Monday, January 18, 2010

First impressions of Vienna.

This city rocks. I haven't missed my video games yet. The only trouble seems to be that I am not getting my work done. Ah well.

I am staying at an Arcotel hotel in Vienna. It's not bad. Like all hotels in Europe, the room is small. However, for just me, it's plenty of space. I've learned that while you stay at an Arcotel hotel, it is impossible to starve. They keep a big bowl of apples free for the guests out at the front desk. Theoretically, I guess one could live indefinitely here. Internet access (though slow) is also free. The TV's all in German except for cnn international and bbc entertainment. Honestly, I don't know why they call it bbc entertainment. They should perhaps just call it bbc or better yet, bbc boring you to tears.

Vienna is awesome for many reasons, not the least amongst them is the public transportation. Busses and the subway come every six minutes and you can get anywhere in town through them. A monthly pass is relatively cheap too (though of course I only have a one week pass). I've used the public transport in Jena (which is terrible), Washing DC (which is fair) and Cairo (which is sort of serviceable). Vienna's is by far the superior.

Another way that Vienna rocks - the people are nice. It's not all big city elite snobbery like you might expect. People here realize I am trying to speak German and are nice to me. They happily help me find things and tell me about places. It's really easy to meet people here. You can practically start a conversaion with anyone which brings me to my next point. I know this sounds very typically American but everyone here speaks English - and I mean everyone. In Jena, I can get by with a little help from friends. Here in Vienna, I feel like the locals know my language (and my dialect) better than I do. Even the people from the country-side who don't see so many tourists speak really good English. Many things are spoken in both German and English.

There's lots to do here. There are movie theaters for many different languages. There are theaters devoted to classic movies and theaters devoted to French films and so on. There's a great opera and a terrific philharmonic orchestra (probably the best in the world). There's also plenty of live theater - again in all kinds of languages. Also, there's fantastic architecture just lying about the place: imperial palaces, castles, gothic cathedrals, impressive government buildings, libraries and museums to boot. I walked through a huge museum yesterday devoted to medieval musical instruments and plate armor of the nobility in the Hapsburg era. Don't worry nerds (self included), I took plenty of pictures which I will put up in due time.

Also, you'd think Vienna invented the internet-cafe. Evidently the cool thing to do here is stop at a cafe, order your drink of choice and pull out either a macbook or a netbook and spend a couple of hours in your own world. Seriously, everyone here seems to do that. Yesterday, it was cold and snowing. The streets were barren. The museums were barren. The parks were barren. The cafes were packed.

The city is also gorgeous - and this is in the cold bleak winter. I can just imagine what it would be like in the spring when everything is blooming and its warm. I've been told by friends at work that everyone tries to get out of Jena and now I know why. There are incredible places like this to go to. If you get the chance to go to Europe, Vienna should be at the top of your list.

Friday, January 1, 2010


So, I got here over five months ago now. I had been planning it since I got here. My favorite variety of German beer is Koelsh. This is from someone who used to brew his own so that means something. Five months of hard work in a foreign country - non-stop. Christmas was spent here. We Skyped with our families. We watched them unwrap gifts. We even saw our cat. Our vacation was set to go on the 27th. We'd go to Cologne, where they make my favorite beer. I would spend the next several days with my wife enjoying the best of what Germany had to offer. Well, the morning of the 26th, I was in the emergency room having electrolytes pumped into the soft side of my elbow. I had come down with an acute case of gastroenteritis. I had a stomach virus.

On the 27th, I sure as hell wasn't staying home. Despite the stomach aches, despite the need to constantly use the restroom, I was on that train to Cologne. Actually, it was three trains. The first goes to Weimar where we caught the connection to the Frankfurt airport. There we caught the train south along the Rhein to Frankfurt. You know, if I hadn't been trying not to hurl, the Rhein would have been really pretty. The river carved out a path through the hills. Today, there are vineyards all along and olds castles dot the landscape. We get there. We check into the Marriot. I take a nap. My dinner is cut short by inability to feel comfortable eating lettuce.

