Lessons from Missing a Place

Grazer Hauptplatz
Grazer Hauptplatz, Graz, Austria

I’ve been back from Austria for nearly three and a half years now.  I spent two school years teaching English there, exploring, meeting some of the best people I know, and generally being up to no good.  I met people from all over the United States, Great Britain, and Europe.  We were paid way too much money to do not that much work, and in our free time we had fun.  We all ended up there because we had studied German in college, and, I, for one, was not ready to figure out “the rest of my life” quite yet.  It is crazy to think how long ago it was now.

I think of that time, that place, and those people at least once a day.  When I am daydreaming at work, when I am walking to the bus, when I hear a song, or when a random German word pops into my head.  The two apartments I inhabited there, my friends that went through those years with me, the routes I walked, the public transport I used, the birthdays celebrated, the food, the beer, the cigarettes – all the memories are there and tinged with nostalgia.

My personal philosophy is that it is never healthy to live in the past, but this is a bit different than that.  These are memories so strong and vivid that they just seem to come to mind automatically.  And I think that the newness and foreignness of that time had intensified everything; I mean, I can barely remember what I did a month ago, but I feel that I remember all of those two years.

So, as more time falls between myself and Austria, I try to reflect on what I learned there, and how I can apply those lessons to my current life.  Lessons like: always have a sense of adventure, and spontaneity; your bed may be comfortable, but you must earn that rest after a night of fun; there is always some new place to explore, despite the seeming mundaneness of it.

But, since then, I have accomplished so much.  I went back to school, and I am now a registered nurse with a 40 hour per week job that I love.  The hard part is, after experiencing such freedom and newness, to now stay in one place, and do the same job each day.  Part of what I am also trying to teach myself is that exploration does not have to be on a grand scheme, in a foreign locale.  Exploration of yourself, and your mind, can be just as new and exciting as exploring a far off city.

And those are some lessons I’ve learned from missing a place.

Exploringly yours,

Alaina

A Day Trip to Hallstatt, or “Paradise.”

Alright, so a bit has been up lately, and the updates will come at ya in posts throughout the week. But first, I must update you on my day trip to Hallstatt.

Hallstatt is a village in the Salzkammergut, about 15 minutes drive from Bad Aussee. Although it’s in the same region, it’s in a different state, Upper Austria (BA is in Styria). I actually had no idea it was in a different state, so I was a bit surprised. Situated right next to the Hallstättersee, the city is smooshed between lake and mountain. The drive was fun; over the mountains and through Obertraun, another tiny village. I never get to ride in a car in Austria, so it’s always a nice experience. The road is closed during the winter because of avalanche danger (we saw the remains of a new avalanche on the way through), so the only way to reach Hallstatt in the winter is by train/boat. Consult any guidebook about Austria, and it’ll implore you to visit Hallstatt (I implore you, too.).

Hallstatt, from the far end  of the downtown.

Anyway, Zandra had called me up last Monday and invited me along for a day trip (on Wednesday) with her husband, Tom, and son, Leo. The weather was sunny and pristine, so we had lunch and drinks outside, next to the lake. Leo had fallen asleep in his stroller, so Zandra was excited for a quiet lunch. We all ended up getting the Bärlauch ravioli. Bärlauch is translated as “wild garlic,” but it looks nothing like normal garlic. At all. It’s green and leafy. It’s in season now (for a short time), and apparently, one can just stroll up to some field in BA and pick it fresh (but I haven’t tried this). The dish was delicious.

While we were eating, an Australian couple traveling through Europe asked Tom to take a photograph of them in “paradise.” I really couldn’t blame them for using such a strong word. Sitting next to the lake, with a white wine spritzer, the sun on my face, mountains all around, it truly did feel like paradise. As they walked away, Zandra said (paraphrase),  “You know, we really do live in Paradise. People save up for years to come here, but we live here.”

We decided to walk a bit through the downtown and up a pathway between the houses. The village is built right into the side of the mountain, so all the houses are stacked, with pathways going in between. As you look  up the mountain, you can see the built avalanche protection. I’m talking real mountain here. The entire downtown is a Fußgängerzone, which means no cars are allowed. Even so, the pathways to the houses are too narrow for cars. I felt I had walked into a private world; the tourist noises were dulled and I got an up close look at the houses of Hallstatt.

We walked on a path just like that one in the middle.

And then, suddenly, I felt a something prick my hand, and I looked to see Tom, jumping away from me and giggling like a 12-year old, with a handful of some plant.

“Brennessel,” he said. “It’s good for arthritis.”

“Great, but oww.

Brennessel is a type of nettle and stings you when it touches you. Needless to say, I got him back and a Brennessel war ensued, which ended up involving Zandra as well.

