Saturday, February 19, 2011

Wiener Town, AUS: Chinese Musicians, Various Pretzels and Snarling Donkeys

Strangers on a Train

Just before Christmas I made my final visit to Vienna via overnight train. Have I mentioned my love of riding trains? I love it because you are traveling and making progress but there's no rush or stress, you are forced to sit still. You can just reflect, collect yourself and look out the window at the scenery wizzing by. I read once that J.K. Rowling had the whole Harry Potter universe just reveal itself to her on a train once, so I always do my best to look pensively out the window in order to fool a billion-dollar literary idea into entering my head.

Oh, and another awesome thing about being on a train is that instead of being on a plane, it's pretty casual so you get all kinds of strange people who would never be organized enough to buy a plane ticket or make it through security. On that particular train I saw plenty of the usual lot, business people and backpackers, but there was also a college aged couple who aggressively made out from 9am until lunch when their mouths were otherwise occupied devouring their liverwurst sandwiches. I found the latter activity more offensive. There were also shivering Koreans wearing Russian style hats, and three old ladies holding identical bouquets of one dozen yellow roses. What were their stories? Should I feel like a creeper because of the joy that staring at people on public transportation affords me? I feel like it's okay as long as I call it people watching.

And there is also the army of senior citizens who feel compelled to strike up conversations with me. There seems to just be something particularly inviting about me for senior citizens. They usually are traveling with younger relatives that help translate. We never end up getting more than the basics introduced but it's still interesting to see their wrinkled faces try to understand why a computer company would pay an American to study Chinese music in Austria.

When I wasn't ogling, I was reading The Piano Teacher which is about a failed piano prodigy in Vienna who lives with her mother. It makes Black Swan look like The Partridge Family and apparently won the Nobel Prize for Literature, despite no one I talked to ever having heard of it before. So as I finished the book (which has an awesome scene where a student stabs his teacher's foot with the endpin of a cello) the other crazies on the train and I rolled into Vienna, Capitol of Classical Music, City of Beethoven, Mozart, Strauss, and if my novel was to be trusted, violent and psychologically traumatizing relationships with piano teachers.


I noted earlier that Freiburg didn't seem as welcoming as Paris but the Viennese attitude is generally downright nasty. The Austrian accent sounds very nasal and abrasive, and a little bit Chicagoan. There's just something about northern cities that makes people afraid to open their mouths, I guess. Did I mention that I totally have a BA in linguistics?

I actually went to Vienna three times. The city ain't no Paris, but it's still absolutely beautiful and the Christmas lights make the nights seem magical. The last time I sang with a senior citizen's choir of Taiwanese immigrants (again my odd affiliation with the elderly). We had a loooong concert and you can see a video clip of it here, somewhere into the third hour. The song featured is actually a pop song which Algy, our director and arranger and the guy playing his bandoneon, arranged for our choir. I think it's especially impressive since the choir was unable to sing in unison only 4 years ago but now they're managing four part harmonies. In the video you can see me awkwardly tucking in my shirt as I sing. But in my defense none of the clothes I was wearing were mine.

The accoustics in the church were really amazing but somehow didn't translate to amazing sound on this video. I promise the video doesn't do it justice. The service was in Taiwanese instead of Mandarin which I thought was very interesting. Apparently those in the Chinese community that came (and the entire Chinese community of Vienna did come!) mostly were not Christian, but all of the Christians could speak Taiwanese since they were probably Christian from their families being converted back in Taiwan.

The best part of the concert was that all of the incredible young musicians who had come to Vienna to learn classical music played. So we heard world class string quartets and woodwind quintets. In the final number the talented young instrumentalists kindly joined forces with the elderly choir for Laudate Dominum and Joy to the World. If you can ever make out the basses singing, that's me or Tree, we were the only basses. After the service we all got together to eat Jesus' birthday cake and a Chinese potluck.

At the potluck I had to fend off German questions and parry with Chinese ones. But felt so relieved to be able to understand the language again and was releasing a month of pent up conversation on the poor potluckers. I had an amazing conversation with one of the members of our choir. He was really interested in linguistics and the cognition of music. At one point I was talking about how I'm trying to switch from studying the human behavior of language to the human behavior of music and the differences therein. I mentioned that language is evolutionarily advantageous but music is not, so why do we do it? He earnestly objected that music is advantageous! "Look at how it brought this entire community together tonight! The service couldn't communicate with all of us, but we all understood the beauty of the music! Music helps us to build bridges with our enemies that we otherwise cannot understand. It's a direct link to the subconscious, a calming shot of morphine to the amygdala." Looking around at the Mainlanders and Taiwanese gathered peacefully together, it was hard to argue.

The One and Only Time I Feel Like A Bro
Pictured to the left is Franz Sacher, creator of the Sachertorte and supporter of diabetes and heart disease. After the potluck, us youngens headed out first to get some of Vienna's famous Sachertorte, a cake consisting of two layers of dense, rich chocolate sponge with a thin layer of apricot jam in the middle and dark chocolate icing on the top and sides. It is traditionally served with Schlagsahne, sugarless whipped cream. While I sipped a coffee and suppressed moans of ecstasy as I sampled the perfection that is Sachertorte, my friends told me variations of the cake's origin myths. It was a case of death, ambiguous bequeathing (which incidentally is my favorite variety of bequeathing), bankruptcy, margarine, marmalade, and butter. I decided that I wouldn't go meta and would instead just enjoy the cake for what it was: delicious.

