Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Wien noch mal

 **This post is shamefully overdue. Real life getting in the way, I guess. It's been almost three weeks since I got back from Vienna, but sometimes it feels like I just got back yesterday. And then again, I'd be more than happy to go back again tomorrow.**

The weather, which had been splendidly sunny and warm during my time in Budapest, turned chilly and overcast for my arrival in Vienna, but I far from minded. Like Amsterdam, Vienna is a city that loses little for lack of sunlight. In fact, the cloud cover cast a moody atmosphere that I thought matched the city—and myself in it—perfectly.

It may be unfair to essentialize an entire city this way, but I genuinely feel that there’s something melancholy about Vienna. Even the voice on the U-Bahn and S-Bahn—the one that announces the upcoming Haltestelle—sounds gloomy as it proclaims, “Ausstieg links.” Not that I’m complaining, mind you.

Coffee Houses
A Maria Theresia on its perfect silver serving tray. 
It’s a good thing that I have developed a taste for coffee over the past couple of years—otherwise, I might have missed out on one of Vienna’s star attractions. At some point in history (when exactly, I cannot say, being lamentably remiss in history) the Turks occupied Vienna, bringing their coffee with them, and when the occupiers left, the coffee stayed behind, and grew to become the signature drink of the city. In fact, coffee and coffee houses have become so integral to Viennese identity that “Viennese Coffeehouse Culture” was recently proclaimed “Intangible Cultural Heritage” by the Austrian branch of UNESCO.

Cafe Hawelka
And there really is an entire culture surrounding coffee in Vienna: the lingo alone—Melange, Einspänner, Fransiskaner, Maria Theresia, und so weiter—can be intimidating for the uninitiated (I’m certainly glad I read up on it before arriving). I’d like to know what happens when someone walks into a Kaffeehaus and tries to order just “Kaffee.” Actually, I don’t have to wonder: while I was sitting in Café Sperl enjoying my Wiener Eiskaffee and Apfeltorte before heading to the Leopold Museum, a couple of American guys came in and tried to order “just a coffee”. The request was followed by a few moments of confusion and miscommunication, until the waitress managed to convince the pair that what they actually wanted was a Melange, which is similar to a cappuccino and is pretty much as basic as it gets.

Cafe Central 
No less important than the coffee are the coffee houses that serve it-- which range from splendidly grand nineteenth-century affairs to cozily crowded WWII-era haunts—and the atmosphere they provide. I ended up visiting seven or eight different establishments in the course of my five days in Vienna, and each had its own subtly unique vibe, while at the same time unquestionably adhering to the Kaffeehaus code—coffee served on a silver tray with a glass of Leitungswasser and a sweet treat on the side; tables piled with newspapers, which patrons are free to peruse at their leisure; no pressure to order a second cup or pay up and get out. My favorites locales were without question: the grandiose, ornately decorated Café Central, with its dignified be-suited waiters and nostalgic live piano music (“As Time Goes By,” “Beyond the Sea”); and Café Hawelka, a popular hangout for intellectuals in the ‘60s and ‘70s, where there’s no menu, and the waiters also wear suits, but seem almost out of place among the crowded tables and poster-plastered walls.

On the whole, coffeehouses in Vienna are, to me, emblematic of what makes Vienna itself so interesting: the sense of timelessness. You walk into a coffeehouse in Vienna, and suddenly you’re transported to the nineteenth century, or fin-de-siecle to the 1950s,  and for the duration of your stay, time seems to stop. It’s interesting, too, that while coffeehouses could easily be one of those ultra-touristy destinations at which the native Viennese turn up their noses, I got the impression that real Viennese people do go to coffeehouses—maybe even have a regular spot, where their table is always free and the snooty waiter knows them by name (OK, new life goal: move to Vienna and become a regular at Café Hawelka. How do I make this happen?)

Österreichisches Deutsch
After four days of complete disorientation and bemusement in Magyar-speaking Budapest, I almost jumped for joy to be in good old German-speaking Austria again. I have more than my fair share of doubts about my German skills, but there’s no question that I’m at least equipped to be an effective tourist. It was such a relief to be able to order food in a restaurant or coffee in a café without having to resort to the humiliation of pointing; and getting lost in Vienna (which I did—a lot) was considerably less scary than in Budapest or even Amsterdam, even though Vienna is a much larger and more confusingly laid-out city, because I knew I could always just ask the next person who happened past to direct me toward the Ringstraße (a band of streets that loops around the Innenstadt) or the closest U-Bahn or Straßenbahn stop.

