Cousins Come to Town

In early August, cousins Ben and Franci, and their three daughters, Marica, Esther, and Laurelin, arrived for a wonderful week plus of enjoying Vienna and its environs, seasoned with good conversation, children’s antics, and lots of gelato.          Our first evening together we enjoyed a bit of walking in my neighborhood and downtown. The next day we started out with a visit to the local farmers’ market. That sort of thing is particular down Franci and my alley, but everyone managed to find something of interest, and we also collected a delectable spread for an evening indoor picnic.In the afternoon, it being Ben’s birthday, we landed at a restaurant perched right on the Alte Donau (an oxbow lake, formerly part of the Danube River). It was one hot afternoon, but that didn’t keep us from enjoying a hearty lunch. Afterwards, we practically melting on our way to the swimming area nearby. I’m not always one for lake swimming, but on this day, it was glorious.

Sunday was a very relaxed day. Marica and I stayed home in the morning, enjoying the quiet. (My digital piano, complete with headphones, was a big hit with the girls.) The others went to one of my favorite museums, a collection of clocks and watches.

In the afternoon, we went to church. I was on for interpreting the service — which I look forward to doing but also find a bit nerve-wracking.

Monday was a splendid day! There was interest in boating on the Danube, cycling, seeing quaint Austrian villages, and visiting a castle, and we managed to squeeze them all into one day! We took the train to Melk, and Franci and the younger girls (ages 5 and 8) then headed downstream on a boat. Ben and Marica (age 11) and I rented bikes and traversed the 25 kilometers at a somewhat slower pace.

       Cycling together was a real highlight for me. For one thing, it’s such fun introducing friends to what is one of my favorite areas of Austria. It was also Marica’s longest bike ride to date, and it was cool to see her enthusiasm for the ride. To counteract the summer heat beating down on us, we had a wonderful wade in the Danube.     In the town of Dürnstein, we all met back up and took the short hike up to the castle ruins.  After some clambering around, we reclaimed bikes for Ben and Franci, and I took the girls by bus to our destination a few kilometers farther in the town of Krems. Everyone was in real need of some cooling, refreshing gelato by that point!

On Tuesday we visited the Naschmarkt, home to an array of Turkish and Middle Eastern specialties (baklava, falafel and hummus, etc.) and then spent the afternoon at Schönbrunn park and palace.

I’d been inside once before, about 10 years ago, so it was quite nice to do the tour again. It’s hard to imagine ever calling such a place home, considering the expansive number of rooms, the incredible Chinese ceramics and wood paneling, the golden hall (imitating Versailles), and the general over-the-top elegance.

We learned that Franz Josef, emperor from 1848-1916, began his day around 4 a.m., working straight through breakfast and lunch and spending untold hours in successive, short audiences with his subjects. Although we weren’t totally convinced by the tour’s claim of his taste for simplicity, his rooms certainly were less ornate and sumptuous than other parts of the palace.

After the main palace, we toured the children’s museum in the basement, complete with 18th century extensive floral/jungle-themed murals originally intended to offer a refreshingly cool summer retreat for the then empress Maria Theresia.

One toy on display in the children’s museum was a miniature croquet set, intended for use on a large table. For anyone who knows the Holder love of the game, especially of their own version to be played on an impossibly steep East Tennessee hillside, upon grass wizened by July heat, my amusement at this tame, lilliputian version of the game will hardly come as a surprise.

There was also a dress-up area — oh so cute and silly!                           We even discovered there were costumes for grown-ups. Why not?On Wednesday we headed south of Vienna, to Schneeberg (“Snow Mountain,” though there was precious little of that commodity this time of year!), for the experience of staying overnight in an Austrian Hütte. What fun!It’s a popular area for walkers and hikers of every age, so there’s actually a little cog railway that goes almost to the top. Since the 5-year-old wasn’t going to be up for the hike, Franci and Laurelin took the train, and Ben and I and the older girls hiked up. It was certainly enough of a challenge for all of us, especially the younger members of our party! But they did well! We played word games (“the ____ Austrian mountain goat,” filling in the blank with as crazy or silly an adjective as we could think of, working our way from A to Z), which helped marvelously with forgetting that someone’s legs had “never been so tired!” We stopped to enjoy views, eat snacks from our packs, and even all share a piece of Apfelstrudel at the little hut we passed when our path crossed the cog railway line. A thunderstorm motivated us along, too, although we ended up seeking shelter briefly just inside a train tunnel!

Finally, after a happy reunion with the rest of our party, we arrived at our destination, just as the rain was starting to come down steadily. In the cozy lodge, we shared wonderfully stereotypical mountain fare. Dinner was followed by Ben’s reading more of the Return of the King, which their family is currently enjoying out loud — the girls first time through the Ring trilogy.

Waking up on Thursday to a beautiful morning, Franci and I had a jaunt to the nearest mini-peak, sharing the meadow with a goodly number of munching cows. Coming down for our breakfast, we got rather better fare than the our bovine neighbors. When the waiter asked if we wanted some ham and eggs to go with the basket of bread we were already sampling, we agreed that everyone would like “a bit, but not too much.” Well, apparently the cook thought he was cooking for a crew of intrepid mountaineers, because this was what was brought to our table!

After breakfast, we headed down the mountain in the same formation as before. Of course the route going down was easier, but especially so with a litany of jokes and riddles shared along the way! Friday we finally had a day looking around the Vienna city center. We made the necessary pilgrimage to the main cathedral, and, humorously enough, all five Hoyts thought it would be good fun to visit the crypt, based on my description of the eerie array of bones to be viewed there. Well, at least it was cooler than anything above ground, and no one caught the Plague!

In the afternoon Franci and Marica and I had a look around the Belvedere gardens and had a lovely bit of cake at the former imperial confectionery. The best part of the cafe is having a view into the kitchen, where the staff are hard at work with mounds of delectable ingredients being shaped into pieces of edible art.

In the evening, Ben and Franci and I had dinner out together, visiting a Viennese Heuriger — sampling the local wine and selecting dishes from the glass case (I had a vision of the delight that that would have been to our German-speaking grandmother — I guess I come quite naturally by my love of butter and cheese and curiosity for new culinary combinations!). There was even an accordion player providing dinner music!

