28 January 2011


2009 Champions - the Spiked Punches,
I consider it a major strike of luck that one of the only team sports I'm even remotely capable of playing is also among the most popular here in Austria.  Since October I've been expanding the international profile of 2009 Brown University P.E. Low Division Intramural Volleyball Champions 'The Spiked Punches' (see right) by playing with my school's team almost every Wednesday.

The older players are mostly quite talented and an extremely high percentage of the students (in comparison to volleyball teams in American high schools, at least) take part.  Volleyball, in general, is taken much more seriously here than it is in America, where it's much more likely to be played one-handed by beer-holding old men in their backyards between a round of horseshoes and seconds at the grill.  In fact, the nearby town of Amstetten (population: 23,000) even has its own professional volleyball club - consisting of at least 25% unemployed American volleyball stars.  Other similar towns (or metropolises, depending on your point-of-view) also have professional teams that compete with each other and, somehow, make money out of the arrangement.   

But back in the small time racket, I've been enjoying our weekly practices despite embarrassing myself at times by grossly misunderstanding information, rules, and gender-specific instructions.  The local dialect, always difficult for me to understand, becomes even more difficult to understand when it's screamed by enthused and competitive sixteen year-olds on the court.
I have, however, learned some fun and useful volleyball vocabulary*:

Meine Schuld - my fault
Deine Schuld - your fault
Schlagen - to serve (to hit)
Aufspielen - to set
Netz - net
Wie steht's? - what's the score?
Out - out
In - in
Spike - spike
Block - block

English has, apparently, influenced the game's terminology abroad.

Although it`s been too cold for outdoor/beach volleyball for some time, I hear that my town has a 3x3 snow volleyball tournament planned for February.  More on that later...

*Note: German volleyball vocabulary is, in fact, only useful for playing volleyball in a German-speaking country.  For something actually useful, click here.

25 January 2011

No Matter Where You Go, Some People Dress Like Fools...

Schematic Diagram of a
Although America may be the place for misguided and foolish youth cultures, a bizarre minority specimen of Austrian teenager is worthy of comment.

They are called die Krocha* and their preferred habitat is the disco.  They are reminiscent in attitude of American "bros," especially because of their lust for clubbing and their taste for Ed Hardy wear (Keine Party ohne Ed Hardy, as they say). 

Three Krocha in their
natural environment
This resemblence to more familiar youth cultures does not extend to other aspects of their attire, many of which are distinctly European or, more accurately, "Eurotrash."  They favor white Adidas sneakers, extremely tight pants, and large key loops for wrapping around their right leg.  They sport finely manicured eyebrows, spray-on tans, and stiffly gelled hair, perhaps as protection from concussions received while dancing.  They also have an insatiable appetite for Palestinian checkered scarves (called Palästinensertuch in German), which they wear as mere accessories, with extreme indifference to potential political meaning.  

They have a language of their own and particularly enjoy the word Oida, which is rougly equivalent to "dude" or "man."  It is sometimes also used without context just to add some flavor to their almost certainly vacuous sentences.  Like popular American TV Chef Emeril Lagasse, they also like to use the word Bam frequently in order to demonstrate their extreme enthusiasm for another's enviable neon-colored baseball cap or impressive dance skills**.  The rest of their vocabulary is a mixture of Viennese (Wienerisch) and various migrant languages.

An urban Austrian phenomenon - I have encountered very few Krocha out here in the countryside and I don't have any as students.  According to German Wikipedia, only 1.7% of 11-29 year olds in Austria identify as Krocha, although I'm not sure how Wikipedia could have gotten this information and I doubt that Krocha is a checkable box in many surveys or censuses.  I've read reports that this style is fading into obscurity (thankfully, according to most accounts), but in my experience they remain common U-Bahn fixtures.  I have rarely seen them in daylight, which they seem to detest despite their remarkable tans.

