Late March: It’s only 46°F, but outside the cafe a few particularly sun-hungry individuals soak up the afternoon rays. My warmer perch indoors is the perfect setting to observe the Viennese fervor for out-of-doors coffee-drinking, and for scarves — the latter being a 3-season accoutrement for both women’s and men’s wardrobes and certainly attributable to Austrian dismay at the prospect of being exposed to cold drafts.
Early April: A sunny, warm afternoon is like a magnet for the city’s big Prater park — part amusement park, part woods, part sports fields. A 4-kilometer avenue, lined with chestnut trees, runs the length of the park, dotted with cyclists, joggers, amblers, Nordic walkers, pram-pushers, etc. There’s a chance you’ll see a penny-farthing bicycle go by or even an equestrian or two. Today I’m rollerblading of all things — something I haven’t done in 20 years, probably! My young neighbor has gotten rollerblades for her birthday — 2 sets — and I’ve been spontaneously persuaded to join the fun. We’re both a bit tentative, so there’s plenty of time for people watching. The grouping that strikes me most is a young family, obviously Jewish and obviously hipster. The two boys are in black and white plaid shirts, with yarmulkes that sort of match their blond hair. They’re sitting on a park bench with their dad, who has a big beard and black yarmulke and who is holding up a baby girl in soft pink while the mom positions with a cell phone and selfie stick.
Late April: It’s Friday morning, warm and sunny. The commute on such a morning — probably 12 minutes if I go by bicycle and pretend it’s a race — is a delight. Along the canal, around one corner of Stadtpark, past the music university, and to school. It feels like summer is just around the corner, even if April could prove fickle and usher in a cold and drizzly May and even if we still have more than two months of the term left. It’s the sort of day you just want to sing as you pedal along, no hands, a happier soul than those who took the subway today, missing the bright morning and sun twinkling on the water and fresh breeze.
Christmas feels like a long time ago, but it certainly merits reporting!
My Aunt Susan from St. Louis and Uncle David and Aunt Renie from Phoenix traveled to Vienna for Christmas — making for a full flat and a festive couple of weeks!
Before David and Renie arrived, Susan and I put up a Christmas tree, which we enjoyed decorating with friend Anne, and took in a glorious Bach concert. Fresh off the plane, David and Renie were willing to dive immediately into Christmas festivities — the same evening I hosted a Christmas party of chamber music and carols with a number of musically incline friends!
I did pretty much all of Mom’s traditional Christmas baking:And, with my aunts’ help, I cooked a big Christmas dinner (including my first pork roast — I was going to do a traditional American ham, but it was hard to explain/find what I wanted in the grocery store!) — shared with dear Chinese friends.
We visited Christmas markets, attended a beautiful Christmas Eve service at the local Anglican church, and enjoyed the lavish Christmas lights in the center city. We enjoyed real candles on the Christmas tree, worked on a challenging jigsaw puzzle, listened to Christmas carols that were part of a choir festival in the exquisite city hall, and took a wonderfully sunny walk along the big island in the Danube River.
A special time indeed!
Some time last year, my flatmate Jessica and I realized that we would need to move — as our landlord was intent on selling our flat. The sale went through last summer, and we had till this coming summer to move out. But, acquaintances of hers were leaving a flat that proved promising. So, after Christmas we started packing.
For me, the actual packing felt pretty easy. My last experience of moving was packing up Dad and Mom’s house of 30+ years, accomplished in a state of near-exhaustion and with an fairly uncompromising deadline. However, I have been reminded in the last couple of months that moving is never easy. Whether its leaving kind next-door neighbors, or an unfortunate encounter between the moving truck and another vehicle, or the elevator being out at the new flat (and the new flat being on the 5th floor), or the heating (and then hot water) going out right after you move in — I guess a move always causes a strange sense of displacement. Add much-anticipated company arriving, a knee injury, and end-of-term stress (including writing my first big paper in German), and it becomes, well, not much fun at all.
That said, we had a wonderful crew of helpers from church for the actual moving day, have been blessed to meet lovely new neighbors, and have gradually tamed the chaos of unpacking. After two months, we also finally had proper heating again, just in time for spring.
One of the perks of moving has been the chance to get to know a new part of the city, although if central Vienna were a clock, I’ve more or less just moved from 8 o’clock to 1:30. The second district, where I live now, is big and remarkably green. For many years it has been a working-class neighborhood, now increasingly popular for young professionals and their families, and home to Vienna’s Jewish community.
A five minute jog away is Vienna’s Prater Park, where you can cycle or jog within earshot of the giddy screams of roller coaster enthusiasts, experience an iconic, ultras-slow-moving Ferris wheel, spread a picnic on a tree-lined lawn, ride a Lilliputian train (it’s actually called that), or to some extent get off the beaten path enough to forget you are in the city. Five minutes in the other direction you can spend a Saturday morning perusing a lively farmers’ market — tempted by beautiful breads, cheeses, and cut flowers — before ambling to another park.
