Monday, June 9, 2008

Traveling to Vienna for Erin's Graduation

My niece Erin graduated from high school this year. She lives in Vienna, Austria with her family; her mother is my sister, Terry. Over the years I've had the opportunity to attend many family functions with my family in Michigan, including christenings, communions, graduations, holiday and birthday parties and a few weddings, too. Because Europe is a long way to go for a party, I haven't been able to celebrate many milestones with my sister and her family. It'd been in the back of my mind for several years that I wanted to go to Vienna for this. At one time I also thought about bringing my mother and taking her on a side trip to Belgium where she is from. Well, as you know, I got sick; I ended up shortening my plans. Terry had some very generous friends who helped pay for most of my ticket, for which I am very grateful. I would gladly have put it on my credit card and left it at that just to be here, but they made the trip much less stressful for me through their generosity.

In honor of Erin's graduation we attended a sports banquet at her school, the American International School, for which she won MVP for her volleyball team-second year in a row, I understand. Then there was the Senior dinner at the Borse--a catered buffet--with placards and floral arrangements on every table designed by my sister and her friends. My niece created the slide show-a collage of pictures of each graduating senior-that ran throughout the evening. The graduation was the following evening at the Palais Ferstel. Erin gave the keynote speech and won an award. Sunday the festivities culminated in a graduation picnic at the beach where we all played volleyball and ate much good food. A great time was had by all.
Here follows her speech:

Melting pot
1. A pot in which metals or other substances are melted or fused.
2. A country, locality, or situation in which a blending of races, peoples or cultures is taking place.

Now, in terms of AIS, I think I am referring to the latter. It has been a surreal experience walking through the halls at AIS. I’d pick up a conversation in Hungarian or overhear two girls excitedly chattering in Korean and then I’d round the corner and see young adults from multiple backgrounds conversing in their united English. I say young adults, because that is who AIS graduates. Young adults pooling their experiences from this international background, ready to face the challenges of this world.

Over the past seven years I have had the privilege to live in a melting pot. Living overseas, we often hear the term, “Third Culture Kid,” and as seven-step-seminar as that sounds, it is ultimately very true that here at AIS we have established a third culture. AIS is the world in miniature, representing at least thirty-four nations in the class of 2008 alone. As International students, we are not coping with preexisting differences, but by growing alongside each other we have moved past those differences into new territory. We are not simply conducting daily business meetings and trying to strategically find a middle ground. We’ve shared life together, and so are able to see beyond face-value.

Our class has passionately discussed Marquez’s genius in Mrs. Zlabinger’s English class. We have hiked through Austria’s mountains on our grade retreats together, exchanged knowing glances, and comforted each other in the midst of IB stress. We are the class that was feared by most teachers as we advanced through AIS. We were the only class to be strategically moved to the principal’s hallway during our eighth grade year; we helped the administration tighten their security after a mischievous 9th grade retreat and were faced with the challenge of negotiating our own senior privileges this year.

My point is that amidst opposition we have developed true camaraderie as a class, which can only enrich our relations with others in the future. If the future of International relations looks anything like the present of the class of 2008, then I have high hopes for the world. In these intimate settings we have learned to really listen and remain open to different points of view.

Sightseeing in Austria

Traveling in a foreign country if you don't have a plan and don't know the ropes or language can be a little stressful, especially if you have a limited amount of time. Even when you take your "TimeOut Vienna guide", there are still things you may not understand. If you have all the time in the world, you can just chalk up it up to the learning curve and call it the "discovery tour". But, if your time is limited following are my suggestions.

Our first day out we tried to rent a city-bike. This is a great idea that just didn't work for us. There are bikes located all around the city that you can rent and return to any location. There is a small first time fee, then the first hour is free. After that the per hour fee increases. This could become expensive, but, if you leave the bike at a city-bike location for an hour, the next time you get on the first hour is free again! All you need is a credit card or a city-bike card. So we started out at a location near Karlsplatz. Unfortunately, I was the only one with a credit card and you can only rent one bike per credit card at a city-bike location. After many attempts at trying to use the kiosk, we finally went off to find the city-bike office; from there you can purchase as many city-bike cards as you want with one credit card. By the time we figured this out, our day had come to an end and it was time to head back to my sister's house.

We also went to the Naschmarkt. This is a great big farmer's market that also includes some dining venues. On Saturdays there is a great big flea market in the parking lot there. Many eastern Europeans ply their wares here.