*I think this word stems originally from the Wienerisch word for the Hochdeutsch hineinkrachen, which means "to encroach."  The word was Austria's second-place Word of the Year 2008, behind Lebensmensch.
**The "krochn" dance style goes best with music from the album krocha traxx vol. 1, available from Universal Music.

20 January 2011

Berlin - Highs and Lows

Scaffolding - a tourist's worst nightmare
Although Maggie and I enjoyed visiting Germany's capital and largest city, our trip was not without its disappointments.  To start with the "Berlinjustices":

-The Reichstag, Germany's parliament building, was closed due to threatened acts of terrorism scheduled for March (note that our trip took place in January).
-The Metro line to the Olympic Stadium was not in operation, hindering my latest compulsion - visiting every former site of the Olympic Summer Games.  Two down, twenty-two to go.
-The landmark Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche was, like practically all other sites I visit in Europe, covered in scaffolding. 

Spreewald Pickles - the Cold War's
tastiest symbol
But other places we visited were "Berlinincredible," including my favorite place we visited - the KaDeWe Department Store.  Other sites in Berlin (in fact, most other sites in Berlin) serve as stirring memorials of World War II, the Holocaust, the Cold War, and the painful division of Germany into East and West, but only KaDeWe has eight giant floors with nearly 400,000 items for sale!  The store itself  - Europe's second largest - was an amazing spectacle, even for non-shoppers.  In fact, the only thing that we bought there was an authentic, canned Spreewald Pickle.  It was the the only type of pickle available in East Germany under the GDR, so it's a damn good thing it's so delicious!

Der Ampelmann (crosswalk dude) - a cute
symbol of life in East Berlin, currently
being exploited by souvenir shops and
unemployable art students across the city.

The Spreewald Pickle is a good example of today's word of the day - Ostalgie.  A combination of the German words Ost (east) and Nostalgie (nostalgia), Ostalgie refers to the lingering affection for life in the East during the Cold War.  The most visible simple of this emotion is the Ampelmann - an adorable crosswalk symbol used in Berlin and other German cities behind the Iron Curtain.

19 January 2011

Sample Dialogue #4

In an electronics store in Amstetten, in German.  Mistake (and irony) realized after the fact.

Friendly Cashier: You're from Austria, are you?
Me: No I'm not.  I'm from America.  I'm on my way to Linz.
Friendly Cashier: Wow, your German is quite good.
Me: Thank you.
Friendly Cashier: Well, I hope you have a nice vacation here in Austria!
Me: You too!
Friendly Cashier: [silent retraction of compliment]

14 January 2011

The Budapest of Times

Rubbing his belly brings
good luck for dinner
The final stop on my winter holiday tour of Europe was Budapest - recently voted one of the 41 places to go in 2011 by the New York Times.  The number 41 seems arbitrary, but the summary of the city was spot on.  To summarize what we learned from our self-effacing tour guide Anna: 
One of the first stops on our tour was by the statue of a cheery, chubby policeman, whose bulging belly has been rubbed shiny by tourists wishing themselves good luck for their next meal.  The lawman's physique, Anna informed us, is typical of Hungarian men due the abundance of meat, lard, and paprika in the local cuisine.
We then moved on to Parliament - a beautiful neo-gothic building that looks remarkably similar to London's Westminster Palace.  The resemblence is no coincidence and in fact it was deliberately made a few inches longer than its more famous peer just to one-up English.  At this stop we learned about the workings of the Hungarian bureaucracy, whose employment rosters are more bloated than old Hungarian men.  Anna was not exaggerating, as every metro stop was staffed with 4-6 fairly indifferent controllers - one to check tickets, one to keep him company, and four to supervise.
Hungarian Parliament - Neo-Gothic Rip Off

We also visited St. Stephan's Basilica, an attractive church best known for hosting the severed hand of St. Stephan (his forearm and elbow are in Warsaw and Vienna, respectively).  Tourists can view the hand by just throwing half a euro in the severed-hand automat.  

