Things I Love About Living In Vienna

Jacob's mother, Marcia, arrived for a two week visit last Saturday, and I can tell you - she is one happy momma. We are pretty happy kids as well. We have already packed in an incredible amount of sight-seeing and eating into the short time she has been here, and somehow the conversation always swings back to this question: "Isn't Vienna great?!". 

It is especially meaningful for us to experience Vienna through Marcia's eyes and vice-versa. Jacob's parents (and mine too for that matter) supported us all the way through the thinking/praying/planning process of moving to Vienna - even though it was an unfamiliar place for them and meant we would be settling far away from California. Now, after continuing to support us through all of the ups and downs of the move, Marcia can finally meet the Vienna that we fell in love with. 

On the flip-side, as we approach nearly a year of living in Vienna, the "tourist-vision" has worn off. We no longer look at places through the lens of a tourist: on vacation, a little disoriented, and surrounded by new and unfamiliar sights. Now when we walk the city, a network of correlations, petty annoyances, memories, and to-do lists crowd in and color our perspective. In my opinion neither perspective is bad in itself, but my ideal is a good mix of familiarity (to keep from getting burned out) and strangeness (to keep from getting stuck in a rut).  

Marcia helps us to see the city through fresh eyes even as we give her the "insider's tour" of Vienna. We discussed impressions of the city over cake and coffee today at Demel (the famous patisserie to the former imperial court), and began to make a list of things we like most about the city.

Now before I get to the list, I have to throw in a substantial caveat: It's no secret that I love living in Vienna. Every now and then I am hit by a wave of gratitude and perspective for where I am. Jacob and I have not forgotten the pain and frustration of waiting to move. We spent two years praying, searching for opportunities, and dreaming of a future in a place we barely knew. The one thing we did know? Vienna was calling, and God was telling us to go. It was not an easy time.  I have said before how blown away I am by God's provision. We quickly made dear friends, found a wonderful church, work, an apartment...I've said it so many times I must sound like a broken record. The truth is, I'm not "over it" yet, I'm still in awe of God's goodness. 

1. Walking 

I LOVE not needing a car. It's true that most cities have at least some public transportation available, but Vienna is on another level. The public transport is so good that you can be nearly anywhere within the city in under 40 minutes. My commute is 30 minutes total, 20 of which is spent walking. I can walk to all of my shopping places, and be in the heart of downtown Vienna in less than a 10 minute walk. Added bonus - public transport is quite cheap here compared to many areas of Europe. Buying a Jahreskarte (year card that allows you full access to public transport in Vienna proper) for €365 certainly beats paying for each ride on the London Tube. Very occasionally I miss the conveniences of a car, but I honestly think that should we move somewhere where a car was necessary again, I would miss walking everywhere quite a bit. 

Jacob and I lugging home potted trees on the subway. 

Jacob and I lugging home potted trees on the subway. 

2. Living Outside

I have always wanted to live in a city, and as far as cities go, Vienna is a pretty ideal one. It's small enough to feel intimate and manageable, but big enough that we are still discovering new areas, streets, and pretty courtyards. As the weather has warmed the city has sprung back to life. The cafes have set up their outdoors terraces, and groups of people loiter in the city squares long after sunset chatting and drinking beer. Festivals and events pop up on virtually every corner (or so it seems), as if all anyone is looking for is yet another reason to lounge around outside. 

San Diego is rightfully famous for it's impeccable weather - a fact that I miss in the dead of an Austrian winter when I haven't seen sun in two weeks. But the flip-side of having imperfect weather is that you are all the more grateful for sun and warmth when you do have it. No one wants to waste what may be the first perfect day in weeks, so no one does.

On that note...

3. Parks

Having never lived in a city before, I had never before appreciated the value of a good park. Granted there were parks in the suburbs, but those tended to be populated by the homeless and pot-head kids hiding from their parents. Parks in Vienna are wonderful. In Vienna, you don't just walk through a park. You meander through, enjoy the sites, find a sunny spot, then flop down on the ground and take a nap. Or play lawn games. Or sit and chat with friends while drinking beer (you can drink in public here - it's awesome). Parks are well-kept (I am amazed at how large the city's flower budget must be...they have replanted flower beds three times since spring) and well used. 

4. A Small Refrigerator

"Everything in America is bigger", the old cliché goes. And while that may not be true across the board, when you compare our refrigerator with the one we had in the States...it is undeniably true. Our apartment came equipped with a half-size refrigerator, the size college kids put in their dorm rooms. That fact that our apartment came equipped with a kitchen at all was a blessing - in Austria kitchens are considered "furniture" and are often moved out right along with the couch.

While at first Jacob and I worried whether the tiny refrigerator would suffice, upon falling into the rhythm of European life, our fears were quickly put to rest. Europeans tend to grocery shop for a couple of days at a time, rather than the American habit of stockpiling for the week. It makes sense in America - often you have to drive to the grocery store, which can take up a ton of time out of your post-work routine. Here however, with a grocery store a stone's throw from our apartment, realizing "shoot, I forgot the milk", isn't such a big deal. 

5.  Church bells

There are at least three churches within a short walk from our apartment, among them being Karlskirche, one of the most famous churches in Vienna. On Sunday morning, Christmas, Easter, and any given Catholic holiday, the church bells will ring in a glorious cheerful cacophony. I love quiet Sunday mornings when I can drink a cup of coffee and listen to the church bells calling the people to worship. I love Christmas morning when the church bells ring in a seemingly endless announcement of Christ's birth. I know the angels are singing along with the bells, and I will never grow tired of hearing them. 


A Week in Southern France

In early June Jacob and I took our first vacation in years. You may not have seen us for a while, so here is a picture of us: 

I have been putting off writing this blog post because, to be quite honest, perfect and amazing trips don't make for good stories. So if you are reading this post, it is likely because you know us, you a dreaming of the south of France, you are supremely bored, or a combination of the three. 

We were headed to the south of France to meet my parents and spend a week unwinding in the countryside. As most of you already know, my mother is French, and we still have a good deal of family in the area of Languedoc-Roussillion. My mother inherited the house that my grandfather built, a home which has been the setting of my childhood summers for the majority of my life. Jacob and I spent a month at that house three years ago during our six-month adventure around Europe, and frankly, it was a difficult time. 

As excited as I was to show Jacob the places of my childhood, we realized upon arriving that it simply wasn't the same without family. The house was too large for the two of us. We felt aimless and isolated. We were excited to leave the house behind. 

This time however, would be different. We would be joining my parents there, and Jacob was looking forward to experiencing the house and that area of France through my parent's eyes. It was a chance for France to redeem itself to Jacob. A chance for him to get a taste of the France that I know and love. 

It was also a change to unplug and take a real vacation - a very different experience than taking a whirlwind trip to Barcelona or other exotic destinations. I have found as I travel that there is a very distinctive separation between "travel" and "vacation". A vacation presupposes relaxation. Walking so far that your toes bleed is not relaxation. That's travel. 

Anyways, we landed in Nice, France after a short, uneventful flight from Vienna. Not having seen a sea or ocean in nearly a year, this sight was especially welcome: 

My parents picked us up in Nice and we went for a drive along the coast, stopping at a small cove to have a picnic and go for a swim in the gloriously warm water. I could have simply floated in that water all day. 

We arrived back to the house in the evening in time to catch the evening light setting over the mountains. With dinner I was reminded of something which, for me, set the tone of the entire week: I love French food. 

Ok, now before you go "well duh, you and the rest of the world", let me frame that statement for you a bit further. Yes, French cooking is delicious - but that isn't what I love so much. What makes French food truly magnificent is the ingredients. The cheese, the bread, the salami, the tomatoes, the peaches, the cuts of meat in the butcher shop, and even the tins of prepared foods like cassoulet and duck confit. For me, a quintessential French lunch is a hodgepodge of little bites - black olive tapenade, pate, salami, tomato salad, cheese, bread, and whatever else we choose to dig from the refrigerator. The thing that makes it so good is not our cooking method (as there is none), it is the remarkable quality of each item itself. 