The Augarten isn’t as big as the Prater, but also wonderfully green — with the conspicuous and rather dreadful exception of two concrete towers silently standing guard amidst the crisscrossing paths and lawns. The towers are remnants of a less peaceful era — old WWII air raids defense towers designed also as air raid shelters. Ironically, the Augarten also houses the former manufacturing site, now museum, of an exquisite line of porcelain…. (Hannah, thanks for your photos.)
In late January, Hannah arrived for two and a half weeks! We hadn’t seen each other in just over a year, so it was a very special time! The main goal of the trip was to have lots of time to talk and to do mostly “normal routine” together. So, the trip was pretty low-key in many respects — Hannah came along to all nine of my classes at the Austrian school where I teach, joined the English Cafe conversation group, sat in on a trio rehearsal, met the university professor I’m doing translating and editing work for, hung around church while I tied up practical details for Sunday services, etc. Besides the gift of doing those things together, it was important for building our common vocabulary for calls and emails back and forth when she’s back home in Pennsylvania.
We did indeed also enjoy special, out-of-the-routine adventures. One evening we got tickets to an opera, made particularly special by a friend having the lead male role. Afterwards, it felt a bit surreal to go out for supper with him and his wife and one of the lead female singers — out of costume attire, they were totally fun and funny dinner companions and not at all the sort of inaccessible stage figures they’d looked like an hour earlier!
We also spent a weekend with friends Jessica and Anne trying out snowshoeing. (Thanks, H, for all your photos….) By the time we reached our hut for the night, we were surrounded by a beautiful thick blanket of snow, ideal for making snow angels. Our hut host, a local retiree, was a hospitable soul and quite a fun character. After a delicious dinner, we played cards with another guest, who was still planning to head home that evening by skis and headlamp! Before he left, he treated us to a round of Austrian Schnapps — I’m not a thoroughly persuaded fan, but it’s a quintessential part of an Austrian hiking tour.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast……we aimed at the peak, dazzled by the hexagonal perfection of snowflakes, suspended on our jackets as if under a microscope. Nearing the peak, the weather changed dramatically — fog and driving wind. We were glad to make it to the top and found happy refuge in — you guessed it — another hut. After warming up with Glühwein and strudel, we headed back down, following a ski slope much of the way — the skiers made our lumbering along with snowshoes look rather cumbersome!
Besides experiencing daily routine and the Austrian mountain hospitality, we had some pretty typical February days — gray, cold, and sometimes snowy:
We spent a good deal of time waiting at home for plumbers to show up (to fix the hot water and to pretend to fix the heating), walking in various Viennese parks, sipping coffee in cafes, meeting up with friends. We also enjoyed a delightful evening of ice skating in front of city hall, followed by watching winter Olympic games with friends from church. And, there was a trip to the local farmers’ market: One of more random things we experienced was the rare “paternoster” elevator in the city hall. It remains in constant motion — you just get in as it rotates by. When I first heard about the lift, I thought its name must come from the fact that you would want to say your prayers before hopping on or off! In fact, it apparently comes from the image of praying the rosary. (See Wikipedia for more info.)
More to come on family visits — to my great delight, Hannah and Peter have booked tickets to visit in the summer! And, cousins are coming, too!
A particular musical highlight of the past months was playing for a duet concert in January with my good friend Marianna and her neighbor — the two women discovered that they have wonderfully matching voices, which were showed off to great advantage especially when we came to the Tchaikovsky songs, written in their native Russian. We performed for a full house in a favorite setting — a small but beautiful church crypt.
In terms of chamber music, I’ve been playing with the same trio (flute, cello, piano) as last year. This past term we worked on a trio by Clara von Webern, and we’re adding a Haydn trio this semester. Rehearsals are a happy mixture of practice and good camaraderie and occasional fits of laughter.
For anyone who cares about German art song, I’m attempting to get Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise into my fingers. The bass I’m working with has about the lowest voice I’ve heard — he’s singing from the lowest transposition of the work that he could find! I didn’t realize how depressing most of the texts are — but still beautiful music!
In choir, I’ve enjoyed the chance to continue to get better acquainted with others in the group, and we’ve had two concerts of enjoyable repertoire in the past months. At Christmas we sang works by Vivaldi (Gloria) and Telemann and, in the Lenten season, a concert of Buxtehude and Bruckner. It was fun to sing with various period instruments, including a lute and an ensemble of viola da gamba.
As for attending concerts, there have been four highlights in recent months. The first was Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium with Aunt Susan. The concert was sold out, but we managed to get seats after all at the last minute — and, as it turned out, directly behind friends from church, which was an extra bonus!
