Thanksgiving Alfresco and “Stray” Aliens in California

Another November in Northern California, and another reminder how amazing the weather is here. While I see postings about European Christmas markets opening up and about snow angels in the northern parts of the US, I am able to have Thanksgiving dinner outside. Sure, we are not quite as lucky as those in Southern California and still need a jacket once the shadows get longer and the sun sets, but it is still unfathomable to me that I can actually sit outside for hours and be comfortable at the end of November.

Oranges

Abundance: Under an Orange Tree

Tee by the Fire

Tea by the Fire Pit

 

Even though I do not have a close connection to Thanksgiving since I did not grow up with this tradition, I have become rather fond of this holiday by now; what is there not to like when it is mostly about giving thanks and of course food – and more food – and then even more food.

Turkey on BBQ

Turkey on the BBQ

Pie Buffet

Pie Buffet: Banana, Pecan, Blueberry, Apple, and Pumpkin (under the Glass)

Even though some dishes are traditional and expected at Thanksgiving, most families also seem to include at least one dish connected to their ancestors; American Italians, for example, seem to serve ravioli, and our Thanksgiving dinner included sauerkraut and Polish sausages.

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Sauerkraut and Polish Sausages

As a foreigner/alien without a large family nearby, I have been invited for several years now by American friends that lay out one of the largest spread for the dinner (made from scratch). All I need to do is show up, bring appetite, and take leftovers home (and I don’t even need to bring any boxes for the leftovers). I jokingly observed that I have been taken in like a stray kitten, and like with any stray cat, once fed, I am hard to get rid off and come back again and again.

 

Over the years as I moved from country to country and continent to continent, I have often been invited to share holiday traditions and meals with locals. Thank you to all those who take in those “stray” aliens without family nearby during holidays.

 

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How to Illustrate an Austrian in California

In a literature class we have been discussing images and symbols, and students created symbolic self-portraits and tried to show their interests, desires, fears, and traits with visuals only (no words allowed). This got me thinking about a visual representation of an Austrian in California when I came across this photo opportunity.

Austrian/Bavarian Tracht in In-N-Out

Austrian/Bavarian Tracht in In-N-Out

Not many pictures can so clearly express Austrian in California than an Austrian-Bavarian dancer in lederhosen eating a burger at In-N-Out. Well, I guess I could have asked him to stand up so the short lederhosen are completely visible or asked him to put on the traditional hat with the eagle feather; and I could have hoped for a surfer walking past in the background or at least a palm tree visible through the window. So there is room for improvement and a reason to keep looking for an even better illustration of the concept of an Austrian in California.

In case you are curious, In-N-Out Burger is a fast-food chain founded in California in 1948 and still limited to the West Coast of the States, so it is often associated with California. When I was in Italy this spring, an In-N-Out burger with extra sauce was really the only food I missed after a while and was looking forward to when coming back to California. Some argue that In-N-Out is all a hype and not that great, but it does seem to get associated with California usually (read about the hype in this article about Hillary Clinton stopping at an In-N-Out – although I am not sure why this is newsworthy). And in case you are wondering why one runs into a guy in Bavarian/Austrian outfit in Northern California, the answer is that Oktoberfests with traditional dancers are becoming more and more popular on the West Coast as well.

Traditional Bavarian Dancers

Traditional Bavarian Dancers at an Oktoberfest at the Budweiser Brewery in Fairfield, CA

Impressions of Austria

It has been over a month since I last posted; time flies – especially when I am back in the classroom and papers waiting to be graded are  piling up. I also needed to take a break from posting since my blog postings could have easily turned into a rant about missing Italy  in particular and Europe in general. And since the semester has started again and I have met a new group of students, I am once again the oddity – the Austrian teaching in the US. Of course, this also means that I hear a version of the question “So what is it like – this Austria?” Well, how can one describe a whole country in a couple of minutes?

I try to avoid the well-known impressions of Vienna and Salzburg and of course Sound of Music (which very few Austrians know about; I learned about Sound of Music from a Scot on my semester abroad in Scotland, and this knowledge has come in handy when talking with Americans about Austria – but that is a story for another time). Well, so what is Austria?

