May 10, 2008

A Year in Vienna

Today, the 10th of May 2008, marks one full year in Vienna. One year ago today, May 10th, 2007 I arrived in Vienna, terrified, sleep deprived and thinking I had made a huge mistake. In the 365 days since then I have made a lifetime of memories, made friends from all over the world, visited 17 different countries, written 57 posts, and lived in 5 different rooms in 4 different districts of Vienna. Not too shabby!

It's hard to imagine what my life would be like now if, back in December 2006, my housemate Jaymie hadn't convinced me to be decisive and submit my application. I was indecisive because I liked the life I was living. I had good friends, and the predictability of my life was comforting. Before coming to Vienna, the longest I had been more than 1 hour from home at a single time was 11 days, 11 days! If this past year has taught me anything it's that you need to take chances and push your boundaries or you'll never realize your potential; an sometimes people like me need a helpful nudge in the right direction.

To celebrate the completion of my first year, the city of Vienna has staged a series of concerts, and parties today. Some people say that these are to celebrate the opening of the 9 km extension of subway line U2, but I say it's just a coincidence.

So, I'm sure many of you are wondering what I've been up to since Prague. The most interesting thing that has happened is that from May 1st to 7th my friend Andrew Cardinal (Toga Andrew) came to visit from Canada. He was going to be in Belgium for a wedding and took up my offer of an airmattress and a spot on my floor. He arrived on the first day of a 4-day weekend, so we spent the majority of the time wandering around Vienna, seeing the sights.

However, I took the opportunity of having him here to see some things I was always intending to see but never really got around to. One example is the "Last Supper" mosaic in the Minoritenkirche. It is a full-sized replica of DaVinci's Last Supper made out of 20 tons of coloured marble and is almost 4m tall and over 9m wide. It is huge, and the level of detail is amazing, especially considering that it's made out of little pieces of stone. The mosaic is also a very important historical record, as it was made in 1809 when the original Last Supper in Milan was in a better condition. In the 200 years since, the original has deteriorated considerably to the point where many of the details in the mosaic are no longer visible in the original, to the point where the last major restoration of the original used the mosaic as an artistic guide. It's a shame that the mosaic is almost completely unknown, and in a church tucked away in the inner city off the beaten path.

Another site I have wanted to visit since arriving in Vienna is the United Nations building, the third most important UN site after NYC and Geneva.
The site, built by the Austrian government in the 1970s, and looks it, like something inspired by the Jetsons. The Vienna office houses the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and many other smaller organizations. To go through the security check at the entrance you need a passport because you officially leave Austria and theoretically enter all 192 member nations simultaneously. So now I've basically been everywhere! There are one hour long guided tours in English for only 3€, which take you through the buildings and tell you all about the history and structure of the UN in Vienna.

Exiting the security check, you pass by the 193 national flags (which include the 192 member countries and the Vatican). I was pretty good at identifying most of them, but it was easier than you'd think because they are arranged alphabetically by the countries' names in English. So, for example when you see the random flag between Spain and Sudan there is only one country that fits, Sri Lanka.
The alphabetical listings make the flags easier to identify, but must be a hassle for the building staff, especially when you consider that with every new member state, a new pole has to be added and every flag after must be shifted down. Inside the entrance hall there are.. more flags!
In the Office of Outer Space Affairs there is a chunk of moon rock, and several UN flags that have been to space and back.
On Andrew's last night in Vienna we went to see the opera "Le Nozze di Figaro" by Mozart. It was long, 3.5 hours, but was very funny, and had four amazing, huge, sets for the four acts, taking advantage of the four movable (hydraulic) stages at the Staatsoper which can be set up ahead of time and moved into place in a matter of minutes. The physical humour and convoluted Jerry-Springer-esque plot (at one point everyone realizes that the old woman who Figaro is being forced to marry to pay off a debt is actually his mother) made it my favourite opera to date.

As this weekend is also a long weekend, and my mom arrives on Friday, I only have 3 days of work left. I knew I would be at the office fairly late on Friday (3:30pm) and most people would be gone, so I took my camera to get photos of my lab. It was hard to take a good photo because all the exterior walls are window, throwing all interior equipment into shadow due to the high contrast. If you look though, you can see my computer to the right of the column, with my electrochemical cell hooked up beside it.
From my lab window I can look out at the Schneeberg (Snow mountain), which is the easternmost Alp over 2km high. The Schneeberg actually looks much closer in person, this photo makes it look like a blip on the horizon. This weekend many people are out of the city, but Stefan and Ariana have their big joint birthday party tonight, so it should be fun. Who knows, I might go ride the new part of the U2 out to the Euro Cup stadium so I can say I've been there when I see if on TV in June.

