Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Ye Olde Viennese Christmas

 After what has begun to seem like a long stretch of months, my husband and I are becoming accustomed to feeling a bit different from everyone around us.  I don't mean that in an awkward way, but in the sense of being foreign.  And though we are starting to understand more and more of the intricacies present in Austrian life, we do not yet identify with all of them, or even most of them, for that matter.  We have enjoyed experiencing a new culture; it has certainly been an adventure, one that we are excited to continue.  But on occasion, such as during the holidays, we get  a tiny bit homesick, as do I imagine a good number of people.

 But, in a fortunate 'Christmas Miracle' sort of way, we are hosting my mother for this Christmas and New Year's in Vienna.  So the three of us are exploring an old fashioned European Chirstmas.  While sadly we have no snow on the ground, the beauty of the Christmasmarkts remains unparalleled.  Above you can see the tree and the lights at the Rathausplatz Christmasmarkt, our second stop on the Vienna Amazing Christmas Race.  Our first visit, on Saturday, was to the Schoenbrunn Christmasmarkt.  Nestled in front of the Versailles style palace in an large oval, wooden booths neighbored one another so closely as to form a sort of a wall.  In the center of the oval were several small, umbrella style pavilions, housing outdoor heaters, as well as food and drink booths.  We looked at the traditional Christmas wares sold at the first dozen or so booths before we were cold enough to require gluehwein, the Austrian mulled wine ubiqutious at outdoor winter events.  We bought it at the food stand, where it was being offered in commemorative mugs.  We then ventured closer to the heart of the markt, where a huge tree stood, alit with Christmas lights, in front of a small stage.  The front of the stage was a huge glass case, displaying an exquisitely detailed nativity scene, complete with a bejewelled elephant at the birth of Christ.
For lunch we each sampled something different, as Mom had a chocolate waffle, Jonathan some nockeln (noodles) with cheese, and I had what was advertised as the best wurst (sausage) in town.  The sausage was indeed excellent, and was housed in a cheesy pastry that really sealed the deal.  We ate huddled along the standing counter space next to the heater, trying to stay warm.  As we ate, a jazz ensemble played Christmas music from the adjacent, small stage by the nativity.  Jon was so thrilled with his cheesy noodles that I eventually commented, "I guess you can take the boy out of Wisconsin, but you can't take the cheese out of the Wisconsinite."
And before we knew it, the couple that had been standing by us for a while jumped in and asked Jon about Wisconsin.  As it turns out, the guy was from Wisconsin, and we spent the rest of the afternoon listening to more live Christmas music, sampling the different punschen (punches), and chatting with the Americans. 
The favorite was definitely the Baileyspunsch, no surprise there, and mom loved the a capella choir that performed after the jazz ensemble.  She also found some ornaments she liked, cutout paper scenes, but they seemed quite pricey so we vowed to look again Sunday at the next markt.  When the heater and the punsch could no longer keep us warm, we headed home and snuggled up in front of the movie The Holiday with potato corn chowder.  We each took turns dosing on the couch or in the man chair while we watched, and before long we called it a night.
The next morning we had a late breakfast and planned our second day of Christmasmarkt discoveries.  We started at Rathausplatz, which was amazingly beautiful.  Mom bought some funny Austrian Christmas people ornaments to take home as gifts, and we again were forced to have some gluehwein to stave off the chill.  For lunch we had soup in breadbowls, eating gulash and beer and bread soup beneath the gigantic Christmas tree.  After making our way through all the booths at Rathausplatz, we forged ahead to what was described by a few of my colleagues as more authentic of a Christmasmarkt, the Freyung.  This markt was small, and right out of an old Christmas story.  You half expected Scrooge to show up.  It was tiny by comparison to theRathausmarkt, with not more than 50 booths pressed close to one another to shoulder out the cold wind.  The ever present gluehwein and punsch were available, and of course Jon's favorite store was the cold meat counter, where endless salamis dangled above all kinds of other cuts of meat.  High above them all, perched on the top of the meat booth, was the markt's Christmas tree, shining with lights.  Mom bought a chocolate that looked like a whoopie pie, but later she said it was marzipan. 
The cold was closing in on us again, so we pressed on toward our goal: Christmas lights at the Graben.  To get there we of course had to pass through yet another, tiny local Christmasmarkt which was also very cute.  By then the lights had started, large cylinders of Christmas lights hanging far above us in the streets.  We followed them to the Graben, where stings of Christmas lights had been fashioned to simulate chandeliers in a ballrooms, each 'chandelier' rising over 12 feet tall, suspended overhead in twinkling splendour.  This was our crown jewel, so to speak, and it was worth not being able to feel our toes.  We stopped on our way back at the historic and iconic Cafe Landtmann's to warm up.  We were lucky to find seats right away, and from the window one could easily see the lights at the incredible Rathausplatz Christmasmarkt, which were breathtaking.  Mom and I had hot chocolates, and Jon had a classic Viennese hot drink called a Tiger Milk.  We were happy to sit and enjoy the magic of the millions of twinkly lights, but we were also happy for the chance to warm up.  As we made our way back through the Rathausplatz for a final photo at night, the crowds were thick and we smiled, knowing we had been lucky visit it earlier, when we had the chance to see it all and explore, but still to have the pictures of it at night was priceless.  We went home to a hot meal and Chevy Chase National Lampoon's Christmas Holiday. 
Monday was a day of shopping, and how we were able to dodge the crowds I will never know but will always be grateful for.  For dinner, we had a reservation at Le Loft, on the 18th floor of the Sofitel at Schwedenplatz.  Our table overlooked the Donau canal, but there was so much fog we felt like we were eating in a cloud.  It was very serene, and gave the city lights below us a soft, effusive effect, cloaking the city in mystery.  Our food was delicious, and we even had wine and dessert.  The chef sent our table soup samples before our main course, and after our dessert he also sent us a sample of tiny pastries.  We came home after our lavish dinner and curled up in front of the TV, where I fell asleep while Mom and Jon watched reruns of Castle.
I have posted many of our pictures on Facebook and Twitter already, and several of our friends and family have commented on our Christmas adventures so far.  We are happy to have the chance to share our Christmas with so many of our loved ones, and if any of you are able to join us for an upcoming holiday season, we would be excited to show you all of this in person.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Monday, December 9, 2013

