17 December 2010

Holiday Itinerary

 Although I may not be able to update the old blog very frequently in the next three weeks, curious parties can always consult the following schedule to figure out where I am, what trouble I may be in, and which consulate to call in order to post my bail.

Train tracks with an unrealistic
amount of snow

December 18 - Vienna
December 19-21 - Genoa
December 22 - Vienna
December 23 - Waidhofen an der Ybbs
December 24 - Salzburg
December 25 - Salzburg
December 26 - Munich
December 27 - Munich
December 28-31 - Vienna
January 1 - Hamburg
January 2 - Hamburg
January 3-5 - Berlin
January 6 - Vienna
January 7 - Budapest
January 8 - Budapest
January 9 - Waidhofen an der Ybbs

And today's word, just for fun, is der Dudelsack - bagpipes.

15 December 2010

You May Care, But It's Sausage to Me!

Sausages in Austria do not usually
have legs, clothing, or, notably,
One of the most useful and versatile words that I've learned in Austrian dialect thus far is Wurst.  As you might guess, the word literally means "sausage," yet in Austria it is often used to communicate that the speaker doesn't care or doesn't know about a given topic or question.

Although I knew upon arrival that Austrians liked their sausages, it took me several weeks to realize why Austrians were always responding to my yes/no questions with the same cryptic reply - "sausage." 

According to unverified internet etymologies, this peculiar use of "sausage" has several conceivable origins.  Theory One states that the symmetry of sausages symbolizes one end of an issue being equal to the other.  Theory Two states that, because sausages are made of left-over or otherwise useless meats, "sausage" became an appropriate verbal response to anything you just don't know what to do with.  Theory Three states Austrians are always thinking about sausages, so when they are at a loss they simply say "sausage."

In order to insert this practical use of "sausage" into your English lexicon, here are some examples of its effective use:

In a restaurant:
Hostess: Smoking or non-smoking, sir?
You: Sausage.
Hostess: Thank you for being flexible.

Going Out:
You: What should I wear tonight, pants or a skirt?
A Friend: Mmm, sausage.
You: Yeah, I guess you're right.

On an airplane:
Flight Attendant: Would you prefer the fish or the beef for dinner?
You: Sausage.
Flight Attendant: And to drink?.
You: Also sausage.

Unfortunately my blog, like everything has an end. Only the sausage has two.  Wurst.

14 December 2010

Braving Bratislava

Body heat from the mass of Slovakians
at the Christmas market raised the temperature
to a nearly bearable level.

The weekend before last I made a trip so brief that I nearly forgot to make a comment about it on the blog.  During a weekend visit to Vienna, I took advantage of the fact that European countries are packed onto their tiny continent like sovereign sardines in a multi-cultural tin can and decided to check out Bratislava - a completely different city with a completely different language just forty-five minutes away!   

Admittedly, the timing for my day trip was less than ideal as the temperature was creeping down toward zero (Fahrenheit!) most of the time we were out and about and it finally reached that frosty barrier after the sun went down around 3 o` clock.  The bitter cold surprised me as Bratislava and the comparatively tropical Vienna are at roughly the same latitude.  Seemingly, just crossing the former Iron Curtain reduces the temperature by ten degrees.  Nonetheless, I wanted to cross Slovakia off of my list of Austria's eight bordering countries and I'm happy I did so, even if my fingertips and nose were not appreciative of my efforts.

The so-called UFO Bridge is one of
the worst mistakes I`ve ever seen.
At its core, Bratislava is like a Mozart Ball candy with a minature marzipan center surrounded by unsweeted Soviet chocolate and served in a bowl of hideous architecture (left).  But to be fair, the city's tourist-laden center was truly beautiful and its charms were reminiscent of, but also unique from, those of its more-celebrated neighbor Vienna (fun fact: the two metropolises are the two of the world's closest capital cities).

Funny characters such as this smiling
sewer worker are spread around
the city center.
My friends and I spent less than four hours in the city including frequent thawing breaks, but we managed nonetheless to see all of the sites represented in the first twenty Google Image Search results.  Of these my favorites were the many bizarre characters cast in bronze to be found in and around Hviezdoslav Square (right).  We hustled from site to site and overall the trip had a very "we came, we saw, we photographed" feel.  The city would make an ideal day trip during nicer weather, but doesn't really warrant much more attention.

Today I've picked two of my new favorite wintery German words, both of which are in today's frontpage headlines in Austria.

