Thursday, December 24, 2015

December Highlights: So This Is Christmas

Fresh off my food coma, it was time for me to join Austria in the Christmas spirit. Since Thanksgiving is not a thing in Austria, the Christmas markets were already in full throttle. Countries like Germany, Austria, and Sweden are known for their Christmas markets, where one can purchase festive trinkets, overly salty or sweet fatty treats, and any type of hot alcoholic beverage you can imagine. Mulled wine (in German, Glühwein) is the main commodity, but any fruit juice, Austrian delicacy (Apfelstrudel), or combination thereof can also be found in Punsch (alcoholic) form. I made it my mission to try as many as possible. While I would say I was rather successful in (1) enjoying a wide variety of markets and their liquid offerings and (2) recruiting friends to join me in these explorations, I was not ready to bid farewell to the magical Christmas markets of 2015. Vienna is in its own echelon when it comes to capturing the Christmas spirit. I will let the Facebook albums do the talking.

This month was all about meeting up with old and new friends. The weather cooled and so did many of my students' motivation to speak English. No worries, my Christmas lesson did the trick for most classes. The first weekend, my dear German friend, Britta, visited me in Vienna. It was three days on Christmas markets and castles in Vienna and Bratislava - in my opinion, a perfect way to lean into Christmas. Other highlights included my main school's holiday party and the baking party at my mentor teacher's home in preparation for said holiday party.

For me, the greatest gift for this month is the time with family. I hope you all have a blessed Christmas with loved ones. And for the New Year, all the best from this American abroad. A German speaker, however, would wish you a guten Rutsch, or a good slip, into the New Year. 2015 was an incredibly exploratory year for me with ten new countries. 2016 will surely have a few new experiences in store, like the Vienna Half Marathon I'll be running in April.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Matt :-)

Facebook album

December in Vienna

Friday, December 18, 2015

November Highlights: Gratitude for Time and Travel

As the weather chilled too quickly in October, November was certainly warmer than average. Christmas markets opened up less than a week following Halloween. The masses flocked to the markets, and the lines for mulled wine (Glühwein) mirrored the crowds waiting for stores to open on Black Friday. Despite the warmer temperatures, the spirit of Christmas is already present in Austria, especially with festive decorations and sounds at the markets and ugly sweater sales in every department store.

It felt like a sin to spend time inside with all the sunshine and warmer temperatures - a total fluke for November in Vienna. I took advantage of the opportunity to photograph Vienna's foliage, my favorite spots were Schönbrunn Palace and Belvedere Castle. I'll let my Facebook photos do some of the talking. Another interesting excursion included the Jewish Museum. In the first half of the twentieth century, Vienna was home to the third largest Jewish community in Europe. Today, the synagogues remain hidden behind the typical Viennese facades, as per the laws set in the early 1900s. In terms of the Holocaust, Austria did not admit any sort of fault until 1991 compared to Germany directly after World War II.

Daylight savings started to take effect as well. So as the sun starts to set by the fourth afternoon hour, some indoor activities were essential such as more café discoveries through tandem language exchanges. One Thursday evening, Austria Fulbright organized a celebration for its 65th anniversary. The USTA program is administrated by Austria Fulbright, and thus, I was able to join the party. Speeches and drinks were endless, making the event a good one. I even volunteered at the end and handed out goodie bags. It was a lovely evening to honor and hear the stories and successes of Austria Fulbright. 

Bringing my country count up to 41, I enjoyed a weekend of wonderful food and friendship in Sofia, Bulgaria. Full of history and unique traditions, Sofia is one of the oldest capitals in Europe, and ironically was never meant to serve as a capital city. My friend, Eva, showed me EVERYTHING in the city including malls, museums, the university, churches, government buildings, and cultural centers. There is a lot more to Bulgaria than its recent communist past - don't even get me started on the food, Bulgaria is a cheese-lover's paradise! If you like alcohol, Rakia will give you a run for your sobriety.