The next day we went to one of the large grocery stores nearby and I felt like one of the gluttonous kids in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. I wanted to try everything. And there was so much available. Fresh oysters and fish, veal, rabbit, ten different kinds of tomatoes, fava beans, endive, etc. In the freezer section I was coming across seafood I had only ever heard of before (like razor clams), along with the ubiquitous French frog-legs and escargots, stuffed in their shells with the garlic parsley butter and ready to be thrown in the oven. (We may or may not have purchased a 48-pack of escargot for a shockingly inexpensive 7 Euros and spent the whole week eating them). 

Well before you get bored of my talking about food, I will get to the point. Being surrounded by such remarkable ingredients is inspiring - especially to someone who is marginally (hah) food obsessed as I am. I immediately asked my mother if I could take over planning dinners for the week. She agreed, bless her. She knows how to make me happy. 

Before I wax poetic over the food I made, here are some more pictures of things we did in France: 

Visited ridiculously picturesque little towns in the countryside:

Met my Uncle Olivier in the tiny village of Roquefort (where the Roquefort blue cheese comes from) for a picnic and tour of the cheese making caves. 

Went to the farmers market and purchased more beautiful food, including French salami (called Saucisson, though as a child I ate so much of it my family took to calling it "Chelseasson").

Visited the gorgeous area of Grizac, tucked high away in the mountains. Though it was my first time there (that I could remember), the area holds a special place in my family's heart: it is where my mother grew up attending summer camps, the place where she went to pray (at the cross, pictured below) and ask God if she should marry my dad, and the place where my eldest brother proposed to his wife, Tiffany. 

Smoked fresh oysters on the grill:

And finally, came back with a suitcase worth of goodies - wine, salami, cheese, homemade jams, and a treasure trove of items we had squirreled away in the house 3 years before when we traveled Europe:

And now, as promised, the food we made. The food that made me realize (again) that if I could spend my entire day around food, I would be one very happy Chelsea. Endless amounts of Escargots (but of course!), Mussels in a roquefort white wine sauce with French fries, grilled rabbit and root vegetables, Shellfish linguine, Smoked oysters on the half-shell, and my favorite of all: homemade lasagna stuffed with duck confit. I have discovered the joys of making lasagna and I am a changed woman. 

Now we are back in Vienna, enjoying the heat after a long winter and indecisive spring. Though it feels a bit truncated I am going to wrap this post up here simply for the sake of getting it out. It has been too long since the last post, I will try and make the next one more timely!

Eurovision 2015: The Good, the Ridiculous, and the Political

To the Europeans, that fact that most of America has never heard of Eurovision is astounding. 

Eurovision is a European tradition, a pop song contest that has launched the careers of some decently well known names in pop music like Celine Dion and Abba. Think of Eurovision as a cross between American Idol and the Olympics. Most countries in Europe (and some that are not actually in Europe...such as Israel and Australia) participate, holding in-country competitions to find the best singer and original song to represent their country in the international song contest. Then, for one week, all of the countries send their contestant to perform their original song and be voted as the reigning champion of Eurovision. 

Last year, Austria won Eurovision with their contestant Conchita Wurst, an elegantly dressed transgender with an immaculately groomed beard.

Conchita

Since then Conchita has become some sort of national icon, gracing the local tabloid-like newspapers on a near-daily basis, and somehow becoming the face of Bank Austria. Walk past any Bank Austria and you will see posters or commercials of Conchita going shopping (which requires money - so you see how it correlates to banking...obviously). 

Since Conchita was the winner of last year's competition, Austria was slated to host Eurovision the following year by default. 

Now I should mention that, almost entirely by accident, I had heard of Eurovision before moving to Austria. At some point in university I discovered old Eurovision videos on Youtube and spent an entire evening laughing my head off. Why? Well, in some respects Eurovision is quite different from any song or talent contest you have ever seen. In America it seems to be the accepted Modum Operandus to say, " You have 15 minutes of fame. Don't waste it". No matter what, you will do your best to impress and be perceived to be as amazing and celebrity-worthy as possible. Right? I mean, that is what I would do in that situation. Eurovision however, capitalizes on ridiculousness. Many countries know they don't stand a chance of winning, so rather than attempting to look "cool" they opt for looking downright insane. 

We're talking singing pirates, giant black cone hats, you name it. Why does a country choose to use their 3 minutes of original song, broadcasted to over 200 million viewers in this manner? I have. no. idea. 

But it does make for quite a show. 

And then there are the politics. Countries are not allowed to vote for their own contestant. Rather, each country can designate up to 12 points to the country of their choice, with the points (allegedly) being made up of 50% jury vote and 50% popular vote. As this insightful article pointed out, many countries vote quite predictably, designating points to countries as a "please don't invade us", or "sorry we invaded you".

Kind of like a pity vote... kind of. 

This year's contest had all the elements you would expect - changes were made in the city to accommodate the contest;  people were alternately pleased and disgruntled at the disruption to normal life, etc. etc. A giant viewing public area was set up in front of the Rathaus (city hall), and on the evening that the first semi-finals were taking place we crammed in with thousands of others to watch the spectacle live on jumbo-tron.

It was so much fun. The first evening featured the first 17-ish contestants performing their original song, complete with intricate light shows and choreography. Here is the rundown of my personal favorites:

My overall favorite song and choreography was Belgium:

The song that Jacob is STILL singing on a near-daily basis is from Israel: 

But the song I really wanted to win, on the sheer merit of it's "fun-value" was Serbia: (Skip ahead to minute 1:48 if you'd like to catch the point when Europe collectively exploded with excitement)

On the other hand however, some of the songs had a blatantly political twist. The songs aren't technically allowed to be politically charged, though of course a country could always simply deny a song's obvious political agenda. Take Russia for example. Russia's song was definitely not a brilliantly crafted piece of pro-Russian propaganda of "we believe in the dream" sung by a ridiculously gorgeous Russian model. Oh wait, nevermind. It was. 

After the two rounds of semi-finals the acts were pared down to 27 countries for the finals. Interestingly enough, the larger (or should I say, wealthier) countries go straight to the finals - Germany, Italy, Great Britain, etc. don't even perform live until the night of the finals. 

That weekend we had some dear friends from university visiting, and we couldn't have been more excited to introduce them to the wonderment of Eurovision. It is like being in the city hosting the world cup during the world cup. It's a big deal...for Europe, at least.  The night of the finals we prayed that the rain would hold off and went to join the other thousands upon thousands (I think I heard one of the moderators say 20,000) of people heading to the Rathaus to watch the jumbotron. People were decked out in favor of their countries. (I think these guys were pro-U.K.)

We got there at 8 PM, an hour before the show started, and faithfully stood in place, crammed in with all other 20,000 people until about 1:00 AM when the winner was finally announced. (Since it's not the point of the blog post, I will just let you know now that Sweden won with a dance song that sounds eerily like Avicii's "Hey Brother"). 

Here is the interesting bit though - remember how I was talking about the political charge of a number of the songs? Well Armenia wins the award for "most super-obvious political message", while simultaneously acting like a child who did not just get caught red-handed with their hand in the cookie jar.  The "love" song titled "Face the Shadow" performed by "Genealogy" with a chorus of "Don't deny", was supposedly not about the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Nope. Not political at all. 

To put it over the top however, were these guys, strategically weaving lines through the audience and waving enormous Armenian flags the whole. entire. show.  

11289940_10153249775786083_1799544462_n.jpg

Now, I understand that they were making a statement. Perhaps even a statement that desperately needs to be made. But in the moment, the statement looked like "We don't want you to watch Eurovision" more than anything else. 

Which is a shame because you really, and I mean really, should be watching Eurovision. 

