One for the 800-year-old Road

Well, my social life seems to be picking up here. I went out drinking three times in a week. In a week! I’ve gone a year without that much alcohol. And it was a blast.

Friday night we went to the apartment of one of Markus’ high school buddies, Wolfgang. (I seriously live in a place populated with people called Wolfgang and nobody bats an eye.) We have met up with he and his wife, Iris, a couple of times with their two children: Pia, who is 2 and their newborn baby boy, Paul. They made an amazing dinner and we drank loads of wine, finishing off with a shot of Grappa at the end. I remembered from somewhere that a big glass of water and a Tylenol before bed helps with the hangover. (Or ‘being blue’ as they call it here.) They don’t seem to have Tylenol in Austria (they still mostly take Aspirin….weird) so I substituted an Ibuprofen and called it a night. Although tired, I made it through the next day without too many problems.

Saturday night (that is the next night!) I went out for dinner, drinks and…wait for it…dancing with my sister-in-law Susi and her friend Verena. What a total blast. I actually found a decent margarita and downed a couple of those before switching to wine. We went to a bar that wasn’t entirely populated by 18-year-olds and just danced the night away. I shockingly saw 3 a.m. from the other side (instead of being woken up that early).

And then on Wednesday we had our last German class of the semester, so we went out for drinks. (I’d say ‘afterwards’ but we acutally only stayed in class for about half an hour before we cut out for the bar. Love that adult education.) I chose to imbibe sweet Radlers this time, which are a very tasty mix of beer and lemonade. My teacher is also a singer in a band and so he was reciting his song lyrics to me to make sure that the English grammar was correct. They actually were very good; it must be tough to write metaphorical, rhyming lyrics in a foreign language. Tricky. Unfortunately, unlike most people’s experience, my German gets much worse when I am drunk. I did manage to slur together a couple of gutteral conversations with non-English speakers, but then called it a night.

This all really makes me appreciate, yet again, how great it is to live in the city center. I can go out, drink til I’m woozy and still stumble home over the cobblestone streets in a couple of minutes. If this is my 40-year mid-life crisis, I’ll take it.

Now I’m Really Starting to Feel Like an Underachiever

Here are a couple of very interesting people that I’ve met in German class this month:

Maria, Joachin and Me
Maria, Joachim and Me

Maria is an incredibly nice 23-year old from Russia. She worked in the travel industry the last few years and speaks Croatian, English, Russian, German and I think also Serbian. Her language skills are excellent (O.K, so I can only judge German and English, but I’m pretty sure that holds for the rest.) Interestingly she has more of a British accent than Russian when she speaks English. She is here for 3 months visiting her Austrian boyfriend, who lives about an hour outside of Innsbruck near a snowboarding mecca called Ischgl. Unfortunately, her snowboarding adventures were cut short by a bad fall that broke her arm in three places. (It is accidents like these that make my skin crawl when I think of Annie up on those mountains.) She has to go back to Russian next month to renew her visa (I’m so lucky none of that is required for Canadians) but would like to come back to go to school in Innsbruck next year. I’m really enjoying getting to know her, so hope that happens.

The first week of the new class we were talking about our work and dreams. When it was Joachim’s turn, he declared that he hoped to be the President of The Democratic Republic of the Congo. OK then. Joachim was a political prisoner for a year and had to flee the Congo, leaving his wife and seven children in a neighbouring country. He also speaks several languages, and is hoping the next elections (I think in 2010) changes the political climate so that he can return home.

Since I know exactly nothing about this country (including that there are 2 countries with The Congo in the name), I read a bit about it on wikipedia. Apparently is was the center of what many describe as the “African World War” in 1998, which I had never heard of, and continues to be one of the worst places in the world for military violence towards civilians (rape, murders, torture, etc.) Joachim tells me that one of the main exported resources is uranium, of course a central ingredient in nuclear weapons. Not sure that is the best place to start, but I’m sure he has plans.

After this experience in Europe, I have to say one of my wishes for Annie is that she doesn’t grow up as ignorant about this planet as I did (and still am for that matter). I’m not sure what happened there, as I know we studied world history and geography in my expensive high-school. I just didn’t seem to take any interest in it. Probably I couldn’t discern the relevance it had to me. Hopefully Annie will feel more of a connection to the world around her and learn about this increasingly interdependent world.