Der Vorweichnachtsstress is the pre-Christmas stress familiar to many anxious Americans, less prevalent here.
Erfrieren means "to freeze to death," which felt like a real possibility in Bratislava.

09 December 2010

Sample Dialogue #3

In a cafe in Waidhofen, in German

Waitress: (friendly) Are you new?  Where do you come from?
Scott: (happy to talk to someone) Yes, I'm from the United States.
Waitress: Oh, you should meet my boss.  She's from Florida.
Scott: Cool.  Why is she in Waidhofen?
Waitress: Why are you in Waidhofen?

der Einwanderer - Immigrant

07 December 2010

Where the Future is Still in the Future

An Austrian friend of mine once joked that if the world came to an end, Austria wouldn't notice for five years.  Although a disco house track inexplicably titled "Barbara Streisand" has somehow become far and away the most popular song in Austria, the world has not yet come to an end.  Nonetheless, I have noticed that Austria is slow to pick up on some of the latest trends, at least when it comes to personal technology.

Austria certainly has an extraordinary standard of living and an advanced energy infrastructure, but when it comes to technology use in everday life, Austrians seem less cutting edge than Americans.  As I tend to be slightly techno-phobic, this is relieving for me at times.

While in America people are enjoying a new iPhone App that allows them to see what's in front of them while they are walking and typing, Austrians are more likely to send letters and almost always pay with cash.  Older Austrians tend not to have internet access and newspapers here are not facing the same budget crises as their American counterparts.  During a lesson on technology and new media, many of my students laughed at me for suggesting that VCRs were obsolete and few responded kindly to my crack at landline telephones.  In a country where most university-track students are still required to learn Latin, perhaps this conservative approach to technology is not surprising.
In Austria, old things work
and old people don't
I have also noticed a major divergence with regard to technology in schools.  While American education wonks are gaga for Smart Boards, PowerPoint, and standardized testing, both of my schools still rely on chalk (albeit chalk of many different colors) to hold students' attention.  Austrians teachers still write and grade their tests by hand and many scoff at the idea of Scantron machines.  But sometimes older technologies are the most reliable; as I've discovered, overhead projectors malfunction less frequently than computer labs and their finnicky projectors.  In fact, I've developed an unlikely romance for the overhead projector and I find it's really quite useful for teaching ESL.  Plus, as any student could tell you, there's just something about seeing your teacher's magnified spit froth on the big screen as he vigorously rubs the Vis-a-Vis off a slide with his many-colored thumb.

And a relevent relevant word of the day is die Zukunft, or "the future."  In German, I sometimes like to add the phrase der Zukunft, or "of the future," to nouns to make them sound more exciting.  For example Architekt der Zukunft - "Architecht of the Future."

01 December 2010

Atop City Hall

der Stadtturm, or "City Tower"
In the center of town here in Waidhofen there's a nice-looking clock tower attached to the town hall that I walk by on most days.  Recently  I noticed that it has a message written on it in Gothic script:

"Im Jahre 1532 schlugen Bürger, Schmiede, und Bauern die Türken in die Flucht und erbautern zur Errinerung diesen Turm.

Which translates to:

"In the year 1532, townsmen, blacksmiths and farmers beat back the Turks and built this tower in their memory."

When I first read it I found to be a truly bad-ass message, although slightly incongruous with the Turkish kabob stand on the same block.  Given the anti-immigrant fervor of Austria's far-right political party, I thought it might also make a passable campaign message. 

29 November 2010

Sample Dialogue #2

On the street, in German.

Old Austrian Man: Excuse me, young man.  How tall are you?
Scott: (pause to convert to metric) One meter ninety-three.
Old Austrian Man: So big?  You look very healthy.
Scott: Thanks.

die Schmeichelei - flattery

26 November 2010


Apfelstrudel is basically apple pie.
I anticipated some anxiety on the part of my friends and family on the issue of whether I'd be having a proper Thanksgiving (sometimes called Erntedankfest, or Harvest Thanks Party) here in Austria.  To clarify matters like so much butter - I traveled on Thanksgiving to the village of Wieselburg, home of the famous beer (occasionally on special at the GCB in Providence).  Here I met with an American friend from Brown and we cooked a reasonable authentic Thanksgiving dinner, with the following minor exceptions:

-Instead of apple pie, we had Apfelstrudel, which is more or less the same stuff in a different pie dish.  The nutrional value, at least, is as lacking.
-Instead of cranberry sauce, we had cranberry marmalade.  Although it looked gourmet, I still missed the gelled kind that proudly displays the ridges from the tin can.
-Instead of turkey, we had chicken.  This particular substitution was unfortunate, but supposedly eating chicken is more eco-friendly anyways.
-Instead of American relatives, we ate with two Austrian adults, two New Englanders, and one girl from Northern Ireland.  In such a mashed-up casserole of dialects, I found the Austrian easier to understand than the Irish.

