Monday, January 31, 2011

A Haus of Rats and Having Class

Blurry, but we're ice skating.
In the past few weeks, I've had a lot of contact with Vienna's Rathaus, or City Hall. It was built in the 1870s in a neo-gothic style, by Friedrich Schmidt, but that's not really the exciting part. What's fun about the Rathaus, at least currently, is the Eistraum (ice dream), a ice skating park in front of the impressive and beautiful building! I've never been a great ice skater (or skier, or rollerskater...) but man, it's great! This park has 3 decent sized ice rinks, along with some trails off the sides so people like me can adventure and avoid the terrifying moment of falling down in the middle of a big ice rink. Ice skating, by the way, is really fun. I can now see the benefit of living in Minnesota, or Austria, for that matter, because it's cold enough to support ice skating rinks! 

On Thursday and Friday of last week, there was a conference for Teachers of English in Austria. First stop: a tour of the city hall! The staff of Vienna was really excited to have us, and we got to view most of the beautiful rooms in the building (except for one, which was in use for real city purposes). While I was scheming for my future wedding, the tour guide informed us that unfortunately citizens cannot rent out the expensive rooms for their own events - because it's a public building, only public events can occur there. Fine. Anyway, it was nice, and the library was reminiscent of Harry Potter, only with less flying books and more loud voices.

The TEA conference (not the Tea Party of America - don't get confused) was interesting. I learned some new ideas for lessons and how to deal with students, and in general am glad that I went, especially because it was free and I didn't have school anyway. I did, however, feel a bit crazy. The other teachers (now students in these classes) were passing notes, talking, and in general behaving every bit like the 17 year olds we teach. I find it funny how easy it is to slip back into the "student" mindset, even though I myself now know (or at least a bit) how difficult it can be to be a teacher, and how great it is when students pay attention. 

As I mentioned before, it's ball season here in Vienna! I managed to attend 3 balls in 7 days, which is pretty balling if I do say so myself. Each ball is different, of course. Last weekend, we went to a school ball in Amstetten to see a friend waltz with his students. This ball had a nice hour long talent show featuring Amstetten's finest performing pieces from Grease, Dirty Dancing, or just double-dutch jump roping. Similarly, a maturaball I went to in Waidhofen had a portion where the oldest classes did dances from all over the world (America was dancing to rap music, and Africa to Shakira). These balls are fun because the whole family is involved, and there are multiple dance floors for multiple purposes! The parents/adults spend most of the time waltzing to songs from Baywatch, while the students spend their time jamming to Austria's top 40 in a smaller, darker hall somewhere. Overall it's a good time.

At the Hofburg
By far the most interesting ball I went to was the Technical University ball at the Hofburg. This was a formal affair, which my date and I kept ruining by being in the wrong place at the right time. For example: we sneaked into the whole ball without having to give anyone our tickets (though we had them), we sneaked into the VIP lounge and got free champagne, without meaning to, and we somewhat interrupted the opening procession by standing in the way. Anyway, it was a great time. I've learned how to waltz, and danced to the Blue Danube Waltz, in the Imperial Palace of Vienna! Austrians really can dance, surprisingly. Every hall of the palace had a different band playing live music, such as jazz, boogie, rumba, salsa, and of course the traditional waltz, and each dance was executed perfectly! Joe and I struggled and made fools of ourselves, but luckily most of the Austrians took pity on us and gave us lots of space. My favorite dance of the whole ball was the Quadrille, which is essentially a pattern of moves that are explained by a woman barking orders into a microphone, and with the music going faster and faster until everyone is messing up and laughing. It was great.

Anyway, in case the students of my classes haven't had enough holidays, we are taking a one week break beginning on Friday. I'm taking this opportunity to get out of Austria and into another culture, namely Portugal and Spain! As charming as I find Austria, and as few hours as I actually work, I've been a bit overwhelmed by my busy schedule in recent weeks, and hope that some time away will help me de-stress. It will be interesting to see how much Spanish I can remember... I think my abilities stop at "where are my pants?", which won't be useful since I wear nothing but dresses. Anyhow, a change in weather and a chance to get into the sunshine will be beneficial, I think.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Let's talk about AUSTRIA.

So, the time has come. The topic is on the tip of everyone's tongues (at least, everyone I talk to).

What is going to happen next year?

