Thursday, July 8, 2010

whoa..oooooo...for the longest time

The harmonies of the Billy Joel spectacular, "For the longest time," rang through our bright and sunny Meinhartsdorfergasse apartment flat last night as the 11 of us sat on the beds and floor all together in one room singing at the top our lungs, and thinking back on the past 6 weeks that just flew by.

..I remember when I had to practice saying Meinhartsdorfergasse...

..I remember when I had to think about when to get off the U-Bahn to Stephansplatz...

..I remember when we drew numbers to choose our rooms...

What I don't remember is that before these six weeks, I did not know any of these people. 10 people came into my family for these weeks, and now we have to leave each other for who-knows-how-long. I feel like I have known them all for a long time. Isn't it crazy how people come in and out of our lives like this? And how this wonderful apartment in the 15th district that was unreal when we moved in, has now become a familiar home to us.

We had our final concert yesterday and said goodbye to everyone at IES. The concert went very well, and I was happy that my professors parents who are from Vienna commented on my appropriate and enjoyable performance of "Wien, Wien, nur du allein." This was a huge compliment to me considering how I know that Austrians are so critical of their own music.

I turned in my phone. I finished my shopping. I turned in my apartment keys. I took my last pictures of IES. The 11 of us, plus a few visiting others went to a Heuriger to end this trip the same way it started. The very first day together, we bonded at a Heuriger, and now we said our toasts and goodbyes at a Heuriger again. Everyone came to our apartment. It's so hard to explain how difficult it was for us to say goodbye to each other.

As sad as it is, I understand and accept how people have to come in and out of my life like this and I can't be depressed over it. However, this city feels like home to me, and it's even more difficult to say goodbye to Vienna, and all the familiarities of it, and the aspects of it that have really made me grow and learn about history, art, music, people, and most importantly, myself.

I woke up this morning and opened my eyes to see the beautiful blue sky and sunlight coming in through the diagonal skylight over my bed. Oh how I will miss waking up here! I'll miss the big windows, the freshness of the air, the early risen sunlight, the dream-like terrace and coming down a spiral staircase to go to school everyday. I'll miss cooking with and laughing with and talking to all these girls who I've really enjoyed living with. I'll miss the ease of public transportation, and even the people who smile and try to get me to take a newspaper from them in the underground. I'll miss wandering the streets. I'll miss the echoing practice rooms and my dear accompanist. Most of all, I think, I will miss hearing, seeing and speaking German.

There's not too much left to say. I need to finish putting a few things in my suitcase and we will be getting on a plane shortly. Thank you for reading this blog!

Goodbye Vienna, the city of my dreams!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Headliner: Young woman becomes famous getting stuck in a storm in a cemetery

Umbrellas don't do very much good when it is pouring sheets of rain at an angle towards you. I was smart enough to check the weather despite the deceiving sunny weather this morning, and I brought my umbrella. The only purpose it served was keeping my head dry. As for the rest of me, I was soaked.

I had a coaching this morning, so afterwards, I trekked to the Zentral Friedhof (Central Cemetery) by myself with a map in hand. Zentral Friedhof is the biggest cemetery in all of Europe and is the last resting place of Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert, Johann Strauss and Arnold Schönberg. I got off at the wrong entrance of the cemetery, and decided to take a walk down the seemingly never ending pathway to see if I could find the main entrance. It was beautiful outside, except for the looming cloud to my right. I thought they called for "light showers" today.

Well, I was wrong. I finally found the main entrance and a map of the cemetery just as it started to drizzle. I found the musicians' graves, luckily all in one place, and got some pictures as the rain started to become more persistant. How nice that someone thought they they should all be buried together! I bet they're are having some good music conversations under that ground that I walked over! I heard some thunder and I was surprisingly calm. I actually thought it was kind of cool to feel the energy and power of the storm in this beautiful, peaceful cemetery. I started to walk back and the rain disagreed. The rain started coming at me at an angle and soaked my green capris completely within about 15 seconds as I felt my flip flops get soggy and gritty. I had to find shelter. Ahead of me was a bus that travelled around the cemetary, and a bus stop with a small overhang. Two choices ahead of me. I stood under the overhang which was against a building at the bottom of a slight hill in the pavement. Bad choice. The water creeped toward me threatening to create a puddle around me. I saw a sign for the WC (bathrooms), so I ran.