Saturday afternoon we enjoyed a picnic in the local park and practiced our frisbee skills. Franci and I also visited a small but delightful museum of a former porcelain manufacturer — with different eras of aristocratic and royal taste encompassing the ostentatiously grandiose, the glaringly “modern,” and the charmingly whimsical.

Our last afternoon featured a game of Ticket to Ride, followed by a quiet evening at home. The week felt both long and short — long for all we’d seen and enjoyed together, and short when thinking of saying good-byes. Sunday there was time for a pancake breakfast before it was time to finish packing up. The suitcases included some new Austrian attire for part of the family!

Thank you, Ben and Franci, and Marica and Esther and Laurelin, for the wonderfully special visit…for the chance to explore a bit of Austria together, for your flexibility, for spontaneous 5-year-old hugs, for riddles and jokes and good conversations, for piano playing and song, for shared delight in the beauty of nature or architecture or culinary art, for outdoor play, and for a feast of memories.

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Roadtrip to France

With a big editing project turned in by mid-July, it was high time to think about a holiday! Rather last-minute, I agreed to join a couple of friends on a road trip from the farthest western province of Austria down to Marsaille and back — a 1100-mile loop down through Lichtenstein, Italy, and France’s Côte d’Azur to Marsaille, then back up through Provence, the Rhône-Alpes region, and then across all of Switzerland. The route showcased mountain vistas, expansive lakes, rocky ocean beaches, sunflower and lavender fields, quaint villages, and a host of other sights.

Although most of the journey was is a borrowed van furnished with camping supplies, I started out by train, making the jaunt to Innsbruck, where I spent a splendid evening with friends and got to meet their new baby.

 

The next morning I headed on to Vorarlberg, met up with a friend who used to live in Vienna, and then joined Anne and Rebecca, who had graciously agreed to my crashing their road trip (thankfully, not literally).

The journey was something of a geography lesson. For any of you who might also feel that your European geography needs some brushing up, here are a couple of maps — first of the train route from Vienna (notice how far east we are!) to western Austria (a bit longer train ride than the driving time between, say, Knoxville and Memphis) and then of the loop down to southern France and back:

The first leg of the road trip Rebecca routed us through Lichtenstein — so that Anne and I could add a country to our list. We enjoyed seeing the prince’s castle, nestled just above  the tiny capital’s main street. After a coffee and posting a postcard, we headed on.

Close to our day’s destination on Lake Maggiore (in Italy), we took a side road up into the Swiss hills, where the roads narrowed, and old stone houses perched charmingly along the hillsides. A clear, cold stream, bounded by beautifully molded boulders, offered an idyllic accompaniment to a walk — and a perfect way to cool off from the July heat.

Later, after settling in at our home base for the next two nights, we took a stroll through the quiet streets of the small-town of Ghiffa and found our hearty appetites more than accommodated by the local pizzaria, the savory flavors enhanced by a view out over the calm lake (the bit we could see — it stretches for 40 miles!).

The next day we took a walk to the next town, enjoyed a swim in the lake, tried out the local gelato, and cooked a simple dinner. The following day we took to the road again. Rebecca’s driving skills were put to the test on numerous occasions — the large van was not made for the narrow roads of coastal Italy or the steep, busy, and narrow streets of Monaco. We gave up on the idea of finding a parking place for a coffee in our next “new” country — finding ourselves driving out of Monaco almost before we’d driven into it, and all a bit frazzled by the driving conditions. I did manage to document the local licence plate pattern.

We arrived at our campground, just shy of the French border, with time to enjoy the beach. I’ll have to admit, I generally have thought that a week’s vacation at the beach sounds rather boring (how much sun and sand can a person take, after all?), but this trip made me rethink that. A whole afternoon to do nothing but alternately jump into the sea, dose under an umbrella, and read Tolkien. Splendid!

The next day, which started with a dip in the sea, we drove on to Marseille, taking in a short visit to Cassis on the way. (Besides the obvious array of boats in a coastal city, note the professional parking job!)

Our friend Andrea had rented a house on the outskirts of Marseille and had invited a whole array of friends and friends-of-friends to come for as many days as we could. Over our few days there, we were seven friends from church in Vienna — five single women and one couple. (We got a lot of mileage out of one Frenchman’s assumption that the Morgans were on holiday with their many grown daughters!)

The first day a group of us ventured into the nearby national park, an area of striking coastal rock formations known as calanques. Because it was a long walk, there were very few tourists, as only the locals were allowed to drive in to the sleepy little waterside village. At lunchtime, we decided to try out the one and only restaurant. The other three girls were all intent on fish for lunch, which led to a very entertaining interaction with our waiter.

Finding that the prices coincided with the marked lack of competition, we attempted to ascertain what on the menu was actually available and affordable. Between our limited French (mine is non-existent) and our waiter’s limited English, it wasn’t so easy. In the end, he disappeared downstairs to the kitchen, only to reappear with a platter — decorated with the prerequisite lettuce leaves — showcasing the (raw) fish he could offer. Well, none of us had had that sort of menu description before! In the end, everyone was terribly happy with her meal, and I even managed the glass of Pastis I was hoping for.

The next day, we took a boat taxi into Marseille’s harbor, then jumped on another boat to go to the small islands just east of the city. With a small rocky cove practically to ourselves, we couldn’t have wished for a better spot….  I took an alternate path back to the boat to explore some slightly eerie ruins, which I think mostly dated to the WWII era, and which looked out over both Marseille and over the castle ruins that Dumas apparently used as inspiration for his Count of Monte Cristo. There were also some intriguing “sea dafodills” blooming in the formidably dry environs.

In the afternoon we had a brief look around Marseille, but it was too hot to feel like walking too far.

Nevertheless, Anne and I made the significant climb up to the main cathedral. The Moorish architectural influences were very interesting, as was the boat/ship motif inside. Perhaps local seafarers have a long tradition of seeking blessings for safe travel from the patroness of the church — Notre Dame de la Garde (Our Lady of the Guard). The boat ride back offered the perfect evening light for some farewell photos.

 

The next morning we had an outing yet to another cute ocean-side town.

Then it was already time to leave Marseille, now with Koni joining our crew. We said good-bye to our hostess Andrea — who was staying a few more days before moving back to the States — and headed north into the countryside of Provence. …Oak groves, presumably planted for the coveted truffles they attract, intermingled with undulating fields, some still boasting long rows of lavender and heavy-headed sunflowers. Towns with their terracotta-roofed houses and square church spires blended in with the surrounding landscape….

