And the Winner Is…

Photo found on http://www.orf.at

…Sweden – which was not a big surprise. A bigger surprise was that Austria (and also Germany) did not get a single point at the Grand Finale of the Eurovision Song Contest. Really??! The song was not that bad, and should not we have gotten a couple of points just for hosting the event (think hostess gift)?

I watched the live online stream of the ORF, and the Austrian host had plenty of good ideas to make the viewing of this annual singing competition amongst European countries (see more about the competition in my previous posting) more interesting.

A surprising amount of songs were in English, which I found rather sad. Even Israel’s entry was for the first time in the competition not in Hebrew. Half of the fun of watching this competition is listening to the lyrics in different languages, such as Armenian, and trying to figure out what they are singing. From the few non-English songs, Italy’s entry, “Grande Amore,” was definitely my favorite and placed third overall.

Italy’s Performance (www.orf.at)

Here are some additional trophies that should have been awarded:

Most doves used in the background – France

Best lit-up costumes – United Kingdom

UK’s Performance – Best Lit-Up Costume (www.orf.at)

Best marching “army” of animated people – Sweden (with France a close second)

Sweden's Performance - Best Army of Animated Men

Sweden’s Performance – Best Army of Animated Men (www.orf.at)

Best fire in a piano (and also best fire on the stage) – Austria

Austria’s Performance – Best Fire in a Piano (www.orf.at)

Best singer performing while perched on someone’s shoulder – Spain

Spain’s Performance – Best Performance while Perched on a Shoulder (www.orf.at)

Most time spent with the butt to the audience – Germany

Most Gothic costume – Georgia (which also won for best use of feathers in a costume)

Georgia's Performance - Best Gothic Outfit

Georgia’s Performance – Best Gothic Outfit

Most unusual dancers that distracted from the singer – Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan's Performance - Most Distracting Dancers

Azerbaijan’s Performance – Most Distracting Dancers

Most fake machine guns – Hungary (which also won for best machine-gun tree)

At some point, it was pretty clear that Sweden would win, and then the competition was more about whether Austria or maybe even Germany would get a point, and we would be all alone in last place (success – Austria shared the last place with Germany as neither received any points). And even though Austria did not move out of last place, I learned that Austria has a world-famous percussionist (who knew there were any famous percussionists, let alone world-famous ones).

Even though the Eurovision Song Contest is not supposed to be about politics (just like the Olympics), the audience often booed when Russia’s representative was on screen, and the Austrian commentator pointed out the irony of Russia singing a song about peace.

All in all, no big surprises but mildly entertaining – but voting for more categories definitely does help.

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Toerggelen: Chestnuts and Wine

Toerggelen in South Tyrol ( Found on suedtirol.info)

When my aunt still lived in Innsbruck, I remember my family and I visiting and taking day-trips over the Brenner Pass into Italy to eat and to shop for Italian foods, such as prosciutto and cheese, and of course to shop for wine. During the fall, such a trip was made to go Toerggelen, a common custom in South Tyrol. From late September through early December, the tradition is to drink the new wine, still naturally cloudy, and eat roasted sweet chestnuts, also called Maroni. Since moving to the West Coast, I have noticed that Austrians and South-Tyroleans (as well as many other European cultures) eat a lot more chestnuts in all forms than Americans ever do. Here, chestnuts are associated with Christmas traditions on the East Coast while roasted chestnuts would actually fit in perfectly with the climate and wine culture of Northern California.

My Attempt at Toerggelen in CA

My Attempt at Toerggelen in CA

In the southern Alps, sweet chestnut trees have been cultivated even before the Roman era; in California, chestnut trees are rare. The few farms that I could find via an online search are small and relatively new; many of them started out as nut farms and added chestnuts around 2007 or later. I was baffled – red wine and chestnuts just go together; it is a natural combination. Some more research found that the U.S. was hit by a devastating chestnut blight, caused by a fungal spore at the turn of the last century. Between three and four billion trees died according to an article in the LA Times. However, sales for chestnuts seem to be looking up as all the farms I found in the Central Valley quickly had sold out of this year’s crops in early fall. This year, I had to make do with imported chestnuts that usually do not survive the trip too well and too many are moldy. But I am looking forward to next year’s chestnut harvest, and I actually already put my name on a few mailing lists of farmers, so I will be notified when the harvest of 2015 is ready to be shipped. Maybe I can get some fresh local chestnuts, so it is worth to organize Toerggelen for friends next year.

The wine was great, but too many moldy chestnuts. In the end, I had more wine than food.

The wine was great, but too many moldy chestnuts. In the end, I had more wine than food.

For more information on Toerggelen and recipe ideas, check out this website: South Tyrol Tourist Info.

Here is the link to the article in the LA Times about chestnut farms in California: Article.

