Thursday, 13 September 2007

We visited Vienna the way a good tourist should, with a Straus concert here and a palace tour there, here a schnitzel, there a schnitzel, everywhere a schnitzel, schnitzel. We’re on a train, headed for Prague, the last destination before Clay’s parents head back home. We were in Vienna two and a half busy days, it’s nice to sit a while on a train and just catch up and relax. We’re constantly trying to choose whether we want to see all the things on our list (run, run, run), or take some time to just live a while in a new city (but we might miss something!) I’m generally in the “let’s not miss anything” camp. These busy days are just my style, and the busier we are the more I can justify the ice cream and chocolate crepes.

Maurice has coined the perfect description, “Meredith plans the work, and Clay works the plan”. He’s right, I like to come up with a plan for the day, figuring out what things to do by their location in the city and their activity level. Clay loves to figure out how to get us there. The kids and Peggy and Maurice are generally happy to tag along, though there are definitely opinions. In Vienna Benji wanted dinosaurs, Peggy wanted Vermeer, Maurice wanted Strauss, Nate wanted time to toss the football, Alayna wanted a frappucino from the Starbucks across from our hotel (do NOT groan), Clay wanted most of these things plus a nap, and I wanted to do it all.

After a cab ride to the hotel, where the boys and Peggy and Maurice were entertained by a chatty cab driver who told them of his speeding and DWI exploits in America (who was happy to mention the dinosaur museum, Benji was all ears), we started day one with lunch. I had marinated green beans, pumpkin and mozzarella, delicious! After lunch the kids and Clay played a little football in the park before we set out. We always attract attention with our American football, it’s funny to watch people who have never thrown one before try and get a spiral. They actually make me look pretty good! After some play, we took a tram ride through the city to get our bearings, hopping off at the Natural History Museum where they had dinosaur bones and all sorts of “stuffed” animals (not the cute, cuddly kind, the taxidermy kind).

It was fun to see how many of the dinosaur bones came from Texas and Utah. The museum was housed in a really beautiful building so we consoled ourselves that even though this was not a truly unique Viennese experience, at least it was in a truly unique building. There were several groups of students coming through with tours, and it was funny to see that kids are the same all over the world. They sneak off and laugh at naked statues and braid each other’s hair, paying more attention to each other than the tour guide.

Speaking of naked statues, there was a 25,000 year old statue at this museum, her head covered in what looked like a knitted cap, an enormous bosom, chubby thighs and knock-kneed. It was tiny, could fit in the palm of your hand, and it was really captivating to think about who had carried this around so long ago. Who carved it, and why?

Next we found the Haus der Musik, a music museum where we could do everything from composing our own song with a pair of dice (some complicated math was involved but we just thought it was fun to roll the dice and hear the finished product), to conducting a digital orchestra. They were pretty critical. If you didn’t conduct well enough, the musicians on the screen in front of you put their instruments down and began to make fun of you. They were an ornery crew, and Peggy was the only one to master them and make it all the way through a piece. She was quite pleased! We also found a room where you somehow played “music” by sitting in a magic chair and beating at the air around you. Nate thoroughly enjoyed all the noise he was able to make, coupled with the amount of activity it took to make it. It was very funny to watch people, who would beat a little to the left, then to the right, all in thin air, while they watched a screen and tried to get the sounds they wanted to broadcast through the speakers. Vienna truly is a city devoted to music, especially classical music, and this was a fun way to explore a little more on the subject. We even learned a little bit about how the ear works, and how sound travels in waves. Check science off the list for the day!

We got Wiener schnitzel for dinner and turned into our hotel where we got a two bedroom apartment, and an extra bed in the living room for Alayna, she’s really lucked out with the sleeping arrangements! Her backpack has turned into what was once her locker and her desk, a space crammed full of mementoes, like a peacock feather, some crumbling shells, a dress for her magnetic monkey made of taped Kleenex, and some balloons. And that’s not even the half of it! When she arrives in a new place she makes little arrangements of her things so it’s like a little bird’s nest, full of things collected to make it nice and cozy.

Peggy and Maurice were not so fortunate with their room assignment. Their first room was right off the breakfast room, open the door and boom, there you were with twenty or so guests drinking their coffee. They didn’t seem to mind too much, they weren’t bothered by morning noise, and were only slightly bothered by the fact that their shower door didn’t really operate very well. They were transferred on their third night to a different room (we aren’t sure why, the hotel had told us about this change when we booked the hotel, but we forgot all about it). Their new room had no shower door, or curtain, at all. The shower spigot pointed straight out of the bathtub to the bathroom floor, where there was no drain. I’m not sure how that all worked out, but they look pretty clean to me and no offending odor, so they must have made it work!

Day two we got an early start and headed four miles out of town on a train to Schonbrunn Palace, the summer home for the Hapsburgs. Lots of these royal people had summer palaces, hugely gigantic places. When Maria Theresa came with her 16 children, she brought over 1,500 people in her entourage! Can you imagine? She must have had servants for her servant’s servants. Of course when you look at the scale of the place, and I remember how long it takes me to take care of my house and yard, I can begin to see why this might have been necessary. Another princess the Austrians are very fond of, Elizabeth, spent three hours on her hair every day. I guess that would take quite a few servants since one would tire and they would need another to step in and take up where the other left off.