As I said before, my mom is arriving on Friday. On Saturday the 17th we leave for our Italian adventure; Venice-Rome-Pisa-Monterosso (Cinque Terre)-Milan. From Milan, we fly back to Vienna, and spend a few days seeing the city and packing, with a day trip to Salzburg. From Vienna, we fly home, with a 3 day stopover in Paris, arriving home the night of June 4th.

I'm not sure if I'll have time to post much before arriving home, when I'll finish this blog with a post or two about my trip with my mom, and a final summary. I have to say, even though I've been less than diligent about posting since Christmas, I'm shocked that I've kept this going for a full year. So, don't be sad that it's almost over, be happy that it's lasted this long.

Apr 7, 2008


For those of you who have been waiting on the edges of your chairs for a while now when I announced that I'd be taking another trip, my destination was, of course, Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic.

Sorry that this took so long to be posted. I was waiting for photos from some other people, but they've apparently disappeared. They're all the fun photos from the nights, because I never took my camera out. I'll add them when I get them.

For those of you who remember my first experiences in the Czech Republic, it's easy to say that this time was much better. For those of you who haven't read it, or need a refresher, see the end of my post on Krakow, Poland.

I arrived in Prague on Friday May 4th at noon after a 4 hour bus trip from Vienna. I had to meet Henrik and his friend Matt at the main train station at 2:45, so I had some time to kill. First, I wandered through the streets in the direction of the train station. After some wrong turns and a little eavesdropping on other tourists, I found my way to the train station. The Prague train station must have been extremely beautiful at one time in the past. Sadly, however, that is no longer really the case. The old entrance has been closed and turned into a small café. The 'new' entrance must have been built in the 60's or 70's during the height of communism. Thankfully, the station is now under renovation to clean up the modern sections and restore the old parts.

Below you can see the original entrance to the station, which is now only meters from a busy freeway. There is a large domed ceiling covered in plasterwork and murals in need of serious attention, but you can still imagine what it would have been like in it's glory days. On second glance, this picture doesn't look all too bad, although you can see some damage on the left.
Now with my proper bearings, I set out to explore the city. Prague is famous for many things (including its image as the new Amsterdam), but also for the prevalence of black-light and marionette theatres for tourists. The posterboard below is for "Yellow Submarine", a blacklight show performed to Beatles songs. The shows are all about the images created using blacklight puppets and sets, and most are completely dialogue-free.
We never got the chance to see a blacklight show, but neither has my Czech coworker, so it's not like I really missed out on an integral facet of Czech culture, just another tourist trap.

There are a lot of interesting museums in Prague, including the Museum of Sex Machines and the Museum of Communism with the cool poster below.
When it was about time for Henrik and Matt's train to arrive, I headed back to the train station and sat in the abandoned old waiting room with a sleeping backpacker and group of Czech teens.Being a bit bored, I walked around the front of the building. Hopefully the renovations get to the facade before it all crumbles away, although dilapidated beauty has its own charm.
When we met, we decided to go to the hostel and ditch our bags. The hostel turned out to be an amazing deal; it was close, cheap, and clean, what more could you ask for? Free breakfast? They had that too. The two people I met up with were my Swedish friend Henrik who is a former IAESTE Vienna trainee now going to school in Munich, and his friend Matt who is from Oxford, England but also goes to school in Munich. It was nice to see Henrik again, the first time since Oktoberfest, and Matt turned out to be really cool.

Our first big destination was the Old Town Square. The square is a big change from the narrow old streets which empty into it, a real medieval town, one of the only major cities in Europe to escape WWII without much structural damage.
The Church of Our Lady in front of Týn is one of the main attractions in the square. It was built in the 14th century, and has an almost creepy vibe, especially at night when the small windows in the towers are lit with orange lights. The main entrance is very odd. The row of buildings in front if the church in the photo above are actually attached to the front of the church. The only way in is through a fairly hidden and narrow passageway built into one of the buildings which leads to a very small courtyard.The other sight int he old town square is the astronomical clock which has components dating back to 1410! The clock not only tells the time, it also tells you the date, sunrise, sunset, hours since sunrise, zodiac month, lunar cycle, and more. Hard to believe it's all based on 15th century mechanics.
There are also some animated figures which move on the hour and at other times throughout the day. The two pairs on either side of the calendar represent the four things which were despised by the people of Prague, they are death (skeleton), vanity (the figure with the mirror), greed (the figure with the money bag), and last but not least, the Turkish (the figure with the turban). Nothing like a beautiful old racist clock. There are also statues of the 12 apostles which rotate though the two doors at the top. We just happened to be there when it was going off, and it was a little disappointing. The huge crowd of people gathered below made me think it would be a bit more exciting.

