Friday, January 30, 2009

Ousted from Österreich

Österreich = Austria

New Years Day dawned, enrobed in a blanket of fresh snow. At least, I’ll assume that’s how it dawned. There was still a fluffy layer of snow over things when I woke up around 10.

Really a fresh snowfall is the perfect way to start a new year. To quote Hobbes (the tiger not the philosopher), “It’s like having a big white sheet of paper to draw on!” and we quickly fell to drawing on 2009 by exploring Salzburg on foot.

Our first destination was Mirabelle palace, where we watched the concert the night before. This time it was light out and we could appreciate the frosted gardens where they shot a bunch of material for “Do-Re-Mi.” Of course posing had to ensue. Behind our arms is a rearing Pegasus statue, a tough sculptural feat.

Statues were placed throughout the garden including unicorns, dwarfs, and this sugared lion:

It all vaguely reminded me of “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” when Edmond walks through the witch’s palace and sees mythical creatures from across Narnia frozen in stone and snow. You have to give the corrupt prince-archbishop some credit for his Romantic tastes.

Our walk then took us into the Altstadt of Salzburg, past quaint cafes, the house where Mozart was born (behind the photographer) and where he grew up (through the arch, on the right). We found street vendors selling cheese, meat, and more lucky pigs while searching for every steeple in town. As indicated by the ruling archbishop and the singing nuns, the town has been staunchly Catholic for quite a while and each church is stuffed with priceless art and history.

The interior of the University Church (Kollegienkirche). Presumably it gets heavy traffic near exams. The place was built in 1707 and was decked out with “Baroque excess” in 1721. Including statues in the side chapels for the various schools of the University: St. Thomas of Aquin represents the School of Theology, St. Luke stands up for the School of Medicine, St. Ivo (who I’ve never heard of) is in for the School of Law and St. Catherine represents the School of Philosophy.

I think Carolyn is describing the difference between Baroque design and Rococo. The University Church kind of bridges the gap. Key signs of Rococo include scallop-shell motifs and tons of stucco. In case there was any question about how or why Carolyn and I work, just listen to her drop a few obscure but fascinating facts in a Rococo sanctuary and it will all make sense.

On the Universitätplatz where farmers markets and souvenir shops mingle. If you stuffed the two of us into some lederhosen, I think we would make pretty authentic locals. Until we opened our mouths. Then there might be problems. I envision wandering the town, charging 50 cents for a picture with a "real" Austrian in full costume. I might even yodel for an extra 20.

Lunch. This is Stiftskeller St. Peter and they've been in business over 1,000 years and gets called out in Charlemagne's biography. Those are credentials. In reality, no one actually knows how old the place is, because it was well established when Charlie came through town and he died in the early 800s. Chew on that. Then you can chew on this: they serve traditional Austrian fair including duck and more boiled beef. The interior is a maze of booths, wooden tables and private rooms. A large, wealthy Salzburger family was celebrating the new year with a reunion in one of the private rooms near the bathroom. As each of us trooped up to the WC, we would peek in at the commanding patriarch surrounded by his sons, sons-in-law, the matriarch and all the grand kids.

Fortified and with slightly warmer, drier feet, we went back into the streets and churches:

St. Peter's Church. Built in 1147 in Romanesque style with semi-circular arches and very Medieval mosaics, the Benedictine monks that run the place decided it needed to be modernized in the mid 1700s. The stern frescoes were white-washed and the putti were applied liberally, creating a Rococo wedding cake of murals and alters, creating the perfect setting for Mozart performances.

As the oldest church in Salzburg, St. Peter's also has the oldest cemetery. Of course, that's really not saying a lot. In Germany, you rent your burial plot for a limited amount of time. Once your time is up, your family can opt to maintain your rent or you get exhumed and a new guy gets your grave. Often the graves are kept in the family, or a familial alcove is rented where your headstone and name is displayed with several generations of your descendants. This means there aren't a lot of particularly ancient dates in this cemetery, or any cemetery in the German-speaking world. Sometimes the headstones that no longer have a head under them are tacked to the wall of the church. Sound of Music buffs will remember this as the setting for Lisle and Rolf's last encounter as the family tries to hide from the Nazis.

In the background is Festung Hohensalzburg ("High Salzburg Fortress"), one of the largest Medieval castles in Europe. We opted not to venture to the top, leaving that for another trip, but admiring its commanding presence from the town is also a memorable experience. I'm sure trying to assault a fortress perched on a cliff is also memorable, but that too will have to wait until my next trip when I remember to bring my trebuchet.

These roses actually managed to bloom during our mild December, leaving this poetic image on new years.