 

In the evening, we enjoyed meandering around the quaint town perched above the camping area.

The next day, which dawned clear and promising after the previous afternoon’s rainstorm (you can’t have a camping trip without encountering at least a bit of rain, can you?), we visited a splendid farmers’ market in the nearby town of Riez, showcasing everything from beautiful soaps to tantalizing cheeses to cheerful table linens to perfectly ripe melons. 

After a picnic lunch, we drove a little ways into the impressive Verdun Gorge before returning to lake level and renting canoes for a couple of hours. The man-made lake extends part of the way into the gorge, allowing for easy access to views of the cliffs shaped by the waters that apparently raged there in earlier times.

The next day we carried on north, enjoying views of the Rhône-Alpes, stopping briefly in Grenoble, and eventually landing in Geneva, where we’d booked a campsite right on the lake. The last day of our loop we drove across all of Switzerland, passing lake after lake, quaint villages, and even a glimpse of Mont Blanc in the far distance.

Arriving back in Rankweil at Rebecca’s home, we were greeted by her parents and their warm-hearted hospitality. To finish off the trip with the best of local cuisine, her mom even made a huge batch of Käsespätzle. The closest thing I can think of is American macaroni and cheese (made with small dumplings instead of macaroni and with very strong “mountain cheese”) — but perhaps the primary similarity is that both foods qualify as quintessential “comfort food.”

Anne and Koni and I took the train towards Vienna the next day, an uneventful conclusion to a special vacation!

 

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Welcoming Summer

It’s high summer. During the warm afternoons, tourists abound in the center city, and the locals are likely off on holiday, planning holiday, or swimming in the Danube (or, more prosaically, still stuck in the office). In the evening, the neighbors’ voices drift in through the open terrace door as the long dusk reluctantly deepens. As night descends, the soporific chirping of crickets makes me think of Tennessee and hot summer nights with fans running and fireflies flickering outside the open windows.

I’m certainly glad for the end of the school year and university semester, for the lighter workload, some travel on the agenda, and the prospect of family traveling this direction. But, before I get carried away with such anticipation, a grateful glance backward is in order to sum up the past few months since Hannah’s visit and my last blog post.

Running

Besides running around in the figurative sense of being too busy, there have been two fun group races that I have participated in in the last months. In April, as part of the 150th anniversary of the Catholic school where I teach part time, there were four teams organized to participate in the relay portion of the Vienna City Marathon, an event that attracts something like 40,000 participants (including half marathon, kids runs, etc.). I volunteered for whatever stretch needed to be covered for whatever team I ended up on — and of course I got assigned the longest stretch. I’ll have to admit, it was not remotely my best running day, but the point was passing the baton (again, figurative, thanks to our tracking chips).

Afterwards, after racing home (metaphorically speaking) for a shower and change of clothes, there was still time to head back downtown to watch some of the finishers (including a guy who has run every consecutive Vienna marathon for the race’s entire 40-year history!) and then to hang out with fellow teachers. I felt about as much of the school team as I ever have, which was worth the 15.5 km of discomfort!

In June, a friend from church motivated five of us women to participate in a 5k “hobby run” in a small town just outside of Vienna. It was the total opposite race experience. We were all of about 170 participants, and the course took a idyllic loop out of town into the fields (corn, wheat, sunflowers). When I realized how few runners were participating overall, I launched into competitive mode and was terribly pleased to finish under 25 minutes — hilariously, second place of women between 30-40 years old!

Langham Conference

If summer sunshine, exercise, and friends have been refreshing to mind and body, the highlight of spiritual refreshment in the last months was attending a Langham Conference on the Old Testament. The Langham Partnership is a ministry associated with exegetical preaching and growing out of the ministry of the well-known British pastor John Stott. In recent years, an Austrian branch has been established, and the yearly conferences are open to clergy and laity wanting to deepen their ability to communicate the gospel through proclaiming the Scriptures.

I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into. Out of about 100 participants, we were just about 20 women, and most of those had an obvious reason to be there — tied to a particular missions agency or student ministry, etc. I signed up, realizing I needed something fresh and outside my normal routine, especially since I’m almost always “on duty” at my home church, where it’s hard to lay aside my church secretary hat and just to “receive.”

All that said, the conference was amazing. I came away deeply encouraged through the lectures and sermons, through observing the representation of participants from all over Austria, and through Christians from different denominational backgrounds uniting around a common love for the Gospel proclaimed in and through the Bible. The conference this year focused on Old Testament exegesis. Since that’s a slightly large topic (ha!), we camped out largely Exodus 33-34, with time for individual and group work — identifying our listeners (Bible study group, congregation, whatever) and then working on steps for how to get to the heart of the passage, break it down in manageable pieces, etc. I guess that’s all pretty normal for pastors accustomed to exegesis, but I found it both fun and frustrating!

Between sessions, there was also the chance to catch up with a couple of friends and to meet new friends. The first day, a handful of us who ended up standing around after the evening session realized we had all four voice parts covered among us, and we had an impromptu hymn-sing. The other two evenings were spent laughing more than I had in a long time.

It didn’t hurt that the conference was held in the beautiful Schloss Klaus, a couple of hours outside of Vienna. Since there was plenty of decent food to enjoy, it was a good thing that we spent a lot of time running up and down stairs. I think from the main entrance to my dorm room, there were something like 188 steps!

Neighbors

Another joy in recent months has been the ongoing gift of getting to know our Syrian neighbors. I think I’ve been more or less adopted into the family — I can’t say how many cups of coffee we’ve shared, or how many times the mom of the family has brought my flatmate and me something she’s cooked…homemade cake or pizza or lamb and rice rolled up in grape leaves picked from the vineyards on the edge of town….

I’ve been really amazed by the family’s efforts to make Austria home — working diligently on German, looking for work, etc. One of the biggest joys was getting to be part of finding a high school for their daughter, a daunting project that was most providentially arranged!

Kraków

Over a long weekend in May, I visited the wonderfully old city of Kraków with my friend Anne. The city boasts beautiful architecture, a plethora of ice cream shops to rival gelato shops in Venice, and a complex history.

We enjoyed getting a bit acquainted with the local culture. We tried some interesting and delicious foods, but not the sort to facilitate trimming your waistline. Imagine a generous helping from this bucket of lard (below, left) being slathered upon a giant slice of bread and topped with roasted onions and pork! Or, this decorative, smoked cheesed (below, right) – grilled and topped with lingonberry sauce….

