Saturday, April 6, 2013

Salzburg, München und Sophie

My first experience studying abroad was in Karlsruhe, Germany.  Although it’s been four years, I still manage to keep in contact with a handful of my closest friends.  One of these is a francophone Swiss girl by the name of Sophie Nuara.  She and I were friends from the very first day of orientation back in September of 2008 where a throng of international students met on the steps to University.  Stubborn as always, she insisted on speaking German and would never let me resort to English whenever we tried to communicate (this was either because she wanted to learn German or because her English wasn’t so good).  She’s also the one who dragged me out of my shell to join in learning Capoeira that winter.  She’s a simple girl, opting to wear the most practical clothing and more often than not without makeup, choosing to play sport and ride roller coasters.  You might say she’s a bit of tom boy.  When I told her I’d be coming back to Europe she didn’t skip a beat in suggesting we should meet somewhere.  We decided on Munich and set a date.  Because she was bringing along her boyfriend and since I don’t like to play third wheel, I asked a friend of mine from Graz (John Huber of Arkansas) to tag along.
The train to Munich passed through Salzburg which made a short stop all too tempting.  The city of Mozart has so many shades of interesting that one could stay for a week and not experience the entirety of it.  The cathedrals, the history, the music, the culture, and the landscape...forgive me but all I could think of was the Sound of Music.  The exorbitant amount of tourists flooding the city were really the only detraction during our 3 hour stay.  I couldn’t imagine living in a place where every day I was asked to take a picture of/with a group of Japanese tourists on my way to work.
We got to Munich late, rail weary and despite this nothing could have prepared me for that sense of joy you get from seeing a long lost friend after many years.  I was sitting in the lobby of the hostel futilely trying to connect to the internet while John occupied himself with ideas for dinner... and suddenly, there she was, giving me that “I found you” grin.  We immediately ran toward each other and hugged for a good 10 seconds.  It’s good to know and be known.  She’d matured a little and it made me think about how I must have appeared to her.  Her usual spunk was there but it had calmed and she seemed more patient. After a round of swift observance of customary niceties, we were off.  The whole 20 minute walk to the restaurant was primarily the two of us blabbering about good old times.  The ease with which we both slipped back into that Karlsruhe state of mind was astonishing.  It’s as if we were starting in the middle of a long lost sentence with a full grasp of everything that had come before
At dinner that night I ordered Tyrolean cow tongue.  I have to admit, it was awful!  There was a point when I realized that I was chewing on the tip of a dead cow’s tongue, feeling and tasting it with my tongue.  It’s never good when the tips touch.
For the next 2 days it was nothing but “do you remember?” and “what’s this person up to?” and “what are you doing now?”  I think we bored Sophie’s boyfriend and John from Arkansas to tears with our endless chatter.  The passage of time touches everything but over these two days in Munich I had the genuine feeling that I was once again an eager 21 year old student full of life.  It makes me wonder, could I have that experience all over again at age 81 if I met Sophie (or anyone from Karlsruhe) again?  I should like to think so.


John from Arkansas, Me, Sophie, Sophie's Friend

Sophie and I

Monday, March 4, 2013


Before getting into the thick of this post, an apology is in order.  I am sorry for not having posted in almost two months’ time!  Yours truly is a procrastinator but then again, you already knew that didn’t you.

Austria celebrates Christmas in a similar fashion as the Americans with a few finite differences.  For example, the Christmas trees are typically smaller than we’re used to.  The average height I found for sale on the street was about three to four feet.  These cozy “shrubberies” fit well into apartments and small homes where they’re placed atop a small table or stool and decorated with small wooden figurines.  It actually makes me question why we need such large tress in the first place.  Are we trying to match our huge homes with an appropriately sized piece of seasonal decoration?  Perhaps we’re all looking to recreate the ginormous Rockefeller Center tree with its thousands of lights and ornaments.  Anyway, I’ve come to realize our trees are HUGE (and while we’re at it, why a tree in the first place?).  They also celebrate the holiday on the 24th instead of the 25th, which is truly a minor discrepancy.

In the round of polite questioning that follows the Christmas holidays, the most important question on everyone’s mind is “how was your holiday.”  As soon as they find out I didn’t go home, they all ask, straight-away “weren’t you homesick being away.”  The short answer is no, not really.  I know that sounds horrible, as if I loathe my family.  It’s just that this Christmas was utterly wonderful and managed to fill any homesickness pains.  You might be wondering, what circumstances could possibly fill the void left by the absence of those who love you unconditionally while in the comfortable surroundings of your upbringing?  Simply put, a FEAST!