Another view of the castle as the family wandered towards Salzburg Cathedral. To the right, over Carolyn's head and hat you can see the funicular tracks leading to the castle. Over dad's head you can see public art. There was a convenient sign describing the artist and the piece's installation. When asked why he bothered to put a guy on top of a massive gold sphere the artist gave the ultimate cop out: "That's for the viewer to decide." I decided I was confused by it and thought it obstructed by view of the castle. I'm also a heathen, so take my opinion with a grain of Salzburg salt (Salzburg means "Salt Castle" by the by).

Everyone was out for a walk, enjoying the fresh snow and brisk day. These two didn't make it very far though. Maybe with a little help from one of the bored horses in the background, they might make a little more progress.

Salzburg Cathedral, a baroque masterpiece from the 17th century and dedicated to St. Rupert of Salzburg, the patron saint of the city. Mozart was baptized here. There has been a cathedral and dom on this spot since at least 774. Its foundations were likely orchestrated by St. Rupert himself before he went out to convert the pagans in the area. Before that this was probably a site of Celtic religious ceremony and sacrifice. There's been a lot of worshipping through in the area through the centuries.

If you go down into the crypt, you can see the tombs of Archbishops, both honorable and dubious. They already have tombs prepared for the next dozen (or so) Archbishops of Salzburg. I wasn't able to figure out which tomb held the Prince-archbishop with the trick fountains. For some reason they don't make note of such accomplishments in marble.

The Nativity scene in Salzburg Cathedral. Looking over the manger is the Salzburg Fortress and vineyards. It's part of the European tradition to make the Christmas scene take place in town. I would like to see a Cincinnati Nativity scene with Union Terminal and the Roebling Bridge. Maybe a Columbus scene could feature the Roaring Olentangy and The Shoe.

A final good-luck picture with a dozen piggies counting down to 2009. The clock actually worked, though the date function needed calibration.

After our walking tour, Carolyn and I wandered through town while Mom and Josh did some shopping and we met up again for a Classical music concert on the plaza in front of the Cathedral. Just the night before the stage was graced with Street (Something), but for this concert the musicians were armed with instruments and tunes more befitting of the city of Mozart and Maria. A soprano performed opera pieces and "Edelweiss." The ensemble performed a series of waltzes, an Austrian tradition on New Years Day (if not New Years Eve, apparently on the Viennese do that). Of course, we fell in 1-2-3-ing.

It's difficult to waltz on slanted cobblestone streets with bottles, ice, and paper underfoot, and a couple hundred fellow waltzers around you. But everyone pulled it off without sustaining any major injuries.

Of course, the Blue Danube waltz is the stable of a New Years dancing experience. Carolyn and I got to show off our newly polished skills. Unfortunately, everyone wasn't willing to get into the dance, so we couldn't use our newly acquired turning abilities. It just proves we need to find a ball somewhere they takes poor graduate students.

Josh is a slightly more confident dance partner than dad. To dad's credit, he doesn't get to work on his steps as often as his son who became a featured dancer in Onegin last semester (Note: Operas are not known for their company dance pieces, and Josh says the choreography was very simple, so his notoriety doesn't mean much. Still, the boy can bust a move when he want to.).

The string and brass ensemble also played "The Gallop" by Jacques Offenbach, otherwise known as "you know, the Can-can song." We didn't have a lot of room and we were still slipping around on the ice and snow, but the three of us were able to kick and balance without humiliating ourselves. We even managed to spin our little chorus line 180 degrees. I was hoping other spectators would join us, but Austrians are apparently just as reserved as their German counterparts.

After the concert mom and dad headed to the Golden Ente restaurant to eat in its comfy wooden interior while Carolyn, Josh, and I started walking to the outskirts of town to the Augustiner Bräustübl. The brewery came highly recommended and we were excited to explore a new neighborhood of Salzburg. We climbed the street to the Abby where the restaurant was supposed to be waiting for us and were greeted with a simple, familiar word: Geschlossen. Apparently the monks needed time to be with their families. We were a little shocked by the sign. Salzburg had lulled us into a false sense of perpetual open-ness. Now we had to turn around and find another place serving local brews and food.

One estabishment seemed promising, with large wooden tables glimpsed through the ancient windows. We walked in and were asked if we had a reservation. Nein. The waitress went into the back to see what could be done for us. The room seemed empty except for two families talking in subdued voices. It was supposed to be peak dinner time, but no one seemed to be out. It was not the boistrous bar I had envision for heralding the New Year and seeing Josh home in style. We beat a hasty retreat before the waitress could return. I think it was already clear we somehow didn't belong there, and she probably sighed with the same relief we felt to get back on the street.

After wandering through the Altstadt, we finally retraced our steps to an Irish Pub at the bottom of a narrow stairway. I'm becoming a dungeon bar conneseiur. The beer cellar was a labrynth of arches, nooks and squat chairs. Perfect. Josh had the opportunity to try his first Guiness.

Guiness is actually the first beer I had when I was in London with my family in 2004. I ordered fish, chips and a Guiness, the way it should be done. Unfortunatley I didn't have much of a pallat for bitter at that point. I didn't even really like coffee, so the Guiness had to be finished by my father. I was able to continue this tradition by helping Josh finish his after he decided he needed something a little lighter.

