Home, Again, October 2014.

imageWe’re baaaaack!

 

Aufwiedersehen!

We are flying back to the States on Friday and there is still so much I want to still tell you about Austria.

Austria recycles, on average, over 60% of household waste. We recycle just about everything: compost, cooking oil, batteries and every kind of metal, paper or plastic. We’ve got, maybe, one small bag of trash per week. That’s it.

Now, it’s true, our entrance hall is an obstacle course of overflowing plastic bins, but it is a small price to pay.

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In coffee shops, most people choose proper ceramic cups and sit down to drink their beverage. Sure, paper cups are being seen more and more, but it is rare to see someone walking down the street sipping from a cup. In fact, until recently most cars didn’t even have cupholders!

And though there are people on laptops in coffee shops, most people are socializing. Imagine, sitting down and conversing with other human beings! I remember we used to do that in America before we succumbed to the big nursing tit of Starbucks, wrapped in paper cups made from a billion dead trees, distracted by free wifi, treacley liquids dispensed in such sickening quantities that we need a to-go cup because it is just too much to drink at one time. No one should drink 20 ounces of warm, sweetened milk. There, I said it. Come to Austria and you will get a delicious coffee drink that won’t make you bloat and fart and put on pounds of lactose-fueled lard. 20 ounces, indeed.

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Grannies on bikes.

Where are all the old people in America? I don’t see them walking down the street, in public places. Oh, yes, sure I do, but not in the ratio there population would suggest. Here, old people are everywhere, and they are going places, man. Chugging down the street, filling the stores and parks and street benches and public transportation. On mopeds, on bicycles. Oh, yes, bikes. And you better watch out, buster, because there are serious geriatric peddalers out there. They cruise to the farmers markets, church, grocery store. They are not leisure riders, they ride to live.

And grannies too.  There is nothing so gratifying as to see a beautiful septuagenarian pass you on her 1960-era street cruiser as you, youngster that you are, sit stuck in traffic in your doddering Volkswagen Golf. It definitely makes you reconsider choices you’ve made.

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15% of all the world’s fresh water is in Austria. To put that into perspective, the U.S. has 3%. I will miss the .29 cent 2 ½ liter bottle of sparkling, pure mineral water that we get everywhere here.

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16% of farmland is organic here in Austria, the most of any country in the world.

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Well, this has been kind of a lame ending to this blog, but I’m having a hard time concentrating. I am getting ready to start a new life and am looking forward. Thanks for reading!

 

Finger Painting

We had elections here several weeks ago and the right wing (anti-immigrant) party had a surprisingly strong showing here in Graz and in Vienna. They are still a minority party, but bear worth watching.

Last week, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, declared that “multiculturalism in Germany” has utterly failed. What this means is subject to controversy.

This year, Belgium has banned Islamic veils and Switzerland banned minarets on mosques. France kicked out Roma, or Gypsies; Italy is considering doing the same.

Britain’s recently announced austerity measures will hurt the poor most, economists say. Disability, health, unemployment and welfare payments will be slashed.

Still, Europe is a bastion of sane thinking and social consciousness compared to the United States.

Yes, I did just see the election results.

The Tea Party bagged this one, big time. Harry Reid prevailed and the two crazy ladies from Delaware and Nevada were trounced, but virtually no centrist or liberal candidate survived.

It’s hard out here for a Liberal. Yeah.

“You know it’s hard out here for a lib (you ain’t knowin)

When he tryin to get money for homies crib (you ain’t knowin)

For the health care and lunch money spent (you ain’t knowin)

Because a whole lot of bitches talkin shit (you ain’t knowin)”

Liberals are responsible for so many of the good things of the past 35 years, including groundbreaking environmental and social legislation. My friend, Robert S., can spell out exactly what liberal legislators have accomplished and how it still benefits us today. Maybe, he will respond in the comment section (hint, hint).

Anyway, I want to say how great it is to be here in Europe and how fucked up everything is back home. But I won’t. I won’t because it isn’t true. All this messed-up election has done for me is make me think of all the things I love about my country. Europe is great, but I am an American.

