Monday, January 26, 2009

A Third Definition of "Service" and tram trouble

After a German-style breakfast at the hotel (a forthcoming entry will deal explicitly with the German concept of breakfast and my own), we picked up the car and drove to Vienna’s western train station to return the vehicle. Brigitte would have to ride in my pocket for the rest of the tour. Returning the vehicle was uneventful, but figuring out how to get into town was a stressful exercise in figuring out the public transportation system of a city we didn’t know yet. Buses, Strassbahns, and trains all left the station, but we couldn’t figure out where the trams were. After examining the maps, I was finally pressured to go to the information desk. There I was told the trams were in a different station down the road. Figures.

Eventually the Borths family found the tram station and began our tour of downtown Vienna. I should note it was my birthday, my 23rd year on God’s green Earth (or more accurately "Blue Earth with some green and brown shading", but that doesn't have alliteration going for it...or brevity).

A plague monument in central Vienna. When the plague swept through town, people would make deals with God that went something like this: Lord, if you get rid of this disease, we'll put up a monument to you somewhere in the the city, cool? The plague would go away and public art was created.

We emerged from the subway next to St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna, and started to wander through the streets. New Years (Sylvestertag to the Viennese) in Vienna is a massive event with people waltzing through the streets and classical music piped through the speaker systems to the dancing crowds. Every store gets dressed up for the occasion. Apparently there are a few symbols of good luck in the German-speaking world that become ubiquitous as the 31st draws near. Pigs, lady bugs, shamrocks and coins are sold and displayed on every street. Notable enthusiasts of the good luck charms are the candy stores. Marzipan piglets cover trays and counters, waiting for someone to pick them up and eat them to ensure a lucky new year.

Glücksschwein, or "Lucky Pigs" ready to bring in the New Year in all their marzipan glory.

We explored candy stores and churches as we threaded our way through the city. Our destination was the Hofburg Imperial Palace. Since 1279 the seat of power in Austria has called the area home. The Parliament building sits next to the palace, basking in the aura of its ancient centralized power. After World War I the Autro-Hungarian Empire collapsed and the Hapsburgs, who were in charge of things since the 1100s, were run out.

A baroque church near central Vienna. It's name escapes me, but I remember the interior explosion of plaster and gold leaf vividly. They also had the bodies of two Roman martyrs who they dressed in gold and jewels. The skeletons in repose were a little creepy, but their garb was in sync with the rest of the church's aesthetic.

One of the entrances to the Hapsburg Palace in Vienna. Around the arch are statues of Hercules kicking mythological butt. On the left side of the entrance are the stables for the Spanish Riding School. They had the day off, but normally you could watch the horses exercise and do some tricks. On the right is the royal residence and museum. There also might be a few plates involved.

The palace is now a museum for the royal wares of the dynasty. After admiring the exterior including impressive baroque statues of Hercules laboring, we entered the palace. The museum was packed. They had run out of audioguides and were handing out pamphlets with transcripts of the explanations of the exhibits. The first floor was a display of the Royal Services. Before entering the exhibit my definition of “Service” was something along these lines: an action performed for the benefit of another. My second definition involved tennis. In the palace I learned a third definition. Service [sur-vis ] /ˈsɜrvɪs / (noun) : an opulent collection of cutlery and tableware.

A "service." Given for some significant event to the Royal Family. It was probably used once then sent to the basement for storage where an army of polishers kept it all shiny. It's good to be the king.

The Hapsburgs had accumulated a lot of services. They had ornate gold plates given by kings to celebrate a birthday, China to celebrate a coronation and silver for celebrating anniversaries. There were literally hundreds of cups, plates, lobster forks and candle sticks to wander through. Fortunately by the end of the exhibit we had learned tidbits about the Hapsburgs such as their constant desire to connect themselves to Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire and their enthusiasm for intricately folded napkins. I also learned that Rheinish wine (wine produced in Bonn’s neck of the woods) is served in a special green goblet. I felt a twinge of pride that we get a distinctive service accessory.

Another service on display. If you're ever looking for an image of ornate tableware, drop me a line. I have a few pictures you might be interested in. This one had a charming putti (or maybe just fat baby) going for the sugar dish. I'm still curious to know how you go about transporting all of these accessories from the kitchen to the table... and what happened to you if you chipped a dish or dropped the tray.

The signature napkin of the royal family. Only two people on Earth know how to make this fold. I will be the third.

After exhausting ourselves looking at plates, it was time to look at some with food on them, so we got coffee and desert.

My birthday lunch: Almond and cream "noodles" with amaretto in a chocolate dish, washed down with a caramel mocca concoction. A bit of a sugar rush to help get through the rest of the museum.