I want a Hippopotamus for Christmas

Pringle is a young hippopotamus living in Lake Naivasha with his family. He lives with his mom, Hattie, and dad, Humphrey. 

Pringle also has an Aunt Helen and Uncle Hubert. Their son, Henry, is Pringle's age and they are best friends. Pringle's grandparents, Hilda and Hammond, live nearby as well, though they were displeased when Pringle was named, as they felt he should have a family name, such as Hammond the second.  

Pringle has other friends in the Lake as well, including Pete the great white pelican and his wife, Penelope. Pringle and Henry go to Lake Naivasha school, where they learn about ecosystems and the importance of environmental and wildlife conservation.  But what Pringle would really like to know is why is he different from all the other hippos, even his family?

But for all the esteem of the Lake Naivasha School, no one could answer Pringle's question.  In fact, they advised him to ask his parents, and so Pringle decided to do just that.

"Well son," Pringle's dad begins, "you know we often see humans on the lake.  They come here to watch us.  I know you learn about them at your school. We hope that they will continue to try to protect us from disappearing habitats and extinction.  But there is more to them than meets the eye."

Pringle is fascinated, and waits patiently and quietly to hear more of the story.

"You see, Pringle," Humphrey continues, "humans aren't like us.  They aren't sure they will be able to find food, so they carry it with them often."

Of course this idea is hard for Pringle to understand, because for him, the Lake provides everything he needs.

"Now I know that sounds odd, but it can be a good thing for us too." Pringle's dad explains, "sometimes they bring food with them onto the lake."

"But dad, the lake has food in it already! Why would anyone bring more food?" Pringle asks.

"Son, humans eat different food than we do, at least as far as I can make out." Humphrey answers, "but to get back to the story, Pringle, that is exactly how you got your name."

"I don't want to be named after human food, dad, that sounds awful!" Pringle exclaimed.  "And I don't want to be the only hippopotamus with a P name.  I am supposed to have an H name.  Grandpa and Grandma told me."

"Now, son, you interrupted the story.  Where were we? Ah yes, Pringles.  When your mom was pregnant with you, we saw a boat full of humans.  One of the humans was pregnant too, and she was holding a can that said Pringles.  Every time the water rippled, she would eat a handful of something out of the can.  But once your mother got closer to the boat to investigate, she startled the pregnant human who dropped the can.  Out floated these thin, curled crisps, which your mother absolutely had to try! She loved them and ate all she could. And later, when we picking out a name for you, she told me:  'I hope our baby is brave, Humphrey.  Brave enough to transcend borders; brave enough to show humans why we deserve a place here and why they should protect our home and our species. '"

Humphrey then tells Pringle, "and so I told your mom right then that I knew our baby would be just like that, because your mom was so brave to want to see the humans and learn more about them.  I said we should name you Pringle.  And your mom wanted to send you to the Lake Naivasha School, even though it is expensive and we have had to make sacrifices to be able to afford it.  But she wanted you to have the best education available for a hippo, so that you could do something great with your life."

"Wow." Pringle wishes he could think of a better response, but he is a little overwhelmed. "Can I ask Mom about this too?" He asks his dad.