Outside Hotel Sacher I took a video of the area while the rest of us jumped in place on sugar highs. Our next stop was to go to a bar for some Getränke. One of our party was in a wheelchair and the seating was downstairs. I looked around at the others who were all in awkward turtle mode. I asked why don't we just carry her down. They looked at me in amazement, "You could carry her?" Readers, she weighed 90 pounds max, but as the next biggest male in our party wasn't much heavier, I suddenly became aware of how gigantic I was. So I hoisted her up and carried her down the stairs new bride style to her new seat. Afterwards I kept almost spilling my drink because my arms were shaking from the strain of carrying her deminuitive frame. But it was good I was physically incapable of going through the action of drinking because I needed to stay sober to return the girl upstairs (don't drink and carry!) and maintain my language faculty to keep up with the conversation of drunk Taiwanese young adults.

I met lots of really interesting people. They all had left Taiwan to attend high school in Austria. Some had made it into conservatories, others had not. But they all played western instruments and believed that Classical music was the epitome of civilization and the purest form of art. They were curious about my curiosity for their traditional music and then someone pointed out that we both were cross cultural invaders.

I also found out that I shouldn't judge old ladies by their snarls. When asked about my opinion of Vienna, I expressed my appreciation of its beautiful buildings and concert halls and streets, but felt the people were downright unfriendly. I relayed the story of how after holding the door for an elderly woman at a restaurant she responded not only with the typical Viennese snarl, but also by calling me, "Donkey!" What!? I was just trying to be polite. After some discussion they figured out that she had actually said danke with a strong Viennese accent. Oh, whoops! That did make more sense than that old lady using English to call me a mule.

Glühwein and Other Malpheasants

Vienna has an amazing Christmas market. There were so many pretzel options I had to pan this video to show them all. Everyone excitedly walks around enjoying hot bevs and giant pretzels and sweets, buying Christmas related novelties and playing the odd carnival game. Everyone brushes up against each other in their winter-wear so it's also a pickpocket's paradise. After watching a German language and quite modern version of Faustus, Algy, director of the senior citizen's choir, Tree and I walked the market. Apparently they used to sell ads in the advent windows on the big state building, (the most expensive ones being December 1 and the cheapest December 23) but this year with the economy the way it is, it had been canceled. I wondered if it was the cost of buying the ads or just opening up windows and leaving them that way for a month. Not eco-friendly!

I tried to go buy glühwein, hot wine and fruit juice, for everyone. The guy told me something and I understood "16." It seemed expensive and I also couldn't figure out how 3 went into 16, but you have to put down a deposit for the mugs so I tried to give him 16 euros. "Nein, nein," he laughed. Then in English, "Can I see your passport?" What? I asked why. "You cannot be 16 years old? Really 16?" he cocked his head at me and smiled at me, the naughty little boy trying to buy grown up alcohol.

After being carded at the Christmas market in Vienna, I decided I was growing sick of this baby face of mine. People can't tell my age within 6 years! I showed him my passport and after an unusally long period of calculations, he decided that 1988 meant I was indeed old enough. He said he originally thought I was 14. So that means he was off by 8 years or as I saw it, he had dismissed 36% of my time on earth. I carried the mugs back to Tree and Algy and decided I needn't tell Algy and Tree about this tale. Afterall I had just lost over one third of my experiences and this was definitely one with which I wouldn't mind parting.

I also continued my immaturity and cultural insensitivity by laughing at this sign for the Viennese Adventureland. It didn't seem like an appropriate place for children.

Icy Isolation

The real lesson I learned from being in Europe is what it is like to not be able to communicate with the average person on the street. There were so many things I didn't understand and so many times I just felt like I was letting down America by promoting the monolingual stereotype (the monotype?). Fortunately I could use my Chinese skills with friends to impress/confuse people, but needing to ask constantly for translation really prevents you from understanding things as well as firsthand. Eventually you have too many questions and you just keep them to yourself.

But this clinging to an immigrant community was also an invaluable experience. I saw the connections and kindness that being Chinese could bring, from discounted haircuts to free dim sum, to escorting strangers to bus stations. I get the feeling this is a universal thing too, because Tree who is frequently mistaken for Japanese or Korean, seems to attract momentary kindness from these groups also. Of course I went to art museums and saw some classical music concerts, but the highlights for me were more cooking dinner in people's homes.

And the courtesy within the community is so extreme that one time after eating with Tree at a Mainlander's hot pot restaurant, he accidentally bargained the price when he misunderstood. The bill was 42 euro. Tree gave her 50 and said, "還給我四塊就可以。” Give me back 4, ok? He was trying to be nice and give her a culturally unexpected tip. She was so surprised by this and his Taiwanese accent that she mistook 4, si, for 10, shi, and gave him back 10 euro thinking he was haggling the price and she happily accepted the barter. They both looked at each other confused as I, someone who had suffered through the 4/10 distinction issue before explained their overly polite misinterpretations.

Both the weather and the people have been getting colder in Europe. I'm looking forward to returning to Asia where people are welcoming and I am exotic instead of just ignorant.

Up next: I Christmas in Taiwan and move to the Equator.

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