I also celebrated the holiday in the classroom by teaching my students all about our beloved and peculiar institution.  The one aspect they seemed most intersted in, oddly enough, was how to make a turkey out of construction paper by tracing your hand - a rite of passage for all American kindergarteners. 

25 November 2010

At the Movies

A few days ago I went to the cinema in Waidhofen with the other English TA in town, Sophy.  The theater is not far from my house, which is fortunate as it is the only one for many kilometers.  The theater itself is adorable and, with fewer than 100 seats, has a very personal feel.  Unlike theaters in the US, this cinema still uses assigned seating; the box office lady even presented us with a number of options to make sure we got the seats we wanted.

Despite the charm of the theater, I found the film - Harry Potter and the Heiligtümer des Todes, Teil 1 - somewhat lacking.  However, I will leave the panning to the real critics and focus, instead, on criticizing the terrible German dubbing.

Larger cities, namely Vienna, often have English movie theaters, but most cinemas play American films in the German language.  They employ voice actors called Synchronsprecheren, who are almost never famous in their own right.  The dubbing often looks completely ridiculous and unsynchronized and, what's more, the same American actors will be replaced by different German voices in different films.  In the Harry Potter series, the same actors in the same roles even have different voices in each installment. 

In addition to HP7, I also recently watched Sleepless in Seattle dubbed for a German television station (I am not ashamed).  In one especially absurd scene, Meg Ryan and Rosie O'Donnell mouth the German words to the Cary Grant movie An Affair to Remember, also dubbed in German, resulting in a rare and basically unintelligible instance of "double-dubbing."   

(I will say that I understood only about 40% of the dialogue of these films, which spared me from fully internalizing the sappiness of both Harry Potter and Sleepless in Seattle).

I think that a better approach to American films (or the occasional other foreign films) is to watch with German subtitles, rather than proper German voices, just as the best way to watch a German movie is with English subtitles.  I do understand, however, that a disproportionate amount of films and television programs in Austria, as elsewhere, come from the United States.  Thus, the dubbing of Hollywood, while atrocious, is perhaps an appropriate defence of non-English languages in a globalizing world.  I still think it's silly.

21 November 2010

Out of Burgenland

I have just returned home from my budget jaunt to the province of Burgenland, where the hills are neglible and the wine flows as freely as tap water at an American casual dining restaurant.

Burgenland - a province known for its Zweigelt grape variety and its proximity to Hungary is perhaps not Austria's most enticing province, but it is nonetheless a crucial cog in my newfound goal of visiting all nine Austrian provinces (although not necessary for my other newfound goal of visiting all eight of Austria's neighboring nations, even Liechtenstein).*

But beyond fulfilling my trivial and arbitrary geographic ambitions, I also had a great time reconnecting with some terrific American friends I made at orientation in Graz back in September and visiting some truly minor tourist attractions.  First and foremost among them was an eerie monument constructed by Nazis in the village of Oberschützen that has since been rededicated as a memorial to the horrors of racism and autocracy.
Approaching the former Nazi monument, finding the weather appropriate
Earlier in our travels, we also found a hideous, concrete dormintory that looked like a Soviet's failed attempt at completing a tangram puzzle without all the pieces.  We used the building as a background to practice making trademark, non-smiling Eastern European facial expressions.

Inconsiderate tractor traffic made for a very representative Burgenland photo
 We then visited a mostly-Hungarian cemetery and did our best to conceal any hint of enjoying the journey.
Perfecting the Eastern European art of not smiling in photos
Yet, at the end of the day, we were all happy to be together.  We enjoyed hot pizza and then a few of us even explored the village nightlife - namely the smoky halls of Discostraße. 

Americans prefer smiling, even while being burned by hot grease

Unfortunately one site that I did not make it to was the nearby village of Klingenbach, where in 1989 the Iron Curtain first ripped and allowed an indirect passage to the West for East Germans.  Another aspiration of mine is to return and snap a photo of myself running across the once-fortified border, hopefully under the surveillance of a confused but harmless border guard. 

Fortunately my somber and rainy return to the weekly grind at school was cushioned by the auspicious arrival of Waidhofen's official town Christmas tree, which, in my absence, appears to have been installed by municipal Christmas fairies in the center of one of our many traffic circles.

