Thursday, November 30, 2006

Budapest, At Last

So it seems a bit strange to finally be getting around to writing about Budapest almost two weeks after having been there, but things have been busy and it is worth some attention.

So yes, Budapest is great. I have to say the architecture really impressed me. There are certainly some similarities with Vienna, but Vienna is much more about Art Nouveau and Baroque (Austria was run by a girl for a while and she built a lot of pretty pink things, its true and it shows) where Budapest is much more about Gothic Revival. I really like the Gothic Revival style. Okay, so we all know I have my imperial fantasies so it isn't really that surprising that I would like building in Gothic style but built on a much grander scale to show imperial grandeur, but I do, so there. If I were to build a city there would probably wall to wall impressive imposing buildings and not one supermarket, I'm practical like that, but I digress.

So the architecture was amazing and when I was walking around Saturday the weather was beautiful, but what really made my trip fantastic was the family I stayed with. They were just amazing. Now of course, staying with people from the country you are visiting is almost always nice because they can tell you how to do things, help you with the language, and give you the run down on things you should do, but I was just blown away by the musicality and multi-lingualism of the family I stayed with. Almost in the whole family from a 9th grade on up could express themselves fluently in English, German, and of course Hungarian. But even the younger kids could talk, they weren't just passively listening they were expressing opinions and not just nodding along (something I know I have done). The one exception was the great aunt who is in her nineties, she couldn't speak English (not exactly the easiest or most important thing in communist Hungary), but her Grandparents were from Vienna and she had always spoken German with them and her German was excellent. Then came the music. They would sing grace before and after the meal in Hungarian in beautiful harmony. When you were having a conversation someone would sit down and just start playing something fantastic on the piano, but would get upset if you stopped talking, it was meant to augment the conversation and I have to say that because of that the moments were all the more memorable. Even the great aunt when I was waiting for my friend to some over would play the piano when she felt things needed to be livened up. The things is, she couldn't read the music anymore and would just play the most amazing pieces from memory. It made a very big impression.

So once again I found I have written a big old block of text and wondering if anyone is still reading but I'll continue anyway, what really impressed me was the degree of culture, multiculturalism, and music from the days of Austria-Hungary that can still be seen in Central Europe. The family I stayed with was obviously a musical one, but in Europe at least traditionally the approach to music is different. You didn't just pick up an instrument in school, music and songs were passed within a family from generation to generation, imparted as a part of family heritage. That for me is something very Austro-Hungarian. It certainly wasn't the only place that valued music in that way, but it is something I associate with it, Vienna was, after all, the music capital of the world in its day. My Bulgarian voice teacher also cam from that sort of a family, but the only American families I have known like that have been Jewish, which would at least to seem to make sense as many American Jews have their roots in Austria-Hungary. What also struck me was the surprising diversity of Central Europe. If you look at statistics for Austria or Hungary they make the countries look very homogeneous, but once you start talking to people you find out about how they are half Croatian, Czech, Slovakia, or any of a number of a number of other nationalities but were forced by laws or circumstance to cover up that diversity in the years after World War I pretty much to the fall of communism. Food for thought.

To Review



Also, there was this poster for an electronic store:

I have no idea why they are all men and in really bad drag, but I liked this guy:

Who one of my friends pointed out is pretty much dressed like Freddie Mercury in this music video. Funny.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Budapest is Amazing

Budapest was amazing.

More on that later, but for now I'll just say I got a taste of the old Austria-Hungary.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Me Meeting the Ambassador

So we had the reception for Fulbright students tonight at the US ambassador's residence. The residence is an enormous Bauhaus building tucked away in a very unassuming part of Vienna (it is just funny because all the most expensive parts of the city just feel like little villages).

On the whole I would say it was a lot fun, once we got past the ridiculous security we got to enjoy the free booze and horderves. I really like the other Fulbright students so it was nice to get to chat.

The ambassador, however, looked less than thrilled to be there. What was great was when she was telling us how important the program was to her and yet couldn't seem to even half-heartedly read her speech without stumbling over her own words.

