Long Vienna Entry (two days worth)

Trip Start Jun 01, 2006
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Saturday, October 14, 2006

Dressing before Opera (I hope)- quick notes.

Back into town, rue the fact that I lost yesterday! To Hofburg- now- the palace complex has 18 buildings! Confusing as hell. I went in the main entrance and went into the museum. Well, its one of 6-8 museums? I thought it was all one. I ended up in the "Sissi" museum, combined with the Royal Dinner Service Museum and Private Apartments.

First, 45 minutes wending slowly through a display of all the knives, forks, spoons and dinnerware of the Hapsburgs. Interesting enough, overwhelming in quantity- but after a while (much like churches when you do a tour like this) ya seen 'em. Pushed through crowds- past Sevres, huge gold centerpieces, silver tableware, displays of table linen and on into-

Sissi land. A whole museum devoted to her. Now, you know, I love Sissi. But what about Maria Theresa? Not a word! Probably in another museum in the complex. You have to understand, this place is enormous. We know much about Buckingham Palace frankly because there is someone who sleeps there at night! I bet the Hofburg has a whole museum to Maria Theresa (who was far more interesting than that Sissi) but I couldn't find it. So, if you have a question about Sissi, let me know, I am steeped in Sissi lore. Up to my proverbial neck in Sissi lore. I do have to say it was interesting to see her dresses, 20 inches makes no impact until you see it- she was my height and, sometimes, when feeling feckless, I squeeze my ass into a pair of size 30 inch jeans to go out on the town, she was ten inches smaller. Astounding. Saw her rooms (including her gym- this was 1840's on, she really was ahead of her time), her traveling cases, every damn thing the woman owned. Also, and this may explain much, in a little corner in one of the rooms was a traveling medicine case with her cocaine stash and syringe. Hhhmm. The note was quite brief- it was all legal in those days (true) and had medicinal purposes: I think it may explain somewhat her thinness.

Her hair was ankle length, took 3 hours a day to 'dress' during which she learned Greek etc. I could go on and on- she sometimes tried a leather mask, lined with veal chops, worn all night, to preserve her looks. Her hair was washed once a week in her own secret recipe of eggs and cognac- it was a day long process. What ya wanna know about Sissi? I even saw her toilet (the first ever in a Hapsburg Palace) for heavens sake!

I was gratified to actually see the 'file' that was her murder weapon. A workers file, about 4 inches ling, very very thin and three sided (use, I don't know, but my friend Rick has files like these in his woodwork shop) so that mystery is solved for me at least.

Her hubby, the Emperor, lived very spartanly- slept on a small iron bed in a, for that time and his position, very small room. Interesting but I wanted out!

So, out I went. Crossed over into St. Michaels church- lovely, gorgeous Baroque beauty, said to myself "Uh huh, lovely Baroque beauty" and walked out- am on church overload.

I went up and around behind the Hofburg looking for the church of the Capuchins. It is here that the Hapsburgs are interred. After much futzing around, I found it. Not well marked at all, I went in. Another lovely church (sigh, when did I become so jaded?). No sign of the Hapsburgs anywhere. However, there was a line of elderly ladies wending up to the church organ. Each went up, played a piece, had her picture taken, and sat down. This must have been going on for a while, and judging by the crowd of elderly ladies, would go on. I heard some lovely music. I also heard a lot of false starts, a few 'one more time, please' and so on- they looked happy, the music overall was wonderful, so I sat and listened.

From there, wandered the Hofburg more, lost lost lost. I got hungry, headed down towards the Stephanplatz (all done quickly the day before, retracing my steps and hating the loss of time). I stopped in and spent real money on a real guidebook about Vienna at a bookstore and went down Graben (super high end shopping pedestrian street) towards the Plague Column. I love this thing. Built to mark the end of the plague, it rises four stories high, covered in statues and crowned with gilt that gleams in the sunshine. I was heading for Stephanplatz for a café and people watching, but the crowds down there were so great, I stopped by the column at a non descript café and rested. My headache was coming back and I needed food, coffee, and few minutes off my feet.

