Sunday, May 30, 2004

I just want to pinch its cheeks and ruffle its hair

Sometimes Austria is so cute I can hardly bear it.

Today was a holiday (Pentecost), so of course Gertraud picked me up for the traditional enforced marching.

Today was one of the most beautiful days we've had since I've been here, so Gertraud decided to march me and her boyfriend through the Kellerviertel (cellar quarter) in Heligenbrünn. It's a tiny little town that's filled with these straw-roofed, clay-walled huts that were used (are used?) to store wine barrels. They are adorable in their quaintness. As a result of these huts, the town is also filled with Heuriger, so naturally we stopped to have some Uhudler (a fruity red wine that's a specialty of this region; it tastes kind of like strawberries) and salad. After that we walked bergauf (uphill) along the vineyard and back to the car.

This would have been fine if it wasn't a surprised forced march; I was wearing sandals and capri pants, so I wasn't actually prepared to be tromping through the grass and straw that they lay alongside the grapes. My feet have blisters and my ankles are scratched.

Of course, that wasn't the end of the enforced marching. As we were driving back towards Stegersbach, Gertraud turned around in her seat and said, "Have you ever seen the lake at Rauchwart?" I, stupidly, told the truth and said, "No." So then we had to go march around the lake, which was not a small little pond. We did see a swan, though, and about seventy million tadpoles.

Mostly the day brought home to me how much I'm going to miss Austria. Houston is not big on either lakes or Catholic holidays, so the enforced marches are going to be severely curtailed. Also, nobody in Houston is likely to buy me red wine on a regular basis just because I speak English. I miss my friends and I'm ready to see them, but why can't Texas be as cute as Burgenland?

Friday, May 28, 2004

Well, my cheeks are pink

Most embarrassing German-as-second-language mistake I've ever made:

During a conversation about the division of household chores, I said this sentence:

Wer macht hier das Wichsen?

Which I thought meant, "Who does the polishing here?"

Of course, "to polish" is the archaic form of wichsen, which has fallen completely out of use. What does wichsen mean in today's German?

To masturbate.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Bill Bryson I’m not, but I did try to avoid overdoing the landmine jokes

So here, finally, is the novel-length story of last weekend’s Ausflug, which, as you know, consisted of a trip to Pula, Croatia, by way of Ljubljana, Slovenia. If you make it to the bottom you get a prize.*

I met two other teaching assistants and the friend of one of the aforementioned in Vienna, where we rented a car (a blue Ford station wagon that we named Lorelai) and took for Köflach on Wednesday night to pick up one other assistant.

A short excursion on the subject of our renting a car: this was possibly the most brilliant decision we made all weekend, apart from the one where we actually went to Croatia instead of some other, more banal corner of Europe. About 95% of our suggestions during the trip were concluded with the words, “Hey, we have a car! This will be no problem.” We weren’t constrained to stay in the city center, to depend on public transportation, or to carry our crap with us all the time. Admittedly, parking was sort of hell (I will never, ever, ever own a station wagon if I can do anything short of selling body parts into white slavery), but my word, the freedom was delicious.

The drive itself was relatively smooth, all things considered. The things under consideration are, of course, the fact that 1) I was the only person who could drive a stick, and 2) I am, at best, a marginal driver. Perhaps the best moment of the drive was when we were crawling along in bumper-to-bumper traffic outside of Ljubljana, swearing at the asshole drivers who kept flying by on the shoulder. Our swearing turned to cheers when the semi in front of us, the driver of which was apparently watching the assholes out his rear-view window, pulled suddenly into the shoulder, forcing a tiny purple car to slam on the breaks and slide into a guard rail. Nobody was even close to getting hurt, but their shiny car did get an impressive scratch on it. Served them right. There was much appreciative honking from other cars in the vicinity.