Anyway, at 7:30 she disappeared without excusing herself and never returned. All of the Fulbright students were supposed to get a picture with her. Obviously with her gone we couldn't do that and I was hurt. So to keep me from tears Scott played the role of the ambassador and I played, well, me.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Oh Those Austrians...

So this a photo I took back at the Vienna Central Cemetary on All Saints Day.

It says 'Kontner: Yard Work and Grave Cleaning' and it has a picture of a gleaming grave.

These things were all over the cemetary. Kind of how like in the US landscapers or contractors will put signs up on your lawn when they are working on stuff to advertize, here they do the same thing except with graves. I just like the idea of people walking around and saying 'what a lovely grave, honey? I wish our grave would be clean like that! Let's hire Kontner to do our grave cleaning!."


Man: Could it be that you just sold me something from your bottom?

Dog: Which one of us do you mean?

Time Flies

So things have kept me busy as of late. I had a American friend from my Berlin days visiting this past weekend. I can't believe Berlin was almost two years ago. The visit was fun and made me do more stuff than I would normally do over the weekend (went to the opera here for the first time, finally made it to the Belvedere museum, the one with all the Klimts right next to me, and saw the inside of the Staatsoper). It is getting colder and grayer here though, and that does not please me [shakes fist].

Then on Monday I had to debate whether or not the WTO is a capitalist monster. I didn't win, but I spoke well so I was happy. I am learning, however, that I speak at the speed of light (not sure if in general or just when speaking publicly) which made things a little tough for the non-native speakers. Gotta work on that. It was amusing too because I am friends with everyone who is debating, but apparently everyone else in the debate thought you had to be dismissive and mean to the opposite side. I smiled a lot, though, I made some choice comments.

So then the marathon that was Tuesday rolled around. I had class from 8:30 until 6:00, which is bad enough except for some reason I could only sleep for four hours that night. I also had a big presentation in French (any presentation in French is a big deal for me) that day on Iraq and the referendum in Southern Ossetia (I am annoyed that in French there is no easy way to say 'speaking' as in 'Georgian-speaking,' you can say francophone, anglophone, russophone, but it doesn't work with all languages). Then I had Russian at the university, it was good but I am fairly certain the professor has decided I am an idiot. She wanted me to present some article she found to the class, so far so good, but it was so weird. It was about a skinhead at a California university who had seen a Russian girl cheating on a test and was upset the professor wasn't doing anything about it. The article was just a collection of the e-mails the skinhead had sent, including the last one which was him asking the professor for extra credit on the last exam since he had been too busying sending the professor e-mails to study.

What the hell?

So I jut said I thought it was strange and wasn't typical of America. The professor seemed surprised. Then she thought I hadn't understood it and summarized what the article said. It was the same old weird story. She seemed sad though when I told her I didn't think our universities were full of Russian-hating skinhead with anal tendencies regarding the punishment of cheaters. But then again she also has us translate texts about submarines into Russian.


So after that I had micro and then the diplomatic history of states in German. I was a little tired after all that.

Eh, that is about the size of what is going on. There is a Fulbright reception at the US embassy tomorrow so I will be going to that. On the weekend I will be heading of to Budapest (excitement!). And other than that I am really excited because I learned that in the Congo they do speak French the funny Belgian way (which I prefer) by saying septante for sevetny instead of soixante-dix (sixty-ten).

Yes I am a huge nerd.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Because apparently I complain too much, here's another complaint

Somebody has been messing with me and I am not happy

I traveled for half an hour tonight to get to what was supposed to be an open improv jam. I really miss improv, especially with people who have some experience doing it. When I got to the building where it was supposed to be it was an apartment building down a dark alley. There certainly wasn't a theater there. So then I spent a lot of time wandering around in the cold and asking people if there was a theatre nearby, to no avail.

