When in Wien, watch out for pocket gangstas

Pocket gangstas, you say? Pardon? I was privileged to learn this novel English term from one of two 40-something-year-old gentlemen cozying up to Mary and me in Vienna’s swanky Onyx Bar that overlooks Stephan’s Cathedral. It was his kind way of warning us about pickpockets as we sipped a ginger martini and some sort of posh blackberry concoction. Luckily for us, we did not in fact encounter any such gangstas, as my weekend trip to Vienna was much less focused on touristy areas and considerably more centered around friend time with Miss Mary Nora.

She and I are “decaders”, our nerdy and uncreative term for the small group of our friends which has stuck together for more than ten years. I couldn’t pass up the chance to see Mary again, especially since our previous meeting lasted only a couple of hours (the time before that was a coincidental cross of flight plans in the Milwaukee airport for ten minutes). The fact that she was extremely generous and paid for half of the train ticket to Vienna certainly helped, not to mention how she arranged for me to stay with her professor on Friday night before she herself arrived from New York on Saturday morning. I honestly had no idea of what I was getting myself into…

Expert on (perhaps even father of?) microfluidics. Ivy League professor of chemical and biomedical engineering at Columbia University. In Mary’s words, an “incorrigible” fellow. Reminiscent of Professor Digory Kirke of The Magician’s Nephew/The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Da Vinci Code‘s Sir Leigh Teabing, Professor Edward Leonard is easily one of the most interesting people I’ve met thus far in life. I’m hesitant to even attempt to describe him, as I know he’ll be reading this…the (70-something-year-old) man googled me as soon as he found out my name. When I spoke with him on the phone on the way to Vienna he informed me of his slight bit of stalking and remarked, “I didn’t know they made them like that in Wisconsin”. Later, when he hopped off his bike and greeted me at a streetcar stop near his house, I immediately felt the pressure to choose my words very carefully. Leonard sized me up within minutes, noticed a note I had hastily scribbled in pen on my hand and said slyly, “Ah, so I see there’s a bit of Midwestern ordinariness left in you after all…” (I chose to take that as a compliment, as he also grew up in America’s heartland). He’s a person who uses words like ‘glib’ and ‘reticence’ in everyday conversation, and I can only imagine how much more intellectual I would have been had I grown up with Leonard around. This is a man whose brain quite obviously functions more efficiently and thoroughly than 95% of the population. The next five hours were made up of a series of delightful conversations over dinner; judging by his occasional hearty chuckles I’d like to think I amused him with my input, but the majority of the evening was filled by a flurry of his stories and tangents to stories that kept us talking until two in the morning.

This unusual, unofficial Couchsurfing experience was followed by the best Apfelstrudel I’ve ever tasted during breakfast the following morning. Mary and I spent the rest of the day catching up on the last two years of our lives and discussing future plans while enjoying various culinary delights from four different restaurants/cafes/bars in and around the city center. It was unfortunate that I had to leave already on Sunday; I got the impression that I could have easily spent a week waltzing through Vienna’s museums alone, not to mention time spent actually “going sightseeing”. Instead, Mary and I had an impromptu photoshoot near the Austria Center Vienna on our way to the Donauturm that we never ended up getting to.

We spent the last hour of my visit in and around the Stephansdom, listening to some sort of traditional band company giving an outside concert. Just as we left to catch my train, a gun salute rang schallend in the air — we took that as Vienna’s official farewell to me ^_^

I expect I’ll be back in Vienna someday when I have more time to really focus on the incredible culture that exists, take in a symphony, an opera, study the architecture and such. Until then, you’ll have to content yourself with the few photos I did take and imagine the rest for yourself…I’m sure you’re creative enough!

Reunion!

Just got back from a weekend in Innsbruck, Austria, where I visited two friends whom I met in 2002 on vacation at Lake Garda in northern Italy.  Maike and I left Saturday morning to take a seven-hour train ride south…and ended up saving almost 200€ since her aunt had given us a multi-person ticket that was valid all throughout Germany.  We only paid about 9€ from the Austrian border to Jenbach, where her friend Elias picked us up and drove us to Schwaz, his hometown about 20 minutes outside of Innsbruck.  Funnily enough, we realized shortly after meeting each other that Elias and I share the same last name; we tried to figure out if we were actually related, but the closest we came was a potential connection through his dad’s uncle who lived in/(is from?) Munich, where much of my dad’s side of the family comes from.