That being said, Austrian German is quite different from the Hochdeutsch I’ve been exposed to for most of my academic career and also, for the most part, since being in Franfurt. The entire language seems to sit differently—farther forward, more on the tip of the tongue. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the “ei” sound, which in standard German is pronounced like “eye” in English, but in Austrian German sounds more like “ay-ee.” 

There are certain words and phrases, too, that are uniquely Austrian. For example they actually do say “Grüß Gott” by way of greeting. I’d always been under the impression, since basically my first day of German class freshman year in high school, that this was an antiquated expression that no one used any more. But when I walked into a bakery right after getting off the train from Budapest, the lady behind the counter nodded and said, “Grüß Gott,” and I was so caught off guard that it took me a few moments to remember that I wanted a croissant and how to order it. And while riding Straßenbahn number 71 on the way to Centralfriedhof (Central Cemetery, which, by the way, is not even remotely central, but all the way out in the 16th district), I eavesdropped on a debate between a brother and sister, seemingly twins and about four years old, about whether or not the brother could run “ein bissl schneller” than the sister (in Germany the word would be bisschen.)

To my immense pride, I didn’t have that much trouble at all understanding people in Vienna—though I’m sure it would be more of a struggle in less populous parts of Austria, where regional accents inevitably become more pronounced. In fact, it was hardly any time at all—less than a day— before I found myself mimicking the language as I heard it around me—especially the “ei” sound. I can’t help but wonder how my German would have been different at the end of this year had I chosen to apply for an ETAship in Austria instead of Germany. (Actually, spending a year in Austria isn’t entirely out of the question: the Austrian version of an English Teaching Assistantship isn’t an official Fulbright program, meaning that people who have already completed a Fulbright year in another country—Germany, say—can still apply…)

Klimt et al.
From the moment I set foot in Vienna, I was a woman on a mission. And the name of that mission was: Operation Klimt—as in Gustav Klimt, one of Vienna’s favorite sons, and one of my favorite artists (it’s weird to think about, me having favorite artists at all. What a year in Europe will get you, I guess).

Secession Building
That being said, my first Klimt encounter actually came completely by accident. On my way back from Schloß Schönbrunn, I got off the U-Bahn at the Naschmarkt stop completely on a whim, and what should I run into on the other end of the Naschmarkt but the famous Secession Building, a work of Jugendstil-ian art in its own right, And inside the building: Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, one of the artist’s most famous works and one of the Vienna’s must-see sights I’d been most excited to visit?

A covert snapshot of one section of Klimt's Beethoven Frieze.
Am I a very bad person for taking this?
I have to say, even for someone who knows nothing about art (or knew nothing about art before coming to Europe—in the course of my Herbstferien travels alone I learned more about art history than I’d known in my entire life previously) there’s something powerful about seeing a really great work of art in person. I’ve been struck by this numerous times in various art museums since being in Europe—most notably when standing in front of Vermeer’s Milkmaid, Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride, and any one of six or seven of Van Gogh’s works in Amsterdam. Standing on the platform in the Secession Building, getting up-close-and-personal with Klimt’s frieze, which runs along the top of four walls in the building’s basement, the feeling overwhelmed me yet again. And yes, I’ll admit, after leaving the platform I snuck a few illicit photographs before scurrying out of the building.

After leaving the Secession Building, I was suddenly struck with Klimt fever, so I immediately set of for Schloss Belvedere, home of Klimt’s most famous work, The Kiss. And here again, I was starstruck by a painting. Several, in fact—not just Klimt’s Kiss, but his Pallas Athena and his Judith/Salome, and by Egon Schiele’s rather visceral Umarmung as well. In the case of The Kiss, I had to overcome a few more prosaic surprises in order to get to the wonder part. The Kiss is square—did you know that? Because I didn’t. Not that I had any strongly-held conviction that the painting’s rectangularity, but it was surprising, somehow, to walk into the room where it was on display and realize it was square. Also a lot shinier than I’d realized. Of course, we all know that Gustav loved his gold, but the actual sheen of it is lost in photographs and reproductions, much like the brushstrokes in works by Rembrandt or Van Gogh.

