Oh, Vienna! (1)

I had been told before visiting Vienna that the Viennese were a tad rude and unfriendly. However, having lived in the Land of the Po-Faced for four years, I figured I could hold my own on that front. So, following a last-minute dash to buy sandwich bags, I was on my way to meet Manfredas to get the train to the airport.

After an easy 50-minute flight (or just enough time to drink one tiny, over-priced bottle of wine), we landed in Vienna. The great thing about travelling with a German is that they are, well, German. A guide book had been procured, maps acquired, travel itineraries to and from the hotel worked out, and 72-hour public transport tickets purchased. This meant that, once I’d recovered from a fit of hysterics at how much the voice in the lift sounded like Arnold Schwarzenegger, we were already on the most direct route to the hotel.

We checked into the Hotel Mercure, where Manfredas surprised me once again by producing some tea bags he’d brought with him – just in case they didn’t provide them at the hotel. Germans…

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Where’s the food?

At this point, we were pretty hungry so we decided to head out into the night to see what Vienna had to offer. Luckily for us, the hotel was right opposite the Naschmarkt, a huge area with all kinds of international cuisine, but I only had one thing on my mind.

SCHNITZEL!
SCHNITZEL!

While listening to the “THUMP, THUMP, THUMP” from the kitchen of the chef beating more meat into submission, we savoured our Schnitzels, sampled the local wine and, by the time we were finished, the Naschmarkt was shutting down for the night. When plans fail, Linda’s “bar-dar” comes into play and beep, beep, beep, sure enough, within around three minutes, I’d located a likely spot for a nightcap.

Dreamy, right?
Dreamy, right?

The bartender was as overjoyed to see us as we were to find an open bar so it was a win-win from the off.

Happy Linda
Happy Linda

We were just sitting down to enjoy our (probably) last glass of the evening when we were joined by Helmut. At first, we were happy that a local wanted to speak to us, then we realised he was possibly on day release from the local asylum. To say he was hammered would be an understatement but there was something about his mother dying in a car accident, his grandfather being a famous race car driver, him being in an orphanage, umm, umm, maybe a daughter somewhere, the secret service were looking for him but couldn’t find him… And then he cried. And then he laughed. Then he held onto Manfredas for a very long time. And then we left.

Night one down.

Having checked the weather forecast (of course), we knew that Friday was going to be the best day weather-wise so we were up and about early(ish) to make the most of it. After a quick breakfast at the Naschmarkt, we started walking toward the Museum Quarter.

One of the first things you’ll notice in Vienna are the amazingly cute traffic lights. They were part of an initiative by the city’s PR team, after Conchita Wurst won the Eurovision, to put LGBT issues on the agenda. From some of the reading I’ve done, it sounds like the country still has a long way to go, but I guess every little helps.

Once I’d been dragged away from the traffic lights, it was on to see Vienna proper.

My new trick - spouting water out of my head
My new trick – spouting water out of my head

It is impossible to put into words just how beautiful this city is. I think I said “WOW” more in the space of a couple of hours than I ever have before in my life. A few photos don’t even begin to do it justice but hopefully you’ll get the general idea.

It is stunning.

After being wowed out by the Museumsquartier, it was forward to Stephansplatz, home to the imposing (and too big to take a decent photo of) Stephansdom.

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Dizzy from the majesty of it all, Manfredas suggested a time-out at Do&Co. You can buy the most expensive döner kebab in all of Vienna here but, as €26 would pretty much cover my weekly shop in Berlin, I decided to settle for just a drink. Knowing I’d be laughed out of my local in Berlin for ordering a Spritzer, I snorted a little when Manfredas said that was the Viennese drink of choice, but hey, when in Vienna.

To you, Vienna!
Wein in Wien!

Surprisingly refreshed by the girly drink Spritzer, I was ready for more. Having left the guide book in the German’s capable hands, because:

German + Guide Book = No-Brainer

I was rather surprised when we emerged from the U-Bahn here:

Argh!
Argh!

Seemingly, the Prater is a must because of the funfair and giant ferris wheel but, after the splendour of the morning, it felt more like a jarring eyesore.