Our final stop was a flea market in the city park, where homeless people on tarps sold stolen goods and collected refuse at an unbeatable price.  I was creeped out by many of the merchants - including the lady selling opened bags of breakfast cereals - but Maggie found a nice leather purse for 100 Forints (about 30 cents).  The flea market and the nearby Heroes' Square were overall quite representative of my impression of Hungary - half granduer, half filth, a touch of paprika and a real bargain.

11 January 2011

Mugs, Memories, and Munich

Maggie and I have returned to Waidhofen and my travels sadly are over.  Fortunately this means that I can devote more time to blogging.  Although I doubt I'll ever be able to describe all of the places I visited, I'll start with one of my favorites - Munich.

On a edutaining tour of the city, I learned that that everything in Munich is somehow related to beer consumption - from the famous Rathaus Glockenspiel (recently voted the second most overrated tourist attraction in Europe) to the city's oldest church (reconstructed after WWII with beer proceeds). Our tour guide also informed us of a beer-themed tour taking place that evening that promised to be less "edu" and more "taining."

Holding a Maß by the handle is only
appropriate for toasting.  In all other cases
it is taken as a sign of weakness.
At the beginning of the Munich beer tour I was very interested in learning more about Bavarian beer culture, although I must admit I became less and less diligent about collecting and retaining facts and even memories as we progressed from pub to pub.  One of the most interesting pieces of information that I did retain was the proper way to hold a giant one liter mug of beer, called a Maß (see right).  The handles attached to the mug are meant only to prevent finger-crushing collisions during a toast.  Outside of toasting, you're meant to hold these beers as you would a handle-less mug, with your hand directly on the glass.  Although this hand-to-glass contact might theoretically warm your beer, showing concern about your drink's temperature indicates to Bavarians that you are not drinking fast enough.   

This glorified pub crawl resulted in a number of great photos - some more compromising than others - on my mother's camera that I promise to post if she emails to me.

Another fact I retained from the beer tour is today's vocabulary offering - Reinheitsgebot.  It means "purity law" and it refers to a long-standing rule that all beer in Germany be made of only three ingredients - water, barley, and hops (and yeast, once it was discovered).  It is largely responsible for the lack of variety but abundance in quality of German beer, especially compared with the US.  Although it is no longer on the books due to whiny Dutch competitors, many German brewers still abide by it. Our beer guide informed us that this level of purity protects Bavarian beer consumers from hangovers - something that, through research, I have proven false.

01 January 2011

Ein Gutes Neues Jahr

After completing about two-thirds of my holiday travels without updating my blog, I became anxious that my readers would begin to lose interest and decided to post a partial update.  Right now I'm in a hostel in Hamburg resting from a long train ride that left Vienna at 6:30 am, just minutes after the ball dropped in New York.  Needless to say I'm rather proud of catching such a train, uncaffeinated, on the hangover holiday of the year.  

Despite having only about ninety minutes of sleep so far in 2011, I admit that I had an excellent Silvester - as Germans call New Years Eve.  Although I was sad to forego Dick Clark (or is it Ryan Seacrest?) and the annual Twilight Zone Marathon, I was happy to discover some new December 31 traditions with my girlfriend Maggie and a few of our friends from college.  Here are highlights from the last night's Vienna program (official and unofficial):

-Pouring molten lead into cold water to predict your 2011 fortune.  My glob formed itself roughly into the shape of a shoe.  Its meaning is open to interpretation.
-Hot punch
-Unsanctioned fireworks
New Years is a busy day for the purchase
of useless plastic trinkets
-Sadly, missing the Madonna cover show in Vienna's 1st District
-Buying lucky Austrian New Years totems: pigs, mushrooms, chimney sweeps, and clovers (seem  Irish...)
-Attempting to waltz to Strauss at midnight, failing due to lack of space and ability to waltz.

And the first vocabulary lesson of the New Year is einen guten Rutsch - a nice German New Years greeting that literally translates to wishing someone a "good slide."  I do not know the etymology of this phrase, but I suspect that it might relate to a champagne-related decrease in ability to walk (or waltz) properly.