The pub didn't seem to have food, so after a few rounds of hearty stuff from Austria, Germany, and the UK, we went back to meet the 'rents. We had enjoyed massive pastry/pretzels earlier in the evening, so our hunger really didn't get to us until we sat down with mom and dad. We asked the waitress if we could have...something, maybe schnitzel? It didn't matter, because they were out. Then we found out the restaruant was getting ready to "geschlossen." So, once again, we ordered soup and called it a meal. It was really good soup though and I was warm and happy, enjoying the final night of the Borths Family adventure.

The next day mom, dad, and Josh were departing for Frankfurt to fly home and Carolyn and I were headed for Munich. After looking at the map of the city, we decided we could walk to the train station with our luggage. This was a mistake. The Austrian (and German) philosophy of snow maintainence is to just leave it, let it become slush under foot and pinch some salt on it if you need to clear a wheelchair ramp. Our rolling suitcases were not cooperative striking out into the slush and we had to give up the cause. I ran laps around the taxi stand outside Mozart's house, trying to figure out who was next. A driver lethargically signaled I should come over. I directed him to our pathetic clump of people and luggage and we were able to get better wheels under our stuff. Dad went with the cab while mom, Carolyn, Josh, and I took one final trip to Mirabelle palace to prove our Ohioan pride:

At the train station we said our goodbyes and headed to our respective tracks. As soon as I sat down on the train to Munich, I was already missing my family again. Just having everyone together, sharing our stream of consciensness conversations, shamelessly people-watching, and reminding outselves how much fun it is to all be together was an incredible Christmas gift. I don't really get homesick for familiarity as some people do, missing the routine of being in a city or house you understand. I just really miss my mom, my dad, and my brother.

But I couldn't mope too much. Carolyn and I had an adventure in Munich to plan with castles to see and textiles to scrutinize. Intrigued? Say tuned.


P.S. In case you have been wondering, yes, have been doing and seeing interesting things in January. Those will come to light next week after the Epic of Christmas is concluded. You will also hear about my trip for Budapest which I will be departing for in about four hours. I'm looking forward to a great weekend with Fulbrighters. I hope you have a fantastic weekend as well!

The hills are alive with the sound of fireworks

Because we left our trusty Volkswagon in Vienna, the Borths family (and Carolyn) struck out for Salzburg by rail. I have a minor debate going with a friend over the merits of the train versus ride sharing. Both systems are very easy to use. A well-known website connects drivers and passengers who want to share a tank of gas to just about anywhere in Germany, or even Europe. This service takes some planning on the passenger’s part. You need to call the driver, arrange a pick-up time, and it’s usually a bit slower than the train, but it’s cheaper.

I admit there are advantages to ride sharing, but you can do this on the train:

My mom reserved a cabin for us, so we could take the three-hour trip together. We stretched our legs, got out books and journals, and looked out the window as we rolled through the Austrian highlands. An older Austrian shared our cabin and offered running commentary on all the cities and geography we were passing. He didn’t speak English, so I translated some of his commentary and got to practice my German skillz (an advantage of ride-sharing, according to my friend).

The train may be expensive, but nothing beats those massive picture windows and your own tray table to work on. But that’s just me. I’m glad the family got to share my point of view.

As soon as we landed on the Salzburg platform, mom tracked down the tourism office and got the number for “Bob’s Special Tours,” a tour company that specializes in showing giddy Sound of Music buffs the sights made famous by the 1965 classic.

Before we left the station, we had five places reserved in a minibus that would pick us up from the hotel we hadn’t seen yet. Mom was excited. But before we could see if the hills were really alive we had to check-in to the Hotel Golden Ente (The Golden Duck). We hauled everything up the first flight of stairs and were greeted by The Frau. The Frau is one of those people who takes her job very seriously. As you watch such a person throw themselves to their duty, you believe that if they stopped, the universe itself might cease its expansion and the Earth freeze in its orbit. Frau is a commanding woman, blond, and ready to put you on the right path physically, economically, and morally if you need it. You are not her guest. You are her wayward child.

She packed me into the elevator with all the baggage and led everyone else up the stairs to our suite, though suite is an inadequate word. She lead us to our apartment, or maybe our home. The place had a full kitchen, one and a half baths, two bedrooms, a fold out, cable TV and a spiral stair case that climbed to a locked window. Someday The Frau hopes to put a deck or porch up there. For the time being the stairs could serve as Austrian home gym equipment. Elisabeth would know how to use them.

After we dropped everything off and The Frau bustled off, we went outside to wait for Bob’s tour guide, who eventually arrived, though not with the normal German punctuality. Maybe they play time a little looser in Austria. Her name was Rosa Maria. She spoke with a thick, authentic German accent and knew her script by heart. We were the only people going for a tour on New Year’s Eve, so we had plenty of room in the van to slide around and look out all the windows as we passed the tree line the von Trapp kids climb, meadows that beg for Julie Andrews in an apron, and the church where they solve a problem like Maria.

