps I'll have to resort to more bullet points. Or a blog entirely of pictures!
    The Steiermark coat-of-arms

    Inside the Graz Cathedral

    The city of Graz

    An outlook from Castle Hill
    A pathway on Castle Hill

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Weekly Interlude 27: A Lack of Photos, an Abundance of Books

I must confess: I did not take any photos this week.

"Picture of the Day" advertisement
Normally, I take pictures to help me remember everything I do during the week, the same way I write lists and journal entries to recount all the details my (clearly ancient) mind can never seem to retain. But this pictures. Which in and of itself reminds me what I've been doing all week: reading and writing.

In memory of Leonard Bernstein
I wrote some recital program notes for my former voice teacher. For those of you who don't know, program notes are the little blurbs you read in a program -- basically, a mini composer biography and a few brief sentences giving context for the music you're about to hear. Since the theme of my teacher's recital was the three types of love found in the Bible (eros, philos, agape), I wrote an introduction tying it all together. It took me two afternoons and three coffees, but the research, in particular, was a whole lot of fun. Who knew that Gluck conducted a series of operatic reforms that significantly affected the development of French opera?

I read an article in Poets & Writers magazine that talked about the usefulness of taking walks to help aid the creative process. Apparently, walking (and exercising in general) has numerous effects that might explain why it's such a common literary quirk: stress relief, growth of new brain cells, inspiration/creativity boost. Charles Dickens walked up to twenty miles in an afternoon! So (and this goes for everyone out there, not just self-proclaimed "creative types") instead of chaining yourself to your desk and beating yourself over the head until your task is complete, it's probably far more effective to work then walk, then work some more, then walk again. Our brains need time to process information.
Vienna skyline, viewed from the Belvedere

My reading took another form this week, as well: travel guides! Musical Munchkins gives me a week off in February, and I'm planning to visit my cousins in London for a few days before taking the Chunnel over to Paris to see my friend. I've been to both London and Paris before, though a very long time ago, so I'm reading up to refresh my memory. But here's the dilemma: how can you possibly do London in two days?

The answer: You can't. There's absolutely no way. I can only hope the weather's nice so that I can walk around and see everything, even if I don't go inside. I also feel no obligation to go into every museum. The last time I was in Paris, I did the Musée d'Orsay and the Louvre in one day. BIG MISTAKE. It took me over two years to recover. And I think, even now, all the churches and museums I visited in Italy over the summer will tide me over on this trip; I'll pick one or two this time and be satisfied.

A colorful bench warmer
Inside Café Diglas
And, as ever, I'm on a quest for an amazing book. I know there are so many out there, but choosing a book to read is strangely difficult. When I read, I want it to be something epic, something brilliant, something that completely blows my mind. I've read so many book jackets, and so many of them sound good, but if I'm going to commit to a novel, I want it to be utterly amazing. (This seems to suggest I have control issues and want to know the end results before I do anything...hmmm. Interesting.) So after hours of perusing Barnes & Noble, I usually end up buying nothing. Unless, of course, I'm looking for a specific title that someone has convinced me will be great.

Being in a non-English-speaking country exacerbates this problem, as you can probably imagine, seeing as English book sections are decidedly small. Cue Amazon UK, Kindle Cloud Reader, und so weiter (and so on). The simplest solution probably would have been to buy myself a Kindle, but nothing--NOTHING--can ever be so satisfying as holding a real book in my hands. Even reading some quick fiction on my computer feels clunky and confining; I lose the kinesthetic experience of reading. I don't like it.

A view from an airplane
The good news is that I have several books lined up for when I get back home, all recommendations from friends via Facebook. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. Just to name a few. If you have other suggestions for me, please share!

And now I think it's time for me to go outside and take a walk. Hopefully, it'll get my creative juices flowing while I simultaneously take pictures for the next Weekly Interlude and discover a new part of the city. I think the sun is even peering out!

(The pictures in this blog were taken in Vienna but not this week. I couldn't leave the blog completely blank, could I? :)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Weekly Interlude 26: Happy New Year!

A sign by the Museums Quartier
Welcome to 2014! The new year finds me back in Vienna, where I will stay until at least July 3 to finish out the school year at Musical Munchkins. I spent nearly three weeks at home, however, and let me just say that that's exactly what I needed to recharge.