The crowds streamed past, and I chatted with my waitress, ordered my coffee and 'chicken in aspic'. Again, broaden those horizons. The food was not anything special (aspic is aspic) and after resting, on to St. Stephans.

My walk of one hour didn't do this place justice. Pictures don't do it justice. I took the audio tour (see pictures). It has a history to match Westminster Abbey, and after going on ad nauseum about Sissi, I'm gonna skip details here and let you know about it if you ask in person. Suffice that its damn old, full of beauty and history and I loved my time there- I took the audio tour and wandered about upstairs for quite a while.

And I went into the crypt. When we go into cathedrals and see a marker on the floor or wall about someone importantfamous being buried there- remember, it doesn't mean necessarily that if you lift that rock, they are right there. Diggin holes in the foundations of gigantic piles of rock is not wise. The bodies are in well built crypts that line the foundations of these massive structures. Normally, people don't get to do down- some churches and cathedrals allow this and I always take the opportunity (the one under St. Peters in Rome is simply something that you have to do if in Rome- period- that one is boggling). St. Stephan's was pretty good. First there are all the bishops and cardinals stacked atop each other like so many slices of bread- going back to the 1600's I think. Then we went into one which was more interesting than I had seen before.

The Hapsburgs, to keep their churches and cathedrals happy, aren't exactly buried in one place. The Capuchin church has the bodies. The hearts are in another church. St. Stephans has the internal organs. Yup, during the embalming process, the organs are removed, placed in copper (I think) buckets, soldered shut, and placed in the crypt. Thus, St. Stephans has Hapsburgs in the crypt. Each container is engraved with their vital information on the person and there they sit on shelves. In the center of the rooom were some coffins (Duke Franz III and his wife I think, and relatives ranges all around. No pictures- but as the guide led the way out and kept talking (he did his spiel in German first, English second so all the Germans were in front, us English in the back) two kids snapped a shot of the coffins after the Germans rounded a corner. I pondered.

From there it was to the charnel houses of the plague years (see pictures, I learned from the kids). Piles of bones that have been dumped as necessity dictated into huge piles in the crypt. Later, during WWII, in some crypts slave labor was sent down to organize the bones by 'bone type'- "all you skulls over here, femurs over there, hey knuckles get a grip and tighten up!".

It was creepy, odd, kinda fun. I suggest, if you ever do a crypt tour (or any tour for that matter that doesn't allow pictures) hang behind, see if there are corners the guide cant see around. You never know (see pictures).

By this point, when I emerged in the sun- I had my own dilemma. Using my digital camera (doing my best with it) is great- I can download each day and post pictures to go along with my text and all is orderly- no waiting for three weeks after I get back and wondering "Which fabulous barouque church is that? In fact, what country is that?" Downside, the camera fills up with pictures and thus, I had to trudge back to the hotel to empty out the camera. This, in the end, turned out to be a good thing.

While poking with the camera in my room, I decided I wanted to try and go to the Vienna State Opera. It's right up there with 'La Scala' in the opera world, and I thought, what the heck? So I pulled out the pants I have I have been dragging along for weeks now (worn only for fancy dinner in Brugge and Paris- and mind you, by fancy I mean black khakis) and the blue long sleeve button down I have only worn for those same two occasions.

Issue arose- I've lost more weight since I bought those pants. My belt needed to come in about an inch and a half! Otherwise, it hung down in front and looked damn silly.

Now, most guys would say "what the hell, no belt tonight then". Pardon me, I am a gay man, opera fan, going to the Vienna Opera- I'm damn well going to wear a belt on my pants! Vain? Not sure (just don't call me Sissi). So I set to work with a nail clipper (stop sniggering) on putting in a new belt hole. And the clock ticked- I had to get to the 'extra ticket' window by 6:30. Um, its hard putting a new belt hole in with a nail clipper- lets leave it at that. But, don't stop a gay man from being fashionable- it was done.

