Advent…coming, preparation, remembrance, anticipation, listening, repentance, quiet, rest, joy.
Although I cannot claim that the last few weeks and months have been characterized for me by these attitudes, I am glad for the prospect of some quieter days for rest and the fresh start offered by both a new church year and a new calendar year. While neglecting the blog had been symptomatic of the overwhelmingness of the past few months, the approaching holidays and end of the year are good motivation to catch up with friends far away.
So, here’s an attempt at summary, with hopes for fresh personal contact with many of you (phone, email, mail, visits) in the coming days.
In September I signed up for classes at the main university, choosing courses within either the Religious Studies or Austrian Studies departments and not at all sure what to expect of a very different university system. (Interesting side-note: The university is celebrating 650 years next year). I chose one seminar class in English (Political Theology and Philosophy of the 20th century) and three lecture classes in German (two Austrian history courses and an introduction to the Orthodox church).
The two courses within the religious studies program have proved quite good. The discussion class meant lots of reading, some of which was certainly over my head. However, I thought the professor did a good job of selected a wide variety of literature and also handling the incredibly varied batch of students who ended up in the course. The other course, about the Orthodox church, is quite interesting. It’s taught by an Orthodox priest, and he combines obvious interests in history, tradition, and faith with a dry sense of humor and — very important — a rate of German that I can follow.
The two history courses — well, I haven’t learned much yet. Problem 1: The lecturers are very hard to follow, and I succumb to horribly sleepiness. Problem 2: The lectures are not required, and all the notes are on-line. Problem 3: The only accountability is the essay exam at the end of the semester. Solution: Either drop the courses or read lots before the end of January, when the term ends.
Besides the courses at the main uni (through which I have my visa, if you recall the long tale recounted in a previous post), I also auditioned in October for another chamber music course at the music university.
[Hmm. I should back up and say something about summer yet. Ahhh, summer. The slower pace, the multiplicity of unoccupied practice rooms, the confidence that finding a job wouldn’t be so hard. The Wohlgefühl of living with a couple different families from church as I shifted between house-sitting jobs while my room was sub-let out.]
The audition material, for those curious, included a Haydn sonata, 3 etudes (Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Scriabin), a Haydn trio, and a Brahms cello sonata. It’s impossible to put stress into words. Or the joyous, grateful relief of passing the exam. But I can say I never want to do it again — and that I am very grateful for the friends who played with me, including the violinist who stepped in last-minute when someone else cancelled.
The chamber music studies have been challenging so far. Finding people to play with (when everyone is already totally busy), merging schedules, and adjusting to a new teaching style have been extremely difficult and draining. But, projects are underway — a Beethoven trio and violin sonata and other projects on the horizon.
The same day as the piano audition back in October, family friends from Tennessee came through for three days as part of a longer European tour. It couldn’t have been better timing. Laughter, good conversation, a bit of sight-seeing, and two wonderful concerts combined to be a highlight of the fall. Thanks Holts!
Other happy memories have not been lacking:
The beauty of autumn colors:
A few days in southern Austria for a Brahms (etc.) competition with a soprano named Maria. A couple little outings were possible despite the horrid weather.
Helping with an art show opening in Graz, along with friends Marianna and Ernesto. Good turn-out, beautiful setting, appreciative audience for our musical contributions. (Actually, it turned out to be a bit of a funny experience. Due to miscommunication, M and I were rather surprised to find out on the train to Graz that our car ride back from Graz would be the next morning — and we hadn’t brought anything along for an overnight stay. As it turned out, toothbrushes and pajamas materialized, and we were given a room in the castle where the art show was held. Not so bad!)
Celebrating my birthday in November…a good trio lesson in the morning, cake and mutually encouraging conversation about music and faith with friends from Poland and Belarus, a lovely walk, and an evening with a few friends from church at a French restaurant — plus a mini-windfall of cards and well-wishes and additional celebration later in the week.