Austria is centuries-old castles and grand palaces.

Schloss Parz

Courtyard of the Castle in Parz

Lambach Abbey

Interior of Lambach Abbey

 

Austria means rugged mountains hugging crystal-clear lakes.

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Traunsee in Upper Austria

 

And since Austria is small, these sights are compressed to have castle, and mountains, and lake all in one view.

Traunsee

Lake Traunsee and the Castle Ort on an Island in the Lake

 

Austria is orderly.

Hearts in Gmunden

Padlocks on a Specially Designed Strcuture on the Banks of Lake Traunsee

 

And most of all, Austria is colorful; it is rich greens.

Danube

Schloegener Schlinge of the Danube – The Danube Loop by Schloegen

 

It is ultramarine and chartreuse in lively contrasts.

Countryside

Austrian Countryside

 

And when the skies are grey, the buildings stand out in vibrant orange, burnt sienna, and playful pinks.

Melk

Orange-Yellow Facade of Melk Abbey

Austrian House

Rust-Colored Townhouse in Obernberg am Inn

Staircase Melk

Pink Staircase Inside of Melk Abbey

So most of all, Austria for me is color; that is the five-second answer to what Austria is like.

Interacting with Art

I love art museums, and over the last few months of visiting Italy, Austria, and Germany I have visited plenty of them. But even though I am a fan, I have to admit that visits can quickly become monotone and especially lesser-known or eye-catching pieces are easily skipped, overlooked, or at least not remembered. Another issue with museums is that I love to “look” with my hands, which usually is not an option; indeed, most places  do not even want one to stand too close to the art to see the brushstrokes for example, and of course that is understandable, but the problem still is that it is difficult to become fully engaged – even visually.

Sunflowers

Detail of “Sunflowers” 3rd Version by Vincent van Gogh in Neue Pinakothek Munich, Germany  – no flash or touching but the guard was not happy with me

Sure some visitors are more active in museums and sketch and/or write, but this active appreciation of art usually is not created by the museum and the art; the visitor decides to sketch or write or maybe as student is required to complete an assignment or in need of extra credit. So the motivation for interacting comes from the visitor and is not created by the museum displays.

Student in Bargello

Visitor writing about/drawing the art in the Bargello in Florence, Italy

 

Sure, museums catering to children and focusing on science usually include interactive displays, but very few art museums do, so I am always excited when a display invites me to interact and I am no longer a passive observer. A recent example was a display of modern art at the K-hof museum in Gmunden, Austria. One of the sculptures, for example, came with sticky notes and visitors were encouraged to react to the piece and to other comments already left on the wall. These comments changed my perception of the piece as I started to react to the comments stuck beside it. The piece was not famous but it was memorable because of the interaction.

Christ Sculpture

Christ Sculpture by Ferdinand – One note mentions that the artist does not want a God who suffers with him but a God who laughs with him.

 

Notes

Notes responding to the piece of art: “Laughing about what? About me? [Without interest in my suffering?] No, thanks!” Another note responds: “Laughs WITH me (not about). Therefore I am also allowed to laugh about myself.”

Another example of interaction were the hobbyhorses depicting famous horses in art at the State Exhibit “Human & Horse” in Lambach, Austria. There was Marengo, the stallion from the painting “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” by Jacques-Loius David; the horse’s description includes the achievement of galloping 129km in five hours.

Marengo

Ride the Hobbyhorse Marengo at the State Exhibit “Human & Horse” in Lambach, Austria

Napoleon

Painting by Jacques-Louis David [Public Domain} via Wikimedia Commons

And then there was also the much calmer looking hobbyhorse Pferdinand created by Franz Marc. The description of the horse lists a talent for expressive art.

Pferdinand

Ride the Hobbyhorse Pferdinand at the State Exhibit “Human & Horse” in Lambach, Austria

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“Blue Horse I” by Franz Marc [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

These were just two of nearly a dozen famous hobby horses that were ridden by children in the courtyard of the exhibit, and even though no adults were playing when I visited, I could not see a sign that limited the activity only to kids.