Over the four nights we spent in Cologne, I did, gradually, feel better. It was not, however, the beer tasting vacation I had been waiting for. It wasn't until our last night there that I really felt safe enjoying real food and real drink. Let me tell you, it's hard to find food that agrees with an upset stomach in Germany - really hard. Germans seem to believe there are three food groups: pork, potatoes and beer. Honestly, I think I would have felt much better if I had just decided to get drunk the whole time.

Cologne is a city that is almost entirely new. The reason is that, like many major cities in Germany, it was basically rubble at the end of World War II. Interestingly, the allied bombers were very careful not to destroy the Dom - Cologne's absolutely incredible Cathedral. It took them eight hundred years to build the place. Now that's some long term thinking like we just don't have in the US. It was hard for me to think about the kind of mentality required to devote yourself to working on a building that wouldn't be finished in yours, your children's or your children's children's lifetimes.

Some friends back from Winston-Salem visited us while were there. It was really nice seeing them. It also reminded me a lot of what all we had left behind. I do not begrudge my current place - I am grateful for it. However, it can be very hard to see what we left behind. Our life before was very good. I hope that we end up somewhere as nice and with such very nice people.

The return trip was difficult. The train from Cologne to Frankfurt was an ICE and was travelling at high speed. We were definitely travelling faster than I ever had on the ground. We had to catch a connection from the Frankfurt airport to the Frankfurt central train station. It was late. This made us late for the train to Weimar. This meant we were caught in the failure of the German rail system. You see, northern Germany was experiencing a sudden snow storm. We were initially rescheduled to take a train heading towards Berlin. Part way through, we'd catch a connection back south towards Weimar. Well, the rail to Berlin had gotten snowed under. While the train showed up on time, it wasn't allowed to leave. So we went back and they gave us tickets for another train to Weimar. This was a very small train. Thing is, everyone who had been going to Berlin got put on this train - in addition to all the normal passengers. We spent two and a half hours sitting on our suitcase on this train. Nicely, at Weimar, our last train to Jena was on time.

We got to Jena at 2:30 pm. We got home at about 3. Thing is, it was New Year's Eve and the only grocery still open was a good walk away and closed at four then. Facing hunger, we made the journey in record time. The damned German rail system doesn't know just what bad is. We were rained on in freezing temperatures the whole way.

We're home in Jena now and have plenty to eat. Thankfully, I believe the stores are open tomorrow. If not, well, who knows. It's odd, saying "home in Jena". Six time zones away from anything we recognize (except for the McDonalds in the town center) and finding the very basics of life to be foreign, this is currently our home. I know we'll make it. I know this is good for my career. Heck, I'm in the best group in my field. This job pretty much ensures my future. Sometimes, I think I might trade it for being back in WS. To be back with all our friends, to be living the life we had spent so much time investing in, well, it would be wonderful. However, I know that if we had held on there, we would be slowly losing. Our friends would leave. They would have other opportunities. Eventually, there would be just a few holdouts holding onto a life that was no longer there.

I know now that I am ready, as soon as possible, to take a permanent position. I am ready for a nice cushy faculty position at a teaching institution. I am ready for a place where we can settle. I am enjoying my time here in Germany. Heck, who can complain at a temporary job that allows you to travel the world (and I mean eventually, the whole world) that also sets you up as one of the best in your field? I can't. However, I can learn from it. While I will always have a desire to travel and explore and see new things (and I will), I know that I also want somewhere to really call home.

My parents never had that. They had to move all over the country and they spent the most time in a place they never really wanted to live. Turns out, when they left, they left more than they ever thought. Personally, I left my childhood there in Houston, TX. Before my biggest step in life had been to look at everything I had in life and give it up for another to be happy. Now I set about seeing what I want and working on what needs to happen in order for that to happen.

It is a fitting struggle that I face. I am grateful for it. I could not ask for more.