The second concert was a chamber music recital featuring the pianist Jewgeni Kissin. The time I heard him in a solo concert was one of the very few occasions I’ve waited around for an autograph — I felt guilty afterwards, as I can’t imagine wanting to endure a long line of admiring strangers after a monumental concert. For the chamber music concert, a friend and I bought standing room tickets, but I spied a free seat on stage (yes, they sometimes seat folks on stage in the Musikverein), which I worked up the nerve to fill for the second half. (It’s accepted practice to fill vacant seats after intermission.) It was absolutely splendid to be just a few meters away and watch the perfection of cooperation between the musicians.
The third concert was the Messiah, again in the Musikverein. It was fun to watch a friend in the choir; I was extremely impressed by the wonderful dynamic range — and excellent pronunciation — of the choir. (Funny that Handel, though German, composed a work in English that is not necessarily easy for German-speakers to pronounce correctly!) It was really wonderful to hear the splendid interplay of text and music — well worth the lengthy program!
The fourth concert was a house concert a friend asked me to turn pages for. Although I felt pretty glued to the piano score, it was still possible to enjoy the wonderful interaction of pianist, flutist, and cellist. And, it certainly was a treat to enjoy the hospitality of one of the deans (?) of the music university. The well-appointed home featured a goodly array of original art, a piano that was somehow a cross between a Steinway and a Bösendorfer, and a perfect view of the Belvedere palace and gardens. My goodness!
In all season, there’s the sense of the outdoors beckoning. Winter in Austria means skiing for a large percentage of Austrians. I’ve enjoyed trying to fit it, although I’ve concluded that skiing is a terrible amount of work and one of the most exhausting things I can think of. And, although the speed is fun, I’m not as sure of being in control as the people around me, who obviously have been cruising down the slopes since early childhood.
This year, my flatmate and I joined four Austrian friends for a few days skiing. It was a good time together! The ski area was so huge — you could ski different slopes practically all day, it seemed. Everyone pretty much stuck together, which was a kind demonstration of patience on the part of the more proficient members of our group.
The only less-than-great part was ending up with some version of the flu (?) on the third day. However, with stubborn enthusiasm, I decided to ski anyway — which I kind of paid for afterwards….
Besides skiing, there were chances this winter to ice skate and try out snow-showing, as already mentioned!
Easter and Passover
This year I’ve been made more aware of the connections between Passover and Easter. One reason is that moving in January to a new district landed me in the middle of Vienna’s small but apparently vibrant Jewish community. If my flatmate and I head to the nearby farmers’ market on Saturday morning, there’s a good chance of noticing men on their way to synagogue, dressed in conservative black garb, sometime with bowler-type hats and sometimes with a shtreimel — the big furry hat of Hasidic Jews.
The Orthodox Jewish community seems to live intentionally oblivious to the curiosity they arouse. One morning I noticed a Jewish teenager on his scooter, presumably heading to school. Side curls, black garb, black hat. To my great amusement, he’d covered his hat with what looked like a shower cap, as protection against the morning’s threat of inclement weather.
One cannot help but wonder how the Jewish community sees themselves — here and today. All around the district one finds tiny plaques remembering the families who were driven out and perished during the Holocaust. It’s a sobering reminder of a dark history, and it makes one think about the tenacity of the Jewish community here today….
This Passover season, my flatmate organized a Seder for a group from church — based on the liturgical Passover readings and simultaneously emphasizing the rich Christological symbolism of the celebration. It’s not a short service, but with responsive readings, enough horseradish to make you cry, children present to season the whole event with their curiosity, and a feast that we by no means ate with the haste of the first Passover celebrants, it was an evening to remember. What made it particularly special was a Jewish friend coming along and sharing not only his amazing, home-made matzah ball soup, but also his anecdotes and insights, not to mention a remarkable openness to participating in his Gentile friends’ adaptation of a Jewish holy day!
Other Easter week celebrations were good. Friday there was a thoughtful Tenebrae service at church. Sunday I joined a small group for a sunrise service on friends’ terrace. There wasn’t much of a sunrise to see, but we still sang a few hymns, accompanied by harmonica, on the rooftop at 6:45 a.m. (I’m not sure what the neighbors thought, if they happened to have had their windows open), followed by breakfast before two morning church services. The afternoon was spent with other church friends. I had fun baking a strawberry and Cointreau gateau for the occasion:
On Tuesday I invited a few girlfriends over for now my third Easter brunch. We ate the hot cross buns that were a yearly tradition growing up in the Holder household.
Well, in the weeks since I’ve started writing this post, we’ve moved from winter coats to shorts. It must be high time to sign off and click “publish”! Thanks to one and all who actually made it to the final photo.