A "must"
A “must”

It does run alongside quite a nice park, but all the shrieking in the background made it less than relaxing for a stroll.

Trying and failing to get into the carnival mood
Trying and failing to get into the carnival mood

We decided to meander back into the city along the canal, which was a much better idea.

And, of course, it’s when you walk a city that you find all of the unexpected things it has to offer. It turns out that, on a sunny day, half of Vienna heads to the beach or, to be more precise, the City Beach. Young and old alike (some disturbingly topless) were sprawled along the bank of the canal, in deckchairs, on the ground, or pretty much anywhere else they could find a space.

I wonder how many people fall in...
I wonder how many people fall in…

So naturally, we just had to join them for a Spritzer before deciding how to spend our second evening…

A very relaxed man
Napping, Austrian-style

Stay tuned. There may be yodelling… 

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Cherry Fest and Fancy Dress

Apart from a lifelong aversion to idiots, I’ve been pretty lucky on the allergy front, i.e. I haven’t had any. So, it was with some surprise that, at the ripe old age of 38, I suddenly developed hay fever.  I put this down to some sort of weird German tree that I have never encountered before; clearly I’m not allergic to birch as Latvia is 98% tree and 2% people and I survived just fine there. (Kind of.)

Anyway, as with most things, I felt that the best way to tackle my new condition was head-on. In a bid to show my “Heuschnupfen” who was boss, I decided to take it to a tree festival. However, going to a festival with just your hay fever for company would be a bit dull so, luckily, my good friend Han said he’d come along for the sneezy ride.

Evil trees...
Evil trees…

Kirschblütenfest (Cherry Blossom Festival), now in its 10th year, takes place in the Japanese, Chinese and Korean Gardens of Gärten der Welt (Gardens of the World). This all sounds lovely until you realise that Gärten der Welt is in the ever-so-picturesque district of Marzahn-Hellersdorf – so far east that you could easily think you’d crossed into Poland.

Marzahn-Polskidorf
Marzahn-Polskidorf

Han: Do you know where we’re going? 

Me: Um, kind of. I don’t usually go this far east. 

Han: Yeah, I always feel that the further east I go, the greater the risk of being stabbed. 

Me: … 

Following the instructions on the Fest Facebook page, we hopped off the train at Wuhletal and ran for what we hoped was the right bus. It wasn’t. Instead of getting mad at being flagged down for no reason, we must have looked forlorn enough that the driver felt sorry for us, took the time to give us detailed directions and let us on the bus without even checking our tickets. He dropped us back at Wuhletal and we got back on the train. So far, so circular.

This time, we managed to get off at the right stop, find the right bus and, in no time at all, we reached the end of the world Gärten der Welt. It was a tad busier than we had expected.

What the ...?
What the …?

We decided to be clever and go for some coffee and cake in the hope that the queue would have cleared a bit by the time we came back. No such luck. If anything, it was longer. But at least there was a little entertainment to keep us occupied.

Very tall Asian lady
Very tall Asian lady

After queuing for close to an hour and paying the princely sum of €7, we entered the gardens. Relieved at finally being able to walk at a speed greater than 1mm an hour, we scoffed at all of the people who had left one queue just to join another – this time for coffee. We, on the other hand, had far better things to do.

Like this!
Like this!

You might think that I’d feel like a bit of an idiot, climbing onto statues and taking silly photos, but you would be forgetting one very important fact – this is Berlin. You are never the craziest-looking person.

Still, even by Berlin standards, people had really pulled out all the stops. Some were vaguely on theme with an oriental flavour…

Some were just bizarre…

Some were probably at the wrong party…

Because you always need goths...
?

And one was, nope, you’ll never guess…

A Canadian Mountie
A Canadian Mountie

Having recovered from our embarrassment at dressing normally, Han and I set off to explore the gardens. While some of the park is still under development, the parts that are finished are quite beautiful.

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The “Catholic” Gardens, in particular, were rather interesting in their design – and far nicer than actually going to church on a Sunday. (Sorry, mam.)