And finally, today's German word takes its inspiration from the lowly-populated region where I spent my weekend - das Dorf means "the village."

*So far I have been to four of nine provinces (Vienna, Lower Austria, Styria, and Burgenland) and only one of eight neighbors (Czech Republic).

18 November 2010

Things That Are Not Free in Austria

Although the following are usually free (or kostenlos) in the United States, they are often non-free in Austria:
The 0 Euro Coin, official currency of Greece

-Public restrooms
-Grocery bags
-Shopping carts
-Bread at restaurants
-Tap water

Then again, the following are free in Austria, but decidedly non-free in the United States:

-Prescription Drugs

Tomorrow I am headed to the Austrian province of Burgenland to reunite with some other American teaching assistants.  More on my travels on Monday.

16 November 2010

On Ice Skates and the Honors System

As many of my friends can attest, I am an abyssmally bad ice skater. I have terrible balance, I'm stiff, and I am deathly afraid of falling 1.93 meters to the ground. Why then did I recently purchase a pair of ice skates here in Waidhofen and what has this story got to do with the honors system? Good questions.

2007 - My last attempt at
As it happens, the public skating rink here in town recently opened for business and I decided to investigate the possibility of buying ice skates, with the intention of potentially become a more adept skater. Although I had little intention of actually fulfilling this pipe dream, I was convinced by a local shoesalesman to buy the most expensive pair of skates he had to offer. This decision was based on:

1. My inability to argue with him in German, and
2. His impressive no-questions-asked layaway payment plan - namely the "pay for the skates later and, no, I don't need any of your personal information" payment plan.

Low-Security Vending Bag
This type of trust-based business interaction would certainly not fly in the United States and it led me to consider much rarer the honors system is in the United States than in Austria, at least small-town Austria.  For example, my apartment required no security deposit, self-service vegetable/schnapps stands do not suffer from theft, and most Austrians purchase tickets for the underground even though you can usually get away without paying.  Newspapers are sold out of funny-looking, easy-to-pilfer bags (left) and many doors go unlocked.  In general, Austrians seem to trust one another more than Americans do - something I've found rather refreshing. 

Then again, it probably wouldn't be difficult for the ice skate salesman to find a 1.93 meter ice skater who only understood American shoes sizes and spoke German like a Kindergartener, should the honors system fail to inspire prompt payment. 

And naturally today's word of the day is Eislaufschuhe - ice skates! A wonderfully German portmanteau of ice skating (eislaufen, which is itself a combination of "ice" and "running") and shoes.

14 November 2010

Who is Krampus?

Krampus - the Publically-Sanctioned Child-Scarer
The handsome gentleman seen to the right is named Krampus, the beloved descendant of a terrifying, pre-Christian Alpine tradition.  I was introduced to him last night when an Austrian friend from Waidhofen generously offered to take me to a Perchtenlauf in the nearby town of Ybbsitz.  Having no idea what a Perchtenlauf might be, and feeling too embarrassed to ask, I gladly accepted the invitation. 

As it turns out, a Perchtenlauf is a traditional parade held annually in many Austrian towns during the Christmas season.  (NOTE: Although it is questionable whether the Christmas season has already properly started, I have noticed that without Thanksgiving as a semi-official starting line, Austrians have a harder time agreeing upon exactly when it is permissible to start celebrating and shopping like maniacs.)  Perchtenlauf is equivalent, perhaps, to America's Macy's Day Parade, but without Matt Lauer or the famously large (and sometimes deadly) balloons.  Instead, a traditional Perchtenlauf features packs of young men dressed as the character Krampus. 

These young men, who are active members of large Krampus clubs, dress up with horns and masks made of wood and sheep skin and wield torches, flares, and clubs as they march through the streets terryfing women and children.  Thankfully, no one is ever actually burned, bitten, or stabbed, and everyone has a good time.  Ample quantities of spiced cider increase the excitement and, along with all the flames, keep the crowd warm. (Click here for a cool Krampus-themed holiday drink recipe)

The Perchtenlauf in Ybbsitz came early in the season, as the busiest day of the year for Krampus is St. Nikolaus Day, the Sixth of December.  On the eve of this holiday, St. Nikolaus/Nicholas - essentially Santa Claus, but dressed more like the Pope (left) - brings presents to well-behaved children, but dispatches the gruesome Krampus to naughty children, whom are then dragged into the pits of hell.  When I asked my Austrian companions to clarify the relationship between Krampus and St. Nikolaus, they explained that they are neither friends nor enemies, but rather co-workers, with St. Nikolaus holding the dominant, upper-management position.