Metro'd over and waited outside the doors. And was approached by an opera ticket scalper!

Who knew, only in Vienna do they have scalpers at the opera!

She, of course, was late 50's with a bouffant hairdo and bright red coat (and matching lipstick) hawking Parquet Circle tickets at price- $95 Euro. Outta my league. Besides, never trust a scalper (ever been to a Phillies game for heavens sake?).

We chatted, but I was firm about getting my ticket from inside. So, being first in line, when the doors were unlocked, she walked right in with me, stood next to me at the ticket counter as I got information about available tickets and said "See? I told you my tickets are better". The man behind the window said "Her tickets are better. I'd take em"

I held out, price too high- so she came down to $75 Euro- the ticket seller arched his eyebrows and said "Take em". So I did.

Parquet Circle, Vienna State Opera, Friday Night.

Now that I had my ticket, I went shopping. No way was I going to the opera without a tie! The scalper said not to bother as 'tourists' weren't expected to dress. Excuse me? Don't lump me as a tourist! I had 45 minutes to get a tie, and damn it, I was getting one and no way in hell was I going to an Opera mecca tie-less!

I'll sum up. I bought a silk Gustav Klimt tie (for more than I care to share- I rationalized: this entire trip I have bought nothing- nothing- no souveniers except for Mom's Miraculous Medal and one lousy t shirt covered in Hungarian profanity- I got the tie).

I hadn't eaten, and remembering a recommendation from a friend who had lived here, got to a street cart and ordered a quick bite. I had my first Kaserkraner. What was my friend thinking when she recommended it? I am trying to stay thin! I think, though, she was thinking that she loved me and wanted me to be happy.

A Kaserkraner is a large 'schnitzel' (hot dog). The end of a long roll is snipped off, the bun is jammed down on a long thin stick to make a hollow in the bun, the schnitzel is popped in and voila- dinner.

Not thinking, I bit in.

Juices squirted everywhere- and mind you, I am not complaining. The outside was rather thick and hard and tough- the inside, though, was soft moist greasy meat. And not just meat, chunks of cheese are interspersed inside so that the whole mix in your mouth is sweet greasy meat, soft melted cheese, and crunchy exterior skin all mixing together. I gobbled bite after bite, loving each bite. It was only halfway through that I remembered my new (expensive) tie- thankfully the crusty bread had been sopping up the juice as it ran down- I ate more carefully thereafter, trying to avoid squirting juice on myself! It was wonderful, standing outside the Opera, eating Kaserkraner.

Feeling better, I joined the crowd and went in. Ok, better is relative, I wasn't in my jeans (unwashed since Aix, remember Aix and the Laundromat?) but still felt a little skuzzy- black khakis and a blue shirt with my nylon jacket; brown walking shoes that have now covered much of Europe and belt with a hole made by a nail clipper. Not exactly Vienna chic. And boy, was Vienna chic.

Scalper lady was incorrect- 95% were dressed for the opera. The women were done up! I can't even describe them, but nothing like I have seen in Philly or NYC (for the most part). All the men were in suits.

Some people were in Austrian dress- men with green or red vests buttoned up that came up to necks, some with suit collars that were red in the back (think Captain Von Trapp in "Sound of Music"). About 5% were tourists- jeans, t's, backpacks.

I found myself in the middle. Not quite dressy, not quite tourist. Sigh.

The opera was "Peter Grimes". Now, I don't expect many of you to know about this, or any opera in fact. As I waited I thought about that. I dabble a little bit in opera, but not a lot, and knew nothing about this one. I stick to Verdi, Mozart, Wagner. So I was unsure what to expect.