While I don't exactly have a response to the whole Mayan 2012  thing, I do know that I'm not going to be in Austria when it happens. One of the cool aspects of this program through the Fulbright Commission is that we're given a chance to do it all over again for a second year (want to learn some German? die Verlängerung = the extension), either in the same school or somewhere else. But unfortunately, to help give an answer to the people who were me this time last year, we have to decide this week if we want to extend. And I've chosen not to.

But that's not to say I don't like Austria, because I really do. I also like taking a second to stop and recognize why something is great in one's life. Hence, this list of reasons of why I like Austria.
  • Eccentric German speaking. I have complained before about the Austrian dialect. Probably ever German-speaking-hopeful who finds themselves in Austria has complained about the Austrian dialect. But, as frustrating as it can be, I find it kind of endearing. I'm not sure when I'll use German in my life, but I secretly love knowing some silly Austrian things, because it makes me different. So what if it's impossible to spell or understand? It just makes the Austrian club all the more exclusive.
  • Weird obsessions. Being a small country (sorry about World War I and losing Hungary, guys), Austria has a relatively small pool from which to get it's more modern culture. I've never heard of any Austrian sitcoms, and most Austrian music never catches on outside the country. So, when Austria finds something they like, they tend to obsess over it. Take, for example, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, aka Sisi. Sisi is wildly popular in Austrian tourism, because of her beauty, extremely long hair, and scandalous and secretive lifestyle. Another obsession is that of the song Barbra Streisand, a really catchy song that's only lyrics are "Barbra Streisand". It's made in New York, but I've heard it allll over Austria. I think I like Austria's weird obsessions because they remind me of weird things I would get obsessed with back in high school... or now.
  • The abundance of soup I can get at any time. I'm a soupaholic. I'll eat soup for any meal, no matter the flavor. Luckily for me, Austria also loves soup. Most restaurants offer a soup of the day, which is actually delicious compared to some "Soup de Jour" you might find in America. My favorites? Pumpkin-creme, anything-creme, Katie-made-stew, anything with a dumpling, and tomato. 
  • Wine! Austria has a couple great wine regions. Lower Austria primarily does white wines (Riesling, anyone?), while Burgenland seems to offer more reds. Lower Austria (where I teach) in fact has an area called the "Weinviertel" (wine quarter).... so you can see that it's been part of it's culture for years. Anyway, wine is cheap here. And good! Sure, I miss a good Portland microbrew, but I'm certainly not suffering.
  • Simply put: Austria is beautiful. The Alps, the Danube, the historical architecture largely undamaged by war... Austria really is gorgeous. I'm constantly surprised by a beautiful sunrise or sunset, or how fantastically calm the snow can look on a field. I could never live anywhere that was flat, and thank goodness Austria absolutely is not.
  • Delicious desserts, and coffee. Coming from the Pacific Northwest, I love me a good cup of coffee. Vienna boasts about their coffeehouses, specializing in a nice black coffee "mit Schlag". And what should one get with a cup of coffee? Only a fantastic piece of cake, of course! My favorite is the Esterhazy, though honestly, I don't know anything about the ingredients other than it's delicious. I think there's some sort of nuts (very typical). Anyway, it's delicious and probably too intricate for me to ever make by myself, so thank goodness I can purchase it at my friendly neighborhood underground station.
  • The cold weather, though not unbearably cold. It's easy to complain about the cold weather here, but it's really not so bad compared to many other places in the world. Austrians really know how to dress warmly and look good, which can be intimidating but also wonderfully practical. They also have figured out all these ways to work around the snow and ice. For example, they eliminate drafts in the train station by locking certain doors. And eliminate a backup of ice in the river by pulling it out, then pushing it back in when it's warmer! Anyway, I'm sure that someday in my future I'll be able to complain about how cold it was in Austria (15 degrees Fahrenheit!), which is something to be thankful for, right?
  • Easy-going people. Sure, Austria is Catholic, and with that Catholicism comes a lot of rules. But in general, people are very forgiving. The underground was delayed by 8 minutes because of a problem, and I found myself completely shocked by how no one except me seemed upset about it! As a result of the delayed subway, I missed my train to Krems and was late, but the teacher seemed not to mind at all. Austrians are, in my experience, often late, which works well for people like me who hate being late but don't mind if others are. 
  • Its stubbornness, and pride. Austria is what it is, and probably won't be changing any time soon. People are "Catholic", go to mass once a year and sleep through the outrageous number of Catholic holidays. But it's part of their culture to be Catholic, and so they remain so. Also, Austria is slow. Today I was talking to my coordinating teacher about a legal issue we had in the school (headmaster wrongly hired, people upset, people pressing charges blahblahblah) and she said it took them six years to work it out. SIX YEARS of dealing with a headmaster nobody really liked. When I was shocked at this, she said "Well, of course! It's Austria!"... Anyway, I'm rather stubborn too, so I can appreciate Austria sticking to their guns, even if it can be very inconvenient for me.
  • The love of the Great Outdoors. Like I mentioned, Austria has some beautiful mountains. Of course, these mountains aren't covered in my familiar evergreens, but they do offer nice hikes or other outdoor activities. Austrians are, as a whole, pretty fit people. Everywhere you look you can see people Nordic Walking , which is basically walkers pretending they're skiing. Though, unlike in America, Austrians only wear exercise gear when they're actually exercising. 
Ah yes. Of course there's many things that are lovable about Austria, and some things that I like about Austria that are really applicable to most of Europe/the world... but it's my list, and these are the things I find myself appreciating most often. Sometimes June and America can seem very far away, but I guess I'm pretty lucky to be in such a great place.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Dustin' off books and my dancing shoes

