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."