We also enjoyed a glimpse of a parade with local costumes and music, as well as the trumpeter who heralded the hour from the church tower above the city center.

Then, there were the examples of local whimsy — the castle drain spouts and an array of topiaries outside one of the many churches.

One day we made the journey to nearby Auschwitz-Burkenau, to visit two of the most horrific concentration camps of WWII. It was a strange day. On a warm, sunny afternoon, with a few happy clouds sailing across the sky, we joined one of the numerous, well-organized tour groups in various languages that were spread out across the extensive grounds. As we listened to our tour guide and entered various barracks or viewed the remains of ghastly gas chambers, it was hard to believe what we were seeing. We looked at piles of shoes belonging to children, practically-minded souls, and the fashion-conscious, at a vast assortment of vintage crockery carried to a final resting place in a spirit of naivety or optimism, and at mounds of hundreds of pounds of hair clippings — all belonging to people systematically destroyed….

…For many individuals, whether Holocaust survivors or philosophers, Auschwitz is the epitome of the problem of evil, of how a good, all-powerful God could exist. For some, the place and all it stands for completely negates the possibility that the Christian God could have anything to say that’s worth listening to, especially if the perpetrators were identified with “Christian” nations. The darkest of sarcasms, written on the gate into Auschwitz, offers a sinister welcome — “Arbeit macht frei” (“work sets you free”).Distancing those words from their immediate context, lest I be guilty of armchair ruminations that in any way make light of the original context, I got to thinking about that phrase, about how it encapsulates the absolute antithesis of the gospel of Christ. Work sets you free? No way — not the good works that are never enough, not the self-help that never quite suffices, not the busyness of the day-to-day that tries to stuff full an inner void. But, whose work sets you free? Christ’s work — “It is finished.” The Cross, so incongruous a throne for a God who holds all power, possesses all knowledge, is goodness itself, himself. Yet it is Christ’s work there that supremely displays the Good Shepherd’s love for his people. He is the Gate welcoming all nations to salvation, the I Am, who promises a redemption that will somehow, some day, unravel evil so completely that no one will doubt his power or his goodness…. “Lord, I believe — help my unbelief!”

…Work

Although the end of the school year means the cessation of some regular activities, other work carries on irregardless of the academic calendar. Work at church is going well, with the new twist of looking forward to welcoming a new assistant pastor to our staff team, hopefully arriving in the early fall!

The last few weeks included the provision of some un-looked-for work — a book editing job for a contact at the university. Whew, commas became the temporary bane of my existence, but Friday I turned in my final edit of the 250-page volume — having learned at least a little about editing and also a bit about literary criticism as it meets some very interesting New Testament exegesis. (And, hopefully you are not now fine-combing this post for proofreading errors!)

A pleasant juxtaposition of work and leisure materialized in being invited to join an outing with a small group of Uni students and faculty, organized by the professor for whom I have been doing a good deal of translating work. We spent a beautiful summer day — it felt like Kansas, with the wide fields and big sky  — visiting Carnuntum, a Roman military outpost dating back to the first century A.D.

An impressive monument preserves a bit of the glory of conquering Rome, humorously vying for attention with the windmills that today dot the surrounding landscape. Partial reconstruction of the town (with its commodious homes and communal bath house) and the hints of the arenas and gladiator training grounds all seemed rather otherworldly amidst the windswept wheat and sunflower fields that now march alongside the Danube River.

I found it hard to fathom that soldiers of the first Roman garrison there were tramping around what is today Austria — at the same time the boy Jesus was growing up in Nazareth. Later, famous Roman emperors spent time there, including Marcus Aurelius and Diocletian.

The famous maxim — “quit while you are ahead” — may also apply to blog posts. So, rather than adding more words, I will sign off with a promise to report next time on a road trip to France and on visits from cousins and sister and brother-in-law!

But, if you are up for more reading, do take a look at Hannah’s latest blog post, where she has described her and Peter’s renovation of our parents’ home — a whirlwind trip but with her characteristic attention to detail.

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Day by Day

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

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!

Moving

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.) 

Hannah’s visit

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!

Music

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!

Winter Sports

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.

 

 

 

 

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Autumn

Long summer evenings. Crisp fall mornings. Apple picking. Thanksgiving turkey. All have come and gone for another year, and here we are on the cusp of Advent. …The fall has been good — and full. To jump ahead in seasonal metaphors, I’ve felt a bit snowed under at various points in the last couple of months, but that probably means I should try to jot down at least some of the highlights.

September in Paris

In September, friends from Knoxville, Randy and Linda Lind, invited me to join them for several days in Paris! It was right as the new school year was starting, but marvelously my school teaching schedule and the unpredictability of the first week or so of school meant that I didn’t end up missing any lessons.

I also got to reconnect with friends who live in Paris…with time to enjoy meaningful conversation, croissants, a fabulous music store…with Ernesto, Anne, and Pauline’s parents. (I guess I was happily focused on the visiting, and didn’t take any photos of these dear people!)

The time with the Linds was filled with sight-seeing, interspersed with rejuvenating cups of coffee, as well as conversation and laughter. We did a lot of walking, map-studying, garden meandering. (Who knew that there’s a vegetable patch hidden away among the flowers in the Jardin des Tuileries, next to the Louvre?)     

We also visited (twice, I have to admit) the wonderful cafe that friends introduced me to  my last trip to Paris. (James and Davenne, I thought of you so many times over the course of the days in the city I’ll always associate with you!) After a piece of quiche, I’m not sure if there’s anything better than a slice of cake from Le Loir dans La Théière (“The Dormouse in The Teapot”). Oh, and I should note that we enjoyed two splendid meals at the restaurant where Benjamin Franklin signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783!

One thing that makes Paris so wonderful is the crazy combination of pomp and circumstance, and quaint and obscure. 

Our day at Versailles was certainly a dose of pomp and extravagance. My goodness — the palace was beautiful, but in a rather ridiculous way. I think we might all have enjoyed the elegance of the gardens more than the glamour indoors.

Not to be guilty of missing any of the highlights of Paris, of course we took a stroll near the Eiffel Tower, though we didn’t venture up. Plus a visit to the Louvre.

And a wonderful trip to the Orsay.  

One additional thing I enjoyed was trying to keep an open eye for detail and patterns:           

In summary —  a wonderful few days with dear friends in a truly beautiful city.

