Sunday, November 20, 2011

Jelinek, Streeruwitz, Beckermann-oh, my!

On the eve of Thanksgiving, there is always lots of talk of what we're thankful for and which blessings we count this year. Needless to say, one of the things I am most thankful for is this opportunity to spend 9 months living in Vienna! And it occurred to me that, aside from my museum visits, I haven't posted all that much on my undertakings in the cultural arena during the past two months that continue to make this experience invaluable. One of the most awesome things about being a grad student whose focus is on contemporary Austrian Studies is that I can actually justify going to the theater, a reading, or a film as part of my "Bildung." :)
To start off: on Sunday I was at the Schauspielhaus for an event titled "Jelinek. Dialoge. Sätze und Gegensätze aus der Literatur und Wissenschaft." It was a fascinating program that brought together young authors, actors literary scholars to pay homage to the work of 2004 Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek in innovative and creative ways. The focus of the program was to discuss what meaning Jelinek's work had for Austrian authors today. I was fascinated to see the emotions Jelinek evoked for so many authors: for some, their admiration for her work and her persona were unquestionable, for others, you could observe acute frustration in trying to distance themselves from her (how does one find his/her own voice in a time and space in which HER voice permeates, destroys, and dominates--as one author emphatically put it. In a very open and honest way, he expressed his deliberate choice not to read her plays for fear that he would inevitably begin to imitate her style in a subtle way...). I don't want to bore non-Germanist readers too much--suffice to say it was a thought-provoking and head-spinning "Auseinandersetzung" with her works (that, might I add, lasted 5 hours!!!).
I had been to the Schauspielhaus once before, and that was to see a stage adaptation of Marlene Streeruwitz' novel Entfernung. It was my first outing to the theater in Vienna and I was not disappointed. Full of satire, self-irony, and black humor, it was what I imagined and expected theater here to be like. It could very well be classified as avant-garde, 'post-dramatic' theater lacking defined characters and a plot-driven narrative. As the novel, the performance was decidedly rooted in Austrian culture--not in the least shaped by the Viennese dialects of the performers and the abundance of cultural references. All in all, a very enjoyable experience that I got to share with Nico, a former German exchange student who spent a year in Georgetown and is now here in Vienna!
Vienna was also recently the host to the "Internationale Buchmesse Wien" (which, I suppose I should mention, is nothing really like Frankfurter Viennese newspaper said the Buchmesse was hard pressed to compete with the audience that the Viennale attracts...) Anyway, though I didn't make it to the exhibit hall, I did manage to attend a reading by the Egyptian author Mansura Eseddin. You might ask yourself, why would I pick that? Well, since my research focuses on travel literature by Austrian women who write about Egypt, I thought it would be interesting to see what an Egyptian woman author writes about and how it is received in Austria. The event was held at the "Republikanischer Club" and was moderated by Günter Kaindlstorfer and Doron Rabinovici. Because Ms. Eseddin did not speak German, she read excerpts from her book in Arabic and afterwards, a translator read excerpts from the German translation. During the conversation, however, a simultaneous translator facilitated the conversation between the Austrian moderators and Ms. Eseddin. I was incredibly impressed by this woman's ability to switch effortlessly between Arabic and German. It was amazing to watch her at work--for me, she was the true star of the show. The conversation following the reading, guided by Kaindlstorfer, was interesting and touched upon issues of politics, women's role in Egypt, the Arab Spring, the author's writing processes, etc.. The only disappointment was that there was no time left at the end for the audience to ask questions. It would have been intriguing to hear what some of the readers would have had to say about her novel. I bought a copy of Eseddin's book titled "Hinter den Paradies" in German and hope to start reading it at some point (other grad students can empathize that "reading for fun" sort of loses its calming effect after you've spend all day reading in the library...picking up a book is the last thing you want to do at night, but hopefully I can make an exception for this book).
Finally, one of the highlights of my stay thus far was getting to hear feminist filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha hold both a lecture and a reading at the Uni Wien. Her visit was arranged in part though my advisor here, Dr. Anna Babka, who wrote the introduction to the German translation (JUST now published!) of Minh-ha's seminal work "Woman, Native, Other" (1989). Both of Minh-ha's talks were truly inspiring and gave me some food for though with regard to my own work.