More and more places also include replicas of the art that not only can be touched but is meant to be touched. These are geared especially towards visitors with vision impairments, but since my natural instinct is to touch, these replicas keep me entertained as well. I also realized that they help me notice details that I did not see before but now felt, and I could go back and look for them in the piece itself. Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” in Milan includes one such replica, which is usually overlooked by visitors as it rests on a side wall. Read more about the artist who created this replica and many others in Italy in this article.

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Touchable Replica of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”

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Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” in Milan, Italy

Art museums could still do much more to encourage more active enjoyment of the pieces, but these examples show that change is coming.

Reposing with Jewels: Bejeweled Skeletons of Saints in Austria

Statues of saints in Catholic churches aren’t anything surprising; skeletons of Saints adorned with precious stones and pearls, however, are quite a lot rarer and also much more fascinating. These bejeweled skeletons can be found in churches throughout Austria, Bavaria, and Switzerland and while they were rather common in the 17th century, many were taken down, looted, or lost in the 18th and 19th centuries. I am always amazed and amused by any bejeweled saint I come across; most of them nonchalantly repose on cushions and seem to try to make eye contact with those who meander down the side aisles of a church (most bejeweled saints are by side altars).

Interior Melk

Interior of the Church of Melk Abbey

Saint Clemens in Melk

Saint Clemens in Melk Abbey – A Gift to the Abbey in 1772

During my last trip to Austria and Bavaria, I was lucky enough to see quite a few of these bejeweled saints (without actually looking for them). They are so-called Catacomb Saints and meant to personify the glory of afterlife – which explains the relaxed poses and the over-the-top jewels; I guess there is no stress and plenty of riches. The Catacomb Saints are skeletons that were found in catacombs in Rome, Italy in May 1578. During road construction, an estimated 500,000 to 750,000 remains dating back to the first three centuries of Christianity were found. Based on the amount and age of the remains found, the conclusion was that some of these remains must be the relics of early Christian martyrs. Perfect timing – during the Protestant Reformation in Europe many relics (the physical remains or personal effects of saints or venerated persons) had been destroyed or lost, and now new relics had been found. It was an opportunity to “restock” so to speak.

Relic San Feliciano Medici Chapels

Relic of San Feliciano in Capelle Medicee at the Basilica di San Lorenzo in Florence, Italy

 

 

The Catacomb Saints of course came without labels or a resume, so names were invented for them after they had been declared saints by the Church. Thus, many of the saints have very German-sounding names to fit the place where they were going to be housed. Catacomb Saints were often gifts by the rich and famous to a church, such as Saint Friedrich, who was presented to the Abbey of Melk by Austrian Empress Maria Theresia.

 

Fine mesh gauze covers the bones and jewelry; precious stones and pearls are sown to the fabric. The elegant clothes and fancy jewelry were often donated by the rich of the parish. Most of the work was usually preformed by nuns but also by monks. While I am fascinated by the poses of the skeletons and the artistry of placing the jewels, many visitors are rather put off by the display.

Saint2 Engelszell

A Bejeweled Saint in the Monastery Engelszell

Saint Engelszell

Close-up of a Saint in the Monastery Engelszell

 

Saint Sandal

Another Fancy Sandal of a Saint in the Monastery Engelszell

This repulsion by some  may be one of the main reasons why so many of the saints are not displayed to their best advantage: the glass cases are often old, dusty, and badly lit, so it is hard to see the details clearly or take a picture; few of the saints have clear descriptions beyond their names on labels; signage that could also explain their history and importance at one time is non-existent usually; and most of them are placed in side niches cordoned off by rope, so it is easy to overlook them. Guidebooks and even leaflets about the history of the building and parish found in the church rarely if ever mention the saints. This meant that I usually came to see a church and “stumbled” across a Catacomb Saint, so if you are interested in seeing some of the saints, do some research ahead of time to look for the churches that still display these amazing examples of sacral art.