I think I’ve said it here before, but even though this last year has not been all fun and games, one of the best parts has been meeting incredibly diverse and interesting people who I would never had come across in my prescribed life back in Canada. If nothing else, it sure makes me appreciate how incredibly lucky I was to grow up in one of the safest and most beautiful countries in the world.

And Miles to Go Before I Sleep

This road less traveled thing is becoming a bit stale. At least, that is what I felt this morning when I started this post. So much uncertainty, so many decisions to make, so many made that can’t be remade…or undone. I always seem to be drawn to the path of most resistance. I remember once, years back, someone saying to me that they only pursued things that they were good at. I thought, “You can do that?” I hadn’t even considered it. Somewhere deep in my genes I came to believe that if it wasn’t difficult, it wasn’t worth doing. The word ‘deranged’ comes to mind.

But then, I guess, I always become restless and crave change when I mosey down one path for too long. Stabilitiy is a haunting presence for me…calling out for a while and then, just when I am settling in, it starts to poke, poke, poke at me, asking if that is what I really want. The little devil.

I guess I’m improving though. I didn’t become maudlin until after 3 weeks of Markus being away. Last time it was 3 days. We are hoping he can return on the 20th. Sigh.

It is also very irritating that I have trouble sustaining a good depression these days. All these comparative thoughts keep nagging at my brain, trying to get me to perk up and be grateful. No one is pulling off my toenails, no one is telling me I have 10 minutes to pack and leave with my child if I want a chance to flee the country and avoid almost certain peril.

And I’m starting to collect all of these remarkable friends here, which also makes prolonging a satisfying pity-party tough. Yesterday a few people from class came over, which was very nice for me. Senegal, Serbia, France and Egypt were represented. I find my classmates so beautiful and interesting. Would this be the case if we weren’t thrown together in isolated circumstances? I don’t know… I guess that is unknowable.

This morning after a few low, loooooooooong hours, I called up Lauriane and we decided to trek out for lunch with the kids. (She has little Jua, who is 5 months old and a real heart-breaker). Both were asleep for the first part of the meal, which gave us a chance to talk and even gossip a bit. (Mostly in German no less). Jua is pretty much the world’s best baby, so once she woke up she just sat with us and smiled and chewed on anything she could get her hands on (teething, I think.) Annie was so sweet as well, saying that she wanted to sit by Jua. We set her up to hold the babe for a few seconds; wish I had had the camera. Big, big smile. We then went off to feed the ducks and play a bit outside. It was a warm day here so we took advantage of it. One of Lauriane’s friends, who teaches French at the University, met up with us. (She also speaks English, German and Spanish fluently. Of course.) She was so interesting, having studied and lived in England (Oxford) and South America as well as France and Austria. So by the time 5 hours had gone by, I was feeling quite fine about life again.

So maybe this journey is not too much like a pathless woods, and it will be good, both going and coming back.

Seeing Seefeld

Well, Annie and I successfully survived a 3-day weekend without Markus. Actually, it went quite well. Friday and Monday were pretty low-key, and then Sunday we went to visit my friend, Ana, in Seefeld (pronounced Zey-feld).

Annie and I met another woman from class, Anna (with 2 n’s) and her 7 year old daughter, Dasha. (They are from Russia and do not really speak English, so it was an all German speaking day pretty much.) We met at the downtown train station and caught the train to Seefeld, which is a little tourist town about 1/2 and hour from Innsbruck.

Annie, of course, loved the train as well as the chance to hang out with another child. Here are pics from our trip there:

Dasha and Annie
Dasha and Annie

Ana, our host (1 ‘n’), was quite sad that it wasn’t a sunny day, as we missed seeing the spectacular mountains surrounding the town. But I thought the village was very pretty and really enjoyed spending the time out of the house. I’m sure we’ll be back to check out the view another time.

After a short walk in the core we headed straight to the kiddy hill. Annie and I went tobogganing and Anna pulled Dasha up so she could go skiing. It was really fun, although it was certainly a workout.

After about an hour we returned to Ana’s for lunch and chats. I can now carry on a basic conversation in German, and we were helping each other out when we didn’t understand. Ana speaks Russian and English, so she was the translator when required, although we usually try to figure what everyone is saying using just German.