Exterior of the Kirche am Steinhof. As I was walking
up the hill, and when I first went into the church,
The Doors song "The End" was playing
on my headphones, and I have to say it was a pretty
perfect soundtrack..
As thrilling as it was to get to gorge myself on so much Klimt, the prize for coolest Jungedstil sight, —and maybe my favorite sight overall in Vienna period—goes to a dark horse, a building I had no idea existed until it was recommended to me by my German professor: Otto Wagner’s Kirche am Steinhof. Located atop a hill on the grounds of a mental hospital also largely designed by Wagner, the Kirche am Steinhof has all the elements you expect to find in a church— altar, angels, stained glass windows, steeple—but all with a decided Jugendstil twist (apparently, Wagner also designed the church specifically to facilitate mental patients). I was particularly struck by the differences because I’d just been to see two more standard Baroque specimens, Peterskirche and Karlskirche, earlier in the day (and the prize for scariest Herbstferien experience goes to riding the elevator up to get a closer look at the frescoes on the ceiling of Karlskirche: the scaffolding sways underneath you, and there’s actually a sign— only in German, which seems somewhat questionable to me—that running and jumping are lebensgefährlich, life-endangering). A standard church visit usually takes me about ten to fifteen minutes—I can say this with confidence because I’ve visited probably close to thirty churches in the last two months. I stayed in/around the Kirche am Steinhof for close to an hour. It occurred to me several times that I should probably move on, but I couldn’t quite manage to tear myself away.
Close-up of the alter in Kirche am Steinhof.
Just one of many incredibly cool details.

Making my visit to the Kirche am Steinhof even more special is the fact that I almost didn’t go at all. It was my last day in Vienna (Friday), and I had read that the church was only open to tourists for a few hours on Saturdays and Sundays. I was tired, I was morose, and the hospital was way out in the 14th district.  In the end, though, I decided the trip could be worth it for the exterior alone, and what should I discover when I got to the top of the hill but that the church was not only open—entry was free. Happy Nationalfeiertag, everybody! (More on that to come)

A Few Quick Hits (I could write pages on all of these topics and dozens of others besides, but if I tried I would never get this entry finished):
View from my Stehplatz at the Staatsoper. 
v One of the highlights of my trip to Vienna—one of those Great European Experiences I’m sure I’ll be obnoxiously going on and on about a year from now, when people are sick of my Europe stories, but somehow I can’t stop telling them anyway—one of these highlights was without question getting to see an opera by the inimitable Herr Mozart at the world-renowned Wiener Staatsoper. Stehplätze (standing room) tickets for Staatsoper shows go on sale for a trim 3 Euro starting eighty minutes before curtain. The only drawback is that you have to stand for the duration of the opera (or squat , but then you risk not being able to see, or awkwardly sitting on the feet of the person behind you), and by the end of the two and a half hours I my attention started drifting from the stage to the extreme discomfort in my kneecaps. The opera I saw, La Clemenza di Tito—is by no means one of the composers greatest or best known, but that hardly interfered with my sense that I was getting to experience a consummate Viennese moment.
v It just so happened that Friday, October 26th—my last full day in Vienna—is Austria’s Nationalfeiertag (National Holiday). I first became aware of this fact a few days earlier, when I walked through the Heldenplatz on my way to the Kaiserappartements to find the yard crowded with tents and tanks and even a giant military helicopter, and plenty of Austrian military personnel rushing hin und her. Intimidating? Only slightly. On Friday evening, I ventured to wander through the Heldenplatz again while the party was in full swing: apparently, nothing says “Austria” like “The Sommer of ‘69” and a samba performed to a Michael Jackson song. Also, while walking through Stephansplatz earlier in the day, I was handed a couple of pamphlets by a group of demonstrators calling for Austria’s immediate secession from the European Union. Given the fact that there were more police officers than demonstrators, however, I’ll venture to say that Austria’s place in the EU is safe for now.

Kaiserschmarr'n. MEGA lecker.
v Unfortunately, I was a bit negligent when it came to sampling Viennese cuisine. I did have schnitzel once, on my first night in the city. Besides that I sampled the apfeltorte at more than one coffeehouse,  and at Café Diglas I had Kaiserschmarr’n, which are basically the most decadent and delicious pancakes you will ever taste. For the most part, though, since time was short and funds by this point in my travels were running lonely, I stuck with supermarket meals and Döner for three Euro (I forget sometimes that there are large populations of Turkish immigrants in countries other than Germany, and that Döner are therefore not strictly a Turkish-German invention). Someday, when I’m rich and famous and retired, I will “do” Europe again, and when that day comes, I will be all about nice hotels and the finest restaurants the cities have to offer. Until that day comes, though, I’m afraid it’s youth hostels and grab-and-go, or else risk missing out on travel and everything these incredible cities have to offer altogether.

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