During grad school I took advantage of the opportunity to spend a summer studying German in Vienna. On the day I left for Europe I knew exactly zero words in German. I had spent all of my high school and about half of my undergrad college years studying Spanish, so flying to Austria (instead of Spain or somewhere in South America) was really and truly a matter of opportunity taking precedence over planning.
Each student flew into Vienna solo, so I arrived in the Vienna airport more exhausted than I ever could have imagined an 8 hour flight (followed by a 2 hour layover and another 1 hour flight) could have possibly made me. Jet lag is something a person simply must experience to understand. So, there I was, wandering around the Vienna airport, feeling (looking?) like a zombie and wondering how I was going to get to my dorm room when I couldn’t even read the signs on the walls.
That was when I ran into my first friendly, fluently English-speaking, European. He didn’t even ask what language I spoke, just walked up to me with a big grin and asked if I needed help. I showed him the materials provided by the college and pointed to the street name I needed, explaining that I needed to get to my dorm. He nodded, pointed to a nearby waiting bus and said “this is the bus you need.”
I knew I was being overly trusting but, at that moment I didn’t know what else to do. So I got on the bus and the driver dropped me off at a spot that he assured me was within walking distance. I was even more tired and still struggling to make sense of the signs so I hailed a cab, showed him the address and trusted that he would get me there quickly. Again, overly trusting, but sometimes that’s the best way to go.
In no time at all I was at my dorm, checked in and crashing into my dorm bed. Literally. According to my room-mate, I walked in, dropped my bag, mumbled something about a nap and fell into the bed. She thought it was funny. I only vaguely remember finding my room and hitting the bed.
The next morning I got in line behind (what appeared to be) a hundred or so students being tested in fluency. One woman was testing every single student by asking a few questions in German. I couldn’t understand a word said by anyone involved. When it was my turn she asked me something that I assumed was ‘how well do you speak German.’ So, I looked her right in the eye and said “not a word.”
She paused and then laughed. I think it was the first time I had seen the woman so much as crack a smile. “Not a word. That is easy then…”
From that point on my summer consisted of introductory German classes in the morning and exploring Vienna and the surrounding countries during the afternoons and weekends.
Which brings me to these three photos.
The photo on the left is the spire of the oldest church in Vienna. I was told it was the oldest church in Europe, but I suspect there are many churches, throughout Europe, making that claim. It is black in color because of the fires and bombs from World War II. This picture was taken in 1996, which meant the war had ended 50 years previous and people were still cleaning up the mess – that left me feeling…well…stunned.
Beneath this church is a catacomb (which I toured) and inside is an ancient pipe organ that was played every day during the summer. The concerts were impressive in quality, and free and open to the public. The church was very much a tourist attraction, so there were plenty of opportunities to poke around.
Yet, what I remember most vividly, and fondly, about this church was the feeling of a well-used holy place. The moment I walked inside the church I got a strong sense of…prayer. It was as if the space was alive with the words and ceremonies and footsteps of many generations of faithful.
The railings around the stairs had carvings of frogs eating frogs, which was worn down by many centuries of hands. The carvings struck me as odd for a church, yet did not seem out-of-place in the context of the rest of the church. When I placed my hand on the railing I tried to imagine how many other hands had been here over hundreds of years.
It was the closest I have ever come to experiencing a building simply alive with a sense of community. It was almost as if the space welcomed all who entered and whispered in their ears: “Whatever may happen to the people of Vienna, this building will be here to protect and bring people together.”
Of course, that is my tourist’s experience of the place – a local may have a very different interpretation.
The second photo is the metallic remains of an ancient tree that once marked the edge of the city of Vienna. People would pound an iron nail into the tree for good luck (or something similar), until the tree was practically nothing but nails. This dome of glass is what remains of this tree and the nails. I believe the dome containing the metal is located on the spot where the tree once stood. The building the dome is built into was (at that time) a bank.
I’d learned of the tree before leaving home and eagerly sought it out. When I found it, I was a bit disappointed but mostly saddened. There was something about the dirty glass, the busy street and the physical connection to a rather modern building which seemed more like an after thought than a historic marker or memorial. For reasons I can’t entirely explain, everything about it felt like defeat.
My heart would go out to this sad remnant of a once majestic tree every time I passed it on my way to a local bank where I would pull out enough cash to cover food and expenses for the week. I would also use this money-gathering task as an opportunity make a very heart-felt and amateur attempt at using my German skills. Every time, the women behind the counter would do their best to refrain from laughing while politely allowing me to finish my attempted German sentence…and then they would respond in perfect English. It was fun. I think I earned points for trying.
The last photo is of my fellow students doing the one thing we all regularly indulged in all summer long – spending time at the beach. This photo is of the public (tourist) beach. My favorite was a local spot that a fellow student (somehow) found. But local or not, the beach was wonderful, relaxing and pleasant in a very simple and comfortable way. Every time I remember the trip to Vienna, I find myself longing for a few hours at the beach.
Oh…that and chocolate cake.
Like I said, I flew into Vienna knowing nothing of the German language. By the end of the summer I figured out how to locate…and order….orange chocolate cake. I fully indulged in showing off this skill for fellow students who were impressed by both my learned-outside-of-class skill and the cake. Honestly, the cake deserved a little showing off. It was so good!