"Of course, son," Humphrey answers.

Pringle thinks about it for a little while before asking Hattie. "Mom, I asked dad why I was named Pringle, and he told me about when you met the humans and sending me to school."

"Is that so honey?" Hattie answered. "And so what do you think about it?"

"Well, since I will be educated in conservation I would want to make a difference, make the world a better place for hippos. Is my name special enough to achieve that, do you think?"

"Pringle, your name is unique, but it is you that is special, dear." His mom tells him.

"Really? So you think I could do that?" He asks her.

"Pringle you can do anything you want darling, and if will always be proud of you." She answers.

"That's what I want to do, mom, but can I tell you something?" Pringle asks a little sheepishly.

"Of course, babe, what is it?" She tries to reassure him. 

"It's a little scary to think of doing it all by myself, Mom. Is that bad?" Pringle asks her.

"Maybe you won't have to sweetie, maybe you won't have to," Hattie mysteriously murmurs.

"You know what I wish for,  mom? A little sister, she could help me. We could become hippo ambassadors.  And she should have a P name, like me.  Maybe Priscilla? We could be unique together, and we would work with the humans to conserve our world."

"You know what, Pringle? You may just want to tell Santa about that wish, and see if he brings it for you" Hattie smiled, and hoped her current pregnancy wouldn't be too noticeable until Christmas...

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Black Friday in Narok

Narok is the last city before you enter the Maasai Mara Wildlife Reserve in Kenya. But please don't think it is close to the park in actuality. It is a solid 2.5 hours on a washboard dirt road to get to the Mara from Narok.  We drove through Narok on our way to the park, of course, but we didn't stop. It was a crowded place, with ramshackle two story buildings lining the roadway. The buildings looked like they were from a movie set, and not real; they were made of cinderblock stacked with cement mix not more than 12 cubic feet, painted with bright colors.  Like a fake version of the old West. Trash was scattered everywhere, and goats, sheep and cattle were herded along the roadside.  
Personally I was glad we didn't stop, I hoped our destination would render Narok a faint driveby memory. It wasn't so much the poverty that I wished to avoid, but the disregard for the surrounding environs, the livestock that was lame or limping.  In other words, the things I hold dear were a luxury here, and not something people could afford to be concerned with. Naturally this threw into light the crux of the poaching war, for how can you stop poaching in a place like this?
And so what can you do in such a situation, but do your best to get through it until such a time as an idea or option presents itself.  But that is not exactly the story I want to focus on, so please allow me to continue.
We drove on our bumpy, bumpy way to the beautiful expanse that is the Maasai Mara, where we were enchanted for the following two full days.  It became easy to see the attraction, even addiction of safari, and when we drove out of the park that third day it was a quiet ride, leaving only the sounds of the truck in response to the rigors of the dirt route beneath us.
We cheered when we hit pavement again, and within the hour we arrived at a busy gas station in none other than Narok, gateway to the Mara.  The gas station was so busy that they had an attendant just to direct traffic to the overcrowded pumps, and as our able guide got out to take care of the fill up, our little truck succumbed to the masses of 'sales executives.'
This was a term we had gleaned from our aforementioned guide and driver, the one and only Fred.  While the truck's tank was tended to, all of us inside were tempted with Maasai blankets, beaded bracelets of every kind, completely inauthentic looking safari hats meant solely for the touristy-ist of the tourists.  
But by this stage in our travels, we were very wise.  Largely thanks to one of our tour members, the well prepared Kathy, we now knew that we could do so much more than haggle with these sales executives, we could barter.  Kathy, a vivacious gal from Houston, had learned from her hairdresser back home that bartering was the ticket when it came to local salespeople here in Kenya. And so she had packed her bags with American watches, t shirts and baseball caps for just such an opportunity.  Over the course of the week, we had all seen her in action and could attest to her successes.  However, as this was our last day and Kathy still had a select few remaining American goods for trade, her friend Karen jumped right in and began to bargain.  
Things came into the truck; things went out of the truck.  Goods changed hands, and one deal was even reversed when an American watch and T shirt were ultimately rejected as trade for a Maasai celebration blanket.  There were bracelets, safari hats traded for one another, and every one of the pens we had on us.
At the end, Kathy traded one man the windbreaker she was wearing for his touristy safari hat, and another man asked my husband if he would trade my sunglasses, and then he asked again for my sandals.
We ended up with a bamboo zebra print for our wall, and I kept my shoes and glasses. No money was exchanged at any point during the madness, by anyone if you can believe that.
As we finally made it out of that crazy gas station, Karen made the connection - it was Black Friday!  Somehow it was perfect, and we all laughed, remembering that it wasn't so different from Black Friday in the States, after all.