Zandra and I ended the trip by picking up a boring hitchhiker and depositing him in Obertraun. We followed the trip to Hallstatt by drinking in Zandra and Tom’s backyard and enjoying the remaining warmth of the day. Couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day, really.

The whole time we were in Hallstatt, walking the cobblestone streets, the beauty shocked me. I honestly haven’t seen a more beautiful town in Austria, or anywhere for that matter. The traditional houses and store fronts, the mountain to one side and lake on the other combined so that all I could say was, “Wow.”

However, I did learn that Hallstatt has the highest suicide rate in Austria, because in the winter it receives no direct sunlight. Despite the overwhelming beauty, could you ever live in a place that received no direct sunlight during winter? My answer is, “Erm, probably not.”

Until next time!
Cheers,
Alaina

Hiking in Ausseerland

I’m positively ashamed to admit that I’ve only been hiking once the entire 8 months I’ve been in the Ausseerland. Pathetic.

My excuse is that I’m not a hiker — I don’t own hiking shoes, just some running shoes that “breathe” (aka, have mesh sides) and get wet super easily.

My other excuse is that I don’t know the area — this is just a straight up poor excuse. I know plenty of other assistants who have figured out great places to hike and walk. I just haven’t.

Lastly, I could use the fact that I have no real means of transportation here — but, I could use the bus.

So, there ya have it, my three pathetically horrible excuses for why I’ve only hiked once in my time here. But, that’s not what this post is about. This post is about the one time that I actually did hike, and it was one of the best things I’ve done all year.

Zandra, a Minnesotan-settled-down-in-Bad-Aussee, suggested last week that we hike up to Zimitzalm in Grundlsee. I was instantly up for this. An “Alm” is directly translated as “mountain pasture,” but it’s a bit more than that. It’s a flat area used for cattle grazing located between the first ascent and the remaining ascent, which is steeper and has less trees. This pasture area has many wooden huts and only those with farmland have rights to an Almhut, since they are the ones who will drive their cattle up to these pastures in the summer. However, hikers are free to roam the Alm and sit at unoccupied huts to enjoy lunch or a beer.

The Almhut we ate lunch at.

So, we planned to go this past Saturday, the 24th, weather permitting. At 9 am, my phone rang — “Weather looks great! We should be ready to go around 10:45!” I was pumped; the sun was shining, and there was not a cloud in the sky. After much hassle, which involved getting a screaming Leo (Zandra + Tom’s son) into the backpack/baby carrier, we were on our way.

The hike up to the Alm took about an hour altogether and halfway up, there is a waterfall. Since the snow has recently melted/is still melting, there is a lot of water right now. The Zimitzwasserfall is small, but impressive. Rocks litter the river and would make for an easy hop-skip-and-jump to right underneath the falls. Most unfortunately, my camera is still broken and I couldn’t take any photos. Zandra told me her and Tom once swam there, and I, of course, wanted to do it right then, but the water is ice-cold this time of year. … Maybe next time.

A view I didn’t get to see… One can swim right underneath the falls!

After the waterfall, the path stays along the river all the way to the Alm. This was the most beautiful part of the hike. The water is shallow and moss-covered rocks lay everywhere. The sounds of rushing, melted glacial water was peaceful and a lovely addition to the crunch of leaves under our feet. Looking to the opposite bank — a rolling incline, trees scattered willy-nilly and leaves covering the ground — I couldn’t help but feel I was marching through the Shire with Frodo.

Then, there was snow in our path. It was slushy and about up to my knees, but most of the time I could manage to not fall through. It surprised me how much snow was still in the mountains, and we weren’t even that high up! But, trudge through the snow we did, and it was worth it. The Alm opened up right in front of us and I could see the remaining ascent ahead of me, as well as the way we came, back down to Grundlsee, behind me. Zandra and Tom told me how they’d both made the climb, many times, to the peaks. I couldn’t help but be jealous. We ate lunch, enjoyed the sun and Leo scurried around the Alm.

The hike back down seemed to take half the time. I was tired, but satisfied, with my first and, so far, only experience with hiking in this region. However, it did make my Heuschnupfen (hay fever) go crazy.

Until next time!
Cheers,
Alaina

A Very Styrian St. Patrick’s Day

Yesterday, as you all know, was St. Patrick’s Day. I had two classes yesterday, and only two students were wearing green! A little sad, but oh well. I told the students they could pinch those who were not wearing green, and I ended up with the whole class PUNCHing each other, so I had to put a quick end to that. As you can imagine, St. Patrick’s Day is not a very big holiday here in the middle of Austria, but I found a way to celebrate.

First, I scoured the grocery stores for Guinness — no luck. But, inspiration struck and I instead purchased normal Gösser beer and some food coloring — Voilà! my very own homemade green beer. Of course, I needed the other Irish staple, potatoes, in my celebration, so I picked up a bag of potato chips. Ha Ha.