Reflections

As October arrived, I was especially aware of what was happening this time last year — both Mom’s birthday on the 12th and her death on the 26th.

On her birthday this year, I spent a bit of time making a stream-of-consciousness account of things I’m thankful for about Mom:

I’m grateful for countless quiet, happy hours listening to Mom read. For her example of steadfastness in fulfilling daily routine — Bible reading and prayer, healthy and tasty and timely meals, laundry and cleaning. For the value she placed on written communication, keeping up with family and friends, asking questions, prioritizing hospitality, making special days special, enjoying tradition, appreciating things of beauty, taking interest in what interested others, reading widely, enjoying music, establishing routine, avoiding busyness for busyness’ sake. 

For listening well, for exemplifying putting her own desires behind others’, for taking initiative in the small things, for a ready laugh and quiet wit and emotional elasticity. For splendid meals — family favorites likes crepes, waffles, tacos, turkey tetrazzini, cheesecake, Christmas baking, Christmas breakfast, apple pancakes, homemade bread, omelet breakfasts, love for butter.

For her love of travel, adventuresome spirit for hiking or getting to know about other parts of the world. For her faith pointed outwards — in prayer and delight in hearing stories of missionary work, in reaching out to internationals locally. For her lack of preoccupation with things, yet careful stewardship of what we had and delight in things of beauty, often connected with a personal story in some way. 

For her presence and enthusiasm for my musical pursuits…attending lessons, guiding practice, sitting and writing letters or such while enjoying the “background music” of my practicing. For her readiness to learn, expand. For her freedom and delight in traveling to Vienna — her bottomless capacity for coffee, readiness to adapt, intentionality before/during/after in remembering and cherishing each person I described and whom she met….

…A couple favorite photos from her trip to Austria back in 2013:

…On the 26th, my flatmate and another friend from church joined me early in the morning for listening to a recording of the memorial service for Mom. It was a rather strange thing to do together, perhaps, but it felt very important to listen back through the service and, rather than doing that alone, in some sense introducing my mom to two of the people I know best here. Afterwards, we talked over breakfast — a typical Mom-menu of an omelet and toast.

Fall Retreats

Later that same morning, I headed off to our church’s annual retreat, located again this year in a quiet town in the middle of Austria, in an area sprinkled with lakes (and prone to lots of rain). It was a special few days. We were bursting at the seams of the retreat center’s capacity, with about 110 people. The theme of the weekend, which was right over the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, was the 5 Solae of the Reformation — salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the Scriptures alone, to the glory of God alone. We spent time considering together the foundations of our faith — plus enjoying blustery walks, damp morning jogs, and late evenings playing games.

The next weekend was another retreat, this time with my choir. It was one packed weekend, filled with half a dozen rehearsals, a wonderful morning jog through the fog and morning light of countryside Austria, and two extended evenings chatting. Good, but exhausting! There was just time, upon returning to Vienna on Sunday night, to try to catch a huge breath before diving into the busiest week of the fall!

November Concert

November proved to be a busy musical month! Besides diving into some new chamber music projects, there were two choir concerts, plus the big project of the season — helping organize a concert/forum at church with visiting musicians from Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.

Months ago, my pastor put me in contact with one of the musicians from Redeemer, who was organizing a Europe trip with concerts in three cities — Munich, Krakow, and perhaps Vienna. The goal was to use a format that Redeemer has found welcome in their NY context — a concert, whether featuring opera, jazz, classical, musical theater, etc., with texts addressing a particular cultural topic (in this case, “tradition”), plus a discussion of how Christian faith interacts with the topic.

I was intrigued, and a lively correspondence ensued. The end result was a wonderful concert of Broadway tunes, all somehow connected to the idea of “tradition” and the opportunity for connecting the themes brought out in the music to Christian faith. It was exciting to see the church full, with a number of guests, as well as regular New City Wien folks.

The musicians’ week was packed with other activities, too — offering a masterclass to voice students, participating in a theater class at the local English-speaking Christian school, singing in a nursing home, and giving a panel discussion on “music and spirituality” intended for students at the music university.

On top of all that, the group was very much fun to hang out with. They made a huge impression on me by being so absolutely available, flexible, ready to serve. There was a lot of good conversation and laughter packed into the week. It was also very affirming at a personal level — seeing the musical arts connected with Christian thought and faith, without music being just a means to an end, but also being enjoyed and appreciated as worthwhile in and of itself. And, although I usually get excited and nervous about musical events where I am performing, I had those same feelings with getting to be on the planning end this time! A ton of work, but definitely the job highlight of the year!

Well, time to sign off for now. Next time, Advent and Christmas….

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Alta Via

In the welcome glance of placid sunshine and morning optimism, we head to the train station in Lienz, Tyrol, en route to the trail head. Along the way, we are intrigued to see hay bales in unlikely disarray and trees apparently buried to their knees in mud. <Hmm, must have been some real flooding.> Arriving in Toblach, just over the border into Italy, and inquiring for the bus stop, we learn that our bus is back in service as of this very morning, following storm-caused road closures. <Wow, fortunate timing!> Arriving at the lake where the trail starts and clarifying which way to head around the lake, we are told by three different individuals that the trail is (partially) closed, due to landslides. <WHAT?!> I have sudden visions of six days’ hiking in the Dolomites, anticipated for a year plus, suddenly imploding. From the front desk of the luxury hotel on the near end of the lake, I phone the local tourist office. When the woman who answers tells me that the trail is indeed open, I joyfully pass the phone to Stefanie for native-German-speaker confirmation that I have heard correctly!

So began a week in northern Italy with friends Stefanie and Anne! Since it’s way more interesting to catch a glimpse of the area than describe the trail footstep by footstep, I’ll try to keep my commentary to a minimum and stick largely to photographic reporting.

Day 1 to Rifugio Pederü

“The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars…. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness…and strips the forests, and in his temple all cry, ‘Glory!'” (Psalm 29)

We set off on the Alta Via I (literally, “High Way #1”) or Dolomiten Höhenweg (it’s Südtirol — part of Austria till after WWI, so there’s a lot of Italian/German signage) — first rounding the lake, beautiful even with the landslide debris floating on its surface, and then launching up the rock-strewn, path-obliterated slope.I guess the first 1 1/2 hours, maybe, we didn’t have a trail, but thankfully the mud beneath the rocky surface had more or less solidified, and we weren’t the only ones who had ignored the “trail closed” signs at the departure point from the lake. What was most interesting, and a bit alarming, was the state of the trees — those in the path of the rock slide, either felled or somehow still upright, had been stripped not only of their evergreen foliage but, to a large extent, also of their bark.

