Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ride of the Borthses

It was time to bid Germany Adieu - or more accurately “Auf Wiedersehen” - until after the New Year. The Borths Family piled into the car and started southeast across Germany, headed for Austria. It was a roughly a seven hour drive, so we got an early start with important coffee breaks along the way.

Over the last few years I’ve become an armchair (captain's chair?) expert on the rest stops and gas stations of the planet’s highways. Obviously there are many countries yet to explore and other people have a more refined perspective on the issue but I think I have sufficient expertise to divide Earth’s rest stops into two categories: Pay-to-Pee or Free-to-Pee. Most places on God’s green Earth fall into the former category. Germany is no exception. If you walk into a convince store with a full bladder, you will walk out roughly 50 cents poorer. Every time we stopped to fill up the gas tank or get food there would be a distribution of change. This is the face of the German road trip.

As you drive across Germany the topography changes from rolling hills to snow capped mountains surrounding more quaint towns. The churches in these towns tell you if you are in the East or West. In the West the churches are capped with pointed steeples with a pyramidal structure. In the East the steeples are onion domes with Hershey kiss profiles. The delineation between these designs is as abrupt as the former Iron Curtain.

Our first destination was Melk, a town just east of Vienna that is well known for its massive Baroque Benedictine Monetary. Apparently this monastery is on of the 1,001 places to see before you die according to the authoritative text on the subject, “1,001 Places To See Before You Die."

The Melk Monastery and gardens are on the right with a commanding view of the town on the left. Vicariously enjoy one of the places you should see before you die.

Before we could explore the Baroque Architectural masterpiece, we had to get some food. We entered the restaurant on the monastery’s grounds and found a subdued diner-esque restaurant , reminiscent of Bob Evan’s – except the waitresses were wearing dirndls. As the sun sank to the horizon we enjoyed Wiener Schnitzel in Austria for the first time (Fact: Wien is the German name for Vienna. Thus Wiener, as in “hot dog,” and Wiener Schnitzel are both references to the capital of Austria. I’m not sure why we have a habit of renaming cities. It doesn’t seem very respectful of the city or the people. I’m going the blame the French for the trend.).

The entrance to the monastery. That's a shuttered fountain in the middle of the plaza. A wonderful place for contemplation if you have time...
We didn't.
But I did manage to hurriedly take some pictures so I can enjoy the place at my leisure.

It got late quickly and we had a schedule to keep. The Vienna State Opera was performing Wagner that night (there was some debate as to which opera was being performed) and Josh wanted to get moving. Thus, after pleading for our bill and finally receiving it, we literally ran across the monastery grounds, snapping pictures while trying to get on the road as quickly as possible. The fragment of the campus we saw was gorgeous. I guess I’ve seen it now, so I can tick it off the 1,001 list, but it may need closer examination to really be appreciated. As far as I know, monks don’t like being rushed and neither does their architecture. We paid no heed to their wishes.

The dash into Vienna became a race against the clock. We decided the hotel should be the first stop and we would be a bit late to the opera. As we slowly circled the city and the hotel, Josh, dad and Brigitte got progressively more tense. We finally found the place we were staying at and exploded from the car. Josh, Carolyn and I hauled our bags to the room and took off for the opera house by cab. Mom and dad would check in and meet us there.

We entered the ornate complex and were immediately confronted by guards stationed by every entrance to the theater. Each sported a green cape and a dapper hat. They also spouted disappointing news. The show was sold out. According to Rick Steves, this was a rare event. We paced, searching for a box office to get the bad news from an official source.

After bouncing from guard to coatroom and back we finally settled in the official opera café where our guidebook told us we could watch the opera in action. We found a table, looked at the TVs and saw no one shattering any mirrors. Instead, the TVs were plastered with trashy entertainment news and a ski jumping competition. Josh was agitated, and by agitated I mean he looked like a German who has just been told to wait in line. He shifted, finally asking the waiter to if the opera was available on the monitors. The waiter lazily reached up and switched on the opening act of Götterdämmerung, the final opera of the Ring Cycle. If you think of big women wearing Viking horns when you think of opera, you’re thinking of Wagner’s Ring Cycle or “Der Ring des Nibelungen.”

For a reminder of what the music sounds like, here’s a classic retelling:

Rick Steves also told us you could pick up a ticket by begging it off tourists leaving the performance. The State Opera sells several hundred standing room tickets for each opera. Each only costs 3 Euro. You can see world class opera for less than a German Big Mac. Let that blow your mind for a minute...okay moving on. The cheap price means there’s a major turnover in spectators. If you just want the experience of seeing an opera in such a classic location you can go in, watch a few scenes, and head out knowing you haven’t wasted your cash. Josh set up at the bottom of the stairs waiting to catch these less-enthusiastic audience members and ask for their tickets. He managed to get one. This allowed him past the guards, but he wasn’t allowed into the theater until the break between the acts, so he set himself up by the theater bar where the opera was displayed on a larger monitor and there was less annoying chatter.