From the old town we wandered down to the river. Across the river on top of the hill is Prague castle, the largest ancient castle in the world, we decided that we should leave it for Saturday.
We passed a fountain outside the Kafka Museum that everyone who visits Prague has to see. I found a video of it running here on Youtube. Unfortunately only one of the guys was working, the other just lazily peed in one spot.
Many of the restaurants along the river face the street but have cafés down by the water. The little passage between these two buildings leading to a café was so long and narrow that there was a traffic light.
The oldest bridge crossing the river is the Charles Bridge which was started in the mid 14th century. The wide stone bridge is lined by 30 stone statues, installed around the year 1700. The bridge is currently being completely restored, but thankfully they're working on it section-by-section, so most of it is still open to the public. The only downside of the bridge is the large number of vendors and buskers selling everything from portraits to marionettes. It's hard to imagine how packed it must be in the height of the tourist season.
The "biggest music club in Eastern Europe" one of the many places we went Friday night. It has 5 full floors, all with different styles of music. The whole block of buildings (including the club) is built out over the river which passes beneath.
One of the many marionette shops in Prague, to some people being surrounded by this many marionettes would be terrifying, I just found it a little creepy. I was going to buy one as a souvenir, but they were all pretty expensive.
On Saturday we walked up the fairly steep hill to Prague Castle.
The site dates back to the year 870, but a millennium of additions and renovations has left little that looks more than a few hundred years old. The castle was very eclectic; every piece seemed to be of a different style. This made it interesting, but also made it seem much smaller, because you could never be sure what was castle and what part of the surrounding buildings.
At the center of the castle is the gothic St.Vitus Cathedral. It was started in 1344, but not finished until the 1920's.
The older gothic sections of the cathedral had gargoyles. I love gargoyles.
The stained glass windows were amazingly detailed, colourful, and all matched, something very rarely seen in Europe. Normally most or all of the windows were damaged in WWII, and are therefore either missing or mismatched.
We crossed back across the river to see the Dancing House, a building designed by a Czech architect in co-operation with Canadian architect Frank Gehry.

From the Dancing House we went back to the hostel for a siesta. Instead I watched some BBC World, which I have really been missing ever since October when we had to move out of Albert Schweizer Haus.

For supper we decided to check out a "dinner entertainment" restaurant by the hostel. It was caveman themed, and actually turned out to be a lot of fun. The restaurant was decorated with mammoth tusks, furs, bones, and fake rock, and the waitresses were dressed as cavewomen. All the food was very basic (meat and potatoes) and you had to eat with your hands. We sat down beside two Dutch women who were really funny, especially when the "show" started. The show was a drum circle around a caveman who was sniffing a large bowl of dry ice. I think it was supposed to be some kind of spiritual ritual, but it went on way too long. I was just worried that the poor guy would asphyxiate and we wouldn't be able to finish our food. After the 'ritual' they made us all get up and dance to the drums. Overall it was a fun, random, and completely unexpected. After dinner we stopped in a few places but eventually settled at a bar called "Harley" where we ran into a Canadian girl from Toronto and her class of Czech girls learning English. We ended up hanging out with them the entire night and had a lot of fun. (I'll add photos when I get them)