As you can see, Vienna is providing a very rich, cultural environment for me to explore, think and work. I haven't really done any of the events justice in describing them--but hopefully it has given you some sense of what I've been up to the past couple of months (on top of applying for jobs, submitting an article to a journal for review, working on a book review... and, oh, yeah, working on my next dissertation chapter!!!!).

One last thing: a filmmaker, Ruth Beckermann, whom I am working on in my dissertation, just came out with a new film titled "American Passages". It was featured in the Viennale, but unfortunately I was unable to get tickets because it sold out on the very first day of the festival. However, it is finally hitting theaters this Friday and I plan on going to see it. Its a documentary filmed in the U.S. in 2008 during the presidential election/economic meltdown. I am intrigued to see what kind of image the film presents on the U.S. and what topics she has chosen to highlight. Here's the trailer, so you can see for yourself.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Cuing Up and Saving Spots

Let's get right down to it. We all know, by now, that I love Vienna (with the exception of the MA 35). But, like in any good "love affair", the honeymoon phase must come to an end and some of your "lover's" quirky qualities begin to surface.
The other night, after the Ambassador's Reception for us Fulbright grantees (which, by the way, was great!), some of us grantees went for a little post-reception celebration, where we got to talking about cultural differences...and things that drove us crazy about Austrian culture. By now, we have all had different experiences with our host culture, but there were some things we could all relate to.
So, this posting is dedicated to two, let's say.... 'habits', to put it neutrally, that I have been able to observe. And, if any Austrian is reading this, please take it all with a grain of salt--I am sure you could write a laundry list of things people find odd about the U.S..... :) And might I add, as a student of cultural studies, I am aware of how many culturally insensitive, objectifying, essentializing comments I am about to make about my immediate "Other." :)

I am pretty sure that Austrians hate standing in line. That's not to say that any other culture genuinely enjoys standing in line, but the Austrians make it very known that they find lines absurd--this is often signaled by sighing, clucking their tongue, rolling their eyes, crowding up against you from behind, making audible comments about the wait. You might think I am exaggerating here, but this has happened to me on numerous occasions. If I am standing in line for the U-Bahn, people will come up from behind and crowd in front of me as I'm getting on. Or as Greg's recent experience at "Potato Jim's" at the Weihnachtsmarkt (oops, sorry, Christkindlmarkt--there's the language thing again...) proves, its nearly impossible to push yourself to the front of a waiting "crowd"--which is the only way I can think to describe it. Getting a double stuffed potato with Käse und Schinken here is more difficult than getting a 3 ft. flat screen TV at Walmart on Black Friday in the U.S. And my friend Carolyn, who also lived in Vienna for a year, pointed out to me that successfully getting through the check-out line at the grocery store is a learned skill (she suspects Austrians have a special class somewhere along the way that makes them experts in simultaneously loading and unloading (no baggers here, folks! And bring your own, because every plastic bag costs 9 cents!) on the teeny tiny convey belt, while also managing to dig out exact change to pay with and juggling your wallet, bag and basket all at once.)
But nowhere else does this 'waiting crowd' seem more absurd than during mass. In any mass in the U.S., when it is time to go up for communion, you have ushers who graciously and kindly escort the pews, row by row, up front. You sit, calmly, wait your turn, and cue up in an orderly fashion. And if there are no ushers, somehow we manage to cue up, single file, without anyone getting left out. What? The little old lady next to you is having difficulty stumbling over the kneelers in the aisle? No worries, you let her take her time--maybe even offer her a helpful hand. After all, you are in church.
In Austria, when its time for communion, everyone essentially gets up at once and crowds into the middle aisle of the church. If you're too slow, you're out of luck because you'll be pressed hard to find someone to let you in. When I witnessed this the first time, I couldn't believe my eyes. I mean, come on people, you are headed up for a holy sacrament! The least you could do is let the person waiting next to you go ahead of you. Poor Greg--the first time he went up for communion he was one of the last people back to his seat, even though we were sitting pretty far up, because he was being too darn nice and letting everyone go in front of him (hence, also, his defeat in the epic battle at Potato Joe's).
Greg and I have incredulously marveled at this seeming incompetence on the Austrians' part to cue up. We have asked ourselves: Did we practice too many fire drills in school in the US ("single file, children!")? Are we just too nice? Aren't Austrians supposed to be orderly and efficient?
I personally have this theory that Austrians view lines as a sign of inefficiency and have found ways to get around them--think of all the places where you can pull a number and sit down in a group until your number is called? So, it might not be that they hate waiting... they just hate waiting in lines and seek more efficient ways around them.