So when I came back I checked all the information, which was right, and then found more directions which literally said to go down the dark alley. What the hell? How can they not mark things or at least give you an apartment number? I am annoyed but also wondering what the heck kind of improv practice group makes you pay 15 euro to perform improv down a dark alley.

Also, they were getting rid of all the old furniture from the bar here and me and some others thought we could just take it since other people had been allowed to. I got a crappy old couch, it reeked of smoke, looked like something out of a seventies bachelor pad, and was really beat up, but I liked it. It made me happy. And now I have to give it back. Not happy. I already febrezed the couch and everything.

I am a very petty vain person, BUT FEAR MY WRATH!!!

also, I have already noticed my English going to shit again, but this time with no real improvement in my other languages. It should be fun to watch.

Sunday, November 05, 2006


Creative Lemmings

Saturday, November 04, 2006


So I really liked the borat film. I am not so sure I would really want to defend it to my Kazakh teacher or host mother, but I liked it. I just thought it was a really well done funny movie (I loved the New Yorkers telling him to fuck off, oh New York directness, how I miss thee). I want to call it a feel good movie you could take your whole family to, but I know that isn't true. The funny things is that really is making much more fun of America than Kazakhstan. Honestly I just think Kazakhstan should be happy to be the first 'stan' to have a stereotype. I have to say I really enjoyed the movie even more for the few things about Kazakhstan that were true. Uzbeks, assholes? That is true. There is a real rivalry there and Kazakhs do think they are better than Uzbeks. Wife abducting? You know, when he tries to put Pamela Anderson in a sack? That is real. It isn't really practiced in Kazakhstan anymore (way to keep that one alive Kyrgyzstan), but there is truth to that. At the end of the day the young people in Kazakhstan thought it was funny and I think that says something. Next on Sasha Baron Cohen's list? Bruno's Austria. You'd think he was following me.

P.s. The Kazakh woman who takes care of my grandmother was very upset that they didn't show any Asians in the movie. Kazakhs are Asian people.

Friday, November 03, 2006


So this is my second year of being forced to celebrate Halloween outside of the US. Halloween is my favorite holiday and I honestly think New York is the best place in the world to celebrate it. I have to admit I was pretty bumbed not to be able to take part in Nella and Edward's Halloween festivities. Halloween in Europe (and in Kazakhstan for that matter) is just different. It is much more commercialized (hard to imagine I know, but it only has the commercial dimension) and is really only for young people going out to bars and clubs (I love that in the US there is stuff for kids, young people, and older people). It makes me sort of sad, but at the same time I felt I needed to try and make up for Europe's lacking Halloween traditions and so I went and put together a pretty cool costume (as seen above and below). It was pretty cool and had the amusing double association of wealth Austro-Hungarian nobility and also the sleazy guys who wear a pretty similar get up and sell tickets to the opera. All and all Halloween was okay though there will have to be some sort of grand homecoming when I finally can celebrate Halloween in New York again. More importantly, as I now own this costume and I both look like Mozart and the guys who sell opera tickets what mischief/performance art should I get up to? Suggestions?

So I forgot

So I was in Salzburg over the weekend. It was really cool. For those of you thinking 'Hey, I know of Salzburg, why?' it is probably because of The Sound of Music. It was set here and parts of it were also filmed here. Salzburg is very pretty and quaint, but very much a victim of the seemingly standard European urban development strategy of 'hmmm, we have this beautiful historic town what should we add? I know, something incredibly modern and ugly!' Still very pretty, just some moments of wtf.

It was especially cool because Scott, the other Fulbright scholar here, had spent a year in Salbzurg and was able to take us around and show us the coolest stuff. We went up a mountain which was cool in a lot of ways, one of which being that my cell provider counted it as crossing the border the Germany and sent me a welcoming sms. The message made me realize how close to the border we were. Then I thought, 'well of course, in the sound of music they climber over the mountain to escape the Nazis.' Yes Ian, they crossed the border with Germany to escape the Nazis. Brilliant.

Eating at Me

Vaguely concerned that I freak out everyone with my rant. Again, just vaguely concerned.