(worst pun of entire trip)
10.07.2010 75 °F
Forgive my intermittent posting, friends. I’ve been in Paris the past three days and haven’t found the extra time. Imagine that! I write from the chunnel train between Paris and London (“chunnel” is French for “charge double what the ticket should cost”) and will try to remember details a few days post-factum. Hmm – it’s odd still being here, in a way. I feel I’ve entered the lame duck portion of my trip – like I’m “remembering being on the trip” even though I am in fact still on it. Must be all that time-obsessed Proust I’m reading – In Search of Lost Time is the one book I took along for the trip, with the express purpose of reading it in at some forlorn Paris cafe.
I’m also finding that with the accumulation of long days and little sleep, mornings are becoming a problem. With an average bedtime of after 3am, and grand ambitions to spring up at 8, grab un café and conquer a new town, well, as Frank would say… something’s gotta give. I set my iPhone alarm for 8am Monday morning in Prague, and it must’ve been on silent, as I woke up at 11am, which was the time I was tentatively hoping to meet the previous night’s group for a tour of the city. So that was a drag as those were fun folks, but in actuality it would’ve been a drag (quite literally) to lug my bags around on the tour anyway. I hopped in a cab and sped off to the Hlavní Nádraží station, where I would catch a train to my next destination, Vienna.
I arrive in Vienna around 7:30 and figure out how to take a bus to my lodging, which is fairly centrally located. The gentleman who was hosting me, an opera singer named Benoit, is actually out of town, but he has entrusted his friend Carl to see me in. The place is super, probably around 250 years old, hard wood floors and high ceilings, and Carl, a pianist, is a sweetheart of a guy, helpful and accommodating and a very good conversationalist. He’s from New Brunswick, Canada, so speaks English with a strong French Canadian lilt, which initially I mistake for some French-influenced Austrian dialect. We sit and have a beer and talk about music and Germany – discussing whether “totalitarianism might be the flip side of civilization?” I tell him about my great time in Germany, and as my former student, German-born Simone relayed in an earlier comment, it appears that many in Europe are excited for Germany’s resurgence, yet also worry whether “it could happen again,” if not in Germany than somewhere else.
Vienna had already lived up to its reputation as a strongly musical city, as during our conversation I hear a nearby singer rehearsing with piano; apparently thousands of musicians come from around the world to study here. I mention that I was also a musician and had graduated from Eastman some years back – on a lark he asks if I know Chanda, a fellow accompanist living in Vienna with her husband. Of course I knew her! She was my NYC roommate Fred’s ex-girlfriend and we used to run together when I lived in Astoria. Carl calls her up, I leave a “surprise” message, and she calls Carl back, saying she shrieked when she heard my message. (Hopefully a positive shriek?) We make plans to meet up later in the city. Carl also (very astutely) advises me to look into flying to Paris, rather than taking trains. He looks this up for me, and he’s correct – for a smaller ticket price, I can fly to Paris in 2 hours, while the trains take at least 10 and require stops. Sadly, at this point I decide to let go of my initial ambition to visit Toulouse in the south of France, where we have 2nd-degree family friends with whom I was going to stay. The geography of traveling from Paris down to the south, then back up to Paris just doesn’t make sense in three days time. I write Marie, wife of Roberto, son of my mother’s college friend Bob, who was so accommodating to my loopy scheduling, to tell her this. What’s exciting, however, is the idea that perhaps next year I could plan a more detailed trip involving Toulouse and Barcelona, only two hours away! Note to self: better start selling some records to fund this.
I walk with Carl through downtown Vienna, and take in some incredible buildings – Carl knows the city’s history well, although he has only been here a few years. Vienna has large, sprawling buildings and open-aired plazas, most of which feel hundreds of years old, and its famous outdoor cafes are packed even on a weekday evening.
We meet up with Chanda, her husband Olivier, and Chanda’s sister Kyla (who needs to move to DC), and head inside an outdoor area festooned with sand and beach chairs. A Miami cabana in downtown Vienna? Seems odd, but hey, they sell beer. (I have a Salzburg-made Stiegl.) We sit at a table under a straw enclosure, and discuss Vienna, America, music, and generally catch up. Carl heads home and the others send me off to explore a closeby bar called 1558 (?) where many English-speakers hang out.
So far, and thankfully for me, I’m finding Vienna closer to the everyone-speaks English-dynamic of Berlin than to the flip side of Prague. I end up having a conversation at the bar with Lynn, from New Jersey, and Laura, from Toronto. I take a few portrait shots with my 50mm lens, which to this point I had been thinking of as my "use only for photos of food or drinks on a table" lens, and after they convince me to have a pepper vodka (my mouth still stung around 20 minutes after), they walk me more around town, stopping by St. Stephen's Cathedral (Carl had already pointed it out), a massively high Gothic church currently undergoing renovation. Half of the church is white, and the other half is dark gray and covered in scaffolding. We part ways at the very large Vienna State Opera building, where Mahler conducted. It’s obviously not open, but I just pause and try to be there in that place. I grab a cab back to the apartment, take some photos of nighttime Vienna out the large window, upload some photos, and sleep.
With grand plans to see much of Vienna the next day, lack of sleep is again my adversary, and after waking up to Carl’s lovely practice session – he hums the melody whilst playing the accompaniment to Hugo Wolf songs, the perfect accompaniment to a Vienna morning – I venture out around noon, and experience my first weather difficulty of the trip – it’s teeming rain out, but thankfully I borrow an umbrella of Benoit’s.