As I sat in the Vienna State Opera, looking at the crowd, staring up at the five tiers rising in gilt and white above me I had a sad thought. It was this- I have friends who are diverse indeed. Some of my friends are well known international artists, leaders in their fields. I have friends who sing professionally. I am acquainted with famous composers. I know amateur photographers who, while not making a living in photography, jnow their shutter speeds. Friends who are chefs. Friends who are doctors in their fields (Psychology, Literature etc). Friends who have followed dreams and specialized in their passions. I realized, sitting there, that while I dabble in much, I remain, in the end, a diletantte- knowing much about some things, being deeply versed in nothing.

It depressed me.

Then the opera started- and my singer and composer friends would know, as I did not, what I was in for.

'Peter Grimes' is not a pretty opera- it mostly (to me) atonal and very 'modern'. The story, briefly, it set in an 1830's English fishing village, Peter Grimes accidentally kills his helper on his fishing boat, the villagers hate him, he gets another boy from the workhouse, hills him, and commits suicide. Yippee. All without 'music' as I like it- perhaps a real challenge to sing, but also a real challenge to hear. It was in English, but I had trouble understanding most of it and the locals all were reading transcriptions into German. The set was black- with neon lights. Not my idea of opera.

At intermission, I climbed the grand staircase, under putti, statues, frescoes, the glory of Viennese art. I got a glass of wine and stood on the grand balcony overlooking the street.

What got me as I watched the crowd in intermission was that I was not part of the 95%, nor the 5%. It seemed an analogy for my life. Always straddling two sets- the world at large, the smaller world that my orientation puts me in. Neither fish nor fowl. Comfortable in neither. As I thought, I remembered, my conversation in the train from Budapest. One thing my companion said has stuck with me- at one point, she held up her hand and said "Are any of the fingers alike?" "No". "Hold up your hand". I did. "Are any of the fingers alike?" "No". So then why do you want to be like everyone else? Why do you try? This is old Yiddish widom."

It is indeed.

Back to seat.

Peter Grimes screamed anger. The villagers screamed their hatred of him. Sickly green neon flashed out and lit the five tiers of cream and gold boxes in the Vienna Opera.

I thought about how much I worry about what others think of me. What, for example, I am wearing to the Opera. The tourists were fine in their clothes, they wore them. I realized that I worry too much about external impressions. I wonder about my hair (recall, am growing it for the hell of it). Here, all the men wear their hair long- pushed straight back and either greased or let to fall free. Falling in a duck tail or held in a pony tail. And the more I looked, the more I realized that hair and clothes, don't really matter. Why do they matter so much to me? Why do I want to be part of the 95% when I am not? Why, at this age, am I still not comfortable in my own skin?

Why do I look at hair, clothes, and care? One man, perfectly turned out in suit and tie (Austrian tie, I can now tell the difference after long talk with the tie man) caught my eye- I looked, and after a moment, realized, perfect suit, tie, hair- and white shoes. No, not really white- white painted with purple and pink and tangerine so that they weren't really white at all. I worried about my belt hole. Why am I stuck at age 16 wanting acceptance?

Peter Grimes screamed hatred at the world.

I think in many ways I have taken steps towards individuality- but at the last step, I always seem to balk. There is always a voice somewhere in my head saying 'stop, don't go too far'- and I have listened for so long. I've blazed my own path somewhat, but always kept sight of the main trail, not quite straying too far away.

I had many thoughts and emotions- let's leave it at that for now.

The Opera ended (thankfully) and polite applause filled the theatre. Not too much, not too loud. Polite. We all filed out.

From there, I wandered down Kartner Strasse, another pedestrian shopping street, with no goal in mind. Gay bar? Straight bar? Where do I belong? What do I want? I don't fit in with many of the gay bars, not my 'thing' as most here in Europe are too 'cruisy'. Most have what is called a 'dark room' and that is a room behind the bar. You get your drink, and depending on the bar listen either to loud techno pop blasting or near silence and go to the 'dark room'. Dark rooms are just that, dark rooms. People go in for anonymous sex. Not my thing. But that's most bars here.