I found the tiny cement bathroom entrance labeled WC. In the little hallway leading to the bathroom stalls, stood about 20 Asian people. Some of them looked nicely dressed, and most of them had cameras, so I couldn't tell right away whether it was a funeral party or a tourist group.
They happily welcomed me as I scooted by them to use the bathroom and dry my feet with a paper towel. When I came out of the bathroom and back to the little cement hallway around the corner, my ears were graced with the sound of a beautiful baritone voice singing an aria particularly familiar to me: Figaro's Act one aria, "Non piu andrai." I came out to see a fairly young Japanese(I later found out) man basically performing on the steps down in the bathroom for his group in order to wait out the rain. When he saw me come into the hallway with what was probably a huge goofy smile on my face, he motioned that I could walk past him to get out. I smiled and took out my camera, and told the nice lady next to me that I just wanted to listen. All of them were taking photos, so it wasn't weird for me to do the same. I stayed right where I was.

He gave quite a performance! As I clapped, the nice lady next to me says, "He is studying opera here in Vienna!" Naturally, I reply with something like, "Oh yeah? Oh, me too, I'm here studying music too!" She got so incredibly excited that she stopped everyone's applause and said something in her language probably like, "this girl here is from America and she sings. Now he has a partner!!" Immediately, all of these cute middle-aged Asian people turn to me and look extremely excited, and some even just start taking pictures of me. Kind of in disbelief, I laughed awkwardly and the singer comes from the stairs down the hallway towards me. I shake his hand and approve of his performance. As he and I have a little conversation about who I am, the paparazzi is behind us taking photos. He asked me what duets I know... Um. He asked me if I could sing a folk song, and he could sing the bass line....Um. So he told me I have to sing something. "Okay," I thought, "this isn't weird at all!" So I gathered all courage and some strange sense of calmness I had in the moment and asked him if he knew the song, "Wien, Wien, nur du allein." Of course he did. Hesistantly, I offered to sing some of it.

And so there I was, in a dark hallway with the pouring rain behind me and 20 Asian people with their cameras in front of me. The singer led me to the stairs where he sang, and told me it was my stage. He introduced me and translated my song title and all the people were like "oh oooo ooo oh!!" They were so intent and excited. It fell silent and all eyes on me. No pitch. I just started singing the chorus of "Wien, Wien..." 16 bars all done, and quite nice acoustics in that ugly, dark bathroom hallway! I took a bow and they clapped wildly. Yep, I'm famous.

Not over yet! The rain had let up by that time, and the people started to walk towards their tour bus. The singer man asked me if I had a Facebook and took out his iphone. I tried to find myself, but I guess I put my profile on private. Oops! Darnit music education! I asked him to instead write down his name for me so I could find him, but he pulled out a business card from his backpack. Yasunori Okumura, Baritone, conductor.

I looked him up on facebook and tried to read some of his bios online in German. I believe he has conducted some chamber orchestras here in Vienna, and maybe even worked with some famous opera singers! He lived here in Vienna and was supporting this group of people from his home country in Japan, probably showing them around the city. The last thing he said as we parted ways was, "Let's keep in touch, your singing was lovely!"

How do things in life pop up like this at the times when we are least expecting something happy and exciting to happen? On a dreary rainy day in a cemetery, I was just made into one of the happiest people alive. I couldn't stop laughing to myself as I walked back to the Strassenbahn stop at how everything happened. How I thought it was a horrible decision for me to wait under that flooding bus stop, or how I just happened to time my visit exactly when an opera performance was happening in a WC hallway.

Blog worthy for sure, and a moment I will surely remember forever.

I love Vienna. Do I really have to leave in 3 days??