St. Nikolaus

St. Nikolaus and Krampus (found on Facebook: Austria Official Travel Info)

December is a busy month for traditions in Austria. Krampus Day on December 5 is followed by Nikolaus Day on December 6. It is the day of St. Nikolaus, and even though the American Santa Claus is modeled after him even in name, they two do not have much in common. St. Nikolaus does bring gifts for the good kids but in the evening of December 6. He was the Bishop of Myra, which is in present-day Turkey, in the fourth century. He is the patron saint for a lot of different groups ranging from students to pirates to prostitutes. I guess he is popular for so many groups to choose him. But the “job” as patron saint for children and students is the reason for the traditions associated with December 6. And because he was a bishop, he is dressed quite differently than Santa Claus. St. Nikolaus wears the robes of a bishop and with that comes a mitre and a pastoral staff. He is usually white-haired and has a long flowing beard but he is usually not chubby like Santa Claus. St. Nikolaus also does not use a flying sleigh with reindeer but walks or rides a horse or a “regular” sleigh. He also does not come through the chimney in the middle of the night, but politely knocks on the door.

St. Nikolaus usually is accompanied by Krampus, a demon-like beast to scare the naughty children (see yesterday’s post). Nikolaus usually asks the parents if the children have been good, and if the answer is yes, Krampus is asked to wait outside the door where he hollers and rattles his chains to warn children to behave all year. Once Krampus is banished, Nikolaus usually asks the children to recite a poem or sing a carol for him before he takes gifts out of his large bag. Since he is really carrying the bag and the gifts, the gifts are usually chocolate, apples, oranges, and possibly books or other small items. To remind children again that Krampus is always watching, a small bundle of birch twigs is included in the gift as well (see yesterday’s post about the birch twigs).

Postcard Showing St. Nikolaus and Krampus (found on Wikipedia Commons)

If the parents did not rent a Nikolaus to come to the house, children still receive gifts though. Little bags or shoes are left by the door and are filled with the gifts once it is evening. The few years when Nikolaus did not come to our house, my mom would ask us into the kitchen and close the door behind us. We would hear the rattling of chains outside the door and my father’s voice as he was supposedly addressing Krampus to tell him that only good kids were living here. My brother and I stood by the door and were straining to hear every word and hoping that Krampus would not be allowed into the kitchen. A few minutes later, we were allowed to leave the kitchen, and lo and behold, there were gifts in our boots!

Even though children receive small gifts on December 6, they will receive more gifts on Christmas, which is celebrated in the evening of December 24. But there is no confusion between St. Nikolaus and Santa Claus in case you are wondering because we do not have Santa Claus. Christmas gifts are brought by the Christkind in Austria (literally: Christ Child), an angel.

St. Nikoalus Is Shown as the Original and Santa Claus as the Imitation (found on: http://www.weihnachtsmannfreie-zone.de/ – which means Santa-Claus-Free Area)

Krampus Day – Demons Rule the Streets

St. Nikolaus and Krampus (found on regionalkultur.at)

“Be Good!” could be the motto for December 5, which is traditionally Krampus Day in Austria. The day is also celebrated in other Alpine regions such as Bavaria and South Tyrol. Krampus is a beast-like demonic creature and the “side-kick” of Saint Nikolaus; Krampus punishes the naughty children while St. Nikolaus rewards the good ones. Krampusse are furry, have horns and a lolling tongue, and carry a bundle of birch branches to swat the kids.

For small children, Krampusse [German plural form of the term Krampus] are truly frightening; for teenagers, they are a challenge to dare each other and show their bravery. As soon as it is dark out, which is usually mid-afternoon in early December in Austria, the Krampusse take over the streets. They run in packs through the streets for hours and are trying to chase anyone, but especially kids and young women. When I was in elementary school, I hated the day and did not want to leave the house when it was getting close to darkness. From the safety of the inside of a locked car or form inside a house, I would watch the Krampusse run through the streets. I could hear the sound of chains and large bells that the Krampusse carry before I could even see them. Later as a teenager, I would walk into town on purpose with friends to dare each other to get as close as possible to one of the Krampusse and then run away quickly without being swatted with the birch branches by a Krampus. The fear was much worse than the pain from the branches since we were wearing layers of clothes and thick winter coats because of the cold.

Krampus and Child (found on arroundtheworldin80jobs.com)

Usually young males are wearing the costume of Krampus, and it must be strenuous to wear the wooden masks with large animal horns and fangs, be completely clothed in furs, and carry large bells around their waists. Last year, I came across an entertaining article by an American, who worked as a Krampus in Austria for a night; see the posting here: http://www.aroundtheworldin80jobs.com/i-am-the-krampus/

Krampus Day also means special treats such as Zwetschgenkrampus, a Krampus made out of prunes (which is a lot tastier than it sounds), and Semmelkrampus, a sweet bread shaped like a Krampus. For one day, demons rule the streets in Austria.