After witnessing Josh’s success, I decided to try my hand a snagging tickets so we could sit with him and watch. I also wanted to see if I could get tickets for my parents who hadn’t arrived yet. I stood at the base of the grand staircase and waited for someone to make a bored exit. A woman emerged from the theater hacking. I pounced (in German) “Excuse me, are you leaving?” “Yes.” “Could I maybe have you ticket?” “Yes, no problem. It’s not standing room though, it’s in the seats on the ground floor.” “Oh, well, thank you very much!” “How much…” “No, it’s yours.” “Thank you!” One down. I wanted to give that to Josh though.

Next two girls emerged (in German) “Excuse me, if you are leaving, could I have your tickets?” The looked at each other, bewildered, “Um, we don’t speak…” “Oh no problem, I don’t speak German very well either.” Relief swept over their faces when they heard my English. “I just asked if I could have your tickets if you’re headed out.” “Oh, yeah sure, um, we paid 3 Euro…” Okay, so the floor seat from an Austrian was completely free, but I ended up paying the Americans full price for only 2/3 of the show. I felt a little cheated. Where’s the ex-pat love? Let the National stereotypes roll on.

The main staircase of the Vienna State Opera. You will see the guard prominently placed on the steps, ready to tell you to run along. You will not see a blond kid running around trying to get people to cough up their tickets. He already succeeded.

With tickets for Josh and my parents my mission was complete because Carolyn and I had to get to dance class. For my birthday, my parents gave Carolyn and I a waltz lesson in Vienna. THE New Years tradition of Vienna is the waltz, so we thought we should figure out how to 1-2-3 in the city that invented the dance. We set off across the “Ring” the historic middle of town where the Hapsburg’s castle and the parliament building are situated. We had the address of the place, but had never explored the city and had no idea where what the dance studio would look like.
Vienna's City Hall, a Neo-Gothic structure evoking the medieval history of the city when the city was ruled by powerful guilds and everyone generally agrees things were pretty good economically.

The National Parliament Building, a Neo-Classical structure evoking the Golden Age of Greece, another time everyone generally agrees things were pretty good politically.

After wandering in the cold while admiring the Viennese architecture we got to the street we were searching for. There was the number…but everything looked dark. The website said there were lessons, but maybe they were actually geschlossen, too?

We opened the door and saw a sign for “Tanzen” (dancing) on the second floor. We climbed the steps and were confronted by a massive wooden door that would have looked comfortable blocking our entrance to the emperor. We looked at each other silently asking, “Are we really going to do this thing?” Suddenly other dancers appeared and entered. They were carrying official dance shoes and costumes. Hmmm…We followed.

We entered and found a coffee shop/bar with a hostess standing at a cash register. Not sure if I was in the right place I stumbled through the question “Is this the place for waltz lessons?” in English she responded, “Yes, please have a seat!” Okay, well we committed now. We found a place in the café and felt very conspicuous. Everyone seemed north of 30 years old. They also seemed like regulars with official foot gear.

Suddenly a door swung open revealing a room filled with mirrors and colored lights. Seemed like a place to dance. We wandered in and saw people confidently executing some Latin dance that my feet have never been trained to execute. I stared trying to figure things out and Carolyn gamely did likewise. Suddenly the hostess reappeared and beckoned us to follow. We had strayed from our sitting spot. Stupid Americans.

We were lead to a tiny blond woman who was dressed in sequins and spandex, the official uniform of the professional dancer. She shepherded Carolyn, myself and anther couple down the stairs to another dance studio that was decorated with photos of two champion dance couples and the trophies the duos had won. The photographs showed the men and women awkwardly posed in athletic, possibly provocative poses. The women seemed to understand how to strike the “come hither” expression the photographer was going for. The men just kind of leered and did so for the course of the lesson.

Our instructor lost no time getting our feet moving. She had taught the lesson before, but never in English. She was very good, sufficiently lowering her expectations for beginners. It quickly became clear that the other couple needed a lot more instruction than Carolyn and I. We hadn’t waltzed together in a long time, but we dance together often enough to know how to lead and follow. Our fellow students weren’t quite there, so Carolyn and I enjoyed the rare distinction of being the best dancers in the room. That doesn’t mean we pulled everything off flawlessly, but we were waltzing and turning before our companions really got the box step down. We left ready to take to the streets at midnight on New Year’s Eve and spin with the Austrians.

When the lesson was over, we wandered back to the opera. We caught the finale as the ring is destroyed the gods plunge to their doom. Josh was an excited ball of enthusiasm, raving about the voices and stage design. His mission was accomplished and we had only just started to encounter the ancient capital of the Austrian Empire…

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