Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Dining at Johann's Haus

Our hotel in Vienna, the Austria Classic Hotel Wien, was just outside of the Innerestadt near the Prater amusement park.  It worked out very well for us, being near a couple of U-bahn stations which allowed us easy access to the rest of the city.  After making the 1.5 kilometer walk once, we gravitated to the underground to save what energy we could for walking around the heart of Vienna. 

Breakfast was a rather extravagant production by the hotel, and we fortified ourselves each morning with pastries, cured meats, yogurts, and cheeses before venturing out into the blustery weather which seemed to follow us throughout our visit.  The wonderful, and ubiquitous, Viennese Melange certainly helped prepare us for a day of damp sightseeing.  After stuffing ourselves at the hotel buffet, we would head out for a day of sightseeing and usually tried for an early(for Vienna) dinner somewhere inside the Ringstraße.

One of our last days of sightseeing included the Hofburg palace and Imperial Apartments.  If everyone else who was visiting Vienna hadn't also decided it would be the perfect place to escape the rain, it would have been much more enjoyable for us.  As it was, my Lovely Bride and I both began feeling very claustrophobic and moved through the crowded rooms as quickly as possible.  Later we did avoid some of the crowds by visiting St Peter's church, where we happened upon an unexpected concert rehearsal which allowed us to sit and enjoy some beautiful music.  It turned into a very long day so we just headed back to our hotel, and after resting for awhile decided to find dinner closer to the hotel that night.

Each day on our way to the local U-bahn station, we passed a building which was almost hidden by scaffolding.  It was obviously undergoing a restoration of the external facade, and my main concern was to avoid having anything dropped on my head as we passed each day.  When we starting discussing a spot to eat, my Lovely Bride kept insisting she wanted to try the restaurant we passed every day.  She finally had to lead me into it as I had never even realized there was a restaurant hiding behind the scaffolding.  My observational skills are not always so hot now-a-days.
How it looks without scaffolding.

Once past the door, we discovered a small jewel of a restaurant named the 3/4 Takt.   Everything was paneled in wood, with a cozy bar which was occupied by a single gentleman.  There was a separate room for smokers which we found to be somewhat unusual as smokers and non-smokers tended to be mixed together in most of the eating establishments we visited during our trip.  The kitchen was just off the small dining room, and after placing our orders, I could hear my schnitzel being beaten into submission.  No dishes prepared ahead of time here!

Roast pork, kraut & dumpling
Schnitzel "Cordon Bleu"
Our food was delicious and perfectly prepared.  Earlier in the week I had insisted on a restaurant known for its schnitzel and which had been featured on several cable food programs.  It was crowded with tourists from all over Europe as well as the US, but the food was mediocre at best.  The 3/4 Takt easily had the best schnitzel I encountered during our three week trip.

It wasn't until we were viewing the menu that we discovered the reason for the somewhat unusual name of the restaurant.  Johann Strauss had resided in the building while he was writing his best known waltz, An der schönen blauen Donau, or The Blue Danube.  Like all waltzes, it was written in 3/4 time or in German - 3/4 takt.  If someone(yes dear) had not persistently urged me to dine there, we would have completely missed this historic, and tasty, footnote which was only a block from our hotel.
(I didn't spill the coffee on the menu.)

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

An Angry Man

I last talked about my retirement in this blog about a year ago.  At that time I thought I might survive not going to work every day, but reserved final judgement on the whole idea of retirement, waiting to see what the future would bring.

Since then we (for it is not a solo journey) have meandered along through life, enjoying spending time together.  A trip to Europe was a highlight of the past year, as was a recent mission trip to Mississippi.  Our lives have mostly revolved around each other and our small country church family.  There have been highs and lows, but together we have survived and grown.

One thing which I am still trying to decide as to whether it is a positive or a negative, has been my attachment to "social media" in the form of Facebook.  I know more about how family and friends are doing than I dreamed possible just a few years ago, and have renewed friendships which I had thought were lost forever.  Some days it seems as though I can't escape the silly thing, with it following me around in the guise of an alleged smartphone which constantly encourages me to see what is happening in the world at the expense of face-to-face human interaction. 

Most days, it seems to be an endless stream of the frivolous and humorous.  Occasionally, it brings me something superficially inane which may actually start me thinking.  I know independent thought is not the raison d’etre of social media, but if you aren't careful sometimes it just slips out.  One such event occurred this past week in the form of this cartoon/sign which was posted by a former co-worker.  I looked at the image of little Bam-Bam, read the accompanying text and chuckled a bit.  Then the mental wheels began slowly turning and I admitted I used to carry around a lengthy list of people who fit into this group.  Most were folks I encountered through work in some fashion, although there may have been a couple from other venues.  I kept feeling something was slightly amiss, but it was only after a day or two of reflection I came to the somewhat startling realization I no longer had a mental list of people who needed to be smacked.  