As we went by the Abbey used for exterior shots and the actual von Trapp home, mom would offer some personal insights, such as my great-grandmother’s actual encounter with Maria von Trapp. Rosa Maria would stop, briefly stare, then continue with her script.

Part of the problem with never getting much chit-chat in was we never really defined our family dynamic to her. In case you haven’t noticed yet, my family has a relatively restricted gene pool. Cheeks, blond hair, short statures, and dimples are in. Carolyn doesn’t look like a Borths. She doesn’t exude the hobbit vibe my family shares, but she does have the fair features and most people probably assume we’re a five person family unit (unless Carolyn and I are holding hands). Because Rosa Maria was focused on the script, she didn’t notice this gesture, so she was a little shocked when we arrived at the gazebo where Rolf and Liesle sing “You are 16 going on 17” and Carolyn and I struck this pose. Josh was quick to observe, “Oh, it’s so cute, they met when she was 16 going on 17” to clarify things.

My parents met at the St. Xavier/LaSalle football game when they were 16 going on 17 and 17 going on 18, so this picture was also taken:

The tour also stopped at the lake-side mansion where the movie’s von Trapp’s live. Instead of having a boat tipping into the water, we were treated to hockey players enjoying the weather on the last day of 2008.
Then we struck out into the mountains. I really do love The Sound of Music, but I’ve discovered I love seeing the Alps even more. We stopped in a tiny restaurant overlooking a glacial lake and Alpine town for authentic apple strudel and coffee.

This is the mountain the family crosses at the end of the movie to get to Switzerland. Unfortunately, this would be a poor choice of escape route since Germany is on the other side of this mountain. In fact, The Eagle's Nest, Hitlers personal Alpine mansion is on the other side, an easy day trip from Salzburg.

Someone's home. They just live there. They go to work every day, go grocery shopping, and pick up the kids. And call this home. Karma will bite them in the butt someday.

Our view from a strudel cafe. Rosa Maria says its a popular place for visitors. I can't imagine why.

After getting the requisite caffeine and sugar rush, we headed to the church where the captain and Maria get married. As Rosa Maria explained we could go in, but she would wait by the van, a dude in a ski cap rapped on the window. I was in the back of the vehicle and couldn’t hear everything he said, but his tone seemed to say, “Ya’ll need to get the heck out.” Then he gestured at four guys near a fountain and grinned. I caught the word “Gewehr” which means gun. What was going…BOOM!

Four black powder muskets pumped the air full of sound and smoke. Before we could ask why this was happening, Ski Cap’s four buddies reloaded, swung the ancient weapons up to their hips again and fired. Happy New Year! Ski Cap ginned. We applauded and started to get out, hopping there weren’t any cannons getting loaded nearby for a grand finale.

The residual smoke from the New Year's muskets. Happy 2009!

Carolyn walking down the aisle Julie Andrews strolls down. The anti-nun gate was installed for the movie. In the back, Josh is Gretel the flower girl. I've been made fun of for posing in pictures. Know that this is a Borths brother tradition. Even my girlfriend gets in on it.

Josh and I have confidence in spring time. We have confidence in rain. We have confidence that SPRING will come again!

By the end of the ride, Rosa Maria had loosened up a bit. She turned on the soundtrack to the movie that she probably loathes now and was pleasantly surprised when we (especially Josh) started to sing. I’m sure a lot of people have taken Bob’s Tour who are both enthusiastic and tone deaf. Thankfully we could only claim the former. As the sun dipped behind the mountains, we rolled back into the hotel with “I Have Confidence” stuck in our heads, but now it was time for an even higher art form: Classical chamber music.

Mirabell Palace was the venue for the evening’s performance. Built in 1730 for the prince-archbishop it is so Baroque that you’d never be able to put it together again. The title Prince-Archbishop doesn’t get used very often, but it was the title bestowed on the rulers of Salzburg after they broke away from the Bavarians and was independent until the Austro-Hungarian empire took over in 1815. Combining the secular and religious rule of a city is always dicey and palaces for the archbishops dot the landscape, including one built in a month to store a particularly un-celibate Prince’s mistresses. This same character had his larger palace tricked out with a sprinkler system so he could drench his guests whenever he flipped a switch. He even had hoses hooked up to their dinner chairs so he could soak while they ate. They weren’t allowed to leave until he did, so I’m sure they would spend the rest of the meal contemplating the consequences of flipping off a Prince-Archbishop.