Iris Snijders Blok (Netherlands) and I realized sometime in late November that we were going to be in Graz for Christmas.  It was eventually agreed that there would be no better way to celebrate than to pull together a dinner.  There would be food, drinks, gifts, and games.  She graciously agreed to host the event as my apartment fits me and about 2.5 (Chinese) people if we all stood on each other’s toes while holding our breath after having been flattened by a pizza roller wearing corsets.  Everyone was asked to bring food and gifts while Iris and I took care of the drinks.  The final point of contention, what day to celebrate together, the 24th or 25th?  The democratic process resulted in the 25th (and by democratic process I mean I just made a decision when no one seemed to care very much). Once the Facebook invitations were all sent out, we had confirmations for 17 people.  I planned to make the following dishes:

1 huge bowl of mashed potatoes

1 whole roasted chicken

1 ginormous (like that word?) bowl of macaroni and cheese

1 small bowl of vanilla raspberry pudding

In addition, I went out and bought some gifts just in case people forgot to bring one of their own.

1 pair of candles

2 boxes of fancy teas (plural?)

1 box of chocolate cookies

1 box of pralines

1 box of about hundred pocket tissues, for the winter

1 packet of Ikea kitchen sponges, definitely my best gift idea ever

Peter Woods, a fellow Fulbright scholar, decided to join in the fun, which is a good thing because he made the most amazing sweet potato casserole ever.  I have to say, I was a great host, offering him the comfort of a thin blanket to soften the distance between him and the hard floor while he slept (seriously Peter I’m sorry).  On the day of the cooking frenzy began with the two of us rummaging through my tiny kitchen nonstop from 8 in the morning 4 in the afternoon.  It was exhausting yet rewarding work made easier by good company.

By 5 o’clock things at Iris’s place were in full swing.  Everyone had arrived and begun eating their varied dishes.  We had students from Greece, Turkey, Finnland, Egypt (it was her first Christmas), Japan, US, Ireland, Bosnia, Spain, and France; each with their own amazing food.  In fact, we had too much food and foolishly stuffed ourselves before realizing we had a round of dessert to get through (don’t worry we got around to it).  The best part was the lively, heartfelt chatter that went around the table.  Everyone was away from home, in a foreign country and as a result extremely open.  Smiles, laughter, stories, and earnest friendliness were thick in the air.  There was a moment when I just silently stood back and took it all in, letting it wash over me.  It truly made me happy.

It turns out we had just enough presents for everyone.  How lucky is that?  The only thing we lacked was a way to randomly give them out.  Through the use of the democratic process I suggested we play charades whereas the winner would get to pick his/her present.  You know Charades, that game where people have to act out a word/phrase given to them by an opposing team.  A fun, uncompetitive game of laughs and brotherly love, right? WRONG!  Dear readers, please tell me how I could have acted out the movie title “Stranger than Fiction?”’s hard enough to do that around native English speakers!  The other team kept giving us RIDICULOUS words that no one knew how to act out!  Or maybe I’m just a sore loser...;-)  Either way, it’s always a good time watching your friends flap their arms around making crazy faces while people scream out the same answer ten times as if the actor hadn’t heard the first time (it’s a jackal,...a jackal?,  it’s a Jackal, JACKAL!, is it a jackal?).

Win or lose we all passed around the gifts, careful not to end up with anything we brought with us.  This was the part where the Egyptian girl’s face lit up.  She had never gotten a Christmas present before and was staring at the packing of her gift with an expression of wonder and childish excitement.  We decided to count to 5 and open them all at the same time.  It was somewhere between 3 and 4 that I realized the gift she was holding was none other than the package of sea foam colored Ikea kitchen sponges I had hastily bought three days before.  Bless her heart, the poor girl’s expression went from eagerness to confusion in seconds as she clearly did not expect something as mundane as sponges for her first Christmas present.  Everyone was confused (except for Peter and I who found the whole thing hilarious) and wanted to know whether or not she was really holding sponges in her hand.  Holding in my guilt ridden laughter, I took the opportunity to hand her my unopened gift which turned out to be a decorated mug, much more fitting.  All was saved.

Games, food, and conversation carried us through the rest of the night.  By the time I got back to my apartment it was 4 in the morning.  I went to sleep that night remembering their smiles and laughter.  But most of all, I remember that poor Egyptian girl’s face, classic.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Wiener Ball

Vienna is famous for its ballroom dancing. The great show that is a Viennese ball is a living monument to a time when the city was the center of an enormous and illustrious empire. In the 1800s, the privilege of dancing in full regalia would have been reserved for the wealthy and "Adel" of Austria.  Today, however, a simpleton like myself can slide my souls upon the painstakingly carved parquet floors of the Hofburg, however ungracefully.  The Fulbright commission provided the opportunity for the ball of a lifetime and no amount of chorophobia was going to keep me away.