But let me back up a bit and tell you about Ljubljana, which may be the cutest city in the whole entire world. As you (should) know, Slovenia entered the EU on May 1, 2004, and was the richest of the 10 countries that joined. It shows in their capital, which is absolutely charming, with its cobblestone streets, pedestrian-friendly center, and relatively small number of annoying American tourists. Our first encounter with the locals was heartening—we were parking at a spot near the center of town around noon, and a UPS man stopped to welcome us and offer us his extra parking token. Besides being super sweet, it was also fortuitous, since we didn’t have any Slovenian taler at that point. Then we had the largest pizzas ever for lunch, at a cute little café that overlooked the blue-green river running through the center of town, and before we left, we had the best apple ice cream I’ve ever eaten in my life.

We knew Croatia was going to be fantastic when, upon driving out of the longest tunnel I’ve ever seen (cost of use: $3.50), the vista of green mountains and blue, blue water sprawled like a reclining goddess in front of us and stayed that way for the next 60 miles as we made our way down to the tip of the Istrian peninsula, where Pula is located. Not that you would ever be able to figure this out without a map, because the Croatians suck at signs. The Austrians are generally quite good; the Slovenians are acceptably competent, but the Croatians wouldn’t know what to do with a sign if somebody handed them one with explicit directions written on the back using the shortest possible words. It took us an extra half hour to find our hostel, even after we stopped to ask for directions, because we didn’t figure out for fifteen minutes that the street markers were small green posts with the words written on them in twelve-point gold type. Needless to say, they were useless even after we did find them. We forgot this minor annoyance completely when we found the hostel, though. It was right on the water. And by “right on the water,” I mean, “we could open our door and throw things into the Adriatic.”

Thursday night we decided to hit the grocery store for dinner because we were tired and they took credit cards—we had neither patience nor Croatian money. We bought bread, wine, and dried apricots, and proceeded to get drunk and watch the sun sink into the azure.

Friday morning we had our first adventure: parking in the Eastern European style, namely half on and half off the sidewalk. I think this might be the stupidest parking system in the world, because not only does it leave pedestrians no place to walk, but it’s hell on tires. Anyway, we parked in downtown Pula, got cash, bought stamps (you’re welcome, Mom), and then started following the only signs in the entire town of Pula. They pointed toward the first century A.D. Roman amphitheatre, and I’m sure it was probably the Romans’ idea to put them up. Anyway, the amphitheatre in Pula is the second largest in the world. I presume the Colisseum is the largest, but my fact-checker is on vacation, so who knows. Anyway, it was surprisingly complete, considering it was a) old, and b) in Croatia, which doesn’t have the most peaceful history in the world.

After that we bought postcards to go with our stamps and then located a bistro for lunch. Let me insert a word about wine, here. I had wine at every meal in Croatia, except for breakfast where I had either sweet tea or “cocoa” that tasted like it was made by dipping a spoon of Nutella in lukewarm milk. The wine on the Istrian peninsula is very, very good—fruity but not too sweet, and absurdly inexpensive (and I’m speaking as someone who’s lived in Austria the last eight months, where you can’t buy a bottle of wine that costs more than 10 Euros). However, they serve red wine cold. I don’t know why—no other beverage in all of Europe is served properly chilled, but the red wine in Istria was practically shivering.

Friday afternoon we had our first beach adventure. I use the word “beach” lightly, because the shore in Croatia is rocky. There’s no sand whatsoever. Friday’s beach was large rock slabs that actually weren’t too bad for sunbathing, as long as you avoided the parts that were sharp like coral. We lolled about for a good two hours, finishing off the apricots and throwing longing glances at the water. Although the air temperature was a solid 25 or 26 degrees, the water had to be hovering around 17 at the highest. We tried to tough it out—John actually made it into the water because he had to pee—but after I stopped being able to feel my toes as I was inching in, I gave up and went back to my beach mat, which had been purchased the previous evening for 8 kuna (~1 Euro).

Friday night we had dinner at the Hotel Milan, which had been recommended to us by a waiter in downtown Pula as the only decent restaurant in town. It was in the only three-star hotel in town, so that made sense. We spent three hours there, alternately chatting up the cute waiter (who made fun of us for not being able to decide on dessert—we ended up getting one of everything) and complimenting each other on shrimp denuding technique. I adore fish, as you know, and Croatia is the ideal place to eat it. It’s cheap, and John found sand in his calimari—an acceptable level of freshness, I feel.