The second quirk I have recently witnessed was in the National Bibliothek. I went there on Tuesday to do some reading for my current dissertation chapter. Now speaking of efficiency, planning your day at the Bibliothek is, in and of itself, an ordeal--and I am sure I have some readers who can relate. You cannot check out books there, so if you have a specific book in mind, you need to order it ahead of time online so that it is ready to pick up when you arrive. You must leave your bag, coat and any food/drink in lockers located outside of the security checkpoint and then bring everything you might need with you in a little plastic, see-through bag. It takes a few trips, but eventually you get the hang of it...
Anyway, so when I arrived on Tuesday, the library was fuller than usual--and I found out later from a girl I was talking to during my very brief and well-timed lunch break (more to that later) that its midterms for the law and business students (explains all the popped collars, pearls and cable-knit sweaters I spotted...). Luckily, I managed to find a coveted spot at a large table that I shared with about 9 other students. At one point--I was totally engrossed and furiously taking notes so I didn't catch the beginning of this episode--I hear people giggling and see a guard walk by with a laptop and pile of books. I couldn't figure out why people were laughing, but just shrugged my shoulders and got back to work. Some time later, two guards approach the spots where two girls had been studying directly next to me. I had no idea how long they had been gone (engrossed as I was in my note-taking). Suddenly, the guards ask me whether any of that stuff belonged to me, and when I said no--they swiftly packed up all these girls' things and carried them off!!!
It turns out, you can't leave your spot vacant for more than 30 minutes at a time--if you do, you forfeit your spot and they carry off your things to a mysterious secret keeping. Now, I am not sure how you would feel, but I would be a bit outraged if someone carried off my stuff--and I think there is something intrinsic about American culture that your property is... well, your property. And its always seen as a pretty bold move to remove someone else's belonging (remember your mother's words: "Don't touch, that doesn't belong to you"?). I have to admit, I was enthralled by this whole drama unrolling in front of me and fascinated by the whole procedure.
So, you might ask yourself, are there any signs posted anywhere, any notices or warnings not to leave your stuff unattended for more than 30 minutes or else they will remove your things and you forfeit your right to, er, study? Nope. None. Nothing at all. How did I find out? I eavesdropped on a young guy who asked a guard about the policy, after watching, 3 laptops get carried away in the span of about an hour. Apparently I was not the only one clueless here.
When I started to watch more closely though, I noticed that the guards were slowing stalking the aisles, pacing back and forth every fifteen minutes or so, taking meticulous notes in the mini-notebooks, ready at any moment to pounce upon abandoned Macs, pencils, notes and books.

The real jaw-dropping moment was this though: of course the two girls returned, dismayed that their things had been taken. And me, the ever-helpful American, butted in, willing to help. Our conversation went like this:
Me: "The guards took your things..."
Girls: "But we were only gone for 15 minutes!"
Me: nodding in sympathy...
Girls, wide-eyed: "Where did they take our stuff?"
Me: "I have no idea..."
Girls: "Well can you save us this spot? We'll be right back after we find our stuff!"

So I put down one of my books and a girl across the table offers her another one for the second spot. I think the situation has been resolved when not 30 second laters, a third girl walks up and plunks down her things. I look up at her and stutter something about saving the spots--but she doesn't even let me finish. She must have witnessed the whole thing and stated, cooly, that these spots are now free. That she's sorry, but its just a fact and that they are vacant. Period. End of discussion. She tosses back her long blonde hair and shrugs her shoulders, while settling into her new spot.

I turned back to my laptop, hot-faced and sorry I had butted into the whole thing in the first place. When the two girls came back, they saw the cool, blonde in their spot--I caught their eyes and shrugged, indicating I did what I could. They nodded, and sighed, throwing one more slightly begrudging look at the cool blonde in their former spot. She remained focused on her work, ignoring the whole scene, likely gloating over a fact that she had successfully secured her spot--after all she had probably been waiting in line...