 

 

Road Trip to Slovenia

There are two types of people who are going to read this blog post. The first are those people who know Jacob and myself and are just here to see the pictures. The second type are those who would like to take a road trip to Slovenia from Vienna and find themselves sadly bereft of useful information. 

To those of you who fall into the latter category: Welcome. I hope you find this information helpful as you plan your trip. Enjoy the pictures of my parents. 

To the rest of you, I've got your number. Here's a picture:

Lake Bled. Jacob would like you to know that he took this picture. 

Lake Bled. Jacob would like you to know that he took this picture. 

My parents, Jacob, and I decided to rent a car and take a road trip to Slovenia during their second weekend visiting us in Vienna. Slovenia is not a terribly well known travel destination, though I will state loud and clear: IT SHOULD BE. Located on the southern edge of Austria, the Slovenian border lies just 4 hours driving time from Vienna, and less than an hour from Klagenfurt. 

The Republic of Slovenia, formerly known as Yugoslavia, was a communist state until the 1980s. Though technically part of the Eastern Bloc, Slovenia enjoyed far greater economic and personal freedoms under President Tito. Why do I bring this up? Because, surprisingly enough, those freedoms are quite noticeable. Venturing into other countries of the Eastern Bloc from Vienna (such as Hungary or Slovakia), there is often a dramatic shift immediately upon crossing the border. The effects of years of communism and political upheaval are immediately felt and visible. In Slovenia? Not a whit. 

The cities are clean, the countryside is beautiful, the tourism is well developed, the roads are excellent and thoughtfully planned...but I am getting ahead of myself. 

We left on Friday morning, driving from Vienna through Graz (on the E59 and E66), and around Klagenfurt. We stopped for lunch near Klagenfurt at a cute little gasthaus tucked up in the pre-Alpine hills, and sat outside reveling in sunshine and warm weather for the first time all month. 

After lunch and a good stretch we crossed the Slovenian border, at which there was virtually no official border crossing. As a civilian vehicle we drove right on through, without even being stopped for a passport check. Shortly after crossing the border we stopped at a gas station to buy a "Vignette", which buys us permission to drive on the roads (a week long pass is about €15)

Upon crossing into Slovenia, we immediately found ourselves in the Julian Alps. Though just as impressive as any Alps you might find in Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, etc. the Julian Alps are significantly less well-known. One of the most popular spots is Lake Bled, a fairy-tale-like lake and resort spot located just over the border from Austria. Within 45 minutes of crossing the border we were pulling up to our hotels perched on the side of Lake Bled.

Bled Island 

Bled Island 

The iconic image of Lake Bled is the church that graces the tiny island in the lake's center. There is also a small town that has cropped up around the lake, and a castle set high above on a cliff over the water. All around the lake you can find quaint guest houses and hotels to stay in. Jacob and I were doing a hotel review for Our Man On The Ground, so we had arranged to stay at Vila Bled, the former Yugoslavian royal family's residence, and more recently, one of Tito's presidential residences. The hotel was magnificent - it felt like someone had given us the keys to a museum and said "have fun!". 

The Vila Bled Hotel

The Vila Bled Hotel

The area around Lake Bled is well built up, including a paved (and lit) walking path around the entire lake. The popular activities include rowing to the island and ringing the "wishing bell" of the church, as well as climbing up the cliff to see the views of the lake and surrounding mountains from Bled Castle. 

We spent our first afternoon walking the perimeter of Lake Bled, which took about two hours (at a leisurely stroll, and stopping to take pictures every 30 seconds).

Bled 4
A rare lone Chelsea sighting. 

A rare lone Chelsea sighting. 

Afterwards we had dinner and called it an early night. The next morning after breakfast we procured a row boat to head over to the island. Though designed for two people (ideally), we managed to cram all four of us into the canoe. We were a bit low in the water. Jacob muscled us to the island as I clutched my camera in fear of tipping over. The island is quite small, with exactly enough space for a church, a gift shop, a cafe, and a path that goes around the island. 

A not so rare lone Jacob sighting. Prior to rowing 4 adults across a lake. 

A not so rare lone Jacob sighting. Prior to rowing 4 adults across a lake. 

Bled 7
Jacob, after rowing 4 adults across a lake. 

Jacob, after rowing 4 adults across a lake. 

After our foray to the island we went back to shore, and opted to drive up to the castle for a view of the surroundings before heading out on a hike. Our first stop was Vintgar Gorge, an Alpine river gorge that is 3 km away from Lake Bled and absolutely worth a couple hours of your time. We had been informed the gorge was closed for the season, but decided to take a look at it anyway. Though the ticket office was shuttered there were plenty of people around, some of which were walking along the path barricaded by a wooden gate with a Slovenian word written on it. Not speaking Slovenian, we assumed the word meant "welcome", and hopped over the gate, following suit with the hikers ahead of us. 

Vintgar 1
Vintgar 2

The hike is about 3 km in total (but you will be stopping to take pictures every 10 seconds), and ends in Slovenia's largest natural waterfall. 

After spending a couple of hours gawking at the gorge we hopped back into the car to head deeper (and higher - much higher) into the mountains. We drove towards Bohinj Lake, where we had been told we could drive up into the mountains, then hike to some high Alpine pastures. The drive through the countryside alone would have made the trip worth it. The Alpine valleys were dotted with quaint villages and stunning panoramas. The roads were exceptionally well marked, and we found our way to the road winding up the mountains with very little trouble. 

Bohinj 1

As we got higher into the mountains snow began to appear in patches. Once we we had been climbing with the car for roughly 40 minutes, we hit a large spot of ice and snow on the road. As we did not have 4-wheel drive and figured that we were close to our destination, we chose to park the car and head forth on foot. 20 minutes of walking later we found ourselves at an Alpine pasture covered in moss and crocuses and decided that was a good place to eat our picnic lunch. 

Bohinj 2

As our lunch wore on we began to see more signs of life - a group of hikers passed through the base of the pasture, and a car passed on the road by us, evidently coming from a nearby gasthaus. Spurred on by the fact that we were evidently heading towards something, we finished our lunch and kept going until we came to a much larger Alpine pasture decorated with little chalets. We stopped into one of the chalets for warm apple strudel, gawked over the scenic view, and decided we had done enough hiking for the day. 

That evening we checked out of our hotels and drove 45 minutes to Ljubljana, the capitol of Slovenia. Ljubljana is a quaint city, so charming and pretty that it almost seemed like a European Disneyland than a real place. Except - it IS real, which makes it about a million times better than Disneyland in my book. A river, channeled into a pretty canal, cuts through the center of the city, with plenty of outdoor cafes and weeping willows lining the water. 

That weekend they were having a craft beer and hamburger festival downtown, just a short walk from our hotel. We had such incredible gourmet hamburgers (about €5 each) and craft beer (about €3 each) for dinner the first night, that the second night we went back and ate more. 

Sunday morning we walked through the city, then headed out into the mountains for another hike. This time we went to a separate set of mountains, about 45 minutes from Ljubljana, and took a gondola up to a high Alpine pasture, still dotted with patches of snow. A steep 30 minute hike took us to the top of the mountain, where we were greeted with a vast network of trails, high Alpine chalets, and this incredible view. 

Slovenia 1
Slovenia 2

We stopped for lunch at the top of the mountain. It is amazing how much better some foods taste in their proper context. Typical German/Austrian/Slovenian food is delicious at any time, but high on a mountain after a grueling hike? It makes sausage, dark bread and sauerkraut that much better. 

Slovenia 3

After hiking around the pastures for the afternoon we took the gondola back down to the base of the mountain and headed back to Ljubljana. The following day we drove back to Vienna, refreshed, relaxed, and positively in love with Slovenia. 

Mark my words, you will soon see Slovenia at the top of those "Undiscovered treasures of Europe" lists. You heard it here first! 