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Heaven (or sky) in German - see what they did there?
Heaven (or sky) in German – see what they did there?

The day turned out to be much nicer than the forecast had predicted and we happily wandered around, feeling the sun on our faces and enjoying the madness. This being Berlin, there are no silly “Keep off the Grass” rules and, as far as the eye could see, Geishas, fairy-tale characters, goths and possible asylum escapees amicably intermingled.

While I’ve always believed that I could have been a samurai…

Can I have a go of your stick?
Can I have a go of your stick?

this didn’t really feel like the day to find out. Instead, we strolled over to a stage to watch some traditional Asian dancing. In keeping with the fairy-tale theme, I have done a “Queen of Hearts” and chopped off some heads for your viewing pleasure.

Knowing there was probably going to be a scrum for the bus (and with me now sneezing uncontrollably), we decided to leave a little early. I left Han at his station and proceeded to my next train. The drunkest couple in the world sat down beside me. He was tiny and loud; she looked like she’d been hit in the face with a shovel repeatedly (but probably hadn’t felt it). He took a dislike to me for some reason (not shovelled enough?) and I left the train with him shouting insults at my back. Ho hum. Onto the next train.

On the platform, I was approached by another little man. This one turned out to be a rather persistent Algerian who seemed determined to find love on the S-Bahn.

Actual footage
Actual footage

Unfortunately, it was not to be. I leapt out of the still-moving train at my station and headed for home.

And we all lived happily ever after. Probably.

 

Genius German Parenting

Fire and booze are the backbone of any German celebration. Christmas? Fire and booze! New Year’s? Fire and booze! Easter? Fire and booze! I’m not complaining, mind. Most things are more fun with some fire and booze added. In fact, maybe we should start an “Every Day that Ends in Day” fire and booze tradition.

Christmas fire and booze
Christmas fire and booze

During the week, I was telling one of my students about my first Easter Fire (and booze) experience. The conversation moved from there to fire in general and then on to smoke alarms and fire drills. Yes, a lot of my conversations are rambling.

Easter fire and booze
Easter fire and booze – and some firemen

Germans are nothing if not safety-conscious so it didn’t surprise me to hear that he had a plethora of smoke alarms in his house, all interconnected so that if one goes off, they all go off. However, you can have all the nifty technology in the world but people are, unfortunately, still people.

One night, when all of the smoke alarms went off, he watched as his wife and two young daughters ran around like headless chickens, unsure of where to go or what to do.

No, it really IS an Ausgang
No, it really IS an Ausgang

As it turned out, there was no fire and everyone was fine but still, this simply would not do. NEIN!

Luckily, as a German, a plan is never far away. All the better if that plan involves scaring the bejesus out of your loved ones – in a fun and educational way, naturally. I like to think that he started formulating his cunning plan it as he stood there in his manly German Hausschuhe, though I can’t be sure.

After drilling a fire escape plan into his hapless female family members, he went out and bought some dry ice. He put it in bowls in various strategic locations around the house and added hot water to it. Then he set off the smoke alarms. His newly-educated wife and daughters had to find a way out, avoiding the “smoke” that was now billowing around their home.

Once they made it outside, they encountered a fire raging in the garden. With the help of teamwork (and a garden hose), they managed to put out the fire. Fortunately for them – God knows what kind of a plan B he would have come up with.

In keeping with the German love of paper, each of them received a certificate, and a medal, as proof of their now bad-ass fire-escaping abilities.

I think my dad, a habitual smoke alarm-checker, would be rather impressed by this approach to family safety. If he reads this post, I predict some dry ice in Mammy O’Grady’s not-too-distant future…

I just hope she wins the medal. I’ll be rooting for you, Mammy O’Grady!

 

The BAD little town that’s so good (2)

I woke up on Easter Sunday to another beautiful day. The sun was shining, birds were singing, a cock… was crowing in the distance, and I was awake at 9am – unheard of.

I cheerily hummed my way across the yard to the breakfast room, where Herr Scherr was playing the host with the most. While I was shambling around trying to locate spoons, napkins and tea, he presented me with a surprise gift.