Thanksgiving enjoyed with a good group of folks from church — an abundance of both food and laughter.
A fascination tour of the church within the central cemetery of Vienna (where supposedly 3 million people have been buried — well more than the current population of the city), followed by a lovely lunch and afternoon of visiting with a piano student and his family. (That sounds like a non sequitur, probably, but my piano student Gregor regular attends mass at this church, so we went on the tour that the priest gives occasionally after the service.)
A wonderful performance of Bach Christmas oratorios, accompanied by ballet. (Pretty neat, but I did wonder what Bach would have thought of it all.)
Buying a Christmas tree for the first time and finding that it is just the right size for the ornaments that Rachel and I have.
Baking Christmas cookies with my English student Hanna (like last year) and with roommate Rachel hosting music student friends and neighbors for a Christmas party.
Aside from these joyful things, the biggest “happening” of recent weeks was the unexpected loss of a very dear uncle. Although I don’t claim to know what closer relatives are going through, I can say that I have not felt a loss so keenly before…. Amid the sadness, there are many happy memories — an early Christmas morning walk in the snow, just Uncle Tom and me; a joke and hearty laugh coming unexpectedly after a long silence; a delight in old things, well-made and restored with care; hiking in the Rockies; trying to pick out songs together on a guitar and mini-keyboard; holidays shared in Knoxville or St. Louis; enjoying soaking in some new music with Uncle Tom and Aunt Susan and Mom and Dad and Hannah; the best barbecued chicken ever; laughing till we cried over a James Thurber short story….
According to one of the authors I attempted to read for the philosophy course, “work,” “labor,” and “action” are three very different things, which supposedly tell us a lot about history and modern society. Well, in terms of my own definitions, finding “work” in Austria requires a lot of exhausting “labor” and creative, initiative-taking “action” (not to discount the examples of obviously sheer grace and generosity along the way!).
The roller coaster of employment: At the same time that the bank account was making a free-fall, the employment market opened up in a surprising way. Although I’d been assuming that self-employment was impossible, an interview at a language school (who wanted to give me lessons as an independent contractor) sent me hunting for definite answers. Without the help of an Austrian friend (whose secretary had a friend who worked at the central visa office — sort of a typically Austrian game of knowing the right people or at least knowing someone who does), I might have given up. But, after multiple emails, phone call, or visits — to the bureau dealing with mandatory insurance, the chamber of commerce, the finance bureau, and the visa office — I ended up with a green light. Although I still was almost literally sick from the wild ride, things were falling into place by mid-October.
To cut a long story short, I currently have six piano students and a few English tutoring students (including a couple hours at a language school and another private student). To my great surprise and delight, my church has hired me for 10 hours a week as the pastor’s administrative assistant, which is not only super flexible but a real privilege. Additionally, in January, I’ll start a few lessons a week as the Catholic school around the corner from my flat, leading a couple conversation classes and also accompanying a few teachers to their history or geography or religious studies classes that are taught in English.
Now it is three days to Christmas! I am looking forward to celebrations here but missing family back home. The only advantage of being far away from family is that my Christmas shopping had to get done early enough in order to send things home in time — and it’s pretty fun to shop at the Christmas markets.
On the 24th (the high holiday for Austrians), I’ll join the Austrian friends I celebrated Easter with last year. We’ll attend mass together in the afternoon and afterwards share dinner (sticking with the traditional fish — but not the über-traditional carp) and presents.
On the 25th, I’ll try to have a few friends ’round for breakfast and join a group from church for games, etc., in the afternoon.
Well, I will save Christmas greetings for the 25th and meanwhile wish each of you the Vorfreude (anticipation) of this last week of Advent — the anticipation of time with family or friends, of gifts well-selected, of time off from work — and a soul-nourishing joy in the remembrance of the great Birth, confidence in the ever-present gift of Emmanuel, and anticipation of the guaranteed Redemption to which His birth and life and death and resurrection point.