To wrap up, here is a picture of what Jacob would look like if he was blind. 

Blind Jacob

Easter in Vienna

It has been a long time since I lived anywhere that experienced a proper spring. Winter felt like a slow marching eternity of grey days, and we learned to appreciate spots of direct sunlight wherever we could find them. Spring and winter battled it out in early April, throwing fits of rain, sleet, snow, and sunshine, all within an hour. Then, one day as I was walking through the park to work, TA DA! A tree that had been bare the day before had exploded into life overnight. 

Spring Trees

Let's back up a bit though. On April 1st, Jacob and I picked up these two from the airport. 

They're my parents, which you probably had already figured it out.

They're my parents, which you probably had already figured it out.

They were here to visit us for the first time since we had moved here...8 months ago. (8 MONTHS AGO?! Wow. I hadn't even realized.) We were going to spend two lovely weeks together, sightseeing, catching up, and taking a road trip to Slovenia. 

But first, there was Easter. I won't claim that Austrian Easter traditions are terribly different from American traditions (unlike their Christmas celebrations), however they do go slightly crazy about eggs.  

I grew up decorating carefully hollowed out egg shells with paints and dyes before my mother arranged them as a table centerpiece for the Easter dinner. Here, the eggs are hung on little trees made of pussywillow branches bundled together. It would seem however, that many people choose to purchase their decorated eggs at Easter egg emporiums such as this: 

Easter Market

Easter Markets are set up in the public squares, this one in particular showcasing hundreds upon thousands of delicately hollowed out, hand decorated eggs. It took some tenacity to pick your way through the egg maze, knowing that one misplaced step or swing of your handbag could send a whole tray of eggs crunching into pieces (we did see it happen to someone - poor lady). I kept wondering what they did with all of the raw egg leftovers...world's largest omelette? 

Easter Egg

Another Austrian Easter tradition is to consume large quantities of dyed, hardboiled eggs. One can purchase the eggs from the grocery store pre-dyed and pre-boiled, then before eating them, you play a game where you put two eggs in a cage fight, with the losing egg being sacrificed and eaten. (I.e: You hit them together and the one that cracks first is the losing egg). 

Then of course, there are the sweets. Demel's, the epitome of Viennese confectionary, is always a wonderland akin to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, but at Easter it is especially true. The shelves were laden with intricately decorated molded chocolate bunnies and sheep, and large delicate hollow eggs made of meringue piped into swirling patterns. 

Meringue Egg
Demels

Finally, there is the music. Of course, Vienna, as the "city of music", always has something special to offer, even if it is simply listening to the church bells ring on Sunday mornings. On our way out of St. Stephan's cathedral we saw a sign for the Easter Monday mass, where they would be performing one of Mozart's masses at 11:00 am. On Monday we returned to St. Stephan's, surprised at how many people were present and the music well underway though we were only a couple of minutes late. Turns out that the mass had started at 10:15. Whoops. It was worth the effort regardless, if only for the opportunity to hear God's praises sung by a full orchestra and choir. 

Our second weekend together my parents, Jacob, and I had planned to take a road trip down through Austria to Slovenia where we would visit Lake Bled and Ljubljana. You know how you often see those articles touting Prague or Dubrovnik as "the undiscovered gem of Europe", although they are now far from "undiscovered"? Mark my words friends, Slovenia truly is the next "undiscovered gem of Europe". The country is breathtakingly beautiful, the roads and towns very well maintained, the people are wonderfully friendly, the food is delicious, and the costs very reasonable. In fact, it was all so fairytale-like, I imagine Slovenia could have been the real inspiration behind Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel. 

Let me give you a sneak peak of what I mean: 

Lake Bled 1
Slovenia 1
Slovenia-11.jpg

Feel like visiting yet? 

More to come on Slovenia!

Weekend in Barcelona

Ta-da!! Look, a blog post! I am jumping back on the horse, so to speak, with an attempt to be writing regularly once again. 
It was Jacob's 25th birthday on March 11th. Jacob would say differently, but in my opinion, I have never done birthdays for him terribly well. Granted, I have tried to plan successful birthdays, but something out of my control always went off. 

21st Birthday: Coincided with a university rock climbing trip, so his birthday was spent stuffed in the back of a van with college students. 

22nd Birthday: On our honeymoon, a coconut smashed the windshield of our rental car while driving. 

23rd Birthday: Carefully planned a Geocaching scavenger hunt, Jacob's GPS broke and his team couldn't geocache. 

24th Birthday: Planned to surprise Jacob with hang gliding over the ocean. The day-of, there wasn't enough wind to fly. Neither was there enough wind on the three subsequent time we attempted. Jacob never got to go hang gliding. 

25th Birthday: This year, I figured that it was "go big or go home". After considering for all of 30 minutes, I sat down at the computer and bought two tickets to Barcelona, Spain. No way was this birthday going to fail like the previous four. 

And, to take you out of your suspense (because I know you are just waiting for the dramatic story of how it all got ruined), everything went perfectly. I surprised Jacob with plane tickets on his birthday, letting him know we would be leaving for a weekend in Barcelona in just two days. The flight went without a hitch, we arrived downtown without getting lost, and our first meal was utterly fantastic. Either we broke our curse of horrible bad luck while traveling, or God mercifully spared Jacob another "meh" birthday. I'll take both explanations. 

Beyond that, I am afraid I don't have anything exciting to report. Flawless weekend getaways don't make for gripping narratives. But for those of you who are interested, here are some pictures and run down of our weekend. 

Saturday: Arrive in the afternoon, locate hotel. Lunch: Tapas and glorious Spanish red wine (I really like countries where it is socially encouraged to drink wine at lunch). Walk around. Circle the Familia Sagrada church. Walk more. Head over to the beach. Walk along the Mediterranean, get caught in a rainstorm. Take refuge in an Iberian ham shop. Eat Iberian ham. Go home, dry off. Drink a cocktail at a local bar. Go home and sleep. 

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Sunday: Eat breakfast. Wander through the Gothic Quarter. Realize that it is the day of the Barcelona marathon, and clap for exhausted-looking runners as I ask myself why anyone would inflict that kind of misery on themselves. Walk up to the Alma Barcelona hotel where I had arranged for a restaurant review. Spend 3 hours eating and drinking like kings. (Truffle, brie and Iberian ham panini with Spanish champagne and raw oysters? I'll have another, thanks.) Roll out of the hotel and back down to the beach. More walking. Back to the hotel to nap, then out into the warm night air to track down a pre-dinner drink. Tapas for dinner, seated at 10:00 PM. Now we are really living the Spanish life!

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Barcelona 10

Monday: Visit an outdoor market. Walk. Go clothes shopping for Jacob. Estimate that we walked roughly 40 km over the weekend. Hop onto the train back to the airport, and go home, exhausted. 

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Budapest: A Picture Book

Jacob and I recently took our first real trip away from Vienna, heading to Budapest for the weekend with our good friends Neil and Zoe.

Zoe had been the first to plant the idea of a trip to Budapest. It had been high on the list since our short visit two years ago (which consisted mostly of parking the car and running around for an hour), but as I have mentioned earlier, Jacob and I were having trouble peeling ourselves away from Vienna - even for a weekend. Zoe, however, had a purpose for going to Budapest that extended beyond your average tourist curiosity: she had discovered the Hairy Hog festival. 

The Hairy Hog festival is an entire weekend-long festival dedicated to the various foods made from a specific type of pig that has thick curly hair. Considering that one of the first things Zoe and I bonded over was our mutual love of food, she knew that Jacob and I would share in her and Neil's enthusiasm for a festival dedicated to pork. She was right. 