Saint Author in Aldersbach

A Bejeweled Saint who also Seems to Be an Author the Church in Aldersbach

 

Close-up of Saint in the Monestary in Reichersberg

Close-up of Saint in the Monastery in Reichersberg

Note: Details about the Catacomb Saint are mostly from the signage at some of the churches that I did find as well as an article by CNN, which has some pretty amazing photos of the saints as well. I visited the churches in Engeslzell, Reichersberg, and Melk (all in Austria) and in Aldersbach in Bavaria.

The Beauty of a Toilet: Toilet Museum in Gmunden, Austria

“For many people, having a toilet is an afterthought, one of the easy-to-take-for-granted amenities of living in the modern world. But for 40% of the world’s population that lives without sanitation, having a toilet is a luxury, and one that can often make the difference between life and death” explains a posting by the American Red Cross. I would argue that for many Americans easy and free access to a bathroom is nearly seen as a fundamental human right, which explains the surprise of many American tourists in Europe when they figure out that public toilets often require a fee and receipts are checked consistently to ensure that really only customers use an establishment’s bathroom. And do not even think about hoping to find a bathroom in a supermarket. Bathrooms – and especially clean bathrooms – are not a certainty. This became clear for example on Mount Vesuvius, where no free bathrooms existed. The toilet I ended up paying for (I think it was one Euro) had no water to flush but was not designed to be a waterless porta potty and it had been used a LOT throughout the day. Let’s just put it that way: what cannot go down must pile up. At that point, I really wished for a lot more bushes on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius…

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View over the Bay from Mount Vesuvius in Italy

Considering the impact of toilets and our dependence on them, it is rather surprising that they are not more celebrated or talked about. So it was a nice surprise to find a museum dedicated to toilets in Gmunden, Austria. Sure, the museum is definitely not the main attraction of the town. Rather, the main draw are the panorama of the magnificent lake Traunsee with the tall mountains in the background, castle Orth on an island in the lake, and maybe the ceramic manufacturer established in 1492.

Lake and Boats

Lake Traunsee and Sailboats in Gmunden

 

Schloss Orth

Schloss Orth in Gmunden on a small island in the lake (Photo by Ibokel from Pixabay)

 

Saint Orth

Saint Nepomuk Statue on the Bridge to the Castle Orth near Gmunden

On my last visit to Gmunden, I finally visited the toilet museum in the center of town near the lake. The toilet museum (its official name is the sanitation museum) is one of five rather small museums housed in the so-called K-Hof. The other four museums focus on geology, salt and tourism, nativity sets and sacred art, and current art (it seems this exhibit changes throughout the year). It is a very eclectic/odd mix as one floor houses the nativity sets and the next one the toilets. The museum even includes a chapel. The toilet/sanitation museum focuses on sanitation objects from the 19th and 20th century even though the first water closet was already invented in the 16th century.

 

The museum has some interesting pieces with the majority of the exhbits from Central Europe, but it does lack an international or intercultural aspect. Would not this be the place to show and discuss the differences in toilets and the impact of the toilet on everyday life around the world? I expected the exhibit to be more informative and in-depth. But it does have some extremely beautiful toilet bowls that put the common current and very boring toilet bowls to shame. You won’t be able to find anything close to these in your local store I think. Here are some of my favorite toilet bowls (hmm  – what an odd and unexpected sentence to use):

The exhibit also includes other items associated with the bathroom such as toilet pulls and sinks and even an outhouse.

 

Outhouse

Old-fashioned Outhouse

The museum is entertaining enough but not worth a special trip; however, it is an interesting addition to a visit already planned to enjoy the panorama and the castle, which are worth a trip.

Gmunden is in Upper Austria, about an hour’s drive from Salzburg and nearly three hours from Vienna. The museum is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 10AM till 5PM and during the summer (June-August) Tuesdays through Sundays from 10AM till 5PM. Check the museum’s website for changes in the opening hours and other details.

Celebrating Beer in Bavaria

When states or counties put on exhibitions or fairs showcasing themselves, they usually focus on important historical events, natural sights, or maybe important figures. But Bavaria’s current state exhibition is about beer – of course. After all, beer was named Bavaria’s fifth element already in 1752 by Bavarian Chancellor Kreittmayr. Since beer brewing is historically closely connected with monasteries in Central Europe, it also makes sense that this exhibition is hosted in the Abbey in Aldersbach in southeast Bavaria.