It wasn't until the following Sunday as I sat listening to my pastor's sermon that I had my epiphany.  Without getting into too many details, the gist of his message was that we are known, influenced, and defined by those we associate with.  I awoke to the knowledge that during the last 10 years I had worked, I had become an ever angrier person, with an ever-lengthening list of people I was angry with and wanted to "smack upside the head."  My mental makeup and personality kept me from turning all that anger loose, so I kept it bottled up and took it home with me to my family.  The more difficult idea, which I can now finally admit, it was really myself I was angry at for allowing those people and situations to rule my life.  I was the one who needed smacking!

As I sat in that little 135 year old sanctuary, I realized I had spent the last 18 months associating with only my Lovely Bride, our families, and church family, and I wasn't angry at anyone, especially myself.  Spending time with those we love, and those who love us, gives us a wonderfully different view of our world.  I won't pretend I don't still get riled occasionally, but the focus has shifted to a broader scope of issues such as; plagues in Africa, war in Israel, politicians and political parties, and the state of our nation.  Thankfully, it is no longer those destructive personal issues which frequently hit much too close to home.   Best of all, I am no longer that angry man. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Next step: Wertach.

Our last day in Vienna dawned bright and sunny.  After breakfast at our hotel, we rolled our bags out the door and headed for the closest U-Bahn station.  As we rode towards the Bahnhof, we felt the same way about Vienna as when we left Venice…our time spent there was just enough to begin to understand the possibilities.  We had become comfortable maneuvering around the city and were ready to really begin some serious sightseeing.  Our first visit here was accompanied by snow and cold, and this trip cold rain made walking around town a challenge.

The train eased out of the Vienna station 2 minutes late as a result of the section from Budapest arriving that much behind schedule.  Only a few brief halts as we rolled toward Germany on this express.  In Salzburg, ½ the cars and an engine were detached, with no noticeable delay, so those souls could continue on to Innsbruck in the Tirol.  Our section rolled along and into Munich.

It turned out the most difficult part of our trip from Austria to Germany was finding the car rental salon in the train station.  I had seemingly straightforward instructions from the website where I had reserved the car, telling us the salon was on the 1st floor(2nd floor for us Americans) in the center of the station.  Unfortunately, the area was being renovated so there was some construction confusion.  We finally located an elevator which seemed sure to take us the right direction(up), but got herded off by an enthusiastic Deutsche Bahn employee who spoke no English, but kept insisting it was verboten.  Fifteen minutes later, after finding an out of the way stairway, the salon de autos was located and we were able to obtain the keys to a VW Golf which was hidden away in yet another building.  As we walked away from the counter, the helpful young man called out to us, saying, “There is an elevator you can use just around the corner.”  You guessed it…the same elevator we had been chased off!

We found the car without too much difficulty, and set to familiarizing ourselves with its controls.  The built-in GPS was, of course, set up totally in German with no apparent way of switching it to English, and it was quickly obvious we would be relying on paper maps and my smart phone’s map app for our trip.  
Driving across southern Bavaria turned out to be much less stressful than I had feared.  Picking up the car at the Hauptbahnhof meant we were on the side of town closest to where we were headed, so we were able to make a fairly quick escape from the big city and into the countryside.  There were only a couple of turns required to put us into the general area where the town of Wertach is located.
"Our" Pizza Place

It was only after I turned off the main road into Wertach that I ran into trouble.  We had a hand-drawn map and some photos from our hosts to guide us to our destination.  Unfortunately, trying to follow the directions & photos, listening to my iPhone butchering German street names, all while dodging the drivers who actually knew where there were going, caused us to circle the very narrow streets several times before finally arriving at our condo. 

The next day was spent walking the streets and getting a much better feel for this small town.  It is not a large place and there are not very many streets, but none are actually straight.  Most streets curve as they follow old paths which were laid out long before there were such things as automobiles.  Fortunately, everything is within walking distance if you don’t mind a few rather steep hills.  I try to view it as a little extra exercise to help offset the really good Gasthaus meals we’ve been sampling.
Gasthaus Hirsch - one of many good places to eat.

Where y’all from?

                               "Never ask a man if he is from Texas.  If he is you'll 
                   know soon enough, and if not, you don't want to embarrass him."

I conducted an informal test during our recent trip through the Czech Republic, Austria and Bavaria.  One of the things we enjoy most about traveling is meeting people from other countries and cultures.  Getting to know them and finding out how they view the world helps us to better understand the world and our place in it.  Just as interesting were their views of us and our country.