Outside of Perchtenlauf and St. Nikolaus Day, the Krampus tradition is carried out on weekend nights by young men who use the opportunity to harrass women with large cowbells, rusty chains, and home-made whips.  The practice is especially popular at nightclubs and in the province of Styria.  Although this tradition would certainly lead to legal action in the United States, it's all in good fun and even the children really seem to love it.

For some great news footage of one of last year's larger Perchtenlaufs, click here.

11 November 2010

Sample Dialogue

Part of my job is to educate Austrians about the USA and to dispel stereotypes about Americans.  Sometimes I perpetuate them by mistake.  Yesterday, while answering questions in class:

Student: Is it true that all Americans are obese?
Scott: No, not really... except in the South.

der Heuchler - a hypocrit

09 November 2010

Things I See While Jogging

So I've finally settled on a fixed course that I use just about every day to go running.  It's about 6 or 7 kilometers long and it offers a number of truly amusing sites.  Some are delightfully Austrian and some are just charming in their own right.  I usually run by:

Waidhofen's Cool Viaduct

-A self-service schnapps bar
-A fresh milk automat (milk appears to come directly from cows)
-Two cemetaries, one of which is adjacent to a retirement home
-A cool viaduct
-A restaurant that advertises "Five Euro Schnitzel Wednesdays"
-Three traffic circles
-A full-time castle, part-time nightclub
-A mountain
-Packs of older Austrians who seem to love their Nordic walking sticks, but also seem to ingore proper Nordic walking technique

I question the necessity of using poles.
And as a follow-up to my last post, the castle club night was a fun and successful adventure.  I have collected some real, live Austrian friends, one of whom taught me my new favorite German word and today's offering - das Kuddelmuddel.  It's an unbelievably adorable word for a mess or a mix-up, especially one that a child would create. 

04 November 2010

Attempts at Socializing

Unsuspecting castle becomes target of vicious Austrian club scene
Last weekend in Vienna I was fortunate enough to meet someone my age who comes from my adopted hometown of Waidhofen an der Ybbs.  Like most other Waidhofners (people from Waidhofen) between the ages of 18 and 45, she no longer lives in Waidhofen, but she was generous enough to offer to take me out this Friday and introduce me to other young adults this coming weekend.  For the record, I remain skeptical that there are other young adults in Waidhofen.

At her suggestion we're going to a club night in - naturally - a fourteenth-century castle.

Aside from the terrifying prospect of running into my students, I'm looking forward to the adventure.  Although I've gone out in Vienna and Prague, this will be my first attempt at my new Lieblingsdorf (favorite village).  With any luck the club will bear little resemblence to the most embarrassing place in Providence.

As a real, authentic German document, I've included a description from the club's Facebook page auf Deutsch (for a literal, yet quite comical translation, scroll to the bottom).

Getreu dem Motto „BLACK BEATS & CLUB TUNES“ werden die beiden Star DJ´s G-Dugz & El Amin das Waidhofner Rothschild Schloss mit fetten RnB, Hip Hop, House Beats in Ekstase versetzen.  Die beiden Deejay´s, die in den letzten Jahren unzählige Support Shows für Acts wie Katy Perry, Xzibit, Fatman Scoop oder Shaggy gespielt haben und im Moment unter anderem in der „Passage Wien“ die Plattenteller drehen , werden den CRYSTAL... CLUB regelrecht zum Kochen bringen.
"True to the motto "BLACK BEATS & CLUB TUNES," the two Star DJs - G-Dugz and El Amin - will put Waidhofen's Rothschild Castle in ecstasy with their fat R&B, Hip Hop, and House Beatz.  The two DJs, who have played numerous support shows for acts such as Katy Perry, Xzibit, Fatman Scoop, and Shaggy, and currently spin the plates at "Passage Vienna," will literally bring the CLUB to a boil." (a note on the misuse of the word "literally" in English).
Well, wish me luck as I head to da Club - or is it der Club...

02 November 2010


Me as Pirate/Cultural Ambassador
 With a name that's so ripe for that Halloween pun, it's amazing that the holiday has apparently only become popular in Wien in recent years - a fairly innocuous result of globalization, dentists aside. 

Thanks to the little-known, but very Catholic All Souls' and All Saints' Days, I enjoyed a second long weekend in a row and decided to visit the capital city and seek other be-costumed Americans who share my passion for gorging on Snickers, Haribo Gummis, and other Halloween hallmarks.