Jacob and I took the bus early on Friday morning, arriving into Budapest around 10:00 am. The plan was to take the day to explore the city, then meet up with Neil and Zoe who would be arriving by train in the evening. Upon arriving to Budapest, Jacob and I upheld our time honored tradition and promptly got lost. (I will say, however, that we are slowly beginning to learn from our repeated traveling mistakes...this time we made sure to eat a snack upon arrival and skip the "hangry" [hungry+angry] phase of our arrival to a new place). 

Budapest immediately makes an impression. It continues to fascinate me how, in some parts of the world, crossing a border can spell such an immediate shift of atmosphere. Vienna, though very much located in "Central Europe", feels much more like Western Europe than Budapest does. Though Budapest lies just a couple of hours from Vienna, the weight of it's history - as Vienna's sister city in the Austro-Hungarian empire, it's tragedies and losses in WWII, the Cold War, and beyond, lies heavy on the shoulders of the city. Everything from the glory of the Hapsburgs, to the decimation of the Jewish population and the heavy hand of Communism, is etched into Budapest's stones. 

It hits you like a wave as you walk through the city. If Vienna is the pristine older sister who has her act together and constantly steals the spotlight, Budapest is the black-sheep younger sister who has a taste for the macabre. 

Adding to the immediate disorientation is the language. Hungarian is a tongue which stems from a family of languages that I have absolutely no familiarity with. While I typically pride myself on my ability to quickly adapt to new languages, Hungarian doesn't give any footholds to someone who only knows Romantic or Germanic based languages. Reading a map often deteriorated into "we need to take a right at Nahg-ehz-blehbleh street". 

Scanning a metro map of the city, Jacob and I picked a stop that appeared to be within the city center and decided to head there. We arrived above ground, dragging our weekend suitcase behind us, and looked around. Almost immediately to my right was a small door propped open in a large wrought iron gate. I poked my head in, and found this: 

Abandoned. Devoid of people or shops, with only a mop and bucket propped up in the corner. It was enchanting. What surreal world had we stumbled into?

Jacob and I spent the next hour wandering around, ducking our heads against the ferocious winter winds that skim from the Danube, until we located our apartment and a café to while away the time. This building lay just around the corner from our apartment, once again looking quite forlorn and unused - though I wouldn't be surprised if you told me the Addam's Family lived there. 

That evening Jacob and I ventured out to meet Zoe and Neil at the train station. The problem was however, that their train was not arriving at the main station, but at a small outpost set of tracks that runs through a neighborhood on the city limits. Looking at this train station on Google Maps, it is not very apparent that the station even exists. Unable to do anything but follow the directions Google provided to us, we stepped off the tram into a dark industrial neighborhood dotted with ramshackle houses. We crossed the street towards the tracks and down an unlit street with sidewalks made of dirt and broken pavement. It wasn't looking promising. 

Spotting a house ahead with a dim light shining through the window, we figured that may be our train station. It was. Once again, I questioned what surreal world we had found ourselves in, where international trains arrive to deposit their passengers at an empty shack on the edge of a cosmopolitan city. This was a world where where hidden corners had yet to be touched by the hand of commercialism. This train station, likely built in the communist-era, was a holdout against the rising tide of McDonalds and Starbucks. In a way, it was as refreshing as it was unfamiliar. 

Two familiar faces appeared from the train. It was time for the Budapest and pork-eating extravaganza to begin. 

The next morning dawned mercifully sunny, and we set out early to our first coffee shop. Have I mentioned that Zoe and I (and Jacob and Neil for that matter), really like food? Budapest has a great deal of delicious, affordable food. Zoe and Neil had come armed with lists of coffee shops to try, ensuring that we would stay very well caffeinated during our trip. 

Commence the touristy things:
Walk across the Chain Bridge. 
Visit the Hospital In The Rock (Cave system-turned WWII hospital-turned Nuclear Bunker).
Walk around St. Michael's church and Fisherman's Bastion with breathtaking views of the city. 

Visit (more like stand and stare with gaping mouth) Parliament.

Walk along the sobering memorial to Jewish Hungarians who were murdered along the Danube.

Visit Hero's Square.

Meandered through a Ruin Bar (a very...specific...trend of bars and clubs in Budapest that are decorated by hanging random ...stuff... all over their walls. I was ever-so-slightly disappointed. I was hoping we would be drinking a beer in an old bunker or something.)

And a lot more. We spent our days going at a breakneck speed, and I still feel like we only scraped the surface of the city. There is something beautiful, heartbreaking, and fascinating at every turn.  

One of the highlights however, was the Hairy Hog festival itself. Before I get to that however, I want to explain this:

This picture shows an ongoing public demonstration (in the foreground) against the sculpture/memorial in the background. Though I cannot do the story justice, I will attempt to describe the situation. The memorial was apparently erected overnight in 2014, having been approved by a political party who had failed to consult the public before signing off on the designs. Originally the sculpture was memorializing the day that Germany (depicted by the black falcon) captured Hungary (the archangel is extending the golden orb of Hungary to the falcon). Many, many people were understandably angered by this memorial. In the face of the public scandal, the engraving on the sculpture was quickly blotted out and replaced with text saying that the memorial was to the "Victims of the German invasion of Hungary". Anger over the sculpture and it's "revisionist history" still persists, and those demonstrating have vowed to continue until the sculpture is removed or changed. 

For the hundredth time I felt like I had been swept into another world. I liked this world though, where the sober realities of history and the intrigues of the present felt less Hollywood-scrubbed clean. This sight was touchpoint of past and present, more tangible and pressing than any I had experienced before. 

We dragged ourselves away, lured by the scent of pig. This pig, to be exact:

Suffice to say, it was good. We ate a lot, and would have kept on eating everything in sight had our stomachs and wallets allowed. 

Then we ate dessert. 

Jacob, Zoe, and Neil eating a ridiculously addictive Hungarian pastry called....I have no idea. In German it is called "Baumkuchen". 

Jacob, Zoe, and Neil eating a ridiculously addictive Hungarian pastry called....I have no idea. In German it is called "Baumkuchen". 

I could say more, but...at some point words don't help and you will get annoyed at me for talking too much. So before I overstay my welcome: Budapest is worth adding to your travel itinerary. Especially if there are good friends willing to go with you and bacon at the end of your journey. 




The Things We Carried

There is a well known book of short stories about an American platoon of soldiers in the Vietnam War titled, "The Things They Carried". This blog post has nothing to do with that. 

This blog also has nothing to do with the picture below either, except that it's a sign displayed outside of a nearby restaurant, and I'm dying to know what Kitchen Dust is. 

Kitchen Dust

Rather, this blog post is a list of the things that Jacob and I have dragged across the city, onto buses, off of trams, and down the sidewalks in an attempt to acquire household items without the use of a car. These are the things we have carried across Vienna:

1. A Vacuum Cleaner

    The vacuum cleaner was actually a mini miracle. After having acquired 4 carpets, I was getting really annoyed with my medieval method of sweeping, beating, or shaking the carpets to clean them. After spending weeks talking about purchasing a vacuum, we finally decided that we would go after work to spend 90 on a cheap (but hopefully effective) vacuum cleaner. As I put on my coat to leave work that afternoon, I mentioned to my colleague that I was going to buy a vacuum cleaner. 

"How about I just give you one?", she said. As it turns out she had recently purchased a new vacuum and stuck the old one, still in working condition, in her cellar. She would bring it to work the next day. And, she said, this vacuum would be nicer than our 90 one - it wasn't worth buying a vacuum unless you were willing to spend the money for a good one.

She brought it to work the next day and I carried it home via the metro during rush hour, keeping it by my feet like a suitcase and avoiding eye contact with peeved commuters. Once home, Jacob and I immediately plugged it in and took turns vacuuming while the other watched the carpet become miraculously clean. That, I have decided, is when you know you are an adult: you get excited about a vacuum.  