I turned down side streets and walked. Now, I had "Peter Grimes" in my head, confusion in my heart- and then, I heard, Verdi.

The music was coming from a little café and was "Boheme", in fact it was a duet between Mimi and Rudolfo that I love. I went in.

The café is high ceilinged and the walls are lined with black and white pictures of by gone opera stars. Many are 5x7's, some 8x10's and a few posters- they climb the walls with no order and most are signed. I don't recognize many of them but the lights are dim, candles are on the tables and the mood is peaceful.

I took a table and ordered a Reisling- it came icy cold and the carafe sweated- the frigidness cleared my head.

I sipped my icy wine, listened to Verdi and talked to the owner. The café only had 3 or 4 couples and he was free to chat- and he did. He was an Opera expert and while having a strong German accent and trouble with some words, we talked about the music we were listening to. Most were old records he had transferred to cd and all were his favorites (and most were long dead singers as well). He asked me about the singers as they came on, knew each by voice and swore that Leontyne Price was the best coloratura of her age but could not be compared to (I never got the name). In the end, he began writing down the names of singers, recordings of operas I simply have to have (the oldest being a 1960 recording that I think I will find hard to find). But I am saving the paper. I am going to look for these.

Although I shouldn't, I decided to order something to snack on. Leaving it to his judgment, I got the best after opera snack ever. A simple variation of 'Croque Monsieur' a thin slice of ham between heavily buttered and toasted bread. But what made this wonderful, was the cheese. Somewhat like the kind we get in little triangles wrapped in foil boxed together in a little wheel, this was gooey, soft and thick. I rested my arms on the marble table top and sipped my cold wine, nibbled my sandwich, and felt the coolness of the marble beneath my forearms chill me. And Callas sang.

It was one of those moments that are not easily described. Dim candlelight, perfect wine and food, and music- music pouring out all around. In Vienna. My good mood returned.

I was still alone, but happy in place that was right for me- not 'Grimey'; and not gay or straight but both. The couples in the bar were 'mixed' and all were there simply for the music.

Lesson?

I'm working on it.

I took a long walk back through Vienna rather than take the Metro- suddenly glad to be alone and grapple with my thoughts


Saturday, October ?? 2006

Up late last night, so up late this morning. Grappled with the "Schonbrunn or Melk" question and decided on Melk. Got dressed and was running out to catch a train at the Wesbonhauf when front desk clerk told me I had to change rooms! What a time! Luckily I am light packer now so ran up- moved (to a better room I might add, I am still confused) and back down. Language barrier on why someone wanted my smaller room but they did, so I am moved to larger front room.

Metro to the Train station. Got ticket for Melk, couldn't get ticket for Prague (leaves from different station, glad I asked). And boarded train after a while. Austrian countryside slipped by and after a while began to look more and more like what we see in the movies (and, of course, am thinking of a specific one). Before long, "The hills are alive, with the sound of music" was running incessantly in my head. Erggh. But it does look like that! Steep alpine hills, mostly tilled, running up towards mountains. Small villages with little train stations sweeping by. Rustic chalets with flowers still cascading down from the flower boxes (late in the year).

Pulled into the Melk station. Now, I have nothing but the name of "Melk" to go on. 'Go there', I have been advised. So I went, without a clue. Walked out of train station and went straight down the street and soon enough, the reason was clear. The Benedictine Abbey rises, much like the Acropolis, on a bluff and dominates the town and surrounding countryside. I walked towards it, couldn't find any way up, nor any signs (that I could read, all in German). So I kept walking round the bluff (and it was a long walk) and ended up on main road and saw signs for a boat- so headed for the boat. I figured on such a beautiful autumn day (sun was shining, nice breeze, still mostly carrying jacket except in shadows) leaves barely changing and only a few crunching underfoot- why not do the Danube? I have been putting off doing a river cruise as its something I don't want to do alone- but here, the countryside is so spectacular and its unlikely I'll ever be this way again, so down to the river I went.