I grab a café and Viennese pastry, decide that my number one priority in Vienna will be visiting Mahler’s grave in the Grinzing part of the city, and walk around in search of a bus. This takes a while and I’m wandering in the rain. Unlike other cities I’ve been to on this trip, Vienna is a very bus-focused city – I’m still not even sure if they have an underground subway. Finally finding the 38 bus that will take me to Grinzig, I recognize a stop on the way called “Canisius” – Carl had mentioned the Schubert House was worth seeing at this stop, and I and hop off. I enter hesitantly and the woman at the front desk says in broken English that the house is closing in 5 minutes, but will be open again in an hour. (This is possibly one of Franz Schubert's descendants, as Carl mentioned that the Schubert family still runs the house.) I plead my case of time constraint, and the woman waves me in to walk around the house where Franz Schubert was born. It’s a quick tour – I really only spend barely over 5 minutes – but with its memorabilia including the family piano, various scores and paintings, definitely worth seeing. I kept hearing songs from Die schöne Müllerin, as well as my composition Stanzas for Music(written as an assignment “in the style of Schubert”) which I had to do for Dr. Harrison’s theory class at Rochester years ago. It’s nice to be able to replay one’s own music in one’s head (and, conveniently, on the bus after I left the house), and it dawns on me I should compose more. I thanked Schubert for the melodic inspiration and jumped on another 38 bus.
[Note: We have just passed through Calais in Northern France, and the windows of my train have just turned to black. I am officially under the English channel. I hope these walls are strong.]
Arriving in Grinzing, I must walk up a long hill to reach the cemetery, and there are no signs pointing the way. I stop into a flower shop to make sure I’m going the right way – the woman in the shop doesn’t speak English, I point to a map and I can’t really get my question across. I finally say “Mahler?” and she excitedly shakes her head yes, yes, and points me up the hill. I start walking up but have the idea to purchase a flower for Mahler’s grave, which the woman happily sells me. Arriving in the cemetery, which seems massive, a man who also doesn’t speak English comes out from a booth, asks a colleague the English word for “name?” I say Mahler, and he makes a gesture of “oh, easy.” (Initially I thought this was a self-appointed guide in search of a tip, but apparently the cemetery keeps employees on hand to do this?) He walks me up just a small ways, we turn a corner, and he points ahead and leaves me.
I had seen photographs of this spot online – it’s funny how a physical place rarely resembles the image you’ve assembled based on photographs. The man’s music is monumental, tragic, all-consuming, even over-wrought, yet Gustav Mahler’s grave is unassuming, non-descript, and peaceful. I’m surprised to see some recent graves around, and wonder whether (or if, or how) people would lobby to be buried directly across from Gustav Mahler? On my iPhone headphones, I put on the musical excerpt that changed my life – the final 5 minutes of the 2nd Symphony, “Resurrection” (good God, Lenny...) and feel so emotionally charged. I so clearly remember hearing a recording of this excerpt during my sophomore year of college – I would stick my head out of the skylight at the house I was living in and watch the sun set over the Genesee River. Standing there, I have the same feeling I’ve had at JFK’s grave in Arlington Cemetery – that this man’s works and life are being discussed somewhere in the world right now (and in Mahler’s case, his music being rehearsed), and I’m the closest in the world to what’s left of his physical body. It’s tough to not ponder the soul in such a place.
I place the flower at the bottom of the large vertical stone and take some photographs. Although there’s more I had wanted to see of this town, I end up spending close to 30 minutes there, alone, sitting and shooting photos, taking in the view, and listening to more music. As important as this man’s music is to me in my life, it’s odd contemplating whether I’ll ever make it back to this spot. (I realized the following day that it was the 150th anniversary of Mahler’s birth, so oddly, I count myself amongst the lot who visited him within that 150 year period.) I also stopped by the grave of Alma Mahler, Mahler's infamous Vienna socialite-wife of eight years who married Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius (amongst others) after Mahler's death. Their daughter, Manon Gropius, is buried next to Alma, and I realized only later on why this name sounded familiar – Manon, who died of polio at 18, was the dedicatee of Alban Berg's sublime Violin Concerto, subtitled 'To the Memory of an Angel'.
I thank Mahler for his music and walk back down the hill to catch a ride back toward the center of town. Though it might sound morbid, I count this as one of the centerpiece experiences of this trip – venturing out to a remote part of a town I’ve never been to, paying tribute to one of my most profoundly life-changing artistic heroes.
One other spot I had also wanted to see in Vienna was Cemetery der Namenlosen (perhaps I should call my trip The Morbidity Tour?), featured in the lovely film Before Sunrise, precursor to the equally wonderful sequel Before Sunset, both inspirations to wannabe world-wanderers like myself. I spot a cab and ask how much to the area; the driver says 20 Euro, I say too much, he says 17, I say 15, and I get in. After he almost runs down a woman while he’s consulting his GPS, he says, “no, too much for that far” and so I get out and make my way back to the 38. I guess I’ll have to visit another time.
I exit the bus in the “ring” area of central Vienna, and walk around, seeing the massive, Gothic, and sadly, closed St. Stephen’s up close. Fighting the rain and feeling I had to get back in time to make my flight, I take another cab. I get back to the apartment, say a fond farewell to Carl and venture out toward the Vienna airport, where I have a rather uneventful time taking a flight to Paris. Auf wiedersehen Vienna – I hope we meet again and hopefully for more than one day next time!