2. A Christmas Tree

    I've already mentioned this one to you in the past, but it certainly ranks on the list of things we have carried. We saw plenty of people driving around with Christmas trees strapped to the top of their cars, but never once did we see another person carry a tree onto a tram. Granted, we did our Christmas tree American-style, meaning we acquired it weeks before a normal Austrian even considered purchasing a tree. Had we waited for the normal time we would have been able to walk our tree home from the nearest public square - but we also would have paid 3 times as much for it. Instead, our quest for a Christmas tree took us through a shady industrial area and under a freeway, then back through said shady area and onto a tram - Christmas tree in tow.   

3. A Freezer

    We knew we would have to get a freezer at some point. Our refrigerator is half size (or dorm sized), with a little pocket of a freezer in the top. Thankfully European food shopping habits (frequently, making small trips) mean that our refrigerator size isn't a problem, but the freezer size is. When I saw on Facebook that someone was selling a freezer for 30, I jumped on the opportunity to buy it. 

Thankfully the lady selling her freezer lived relatively close by - just one district away, close enough that we could walk there just as fast as we could take public transportation. We arrived at the apartment and were ushered up to the 4th floor. The freezer was empty, and we finagled it out of the apartment and into the elevator. "Careful not to shake it too much", she said as I half dropped it on my foot. Great. Not only did we now need to carry a freezer home, but there was a possibility we could break it. 

The freezer smelled like curry. 

We carried it between the two of us, Jacob walking backward, taking breaks every five minutes or major road crossing. We crossed one road and set down the freezer on the other side, only to hear a commotion from the street corner we had just crossed from - a fight had broken out, two men beating each other up while a girl scratched at them and two Hop On Hop Off bus tour employees tried to break it up. If we still had been on that corner we could have jumped in and rammed them with our freezer. 

Finally we were on the home stretch, taking the shortest route through the busy Christmas Market and hoping people would step out of our way (not something that can be taken for granted here). 

The freezer is now happily settled in our apartment, working like a dream, and no longer smelling like curry. It was worth the journey. 

4. A Set of 4 Chairs

    Several months ago Jacob and I had acquired much of our basic household furniture - with the exception of chairs. Chairs, we decided, are somewhat of a necessity. Having tracked down the chairs we wanted at a store that *gasp* wasn't Ikea, we set off to purchase them. The store was set up like an Ikea rip-off, just with worse style. The chairs were a gem though. We purchased the chairs and were promptly handed a receipt and the information on where to pick them up. Apparently, they were not located within the store. 

The next day we looked up the warehouse where we were to pick up the chairs. It was further away than expected. We took a train out to one of the outer districts, then trekked down the side of a busy street to the DMV-style furniture warehouse. We gave the lady at the desk our information and were pointed to a room where we could wait for our number to appear on a screen. Once our number appeared, we exited the building and walked down a ramp to the loading dock. Clearly this was not a place meant for well intentioned people arriving on foot. In the midst of the vans and trucks we walked up to our gate, and were met with four awkwardly large and heavy boxes. Awesome. 

It took us over an hour and four types of transportation to get home (walking, bus, tram, and metro), at the end of which my forearm muscles were ready to burst. 

Thankfully, we like our chairs. 

5. A Carpet

    Vienna has a network called Wilhaben that is very similar to our American Craigslist. Wilhaben truly is a beautiful thing, and there are a lot of gems to be found on the site - particularly because Vienna tends to be a very transient city. The downside however, is that any purchase we consider making begs the very serious question of "how will we get it home?". Sometimes however, something so beautiful and well priced appears that we cannot turn it down: like a large handmade Persian rug that *gasp*, doesn't come from Ikea. Fortunately the lady lived only a few streets from us, making the ordeal of carrying a large rolled up carpet through the streets look a little less like we were transporting a dead body. 

6. More Carpets, Many Ikea Items and a Bucket of Paint

    When it comes down to it however, our apartment would barely be furnished were it not for Ikea. We love that place. How do people survive without it? There are two Ikeas within range of Vienna, though both require a series of transportation modes in order to get there. We have purchased two carpets from Ikea, as well as a series of other large, heavy, and awkward to transport objects such as large picture frames, a filing cabinet, potted plants, and a wall shelving unit. We also bought a bucket of paint from the home repair store next door. 

Thankfully, when it comes to bringing home Ikea items in any way possible, we are just one of many in the club. It makes it somewhat less awkward to walk onto a bus with a filing cabinet in tow when the next person is dragging on a bedside table, lampshade, and a bag of Swedish meatballs.  

Lost in Bratislava

This past weekend Jacob and I realized that we hadn't left Vienna or the immediate surrounding area in 5 months. We have had the itch for a weekend trip for several months now, though every time we tossed the idea around, the actual followthrough fell like a deflating balloon. 

We really have very little excuse though - leaving Vienna is not difficult. One subway stop away from our home is a train station that can take you nearly anywhere you want to go in Europe; or at the least, an airport that will get you the rest of the way. Determined to escape the city for a day, we decided to spend Saturday in Bratislava - one of the most obvious day trips from Vienna. The city lies right inside the border of Slovakia, and is conveniently accessible by an inexpensive hour train ride. 

Jacob had done his research of course. He had a list of sights to see, micro breweries that offered craft beer, and a general idea of how to get from the train station into the city center. We crossed the border into Slovakia around 10:00 am, and immediately felt the difference of being in a new country. 

So many countries have rather homogenous borders - particularly in the European Union where no one will be coming by to check a passport. As a result, the borders tend to blend into each other, with citizens of one nation casually driving into the other for grocery shopping or dinner out. Though this is true of Austria and Slovakia as well, the difference between the two countries was immediately pronounced, at least along the train tracks (which perhaps should not be a surprise). Vienna has long been known as the city that connects Eastern and Western Europe, and visually at the least, the change is immediately apparent. 

The historical city center is filled with lovely buildings, surrounded by old and graying suburbs. The moment you cross the Danube however, you are in a land of identical, albeit colorful, concrete apartment blocks, stretching as far as the eye can see.

We missed the city center during our bus ride from the train station. We passed it without so much as noticing a downtown area, crossed the bridge over the Danube, and found ourselves craning our necks ahead, trying to see around the cinderblock sea ahead of us.

Bratislava1

Several minutes later, and no end to the apartment blocks in sight, we reconsulted our map and realized we had needed to disembark the bus before we crossed the river. We caught the next bus in the opposite direction and got off at the stop that looked like the most logical route. 

In our experience of traveling together, Jacob and I have realized some valuable things about how we operate as a team. Simply stated, without Jacob, I would have no idea where I was going. Without me however, Jacob would know where he was going, but never get there. He finds the maps, and I interpret them. The map we had for Bratislava, thoughtfully provided by the local tourism office, was just about the worst map I have ever used. Every time we followed the map we wound up somewhere that we had not intended to go, then had to compensate with Google Maps on our phones. 

Fortunately Bratislava's city center is charming, small, and....closed? Though it was a Saturday, 75% of the shops, restaurants, and tourist attractions were shuttered for the day. The city was surreally quiet. As far as we could tell it was not a holiday (the grocery stores were open), however very few people were on the streets with us - for the most part, we were alone. Coming from a city that is continually bustling with tourists, walking into Bratislava's main square, only to find it completely empty, was odd. 

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Bratislava3

We spent our day touring the churches and back streets, and climbing the hill to the old castle overlooking the city and Danube. In the afternoon we set out to find the breweries that Jacob had researched. We found the first one with some difficulty - but in the end, the beer was delicious. And cheap. Bratislava is known for being inexpensive (it is on the Euro), though I wasn't expecting to be able to pay for two beers with a small stack of change - the price of one beer here in Austria. (Which, is still cheap compared to San Diego. Forget paying $8.00 for a small beer in America- it's more like $4.00 for a pint in Vienna, $2.00 for a pint in Slovakia.)