Annie decided that life was too exciting to have a nap, so she conked out for a bit on the train ride home and then went to bed early. A wonderful day all around.

Here are some more pictures. (Oh yeah, Annie won’t ride on the sled unless it is barreling down a mountain, so I had to push the green strolled through the snow. Poor little stroller will never be the same again!)

The gang in the village
The gang in the village
In front of a pretty building
In front of a pretty building. Apparently Annie isn't into looking at the camera much these days
Mom and Annie enjoying the ride
Mom and Annie enjoying the ride
Hard work pulling your not-so-wee one up the hill
Hard work pulling your not-so-wee one up the hill
Big hugs all around
Ana and Annie (too many An(n)a's here!) Big hugs all around

A Tale of Two Palaces: Schönbrunn and Hofburg

Another Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous day. I’m sure it will get boring soon. Right.

After breakfast I had the morning to myself so I made a plan to go to the Albertina Museum to see the Van Gogh exhibit. However, when I walked over the line up was about 200 people deep. I only had about an hour and a half before I was to meet Markus so I scrapped that plan.

But oh did I find a little piece of Hillary heaven instead. The Grand Hotel where we are staying is on The Ringstrasse in the heart of Vienna, so everything is walking distance. I strolled around a bit and stumbled onto the Doroteum Auction House. Three floors of art, jewellery, furniture, silver, sculptures, glass ware, ceramics and jewellery. Did I mention the jewellery? All of it either for direct sale or for auction. The Doroteum was established in 1707, so a little more than 300 years ago. A beautiful setting for ogling the goods.

The furniture and art was mostly from the 19th and 20th Centuries. I’m about as far as it gets from an art aficionado, so the only artist I recognized right away was Andy Warhol. I always find looking at modern art an interesting experience for me. I teeter precariously close to the edge of the general masses who “Don’t get modern art.” (Sorry Andy…kind of like the Jazz thing.) For example, there seemed to be an inordinate amount of canvases which were simply painted one color…i.e. completely blank…being listed for several thousand Euros. Hmmm.

But then I pass something that really catches my eye and tugs on my emotions. There was a series by a German painter, Imi Knoebel, that I kept coming back to. I didn’t write down the name of the piece, but I call it Construction Paper on Bristol Board. Because it basically was a large monotone canvas with a smaller blank canvas of a different colour stuck onto it. The colours were bright and interestingly contrasted and, for some reason I can’t explain, intrigued me.

I also was quite fascinated by the modern art furniture. Not to actually use of course, (it looked terribly uncomfortable) but an interesting focus point for a room, I’m sure.

Anyway, it was a delightful 90 minutes and I have decided that for my 40th I’m going to ask Markus to take me there to pick out a lovely necklace. Because I’m worth it, right?

I met Markus to attend the lunch at the Hofburg Imperial Palace where the Relais & Chateaux conference is being held.

Here is a bit of history about the Hofburg:

The Imperial Palace, which until 1918 was inhabited by the imperial family, was originally a castle built in the thirteenth century, which was extended to a splendid residence in accordance with the increasing power of the Habsburgs and the expansion of their realm.

Today, the Imperial Palace houses the office of the President of Austria as well as an important congress center and numerous art collections.

Here are some shots I took yesterday:

Hofburg Imperial Palace
Hofburg Imperial Palace
Some of the gardens around the Palace
Some of the gardens around the Palace

The Hofburg certainly is spectacular and houses libraries, museums, offices and several meeting and conference areas. Each room is incredible and brings to mind the opulence of the empire. For example, here is the room where we had lunch (with a close-up of the chandeliers.)

Just the little lunch room
Just the little lunch room
Sure beats track lighting
Sure beats track lighting

After lunch and a quick change at the hotel, we piled onto buses that took us to the Schönbrunn Palace. Markus and I have been there before, but it certainly is worth seeing again.