What a lovely gesture!
What a lovely gesture!

I wanted to grab him by his manly German braces and plant a smacker on him, but his Russian wife could have been lurking nearby and that could have meant big trouble. Instead, I asked him for a pot of tea.

After dining like a queen and taking a shower, I popped back over to Herr Scherr to enquire about renting a bike for the day. He said he’d meet me outside the garage in around 10 minutes which, in German time, meant a minute and a half. He unlocked one of the garages to reveal a range of bicycles, choosing one that he thought would be a good fit for me. After hammering on the saddle a bit to lower it even further, I hopped on.

My bike
My bike – a ridiculous €2.50 for the day

I wobbled around the yard a couple of times in front of him, he told me to have fun, probably mentally wrote the bike off, and I was on my merry way.

I didn’t have any real plan; I was just going to cycle around as much of the lake as I could manage. I am what the Germans refer to as a “Schönwetter-Radfahrer” so I was a bit out of practice and had no desire to kill myself on such a lovely day. I cycled towards the lake, where the Germans were out in force doing what Germans do best – walking, running, biking, eating, and drinking beer, though usually not all at the same time.

The man on the right is demonstrating how to get into the perfect sitzpinkelling position...
The man on the right is demonstrating how to get into the perfect sitzpinkelling position…

In case you hadn’t gathered from the previous post, BAD Saarow and Scharmützelsee are rather beautiful. In fact, it was hard to stay on my bike for any amount of time as I kept on jumping off to take photos of pretty things, which was virtually everything. The houses dotted around the lake are so cute, it’s hard to believe people actually live in them.

But the absolute winner had to be…

How cool is that?!
How cool is that?!

I cycled on and on, proud of myself for not having fallen off or killed anyone. There were cycle lanes most of the way and it was pretty flat so this wasn’t really much of an achievement. Eventually, hunger started gnawing at me so I began keeping an eye out for a likely establishment. After a while, I happened upon the charming Café Dorsch.

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I nabbed the last remaining outdoor table, ordered soup and a glass of wine, enjoyed the sun on my face and took in the view.

Could be worse...
Could be worse…

It was in the bathroom after lunch that I realised one leg of my tracksuit bottoms was still tucked into my sock but it was a bit late to do anything about it at that stage.

With my legs complaining only a little, it was time to head back to town, with a few photo stops thrown in along the way. It was lucky I was by myself as I’m not sure anyone else would have had the patience for all the hopping on and off I was doing.

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Once back, I noticed a small beach that I’d somehow missed before. I sat down at the beach-side café, taking the only table that wasn’t reserved.

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At the beach – in March…

As the soup had only half-filled a gap, I decided to order some Apfelstrudel and a cup of tea.

That would definitely finish the gap off.
That would definitely finish the gap off.

With the sky starting to cloud over a bit, I hauled my strudelled butt back onto the bike, wondering if I should now have a sign that said “Wide Load”. After a nap in the comfiest bed ever, it was time to eat – again. As I was still belching garlic from the night before, more garlic was out of the question so I opted for the pork medallions and croquettes in mushroom sauce.

Another massive feed
Another massive feed

If Herr Scherr was surprised that I was still alive and that the bike was still in one piece, he Germanically didn’t show it. Back in my room, I poured a glass of wine and settled in for a night of fiddling about with the photos I’d taken. My phone vibrating made me jump. It was Fireman Sam.

Fireman Sam: Do you want to meet up?

Me: Ugh, I’m so full and so lazy.

Fireman Sam: I’ll be at your hotel in ten minutes.

Me: Urgh. (Belch) 

I put on some perfume to try to mask the garlic, onion, pork and mushroom aroma and walked outside. There he was. Now, if you think I’m mad for getting into a car with a virtual stranger, don’t worry – he was a German virtual stranger. I knew I’d be safe as houses.

He drove to the lake and we spent a lovely hour or so walking around in the moonlight, watching the lights reflecting off the water. I spoke bad German, he spoke good German and we somehow made it work.

All in all, the perfect end to the perfect weekend.