    Above the rock slide area, the landscape took on a more predictable outlook — a meandering trail with lots of ups and downs, past a couple of rifugios (the Italian version of the Austrian Hütte or mountain lodge). Seven hours later, the last stretch landed us about at the elevation we’d started at, after descending a ridiculously steep road (much better to be walking than driving), and we were glad to be able to relax over dinner at Rifugio Pederü. (The first three nights I was almost uncomfortably comfortable, given that I imagined a tiny bit of roughing it for a week.)

Day 2 to Rifugio Lagazuoi

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the mountains of God…. (Psalm 36)

Our second day was the longest, as we wandered deeper into the grand landscape, and our destination for the day was the highest point on the trek. We started out heading up out of the basin where our previous night’s lodgings had been. Along the way, there were some intriguing rock formations — I really can’t comprehend the sights and sounds that must have accompanied the shaping of these hills. Then our way stretched out in a broad valley… …before heading up toward the pass (located in the middle right of the photo below):  After the climb up, we found some minimal shelter from the wind for a few minutes’ rest and a snack. With the clouds not looking so inviting, we soon headed down the precipitous other side.  Amidst the rock-strewn terrain, what should I find but Edelweiss (the one bit of flora I was particularly dreaming of seeing)!?!  Down from the pass, the sun was out again. It was pretty splendid to lie in a patch of grass and lazily observe the shifting clouds drifting above the solid mountains. Then, on and up — it was still a lot farther than it looked! At one point, we thought we heard voices on some nearby parallel trail, but couldn’t see anyone. Lo and behold, the voices were carrying from the massive cliffs off to our left, where a couple of climbers were part-way up the face. (Can you find them? Hint: They are wearing blue and red.)Closing in on our goal, we saw the first signs of the dugouts and tunnels that dot the landscape, leftover from WWI and the three-year conflict between the Austrians and Italians for the pass.   Arriving at the lodge, there was plenty of time before dinner — a three-course Italian meal! — to enjoy chatting with other hikers (German/Austrian and Israeli), who had some pretty entertaining stories of how the landslide threw a monkey wrench into their hiking plans, having intended to start a day or two before us. I also enjoyed taking the short path out to the actual peak, trying to absorb the grandeur of the mountains bathed in the light of early evening.

Day 3 to Rifugio Averau

“The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; He utters His voice, the earth melts. …Come, behold the works of the Lord, how He has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth….” (Psalm 46)

 We woke up to a splendid breakfast buffet — hiking Austrian or Italian style is no way to lose weight! Breads of various kinds, cheeses and salami, yogurt and a variety of muesli, sweet breads, soft boiled eggs, tea and coffee. Oh my! I was glad I’d gotten up early, not only for the extra cups of coffee downed, but particularly for the splendid morning sunlight washing over the landscape. Before heading down the trail, we took the short jaunt out the peak again… …and then headed toward the highlight of the day’s trek — or maybe I should say the low-light, since headlamps were in order! …One of the ways down from the peak is through the 100-year-old tunnels, built like mazes into the mountainsides. We couldn’t imagine the deprivations the soldiers who built them must have experienced — exposed as they were to harrowing enemy fire and the perhaps even more relentless enemy cold…. We spent two hours in and out of various passages and traversing steep, damp steps down dark passages, in-between arriving at multiple portals overlooking the landscape below. Somehow war in such an environment seemed especially senseless — were the soldiers shouldering munitions or injured comrades able to appreciate the rugged beauty around them, or was their misery in the tunnels as unmitigated as that of those in the trenches in northern Europe, with the added element of alpine weather?  On the last bit of our descent, we got caught in the edge of a rainstorm, but all in all we were spared getting wet. From the pass at the foot of the mountain to our next destination, we managed to get slightly lost — but still got to the lodge before the building wind turned into a proper rainstorm.

Day 4 to Rifugio Citta di Fiumi

Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, for you have been my refuge…. (Psalm 61)

 Day four was one of the most beautiful days on the trail. Although I was initially pretty disappointed to forego an over-the-peak route (questionable weather, and I couldn’t find anyone else leaving the lodge that morning who was taking that route), the route we did take was spectacular — starting with a brief bit of graupel (miniature, alpine hail) as we got underway, and then a chance to scramble around the base of this wonderful work of art: From there our path was a a steep descent, followed by a trail aiming back up to a beautiful lake and a rifugio that offered shelter in good time to bypass a rain shower and watch the fast-changing skyscape while enjoying a coffee. I decided to go local, and ordered an espresso with grappa. Man, the shot of Italian brandy (more or less) was so strong that I couldn’t even taste the coffee!  Our path led up to the next ridge/pass, then on and on in the same wonderful, ever-changing panorama of jagged peaks and unsettled clouds.   Along the way, we took time for shots of something besides landscape — a rocky seat, peanut butter and cranberry sandwich-making, and the other creatures inhabiting the terrain.  We enjoyed our lodgings for the evening — the first Alpenverein Hütte (mountain club lodge) of this trek. (The other lodgings so far were privately owned, but the ones sponsored by the mountain club tend to be family run affairs, small, and a bit more rustic!)

I foolishly decided to venture forth before dinner for a rocky scramble — only to discover I was really too tired for adding more to the day. But, I managed to get pretty soaked, since I didn’t turn around in time to beat the rain.

In the evening, we ended up playing a card game with another woman sitting at our same table. A widow, she was out hiking for an extended number of days, determined to enjoy again some of the same trails she’d enjoyed with her husband over the years. She turned out to be an interesting and lively personality — Austrian, but having spent all her adult life in France. She seemed as pleased to have been included in our rounds of cards as we were for her company, and she even jotted down the name of the game for her grandkids. …This is the fun of hut-to-hut hiking — the encounters, or sometimes repeated encounters, with fellow hikers, in a setting where everyone is simultaneously worn out and refreshed from days outside in the sun and fresh air.