I reneged on my plans to dress up as Schoolhouse Rock's "Just a Bill" (too obscure for Austrians) and decided to dress as a pirate because I happened to own some appropriate clothing, although I sadly lacked a proper hook.  Despite living in a landlocked country, Austrians seem to appreciate that Johnny Depp-tinged pirate subculture that has been flourishing in the US for the past few years.  Just the same, I was surprised, but satisfied, when two youngsters shouted, "Ahoy, pirat!" at me in the underground.

To keep the weekend spooky, I also visited the Zentralfriedhof - Austria's largest cemetery.  Here I visited the graves of two of music's true legends: Beethoven and Falco.  Falco's grave was far and away the more popular and more stunning of the two.

Grave of Austrian Pop Legend Falco - of Rock Me Amadeus fame

As my word of the day, I offer Intimfeindschaft.  An Austrian friend of mine suggested that it was one of German's heavy hitters, and I certainly agree.  It translates literally to "intimate enmity or hostility," and I think it's roughly equivalent to the popular Americanism "frenemies."

28 October 2010

Vorarlberg: Austria's Rhode Island

Vorarlberg, as Rudolph's Red Nose

As I was walking past a smokey disco (past, not in) here in Waidhofen last night, a pair of youngsters decided to heckle me.  This is not uncommom in Austria, as most people can somehow tell that I am not Austrian.  Last night, however, I was not accused of being an American, but rather something much worse - a Vorarlberger.

Vorarlberg is Austria's smallest province, or Bundesland, and Austrians are not fond of it.  

Vorarlbergers - all 300,000 of them - speak a dialect much closer to Swiss German than Austro-Bavarian German and thus they are the butt of many jokes.  My theory is that Austrians are so insecure about their peculiar form of speaking (which is often ridiculed by our lederhosen-ed neighbors to the north) that they are channeling their linguistic self-doubt onto poor, helpless Vorarlberg. 

Austria, as Schnitzel

Although I've yet to visit this tiny bubble on the schnitzel of the Austrian Republic, I am sympathetic to their plight, having spent four years in RI - the smallest, pimpliest state in the US.  Despite their charms, neither of them really belongs; 80% of Vorarlberg voted against becoming part of Austria in the wake of WWI and Rhode Island barely ratified the Constitution.  Perhaps I'm a hopeless fan of the underdog, but I would be proud to be accussed of coming from either the tiny geographic footnote that is Rhode Island or the historical anomaly that is Vorarlberg.

27 October 2010

A Prague Promenade

The Historic Charles Bridge (and other
less historic rivals) over the Vlatava River
After visiting Prague many Americans feel compelled to title their recollections and Facebook albums with those irresistable Czech puns ("Czech-ing in from Prague" or "Czech out how drunk I got in Eastern Europe," etc.).  To set my blog apart, I opted instead for some illogical alliteration that vaguely describes what I did this past weekend.

Last weekend was a national holiday here in Austria, so I did indeed cHecK out our neighbor to the north - the Czech Republic.  The capital city reminded me of Disney's Fantasyland, minus the exorbitant prices and basic rules of friendly interaction, transported behind the Iron Curtain along with blue jeans, Coca-Cola and the English language in 1993.

With my American tour guide (and friend of a friend) Jesse, I visited all of the obligatory tourist attractions, including the Charles Bridge (worthwhile), the John Lennon Wall (cool idea, lame art), and Prague Castle (site of the Second Defenestration of Prague, a tragic, yet hilarious occassion in European history).  Inside the castle, which is more of a district than a specific building, I found my favorite view of the city from the top of St. Vitus Cathedral.  It required a exhausting hike up an enormous spiral staircase from the 14th Century, when the average staircase climber was apparently about a foot shorter than I am.  My companions and I counted the number of stairs to the top and, although none of us was accurate, I was the closest with 234 out of 237 steps counted.

The Kafka Museum was terrifying.
We also visited the Kafka Musuem which was bizarre and unsettling, but truly "Kafkaesque" and certainly worth the 120 crowns ($5) admission fee.  Upon entering the museum's courtyard I was greeted with a statue of two grown men peeing into a small pond with functional penises that are adjustable by hand or by SMS.  I tried neither.  At the entrance to the museum, it was nearly impossible for me to actually buy a ticket because there appeared to be no employees, or at least none that were interested in selling tickets or interacting with guests.  When I eventually secured assitance, the cashier insisted that I pay in exact change and refused to break my 200 crown note, approximately equivalent to a $10 bill.  When I finally entered the museum, the images and artwork varied from baffling to nightmarish and the impressive views of the Vltava River were deliberately obscured with electrical tape.  All in all, I think Kafka would be proud.