The next floor of the palace/museum dealt with the Hapsburg royal family. Really, they focused on one family member in particular: Elisabeth of Bavaria, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia (1854-1898). She is described as the Princess Diana of the 19th century. Through the lens of 20th century films, plays, and musicals she has been cast as an free spirited woman who loved to buck the strict expectations of courtly life. As far as I’m concerned she was a bit of a whiner. She didn’t like being thrust into the spotlight when she married the emperor, so she retreated to her room and wrote emotive poetry about how much her life sucked. I’m sorry, but she was the empress. I’m pretty sure it sucked more to be a factory worker in 1870 who’s labor fueled her idleness. I admit that’s a very American sentiment, but I can’t help it.

She was very beautiful and her taste in clothing and jewelry was trend setting. She was assassinated while evading public life on a dock in Geneva. The guy who assassinated her was an anarchist searching for a French prince. He couldn’t find the prince, but heard Elisabeth was in town. It didn’t matter who he killed, so he went for the Empress with a sharpened file. He succeeded in killing her, but failed to accomplish whatever political designs he had. Funny how assassins suffer from a distinct lack of purpose (listen to “Assassins” by Stephen Sondheim for further elaboration on this point).

After leaving the story of Elisabeth’s life, you moved into the royal living spaces. You could see the desk where Franz Joseph I, one of the last emperors of the empire, worked and the table where he talked to his subjects on a biweekly basis. In contrast to his wife, Franz was a very with-it ruler. He just made the mistake of dragging his country, and the rest of the world, into a fight with Serbia over the assassination of his nephew Franz Ferdinand of Bohemia kicking off World War I. He might have regretted that decision in hind sight.

We weren’t allowed to take pictures in the residence, which is regrettable, because there was a mystery item that I would like the online community to weigh in on. Elisabeth was a bit of a health nut, in the 19th century sense of the term. She would drink strained duck juice and vegetable stock and recline with raw meat on her face to preserve her figure and features. She also had an exercise room complete with gymnastics rings and the mystery item: a vertical board with handles sticking out from the sides. The handles were spaced at six inch intervals and ran the length of both sides of the central board. The thing was bolted against the wall, flush with the floor. Did she use it to elevate her dainty feet for push-ups? Was it originally suspended and used like monkey bars? The world may never know how the moody queen stayed so trim.

The rest of the palace was luxurious and we didn’t exit through the modest carriage house until the sun was setting. We stopped by St. Stephen’s to actually examine the interior. On the way we saw street performers and were heckled by at least a half-dozen concert hustlers, trying to get us to attend touristy classical concerts. I’d be willing to bet that Vienna is the only town you will ever visit where there are more hustlers on the street handing out pamphlets for Mozart than for comedy bars and “gentlemen’s clubs.” Feel free to take me up on that bet.

Carolyn taking in Vienna. The hat is a staple of her winter look. Unfortunately this trip was its last hurrah as it went missing at some point after Munich. Pay attention to its appearance in subsequent entries and mourn its passing.

A service was underway at the church, so we could only peep through the iron grating and admire the medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque art from afar.

The interior of St. Stephens. A gorgeous church, but we had to make a rushed visit, jostling through tourists from every corner of the globe to gaze down the aisles.

We then turned to dinner. Before I left for the holidays, Dr. Martin told me I should sample Viennese boiled beef. He admitted that sounded like a weird way to prepare meat, but that it was delicious. Rick Steves sung the praises of boiled beef joint not far from the cathedral, so we decided to head to “Plachutta” on Mr. Steves’s recommendation. The restaurant is a Vienna icon with pictures proudly detailing the famous guests that have visited the place, including Woody Allen and Al Gore. Unfortunately this means you need a reservation. It was roughly 5:30 PM when we wandered in the doors. I asked the maitre d' where if there was seating available for 5. He said there was an opening at 9:15. I retreated to my party to discuss. We decided it would be worth it and I got back in line to tell him as much. The second time I approached the podium he said something in rapid German that I didn’t catch, but pretended I did (there was a reference to time). He then gestured for me to follow, I grabbed by family and we were whisked to a booth. To this day I’m not really sure what happened. Did we take someone else’s reservation? Did we get incredibly lucky? Another thing the world may never know.

The food was fantastic. We ordered Tafelspitz, the house specialty. The boiled beef is served in copper pots filled with thyme and the broth the meat makes while its boiled. The sides included horseradish, potatoes and puréed spinach that was roughly 85% butter (read: delicious). A memorable birthday meal.

Mom and Josh intensely discussing the pairing of carbonated water and beef stock.