We were a group of about 12 20-somethings braving the snow soiled streets in spite of our tuxedos and gowns to reach the Hofburg. I of course will not tell you which one I had on.  There came a moment about 50 yards from the Hofburg where we all stopped our nervous chatter and gazed in expectant awe at the golden-lit façade of the half moon shaped palace.  Thrilling, regal, intimidating. We were stepping into a different time, cue the goosebumps. It's the kind of feeling that makes you raise your eyebrows about two inches.

Inside, it was everything you might have dreamt a ball would be like.  A sea of people waltzing to the music of Johann Strauss provided by a real life orchestra. No canned music here.  The dance floor blooms all at once every time the pattern calls for a twirl of dresses that likely cost more than I've ever made in my life.  Faces are reserved, trance-like, sighing an effortless "look how easy this is for us."  And then there was us...  None of us knew how to waltz and even with a crash course the week before (all expenses paid) we were stiff and clumsy at best.  Despite this, it was enormous fun. The guys willing to dance were outnumbered by eager females so the three of us (Peter from Tennessee, Aaron from Michigan, and myself) got passed around quite a bit.  It's probably the most fun I've ever had dancing and that's without any liquid courage.
I'm remember walking back to the hotel sometime around 5 in the morning with extremely sore feet and the widest of smiles.  It was a truly a night to be remembered for the rest of one's life. Aaron and I came out of our shells, Peter fell in love with a girl, and an imperial tradition was infiltrated by a troupe of Americans of no particular Royal lineage or wealth.  I'm thankful for the times I live in.

Friday, January 4, 2013

L'enfant et les sortilèges

The Opera was a great success.  There were at least a hundred talented people involved in the entire production. I honestly never considered all of the necessary roles to pull of such medium sized production as ours.  I'm speaking of course about the sound crew, stage designers, vocal trainers, costume organizers, and directors all of which made up a quarter of the manpower.
After almost two months of rehearsals, the final show on the 17th of December was sad for all of us.  We had all grown accustomed to seeing on another on an almost daily basis.  Now it was simply goodbye, good luck, I hope to see you again in the future.  It's hard to know, my assured time here is limited.  I remember walking out of the theater and thinking about how suddenly the end had come, anti-climacticly.

The entire Opera choir


Backstage set

Orchestra before the start

Daniel, Joachim, and I

I forgot their names

A few of the guys taking a picture while the girls are onstage singing.

Sunday, December 30, 2012


On the 2nd of December all across Austria a festival known as Krampustag takes place.  It is an alpine tradition where beastly, ram-horned creatures run through the streets scaring little children and adults alike.  You could think of him as the reverse of Santa Claus, something for children to fear.  The picture below says "Greetings from Krampus."  Notice how he's teasing the child with threatening chains and switches!
Horrifying, right?

Before December 2nd, I had no idea any of this existed.  After leading what was a fairly normal Sunday I received a call from Iris, a friend from Holland, about coming out to watch a "parade."  It's been my philosophy thus far not to decline any opportunities so naturally I put on a few layers and scampered out into the -4 C weather.  As I neared the the center of town I noticed a gentle stream people, all headed to the same place.  Their faces and nervous chatter seemed unusual for a people who generally aren't very loud or full of emotion in public.  I slipped into the crowd, rounded the corner leading to the main square and stood awestruck.  Thousands of people crammed into a space the size of a baseball field.  For every cobblestone laid in the square, two feet stood to occupy it.  Not only were there loads of people but food stalls, a stage, blaring speakers, police, and an enormous Christmas Tree.  I found my friends (Iris from Holland, Patrick from Ireland, Karin from Tyrol, and John from Arkansas) after a 40 minute wade through the sea of loud, boisterous bodies.  We huddled together along the cleared "parade" route in the cold, waning sunlight.  Soon, the main event began.
People in elaborately horrifying costumes wandered through the street.  Their masks were a combination of ram horns, bloody flesh, raged fur, and piercing red eyes.  Many of them had rusted, noisy cowbells strapped to their backs and clanking chains swinging from their arms.  It was a noisy affair that gave the crowd quite a heightened sense of awareness.  Startling scream-prone girls, creating a lot of racket, and showing off their elaborate costumes was the order of the day.  There were hundreds and it took 2 hours for all of them to pass by.  To make the experience more interesting, my friends and I decided to force eachother into the paths of oncoming Krampuses.  It's great fun watching the terrified expression of your friends as you hold them in place while a Krampus snarls at them an inch from their nose.  That is, until it was my turn as I screamed like a little girl when a female Krampus tried to give me what I think was a kiss.  These things were hideous!
Luckily in Graz they aren't aloud to physically interact with people.  However, in most smaller towns the Krampuses run through the streets, beating and terrorizing anyone who looks like they'll scream.  The video below shows what the Krampustag means for many other Austrians.