Bratislava4

Leaving the brewery, we found our bearings to head over to the next spot. From the map, it looked like the second brewery was located on a small side street on the far side of the hill with the castle on it. At that point we had been walking quite a bit, so Jacob suggested we take the next tram over the small pedestrian bridge and see where it took us. I agreed, and we hopped on to the next tram. It crossed the bridge - so far, so good. Then the tram bore to the left and took us through a long tunnel through the hill. Once we exited the tunnel, we figured, we would get off the tram and be in a good spot for a short walk to the brewery. 

Jacob and I have a history of taking the most difficult route to destinations however, so I don't know why we had so much optimism. The tram exited the tunnel, bore left, and deposited us along the river at the foot of the hill: far from where we wanted to go. Feeling that our tourism map had failed us once again, we switched over to Google maps on our phones and saw that all of the roads surrounding us ran parallel with each other around the hill, when we wanted to go up the hill. We were stuck. Spotting a set of broken stairs across the road, Jacob and I set off to see if we could access another road at the top of the stairs. Rather than a road, we came across another flight of stairs: this time a 500-some step concrete staircase running at a 40 degree angle up the mountain. This, apparently, was our most direct route.

Bratislava5

We climbed the steps, shedding our scarves and gloves by the time we got to the top. Now we were level with the castle, and on the home stretch. We found the street the brewery was located on, and followed it around behind the castle. As the GPS indicated that we were nearing our destination, I noticed that things were looking familiar. Wasn't that the copper roof Jacob had pointed out just as we were getting on the tram? 

Wait...was that the pedestrian bridge?! 

Yes, my friends, it was. At the point we had stepped onto the tram, we had been a stone's throw away from the brewery. Remember how the tram bore left under the mountain? Well had it born right, we would have been right in front of the brewery. It was less than a two minute walk from where we had started. 

To the left you see the tunnel we went through....and to the right is the brewery (where you see the cars parked). 

To the left you see the tunnel we went through....and to the right is the brewery (where you see the cars parked). 

On top of that, the brewery was closed. 

I'll admit that we were somewhat frustrated: our entire day in Bratislava had been marked by disorientation. The sheer ridiculousness of our route however - that is priceless. Ready to return home, we hopped onto the train back to Vienna feeling grateful to be returning to a place where we don't get lost.

That evening we had been invited to celebrate a friend's birthday at a local Viennese brewery. I looked up the directions, and we dragged our tired feet out into the rainy night to celebrate our friend. It turns out I had misread the directions. We were lost. 45 minutes of walking later, we crawled into the brewery, looking a bit like drowned rats. So much for not getting lost in Vienna. 

Fireworks, Hair Dryers, and Beer Displays

Hello world! It's been awhile. Jacob and I are currently resurrecting from the post-holiday stupor, and re-entering the world  of normal schedules and reasonable bed-times. I might add however, that we are not the only ones. A large portion of Austria's working population have been on holiday from December 20th  until next Monday - January 12th. Morning commutes on the underground are pleasantly un-sardine-like, and the streets are given a reprieve from their normal bustle. 

Rather than run through a comprehensive recap of the last couple of weeks, I'll spare you and go for the highlights:

1. New Years Eve

Around mid-December the local grocery stores published news that brought delight to Jacob's heart: "Fireworks for Sale".


Coming from San Diego, where setting off fireworks could legitimately cause a wildfire that would burns thousands of acres of land and untold houses, fireworks are understandably illegal. As a child spending summers in the South of France however, fireworks were a part of my childhood.

My brothers and I would frequent Bazaarland, where we could buy packs of bottle rockets, roman candles, smoke bombs, etc. with our allowance money. Summer evenings were spent in the backyard causing a ruckus of small explosions as I ran around frantically stamping out little bush fires. It was fun. 

You can imagine how excited we were to pick up an assortment pack filled with everything from spinning spark bombs to roman candles and firecrackers. We had been invited to a friend's New Years Eve party who have an apartment which boasts a rooftop terrace with a 360 degree view of the city. The view is breathtaking. The vantage point also gave us a relatively safe location to set off fireworks - and we were not the only ones to bring a supply to the party. While we had purchased the more interactive "family pack", other friends came equipped with the heavy duty rockets. 

I hadn't realized that Vienna doesn't have a city-sponsored fireworks show - there are simply enough people setting off their own fireworks that it isn't necessary. The fireworks began early in the evening. Walking down the street you would see flashes of lights and "BANG!" and instinctively duck your head. As the night wore on the explosions became more and more frequent, while you reminded yourself that it was only fireworks - nothing more deadly. It's the closest to a war-zone I have ever come. 

Once it neared midnight we gathered on the roof to begin setting off the fireworks. Hundreds of rockets were already being set off all around by others - we were surrounded by a constant barrage of fireworks. As we began to become more confident with our firework launching skills, some people had the bright idea to place two or three fireworks in the holder at the same time. It worked once, but the second time - one of the fireworks shot off while the other two exploded on us. Thankfully no one was injured or singed. 

All throughout the evening the running commentary was the same: "This is the most magical New Years Eve I have ever had." And it truly was. As midnight arrived we toasted each other with champagne on the rooftop as fireworks continued to explode around us to celebrate the New Year. 

2. The African Hair Dryer

This weekend the U.N. issued a storm warning and weather forecasts cautioned everyone to stay inside if possible: it was going to get windy. I mean really, really windy.

Now bear in mind, Vienna is already a fairly windy city. During the winter ice-cold drafts howl through the city streets, sometimes with so much force that it catches you in the face and pushes your whole body back. The walk from the underground to my office building is particularly bad - one stretch of the walk is like entering a wind tunnel as soon as you turn the corner. 

This wind however, is a warm wind that blows up from Africa and is known as the "Hair Dryer" - and it was going to reach up to 55 knots/100 km/65 miles. The danger of this wind? Other than the threat of getting knocked over or smacked with debris, the wind can also cause power outages, falling trees, and avalanches. As you may have heard, there have already been several avalanches in Austria lately - even some which claimed a few lives. 

Yesterday the Hair Dryer was in full force - the windows were rattling and the wind whistled through the courtyards. We have a weed growing on our terrace that serves as our personal wind sock. That weed was going crazy. On the bright side however? The air was a balmy 63 degrees Fahrenheit, which we gloried in as we walked to a friend's house for dinner. 

3. Beer Displays

I can already sense your curiosity - what is so exciting about a beer display? Well, nothing, until Jacob gets involved. 

I don't actually have a picture of a beer display, but I did photograph this pumpernickel bread in the store the other day because I had no idea the Austrians felt that way about sandwich bread. 

I don't actually have a picture of a beer display, but I did photograph this pumpernickel bread in the store the other day because I had no idea the Austrians felt that way about sandwich bread. 

Jacob and I went to the grocery store to pick up a few items before heading over to visit a friend. I left Jacob in the beer aisle to choose some drinks and meandered over to the produce aisle. A few minutes later, radishes and cabbage in hand, I walked back to the beer section to see four supermarket workers sweeping up broken glass in a vast pool of beer. Blocked from walking through that section, I skirted around the other side and found Jacob staring intently at baking supplies, his shoes covered in splash marks and glass. "Was that you?", I asked. He looked at me sheepishly. 

Apparently Jacob had been reaching to the back of the display to pick up a beer that was almost out of stock, when his arm bumped another beer and the entire shelf began to fall like dominos, bottles and cans falling on the floor and exploding like our New Years fireworks.  Frantically Jacob used his body to catch and shield the beers from falling - of course, that was only so successful. We payed for our groceries and the two beers Jacob had managed to hold on to, and we left the store as Jacob swore he would never go back there again. 

Christmas In Vienna

As much as we crossed our fingers and hoped for a White Christmas, we did not get one. We did, however, get a white Boxing Day. 