The string ensemble performed in an ornate, gold trimmed hall with plenty of putti and plaster (see Carolyn’s comment on the “Beware” post for more on putti in art). The group consisted of youngish women and one 60 year-old man who founded the group before most of the girls were born. They had a wonderful sound as they lead us through Wagner, Mozart, Chopin, and Bach. It was the first time I have watched a small classical ensemble perform, and by the end of it I assigned each of them a personality based solely on their expressions and body language as they played. After the final round of applause, Carolyn, Josh and I compared notes. We agreed the second violin would probably make a great friend. The bass player would probably ignore you if you were the only two people on a tiny desert island.

We left the palace as snow was starting to fall and wound our way to a hotel restaurant on the river to celebrate the New Year. They knew we were coming from the concert, but our waiter was still agitated. We needed to get through a couple of courses if we hoped to get to desert by midnight. We started with champagne (Sekt here in the German speaking world) and an appetizer pictured here:

The pink is beet foam. Each little appetizer is some kind of fish with the caviar in closest to the camera. Carolyn is responsible for documenting this meal. Then came the salad course, and more wine, then the main course, fish or beef, and more wine (Austria is known for their wine. I expected to hop the Atlantic and come back a beer snob, but I have sampled a surprising array of Germanic wine. Bless the Romans for stubbornly sowing vineyards wherever they went.)

Our plates were quickly cleared; midnight was close at hand. Our waiter quickly poured us a second round of champagne and showed us the exit to the river. All of Salzburg clustered itself around the Salzach River watching fireworks sporadically fly over the water. The Salzburg fortress contributed to the effort, but mostly the display was put together by eager pyromaniacs. There wasn’t an organized time to start, and there was no climactic finale. Instead, explosions blossomed overhead, ash rained down and we squinted at our watches to see if it was midnight yet because you can’t hear church bells over fireworks.

By consensus we declared it midnight. The family toasted a wonderful new year, then we turned and toasted our waiter, the cook staff, the hostess, and our dining neighbors who were also enjoying the sporadic pyrotechnics. After things petered out and only the occasional firecracker could be heard going off by the bridge, we returned to the restaurant for coffee and desert.

Desert was a mango sorbet in a fried pastry shell, topped by pulled sugar. The sugar needed to move to get to the mango, so we ate through. The texture was somewhere between fiberglass insulation and Brillo pad, but it sure tasted sweet. A fantastic meal to kick off 2009, but the night couldn’t be over yet. Carolyn and I had taken dance lessons in Vienna so we would be ready waltz on New Years and we had been told there was a dance floor in the hotel connected to the restaurant.

We had seen the dance party when we walked through the building after the concert, and weren’t sure if it was the place to waltz. It was a mix between a tiny wedding reception and a corporate Christmas party with an average age of 50 and an average skin tone of tanning-bed sienna. We retraced our steps with mixed thoughts. If they were playing “The Banana Boat Song” (Day-O, me say Daaay-O!) again, we were going to keep searching for a place to dance, but we weren’t sure where exactly to look. Fortunately the decision was made for us when the doorman told us only hotel guests were allowed at the party. Slightly relieved, we walked on.

Mom and dad decided to call it a night, but Carolyn, Josh, and I followed the sounds of thumping bass to a New Years Block Party set up in the old town square by our hotel. Beer bottles were skittering around below our feet, kicked by drunken revelers who were all coming to hear “Street (something)” rock out thier favorite covers with particular focus on the late 80s and early 90s (especially love ballads).

As we found a spot in the crowd, they started the classic opening riff of “Sweet Home Alabama.” I sang along, carrying some Austrians who might not have known all the lyrics (“Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers…” doesn’t really mean anything in either language). The band also played some German tunes that everyone seemed to know the words to. We were able to sing along to the chorus, but I’ve since forgotten the words and melody, so that popular non-English tune with have to remain an elusive memory.

We watched an older, and very inebriated couple waltz to an early 90s ballad. Their neighbors cleared a large space for them, allowing their stumbling steps to carry them across the cobblestones. Fortunately they were never carried into the cobble stones. No one wants a New Years face plant.

Finally Street (something) said their goodbyes, played their encore and called it a night. We turned with the rest of the crowd, thinking of bed and the Salzburg adventures we would find the next day…

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ja, und ich kann Latinisch lesen.

(Yes, and I can read Latin.)

Today, I fought a battle against technology. I think I may lose the war. It's funny to think my analysis of fossils 130 million years old is bogged by a software package that is considered ancient because it was made in 1999.

Thus I wasn't able to finish my post on Salzburg and the Borths family adventures in town. Stay tuned. Those should appear tomorrow. Beware: you may also get "The Sound of Music" stuck in your head after reading it.

Today I had a little discussion online with a linguistics scholar on the origins of English grammatical rules in Latin. This was partially sparked by my frequent use of terminal prepositions and this article from the New York Times. The Latin discussion made me nostalgic for a quick Latin lesson, so I went to YouTube.

I've already made a reference to Life of Brian, so you know I'm a fan of the movie and Monty Python in general. The first video is from the original English version and is a staple of every Latin scholar's comedy repertoire.