Saturday morning we decided we had seen all that Pula had to offer and decided to head up the coast a tad to Rovinj, which was purported to have excellent beaches. After another parking adventure (mmm, burned rubber), we found out that Rovinj was celebrating its summer-opening carnival that evening, and that there were 10 km of beaches waiting for us. We headed for the beach.

I don’t know if the sun had fried our brains or what, but somehow we decided that the water was not quite as cold on Saturday as on Friday, even though we were several kilometres north of where we had been. I managed to get in up to my waist, but got back out after I sliced the hell out of my toe on a rock. Mixing my feet and bodies of water is evidently always bad (some of you will remember the famous “Shell Imbedded in Foot While Tubing” Incident of 2000; plus, I cut the arch of my foot while shaving my legs in the shower the other day). The beach on Saturday was composed of small, sharp pebbles which evidently did not bother the two small naked Austrian children that were allowed to run amok until the little boy fell and cut his knee. Austrian parents—so permissive. We, on the other hand, had to either hobble-hop like a rabbit that needed hip replacement, or wear shoes at all times. I chose the latter after the former almost landed me on my ass in the water.

Saturday night was a real adventure. The parade was not kidding around—it started with a baton corps, followed through with a batallion of children, all wearing giant paper flowers on their heads, and finished up with drunken, costumed revelers. I got my hand kissed by a man in a blue hat with giant feathers coming out of it, and some crazy old lady put smears of brown shoe polish on all of our faces. You can imagine how that looked. The best moment, though, was when three Croatian kids, all about seven or eight, rode up to my four loud, somewhat embarassing, beer-drinking friends, and made very distinct “you drunken American bastards” gestures to them. Sometimes the designated driver gets a little bit of karmic reward.

We made it back to Pula Saturday night just in time to hit up our favorite grocery store one more time, picking up stuff for breakfast. We had to be back in Vienna by 5 so I could catch the 7 p.m. bus back to Stegersbach, and since the bus company is evidently run by Nazis, I didn’t want to be late. Therefore we had decided to leave by 7 a.m. in case we hit traffic or weather or something. However, the drive home was nearly ideal (I will admit that my driving companions annoyed me to the point that I was deliberately trying to make them car sick going around curves in the mountains) and we made it back to Vienna by 4:30, in plenty of time for the bus.

All in all, I think this might have been the luckiest vacation I’ve ever been on. I found out after I got home that the weather had been horrendous nearly the whole weekend in Austria. We had no problems with the car, amazingly, and everybody we met was charming or at least amusing, excepting one jerky café waiter who was easily ignored. For plunging half-prepared into a country that’s not renowned for its tourism, the whole thing was ideal. As I said, I’d totally recommend that you go there, if I didn’t want it gunked up by a bunch of annoying American tourists next time I go back, so stay away.

*By “prize,” I meant, of course, “insult.”

Monday, May 24, 2004

You know what's cool? Croatia is cool.

I have lots and lots to tell you about the trip to Croatia, which was practically perfect in every way, but the internet is down in the internat. I'm using the computer in the office, so I don't have time to make a complete report. But rest assured, as soon as TelekomAustria gets off its ass and figures out the problem, you'll know what the what was.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

I promise not to wander into any unmarked fields, Mom

I'm off to Pula, Croatia, for four days of lying around on the Adriatic Coast. I will probably get a sunburn and I will almost certainly bankrupt myself. More on my return.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

As soon as I have a niece...
I'm totally going to read her
"Advice to Little Girls"
by Mark Twain every night before bed, even if I have to call her long-distance to do so. "If at any time you find it necessary to correct your brother, do not correct him with mud—never, on any account, throw mud at him, because it will spoil his clothes. It is better to scald him a little, for then you obtain desirable results. You secure his immediate attention to the lessons you are inculcating, and at the same time your hot water will have a tendency to move impurities from his person, and possibly the skin, in spots."

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Things that should be covered in the Geneva Convention

Is there anything in the world more unpleasant than a cold shower? I mean, probably, but first thing in the morning it's about as close to torture as I ever want to be, really.

