Monday, February 25, 2008

Ski Break Part 1: Vienna

Hungarian for the day: Szeretek si szünetet! Pron: Sara-tek shee sooh-ne-tet. "I love ski break!"

Here in Hungary, a country without mountains (the "mountains" to the north being slightly larger than average hills), I was somewhat surprised to find that while spring break is merely a long weekend for Easter, an entire free week from school is given over to skiing. This is ski break, and it is my friend. I'd been looking forward to it for more reasons than just a break from school (and the delightful sleeping in past 6:30 this allows), for I was off to Western Europe in all of its well-organized glamor to visit with an old friend. My friend Michaela, or Micha to her American friends who can't pronounce her name, is an old friend of mine from Germany who I met while we studied together at William and Mary. More specifically, we were in the same study abroad program in St. Petersburg, took Russian courses together for 3 years, and spent a summer traveling together in Europe a few years back. We'd missed each other repeatedly since I moved to her continent but we finally made it work for this break. Taylor came along and the three of us covered a lot of ground over the 9 days of ski break - a whirlwind tour through Austria, Germany, France and Holland! I'm going to post our travels in a few different posts, the first one here for our time in Vienna with more to follow in a few days.

Taylor and I took a bus from Szentes up to Budapest last Saturday, and then left snowy Hungary behind on a bus headed for Vienna. Bus travel being the slowest (though also cheapest!) way to travel, by the time we made it to Vienna it was already mid evening. Micha drove down from her home in Southwestern Germany that day and met us at the bus station. After introductions and some hurried catching up we hopped in the car and punched the address of a friend of Taylor's into the GPS system. These two things, friends living in cool cities and a GPS system, are invaluable when traveling. Taylor's friend Heidi is a charming Finn studying in Vienna on an Erasmus scholarship to get a degree in social work and is living in basically abandoned dorms in northern Vienna. She offered us each a free room in the dormatories and it worked out perfectly. The GPS guided us quickly to her place and we chatted for a while and moved into our rooms. I must admit that we were quite suspicious about this deal - Heidi said that despite a room in the dorms costing only 35 euros a month it was so empty that she just asked a grounds keeper for three keys and he gave them to her. A hotel room in Vienna, even in the suburbs, would generally go for more than twice that a night, so this seemed strange to us. Surely this was some sort of Hostel like plot line, or we were going to wake up sans kidneys. It turns out that it was just a simple good deal - they still exist in Vienna of all places!

At any rate, Micha, Taylor and I set out for downtown Vienna to take in the city and get some dinner. We dined on schnitzel at Wienerwald and did some catching up. After that we braved the incredibly icy weather for a walk around the Ringstrasse. The Viennese buildings are works of art, if sometimes overdone, so the views were grandiose.

The Hapsburg Palace in downtown Vienna was once the nerve center of a great Empire that stretched across Central Europe and included Hungary.

Vienna's Rathouse, or City Hall, all decked out for a "winter wonderland" theme complete with crazy lights, ice skating rink, and stands selling mulled wine.

After the walk we were frozen so we drove back to the dorms and met with Heidi and the other 4 people living in the big creepy dorm building. They decided we were going out, so out we went. The jumped on the nearby U-bahn (metro) and spent the rest of the evening in a bar chatting. Pretty soon, however, heads were drooping and it became apparent that a big night out on the town was not in our future. The U-bahn was closed so we had to wait for not one, but 2 different night buses in the frigid weather. "I think I just froze to death" Micha replied as we finally made it back to the dorms. After facing the Danube's icy winter winds we figured that if a stolen kidney in our sleep was the price we'd pay for the warm free lodging, that was just going to have to be ok.

The next day we got out to see as much of Vienna by day as we could before we had to tackle the 6 hour drive up to Stuttgart. We started in one of the famous Viennese cafes with melange coffees and pastries. After that we spent much of the morning just walking around.

Vienna is the classical music city. Strauss is pictured here, though Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, and many others have also called the city home at one point or another.

Eventually we decided that having only one real day to explore Vienna we might as well do the most Viennese thing we could think of. We'd already had coffee, weren't feeling up to kinky modern art on a Sunday morning, and didn't want to pay for opera tickets. The solution? A visit to an opulent palace, of course.

Schönbrunn Palace, located a bit outside of the city center, is where the Hapsburgs relaxed when they weren't doing the busy business of ruling. We didn't get to see the interior, and because it's February the famous gardens weren't much to behold, but walking the palace grounds was enough to get a sense of how ridiculously rich these Hapsburg fellows must have been.