Getting back in the normal system here took some time. I spent most of my first week holed up in the apartment, and when I did have to go out into society I numbed myself with a book and/or headphones. There's something about having a book to read that really distracts me, and I think many others from loneliness. On Friday night, I was riding the underground at around midnight and was surprised to see two people reading books! Upon further investigation, however, I discovered that both of them were reading books in English, and both looked pretty American (the shoes are a dead giveaway!). My guess is that they're people like me who are reading so as to not be overwhelmed, which can happen pretty easily if you're constantly struggling to understand people around you. Anyway, if anyone wants to shoot some book recommendations my way, I'd love it. I've managed to read 15 different books since arriving in Vienna, which I'm pretty proud of... though as to how I'm going to carry all these books back to America, I haven't got a clue.

Vienna's city hall
I've found myself in denial that this is a German-speaking country, because it seems like everyone I speak German with also understands me if I speak in English, or in somewhat bad German. Unfortunately this is not always the case. Yesterday on a run, a man scared me when he appeared next to me, and I said (in English) "ah! Oh, you scared me, I didn't see you there, sorry!"... all of which were probably not understandable to him, especially since I said them so quickly. My bad. However, it seems that I've gotten more comfortable with rambling in German, and I just assume and hope people around me can understand what I'm saying.

In the Volksgarten, look at the heron!
Anyway, we've been lucky enough to have some seriously nice weather here, around 50 degrees Fahrenheit for the last week! It's a great change compared to the miserable cold we had before Christmas, though it is back to about 35 degrees today, so we'll see how long it is until we get snow. Anyway, on Saturday Jenni, Laura and I took a nice walk around town to take advantage of our great weather. Over the last week I've acquired a good sense of direction through all of the Inner City of Vienna, which is actually quite small! I love the feeling of knowing my way around a place and being able to do that in Vienna helps a lot.

I was given the opportunity to go to a pretty interesting concert on Friday. It was called "Ewig dein Mozart" (eternally, your Mozart) and was in the Brahms Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna, which is a beautiful place. Anyway, in the concert a man would read a letter from Mozart and then would play a piece that coordinated with the mood of the letter. So, for example, when his mother died, his songs were pretty depressing. Or, when he wrote this letter (in German) he was in a somewhat comical mood, and so the song was pretty positive. It's kind of interesting to both learn something about a composer and hear music at the same time, though it did kind of remind me of Gundi's English classes from Salzburg...

This container holds gravel,
which they scatter over the snow
 then put back in the container!
One of the strange things about being here is that people are just naturally interested in me. That sounds rather vain, but I mean that people I work with, my students, people I randomly meet on the subway all seem to want to give me a real cultural experience (though I don't usually take subway people up on their invitations, thankyouverymuch). For a person like me who is rather antisocial by nature, this can be a bit disarming.... but I've been trying to get used to constantly doing things, though sometimes that "thing" I'm doing needs to be simply relaxing and having some serious Katie-time.