On Sunday it was raining, so Matt and Henrik decided to take a 1pm train back to Munich. As we were walking toward the train station, we passed the brightly coloured Jerusalem Synagogue. The architectural style and bright decoration make it look entirely out-of-place in the rather drab neighbourhood. It would have been cool to see inside, but it was closed. Too bad.
After saying goodbye to Henrik and Matt I still had 4 hours to kill. I wandered throughout the city and eventually found myself in a market. One stand sold different types of candy, including Czech "Smarties".
Another stall sold marionettes, there were characters from fairy tales, like Puss in boots and the big bad wolf, but also Harry Potter and Hermione.
I wandered some more and found myself in the old Jewish quarter. According to a few sources (which may or may not be true) the Jewish Quarter in Prague wasn't destroyed in WWII because the Nazis intended on making it a "exotic museum of an extinct race". This terrible intention resulted in a lot of Jewish artifacts and synagogues being preserved. One of these preserved sights is the Old Jewish Cemetery, which dates back at least as far as the 15th century and is believed to contain 12,000 graves.
The gravestones are grouped very close together, at odd angles, and various states of decay. The fact that graves are stacked and layered allows for the estimated 12,000 people to have been buried in such a small space over the ~350 years it was in use.
Walking from the Jewish quarter back towards the river I spotted the Prague Metronome. To get to it I had to pass back over the river via a bridge decorated with this statue.
A view down the river from up on the hill beside the 75 foot tall metronome.
The walk to the bus station from the metronome took me through the old town square one last time. I stopped and took a picture of the monument to Jan Hus who was burned at the stake in 1415 for proposing a reformation of the Catholic church in Bohemia. The tower in the photo below is the old city hall, which contains the mechanism for the astronomical clock which is on the lower part of the tower.
I arrived at the bus station far earlier than I should have. When I arrived I looked all over for a screen displaying departure platform and times, but couldn't find one. Then I realized that the bus station is by no means modern, so I had to go to the large schedule board, find Vienna, and find my bus. It was easy to do once I realized that I had to do it. As I was very early, I wandered around, and took a few last photos.
I really enjoyed my trip to Prague and can't wait to show you the photos from the evenings. I would really like to go back some day and check out some of the museums, see a black-light show and tour the castle.

In less than a month now I will be done work and in Italy with my mom, can't wait. On Thursday I'm taking the day off work to see my friend Szilvia's PhD defense. It will be interesting to see how it all happens and then we'll either go out to celebrate her success or drown her sorrows. Her brother Laslo is also coming from Serbia. We haven't seen him since we were in Serbia last November, so it should be a good weekend.

At the beginning of May my friend Andrew who was my neighbour in residence in first year will be coming to visit. Should be fun, hopefully by then it's a bit warmer and a little drier.

Only a few weeks left in Europe. I can't wait to come home and see everyone again, but I never want to leave. It's a good thing I can't afford to stay in Europe this summer and still go back to school in the fall, or else I'd be really tempted.

Mar 31, 2008

March... where did it go?

The month of March was filled with many memorable moments, but flew by so fast that it's hard to believe it was even there.

Near the beginning of the month I noticed that my hair was getting a little long. As I've mentioned before, haircuts in Vienna are expensive, painful, and bad, therefore I really wasn't looking forward to getting one. So, I figured I'd do what most other guys do, and cut it myself. How hard could it be? I borrowed a pair of electric clippers from Daniel and decided to do it myself without any help. As I didn't want to get hair everywhere and I don't own a broom, I stepped into my shower, plugged the clippers in above my mirror, set it to the longest length and started with the back. It went pretty smoothly and felt about the right length, so I took a leap and went right down the center of my head, a reverse mohawk. To my horror, I discovered that "8" was much shorter than I had expected, but what was done was done. After what seemed like much too long, I was done, with a pile of hair on the floor, and far too little on my head.
The next few days were spent finding small patches of long hair and snipping them whenever I tracked down a pair of scissors. Now that it's begun to grow out, it's becoming a mullet dangerously fast, so, I might have to give in and get it cut properly, but not for a while.

On Saturday the 15th (the "official" St.Patrick's Day) I met up with Nicole, Ali's friend whom I had met a few weeks before, and went to see Carmen at the Volksoper. The Volksoper (the people's opera) only performs shows in German, meaning two things, Carmen was performed in German instead of the original French, and there were no subtitles. So, we didn't understand much, including the entire first half of the second act. However, one thing that amused me throughout most of the show was how poorly German lends itself to seductive arias like the famous song by Carmen. Instead of lightly trailing off the notes, as can be done in French where they leave out half of the word anyways, the propriety of German pronunciation occasionally requires harsh consonants at the end of words, which sound more like someone prepping for a spittoon than a seductress. Afterwards we met up with Andres, Daniel, Gabi, and Szilvia and went to a pub, which was pretty dead for "St.Patrick's Day", but we made the best of it.

When I returned from Canada after Christmas I brought back real maple syrup, and when Ali visited in February she brought me a box of pancake mix from home. Since Christmas, Cora and I had been talking about making a big pancake breakfast. Finally, the weekend before Easter, Sziszi offered to host a pancake brunch.