Monday, July 5, 2010

Steph's Travel Guide: Top 10 in Wien

10. See "The Third Man," a great black and white film taking place in Vienna, and shown weekly at an adorable theater on the Ring

9. Experience Julius Meinl, the gourmet grocery store on Graben

8. Go to a Heuriger in Grinzing

7. See an opera at the Staatsoper. Don't forget to dress fancy, it's all part of the experience. If you can't see this, see the Wiener Philharmoniker at the Musikverein. Or do both.

6. See the frescoes in Karlskirche and take the lift up to see them close up as well as a panoramic view of the city

5. Sit in Stadtpark on a nice day and watch people, and the ducks

4. Shop on Kärntner strasse and Maria-Hilfer strasse.

3. Go to Wiener Kaffeehäuser. Experience the best, such as Demel, Cafe Central, Griensteidl, Landtmann, Hawelka and phil

2. Splurge and spend an evening tasting the delicious drinks at the Sky Bar on top of Steffl, and soaking in the wonderful view of St. Stephansdom.

1. Tour Schönbrunn. All of it. Sit on the big hill between the castle and the Gloriette and ponder how wonderful life in Vienna is.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Some sing-alongs, some sun, and some star-spangled fun

Sorry for the bad rhyme in the title. I was feeling less than inspired, but I managed to come up with something, at least....

There is nothing better than filling every minute of a weekend with exciting sights and activities. There is nothing better than the feeling that if you try to take in one bit more of information from an audio guide, your brain might explode. There is nothing better than driving through the hills of Austria, singing Do-Re-Mi. There is nothing better than hot dogs and patriotic sing-a-longs on the 4th of July. (Well, maybe fireworks beats it by a little). But really, there is nothing better than having the last weekend of my 6 week stay spent at a little town called Salzburg, and a wonderful Sunday in Vienna.

Our first goal was to get on the right train and be on time. We were (kind of) successful. A little confused at first, and realizing that the Westbahnhof German-speaking workers were not much help, we finally found the right platform--headed to München and stopping in Salzburg. Who knew? Not us.

The train ride to Salzburg was very entertaining. We met a little girl named Vienna. Vienna had no front teeth, big blue eyes, and thin blond hair pinned neatly back with a headband. She whistled to herself as she played her Leapstart handheld game, and told us all about the imaginary lands she was creating in her drawing notebook. She had just finished kindergarten, and 2 months in school in Vienna, even though her hometown was in Toronto, Canada. Vienna and her parents didn't reserve seats like we did on the train, so Emily and I scooched over and had tiny little Vienna sit with us, so her Mom could sit down opposite us instead of standing for 2 and a half hours! Vienna's mom was very kind to us and conversed with us and asked us questions the entire ride! Apparently, this woman grew up in Wien, moved to Toronto, and at some point in her life, she was part of a band with her husband and toured around lots of places. She sent Vienna to school in Wien to help her with learning German better, a language that is very important to her and her family! Sounded familiar to me! She was interesting, and I enjoyed watching her interact with Vienna. I could tell she was a great parent by the way she was with her, but also with the way Vienna behaved! Vienna showed us her talents a little while after I asked her if she liked to be onstage. She stretched her feet by getting up and putting on a little dancing and singing show for us in the aisle of the train. She belted out clearly and perfectly on pitch songs such as "You're never fully dressed without a smile," "I can do that," and "Broadway Baby!" I loved her so much, as you can probably imagine, and wanted to take her with me.

Salzburg was busy and beautiful. We allowed ourselves to be as touristy as possible, so we went to the Mozart museums and we took the famous Sound of Music tour to see the Gazebo, the Mirabell Gardens and the lake, among other things. Since I had taken this tour with my family in 2006, I had a little different view on things. I had a moment where I realized that when I toured Europe in 2006 and relied on everyone else to take care of where we were going and what we were doing, I surely did not appreciate it as much as I should have! Even at age 16, I wasn't mature enough to really know just how much my parents did for me while we visiting Salzburg, Innsbruck, Zürich and Wien. I didn't have the same musical and general knowledge and appreciation for art and history, which I feel has been so necessary to making my experience in Vienna and Salzburg all the richer. I did appreciate it before, I know I did, but not in the same way, and I really can't remember if I thanked my parents just as much as I should have. We saw so much while we were here!