After touring the palace with what I called a “palace light” tour (we had little audio handsets that gave a four or five sentence description of each room, so you could move at your own pace and got only the highlights, no architect names or china patterns), we headed to the Streusal bakery. We watched a chef prepare the dough, rolling it so thin he could hold up a book and read through the dough! Next, Clay and Maurice spent a lot of time studying a genealogy on the wall, trying to figure out all those Hapsburgs and who ruled when and married whom. Then we headed to the grounds (Peggy and Maurice headed back to the hotel for a while, we met up later). We wandered among the flawless flowerbeds and the grass you were not allowed to stand on, until we found a playground. We seem to gravitate to these wherever we are, it’s a great chance for the kids to run around and me and Clay to rest and reflect a while.

This particular one had some pretty cool stuff. There were a bunch of posts with rubber flaps on them that you had to push aside to move through. We would start on different sides and try and find each other, or make our way across without being found. There was also a huge metal bird. You could sit in the belly, and then the kids pulled on the ropes and made the giant metal wings flapped and you rode up and down inside. Clay discovered a very comfortable park bench, removed his shoes and set them beside me in a desperate plea for a foot rub, then took a little nappy-poo. I sat and stared at the rapidly moving clouds and thought about all sorts of things. It is something I don’t do enough of. Just sit still and think.

Rain clouds began to move in so I woke up Clay, we made the ever-necessary potty break, and then found the mazes. In Vienna, heavy gray clouds will gather and drop rain for maybe five or ten minutes, then scud away leaving the sky just as bright and blue as before. This happened several times during our time at Schonbrunn. Benji led us successfully through the maze to the center, then we went to the zoo. That’s right, another zoo. This time we justified it with the fact that they had Austrian animals, so it was still an “Austrian” experience. We also saw a red panda wandering around its cage, an active koala that looked just like a stuffed animal with its snub nose and big, round, furry ears, and watched the seals being fed. Okay, maybe not all the animals were Austrian.

Alayna found the monkey house, and we went into a very hot place with bats hanging on the ceiling. At one point you could walk through these vinyl strips into almost complete darkness where bats fluttered around, brushing your face with their bony little wings. I would not, did not, will never go in there. The kids and Clay told me all about it in horrifying detail. Then we found an Extreme Gigant, almost the most exciting thing at the zoo. A giant ice cream cone, vanilla ice cream swirling high above the cone, chocolate lining the inside of the cone with a big blob of chocolate at the bottom.

We made our way back to the hotel and ate a quick dinner (I am not willing to admit where, suffice it to say we got paper crowns and French fries) before going to a Strauss Concert at the Kursalon, the same place where Strauss actually played his new compositions for locals. Rick Steve’s warned us it would be very touristy, lots of bus tour groups, spoken in English, all the favorites but maybe not the best musicians. All I can say is, we thoroughly enjoyed it. Maybe it was a “concert light”, maybe not. The head violin smiled like he was doing the thing he loved most in the world, all the musicians seemed to enjoy each other, smiling and winking at each other while they played, and the audience was all smiles as well. All but Benji, who fell asleep after the first song and didn’t wake until the musicians exited the stage. Oh well, two out of three kids isn’t bad.

Nate declared he did not like the ballet, but he liked the opera. “And, oh yeah, the music, too.”  They did have some ballet dancers for some of the songs, and three or four arias sprinkled in the almost-two-hour concert. Alayna squirmed uncomfortably when the two opera singers, a man and woman, sang right into each other’s faces, not three inches apart, with all the drama and longing of a soap opera. We couldn’t understand what they were saying, but they sure did mean it! Maurice got to hear his Strauss, and I am a new fan. I think Peggy cried when they played The Beautiful Blue Danube Waltz but I’m not sure.

Our last day we got a late start. While the boys and Clay stayed behind, Alayna and I did a little grocery shopping for things we are out of, like deodorant and glue sticks (Maurice warned us not to get these two mixed up!). Then we snuck over to that Starbucks and indulged, before seeking out a bookstore with English books, then came home with a bag much too heavy for Clay’s liking. Alayna got The Diary of Anne Frank, I thought it would be good for her to read before we see Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam in a month or so. Next we collected everybody and went to a butterfly garden in the middle of a park, where “schnetterling” (butterflies, not nearly as pretty in German, is it?), jabbed their proboscis into fermented bananas and butterfly bars. They flew all over, landing on our backs and fingers, licking honey off the plastic flowers and sucking the real flowers dry.

Benji commented that if he were a butterfly, he’d want to be born in the fall. We had just read a Ranger Rick that Peggy brought all about the Monarch butterfly. Did you know that if a Monarch is born in the spring, it dies within a month or so, but if it is born in the fall, it lives to migrate to Mexico, and then migrate back north to lie eggs the next spring? Another fact for your day: we learned at the Natural History Museum that elephants grow about seven molars on each side of their mouth, and use only the front two to chew. When those get worn down, they fall out and the next set move into place, and another pair pop out at the back. When the elephant gets into its sixties (I think I remember this right) it grows its last set of molars. When these fall out, the elephant can’t eat anymore and it starves to death.