For some reason the hot water was out this morning at the internat when I went to take a shower at 9 a.m. Taking a shower wasn't really optional, as I was going to brunch in a five-star hotel and had skipped showering the day before (it was Saturday; leave me alone). I let the water run for a solid 15 minutes, begging it intermittently to "warm up, damn you!" It refused. Finally, it was getting on towards 9:30 and I couldn't really screw around anymore on the (slim) chance that my ride would actually be on time.

I don't know if you've ever taken a cold shower—if you haven't, don't—but the minute you get in the shower, you become the Hunchback of Notre Dame, complete with bell-ringing motion as you try to get the showerhead pointed anywhere but at you. Of course, in my shower, any variation from a military "at attention" pose is just asking for a concussion. Basically I turned into a whirligig trying to avoid having cold water on any one part of my body for longer than five seconds. I rinsed my hair by bending my back into a perfect C shape, because there's nothing I hate more than cold water between my shoulder blades.

This was also the shortest shower I've ever taken, clocking in at somewhere under 3 minutes. And as you know, I hate being wet, so I'm kind of the queen of short showers anyway. But this morning I reached new levels of efficieny, and there was even a razor involved at one point. My arms are still, amazingly, attached to my body.

I don't know if I really learned anything from this experience, other than that I tend to take hot water for granted. And that the next time somebody really pisses me off, I'm going to disconnect their water heater, because I can't possibly think of a better, crueler revenge than that.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Hummenah, now?

I have lots of thoughts, but rather than give them to you one post at a time, I'll just make one big messy post, mmkay?
  • Caramel ice cream is always disappointing, and I know this, but somehow it has become my emergency fall-back flavor—the one I choose when I don't have time to think of something else.

  • I broke one of my cardinal rules of life today: never buy capri pants. However, these were cheap, comfortable, and decorated with shiny silver studs. I plan to wear them with shirts that have 3/4-length sleeves and tell people I stole my clothes from a dwarf.

  • My teacher Heinz cracks me up. He was supposed to be helping at the café counter at the school party last night, serving cake and coffee, but mostly he just sat around and talked to me and a couple of other friends. He joked at one point, "I can't just sit and watch while women I look away." I had heard the line before, but it's about 10 times funnier when delivered to two women through a mouthful of stolen cake.

  • Number of times I've heard the line "I hate students" or its German equivalent in the past two days: 8. Number of those times it was coming from my own mouth: 2. Remarkable restraint on my part.

  • I've decided I'm going to start saving up my change to buy a house in Stegersbach. I can get a decent two-bedroom for approximately $50,000. They'd probably even throw in the resident chickens for that.

  • Best ads I've seen lately: Raiffeisen's series of Hermann Maier ads. One has him lounging shirtless against a black background, promoting "MaierFire," a men's fragrance, and the other has him in a suit, baseball cap, and goofy grin, standing in front of a plane with "fly maier" painted on the wing (slogan: Fly Maier, Fly Higher). The idea is that Raiffeisen is the bank for all your business needs, but I just like the fact that they're a) making Austria's greatest, most beloved athlete look like kind of a goober, and b) they're making rhymes in English.

  • Does anybody else have an irresistable urge to call Eric Bana "Eric Banana"? No? Just me? All right.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Note to Self: must stop the constant disappointed sighing

Reading 17 essays on the same topic, any topic, is bound to get boring pretty damn quickly. If the essays are on advertising and written by teenagers with a shaky command of the English lanugage, it's not only boring, it's depressing.

Matura grades are due on Monday, so I've been helping my teachers by looking over the composition parts of the written tests (the other parts are business letters and text analysis). It's pretty clear that some of the students just memorized their essay before the test, seeing as they're suspiciously...well, not error-free, but less full of errors than they should be. These are also the essays that fail to address seven of the ten required points. Suprisingly enough, they don't receive failing grades, because my teachers are so permissive in their grading that an unconscious first former could probably squeak by with a four.