We had never been to Prague, so we signed up for a couple of tours to better learn about this new city.  In the small groups were people from a variety of countries, and always the first order of business was introductions.  Our first tour had a couple from Manchester, and another couple from India.  After learning about them, they asked what country we were from, and the response was “TEXAS”.  All knew exactly what Texas was and where Texas was located, and the only questions were about what part we lived in, what we did for a living, etc. 

The second tour came with a different guide and a different group.  I used the same answer of “Texas” when asked what country we were from, and the Finnish, Swedish, French and Canadian tour members all knew exactly what that meant.  In fact, we were asked about Texas declaring her independence again in the near future!  This led to a spirited discussion of where Texas would fit into the world economy as an independent nation, and whether the rest of the united states would survive without Texas propping them up.

In Vienna, the same occurred several times, with the same results.  Many of the people in the remote part of Bavaria we visited did not speak very much English, but when they asked where we were visiting from, and the response was “Texas”, there was an immediate smile and a look of understanding.

Being an “American” in today's global society requires explanation.  Your allegiances must be clarified.  Your role, in either contributing to the current state of affairs,  or in trying to change that state needs to be voiced.  In essence, who and what you are as an American must be defined.  Watching unfiltered Deutsche Welle, the BBC and other European news services quickly reveals the depth of concern with which the United States is viewed by what were, in the past, our allies.

Being a “Texan” is well defined and understood by all.

“I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And this is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox. But I think there will be little quarrel with my feeling that Texas is one thing. For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study, and the passionate possession of all Texans.” 
- John Steinbeck

All Rental Cars are not Created Equal

One of the great debates among those traveling in Europe is the question of how you move around after your plane lands.  There are those who insist on flying from city to city, others are advocates of train travel and Rail Passes, while some go completely native and ride the local buses.  Each of these methods has pros and cons, but many find themselves renting and driving a car in a foreign country.  Having the freedom to be able to explore at will and not being tied to public transportation can make a vacation truly memorable and enjoyable.  During our latest visit, we combine train travel between Prague, Vienna, and Munich, with renting a car for the 10 days we spend in the Bavarian Alps.

Renting a car in Europe can be different from renting one in the US.  In the US, just walking up to a car rental counter with a credit card and a driver’s license is all that is usually needed.  In most European countries, a reservation is required and will make the process much easier, and if the rental process is conducted from the US in advance, there can be some significant savings.
Not this one!  A Trabant on the streets of Prague.

The vehicles involved can also be very different.  Fuel is more expensive, roads and towns were laid out for horse & foot traffic, and cars are generally much smaller than their US counterparts.  Automatic transmissions are not common and engender an extra charge, so chances are good you will end up driving a small car with a standard transmission.

Ford Focus in Italy
The last car we had rented overseas was a little Ford Focus which was classed as an intermediate size car.  Brand new with less than 500 km, turbo diesel and a 5-spd.  Great little car that was able to go as fast as I was willing to push it in the mountains in Italy.  With the turbo, there was no lack of power and, regardless of the gear, it would keep accelerating up the mountain as long as you kept your foot planted. 

VW at our Oberammergau Hotel
Our rental car for this trip is a new VW Golf Wagon, diesel, and a 5-spd manual.  It sounds very similar to our last rental, so I was expecting a similar driving experience.  The German manufactured Golf seems to be well put together and handles curves without breaking a sweat.  The engine, however, is the wimpiest thing I have found in a currently manufactured vehicle, reminding me of a rather anemic Simca from the early 1960s.  My first inkling I was in trouble was as I pulled out of the rental agency garage into downtown Munich traffic.  I spotted a hole in the midst of the BMWs, Mercedes and Audis and dove into it.  I started to wind it out in first gear…and discovered a rather obnoxious Rev-Limiter which shut down all forward motion until I could shift into second.  We finally escaped Munich and pulled onto the Autobahn where merging with the flow of traffic was decidedly not for the faint of heart.  I have gradually gotten used to this underpowered roller skate, but that doesn’t mean I really like it.  Driving the smaller back roads of Bavaria is strictly a 2nd & 3rd gear adventure.  Fifth is suitable only if you are on a long, fast stretch of autobahn.  With a larger engine, or maybe a turbo to help compensate for its lack of muscle, it might be a very nice car.

The moral to this tale is that driving a car in Europe is different from driving at home.  Cars are different, roads are generally much smaller, driving into the middle of a town is something to be avoided, and fuel will cost more.  But for those who like to have some control of when and where they travel, driving may be your best option.