As for souvenirs, I returned to Austria with a few postcards and several days worth of indigestion from greasy Czech street food.  Nonetheless, my trip was affordable, educational, and exciting and I heartily recommend Prague/Praha to any European tourist.    

In honor of Kafka's vision of the modern state as a terrifying bureaucratic hellhole (nowhere more accurate than Austria and Germany), my word of the day is Amtsdeutsch or "office German."  It means something along the lines of "legalese," but it refers to the indecipherable language used in German applications and forms.

19 October 2010

Other Misunderstandings

The number funny of misinterpretations I encounter in Austria grows daily.  The latest is related to the environmental crisis in Hungary (left), which is called Giftschlamm by German-language newspapers.  When I first heard this word I knew that "gift" meant "poison" (interesting?), and I assumed that "schlamm" was equivalent to the English "slam," meaning that the red sludge in Hungary was a "Poison Slam."  Although Poison Slam would be a great name for a SNES video game or death metal band, "Giftschlamm" actually means dangerous mud or sludge, as I was recently disappointed to find out.

Another example is related to emergency exits, which are called Notausgang in German.  When I first arrived, I knew that "ausgang" meant "exit," but not knowing what the prefix "not" really meant, I thought signs for a "Notausgang" meant that a given door was not an exit.  This could have been a very unfortunate misunderstanding indeed.

Luckilzy, European exit signs are more universal than American ones in that they use no written language and therefore they are obvious to illiterates, kindergarteners, and even intelligent animals.  Plus they're green, which may keep people calm during an actual emergency.  Slate has a lengthy and comprehensive article on this topic (here), but beware its length and comprehensivity.  

As a final note, I'm headed to Prague for the weekend to celebrate my extended "Austria Day" holiday in another country.  I'll be back on in Waidhofen on Tuesday.

16 October 2010

On Mistranlsations

Although I usually teach just the 14-18 year old crowd, yesterday I had the opportunity to visit a 1st Form (10-11 year olds) classroom, where the students are in their first year of English.  My teacher and I presented them with the taxing activity of describing cartoon pirates, in writing, with the useful English expressions "he's got a..." and "he hasn't got a..." 

Many of the youngsters shied away from my towering American height, but many more tried to impress me with fancy English sentences about their cartoon pirates.  One particularly ambitious lad proudly presented me his complicated, multiword sentence, "In his face is all big."  I felt that something had been lost in translation, so I asked what he was trying to say in German, to which he responded, "In seinem Gesicht ist alles groß," which means the same thing, fairly literally.  Then I thought maybe the problem was not the English language, but rather with this peculiar's idea of describing faces.  I was surprised to find out later that this is an appropriate way say in German that somebody has a large nose and ears.

And this is sadly why most things cannot be translated literally, why languages are difficult to learn, and why Google Translate cannot do your homework (yet).  And today's German word is der Übersetzsungfehler, or "mistranslation."  The fact that two of my German words of the day were types of mistakes (der Tippfehler)  be a reflection of how flawlessly I've been conducting my affairs....

13 October 2010

Traffic Circles

Given that I need to bike through two of Waidhofen's four traffic circles on my way to work everyday, it seemed appropriate to explain something about Europe's inexplicable affection for roudabouts, rotaries, and all things circular.  Waidhofen, with it's population of 12,000, has about one rotary for every 3,000 residents, while Providence has about one for every 175,000 residents, according to my memory.  France alone is apparently home to 50% of the world's traffic circles and the UK is home to so-called 'magic roundabouts,' where a large, two-way roundabout is composed of five or more smaller roundabouts.
Although they are, according to Wikipedia, safer for pedestrians and motorists than traditional intersecions, I remain skeptical of their advantages, at least for cyclists.  While most drivers in Austria appear to be aware that you need to yield to other autos in the circle, it is questionable whether they need to (or feel like they need to) yield to bicycles in the circle.  This has caused me much panic, but thankfully no close-calls.  And as a warning to American motorists abroad, God help you if you visit a country where people drive on the left and traffic circles flow clockwise, against all laws of nature. 

This complaints being registrered, I must admit that there are many advantages to traffic circles with regard to safety, efficiency, and aesthetics.  But as with many things distinctly European, I'm not sure that America is fully ready to adapt, despite the apparent advantages.  While adopting the metric system would mearly confuse people, building an abundance of traffic circles would probably result in America motorists plowing their mini-vans directly into the center island while speaking on the cell phone.