There is an innocence about my people. Some may call it naiveté, immaturity, inexperience. But I prefer to think of it as the innocence of a child. And just like a child is open to all the wonderful possibilities of life, so are we. We haven’t suffered like other, older countries have. We are not restrained by our history. The world is still new to us. We can do anything!

The adult looks at the child, smiles, shakes his head, and says, “You’ll see, kid. The world is a brutal place. Be careful or you’ll get hurt. Better calm down and play safe. I know; I’ve been there.” That’s Europe. That’s Europe talking to us.

And everything he says is right. Except it isn’t. We are exuberant; Europe is sophisticated. We are impulsive; Europe is cautious. We sometimes do stupid things; Europe is too cool to look foolish.

Are you getting this analogy?

There is a spark in the child, an animating life energy, that is so precious. That light seems to dim as we get older. And then comfort becomes more important to us than creativity.

Ask a four-year-old which he would rather do: sit in a nice, comfy chair and drink a warm tea, or finger paint in the living room. Then ask his parent.

And that’s us, finger painting like crazy, splashing paint everywhere, ruining the furniture, getting it in our hair, in our friend’s eyes, on the ceiling, for Christ’s sake! But what fun! And sometimes there is magic in the pictures we make.

Europe’s over there getting another cup of tea for his wife, bemoaning the fact that he has to get the sofa cleaned. Again. Wondering when those children are going to grow up.

Sometimes the innocence manifests as immaturity, pettiness and irresponsibility.

These elections are just like getting a bunch of kindergarteners in a room together with two chocolate cupcakes and asking them to pick two kids who get to eat them. Pretty soon there is going to be yelling and hitting and crying and the class bully is going to smash the cupcakes before he let’s anyone else have them.

There are a few selfish teenagers playing in the room with the kindergarteners. What fun they have! What disorder they wreak! How delicious the cupcakes they take!

It’s inevitable. No matter how much I long for a socialist utopia, it isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Too many people in my country are too afraid. And there are plenty of other people only too eager to take advantage of that fear.

Still, it is a good country with wonderful people and an energy and goodness that can be blinding at times.

Europe can be a comfortable, relaxed place to live. America can be dazzling.

I can live with this election. It’s just one more turn on the seesaw.

And, anyway, I’ve always loved finger painting.

A Grave Matter

We are about two weeks away from the Day of the Dead (or as some like to call it, Election Day 2010). Although not as scary as the thought of two years of legislative gridlock, Republican dick waiving, and Democratic spinelessness, November 2 is a formidable reminder that we are all going to die one day.

November 1st, not the 2nd, is our national holiday of remembrance. All Saints Day, which is what it is called by the Catholic Church, is a day to visit the cemeteries, dress up the graves, and pay respects to your ancestors and loved ones who have passed on.

It is quite beautiful at night when everyone comes to the cemetery and literally every grave is marked by a lit candle. There are vendors outside selling special sweets and roasted chestnuts and people quietly stroll, arm in arm, enjoying the peaceful ambience.

In general, cemeteries here are somewhat different than those in the States.

First thing, the Catholic Church has got the monopoly on sacred ground here. You don’t dig no holes without paying tribute to the Godfather, and you better make sure you do things right and don’t make waves: priests here can be very vengeful.

I attended a funeral here in which the priest used the service to lecture the grieving family on their wayward ways (they had asked for a simple service and intimated that they themselves were no longer Catholic, but wanted to honor the deceased who was). It was a pathetic, disgusting display by a petty tyrant in a black petticoat.

There is also a strange law here that states that you are not allowed to take home the funereal urn containing the ashes of your loved one. In fact, you are not even allowed to fetch it from the crematorium.  And they really don’t like it if you want to hold or carry the urn yourself. At the above funeral, a stiff minion in a bad suit brought the urn to the church, set it down for the service, then carried it to the cemetery.

(You actually can take the urn home, but there is such red tape and bureaucracy in getting the permit to do so, that virtually nobody does.)