Brutal stuff.  I've included the few pictures from our experience that turned out anything recognizable.  Maybe we should do something like this in the States?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Hamburgers and Iranians

I have been singing in the opera choir for Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortileges for a little over a month now, slowly getting to know the other choir members.  Surprisingly, the majority of us are not from Austria which is also the case for most of the students at the music university.  Among my fellow tenors there are guys from Thailand, Pakistan, and Mississippi.  Because we don't rehearse as often with the women (sopranos and altos), making acquaintance with them has taken a little longer.
Just this past week I struck up a conversation with an alto pertaining to something in the sheet music.  She was struggling only a little with her German but resorted to an English word while explaining something.  I believe the word was "awkward."  Anyway, I replied in English. She realized that I was a native speaker and excitedly jumped to English.*  I asked her where she was from and she cautiously said Iran.  Of course, my  reaction was instant intrigue and excitement as I'd never met an Iranian before.  On top of this, there are the lingering tensions between the United States and Iran over their supposed nuclear program.  Naturally, this only makes me more excited and eager to speak with her.  The geopolitical nerd came out of me as I blurted out the reply "Waohh, that's awesome!"  Her smile dropped.  "Why do you think that is awesome.  Wait, are you from America?"  I nodded.  Her look of "what the hell do we say now" was priceless.  Apparently avoiding any sensitive topics, she turned around and stared out of the window.  Because we formed 2/3 of the people in the room at the time the silence could only be described as... what's the word? awkward?

Last week my stomach was feeling a little homesick so I decided to make hamburgers and macaroni and cheese.  I know what you're thinking, eating this by myself would make me a fatty so I invited some Austrian friends along to share in my gluttony.  It was all delicious which was surprising because, I must admit, I've never made mac and cheese from scratch before.  I found this recipe online which turns out was the original one Thomas Jefferson invented.  Check out the photos...

Looks good doesn't it...

Also, my daily commute has become much healthier.  I bought a bike!  It is awesome!  I ride all over town now and save hours from my week (not to mention money I would have spent on the tram).  I'm still trying to think of what name to give it.  I'm thinking of calling it Arnold (after the governator who is believe it or not from Graz) but am open to suggestions.

...and just to round off the title a little more.  I met a guy the other day whose name is Daniel.  Daniel is from Hamburg.  There's nothing particularly interesting about him except for the fact that I can understand his German (at least when compared to Austrians).

*Whenever two foreign people meet in a foreign country there is usually a brief period of spirited back and forth questioning that goes something like this...

What's your name?
Where are you are you from?
What are you doing here?

...from there it can be unpredictable.

Sunday, November 4, 2012


Beat Furrer, with whom I am currently studying, is a fairly renowned composer with works performed all of the world.  His style is abrasive to some, hectic to others, and expressive to the few who follow modern art music.  I've had two lessons with him so far and can safely say that he enjoys discussing things in terms of vagueries.  It's fun in a way to listen to him go on for 15 minutes about how to formulate a piece of music with aural "tools," using the metaphor of a tree to describe organic complexity in music.  He is honestly a very nice guy and patiently listens when I attempt to describe (in broken German) what I'm thinking and how I intend to accomplish my goals.  In addition, I have the feeling that in our brief lessons, he understands fairly well my musical intentions (perhaps a little better than I do myself).
The only problem with taking lessons from Beat  (pronounced bay-aht for my american friends) is that he's a little too renowned.  I cannot tell you have many times during my lesson that he took phone calls from some other performer or renowned musician.  It seems like he gets call from conductors, opera singers, professional instrumentalists around the clock.  And, he's knows them all on a first name basis.................  Additionally, everyone wants his ear so the lessons tend to be interrupted by students fawning and bowing before him in the hopes of making an impression.  You add all that up and what should be an hour long lesson becomes a 20 minute dash to get input from the "master."  (Also, he's a name dropper. LOL) Has his input made a difference in my music?  In a word, no.  I'll give it time and see what happens.  Third lesson is the charm...right?