We lucked out with an amazing youth hostel in a great location (which I found, and booked ;)), and we were lucky to be able to see Mozarts' living houses, eat great food, see the Sound of Music tour, and tour the Hochberg Fortress on the mountain side in Salzburg. We were exhausted by the end, and slept soundly. We were lucky with amazing bright sunny weather, although some of the girls got a little sunburnt, even in the short amounts of time when we hopped off the air-conditioned Sound of Music bus. I also got lucky, and got pooped on for the first time ever by a pigeon in the train station! Luckily, not on my hair or clothes, just on my skin--and I managed to stay calm. Lucky Ducky! As Suzie would say, "I got spitted on."

Tonight we had everyone from our program over here for dinner. Everyone was responsible for buying/making something for our 4th fest party. I made a delicious looking platter of Liptauer, Brie, Gouda, pretzels and crackers. We also had fresh veggies, grilled zucchini, watermelon, hot dogs, potato salad, and fruit shortcake and chocolate cookies for dessert! I have reached my eating capacity, I think! We were crazy and sang patriotic songs and flew an American flag from the fence around our terrace on the top floor. There are some in my group who are just crazy in love with America. Personally, I could live here forever. Claire asked everybody what we missed most about America, and I found it hard to think of any. I guess I miss people the most? My boyfriend, my family, my friends? Non-smoking areas? That's about it.

Trying to plan out the next 4 days is hard to think about. Now that it's 1 am, I better lay my head down for a few hours before trying to make the most out of my manic Monday....

Thursday, July 1, 2010

first of the lasts

And now begins the "lasts" of this trip. No one here likes to talk about it, including myself. Yesterday, we had the first signs that our trip is quickly coming to an end. We had our first solo concert at the Palace at the IES institute. It went so well, and everyone performed beautifully. Actually, I was happy with my performances considering the two songs I performed were songs I started learning when I got here, and I did them from memory! I was finally satisfied with a performance, and I tried to film it with my flip camera, and it turned out that it ran out of batteries half way through. I was very sad. "Wien, Wien, nur du allein" was the closing song, and I wanted it on tape so badly!!

I had to say goodbye to my German teacher yesterday too. We had our tests, and since there were only 3 people in my class, she graded them, and told us all three at the concert that we had all earned As overall in the class. Jetzt kann ich entspannen!! Now I can relax! At the beginning of the 5 weeks of German class, I was highly doubting that I belonged in the intermediate class, but by the end, I was so happy with my decision to stay. My teacher, Andrea Widy, was one of the best teachers I have ever had. Aside from music teachers and professors, there are very few teachers with whom I have really connected. I thought she was an incredible teacher. Although it was quite an advantage to be in a class of 3, she was so patient and understanding and encouraging with our language development. Her explanations of things always made sense, and sometimes, she would give us two different ways of looking at the grammar. I loved her so much that I bought her a chocolate bar that said "Ein kleines Dankeschön für ein grosses Hilfe." I bought a mini blank card, and wrote a thank you note in German to her! She loved it! She bought us Mozartkugeln, and a marble cake for eating during the test. What a sweetheart. I am sad that I don't know if and when I will ever see her again!

The 11 of us in the program have really bonded. Apparently 11 is a small number of enrollment at the institute. I think it was nice to be able to bond as a large group, as opposed to if it was more people it would be more likely for smaller cliques to form. The 7 girls went out last night in our concert dresses to a fancy bar on the top floor of Steffl, the famous department store. We were looking for a classy place, where we could sit around a table and enjoy each other's company and some yummy drinks. This is what I wish everybody would want to do all the time! (If only I had the money, of course!) Some of the other bars they have gone to, I opted out of, because some places are just "not my scene." I can't get into it, and I can't reason with spending the money on something I really don't enjoy the atmosphere of. We spent a few hours in the dimly lit bar, looking over Stephansplatz from way up high on the 7th floor! It was classy and a whole lot of fun.