The real “family” reunion came later that night, when we went with a bunch of Elias’ friends for dinner at a cool venue called Treibhaus.  I had almost forgotten that Michaela was coming when I felt a tap on my shoulder…needless to say, a raging hug party ensued and bubbles of happiness explosions could be seen floating around the Treibhaus.  We spent the rest of the night together, first at an Irish pub followed by a bit of dancing at Weekender (whose bouncer was coincidentally a guy from Baltimore who felt it was necessary to ask me what states were on either side of Wisconsin after I showed him my ID…wtf, mate?).  The DJs weren’t particularly spectacular, but I was in excellent company and certainly not in any mood to complain!

Waking up the next morning at Michel’s place with a balcony view of the surrounding Alpine mountains was the nicest feeling…you’ll see what I mean when you check out my photos.  We spent time catching up through almost eight years of life stuff over a breakfast of Müsli, nectarines, yogurt, and the strongest coffee I’ve ever tasted.  Michel said I was the first person to ever want a second cup of it 🙂

(As a side note, the first time Michaela, Joe and I met, I knew about ten words of German.  This time, we spoke German together the entire time.  People ask me a lot why I chose to learn German, and I normally say something regarding familial ties, but it became extremely apparent to me how proud I felt being able to fully communicate with very close friends in their own language instead of mine.  I’ve said this before in my previous blog, but I really feel terrible when I travel somewhere and don’t speak at least a little of the language.  Although it’s a useful language, I don’t like imposing English on people, and that’s probably my main motivation for learning German, French, Italian (and now, slowly, Spanish).  I’m sure many of you feel the same, but I strongly feel that making an honest attempt at learning a country’s language shows a high amount of respect for the people and their culture.  In addition to being useful in everyday situations, it also is incredibly helpful in making meaningful connections with individuals you encounter…people are much more willing to help you if you show that you care about learning about them.  Plus, it’s fun!  I learned dialectal differences between Austrian and German slang (fesch is hübsch, zach is krass, etc).  Moral of the story: if you have but an inkling of wanderlust in your soul, learn a second/third/fourth language!).

After breakfast we picked up Joe, Michel’s younger brother, and they gave me a lovely tour of downtown Innsbruck.  There are a few points of tourist interest, including das goldene Dachl and das Helblinghaus, but after walking up the city tower we spent most of our time wandering around leisurely.  Lunch consisted of typisches österreichisches Essen at a restaurant up in the mountains reached after fifteen minutes of narrow roads, steep harrowing turns, and distinctly Alpine-accustomed Austrian driving skillz courtesy of Joe, who insisted (quite rightly, as we later observed) that Germans are stereotypically bad drivers when in Innsbruck.  Seriously though, the food…(happy sigh).  I had Zigeunerschnitzel (“gypsy schnitzel”, spiced with paprika) with rice, Kartoffelsalat, and the most delicious cabbage salad I’ve ever tasted.  Om nom nom.  To drink we had Holundersaft, which is essentially a concentrated elderberry syrup with water.  Basically the best drink on earth.  Excellent with both still and mineral water, or for the more alcohol-inclined folk, with Prosecco.  Michaela’s grandmother makes it by hand, and was kind enough to give me an entire bottle of the concentrated stuff to take home.

Lunch was followed by a quick stop at a lookout point up the mountain to get a nice view of Innsbruck from afar.  Joe’s driving skillz then took us across town a bit to a castle where we walked around the castle’s park before driving back into town to meet Maike and Elias for coffee.

The weekend continued to revolve around food, as we headed back to Michel’s place (which is actually a multiple-story house/apartment owned by her mother and stepfather, where she lives in the top story) and after having grapes from Lake Garda, caviar, and smoked fish for appetizers, we dined on some sort of rosemary-lemon prepared fish (can’t seem to remember the German word for it).  Dinner was followed by a few hours of conversation, along with an invitation to come back to visit anytime (including Christmas…skiing in the Alps…tempting).  Good-byes were said, and Michel drove me back to Schwaz.

