…Carols waft from the open window of the classroom. The children’s voices, 20-odd of them, are glad, melodic. On this warm December day, busy as usual, does anyone hurrying along outside stop a moment to listen? “Leise rieselt der Schnee, Still und starr liegt der See, Weihnachtlich glänzet der Wald. Freue Dich, Christkind kommt bald. (“The snow falls softly, the sea lies silent and still. The wood shines with Christmas cheer; rejoice, the Christ Child comes soon!”)
…Roses bow with the weight of summer past, of morning rain. They droop elegantly, oblivious to the background noise of morning traffic on wet streets. Parliament, city hall, a theater standing solid and silent, a sparsely populated park — the early-bird tourist, the student on the way to class, the hobby runner.
1 2 3 + 1 2 3 + 1 2 3 + 1 2 3 + With varying levels of success, a dozen couples try to remember the invisible pattern charted on the dance floor. Ladies, remember to always look left (Side benefit: it saves you the trouble of staring at your dance partner, who is a complete stranger). Gentlemen, don’t watch your feet. When one lives in Vienna, one should learn to waltz.
…Sweat dripping, better judgment protesting, I tentatively ease my down the 70-odd curving stairs with the box that’s so big that I can’t see my feet and that must weigh somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 pounds. It’s moving day, and I’m determined to have as much as possible to the ground level before friends from church load it up to schlep to the new flat. Typical I-can-do-it approach, even if a minor miracle that I don’t end up a pancake.
…Flour. Chocolate (lots). Eggs (8). Sugar. Apricot jam. It’s Baking Day. With Mom’s 70th birthday around the corner, the best thing I can think of is to bake a Viennese Sacher Torte and ship it, minus the whipped cream. …Steam-oven wonder. Trimming. Layering. Ganaching. Nibbling and licking up so much dark chocolate I’m tired of it. Waiting for news that the post has arrived.
So. It’s the week of Christmas, and I fly home tomorrow for the holidays. Somehow the intervening months since I was home in the summer have sprinted by, and every time I thought of writing a blog post, I got overwhelmed. Maybe I need a not-quite-New-Year’s resolution about various ways I do (or don’t) keep up with friends around the world….
So, here’s a time-lapse version of August to December:
Summer in Tennessee (and New York and Pennsylvania)
After 20 months away, I wasn’t quite sure what it would be like to be back in the States for the summer. Odd things seemed, well, odd — like people not automatically taking shoes off upon entering a house or the popularity of hanging an American flag out front.
Superficialities aside, I realized that it can be hard to reconnect after too long away. The well-meant questions — “What are you doing in Austria?” and “How long are you staying?” — were at times extremely overwhelming. I didn’t know where to start — not wanting to pontificate about life in Europe, and at the same time not knowing what would be really interesting to tell. And, like any effective question, one question raised others — or rouses the inner questions already rumbling around — what am I doing here? What are my long-term plans?
Inner ruminations aside, the time at home was great. It started out in the best of ways — a few days with friends Kathleen and Matt and their little guy in upstate New York. Rambling around the picturesque town of Saratoga Springs, morning coffee and conversation on the front porch in idyllic August weather, a hike in the Adirondacks, a fabulous picnic and outdoor concert, visiting the horse-racing track for morning warming up…. There’s nothing like seeing friends in their native context and finding out that time and distance are not an impediment to deep friendship.
From New York I flew home to Knoxville! The weeks flew by. Visits with many friends — one-on-one, in groups, spontaneous, planned, repeated. Coffees, dinners, walks, farmers’ market, acquarium….
One of the biggest highlights of the whole trip was a day hike with Hannah to a favorite spot in the Smokies (the Chimneys, for you locals). The weather was sublime, and we were up to the top and back down before lunch time — having planned a scandalously wonderful picnic (featuring fried chicken) to be enjoyed atop a boulder in the middle of the mountain river. After baking (ourselves) for a couple of hours and wearying of our books, we decided to jump in. It was deliciously cold.
Another day we took a picnic to the university’s trial gardens — we persuaded Mom to join us — followed by a grand game of frisbee on the wide lawn.
Of course one can’t be home without some good home cooking. Thanks, Mom, especially for the homemade pizzas and the waffle dinner!
Two highlights were special out-of-town guests. One weekend Aunt Susan came from St. Louis. In an obscure mercy, time almost seemed to slow down for two days, making room for wonderful conversation, games and needed laughter. The next weekend Peter, Hannah’s boyfriend (now fiancé!), flew in from Pennsylvania. It was great to get acquainted with the future brother-in-law!