Today marks my last Friday here. We are leaving soon to go to Salzburg for an overnight trip. We have some things planned, and Salzburg is just beautiful, so hopefully we will have a very enjoyable trip. I think 9 of us are going.

First signs of 6 weeks being over does not make me happy because I love it here so much. These weeks have just flown by! I can hardly believe it. I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog, and Here's to a great last week in Vienna!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

God's little (and sometimes not so little) blessings

I guess the parentheses in the title is an afterthought that should have been my first thought. Vienna is just one huge city full of blessings! I feel like it is Europe's best kept secret. Not many appreciate Vienna the same way they know to appreciate Paris, London and Rome. Most of the tourists here are German-speaking. This is not a bad thing for me! It means I get to feel more a part of the culture here when everyone around me is speaking German, whether they are from Wien or not. I'm just starting to hear dialects in peoples' German. You must have quite an ear for the Austrian German to understand when someone is speaking a dialect, and part of this comes from getting to listen to my Oma and Opa speak true Austrian German to one another every once in a while! I am so excited to come back to the states and feel more confident in speaking German to my family.

Vienna is a blessing. As soon as I walk outside every day, I feel something come over me that just makes me happier than ever. When I sit outside, and take in the fresh air, I know that this city, reaching way back into history, has truly been blessed with something unique and special. Maybe I can't put my finger on exactly what it is? You would have to come and see for yourself. (Which I encourage you to do, if you are reading this!)

In the mood for some mood-brighteners? I have a few for you.

We will begin on Monday night. When I arrived back at my apartment from my Monday classes, my roommate Claire was in the mood to do something and go somewhere, and she suggested that we go to a jazz club--the building there has been dated back to about year 980! We opened the somewhat shady looking door, and it was like opening up a door in Hogwarts castle! It was love at first sight. Old bricks and a dome shaped ceiling of bricks made up a one room cellar kind of jazz club. We went down the stairs, paid our 18 Euros to see the American swing band, the Hayes Kavanagh All-Star band, and we made our way to the only table available for the 5 of us who trekked out on a Monday night! Time here seems to have stood still. It felt as if we had travelled back in time to an old jazz swing band performance at a bar. We were the youngest there, by far, so much that people were kind of staring at us. We sat there for 3 and a half hours of great jazz music and I was absolutely thrilled with the talent and pure enjoyment we just experienced. I could go into more detail, but let's just say we were about 3 feet away from the trombone player who was glad to speak English to us throughout the performance, and the piano player was from New York and did his undergrad with Renee Fleming, and served often as her accompanist! Hmm, small world!!

Well that was just the background story--here is the mood brightener: After the show was over, the band members left, except for the old guy who played the bass and introduced all the songs in German. He came up to our table and pulled up a chair from the stage. He sat down and told us all about how he is so happy to have fun with a band of all musicians, himself being the only one who has a day job apart from playing bass. He was an attorney at law and had clients in Europe for whom they were scheduled to play private parties. He organized the whole 10 day tour for the group, and the group is named after him. He asked us what brought us out to the club that day. After we told him, he said in his gentle yet half-mumbled voice, "Well, I want to reimburse you for paying that 18 euros at the door. I know what it was like to be a student. I was there once." At that, and ignoring our shouts of surprise and refusal, he laid two 50 Euro bills on the table and asked non-chalantly for a ten back. 18x5=90 Euros. That was quick math for an elderly man with a few beers in him! We refused for a bit and simply stared at the money on the table, but then I thought this: 'I know how it feels to do something nice for some strangers. He is an attorney. He has money. We should let him do this, and thank him.' And so I gave him a ten, shook his hand a few times, and thanked God for the great thoughtful man with musical talent, who we will probably never see again.