Carolyn and dad intensely not discussing. There's excellent food on the table after all. Note: the copper pots hold the beef and broth. Always good to keep tabs on it.

When we were finished, the night was still young. My family hadn’t explored the architectural history tour that is the Vienna Ring, so we headed towards city hall. Rick Steves told us we could hop on Tram 1 or Tram 2 from the Rathaus and we would be treated to a tour of the entire loop, offering us a chance to get our bearings on the city and admire the massive buildings. He hadn't steered us wrong for dinner, and he probably wouldn't steer us wrong here.

We piled onto Tram 1 and started our journey, handing the guidebook around as we passed art museums and churches. Then we stopped seeing the sites described in the guidebook. We crossed the Danube river and headed out of the city center. With increasing apprehension we saw less quaint facades and more dry cleaners. Our fellow riders also looked less like exhausted tourists and more like exhausted locals. Maybe we would hang a left soon? Could our confidence in Mr. Steves be misplaced?

We continued into the residential part of the city, then the graffitied ghetto. I scrutinized the route. Carolyn folded and refolded the map, trying to inconspicuously figure out where the tram had decided to take us. Before we could figure out which black hole we had plunged into, we abruptly we stopped. We had reached the end of the line and were the only people left on the tram. I wrestled with going up to the driver and asking what the hell went wrong. I tried composing the conversation in my head as my family encouraged me to get some information. But my pride won out and I sat in place, confident we would eventually retrace our track back into the city and I didn't need to reveal our mistake to the driver, who seemed quite content to nurse his Coca-cola.

A 14 year-old-punk wannabee hopped on the tram, said something that seemed like an insult and stood in the front. I didn’t know what to do. Maybe he knew why Rick Steves had led us astray, but he also didn’t seem like he was ready to help us. I stared him down, trying to figure out if I should talk to him. I think that freaked him out because he dove off the tram before we thankfully pulled away about three minutes later.

We still didn’t have much of a handle on the full Ring of Vienna, but I can tell you a lot about her graffiti. The Viennese aren't fans of Bush or the GTO. What else is new. Rick Steves doesn’t mention the street art in his guidebook. Missed opportunity, I say. The next day we found out from a guard at the art museum that the trams were rerouted only two weeks before we arrived. Just in time for us to create a beautiful holiday memory before returning to the hotel for euchre and well earned rest.

A more Romantic view of Vienna at night than the tram ride offers.


Erin said...

My Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget also recommended the Tram 1 round of the great buildings.(plagarism...or just a good idea?) But it worked out for that is weird. Well, first I got on going the wrong direction, but after a few stops, I got off and got back on going the other way. That is weird...

Matt said...

Maybe my black hole hypothesis has more credibility than I give it credit for. I second the weird.

Carolyn said...

Get ready for a long but good comment. Actually, it's not my comment. It's an art historian's official take on the putto vs. cupid debate: Art historian Juan Carlos Martinez writes: "Originally, Cherubs and Putti had distinctly different roles, with the former being sacred, and the latter, profane. That is, Cherubs and Seraphs (Cherubim, Seraphim) are Angels, occupying the highest angelic orders in Heaven and are thus the closest to God. On the other hand, Putti, arise from Greco-Roman classical mythos (i.e., non-Christian). They are associated with Eros/Cupid as well as with the Muse, Erato; the muse of lyric and love poetry... "Putti – which comes from the Latin, putus, meaning 'little man' – are...not so much babies as they are 'not human'. They are spiritual beings and thus depicted in their typically odd fashion; as winged little people of indeterminate gender. Using babies as models for Putti (or for Cherubs, either) doesn't quite get across the true concept of 'Putti-ness' as they (babies) are too guileless, for one thing, whereas Putti are clever and purposeful. They are there to help Cupid/Eros facilitate the onset of profane love – or secular, non-religious love, as between two people, rather than the love as between a human and God. Probably, it was artists' attempts to avoid simply painting babies that has led to so many rather odd and, often, ugly, Putti. Sometimes they nailed it, sometimes not. "By the time the Baroque Era came about, which might arguably have been the high point for Cherubim and Putti, both of these little beings were usually being depicted in the same way. Which one they were, simply depended upon the theme of the painting or sculpture: If religious (sacred) – they were Cherubs. If secular or mythic (profane) – they were Putti. "In either case, they'd be hard to pull off successfully today because most people are unaware of their roles in semiotics, or in philosophy/mythology/history, or in religion." (Martinez, Juan Carlos. "What's With the Cherubs?" ARChives - Essays and Information on Art by Today's Experts and Professionals. Art Renewal Center, 10/5/2004

Mama B said...

Thankfully I now won't have to put Putti on my Wiki list...