After the butterfly garden we went to an art museum, where we let the kids pick out three postcards each before we went to the exhibits. They played a game where they tried to find the pictures they had chosen as postcards, and it kept them interested. Benji chose a Reubens with a tiger and a crocodile on it (“The Four Continents”), a snow scene by Valkenborch (“Winterlandscape”), and a painting by Brueghel called “The Peasant and the Nest Robber” that I still don’t understand. Nate chose three painting by Brueghel: “The Tower of Babel”, “Peasant Wedding”, and “Hunters in the Snow”. Alayna chose four paintings of princesses (one was actually a prince, but he looked like a princess in a big, lacy dress) and named them Claire, Emma, Barrett, and Kendall (my sister’s girls and two of my cousin’s girls, we’ll have to show them to you when we get back). It was fun to see which ones they chose, I hope they’ll remember a little bit about them and the painters in the future. Peggy got to see her Vermeer and her Brueghel  that she wanted to see, and was all smiles.

After the museum we split with Peggy and Maurice and decided to see if we could rent a boat and go out on the old section of the Danube. Unfortunately, after a long subway ride and an unfortunate potty with no toilet seat or paper (Alayna and I decided we could hold it), we discovered that the boats were no longer for rent since it’s not the summer season. We headed back into town to the Prater Park to find the Ferris wheel I had read about. I had really played up this park, as a place with lots of big green open spaces, playgrounds and park benches and lots of room to run. It wasn’t quite that. It did have a very pretty way lined with chestnut trees, and we learned that chestnuts grow in a spiky green shell. They are very hard to crack, Clay had to really smash it against the pavement to get to the nut. When I tried I almost hit a biker so I stopped.

We found another bathroom, one where you had to pay, and by this time Alayna and I really had to go. A friendly old woman took our money, there were two stalls, and there were also two companions that the bathroom lady was talking to in the women’s bathroom. One was an old woman drinking beer and smoking a cigarette. The other was a man, leaning against the women’s sink, also drinking a beer and smoking. When you got to go, you got to go, so Alayna and I braved the three unusual bathroom companions and did our business. We were locked into our stalls by the bathroom attendant, so I felt pretty safe, though maybe a little “on display”.

When we got to the historic Ferris wheel I had read all about, Clay described the quaint little cabins that spun on the old metal wheel as “double-wides”. I had to agree, they weren’t that spiffy from afar, but after we bought our tickets we entered an area that had dioramas of Vienna and the history of the park and the Ferris wheel. All of a sudden, the Ferris wheel had a history, and it was interesting. Some people rent out cars to have a romantic dinner, or even get married in them. It was the sole surviving part of the park after it was bombed in WWII, and we saw scenes from the park from the Victorian times when the most exciting ride was the Ferris wheel itself. The park now has all sorts of barf-inducing rides that spin and flip and fling. We opted out of these, but did enjoy the bumper cars. There were only the four of us out on that shiny floor with our glittery cars. There was no one in our way and we had clear shots to ram the heck out of each other. Benji really enjoyed driving, but I think he would have split his head open if he didn’t have his ever-vigilant mother holding him during especially traumatic crashes. He just laughed his head off (see the video).

Clay and I picked up some dinner that night and we all ate a picnic on the hotel floor. Then Peggy and Maurice watched the kids and got them to bed while Clay and I took a stroll and had a drink. We saw a little of the night side of Vienna. Three blind singers sang a capella on the street, a teenage girl playing clarinet and boy playing accordion played a little further down (we think we saw their mothers waiting at a respectful distance. Kind of a cool way to earn some extra spending money, and they were really talented! I guess Vienna is a pretty good place to be for musically gifted kids.). As we headed home we saw a man in a white suit, with white tennis shoes, a pink carnation at his throat and a sparkling crystal hanging from his throat, whistling while he ate ice cream on a park bench. He couldn’t have been happier, or more intriguing. Who was this happy white-clad man? So many faces in the street!

There are some things I’ve forgotten to tell as I’ve journaled our way across Europe and Russia. Like the large pair of men’s underwear we found hanging on the doorknob of our hotel in St. Petersburg. Or the woman who stepped in front of Maurice when he was waiting in line to buy tickets to a cathedral. There was no one behind Maurice, but she still stepped right in front of him. He asked her, “Do you speak English?” She replied “yes”. Maurice asked, “Don’t you think that was rude, butting in front of me like that?” She replied, “I’m a tour guide,” turned back around, and proceeded to buy her seventeen tickets. Humph!

For the most part, people have been very friendly, and we meet new people every day. Clay must look like a tour guide because lost tourists often stop and ask him for directions. I’ve found that I almost like being lost, as long as nobody is tired or hungry or needs a bathroom. I never know what adventure lies ahead as we find our way home. And each day, we’re lost again, as we figure out what we’ll do and how we’ll get there. Only an hour and we’ll be lost again, this time in Prague. I think we can check everyone’s “wants” off for Vienna, right down to the nap for Clay in the park. Ahh.