In the photo below (Going around the table clockwise from the bottom) are Gabi, Andres, Daniel, Carolina, me, Cora, Raphael, and Sziszi. Karin, Sziszi's roommate, was taking the photo.
Cora and I thought we'd get creative and make all the girls teddy bear pancakes with banana faces. We also made some x-rated pancakes for the guys, which they thought were funny. People were shocked that Cora and I were so talented at making things out of pancakes; we didn't tell anyone how easy it is.
After stuffing ourselves with far too many pancakes, we decided to go on a walk. Most people decided to go home, as it was already mid-afternoon, but Cora, Szilvia, Karin, and I went to Schönbrunn to wander through the Easter market. The Easter markets are a lot like the Christmas markets except on a smaller scale. There were a few booths overflowing with hand-painted eggs.
There were also a few spots where kids could play with some simple, old-fashioned toys, like stilts. Karin, Sziszi, and Cora tried out the tandem-walking boards, which were fun, for about 30 seconds...
On the Wednesday of the next week there was a talk by Dr. Frank Wilczek at the Fachhochschule (technical college) in Wiener Neustadt which is only a few minutes away from our offices. José, Szilvia, and I went from ECHEM and met up with Cora, Stefan, and a few others from AC2T. Dr.Wilczek is an American physicist from MIT who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2004 for the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction (quantum physics). His talk, which was entirely in English!, titled "The Universe is a Strange Place" was actually very entertaining and easy to follow. He talked all about quarks, gluons, dark energy, dark matter, and everything in between. If you're keen and look carefully at the photo below, you'll see I didn't actually take it, it's from 2005, but it's the same lecture. A few times in his presentation Cora and I were the only people who laughed at a joke because everyone else got a little lost in translation. For example, he made the (rather nerdy) joke of "so, it turns out you can have your quarks and eat them too!", which just confused all the non-native English speakers, but made us laugh awkwardly.On Easter Sunday I went with Nicole, her brother, and her brother's friend (all from Canada) to see the ballet Swan Lake at the Staatsoper. It turned out to be the premier, meaning the line for cheap tickets was long by the time we arrived, so we got crappy spots where you could only see half the stage at once. The ballet was interesting, better than most operas, and had a pretty cool ending, where the lead guy drowns on stage in a stormy lake. As it was the premier, during the bows people chucked bouquets of roses onto the stage from the boxes along the sides, like in the movies.

On Easter Monday, I was supposed to see the opera Tristan and Isolde by Wagner with Cora and Ariana, but thankfully Ariana had to cancel on us. I say thankfully because it is 4:45 long, a bit too long for my liking. Instead, I went with Caren and Ariana that Thursday to see Ariadne auf Naxos, a funny opera written by Richard Strauss where the first act, which is set backstage, shows everyone arguing when they find out that the serious opera and the comical dance show the Duke ordered for his party must both be performed simultaneously. The second act shows the performance on the stage, which has been flipped 180 degrees to the audience's perspective. The show was funny, and had a good elaborate set, so I enjoyed it. I find the minimalist modern adaptations a lot less entertaining.

The last weekend of March was very warm (~18C) so Szilvia, Gabor (Szilvia's boyfriend who was in town last weekend), Andres, and I decided to go to the Lainzer Tiergarten for a hike. Andres forgot about the time change, so it ended up being just the three of us.

The Lainzer Tiergaren is a 25 square kilometer wildlife preserve in the southwest corner of Vienna. The route we selected was about 7km long and wound through the "hills". We had only been walking along the path for a few minutes when a large wild boar came walking towards us in the other direction. It was pretty tame, so Gabor got as close as Szilvia would allow, to get a photo.
There still aren't many leaves on many of the trees here. Lots of buds, and leaves on bushes though, so it's only a matter of a few more weeks.
At the top of one path there is a sloping lawn which looks out over all of Vienna. We stopped for a bit and ate some pears that Sziszi had brought along.
From the lawn we walked another few kilometers down to the old royal hunting lodge and gardens. In the more sheltered gardens, many of the trees already had leaves.
Hard to believe this was a weekend hunting lodge.
I really like this photo with the dormers, chimneys, and clock tower all jumbled in together.
The main house is connected to the stables on either side by these verandas which Szilvia fell in low with.
A little ways down from the house there is a small "zoo" with some deer and mouflons like the one below.
After the hike, I went back to Haus Döbling and signed into Skype for a phone interview. The interview was for a job at Queen's as an "iCon" during the school year. I found out today that I got the job, so that's some good news, now all I need is a summer job. If anyone knows of anyone hiring for jobs in Brockville starting after June 9th, the please let me know.

So, as I said, March was an interesting month, I just don't know where it went, it was over so quickly. April is my last full month of work, and hopefully the nice weather will bring some adventure with it.

Speaking of adventure, I leave for my next one on Friday morning. I'll be meeting up with my friend Henrik who's living in Munich, but I won't tell you where until I return. Should be fun, but apparently the weather is supposed to be crappy, c'est la vie!