This about sums up our reaction:

Christmas for us was a whirlwind. It was our first Christmas in Vienna, and our first holiday season away from families and childhood traditions. Just as every cloud has a silver lining, there were things to look forward to even though we would be away from family. This would be our first Christmas with a real tree, with our own decorations, with the ability to pick, choose, and blend our two family's traditions into some of our own. It was also the first Christmas spent together where we weren't wondering how we would fit the gifts we bought each other into suitcases or boxes to move across the world. Our apartment is furnished to the extent that we have everything we need to survive, but still have many things we want, it is easy to get excited over little things like tongs and picture frames. 

[Or vacuum cleaners. I didn't receive a vacuum for Christmas this year, (I did get an immersion blender though! Woohoo! Mine broke and blew a fuse the moment I plugged it in at our apartment.) so I have decided I will simply purchase one myself. In the meantime I have gotten really good at rug-beating, and have developed greater respect for the bicep strength of Victorian era maids.]

 We purchased our Christmas tree some weeks ago in early-mid December. By many people's standards, we waited a little long to get our tree. As we acquainted ourselves with Viennese traditions, we learned a shocking truth: Austrians don't typically decorate their Christmas tree until Christmas Eve.  

Here's a general break down of Austrian Christmas tradition: The Advent Sundays are highly observed, and Advent wreaths seen everywhere. In early December St. Nicholas comes around to deliver sweets and presents to the good children, while his counterpart, the demonic Krampus, goes around beating the bad children with sticks and dragging them to his lair. Many areas of Austria have re-enactments of St. Nicholas and Krampus, complete with drunk people beating each other with sticks. Just a little Christmas spirit!

In the meantime the winter markets are in full swing, with Gluhwein (mulled wine), Krapfen (filled donuts), and Maroni (roasted chestnuts) consumed by the kilo. On Christmas Eve, or perhaps a couple days before, a family will purchase their Christmas tree. It remains erected in the living room, undecorated, until the ceremonial lighting hour on Christmas Eve. 

When the time comes, the children are ushered out of the house, and the "Christkind" or Christ-child, (represented by a cherubic little blonde girl with angel wings), comes to the house to decorate the tree and deliver presents. When the children return, voila! The house is decorated, the tree is lit, and the presents sit under the tree. Madness ensues. Children unwrap their presents, the parents look on in contentment, and perhaps head off to a Midnight Mass later in the night. 

Christmas day is devoted to eating.

Sounds like a lovely Christmas, doesn't it? There were a few things, however, that our American-selves could not give up. For me, the best part of Christmas is the anticipation: baking cookies, decorating the tree, slowly watching the pile of presents grow as you approach Christmas morning, etc. So Jacob and I proved our ex-pat-ness and set out to buy a tree way before the tree markets had been set up. 

We had heard they were sold at a hardware store called OBI, nearly identical in layout and branding to Home Depot. It was just a short tram way and walk away, Jacob said. So one cold night we hopped on the tram, got off at our stop, and began walking - down the huge hill, under the freeway, through a poorly lit industrial area with no sidewalks - this was getting sketchy. Then! There it was! By this point we were committed. There was no way we would go home without a Christmas Tree. 

Jacob's cheekbones are looking quite chiseled. 

Jacob's cheekbones are looking quite chiseled. 

Successful in attaining a nice tree, we hauled it back under the freeway, up the hill, and onto a tram as we deflected stares from locals. If only they understood the joy of having a Christmas tree weeks in advance. 

Weeks later we began to see the Christmas tree markets appear in the public squares. Sure, that was more convenient, but what amazed us was the price. Some of the tallest trees, (and granted they were tall), cost over 300 Euro! In the grand scheme of things that may not be expensive for a gorgeous 10-foot tree, but it is pricey when you purchase the tree on Christmas Eve only to pile it up here on Boxing Day: 

All of that, I know, doesn't actually tell you what we did on Christmas, and why it was a whirlwind. If there was one tradition we would be keeping, it was Jacob's morning Christmas rolls (like Monkey Bread - coated in butter, sugar, and cinnamon before being baked). Christmas Eve we went to a friend's house to enjoy a traditional Viennese Christmas with them and their children. It was a truly lovely time. Their tree had real candles on it, and ever sparklers lit and fizzing for the grand unveiling of the tree. Fire Extinguisher was close at hand. Afterwards we opened presents and enjoyed a spectacular dinner and good conversation. The next morning Jacob and I baked our Christmas rolls, opened presents, and had a quiet morning together before friends came over for a late lunch. 

Then we made gingerbread houses...which got a little crazy. 

After our lunch and Gingerbread House competition (Kathryn won with her Breaking Bad Gingerbread house-turned meth lab), we adjourned to another friend's house for games. Boxing Day we were on the road again, this time to another friend's house for a Christmas leftover feast. 

As I said - it was a whirlwind, and yet we wouldn't have had it any other way. 

The Da Vienna Code

I just recently finished reading The Da Vinci Code, the semi-controversial conspiracy theory thriller that swept America some nine years ago. It was a fluffy romp of wildly conspiratorial concepts - the "National Treasure" of the Catholic Church. 

What appeals the most however, is the scavenger hunt concept of the story. Who doesn't like a scavenger hunt? I LOVE scavenger hunts. For the past few years I have made a tradition of stealing all of my mother's presents on Christmas Eve and making her go on a scavenger hunt to reclaim them.

(The scavenger hunt is really easy to set up - Choose your hiding place in the house and select one object from that place as the first clue (ie: roll of toilet paper from the bathroom) and hide the clue in another place (ie: the pantry). Then take something from the pantry and hide it somewhere else, taking and placing new clues as you go. When the person does the scavenger hunt they start with an object they have to replace; when they find where it belongs they find the clue to the next location, etc.)   

On Saturday the sun was shining in Vienna so Jacob and I ventured outside for a walk through the first district. As much as we love exploring and walking around the city, it is funny how we can go for weeks without visiting some of our favorite spots in the city center - the gardens, palaces, and grand old shopping streets that attract all of the tourists. This time however, we were headed to our favorite park, the Burggarten. Walking through the park, we came across a large ornate door standing alone on a terrace. A sign on the door displayed a website and advertised an app to download to play the "interactive art installation scavenger hunt". 

For Jacob and I, those are magic words. We love public art installations to begin with, even more so when they are interactive. Combine that with a scavenger hunt? We are instantly sold. Jacob immediately downloaded the app (4Aces) and we read the instructions to begin the hunt. 

The first set of clues brought us to another door outside the Albertina Museum. Once at the door we were given a riddle to solve that revealed the key code which unlocked the door.

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The keypad flashed a green light and we heard the click of the door unlocking. Inside the door we found a painting and the next clue. 

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The clue led us downstairs to the fountain at the base of the museum, depicting Franz Josef I with six statues flanking the walls on either side of him. The answer to the next question lay in the fountain, which then brought us to another courtyard containing a door and a riddle. 

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We weren't the only ones curious about the door, and had to wait patiently as people looked at it and attempted opening the door (in vain). You should have seen the look on people's faces as we punched in a key code and the door clicked open for us.

The clue from the door led us to another fountain on the backside of the Spanish Riding School, which contained yet another clue for our hunt. 

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It struck me how many times I had walked past these beautiful fountains and sculptures without stopping to take a long look at them. That, I believe, is the beauty of city scavenger hunts - it combines all the best of history lessons and architectural appreciation into a game that brings a refreshing perspective and context to our surroundings. I would love to come up with historical city-tour scavenger hunts that tourists (and locals!) can do when they visit a new place. Now that would be a city tour I could get behind. 

The clue from the fountain led us to the Hofburg dome, then to the Swiss gate to decipher a name from the paintings at the top of the gate. 

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Next was a statue in the Hofburg courtyard...

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Before heading away from Hofburg and wrapping up the scavenger hunt back at the Burggarten. 

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It is funny how every time Jacob and I walk through this city, we fall in love with it all over again. The city now looks very much like it did two years ago when we first saw it, and we still have to pinch ourselves from time to time that we get to call it home.