In Austria you only get your cemetery plot for 10 years at a time; then you have to pay again (more money for Mother Church). So, unlike the U.S., where you pop granddad in the ground and forget about him, here you have to at least remember to renew. I don’t know what they do if you forget to pay (I think they probably dig you up and sell the space to someone else.) Below is a sign on a gravestone that reads, Grave Right Expired!

Although All Saints Day is a time to dress up graves, cemeteries are always well taken cared of here. It is not unusual to find people with gardening tools on any given Saturday or Sunday, fixing up the graves. They plant greenery and flowers, restore candles, place flower arrangements. It really seems people put their hearts and souls into the care of their deceased loved ones’ homes.

There seems to be real respect and reverence for the departed here. Again, I think it is connected to the inherent feeling of history and tradition in Austria. The sacredness I feel in cemeteries here stems less from the pictures of Jesus on the headstones or the crosses on sticks, and more from the very human touch of a lit candle, a single rose, a beautiful bush of rosemary growing at the base of a headstone.

If you forget to bring candles, no problem, there is even a machine that vends remembrance candle. The Austrians are nothing if not prepared for anything.

Don’t forget to light your remembrance candle this November 3rd to lament the loss of Democracy. U.S. Corporateacracy, brought to you by the Supremes.

Man, I love Fat!

I’ve done my culinary self a real disservice by listening to those mealy-mouthed mavens of food and nutrition who constantly nag us about fat in our diets. “Reduce the fat, skim the fat, trim the fat, pour off the fat, use low fat products, (or worse) “light” products or (worser) “lite” products.” Oh, my friends, a flavorless darkness has fallen over modern cookery, all in the name of LIGHT.

Fat is the conveyor of flavor in many dishes, a thoroughfare of taste, a life raft bobbing on your taste buds, sprinkling scrumptious bits of tastiness over the side. Fat is the delivery system of taste; without some kind of fat in a dish, the flavor isn’t distributed evenly, it’s sort of hit or miss. It makes for uneven cooking.

I’ve never been afraid of fat in my cooking, but I have been persuaded to wield a judicious hand in its use. Use fat, but not too much.

And I suppose that’s probably a smart thing. It’s good cooking. Sophisticated. Refined. Fat is a tool we use in our cooking. It is a means, not an end.

Well, in Austria, I’ve discovered that fat is much more than a means to an end. It’s a proper food product in itself. We buy fat and we take it home and, by God, we eat it. We eat fat and we don’t give a damn what you think about it.

I know my American readers are grossed out and family members are probably worrying for my health. Well, statistically, an Austrian is much more likely to live longer than an American. In fact, fat-obsessed Americans are 38th on Wikipedia’s List of countries by life expectancy, behind the number one longest lived, Japan (too much salt), number five, Australia (too much beer), number eight, France (too much wine), and number sixteen, Austria (way too much fat). (Even Cuba, which struggles to provide its citizens with adequate food supplies, boasts a higher life expectancy than America, number 36.)

I hear you wondering, “What does he mean by fat? He’s not talking about a pile of fat on a plate, is he?” Why, yes, my dears, that is exactly what I am talking about.

Fall view from a Buschenschank in southern Styria.

The first time I visited a Buschenschank (a traditional restaurant attached to a winery, which is regulated by law to sell only products produced on premises. Such restaurants feature farm bread, preserved meats, cheeses, salads and other cold foods.) I was presented with a Brettljause, which is a wood cutting board upon which various preserved meats, cheeses, pickles and spreads are arrayed. In the middle of the board was a mound of, what looked to me to be, bacon fat.

“Is that what I think it is?” I asked my smiling and salivating wife. “Yup,” she said, spreading a thin layer of pork fat on brown bread. I took the tiniest bite. It was good, but weird. You weren’t supposed to eat bacon fat. It was gross, definitely a food taboo of some sort. No one but a hungry dog or a hallucinating meth addict eats bacon grease. It’s just not done.

First thing, it looks like candle wax and tastes like Crisco. Second thing, it is about as unhealthy a thing to eat as you can imagine. Pure heart attack. A stomach churner.  A hyper-cholesterol artery enema. Only, in this case you’re putting the nasty stuff in, not taking it out.