Markus and I at the Schönbrunn
Markus and I at the Schönbrunn
Ariel shot from wikipedia
Aerial shot from wikipedia

We had a private tour of the public rooms and learned a bit more about the history. There are over 1400 rooms at the Palace, with only a handful open to the public. The two most well known rulers who lived there are Maria Theresa (with her 16 children, including Marie Antoinette) and Franz Joseph I, almost the last Emperor of Austria who died in 1916, 2 years before the throne was abdicated. Franz Joseph certainly had a lot less fun than the Tudors (if the television series has any basis in reality). He worked up to 14 hours a day and lived in relatively spare quarters with one of the smallest beds I’ve seen.

The tour was interesting and then they opened up the ballroom to us for a cocktail party. I didn’t get a great shot, but you get the idea.

Ballroom at the Schönbrunn
Ballroom at the Schönbrunn

Following the cocktail party we were taken by buses to mystery destinations for dinner. Our bus went 45 minutes out of town to Restaurant Taubenkobel, about 10 km west of Hungary. The Chef has 2 Michelin stars and the menu was certainly well prepared. As I am not the world’s most adventurous eater, I enjoyed some of the dishes very much (marinated rainbow rout with mango and fennel) and others less (goder of pork…that is the throat and the texture just put me off.) It is too bad we arrived at night, as the property is on a lake, which I’m sure would have been very beautiful.

Overall a long and lovely day.

These People Amaze Me

It was another interesting day at BFI where I take my German classes. Some sadness and some joy.

During one of the exercising in class this morning, I was paired with Sarmad, who is from Iraq. We finished our exercise and I thought he looked quite sad, so I asked how he was and we chatted for a bit.

I know a little bit about Sarmad from the questions we answer in class. I know that he has 3 children, including twin boys and a little girl. I have heard their names, but I have to say I can’t remember them right now. I know that he is hoping to bring them from Syria to Innsbruck soon to live, but is having trouble getting an official stamp to finish off the process. Waiting and waiting and waiting. One more week, two more weeks. And I know that back in Iraq he was a civil engineer, but isn’t working here in Innsbruck.

Sarmad said he was thinking about his family, and that was making him sad. I asked how long since he had last seen them. I thought maybe three months. No. Two years. Two years? Can I even imagine not seeing Annie for 2 years? I try but can’t even get my head around it, it seems so impossible…and so soul-wrenchingly sad. I chat about Annie quite a bit in class, talking about her little funny things that remind me of something we are learning. Is that hard to hear about other people and their children? I hadn’t even thought about it before.

Two years. And then he went on to tell me that he had to escape from Iraq. He was tortured, (toenails pulled off and god knows what else) and then scraped together enough money to pay to escape. What do you say to this? It is so out of the realm of my safe little world I was speechless. And I still am…so since I can’t really even process this information, let’s move on.

After class Amal invited a few of us to her apartment for lunch. She lives in a tiny place (basically one room divided with curtains and a bookshelf to make a kitchen and bedroom) with her 11 year old daughter. She isn’t working right now but is able to get by with a small pension that her husband left her when he died 11 years ago (her daughter was only 3 months old and her sons were 11 and 13).

Amal is from Egypt but speaks a bit of English. At this point, though, we can definitely get by with our  pieced-together our German. She had been cooking all day yesterday, I guess, since out of her little kitchen came macaroni beshemal, stuffed duck, chicken with potatoes, flavoured rice and two kinds of dessert. Incredibly delicious. I could barely move after lunch. Except that we had to start dancing. Canan (pronouced ‘Channon’) brought her computer so we listened to some Turkish music and learned a bit more Turkish dancing, which is a combination of belly dancing and very fast foot work. Crazy but lots of fun.

Amal and Canan dancing
Amal and Canan dancing
And Fatma too!
And Fatma too!

One of the women there was Fatma, who is a real firecracker and clearly very smart. Her issue is that she lives with her husband, her overbearing and controlling mother-in-law, as well as her husband’s father and 2 sisters in an apartment with 4 rooms, a kitchen and bathroom. That is 3 bedrooms (the sisters share) and one small area for TV and living. I think she is going a little bit crazy. We were doing an exercise where we stated with whom and where we would want to go on a trip. Fatma said she would go with her Mother-in-law. To Bagdad. So that maybe her MIL would be blown up. Hmmmmm.

Everyone shows up to class every day. Does there homework. Laughs and learns and contributes. I think I’m going to make a real effort to complain less and appreciate my life more. I’m so very lucky.