Behind the palace and high upon a man made hill is the palace's Gloriette. Obviously we had to get to the top - here Micha and Taylor are feeling confident they will make short work of the hill and look good doing so in their shades.

The Gloriette. I looked up what that is just for this post, and according to wikipedia it is "a building in a garden elevated with respect to its surroundings." I also learned that Vienna's Gloriette is the world's largest and most impressive Gloriette there is. Erected in 1775, it must have made a hell of a breakfast nook for Franz Joseph and Maria Theresa.

View of the palace and Vienna from the Gloriette.

We saw something that looked like a really cool church from the Gloriette and even Taylor, having studied in Vienna for 6 months a couple of years back, didn't know what it was. We set out to find it but miscalculated which U-bahn stop to disembark at and ended up just settling for another tour around beautiful palace grounds, this time at the Belvedere, an old summer residence that now functions as an art museum.

Micha just wanted to show off her new red gloves.

One of the many statues around the Belvedere. A fun, though worthless, doctoral thesis could be written on all of the cool statues in Vienna. This city wins my best statue city award for 2008.

After the palaces it was time to warm up. We went to another cafe and had another Viennese melange coffee. After that more aimless wandering followed, though we ended up at Taylor's favorite kebab place near the Opera House. I must admit that this kebab was better than any of those I had in Turkey, but maybe that's because it was so warm and I was so cold. After our kebabs it was getting on towards late afternoon and we had to make our way back to the dorms to collect the car and be on our way. On the way back to the dorms we saw:

When I think of McDonalds in Ameria I think of scruffy buildings in strip malls, but abroad McDonalds really cleans up its image to deal with more sophisticated clientèle. Even so, this particular location seems a bit overkill for a place with McMuffins on the menu.

Famous architect Hunderwasser designed this ultimately modern, if strange, waste to energy plant in Vienna. I think it's a clever notion, this turning what should be an eye soar and a land-value nightmare into something so weird it's put on tourist brochures.

Regretting that we had only scratched the surface in Vienna we set out for the 6 hour drive up to Ludwigsburg. The next day Micha had to be up very early to fly to Hannover for business meetings and Taylor and I would begin our exploration of Southern Germany, where I will pick up next time. Szia!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Thursday was a typical day