I don’t know if eating pork fat on bread is healthy or not. But I don’t care; it may be the best thing I ever put in my mouth.

The Austrians make three kinds of pork fat spreads: Brattenfett, which is lard mixed with the fat and meat drippings from a roast pork loin; Verhackertes, which is ground up uncooked, smoked bacon; and Grammelfett, which is lard mixed with minced fried pork skin.

Each of these is unbelievably good, but the Brattenfett is my favorite. It is the essence of every steak, roast or grilled meat I’ve eaten, the condensed majesty of cooked meat, a haiku of pig, a symphony of sizzle.

You can tell: I’m in love, in love with a girl named Fat. It is a dangerous love, and risky, but isn’t all true love dangerous and risky?

I would give you a recipe for Brattenfett, but I would probably have to have those of you reading this in America sign some kind of waiver, holding me free from legal action if you should consume such a product under my recommendation and your precious little American arteries seize up like an engine without oil.

Hmmm…..fat. What’s not to love?

German/Austrian Toilets

Sorry it’s taken me so long to post a blog about German/Austrian toilets; I couldn’t get the right photo. Our toilet at home is no beauty, certainly not photo model material. Not even Austria’s Next Top Model Toilet material.  She’s an old girl who shows her age with hard water stains and a cracked seat.

So I went out about town to find a shiny, new model toilet. One more amazing fact in a country full of them is that Austria’s public toilets are usually exceedingly clean. This will be more astounding to you once you read about the toilets themselves. Let me just say that anywhere you go –restaurants, schools, office buildings, stores – in the restrooms there are always toilet brushes next to the toilets. And people seem to use them! Very considerate. In America, people so often can’t be bothered to even flush the toilet; here they clean them for the next person!!

The average German or Austrian toilet is constructed as a sort of ledge system. There is a flat dry surface directly below your, ahem, bottom that empties into a narrow reservoir leading to the outflow pipe. You do your business and it sits there in all its malodorous glory until you flush. Then a whoosh of water, like a mini flash flood, pushes it (hopefully) towards the reservoir and down into the sewers.

There are so many things wrong with this system that I don’t know where to begin.

First, you must be aware that bathrooms and toilets are separate here in Austria. The shower, bathtub and sink are always in a separate room. The toilet is somewhere else, positioned in a room the size of a phone booth or a small closet. In such a cramped space the smell factor from doodoo sitting, like a steak on a plate, inches from your butt and not much further from your nose becomes pretty important.

Then, depending on the size of your deposit, one flush doesn’t always do the trick. Sometimes it takes two or three, and you just stand there watching the gnarly mess break apart, perhaps wondering whether it really was three days ago that you ate that corn. This system definitely doesn’t save water.

Splash factor. It is virtually impossible for a man to pee into a toilet of this kind while standing up without splattering all over the place. I have managed to figure that one out, but it took months of practice and the mastery of a yoga position that required the flexibility of Gumby with the aim of a seasoned marksman. Needless to say, men are encouraged to sit when peeing. Now, how many men do that when no one is watching?

BTW, here is a picture of an Austrian toilet at my local coffee shop. The latte cup is there to demonstrate the ledge aspect of the device.

So, I know you are now all asking WHY? Why are toilets designed like that?

Well, I don’t really know and not one person here has any idea whatsoever. In fact, I’m not sure any of them have ever asked themselves that question. For them, it’s just the way it’s always been.

I did a little research and found this explanation on the Web:

“It’s nothing sinister. Germans eat a lot of raw and almost-raw meat, indeed the word delicatessen, a shop that sells among other things, meat products to be eaten raw, is German. The shelf is to allow an individual to check themselves for evidence of parasites. It is a sensible precaution, since as we were taught at school, worms can propagate by eggs getting from the anus onto fingers during use of the toilet, then if the hand is not thoroughly washed, the next victim gets the parasite orally after the eggs have been passed on by preparing food or even touching something like a plate. The egg will pass through the digestive system and lodge in the lower intestine where it will eventually hatch into a parasite and begin producing eggs of its own.