Welcome to the Aqua Dome

First, let me say that my friend Sue has inspired me to join the National Blog Posting Month in November (Hi Sue! I admire your intention to have a goal for this…I’ll be lucky if I just remember to post everyday. Lots of content, poor memory.) So hopefully you’ll see a post every day on this site. If not, well, there is always next year. I’m not sure if every day will be something earth shattering, but I’m going to try to put something, hopefully something readable, up daily.

This post will be easy, as yesterday we went to Längenfeld to visit the wondrous swimming complex, the Aqua Dome, as well as to connect with a family of a school acquaintance of mine. We have been a few times to this, well, I would call it a pool but it is oh so much more, and so we knew that we would have a good time. When you have a family, it probably is one of the easiest places to spend the day and keep everyone entertained. There was only the 3 of us, as Rebecca balked at the thought of leaving the house at 9:00 in the morning on a Saturday. As if!

The complex is about 40 minutes drive from Innsbruck. It was All Saints’ Day, where all good Catholics spend the entire day at the cemetery visiting departed relatives. As no one would confuse this family of being practicing Christians of any denomination, we just appreciated the empty roads and easy drive. The Aqua Dome is a series of pools fed by a hot spring. There are adult areas, kids areas, and 3 outdoor pods that each have a wellness theme: light and sound therapy, massage and whirlpool. There is also a restaurant where you can dine in your bathrobe. Everything is accessed and paid for by an electronic wristband, so it is easy to spend way too much money without noticing. Brilliant from a business perspective. Last time we were here, Markus and I also went to the spa, which was very brave of me as those crazy Europeans walk around without any clothes on. Not even a towel around the waist. That sure pushed the limits of my North American puritanism, let me tell you.

But as we were with Annie and only had about 3 hours, we just stayed in the pool areas. The setting is stunning with mountains close enough to touch and the trees showing off their blazing fall fashions. Here are some pictures of the morning.

Annie and Markus enjoy the indoor pools...
Annie and Markus enjoy the indoor pools...
...and the outdoor pools
...and the outdoor pools
One of the swimming pods in a stunning Austrian autumn setting
One of the swimming pods in a stunning Austrian autumn setting

After our morning activities, we headed over to a different kind of adventure: having lunch with someone we had never met. A high school friend of mine, Erla, reconnected with me on Facebook a few months back. When she read that I was moving to Innsbruck, she offered to forward me the email address of her husband’s cousin. I’m up for any opportunity to meet more people at this point, so Drifa and I exchanged notes and agreed that we would come over to her place for lunch after our swim. Längenfeld has about 4,000 people living there full-time (with 10,000 visitors a year for skiing), and so pretty much everyone can see the Aqua Dome from their living room. After a very short drive, we arrived at the apartment of Drifa Radiskovic and her 3 children, Alexander, David and Sara. As you can tell by her name, Drifa has an interesting story. She is Icelandic and her husband, Zoran, is a Bosnian Serb. They met one summer working at a ski resort near Lägenfeld and never moved back. They speak Icelandic and Serbian at home, and the children are learning German and English in school. (That will be a whole other post about the travesty of our mainly uni-lingual existence in N.A.) All 3 children have blond hair and blue eyes, so the Icelandic influences clearly dominated in the gene pool. Zoran’s uncle moved to Canada and settled in Manitoba with the large migration of Icelanders to Gimil, which is where Erla’s and mine connection kicks in. Whew, this is complicated!

But in any case, we had delicious homemade pizza and Annie played a little bit with the kids until she conked out with fatigue from her morning activities. I found it fascinating to hear about their background and how they made the transition to a little dorf in Austria. I guess there is both some historic and more recent stereotyping of Serbians here, so she has experienced some discrimination. But of course has also experienced many wonderful things about living in Austria, and overall I think she is happy to raise her family here.

And so the adventure continues for all of us.

Eine Einladung

On Friday Rukiye invited the class to her wedding reception. It was a bit tricky to piece together with the language issues, but I think she was married in Turkey but is having the reception in Innsbruck. Lauriane from class (hope I am spelling your name correctly L!) and I, both displaced Moms in need of excitement, decided to venture out for a bit. It was certainly an interesting cultural experience. Lauriane’s partner was out of town so we brought her sweet 4-month old baby girl, Juar Jua. (Now I’m pretty sure I am not spelling that correctly, so I’ll fix it up on Monday. All fixed up. Jua, I believe, is an African word for the Sun. How beautiful. Lauriane also calls her by her middle French name, Lizon, which is also très belle.)