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Typisch Wien: Musik, Kunst, Kaffee

Everytime I return to my blog, I always find myself thinking, where to start?! I really want to post about Budapset, and I will have to before too much time passes, but for right now, let me tell you about this weekend, because this evening is what inspired me to post again. There are moments, like I described in my first blog, where I just feel giddy and in love with the city. Tonight, and throughout the weekend, I experienced several of these moments.
Let me work my way backward, starting from tonight...My friend Ann, Greg and I had gone to the Studentenmesse at the Stephansdom together. The mass tonight was accompanied by a violinist and at the end of mass, he played Ave Maria. It was so incredibly beautiful to sit in such a gorgeous cathedral, on a normal Sunday evening, listening to a single violinist (along with the organist) play such a moving piece. I closed my eyes and just let the music carry me along. I have been particularly stressed out and feeling pressured about submitting my first job applications for the academic job market, but the music put me at so much peace and filled me with joy. I left with goosebumps and a huge smile on my face.
It was a nice fall night, so we decided to stroll down Kärntner Straße and came dow
n to the Opernring to catch the Straßenbahn 2 home. Tonight was one of those nights that they were projecting the opera performance onto a large screen outside the building. People, including the
three of us, strolling by paused for a few minutes to watch, while others were huddled up in parkas and blankets, sipping on Glühwein or hot chocolate on the benches set up in front of the screen. We had a notion it was Wagner, and when I got home later and looked it up, sure enough, Die Walküre is being staged tonight. Vienna, the city of music, how I love you! Anyone who knows anything about music has probably realized I do not know much about it, but I still appreciate it and am constantly in awe of the talent in this city--and how readily available it is to anyone. (You can, by the way, get standing spots at the opera for 3 Euros!)

Tonight was a perfect closing to a wonderful weekend with Anna and Andrew in Vienna. We had a lovely time exploring the city together and it gave Greg and me a good excuse to get out and see more of things we have not yet gotten to do. Friday night we took them to this little Italian restaurant in our neighborhood called Oliva Verde. We have been there once before and its quickly becoming one of my favorite local places. The restaurant is really cozy and the food is amazing--especially the pizzas. Its all very affordable and the owner is this friendly little Turkish man who is super sweet (I saw him helping a little 5 year old girl into her coat). He always serves a little "digestif" (we had the choice of Grappa or Amaretto) on the house to all of his guests before the leave.

After a nice leisurely brunch on Saturday morning, we headed over to the Leopold Museum,
where we spent most of the afternoon. The museum, which opened in 1994, is a non-profit organization and showcases the consolidation of Rudolf and Elisabeth Leopold's private collection, which was acquired over five decades. It houses around 5,000 works and, since the Leopold's had a particular penchant for Egon Schiele, features the most substantial collection of the artist's works. Anyone interested in "Wiener Moderne" and Expressionism will gush over the other paintings in this museum by Klimt (his "Death and Life" is here, see first picture to the right), Kokoschka, Mosel and Gerstl. We also had t
ime to stop by "Melacholy and Provocation: The Egon Schiele Project"
which displayed many of Schiele's famous (and scandalous) sketches and self-portraits, as seen right. There is also a neat section on the Wiener Werkstätte design.
From there we meandered over to the Secession and Naschmarkt, where we stopped to refuel with some fresh pasta and Glühwein. Later on that night we went to see Lars von Trier's new film "Melancholia" which showed at the Viennale last month and w
on Kirsten Dunst a silver palm at Cannes. (Andrew pointed out we had a theme of Melancholy going for the day...) The film was unlike anything I had ever seen and is certainly a gorgeous, aesthetically brilliant work. But beyond that, it is really hard to describe. It would be difficult to take this film literally, and there's so much room for interpretation that, to echo Anna, its best to let it soak in a bit longer. So I'll refrain from saying anything else about that right now! Plus this posting is getting long enough already!
"Schlendern" would be a good word to describe the rest of today, as we moved from the Rathaus, to the Hofburg, over to Herrengasse, where we made a stop at Cafe Central.

Hands down, my favorite cafe in Vienna so far--from the architecture design, Peter Alterberg's statue at the entrance, the huge paintings of Sisi and Franz Josef at the back, the decadent display of pastries, to the bustling waiters, and racks with extensive newspaper selections, you walk in mesmerized. It is truly the epitome of a Viennese Cafe. Or, as the website puts it, "a Viennese institution."

Anna and I had an apple strudel topped with vanilla sauce and a melange--so delicious!

Andrew opted for the Central coffee, while Greg tried his first melange and a slice of Sachertorte (yes, you can get that
elsewhere besides Cafe Sacher!).

From Cafe Central, we made our way toward the Stephansdom and on toward the Stadtpark. It was a beautiful day for a stroll through the park!

Now THAT is Vienna: good company, music, art and coffee.