The rest of Sunday night and Monday morning was spent with Maike and Elias watching Shutter Island, being hipsters (do you love dinosaurs?), having tooth-brushing-dance parties, listening to indie Brit bands, and being generally silly.  After another seven hours on the train, Maike and I were back in Bonn…and I was wanting to go back.

(Note: I’m in Holland! …the subject of the next post).

(No)where, Now(here)

Today I had my first encounter with Laubach, the town where I’ll be teaching for the next ten months.  It takes a short while to get to the middle of nowhere from somewhere, and when that somewhere is Bonn, it takes a little over 2,5 hours.  (Side note: I finally saw a community of tipis on the train ride down; I’ve always heard how much Germans love to imitate Native American culture (or, at least, what they perceive it to be), but it wasn’t until today that I was able to witness this particular stereotype in person.  “Gah,” is all I have to say).

Bärbel, one of the English teachers at the school in Laubach, is my contact person for the time I’m in Hessen, and was kind enough to pick me up from the train station in Gießen and drive the 20 minutes to Laubach.  Throughout the day we were able to

-rent a room for me in the student housing complex about a 15-minute walk from the middle school where I’ll be teaching
-have a quick tour of “downtown” Laubach (by this I mean we stopped by the town hall, had a cafe au lait, and Bärbel pointed out a few buildings)
-stop by the bank, attempt to open an account, realize that I’d left my passport in Bonn, slink away sheepishly…
-go to the school, make general introductions to the teachers (specifically to the 10 English teachers whom I’ll be helping)
-have me, just for fun, sit in on/help with my first class…which happened to be in French.  Thank goodness I’m a polyglot.
-have a 40 minute question & answer session with a class of 7th graders in English; the best question was definitely “do you like jelly beans?”
-drive up to a convent/look-out point between Laubach and Lich, on the way back to Gießen
-go shopping for a bit in Gießen at Karstadt

Apologies for the lack of pictures, but my general first impressions of Laubach were basically what I expected; it is extremely small compared to what I’m used to.  The surrounding country and the town itself, however, are both very beautiful.  Laubach itself lies on the outskirts of a huge natural area called the Naturpark Hoher Vogelsberg (poorly translated website with pictures here), excellent for hiking and biking.  On the downside, my worst fear was confirmed: there is absolutely no place to dance in town.   In Gießen there are definitely places for salsa, along with random dance studios, but before I freak out and start begging for rides from my flatmates I think I’ll focus a bit more on getting integrated at the school and being outdoorsy while the weather is still decent.  More updates to come as I figure out things to do…

On an extremely positive note, all of the people are perfectly lovely.  Bärbel was especially helpful of course, but the other teachers are truly excited to have me for the next school year and the students I met today were as well.  I have a tentative schedule worked out where I’ll rotate as an assistant to different English classes each week and have two additional workshop sections that I’ll lead myself.  The workshops, or AGs, or Arbeitsgemeinschaften, are divided into beginner and advanced conversation groups.  Oh, and did I mention I only work Monday-Thursday?  In case I get bored, I suggested to Bärbel that I direct some sort of one-act play for the students who weren’t able to fit the conversation AG into their schedules, so perhaps it’ll be a return to theatre that will substitute my dance cravings.

So, where to now?  Erm…Austria, it seems!  Innsbruck, specifically.  I was chatting with Maike a few days ago and she mentioned she had a multiple-person train ticket to anywhere in Germany and that she was planning on using it to get as close to Innsbruck as possible to visit a friend there, and if I’d like to come with her I could.  According to Patrik, I have friends in strategic places so that I never have to pay for a place to stay (which is mostly true), and as it turns out I now have the chance to visit Michaela and Jo, two friends whom I haven’t seen since 2003!  I leave tomorrow morning and plan to come back on Monday, so it’ll be a few days until I can post again.

Until then, safe travels!