The next video is the same scene dubbed in German. I was able to take out two birds by watching this video, polishing my Latin and stumbling through my German!

The two languages have much more in common than I ever expected. They're both Indo-European, sure, but one, Latin, gave rise to the Romance languages, and German gave rise to, well, the Germanic languages (including English and Dutch). In my mind, the Germanic tribes fought with the Romans and traded, picking up some vocabulary, but nothing fundamental to the structure of the language.

English doesn't use any of the Romantic grammatical rules and England was occupied by the Romans roughly as long as the Roman legions were stationed across central Germania. English doesn't have much Latin grammar (Note: I know we have a ton of Latin in our vocabulary. Especially our snooty polysyllabic words. This Romantic influence can be blamed, once again, on the French.With the Norman invasions in 1066 a longboat-load of new words flooded the English language. However, the Romantic stuff didn't come anywhere near our construction of the past tense as we will see after this note is over.).

We English speakers don't have gendered nouns (except when literal gender is involved), our adjectives proceed our nouns, and our verbs could care less about the number of people doing the running, reading, believing, back-flipping etc. But the Germans have adopted many Latin rules, including kicking the main verb to the end of the sentence in all tenses but the present, giving arbitrary cases to certain prepositions, and generally building an incredibly complicated method of communication.

The main divergence between Latin and German is their economy. Latin crams as much information as possible into a few words and letters mostly by getting rid of pronouns, articles, and most auxillary verbs. German forces you to take your time and a deep breath before launching into a simple declarative sentence. English inherited a bit of this, too:

Latin) Ambulabo. (Eight letters)

German) Ich werde gehen. (Thirteen letters)

English) I will walk. (Eight letters)

Latin) Cogito ergo sum. (13 letters)

German) Ich denke, also bin ich. (18 letters)

English) I think, therefore I am. (18 letters) (I've always thought a better way of translating this phrase would be "I think, thus I am." This emphasizes the brevity of this simple, but profound musing. "Therefore" always carries a whiff of self-importance and egg-headed-ness.)

Further observations on German and English will follow, but for now know that I was very happy to bring my linguistic loves together in one Python sketch. It's educational stuff. Maybe you feel a little enlightened, too.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Beware: High Brow Arty Stuff

Warning: What follows is a serious geek-out over the history of art and a little opera thrown in. If art isn't your cup of tea, then turn back. Before you turn back, though, I also would like to ask you why you drink tea but don't like art. I feel like the two are locked together in vaguely affected matrimony until the Rapture. But that's just me.

I'm glad you decided to stick around. You might need a cup of tea to get through this...

The next morning, armed with audioguides and little comprehension of its vast size, the Borths family entered the Kunsthistorisches Museum (literally “art-history museum”) in Vienna. The Naturhistorisches Museum across the way was closed for the day, meaning I didn’t get to see the 25,000 year old Venus of Willendorf. I guess that’s what a return trip is for. We did get to analyze the exterior of the building though:

The exterior of the Natural History Museum has statues of people representing each of the continents. Here is the perfect specimen of the 19th century "Noble Savage." America (Note: this figure represents both North and South America. For a long time both landmasses were thought of us one continent. This jived well for the Renaissance idea of balance. There were four elements, four directions, four winds, four limbs, four gospels, and four continents: Europe, Asia, Africa, and America. Australia and Antarctica butted in later, after the whole balance idea was given up and South America gained a separate identity from the North.) looks of to the side defiantly, but still at the mercy of the elements as indicated by his furrowed brow of worry. Australia hunkers down, giving protection to the child. She’s sitting in the dirt, but she’s not looking to anyone but the viewer. It looks like she wouldn’t listen to them anyway.

Europe on the other hand reaches her arms wide, ready to take in the wayward continents with the torch of knowledge and the gift of art and music (even if the continents don't really want to learn the lyre). Oh, the age of Imperialism.

The Naturhistisches Museum and the Kunsthistorisches Museum were constructed at the same time and opened in 1891, each as a place to house the Hapsburg Royal Family’s various collections. Obviously the art collection is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. It is actually one of the few major art museums in Europe built explicitly to display art. The interior is covered in ornate marble columns, gilt ceilings and busts of royals and nobles.

The grand staircase of the museum. It’s the first thing that greets you as you stride through the door. Normally museums have a bustling, echoing main atrium. Here you must ascend the stairs to the art where the echoes don’t travel. You physically travel to a more elevated plane on pink marble.
Above your head is a massive fresco showing just that. The stairs continue into the image and you enter behind the guy down center who is in awe of all the enlightened figures around him including the heroes of the Renaissance. Above their heads and in their midst float sacred Inspiration and the muses. It all bubbles over through the Pantheon-like dome.

