Friday at the Bar

La Fete des Vendanges, Neuchatel, Switzerland
La Fete des Vendanges, Neuchatel, Switzerland

My last night in Montreal was one of those perfect kind of nights out where, before the hangover kicks in the next morning, you can’t help but laugh and marvel at the way we dance through this universe.

I went out with a bunch of guys and a couple girls I had met at the hostel.  The drinks were cheap, the music was the average top 40 “dance” music, and we got there way too early.  Things didn’t start getting good until at least midnight.  I did a lot of dancing, which, for me, is basically jumping around and making weird hand motions, and I also did a lot of people watching.

There is an ebb and flow to what happens at the bar.  People surge forward to order drinks, and retreat back to suck them down.  The music builds to a crescendo, coaxing dancers to the floor.  Then a shitty song comes on, the floor empties, and more alcohol is needed.

Guys strut around like roosters, chest puffed out, hair gelled in place.  They swagger, they survey, they are territorial.  Honing in on a girl, the guys lean down and purr something about how this girl is the coolest girl at the bar.  When singled out from their gaggle of girlfriends, girls bat lashes and sip drinks.

A couple girls inevitably get too drunk and rub themselves on nearly every guy in the bar, skirts riding up to expose a bit too much leg.  One girl makes out with three different guys, propositions two for sex, one bewildered guy accepts, and they have sex in a bathroom stall.  Other girls in the bathroom point at his shoes, visible underneath the stall door.  An hour later the girl runs out in the cold, in her minidress, and her friend puts her in a cab.

Meanwhile, guys and girls take more shots and try their best not to look too silly on the dance floor.  Some have concentrated looks on their face, others have eyes closed, floating away with the alcohol and the beat.  The alcohol loosens bodies and enables getting low.  Foot traffic goes in and out; people take smoke breaks and catch fresh air to fight off the nausea from the mixing of different alcohols.

There is singing and fist pumping and sweat and laughter and life.  There is an invisible thread that connects everyone at the bar, all part of the same unfolding drama.  There is a feeling under the pulsing lights that anything and everything can happen and that it all will.  From each moment stems infinite possibilities, each as likely as the next.

It’s my last night of a week of travel; there is an excitement of being in a foreign city, with a foreign language, with foreign people who are now friends.  I buy shots, my friends buy shots, we dance, we try to chat over the music.  At closing time, we are herded out like cattle.  We walk home, in the freezing Montreal late night/early morning.  We stop for poutine and pass the square filled with homeless people.  It’s really not night anymore.  We get back and sit in the hostel living room, still in jackets, not ready for the night to be over.

I wake in a few hours, say goodbye to those who are conscious, and check out.  On the walk to the train station, I laugh and smile at the perfect orchestration of everything, still giddy with the chances and choices of this life.  And, most of all, I am grateful that I’ve had this week of exploring new places and things and meeting some new people.

Exploringly yours,

Alaina

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

The Anatomy of an English Christmas Dinner

Get in mah belleh!

As an English Teaching Assistant in Austria, I have met many Brits. After tea and how much more “superior” British English is to American English, their next favorite topic to speak on is the quintessential roast dinner. This roast dinner is a thing of myth among Americans – What exactly is a roast dinner? Why do many Brits have one every Sunday? And why do they always talk about it?

This is what I knew: roasts dinners are delicious. Roast dinners happen on Sunday, and bring the family together. Roast dinners, along with its relative the Full English Breakfast, are the end-all and be-all hangover cure. My interest was officially piqued.

Leading up to my Christmas trip to England, my excitement grew knowing that I would get to experience a roast dinner on Christmas Day with my friend Katie’s family. From the stories, I had learned that the Christmas roast dinner is the roast of all roasts, the Ultimate Roast Dinner. But still, I was not sure what I was in for…

“Don’t drink too much tonight,” Katie’s father warned, as Katie and I left for the pub on Christmas Eve. “Wouldn’t want to be too hungover for the best meal of the year!” I nodded solemnly, and my friend promised we would be home after a few pints.

The next morning, the typical child-like Christmas excitement propelled me out of bed around 9 am. I sensed movement in the kitchen, and I went downstairs to wish those awake a “Merry Christmas!” Once there, I found only Katie’s parents, already bustling with preparation for the afternoon’s meal.

“Can I help?” I asked meekly, offering my sub-par culinary skills.

Katie’s father referred to his Excel-produced schedule for the day, which listed step-by-step how to perfectly, and timely, prepare the roast dinner (he uses this every Sunday). “Just in time to chop the vegetables!” I wiped the sleep from my eyes as he furnished me with a large knife.

After a good hour of slicing, dicing, buttering and organizing dishes around the kitchen, it was time to let the duck sizzle. Duck, I had learned, would be the roast part of the roast dinner.

Katie’s mom poured us all some Baileys (Katie and her brother had, by this time, been roused for their beds), and we moved to the front room for some serious gift opening. My stomach rumbled, but I had Baileys to tide me over.

Halfway through the cooking of the duck, Katie’s father removed a substantial amount of the grease to produce the Yorkshire pudding. Yorkshire pudding, once a traditionally Northern delicacy, is now consumed all over England, and is widely considered the key dish in a roast dinner (after the Roast, of course). Her dad poured the special type of dough into the meat grease, and, when cooking, it poofs up ever so elegantly. It ends up looking like a bread muffin, but it is much more savory than that.

When I wasn’t sure if I could bear the delectable, Thanksgiving-esque smells any longer, it was announced that dinner was about to be served. I sat down at the table not to find delicious food on my plate, but rather a large Tootsie Roll-like object.

Christmas dinner: 1 large paper Tootsie Roll and vegetables! Yum!!

“Christmas crackers!” Katie exclaimed, offering me an end of the Tootsie Roll. “Pull,” she commanded. When pulled, the cracker… cracks… and out comes a hilarious paper hat, a cheap toy and a corny joke. Everyone pulled their cracker, donned the hats, and shared the horrible jokes as a sort of toast before the meal.

Very dangerous.

And then… Katie’s parents brought the food to the table. I filled my plate to the brim with brussel sprouts and peas, swedes and turnips, Yorkshire pudding and chestnut stuffing, roast potatoes and onions, and let’s not forget the duck. Oh, the crispy, greasy, savory, melt-in-your-mouth duck! My stomach was in Christmas roast dinner heaven. There were seconds and thirds, and fourths and fifths as we picked on the leftovers throughout the evening.

“It takes all morning to cook, but fifteen minutes to devour!” Katie’s mother exclaimed. We all murmured our agreement, our mouths too full to do anything else.

Intensely eating.

Tradition states that you leave your paper crown on through the meal, but I didn’t take mine off until I was tucked in bed, smiling back on my first English Christmas.

Ever had an English Christmas roast dinner? How’d you fare?

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