Day 5 to Rifugio Tissi

“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. …When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8)

 A splendid find along the way on day five was a small farm advertising burro (butter) and formaggio  (cheese). Anyone who knows me well knows I’m quite a fan, so of course Anne and Stefanie and I had to stop. Not only did we enjoy the quaint scenes of morning on a small farm, but, with the help of another hiker who translated,  we managed to buy a wedge of cheese for lunch — and glorious glasses of fresh milk! What fun!  It was Saturday, so day hikers were out in full force, their numbers largely made up of young Italian families. Past the lake, the crowds thinned.  Arriving at our last lodge of the week, we were blessed with some of the best views of the trip — the ridge just above the lodge offered a 360 degree panorama, not to mention a precipitous view down to the lake at the foot of the mountain.  I felt like I could spend ages just sitting up there and taking it all in. The warm afternoon, the pleasant small talk with a young Italian couple also relishing the view, the subtle changes of light and color over the vast landscape of peaks and valleys — what a storehouse of happiness for cold, gray days to come!  After dinner, a whole crew of us traipsed back to the ridge for sunset — the master Painter, unwearied by all the preceding days of equal masterpieces, splashing fresh glory on His canvas of common grace. Later, when I thought pretty much everyone had gone to bed (it was all of about 10:15 p.m., but there’s sort of an unspoken rule of climbing into your sleeping bag by 10:00), I tiptoed back downstairs, in hopes of catching a glimpse of a meteor shower. A hum of Italian came from a small group of other would-be stargazers. I found a spot in the grass to stare up at the heavens — the Milky Way sprawling across the dark expanse and a few exciting meteors passing overhead — until it got too cold to wait for more meteors.

Day 6: Back to Town

“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” (Psalm 90)

Finally it was time to leave the mountains and head back to town. On our descent, we were again surprised by the number of weekend day hikers, many with young kids in tow. Many, too, brought along their dogs, including breeds that looked more like little lap dogs. However, the dogs seemed to share their masters’ enthusiasm for the outdoors, trotting up the incline with good cheer sufficient to compensate for their short little legs. (If a year for humans equals seven for a dog, then there must be a similar multiplication factor for mileage calculations for small dogs!)

It was lovely to find a cool mountain stream for wading — even if less ideal to accidentally offload my backpack on top of an ant hill! By mid-day, we were back to town, where we found a cafe to perch till the bus came…   …having been blessed with six days with dear friends, splendid views, good health, tasty meals, and lovely fauna and flora….

Udine and Back to Vienna

Getting back to Vienna from the end of our trail was no small task. First a bus ride to Belluno, where we realized we had just enough minutes to buy train tickets and catch the waiting train on to Udine, where we’d already booked tickets for a return to Vienna the next day. Unfortunately, in the rush, the ticket salesmen misunderstood the destination name and sold us the wrong tickets. By the time we realized the mistake, there was no time to board the departing train, and the same man, rather disgruntled, exchanged out tickets for seats on what must have been Italy’s oldest, stuffiest, slowest model. Changing in Treviso (which we hadn’t meant to visit at all), we were rather dismayed to see a train heading to Wien Hauptbahnhof (Vienna Main Station) just about to pull out of the station.

But, after another train to Udine, we found the bus to the suburb where we’d booked an Air B&B for the night. Our Italian host greeted us as though long-lost relatives, his beaming face and exaggerated gestures the perfect stereotype of Italian hospitality. Although a sleepy-seeming little town, there was a delightful pizza shop, where we sat on bar stools outside, gobbling up the pizza and sipping at the wine that were both perched on the wide windowsill “table.” From there, we were directed to a gelato shop, which was the perfect way to polish off the evening!

The next morning we had time to look around Udine, with its ancient town square and relaxed atmosphere, before an uneventful train ride back to Vienna. Before I can write “The End,” I must say a specific, huge thanks to my cousin Rachael. She took the same route last summer, have planned it all out herself from her home in New Zealand, and she kindly asked if I would join her. When it because obvious that I couldn’t return from the States last summer as planned, it was a big disappointment to miss Rachael’s visit to Europe and the much-anticipated hiking trip together in the Dolomites. …This summer, it was tremendously helpful to follow in the footsteps of her thorough planning — and I hope there will be an opportunity to hike together (maybe New Zealand?) in times to come….

The End.

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Northern Highlights

St. Petersburg

In July I traveled to Russia for a week, largely because the Russian visa I acquired two plus years ago was still valid (it’s still a mystery to me why a three-year, multiple entry visa cost the same as a two-week, single-entry one), and I was keen to see St. Petersburg (especially in it’s summertime glory), which I didn’t visit last time. Most splendidly, a new friend from choir, originally from St. Petersburg, generously offered to show me around while she was on summer holiday back home — and, my friend in Moscow was also keen for another visit!

Now, I was a bit unsure that all the travel arrangements would come off as smoothly as they looked on paper. After all, the “multiple entry” label on my visa was in Cyrillic, which meant going in faith. And, I was a little nervous about the overnight train to St. Petersburg — when I bought my train ticket online, the website asked for a photo ID number but wouldn’t accept my U.S. passport. (Hmm.) My Austrian visa was in the middle of the renewal process, so that didn’t work; so I ended up giving the very unofficial-seeming number of my Vienna public transport card. Would the Russians find fault?

All my logistical worries proved groundless. Arriving in Moscow, I more or less sailed through customs, took my time sorting out the directions I’d been given for getting to the train station, and enjoyed the warm summer evening in between train and subway connections. To my great delight, the rather cheap seat I’d booked on the train to St. Petersburg turned out to be an upper bunk on the upper deck of a sleeper car, which was a lot more comfortable than I’d been expecting, complete with pleasant cabin-mates.

Arriving the next morning in St. Petersburg, my first impression of the city was the number of Chinese tourists exiting the train station. (Politically correct and historically informed statements aside, throughout the city it felt as if the ancient invading Golden Horde had transformed itself into the peaceable and art-enthusiast horde of Chinese sight-seers.) Thankfully, I soon found my way to the subway station where my friend Anna met me. We started the day together with a leisurely breakfast at home before embarking on a very full day of walking.

St. Petersburg is built along both sides of the Neva River, with small channels running through the city, in a strange way slightly reminiscent of Venice.

Thanks to my excellent tour guide, I learned that the capital was moved from Moscow by Peter the Great (1672-1725), who was eager to establish a “window to the west” and who was enamored by Western European art and culture. (Apparently, he forced his nobles to shave their beards and smoke cigarettes. Noblewomen were expected to adopt the dress of their western counterparts, despite the uncomfortably low necklines.)