So this is what I learned about advertising today. Comments from me in parentheses.
  • Printing was invented in the 17th century. (Not the fifteenth as you were probably mistakenly informed in school.)

  • Advertising uses techniques like words or sounds. (Also, existing is a common technique.)

  • In some words, this advertising causes that the consumer believes to get more of a product than it ever can do. (Hello, Babelfish translator.)

  • Artists and drawers then produce ideas for pictures and drawings. (My nighttable has two drawers and it's never once produced an idea.)

  • Invading the culture of the people is the aim of this brand of advertising. ("Invading the culture of the people" sounds like some sort of Communist plot out of a 1960s B-movie.)

  • Advertising is veining. (Plus, arterying!)
  • Brands are produced through famous personalities. (This was followed up with some talk about David Beckham. What brand has David Beckham created? Infidelity for Men?)

  • So yes, I am now fully informed about the joys of advertising and the sorrows of teaching English as a second language. I did give three 1s and several 2s, which my teachers will probably honor, but I doubt they'll hold up my five 5s. They probably just don't want to spend another year reading the same terrible handwriting and tortured grammar. Especially since next year's batch looks to be even worse.

    Friday, May 07, 2004

    Self-editing is very important

    Backhanded compliments I wanted to give in the past week:

    To a teacher at the HAK: "I like your new haircut. It makes you look less like a mad scientist."
    To a supervisor at the internat: "If you weren't so hot, there's no way you'd have a girlfriend."
    To one of my students: "You could be fantastic at English if you weren't such a screw-up."

    Thursday, May 06, 2004

    Well, I think it's funny, anyway

    I don't know if you're tired of me quoting my students or not, but they seriously make me laugh all the time. This little gem came from a role-play debate today about whether schools should ban candy and soda.

    Student playing parent of overweight student: My child is fat. It's really overweight.
    Student playing gym teacher: You have to beat your child.
    Student playing parent of overweight student:Yeah! I do beat it!

    Stop overweight androgynous child abuse!

    Monday, May 03, 2004

    Adorable or testosterone overload?

    So Friday night my Betreuungslehrerin (she of the sudden soccer games) dragged me off to her Dorf to watch the Maibaumausstellung. Basically this is an excuse for the men of the village to tie together two impossibly long tree trunks and then stick them in the ground using a crane. However, it's based on an interesting tradition. Families with eligible young women used to put the trees in their yard on May 1, and then the boys would go around and see who had a tree, and mating would ensue (more or less). The town would also put one up, and the night before it went in the hole, the town's young men would have to guard it all night against raids by the neighboring town's boys, who would try to steal the tree and sell it into slavery or something.

    The little pine-tree bit on the end of the town's connected trunks is dressed up with red and yellow and white ribbons (to represent Burgenland, I think) and a random doll figure made of pants and a shirt stuffed with old newspapers. I think it was supposed to be either a guy or a bear in pants climbing the tree, but it was hard to tell from the angle I was looking at. Why it was on there is anyone's guess—represting the desperate, love-starved young men of former eras, perhaps? Some thinly veiled reference to sex? Probably.

    After it's decorated, everybody from the town comes to see if anybody will be crushed to death when they set the tree up, which is a likely possibility considering the number of small children allowed to run wild and the fact that there is free beer and wine for everybody. The whole setting-up process takes about 20 minutes, during which six men hold the trunk, one guy runs the crane, and two hundred people criticize and drink beer. After they get it in the hole, they put in the shims and then they force people into service, pounding them in place with sledgehammer while the children run back and forth underfoot, apparently bored with the now non–life-threatening crane. In St. Michael the mayor was forced to do a lot of the work, because people kept saying, "Well, what else is he good for?"

    Of course, the tree didn't end up entirely perpendicular to the ground, so it kind of hovers threateningly over the roof of the nearby restaurant/hotel. Nobody seems too concerned about this, despite the fact that two years ago a strong wind came along and caused thousands of dollars of damage to that very roof by repeatedly smacking the Maibaum right into it.

    So we did that, and then we went and ate the largest bowls of fruity ice cream you've ever seen at the one café in town. A solid evening's entertainment, I feel.

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