At the top of the staircase is an incredible statue of Theseus winding up to brain a centaur, as imagined by Antonio Canova. Thesus is reasonable, civilized man conquering the baser animal instincts that threaten to tear civilization to shreds - or at least stampede civilization into oblivion. What I was struck by is the incredible ability of the artist to make some of the densest stone on earth look squishy.

The centaur's back folded, agonized flesh and his fingers actually grip Theseus's forearm, leaving a depression. The hero's knee is digging into his foe, knocking the wind from his secondary human diaphragm (at some point I need to pontificate on the possible anatomy of mythological creatures. What exactly do centaurs put in the horse-half's thoracic cavity if they have lungs and a diaphragm in their human half? I guess it could be arranged the other way, too. Thoughts?). Gorgeous.

This is the "Salt Celler" a table ornament made by the 16th century goldsmith Cellini. The sculpture shows Earth (Ceres) and the Sea (Neptune) in harmony, surrounded by the symbols of each realm. When their powers combine, you get salt (originally from the sea, mined from the earth). The piece is a masterpiece, but is especially interesting because it was stolen in 2003. The museum offered € 70,000 for its recovery, which doesn't quite seem generous enough. I guess that means museums are poorly funded everywhere, even in Europe. In 2006 it was recovered after being buried a lead box in the woods in northern Austria. Real, high profile art theft.

The museum also houses a massive Bruegel collection. This one is by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and it's called "The Hunters in the Snow." Bruegel the Elder liked to paint peasants doing peasant-y things, like hunting, ice skating and getting married. He doesn't like to glorify their lifestyle. Many artists were a bit disconnected from the struggles of the working-class and created idealized "pastoral" scenes. Not Bruegel. The hunters look exhausted. The day looks frigid and even the dogs look like they've had it. But there is joy. The view is lovely and there's plenty of room left to Curl on the ice. The whole thing just has such incredible framing, and nary a face can be seen. Bruegel.

Another Brughel. "The Tower of Babel." This visual metaphor crops up every time we need to be reminded that we aren't as cool as we think we are. The king and architect oversee the project that is clearly doomed to failure as it continues to lean to the left. No one really notices though. The scale of the tower is incredible and the artist made sure to provide plenty of ant-like humans scurrying around its surface.

Before we moved on, we needed a break. We had been through about a quarter, or maybe just an eighth, of the museum and had a long way to go (like...the Italians and the Baroque). There was one cafe in the museum, situated on the second floor. You had to wander through it to get to the next series of galleries. We had let our breakfast carry us past noon, but it was time to take a break. Unfortunately it was a very busy day, so peak serving time never really went away. We hovered for a few minutes, hoping to catch a table, but were beaten every time. My mom and brother volunteered to wait by the restaurant to swipe a table while dad, Carolyn and I went on into the next room.

As I contemplated a cityscape of Vienna in 1700, my brother triumphantly grabbed me. He had figured out the system and asked a couple that were getting ready to pay if we could have the table next. He had staked a claim and had the support of the original occupants in defending his new territory.

We sighed with relief as we eased into the chairs. Marble can be tough to walk on for three hours. I did my hurried, traditional translation of half the menu items ("ummm...potatoes with, uh, some kind of sauce. Beef soup and...I'm going to guess that's some kind of vegetable or mushroom...) as our frazzled waitress swept up. She promptly told us half the menu was sold out. We ordered coffee and made our food selections based on this new information (I think we went for sandwiches). Dad got the soup. Minutes ticked by, art time was lost. Our waitress returned. They were out of sandwiches. We ordered salad. She returned, they were out of salads. We ordered soup and it took half an hour. She finally returned to our table with calories. We bolted it down.

As we paid, a man in a wheelchair was rolled near the Josh's seat and the woman pushing him waited for us to get up. As we left another man swung in and tried to take the table, even as the wheelchair was being docked. We didn't wait to see the result of the territory dispute. We had art to see...

Meta-art: a photographer taking a picture of an artist painting a picture of an artist painting a picture. It's like the hall of mirrors. The original piece is "The Allegory of Painting (The Painter in His Studio et al.)" by Johannes Vermeer. The lighting in the painting is delicately rich, falling on the curtain, map and subject in glowing highlights. The viewer seems to peer from the corner of the room, past a chair blocking your progress. Such detail. It's a bummer we couldn't examine it all that closely. We were worried of being in the secondary artist's way.

"David with the Head of Goliath" by Caravaggio . The artist was known for his intensely realistic religious scenes. He didn't like to use a lot of angels or obvious Christian iconography. He just used light to emphasize his point, in this case, the grisly triumph of a shepherd boy. Caravaggio liked to show his subjects with dirty feet and hands. His models weren't idealized. If you knew the guy standing in for David, you would recognize him on the canvas.

Caravaggio also has the distinction of being a murderer and a bit of jerk who was always looking for a duel. But he sure could paint. Goliath's head is actually a self-portrait, perhaps as an act of penance for his exile. Or maybe he just couldn't find someone that wanted to see the bloody stump of their neck on canvas. We may never know.