Obligatory wing photo
I flew into Boston, just missing the first of many snowstorms, though that landing was by far the most terrifying I've ever experienced. As we descended, I could see snow cleared on either side of the (rather slick-looking) runway, and the plane hit the ground with a huge THUMP! that tossed everybody into the air. (That seatbelt sign is no joke!) Then we proceeded to pitch side to side, hurtling down the runway at what felt like dangerously high speeds; the thing with the Boston airport is that the plane MUST stop after a certain point--instead of an endless stretch of runway, you'll eventually just hit the Harbor.

Remnants of Christmas in Wien
After this stressful touchdown, the captain got on the intercom and apologized for such a bumpy landing. But we were safe and sound back in Boston, AND my parents met me at the arrivals gate with a sign and an American flag!

My sister and my aunt both came up for the holidays, as well, so it was a mostly family-centric three weeks. There were a couple things I definitely needed to do: go shopping on a Sunday BECAUSE I COULD (stores are always closed on Sundays in Vienna), go to Target (which inconveniently erupted with credit card scandal), eat delicious food made by my mom (I can't even tell you how glorious this was). It was super nice to drive again; my car (an 18-year-old Camry named Car) was waiting for me.

Finding a shell at Ogunquit Beach
As a surprise Christmas present, my mom took me to Stonewall Kitchen in York, Maine, where we took a cooking class--aka, we watched someone make food, asked questions, and then ate the most scrumptious meal you could possibly imagine--and then we visited Ogunquit Beach, one of my favorite places on earth. As amazing as Austria is, it will just never have a beach; no matter how perfect everything else is, it will always remain a land-locked country. I'd been very sad over the summer, thinking I wouldn't make it to the beach in 2013, but with just 12 days to go until the new year, I did! It's good to know that I love the beach just as much in the winter as in the height of summer.
Ninjabread men

Every year at Christmas, I make gingerbread people--men, women, snowmen; even houses, stars, and angels. Last year, my sister gave me a whole bucket full of cookie cutters; this year, however, she upped the ante and gave me three NINJAbread men cutters, which, according to their box, are cut out for action... So needless to say, baking for Christmas 2013 was pretty wild.

I sang for my family while I was home--mostly Christmas carols and folk songs. I bought a book of folk songs in Vienna and brought it back with me. Did you know The House of the Rising Sun is a Southern American folk song? Well, it is, and it's über-fun to play; cue me wailing away at the piano while my mom, dad, and sister sing dramatically at the tops of their lungs. I also entertained them occasionally with such classics as "Welcome to My Music Class" and the "Hokey Pokey." Once a music teacher, always a music teacher, I suppose.
A very snowy beach

Winter at Ogunquit Beach
New Year's Eve saw me cooking dinner, as I've done for the past four or five years. The menu: baked goat cheese and caramelized onion salad over leafy greens drizzled with honey, apple-stuffed pork roast, seasoned roast potatoes, lemon and almond green beans and brussel sprouts, and Bavarian pear torte. I believe I was cooking for seven hours straight with just a small half hour break in the middle. Craziness, you call it? I call it DEDICATION. Plus, if I do say so myself, it always turns out to be quite delicious :)

So it was with great sadness that I left the US again and headed back to the land of Schnitzel and Knödel. It snowed the two days before I left, though luckily my flight from Boston was delayed only an hour (thankfully shortening my 6-hour layover at Heathrow), and the flight from London was delayed 30 minutes. All in all, I arrived in Vienna completely exhausted and have been trying to adjust to the time zone ever since. (I did sleep very well last night, and I didn't wake up in the middle of the night, so perhaps I can say I'm officially over the jet lag?)

The moon & sunset from the airplane
Lillian and family are gone for two months in New Zealand, so now's the opportunity to take advantage of all my free time--go to the opera, read, take walks, visit museums, practice, etc. Now is my chance to do all the things I didn't have time for before. I have evenings now! Unbelievable.

Perhaps in this new year, I should re-title my blog "Susan's Adventures" because I'm starting to wonder just how artistic they all are. Nevertheless, I'll leave it like this for now. After all, who knows what the new year will bring?