A large fortress area, built by Peter the Great, was our first stop for the day. Later, we tried out the popular cuisine of the Caucasus, sat on the sandy beach of the river, and took a boat tour. The city was in the middle of preparing for a yearly naval parade, so their were plenty of boats and ships on the river.

We visited the beautiful “Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood” (built as a memorial for the assassinated Czar Alexander II).        I also spent a while exploring the State Russian Museum. Late in the evening, we enjoyed the long walk home — it’s a late-night culture (at least in summer), and the buildings and bridges are beautifully lit along the wave-tossed Neva.

On Friday we started with good conversation over another leisurely breakfast, and then around noon we took a bus to Petershof, a former royal residence sporting opulent fountains, fantastical statuary, extensive gardens, and a view out to the Gulf of Finland. We took a boat back, taking in views of the approaching city. The harbor cranes looked to me like the ungainly skeletons of robotic dinosaurs.The evening attraction was being out late enough to see the draw bridges on the Neva open for the nightly shipping traffic — around 1:30 a.m. Of course, one must be sure to be on the correct side of the said bridges, since the subway doesn’t run all night!  What was just about as intriguing to me as the views of the city by night was the fact that at 1:15 there was still a discernible deep, deep blue in the western sky, above a cloud bank on the horizon (see photo below!) — and when we went to bed at 3:00 a.m., it was most definitely getting light! (In case you are as geographically challenged as I am, St. Petersburg lies a bit north of Stockholm, Sweden, or about on the same line as where the Canadian provinces meet the territories.)On Saturday I checked off the main item on my St. Petersburg wish list, a visit to the Hermitage, former royal residence/government complex and now home to one of the great art museums of the world, rivaling even the Louvre for size and opulence. Funny side note: Wondering how the museum got its name? Apparently, one of the queens particularly liked a certain room, which — besides boasting small indoor fountains, a picturesque stair to a small gallery on an upper floor, a decorative peacock in a large class case, and an exit to a garden courtyard — could also accommodate all the necessities of a private dinner without the bother of servants present. Hence, the queen’s “hermitage.” Here’s a glimpse:The building, even minus the art hanging on the walls, offers ample reason to visit. The decadent apartments for this and that royal figure — one room almost completely overlaid with gold, another showcasing immense jade urns, a third fitted with mirrors even on the ceiling to give the sense of greater space — were definitely over-the-top. Many of the rooms had beautifully painted ceilings, which were easy to overlook, what with everything else to look at.          Although I enjoyed some truly ancient Siberian art and lots of galleries that I can’t remember anymore, I aimed, as is my wont in any art museum, for Dutch art and spent quite a while observing the Rembrandt painting The Return of the Prodigal Son. It’s not actually my favorite Rembrandt, but partly because of how it features in Henry Nouwen’s book of the same title, I wanted to see it. I found myself wondering what the tour group guides were saying about the piece, whether any glimmer of the story sifted through to the hearts of passersby, or afresh to my own.Museum sickness (what we called it growing up when you are sated on art and your feet feel like they might fall off) having set it, I called it a day and retired to my own “hermitage,” the company of a book, at a nearby cafe.

A quiet evening at home, including watching impressive YouTube videos of Anna’s uncle, a professional accordionist, playing Bach and Strauss, brought the days in St. Petersburg to a close. The next morning I took the fast train back to Moscow.

Moscow

Sunday afternoon I arrived in sunny, warm Moscow and realized I could squeeze in a museum visit and lunch near the Kremlin before heading to Alexandra’s. In the process, I managed to get caught in a torrential downpour — maybe I should have paid more attention to those dark clouds! Finding my way later to my friend’s place was surprisingly easy. I was tempted to pat myself on the back, pleased with how much simpler it seemed to navigate the subway lines than when I was there two years ago. However, I eventually discovered that the difference was not due to my matured navigational skills, but to the fact that since May the stops have been announced in English as well as in Russian….

(Side note: The Moscow and St. Petersburg subways are works of art. The Moscow subway opened first in 1935, and the Art Deco/Art Nouveau era origins are well-preserved. Today the system is a sprawling network, but basically every station I saw was not just functional, but also artistic.)

It was a good reunion with Alexandra, whom I originally met when we were teaching at the same school outside of Vienna several years ago. She’s one of the more vivacious people I know, able somehow to combine walking in the door from two weeks out of town with making company feel at home and sauteing chanterelle mushrooms for supper.

Monday morning I woke up to the smell of pancakes. Man, that could send me back to childhood Saturday mornings — sleeping in, whole-wheat apple pancakes frying (if you can use such a word for the healthy, substantial — and delectable — variety Mom made), maybe a bit of Bugs Bunny, and even what we called “gum day” (Saturday being the one day of the week Hannah and I were allowed to chew gum).

In the afternoon we visited a reconstructed wooden palace and sprawling park, and oohed and ahhed our way through a vegetable market morphed into a hip place to grab lunch.     In the evening Alexandra had to teach a dance lesson, so I went along to entertain myself in the nearby park. My oh my, it was quite a cool experience. Forget any stereotype of somber Russians and cold, bleak city streets. Enter summer. A long pedestrian bridge over the Moscow river, young people perched atop the upper arc of the bridge’s suspension. Down below, on the river bank, people dancing — salsa, waltz, Irish jig, practicing cheer-leading moves. Up the bank, a steady stream of people walking, cycling, and generally enjoying the summer vibe. I enjoyed people-watching and made some more progress on the book I’d brought along. (Side note: The Hunchback of Notre Dame — I didn’t feel quite up for a more appropriate Russian novel — ends horribly!!! I don’t think I ever saw the Disney or musical version, but there’s no way they could have ended like the book! French 19th century literature, with Gothic overtones, meets the pessimism of Thomas Hardy.)

Tuesday I took a walking tour of part of Moscow, and in the afternoon Alexandra and I visited another garden.  Back home, we ate the lemon cake I’d baked in the morning and took a walk to an overview of the city lit up at night.

Wednesday morning I flew back to Vienna, having enjoyed good times with friends, seen many beautiful places, managed to eat beet root and herring salad at least three times, and been reminded that cities are intriguing and exhausting! As good as the trip was, I felt so happy to get home to Vienna, and have the customs agent at the airport greet me with the customary “Grüß Gott!”

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