These are so cool. "Summer" is at the top and "The Sea" is at the bottom as painted by Giuseppe Arcimboldo . He painted them in the late 1500s. Apparently he also did traditional commissions for churches and such, but these "portraits" made him stand out in the Renaissance, and they still make him stand out today as the spiritual father of Surrealism. If you zoom in on the fruit and fish, that's all you see. They don't seem to be arranged in any strange way until you back up and the face distracts from the details. It's a still life that happens to be a face. Might I also add that everything from the shark to the literal ear-of-corn are painted with the accuracy of an Audubon guidebook.

Science side note: They (They = psychologists I saw in a documentary once) actually used these 16th century paintings to show that one part of the brain is used for recognizing faces and a separate part is used for recognizing everything else and these two reception centers reside on different sides of the brain. A person with a severed corpus callosum, the neural highway that facilitates communication between the left and right side of the brain, saw one of these pictures with his right eye, and all he saw was a face. Then he was shown the image using only his left eye and he thought it was a different picture, this time a still life with a bunch of fish, fruit or whatever. They used multiple subjects and acheived similar results. I should note additionally that the separation between each side of the brain was an accident and not performed for the experiment. The study lent credence to the idea that we are specially adapted to respond to faces. Science section over.

The museum also had a massive antiquity collection that we really didn't get to see. This Late Roman vase called "The Gryphon's Hunt" was unearthed in Austria (I think). It was buried as the advancing Barbarian hordes rushed into the Empire and the Roman citizens were forced to leave their possessions in the ground, in the hopes of looping back for them. Not many people were able to come back to dig everything up. That's what archaeologists are for (Note: I am a paleontologist, not an archaeologist. I look for dead animals, they look for things made by people. I feel it is one of my professional duties to take every opportunity to remind people of these definitions.).

It was dark by the time we left the museum behind and it was time to get a more substantial meal before our next encounter with high art: the return to the State Opera. Rick Steves recommended a trendy seafood restaurant nestled in the Hapsburg palace's botanical garden. While we were a bit leery of his recommendations after our tram-to-nowhere experience the day before, we took his advice again, and enjoyed exquisite grilled fish and vegetables. As a family we were in the minority. Most of the clientele seemed to be hip, young Viennese couples and friends, all enjoying good wine and a kind of elevated Cuban vibe (though the fireplace projection on the wall undermined the Caribbean atmosphere a bit). After the meal it was time to get in line for the opera.

This time we arrived at the theater before the performance began. This meant my new-found ticket haggling skills were unnecessary. We just needed to stand in line with hundreds of our closest friends to get our standing room tickets. Josh may be grinning in the above picture, but he was mentally calculating the population of the line ahead of us, trying to figure out if we were too late to get in and if we could hope for a central position. He didn't relax until we had the cardboard in our hands and our feet by a rail. Instead of getting standing room in the middle, we had to content ourselves with being high and to the side, but at least we were in to see Rossini's "The Barber of Seville." By clicking on that link, you will find the synopsis, but as Josh has repeatedly told me - despite my protests - opera is not about plot. It's about music. So, if you want to listen to the music - the important part - here's a video that offers a nice compilation of the selections from the piece:

The performance was fantastic, as one would expect at the State Opera in Vienna. Figaro, the barber of the title, is the orchestrator of a plot to help a nobleman get to his jealously guarded paramour. The singer performing Figaro made me feel like his best friend, slyly playing with everyone, letting me in on the joke of it all. The set was to Josh about details of the vocal performance.

After the show, the older generation went home, leaving Josh, Carolyn and I to strike out into Vienna on our own. We were leaving the next day for Salzburg and wanted to see a Viennese bar before we headed out of town. Moving away from the theater, we swept our eyes up and down the streets of the darkened shopping district. Nothing. We walked past St. Stephen's. Nothing. There must have been a bar district, but where would they tuck it? We didn't want to stay up all night, so we stopped by a notice board and looked at the restaurants advertised. There was one called...hmmm. I remember they brewed their own stuff. It might be "Schnitzelwirt Schmidt" or maybe just "Schwechater." Tough call. Regardless, it was pretty dead at 10 PM the day before New Years Eve. The place seemed aimed at tourists with fully illustrated menues and traditional Austrian decorations including waitresses in dirdls.

We ordered a round of pretzles and a round of beer. My dark Alt-ish bier was really smooth and the squat little hunny-pot of a glass was especially fun. Carolyn and Josh tried Zwickel, which is unfiltered lager (Carolyn did the research on that one) and also very good. Good reviews all around, though that's a useless recommendation until I remember the name of the place. It's near St. Stephen's. Follow the tourists down into the cellar. Have fun.

It was time to give a final toast to Vienna and get back to the hotel so we could depart the next morning for Salzburg, city of Mozart and the Von Trapp Family Singers...