And, finally, the German word for these death traps is der Kreisverkehr, which fairly literally means 'traffic ring.'

10 October 2010

American Things That are More Common in Austria than in the US:

-The King of Queens
-David Hasselhof's Musical Ambitions
-'Hey Baby' by Bruce Channel from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.
-Two and a Half Men (aka Mein Cooler Onkel Charlie)

And for those of you concerned about the red sludge catastrophe, Hungary is downstream along the Danube from Austria, so it will remain firmly Hungary's problem and not interfere with life in Waidhofen an der Ybbs.  And for today's vocabulary lesson, an environmental disaster is called Umweltkatastrophe.

07 October 2010

Meine Neue Wohnung

Wohnung, apartment.  My new address, for those who wish to send mail, is Scott Middleton, Teichgasse 7, 3340 Waidhofen an der Ybbs, Niederösterreich, Austria.

Yesterday I moved to a permanent flat that I'm renting from an old lady who runs an antique store in downtown Waidhofen.  It has the reassuring smell of a summer cottage that hasn't been rented since the fall of the Berlin Wall, plus there are chickens in the backyard that I suspect may produce free eggs for me.  The rent is only €230 per month, which I'm very happy about.

Also yesterday I picked up two boxes of goodies that were left for me by my predecessor in the schools.  The boxes included plates, bowls, pans, a portable DVD player, The Princess Bride in German, condoms, two cameras, tea, spices, and a bike.*  Christmas (Weihnachtsfest) came early.

*To be clear, the bike was not in the boxes, but rather came with them. 

05 October 2010

Nothing strange about this post...

Congratulations on finding the secret blog post! Although this post claims to have been written on 5 October 2010, it was in fact written on 9 April 2011.

You must be truly committed to my blog to have found this.  I appreciate your devotion and I encourage to leave a comment below to brag about your attention to detail and your love of my blog.

As a reward, here is one of my favorite jokes:

Q: How many mice does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A: Two, but how did they get in there?

To reward you further, he is an irrelevant, but excellent German word: die Blutschande - one German word for incest that more literally means "blood shame."

01 October 2010


Hello and greetings from Vienna. I have completed my orientation in Graz and returned to the capital city for the weekend with new Fulbright friends before heading to my new home in Waidhofen.

One of my favorite things about Wien is, without surprise, the underground system. It's very logical, except that the lines are numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6. There is no obvious explanation about what happened to U5, but rumors abound. The convenient (but scary) thing about the system is that there are no turnstiles like there are in the States. Instead, you can just hop on the train with or without a ticket, although you run the risk of getting a major fine if caught by a plain-clothes train officer (it's jokingly called "getting controlled").

The German word for riding illegally on public transit (specific I know) is Schwarzfahren, which literally means "black riding." As a prefix, black often means illegal, as in the "black market."

26 September 2010

Mein Zeitzonenkater

After nearly 48 hours of travelling, I´ve arrived in Vienna where I´m spending the night before heading to Graz for orientation tomorrow. I had initially planned to blog from the sky, but was disappointed to find out that Jet Airlines does not offer to WiFi to its superbudgeteconomyclass. Instead I had to enjoy the many Bush-era reruns available on my Jet Airlines JetScreen™. Expecting the internet and not getting it, however, made me feel a little spoiled and it reminded me of this clip from Louis CK on Conan.

Today´s German word is der Zeitzonenkater, which is one way to say ¨jet lag,¨ but translates more literally to ¨time zone hangover.¨ To have einen Kater (literally a male cat) means that you´re hungover, as I hear was the case among victorious Brown students this morning.

18 September 2010

Hello and Welcome

In order to keep all of you updated with my life in Austria (and not out of sheer vanity) I have created this blog and I welcome you to it.

To start with the very basics, I am leaving the U.S. on September 25 and I'll be living in the town of Waidhofen an der Ybbs in Lower Austria (Niederoesterreich).

For the geographically inclined, here's a map

And for the etymologically-inclined, I plan to include a fun new German word in every post. I'll start with the title of the blog - fingerspitzengefühl. It translates to "instinct" or "intuition." My girlfriend Maggie mistakenly believes that it means "the feeling that you get in your fingertips when you meet somebody for the first time and you don't think you like him or her." She likes to use it to demonstrate how specific and funny German words can be and I find it amusing in any case - definitely one of my favorites.