Anyway, now that the Christmas markets are closed, ball season has begun! Yes, Austria has balls, like Cinderella... though many of these balls are called "Maturaballs" and are held for the students in the oldest class (who take the Matura exams). I actually missed my own school's maturaball this weekend since I forgot to buy tickets (oops), but have plans to go to at least two more before the end of January. For a dancing fool like myself, this season looks like it's going to be pretty great.

Found this on my camera... look how cute Pudding is!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Back in Business?

My winter break has come to an end, and while I wait for my next How I Met Your Mother episode to load, I thought I'd take a moment to clue in the blog world to what I've been doing the last couple weeks.

The days before break seemed quite long, because I was so excited to leave Austria and get back home. The day before I left, a Tuesday, I was in the school all day. It turned out to be a pretty great day! Teachers were giving me Christmas cards and little gifts (so. much. sugar.) and I was asked about 100 times to please, please come back to Austria. Either it was the schnapps at the 10.25 break or the teachers really like me. Anyway, I was asked to read a poem at the school's Christmas party (actually, I was asked to sing Edelweiss, but declined that several times), so I read "'Twas the Night Before Christmas", in good ol' American English. Interestingly enough, one teacher later complimented me on my "British" accent while reading the poem.

NYE 2010... or is it 2011?
My time in America was, simply put, great. I spent a lot of time talking to people I really enjoy, which is one of the best therapies I know of. My family kept up the all-important tradition of Christmas Eve Chinese food, followed by Christmas Eve sugar high and crash in the midnight church service. I also got the opportunity to visit my grandparents on the Oregon coast, my Portland friends and people I like in Seattle.

Horsetail Falls and an icy tree!
Now, let's talk about Portland. Man, I adore that city. On my first day there, I went for a run in Irvington and got smiled at by two complete strangers! It made me feel giddy, especially in comparison to what happened when I smiled at a stranger here in Vienna. The city is full of complete weirdos, and people who make fun of complete weirdos while actually having a weird side themselves. For example: New Years Day, about 10 AM. I was driving around Lloyd Center (the mall) and spotted 6 people holding anti-war signs. These people were at least 65, and one of them was holding a sign that said "War is a Racket"... and I just couldn't help but wonder, who cares?! I mean, it's Portland; basically everyone here is against war, and besides, isn't the war in Iraq on the decline anyway? Anyway, as I'm staring at these people, a man runs into my field of vision fully dressed in exercise gear, carrying a champagne bottle. Oh, Portland.

I also got to experience the great outdoors in Oregon. As untraveled as I am in America, let alone the world, I have to say that the Pacific Northwest is the most beautiful yet accessible place! We drove for 30 minutes and found an icy waterfall, a gorgeous sunset AND a winery that specializes in risqué wine labels. What more could one ask for?!
The Columbia Gorge(ous)

Anyway, now I'm back in Europe until mid-June. My flights both ways were surprisingly worry-free, though I managed to cause my own problems. On two out of four flights, I sat in the wrong seat! The first time, this caused a nice Indian man to be incorrectly served a meat dish. The second time, I realized my mistake before the other passenger got there and quickly changed seats, only to later discover that I had left my boots under her seat... bah! Austria and I so far have had a rocky start. I keep making nervous mistakes! First of all, I tried to buy a train ticket and forgot my pin number for my Austrian debit card, which I used the day before in America. Then, I said "du" (informal you) to a nice, old Austria man, which is a total faux pas. And then, I ran knowingly in front of a moving car - in my defense, we BOTH had a green light. Confusing! I'm hoping that the arrival of Jenni and Laura will help tame my nerves, because so far I keep cooking up delicious meals for myself, taking two bites and completely losing my appetite... I'm feeling a bit stressed, I guess, and now that I can't keep food down, pretty weak.

To be honest, I'm not really excited to be back. I'm tired of feeling uncomfortable and it felt really great to be in the Northwest, especially in Portland. Knowing places I want to go, seeing familiar faces... these things are important to me! Being out of my element as I am in Vienna turns me into a total homebody, where I only leave the house for the basic necessities: work, grocery shopping and the occasional exercise. Also, I'm a firm believer that January is the sleepiest, saddest month of the year. I am, however, excited to teach on Monday, and hope that I get the chance to have some interesting adventures in the next couple months. Hopefully after a week of adjusting, I'll be ready to get out of the apartment and find my way a bit more in Vienna. Besides, by then it'll almost be February, the best month of the year!