Together the three of us drove up to Pennsylvania, where I got to meet Peter’s family. Then, Hannah and I traveled on to visit cousins in both Philadelphia and Jersey City. In both places, I got to meet new additions to the family. The last evening in NY, we four adults all sat around trying to put off saying goodnight, knowing the visit had been too short as always.
Arriving back in Vienna, I still wasn’t entirely sure where I would be living. Also, it is the first semester here that I am not studying music — so, there were various factors to make life feel rather unsettled.
However, I ended up indeed moving into a new flat with a new friend from church. It has been fun getting to know a new neck of the woods, and the part of the city is really superb. The flat is also above and beyond my imaginings. Beyond logistics, Jessica (the new flatmate) and I have enjoyed a good bit of cooking/baking, decorating, and hosting events. Two weekends in a row we had 30 people in the flat — fun but exhausting!
One of the occasions was my birthday. I decided I’d invite as many people as I am in years. There was a Hobbit theme, as 33 is the year a Hobbit comes of age — seemed like an excuse for something special. I wrote a speech, and guests solved riddles and worked on a Tolkien trivia quiz. Jessica surprised me with a riddle of her own making, the solution revealing a gift friends had put together toward a potential keyboard…!
Out-of-the-ordinary happenings aside, work is somewhat similar this year to last year. I’m again at Sacre Coeur, a private Catholic middle and high school, this year with 11 lessons spread out over the first half of the week. Four of these hours I work on my own with half-sized classes; these hours supplement the students’ regular English lessons. The other seven lesson I accompany history, geography, biology, and religion teachers, and we do their subject-area lessons in English.
Otherwise, I’m still working as the church secretary, teaching a once-a-week English conversation class for adults, and working with a couple of piano students.
The big change this year is not being at the music uni. I am already rather nostalgic! It was a sad day that my student card ran out, meaning I can’t practice there any more. I’m grateful for the friends made, the musical skills honed, the sense of feeling at home with the wide, quiet corridors and familiar faces and grand-piano-graced rooms — and, to be honest, it’s also been pretty fantastic to have a break from piano.
But, I haven’t really left school — just changed campuses. This semester I’m taking a few courses in the religious studies program. They’re all in German, though I can do some of the written parts in English. One is on the Confessions of Augustine — might not have taken it if I’d known it would include a bit of translating Latin…. One class is a hermeneutics class — very interesting. The third, a lecture on the people of Israel in Old Testament times — I’m not so keen on the seemingly deconstructionist view of Scripture. The fourth class — totally different — is a weekend block-seminar on the history, culture, and religion of the country of Oman. Also quite enjoyable. Since my presentation was first (2o minutes in German was very tiring!), I’m done with that class — just have to show up for the remaining weekend. Although the semester is challenging (it winds up with a large paper due at the end of March), I’m glad for the chance to begin to get to know a few classmates.
In the past months, our new German pastoral assistant has moved with his family to Vienna, and the church continues to grow. This year, we made our first attempt at a choir for the Christmas service, which was fun. There are conversations afoot in various local churches about how to help long-term with the influx of refugees in recent months. …It was interesting to observe a bit of the short-term aid being offered in the main train station. I went a few times to help, either sorting clothing donations or preparing a simple breakfast. Certainly a different view of the city — a tram rumbling by while a retiree from Vienna, a young Czech guy, and I wash fresh persimmons at a fire hydrant spigot; an Afghani (?) boy helps set out things for tea and coffee and practices writing his name and mine in a tentative script; a huddle of young men gather around a cell-phone charging station; the make-shift volunteer area combines a sort of hippie feel with Germanic efficiency of clothes-sorting and food storage…. The flood of newcomers has slowed for now, but there are long-term needs and opportunities, for sure!
Odds and Ends
Looking back through photos of the past months, I should mention the yearly Long Night of the Museum — was this year really my fourth time? A lighting exhibit was the most photogenic part of the evening.
Other city events included a rather random light show near my new flat. Two grand museums (art history and natural history) face each other across a plaza, and for a few nights there was a light show projected onto the buildings.
The Christmas gifts are mostly wrapped, and I’m basically packed. Since I have to get up in about 2 hours (eeks!), I guess I’d better wrap up here and get a smidgen of sleep.
I wish each of you (and those who didn’t read this far) a joyful Christmas and renewed strength and hope for the new year — “life up your voice…, do not be afraid; say…, ‘Here is your God!'” (Isaiah 40:9).