7:15AM: Alarm went off. Mercifully, on Thursdays I don't have a class first period so I don't have to be at school until 8:30. This means that if I skip the unessentials (who has time to shave?) I don't really have to get out of bed until...
7:45AM: got out of bed, drank a full mug of syrupy Hungarian-style coffee (espresso) and ate a bowl of cereal. Dressed and washed up by...
8:00AM: out the door for my 25 minute walk to school. I could take a bus or buy a bike, but I kind of need the forced time of just waking up and listening to music (yesterday Vampire Weekend (thanks Roy)) to be ready for the classroom. Plus, now that the weather is so much better I don't mind the walk, which is mostly by the river.
8:30AM: In the teachers' lounge one of my favorite colleagues, Evelin, is brewing espresso. After a cup we are awake enough to talk about the upcoming day until the bell rang. My school is certainly a bit more laid back than your average American school, and it's understood that the bell signals that it's time to start walking to your class, not to actually be in class. If you need to halfheartedly shuffle papers around on your desk, fight with a vending machine, or gaze at the announcements board blankly for a few minutes this is also encouraged.
8:40AM: Second period with the second English group of class 10A. Their English is pretty weak but they're friendly kids so this class is a bit difficult to teach but always a pleasure. We discuss shopping and I basically write the grammatically correct sentences on the board to get them talking.
9:25AM: The ten minute break between classes. This is always a busy time for me because I must record my own participation grade for each student, make a write up of how the class went and what we did (to help keep track and find trends trends of what is and isn't working with which of my 16 groups), and then record attendance and activity info in the class's register with the school. It's a busy time for the students as well because they want to get as much smoking or making out/heavy petting in the hallway done as possible. It's icky.
9:35AM: The beginning of the third period with 9A's first English group. Usually a wonderful and enthusiastic class, they sometimes are impossible to control and refuse to speak any English because they are 14 and speaking English is difficult and much less fun then whatever is going on on the screen of their mobile phones. A few of the exceptional students were still with me and we discussed music types, likes, dislikes, etc. I harangued the rest of them, collected a few cell phones, and threatened to throw them out the window (this is one of their favorite threats and when I use it they understand that I mean business) until they finally quasi focused and discussion limped onwards for the rest of the class.
10:20AM: In between the third and the fourth bell their is a 20 minute break instead of the usual ten. There are no lunch periods so this is the only time during the school day that both students and faculty have time to grab something to eat. For the students intent on getting some during the breaks it is particularly trying because they need to eat, find someone to fondle (partners seem to change rapidly), and usually smoke a cigarette in precious few minutes.
10:40AM - Fourth period begins but on Thurday's is a free period for me as long as I don't have to sub. I went out to a bakery to get something to eat and then returned to my desk to go through my Hungarian flash cards.
11:35AM - Fifth period with 13A. This class is sometimes my best and sometimes my worst and walking in I never know whether I'm getting the Jekyll or the Hyde class. They have graduated from High School and for the most part are at my school because they didn't get into the University system last year and are gearing up for another chance/are just being forced to do something by their parents. Therefore, English abilities and enthusiasm really run the gauntlet from exceptionally high to why-are-you-here-wasting-our-time? We were discussing what they would show a foreign visitor in Hungary if said visitor was a sports enthusiast/history buff/outdoorsman and so on and so forth. A rousing discussion on handball ensued.
12:30PM:One of my colleagues has come down with something so I sub 12C for her. I usually teach them on Monday's and they are a nice class, especially considering they only have a couple of months of High School left. They've been quite attentive to me lately because they must all pass this huge series of exams in May and one of the major components is an English exam. My time with them has basically turned into practice sessions for the portion of the exam in which they must talk for a minute when given a question about anything from their family to their opinion of consumerism or Japanese cuisine. We've been talking about "society" lately and yesterday we discussed fashion. Black is really in right now in Hungary.
1:25PM: Seventh period with one of my favorite groups, the first English section of 9c. Now, some of these students might be considered traditionally naughty, but I love them because they are witty and sarcastic and hilarious and I probably let them get away with things I shouldn't because I'm too busy laughing at them. Yesterday we discussed television and music. During brainstorming music genre's they came up with an extensive list, including Gregorian chants and, this is paraphrasing because I don't precisely remember, "Underground funk hip-hop ska soul revival."
2:10PM: The school day ends! The teachers are generally happier about this than the students. I walk home listening to Liz Phair and reviewing more Hungarian flash cards. One the way home I stop at my little greengrocer and then the minimarket where the lady behind the service counter (Zsuzsa) already knows what I want (1 Pick diak csemege sausage, 300 grams trapista cheese, 200 grams sandwich turkey).
2:50PM: Back home. Unwound on the internet by reading the news and instant messaging. Lunched on a turkey sandwich.
3:30PM: Alternated between napping, finishing Ayn Rand's We the Living and having a good long think about totalitarianism. I guess Bush hasn't been all that bad.
6:00PM: Made myself baked ziti for dinner. A couple of times a week, particularly on weekends, I eat with Talyor, but last night I just watched a few episodes of Arrested Development while cooking, eating, and doing the dishes.
7:30PM: Hungarian studying (think I've got the locutive cases down so I'm moving swiftly along to the obliques) while trying to watch Hungarian TV. I like Dr. House even less dubbed.
9:00 PM: Searched couchsurfering for a place to stay next weekend when I meet Micha in Vienna. I think we'll be staying with a Portuguese chemistry Ph.D. student and going with him to the birthday party of some Canadian friend. Fun!
9:30PM: Went for a jog. Szentes at night is peaceful and charming and, as long as it's not unbearably cold, a walk or jog always puts me in a good mood. Especially on nights when I don't meet with a friend or have something after school to do this helps me cure the apartment stir crazies I get.
10:30PM: I don't know why I chose to do so before bed, perhaps it was the endorphins from the preceding run, but as was getting into the shower I could no longer stand how long it took my bathroom sink to drain so I tackled my first plumbing project. Success within thirty minutes, but ewwwwwwww. That's what's in pipes?!?! Took an extra long shower because I needed to feel extra spick and span after cleaning out congealed gunk that probably dates back to the Soviet occupation.
11PM: Early to bed because Friday starts at first period.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

A new idol

That's one of the coolest things I have ever seen! Quite inspirational, and such good dance moves. More from this guy at, the travel journals are particularly worthwhile.

Life here is good. January flew by, as did today and I still have to lesson plan and talk to my mom on skype so I'm going to do a life update later (but soon!). Sziastok!