The exhibition offers much – plenty of historical background on the production and cultural impact of beer, beer facts, interactive displays, curiosities connected to beer, a large beer tent with special exhibition beers and live bands, a tour through a modern brewery, and the art of the historical abbey buildings. We spent a whole afternoon at the exhibit and would have stayed longer had it not closed at six (the beer tent often stays open longer, but was closed early on the day we visited to prepare for a special event).

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Typical Interior of a Bavarian Pub (Photo from Pixbay – artist Stux)

Like many others, I have always connected Bavaria with beer, but many historical details highlighted by the exhibit were new to me while others were “oldies but goodies.” Of course, displays mention the Reinheitsgebot (“purity order”) from 1516 that limits ingredients used in beer brewing to water, barley, and hops, but I did not know that until the 16th century wine was more popular in Bavaria than beer. Beer started to become a more popular choice because less wine was produced following cold summers and the destruction of vineyards during wars. In 1784, Bavaria wall already called the “beer country” in travel notes.

Wall of Beer Steins

Wall of Beer Steins

 

Currently, about a half of all German breweries are located in Bavaria, where in 1900 the average annual consumption of beer per person was 250 liters or 66 US gallons. This number has decreased to about 145 liters (38 gallons) per person per year in Bavaria, which is still higher than anywhere else in Germany. In comparison, the average number for 2012 in the US was 27.6 gallon according to USA Today. Bavaria used to be the land of the breweries with 4,777 different breweries in 1905. This number sank to 1,566 breweries in 1960 and 616 breweries in 2014.

Breweries

Number of Breweries in Bavaria over the Years

 

The exhibition includes a display of typical pub games as well as other artifacts connected with the Wirtshaus (pub), such as a beer mat from 1900. According to the displays, beer mats used to be made out of hair felt and are thus still called beer felts, “Bierfilzl;” paper beer mats were introduced in 1890.

Beer Mat

Beer Mat/Coaster Made out of Hair Felt from 1900

 

Memorable curiosities connected with beer are a display of motorized beer crates that are raced on race ways, a game of wearing “beer goggles” that create the visual impact of being over the driving limit, and a competition of carrying 27 beer-filled liter steins, which add up to 63 kilos (nearly 139 pounds) and were once carried by one waiter at the Munich Oktoberfest. Even Bavaria, the female personification of the state of Bavaria, is depicted carrying only 12 beer steins on posters and beer mats throughout the exhibition, so I decided it was not worth my wait at the display to even try carrying that many beer steins.

Motorized Beer Crate

Motorized Beer Crate

 

Carry Beersteims

How many full beer steins can you carry?

 

Bier

Beer in the Fest Tent – The glass depicts Bavaria, the female personification of the state of Bavaria

The large beer tent with live music, Bavarian culinary specialties, and specially brewed exhibition beers as well as two additional on-site pubs encouraged us to make a day out of the exhibition and we enjoyed lunch but the tent was closed later on to prepare for a special evening event.

 

A nice break from all the information about and tastings of beer is a stroll through the monastery grounds (founded in 1136) and a visit to its pink Baroque church Maria Himmelfahrt with its bejeweled skeletons of saints, which are pretty common in the Alpine region and completely fascinated me (more about the bejeweled saints in this posting). I was in awe by the amount of precious stones, pearls, and gold covering the bones and amused by some of the body positions that are much more creative than just lying on the back and looking up the ceiling.

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Room Inside the Monastery as Part of the Exhibit

 

Bejeweled Saint

Reclining Bejeweled Saint in the Church Maria Himmelfahrt

 

If you are in the south-eastern part of Bavaria and are somewhat interested in beer, I highly recommend this exhibition that is open daily from 9AM till 6PM until 30 October 2016. Check the exhibition’s website for entrance fees, special events, and directions: http://www.landesausstellung-bier.de/

 

PS: All data is from the displays in the exhibition or from the official website.