There are three major castles in Vienna, the Belvedere, the Hofburg and the Schonbrunn. My niece and I went to the Belvedere to see the gardens--which are currently under construction and being replanted! It pays to know before you go. For my money I would take a day and go to the Schonbrunn. Start early and spend the day. The castle is open to the public--for a fee, of course, and the 420 acre grounds are free. Pay for the trolley and hop on and off all day. This way you can cover more ground. 40 rooms of the castle are open to the public-buy the admission that gets you into all 40 rooms; it's a self guided tour and you can do it at your own pace. There is even a bakery on the grounds; watch the apple strudel being made and then eat it. The gardens are lovely--it was definitely worth the trip.

There are many gardens in the inner circle of the city--all free. The day my niece and I went, we discovered that the Euro 2008 was going to happen in the city soon and the gardens were being closed off to the public so the happy revelers couldn't trash the gardens!

We also went to Prague for a day! If I had it all to do again, I would start at the castle on the top of the hill; view the gardens; grab a slice or something quick on the way down the hill; head over to the Charles bridge and then take a boat ride.

Cookie and I spent some time checking out gay Vienna, which is kind of like the gay scene in small town America. Nothing to write home about! But we are glad we had a chance to do that, anyway. We met some very nice women. Cookie also went to Mauthausen--a concentration camp in Austria. She was able to find her way there all on her own and even made it back before nightfall.

One of the easiest things for us to do in Vienna was to figure out the U-Bahn and the bus system. I think we rode on all five of the U-bahn lines. Cookie was a great help to my sister in terms of shopping and by the end of the trip she could take the u-bahn to any major shopping area--no problem!

If you are going to travel, it always pays to do a little research ahead of time, have a flexible plan and start early!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Rainy Day in Vienna

It's Thursday already. We've been here a little more than a week. The time flies by. The weather has mostly been sunny and warm, sometimes humid even. But, yesterday morning and today it rained. This cools the weather off somewhat. My companion is a late night person who watches bad American tv on British satelite tv until the wee hours of the morning. So we never do really leave here much before noon. Which is often fine with me, since all I really want to do is sit and relax, drink coffee, eat sacher torte and read a book. I'm still a little tired after all.

My sister is a generous host. If we aren't off to a party we are eating home cooked meals every night. My niece is also a very good cook. And Terry's husband does a great job on bbqing. Mostly we put our own breakfast together; so, Cookie has taken to making oatmeal (with milk). There is usually some kind of fresh fruit, cut up --watermelon, canteloupe, mush mellon, and also raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and cherries. Sometimes I eat a little cereal or oatmeal too. And there is always coffee or tea and some kind of funky Vieniesse fruit juice. One morning Cookie and I ventured out to the Franz Josef hotel where they made a pretty decent to order omlette for Cookie. Lunch is often eaten out and on the run--falafel sandwiches at Erin's favorite take out spot; bratwurst on buns from a take out cart; shishkabob at the Nashmarkt or tuna on toast here at Terry's house. Dinner has been awesome--the first night bbq prawns, last night healthy salads with beef or chicken topping, italian with meat sauce another night and another night Terry's famous chicken fajita's from her cookbook for Erin. Several nights we have eaten out--at various events.

We attended a going away party for Paco and his wife at a Heuriger, which is a traditional Austrian dining establishment. Paco and his wife are from Mexico originally; he works for a Mexican cement company here that is opening operations in Poland; so now, besides speaking Spanish, English and German, Paco will also speak Polish. That is quite an accomplishment in itself, I think. The fare at the Heuriger is usually schnitzel, potatoes and beer served by women in traditional Austrian garb while listening to a couple guys in leiderhosen play the accordian and the violin. The guys in leiderhosen are usually from Eastern Europe and they will play American musicals for a buck. But, this party was catered and served buffet style, so there were cold salads of traditional fare, fancy potatoes, lentil salad, ham, schnitzel, chicken and very fancy vienisse desserts with cheese.

Another evening we went to a poluck dinner with Terry's bible study group atop a tall apartment building overlooking the water and near the International Center. Now there was some very awesome homemade food.

On Tuesday we went to Erin's sports banquet for the American International School she attends. The food was served buffet style and was pretty much the same. I wish I had remembered to write it all down. It was great to spend time with Erin. And the best part is that she was voted MVP for her volleyball team.

Tonight was the fancy Senior dinner at the Borse. More on that later...............