It is of course possible that this has an effect on the stereotypical German: that they are obsessed with inspecting things for cleanliness, order and efficiency. Sigmund Freud, another German (sic, he was Austrian), coined the term anal retentive to describe an individual who is preoccupied with details, a characteristic often associated with Germans.”

So, the German/Austrian toilet is an inspection system. Great. But with the current level of hygiene and food safety is that still really necessary?

Still, I’ve found that there can be something very satisfying about verifying the efficient workings of my bowels. Sometimes my output is really astounding; I want to jump up waving a scorecard, “9.9!! Way to go, colon!”

 

Gemütlichkeit

For those of you waiting for the post about German toilets, I want to assure you it’s coming. But first I have to take a few photographs; I haven’t got to that yet.

Now for today’s post. In Graz, why are fresh, local apples of every variety €1 per kilo? Why are 3 colored peppers €1, a pound of farm bread €1, fresh tomatoes €2 per kilo?

Why is a half liter bottle of excellent locally made beer .71¢, a new fridge only €300, a new car (albeit a tiny Citroen) only €10,500.

Why is a kilo of bratwurst just €2, baby potatoes €1.50 a kilo, a half pound of organic butter €1, and a liter of organic milk €1? Two liters of sparkling spring water for .35¢ A large scoop of great ice cream can be gotten anywhere in Graz for just €1!

Hey, we’re in Europe and it is supposed to be expensive! What’s the deal?

(BTW, for you metrically-impaired, a kilo is 2.2 pounds.)

Well, it’s true that our monthly electricity bill is over €100 and a good house costs at least €300,000 (And that’s for about 1200 square feet, the average size for a house here. Of course the house is so well built it will definitely stand for a couple of hundred years with no problems at all.)

Meat costs the same as in the States, maybe a little more, between $5 and $10 a pound for commercial variety of beef, $5 for a chicken, frozen fish is similar in price to the U.S.

Breakfast cereal is incredibly expensive, books are pretty pricey, used bicycles are ridiculous in price (is that because people hold on to their bikes till they fall apart?), clothes are expensive, restaurant meals in nice restaurants are high, coffee in coffee shops is maybe a little cheaper than in the States.

Cell phones are about $30 a month; Internet is about $30 a month, and cable TV is $25. My all-inclusive health insurance costs about $50 per month! All in all, I find it pretty cheap to live here.

Now I don’t pay taxes here(can be upwards of 50% for the very well-to-do, more like 30-40% for people in our income bracket), own a car (much more expensive than the States), or employ people (much more expensive to be an employer here than back home.)

Still, Europe, in all its socialist scariness, has a great standard of living and isn’t really that expensive. At least here in Austria.

Austria is an amazingly comfortable place to live, a hidden jewel in Europe. They have a word, Gemütlichkeit, which very well describes the feeling I have when staying here. Here is the Wikipedia explanation: Gemütlichkeit (German pronunciation: [ɡəˈmyːtlɪçkaɪt]) is a German abstract noun that has been adopted into English.[1] Its closest equivalent is the word “coziness”; however, rather than merely describing a place that is compact, well-heated and nicely furnished (a cozy room, a cozy flat), Gemütlichkeit connotes the notion of belonging, social acceptance, cheerfulness, the absence of anything hectic and the opportunity to spend quality time.

In other words: chillin’.

And that’s what we do here: chill, relax, recharge.

On Sundays, everything here is closed except restaurants and coffee shops. You can’t buy anything, really; you are forced to slow down, spend time with friends and family. I hated Sundays when I first got here, now I love them. It is the easiest of easy days, food and family, a little stroll, lots of talking, maybe a book to read.

In a way, it can be a difficult place for an American; it is so hard for us to stop doing. We are so frantic, so driven, so movement-oriented. Austrians know when to work and when to stop. There is a balance in their lives. They will never achieve the level of personal wealth that so many Americans have. But they have a sense of well-being that eludes so many of us Americans.

Like that Visa commercial on American TV:

A meal at Wolfgang Puck’s: $100

A Sony plasma TV: $2000

That new Jet Ski: $5000

Gemütlichkeit: priceless!