Yesterday, my mood brightener was a simple pleasure: an old black and white movie filmed in the 1940's and shown weekly at this adorable theater on the Ring by the Opera. The movie was called "The Third Man" and was filmed completely in Vienna. It was fun to identify some of the places in the movie where we have walked over and over again! Yet another Tuesday night indulgence with Emily Janser is completed. We treated ourselves to Gelato, specifically Rocher Ferraro gelato--another gift from God! Thank you for ice cream!

Today, my day was made by a child. In my mind, the best blessings of life can be found in children. I love watching children interact and being with children. Vienna is a good place to do this, considering the numerous school groups who walk around the city together with clipboards--I think they have to go on some kind of scavenger hunt, I don't know! I like watching them and listening to the way they talk. But today, I was nowhere near a group of school children. I got up early and before class, I sat in the freshly mown grass in Stadtpark, near the famous statue of Strauss. The section of green grass was completely empty, except for a few sitting in the shade around the perimeter. Unexpectedly, this beautiful little blonde girl, about 3 years old, does the little waddle-run towards me, and when I expect her to stop a distance away, she keeps coming, and sits on her knees literally inches from me. I take out my headphones and look at her cute smile and blue eyes and I try to speak German to her, but all she had to offer was her beautiful smile. I looked around and her father came over and said in German, "look, she made a friend" and he had to call her name a few times before she got up carelessly and skipped away! It was short-lived, but it totally made my day. I knew before that kids like me, but I've never been approached so innocently and lovingly by a child who didn't know me! I loved it.

Every day in Vienna is a blessing, and has its blessings. Did I mention I was lucky?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

I'm a survivor of OperaTHON

Tonight I just got back from standing on my feet for almost 5 hours! We decided that we should experience that Staatsoper standing room procedure, since we are still young and able, and since Wagner's "Tannhäuser" opera was playing. Standing room in Vienna is a brilliant idea. We got to see a Wagner opera in a state-of-the-art theater for just 4 Euros! It took us the whole day. After church at noon, we ate some food at Sacher 'Eck, the cafe section of the fancy Hotel Sacher restaurant. At about 2:45pm, we got in line in the standing room entrance of the Staatsoper, where we were led to a line resembling an amusement park line, where people brought little camping fold-out stools to sit on while they waited for their opera ticket. We just sat on the floor for about 2 hours and did our German homework while we waited. At about 4:15, the ticket office opened and we bought our 4Euro tickets to stand on the orchestra level of the house! The waiting wasn't over after that. We then stood in line in the hallway before the house opened, and then people run to get their first choice standing room places. In an old-fashioned way, everyone ties scarves or sweaters over the railing where they want to stand and it is the usher's job to make sure that nobody moves those scarves. After you claim your spot you are free to roam around until 10 minutes before.

At 5:30, just a short time later, the show started. Tannhäuser has some of the most amazing music, and sends chills up and down your spine over and over again. The conductor in the pit was the best conductor I've seen so far here! I loved the way his hands moved so consistently for 4 hours and made so much music! At first, I expected a Wagner opera to be huge, loud singing all the time with a full orchestra score underneath, but this was not the case at all. There were quiet almost recitative-like passages, and even some a cappella music. There was a big chorus as well, who sometimes acted much like a Greek chorus. Although I tended to go in and out of understanding and not understanding the plot, I thoroughly enjoyed the music for all 4 hours, and it seemed to go by quickly. There were some amazing voices. I once heard from my professor Bev Patton that "you know you are hearing a good singer when you forget that they are singing and all you know is what they are feeling." This was so true of everyone in the cast of Tannhäuser tonight. My favorite part was the little boy who came out and sang a simply beautiful a cappella bit and had the voice of an angel!

My heels hurt a bit, but the little bit of pain from standing completely still for 4 hours straight has no effect compared to the feeling after seeing an incredible performance. I remembered how high on life I felt after I finished a performance of silly Marriage of Figaro, and then I try to imagine how the cast must feel after finishing this emotionally, mentally and physically exhausting opera. It was exhausting for me to watch, so to do it must be even greater. I admire these people with all my heart.