The boat left five minutes prior- I could see it slipping down the little tributary towards the river. And being 'off season', it was the last boat. So back to the Monastery I walked, determined to find a way up; which, eventually I did.

The streets were mostly deserted but I got directions and climbed the steep steps. Up top- crowds everywhere- there were coming in by a back road up the mountain in tour buses.

About the monastery. It is enormous. Pictures don't give it proper scale but it is roughly on the size of a larger Buckingham Palace. AND I CANNOT BELIEVE I DIDN'T TAKE A PICTURE OF THE DAMN PLACE FROM AFAR! MAJOR GAFFE! Grabbed a bite, got my ticket and went in. The monastery, way back when (and here, that can mean, oh, 800 or a 1,000 years ago) was more important than Vienna. Vienna was a small dirty crossroads, and the Monastery at Melk had more monks than Vienna had people. Before Charlemagne, Melk was the regional 'it' town and the monastery grew in power over the centuries and has a long history. The current Monastery was the work of one Abbot who wanted to take the buildings of various centuries and make them 'harmonious'. This would be like taking all of Center City Philadelphia and making it have 'one' look- and make it Baroque.

One wing is a museum full of ecclesiastical treasures. I was trapped between a German tour group being led by a very well fed Benedictine monk, and another German tour group being led by a very thin and loud woman. I got squished a bit and my ears were full of German, but I saw what I wanted.

The vistas from the walkway between the museum and library were spectacular. Maria von Trapp was singing in my head louder than before (the place looks like her convent in the movie) and alpine meadows spread out in every direction. The library was a book lovers' wet dream. The Monastery has been collecting books since about, oh, the year 800 (they financed a lot of the reconstruction of the Monastery by selling their Gutenberg Bible for example). The Library was crammed and itched to touch some books but no go.

From there, the impossiblyoverdoneingold church. It was lovely, and actually quite harmonious, for being so completely covered in gold- there were some neat skeletons (See pics: now, of course, I've been traveling for months and am almost done- TODAY I discovered where the 'zoom' button is on the camera! Thank the 'zoom' for nice pic of the skeleton- if only I had known before how to do this- ah well) and from there, I went out to the little town of Melk. And it is little. The movie "Name of the Rose" was filmed here, I cant wait to get back and watch it again (and Sean Connery was perfect in this movie, if you haven't seen it). The Monastery is far bigger than the town and after wandering for a bit, back to the train, and back to Vienna.

I had promised my friends in Prague I would pick up a special bottle of Absinthe available only in Vienna- so I went a searching for the "Schnappsmuzeum" of Vienna. Three hours, and lots of frustration later, I gave up. I come to Prague not bearing gifts.

Here I sit now at the Opera Café of the night before. My friend greeted me warmly, sat me down and brought some wine. When my laptop came out- I got (for the first time) the famous Viennese attitude.

"I do not like computers" "Oh, really?" "No, they are crude". Well, tonight he has about 8 tables full of people, and I doubt will have time to talk opera to me and frankly, I feel like writing. So screw it. Of course, no longer the solicitous helper of last night, now a small German/English Dictionary is put down with the menu. And after taking my order, all my choices are 'out'. I decide, per advice from a friend who lived here, not to be intimidated. So, I made second choices. "Computers are not atmospheric to my café". Good English for someone who can no longer translate 'Brot' for me.

He mumbles, won't look me in the eye- casts very obvious looks at my computer. He brings my food: I eat every bite- but it doesn't taste all that good to me. A lesson I have long known:

The mood in which food is served is as important, if not more so, than the food itself.

The simple sandwich of last night was so much better when served with bonhomie.

So I do a quick entry for the day, and now must research trains to Prague. The info on train times that my friends have in Prague do not match times I am getting from here (by HOURS) so I gotta figure this one out.

Next entry, Prague.
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