My St. Patrick’s Day “meal”
Maize + blue = green!

Zandra, an English assistant from a few years ago who settled down here in BA, invited me over to her house for some whiskey before we headed to Salzhaus, the local, and only, disco. She had Bushmills, and it reminded me of friends from home. At Salzhaus, there was a St. Patrick’s Day celebration of sorts — Guinness, whiskey, lots of my students and Irish music. I had dug up some green eyeliner, and we gave everyone a shamrock on their cheek. Zandra gave the bartender green food coloring, so everyone was getting green beer last night! Also, Zandra had convinced the Austrians that the Irish wear potato necklaces on St. Patrick’s Day, ha ha! We all had legumes around our necks…

Mmm, I love Guinness!
Salzhaus celebration
Woooo, St. Patrick’s Day!
Someone got a little inappropriate with the green eyeliner…

The students had brought a big Irish flag with them to the bar, and today it was hanging in their classroom.

Yesterday was my first time really drinking whiskey, and I must say I like it. Never could I drink straight vodka or rum, but straight Irish whiskey is actually quiet tasty. I also had an Irish whiskey highball, which is ginger ale and Irish whiskey, but last night’s drink also had muddled lime and lemon in it. Very delicious! However, the whiskey did give me a pretty bad hangover headache…

Also today, I was in my first class and noticed that something stank like poo. I thought nothing of it, maybe a smell had gotten in the class from outside. I went to my next class and sat down to read an article with them. I again noticed the smell. I thought, “It must be me that smells…” I then looked down at my shoe and saw DOG POOP all over it! I pulled my foot up to my nose to check, and, indeed, it was poo. The students found this absolutely hilarious and laughed as I put the shoe in the hallway. Took a while to get the class back in order after that one.

I’m going to Graz this weekend — looking forward to getting out of Bad Aussee and seeing some friends. I’m getting quite excited to go home — I really miss my family and friends from home. Not long now!

Cheers,
Alaina

Skiing in Schladming and A Love Letter to my Teapot

This weekend was a blast. After skiing in Austria for the first time over the Semester Break two weeks ago, I knew I needed to get back on the slopes. And quick. So this past weekend, I ventured to Schladming, home of another English assistant, Frankie, and an awesome skiing/boarding town to boot, (downhill mountain biking town in the summer).

Jordan and I conquered the mountains Planai and Hauser Kaibling. We drank its milkshake.

If you have no idea what that last sentence means, please refer to this Youtube video… FYI, Daniel Day-Lewis is an effing genius.

Jordan and I on the lift up…
No, I am not very, very scared to go down this mountain. I swear.

Anyway,  on to the main topic of this post… my teapot.

I’m teaching English in Austria. It’s awesome. Not only am I getting the cultural exchange of living in a foreign country, but about half of my fellow employees are British. So I look at my time here as a double exchange — there are so many more differences between Americans and Brits than I ever thought possible. Each weekend, we learn new words (fanny, trackie bums, slag, fag, mate, trousers, soz, chips/crisps… I could go on) and new pronunciations (vit-a-mins, or-e-gan-o, ba-sil… not sure how to write those pronunciations out, but they are funny). But I think, perhaps, the most lasting change through my weekend run-ins with the Brits may very well be my new tea drinking habit.

In the States, I live off coffee. I make a travel mug full in the morning and bring it to class/work and stop by Starbucks or Espresso Royale on my way back home, or study there for a few hours. Not many mornings went by without some steaming hot caffeine. However, now, after a few nasty hangovers were cured by the wonder that is English Breakfast Tea or Earl Grey with a dash of milk, I am a devotee to the stuff.

My only problem was, one cup at a time was definitely not enough. I would make a cup, then move to the couch to enjoy some television, Internet or a book, then all too soon realize that I wanted more. The solution to this problem was obvious: I dreadfully needed a teapot. As luck would have it, my grandma, dad and I passed a little tea shop in Salzburg, and I saw the perfect pot; a wonderfully calming blue color and could fit about a liter of tea. Since this purchase, my tea drinking has gone up exponentially, and I couldn’t be more grateful! Gone are the days when I had to run back and forth from living room to kitchen with each measly cup. I can now relax on my pathetic excuse of a sofa (that’s another story) and savor an entire pot of tea, which is more than enough… at least for an hour or so.

So, to the Brits in my life — thank you converting me to tea. And to my grandmother — thank you for the most useful present I have received, probably ever. Well, besides my iPod.

Are you a tea or coffee person? Drink it by the cup or the gallon? With sugar or milk? Or are you hardcore and take your coffee/tea black?

Cheers,
Alaina