Semmelkrampus – Krampus out of Sweet Bread (found on mayer-baecker.at)

Zwetschgenkrampus – Krampus out of Prunes and Figs (found on media05.regionaut.meinbezirk.at)

Happy First Advent Sunday: Light a Candle

One Candle Is Lit on the First Advent Sunday on the Advent Wreath

One Candle Is Lit on the First Advent Sunday on the Advent Wreath

Today, November 30, is the first Advent Sunday, which marks the beginning of Christmas season in Austria. Advent comes from the Latin word adventus, which means arrival. There are four Advent Sundays until Christmas Eve, and these special days are symbolized by the four candles on the Advent wreath. On the first Sunday, one candle is lit; on the second Sunday, the first and a second candle are lit, and so on. Usually, the family sits together and sings Christmas carols and eats Christmas cookies. The wreath is usually made out of evergreen branches and does have real candles, and yes, in contrast to the attitudes in the U.S. Austrians are not freaked out that the wreath will go up in flames even though it will be dry after four weeks of use (side note: we do watch the open flame). The wreath is either placed on a table or hung from the ceiling. Even stores and banks will have Advent wreaths and large Advent wreaths are often hung from the ceiling in churches or streetlights at town squares.

As a kid, Advent was a great way to countdown Christmas, to already enjoy caroling, and to eat the special cookies such as Vanillekipferl and Linzeraugen. For recipes in English, check this website: http://www.austria.info/us/food-and-wine-in-austria/christmas-cookies-1203652.html

Austrian Christmas Cookies (www.Austria.info)

I do keep up with the tradition but I have given up on finding a fresh wreath and trying to set the candles in it; Austrian shops offer special metal spikes that safely secure candles to the wreath, but it always seems too much hassle for me here. So I bought a wreath out of metal and I just place candles on it each year – no need to find a fresh wreath or fight with the candles. Most visitors to my house throughout December do find it odd though that we light only one or two candles or that some of the candles are so much shorter from use than the other ones. Advent wreaths are definitely not that popular in California.

Advent Wreaths for Sale in Linz. Austria (Facebook: Linzer Weihnachtsmaerkte)

Dia de los Muertos

Dancers  with Face Painting and in Costume at Dia de los Muertos

Dancers in Costume at Dia de los Muertos

Even though Halloween is not one of my favorite American holidays, and I honestly do not “get it,” I can understand and connect to the Latin American tradition of Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. It reminds me of the Austrian tradition of thinking of those that passed and visiting the graves on November 1. As far back as I can remember, November 1 has meant spending the morning in usually cold and foggy graveyards and wearing the new winter coat for the first time of the year. November 1 is a holiday in Austria, and since schools, offices, and stores are closed, there is no excuse not to be at the graves of those who have passed. For weeks, graves have been prepped for the big day with new plantings and freshly cut flowers, a new lantern, and of course plenty of candles. The graveyard on that day turns also into a place to meet up with everyone who has moved away since each grave is usually surrounded by family and friends even from far away.

Cards to the Dead on Dia de los Muertos in Sacramento, CA

Cards to the Dead on Dia de los Muertos in Sacramento, CA

Altar at Dia de los Muertos in Sacramento

Altar at Dia de los Muertos in Sacramento

Statue at Dia de los Muertos Celebrations

Statue at Dia de los Muertos Celebrations

 

This is a tradition that is very foreign to most Americans; they do not really seem to spend much time at graveyards. But the Latin American holiday of Dia de los Muertos has the same basic principle – to honor the dead. True, the Austrian celebration on All Saints Day is a little more somber and quieter, but the idea is the same. Dia de los Muertos honors the dead with festivals and celebrations of the lives of the deceased with food, drink, and parties. Families set up altars for the deceased in their houses; photos, favorite foods and drinks, pan de muerto, marigolds and more are placed on the altars. Families celebrate  with food in graveyards and decorate the graves. The deceased become part of the community again as they are awakened from their sleep.

Dancers at the Dia de Los Muertos in Sacramento, CA

Dancers at the Dia de Los Muertos in Sacramento, CA

Since Sacramento, CA is so diverse, celebrations of Dia de los Muertos have become quite common. This year’s celebrations included many altars set up by families for the deceased as well as a parade and performances of traditional Mexican dances. It was not quite the same for me as visiting the graves of loved ones on All Saints Day in Austria, but I felt more at home at this celebration than I ever do on Halloween with its costumes and sweets.

Close-Up of Altar at Dia de los Muertos

Close-Up of Altar at Dia de los Muertos

Parade at Dia de los Muertos in Sacramento

Parade at Dia de los Muertos in Sacramento