We arrived at about 5:30 to a big hall that reminded me of a Winnipeg social (1), complete with pretzels and pop on the table, minus the alcohol of course. It looked like we were the only non-Turkish people in the hall of about 300. There was a band playing what I guess was contemporary Turkish music.

At 6:30 Rukiye and her husband arrived. Friends and family held up rose-garlanded arches and there were sparklers lining their path. Rukiye’s dress was a strapless white traditional cut with a full, multi-tiered skirt. She looked stunningly beautiful. When she walked in she had a red sheer scarf or veil covering her entire head and face. When the couple arrived at the stage, the veil was lifted with great cheers and then the couple kissed and started the first dance.

I particularly noted how the women danced to the faster music. I would have had no idea how to negotiate dancing to the strong, regular Turkish beat (Lauriane and I kept joking about asking each other if we wanted to dance. As if I would subject my very North American self into all this ceremony!), but noticed that all the women moved similarly. It is a fairly contained dance, with slight movements of shoulders, hips and feet, small isolated movements of the ribcage, in perfect rhythm to the music. Very self confident and suggestive and leave-you-wanting-more rather than overt.

Her friend and another of our classmates, Canan, was what I would call her maid-of-honour, but I’m not sure exactly how this plays out in the Turkish tradition. She was also gorgeous in an satin red dress with her thick black hair twisted up.

We decided to leave around 7:30 to get Jua home for her bottle and bed. (Lauriane has what must be the world’s best baby. She sleeps 12 hours a night without waking, naps during the day and hardly ever cries. I’m not jealous. No. No envy here. Hmph.) So I’m afraid I can’t report on the remainder of the evening. I know that after the dancing there was a gift presentation, but I’m not sure of the rest. If I’m ever invited to such an event again, I’ll have to brave the rest of the evening.

I’m sure Rukiye will never read this (I don’t think she speaks any English), but I am so grateful for the invitation. Living in another country certainly puts you in the path of the unexpected. I’m glad we came.

(1) Ahh, the Winnipeg Social…or I guess I should say the Manitoba Social, as the tradition certainly extends beyond city boundaries. With no Wikipedia entry, I found an accurate and amusing definition on a blog for my non-Prairie readers:

A local tradition that [probably came] originally from Manitoba’s large Polish/Ukrainian immigrant community, a social is when the friends and family of a to-be-married couple (or a sports team, or a Ukrainian dance troupe, or a singles group or whatever like-minded group of people) rent a hall (often in a community centre, a curling club, or a church basement) and throw a [party.]

They rent a social hall for 100-300 people (most Catholic church basements/bingo halls or community clubs will accommodate) , where they hire a D.J. to spin CDs or records, get a one-night-only liquor license from the provincial government, and throw a party (or, to be more accurate, a thrown-together one-night-only bar) as a fund-raiser. Around midnight, a bread-and-cold-cuts buffet is put out (food must be served as one of the conditions of the liquor license).

People sell social tickets ahead of time to their coworkers, friends and relatives, and whoever else wants to go out dancing and drinking on a Friday or Saturday night. You can often get a really bizarre/interesting mix of people you know (uncles and cousins and aunts) and complete strangers who heard about the social second- or even third-hand and buy tickets at the door, if there are any left.

The music is always a real mix too… not just contemporary pop/rock stuff either. We may have a snowball dance to start (especially if it was a singles social), and a couple of spot dances during the evening to give away door prizes. The music ranges from the latest dance pop and country two-step to waltzes, polkas, and the schottise (butterfly)… everything from conga lines to the macarena (in my opinion, the only dance that straight people do better than queer people). I have fond memories of one particular Transcona social where the conga line went in and out of the men’s and women’s washrooms, outside the social hall, around the block, and back inside again.

That is a great description that sure brings back visions of trekking out on freezing Winnipeg nights in tight jeans and asymmetrically cropped hair. Thanks for the memories, Mr. Rilke, whoever you are.