To round off November, I consider myself incredibly blessed to have spent Thanksgiving with loved ones....even though, the Christmas season in Austria was already in full swing. In light of the events in Paris earlier this month, my thoughts and prayers go out to all affected by such violent acts. I wish the world would see everyone as human. I can only express gratitude that I have many kind and loving people in my life who do think of others with this mentality, but my hope is that everyone can be so lucky. Vienna is still a very safe place to be - it is a two-hour flight to France, so I am not as close as most of my American loved ones originally thought. 

Happy Holidays!

Facebook albums:

November in Vienna

Sofia, Bulgaria

Saturday, December 12, 2015

October Highlights: Finding a New Gear

After my birthday, vacation mode had to be quickly switched out for work mode...which for some Americans in Austria still feels the same at times. I met my colleagues at the end of September but began teaching on Thursday, October 1st. Like any new job, the first few weeks had their challenges: learning names (an impossible feat with so many students), finding classrooms, and keeping my schedule straight. Besides what I'd consider to be a rather normal adjustment phase, I have felt very welcomed by my colleagues. (After my first day at one school, we all went out for drinks!)

In the classroom, it was quite entertaining to do my introductory lesson. I did it so much, I know the whole presentation like the back of my hand. Everyone got a few good laughs, especially when they had to ask a question to "34". The automatic question was "How old are you?", which sparked a rather offended reaction by me. The students' realization of how offensive their question was was priceless - and a fair example of my sense of humor I enjoy throwing into class. Other questions to the number were "How many push-ups can you do?", "How old is your younger brother?", "How old are your parents?", "How many sisters do you have?", and "How many countries have you visited?". The correct question: "What is your favorite number?"

The real challenge in class came with the transition from the fun introductory lessons to the regular lessons, which may involve some not-so-fascinating topics. Either way, I had fun figuring out how to demand respect and order in the classroom. Different levels and class sizes provide a wide range of surprises...

Outside of the classroom, I enjoyed some local city hikes, some volunteering opportunities with immigrants in Vienna, and meeting up with old and new friends. I've even joined a gym to combat any superfluous Schnitzel pounds and to keep my endorphins up as the weather has already turned for winter. Austria has really taught me to be grateful for blue skies and sunshine. 

In addition to my Vienna explorations, I spent a weekend in Berlin, after a two-year hiatus, and another in Wels at an AFS Arrival Camp with new exchange students in Austria. It was in the final week of October that I only had to work one day. (The amount of vacation days with this job is insane!) In this week, a day trip to Bratislava (Slovakia), another spent at Melk Abbey, and a Halloween Party concluded October with a bang. Dressed up as a runner, November wasn't the only thing coming in hot.

Facebook albums:

October in Vienna

Berlin, Fall 2015

Bratislava, Fall 2015

Melk Abbey, Lower Austria

Sunday, December 6, 2015

September Highlights: 40 Countries or Bust!

When I booked my flight home for May, I also bought a return flight for the end of August to guarantee some time to travel through Europe while the weather was still summery. The flights were the easy part of the plan because afterwards I needed to decide where I would go. I'll get to those details in a moment. 
Before getting to Vienna, I spent a few days in Krefeld, visiting friends from school and my host family. As always, it was a warm welcome and a nice transitional stay into German. However, before I could get too settled in, my flight to Austria shortly followed. My return flight to Linz was brief, as was my stay in the city limits. A friend and old colleague from Linz was extremely kind to drive me (and my too many things) to my apartment in Vienna. I got rather lucky with finding an apartment online (on Facebook) with everything on my wish list and a convenient location to both of my schools. It was a whirlwind, and I had everything unpacked by that evening.

The next few days, I laid low in Vienna. The registration process was significantly less stressful compared to Linz because I already had my visa and bank account set up from last year. All I had to do was tell Vienna where I moved to - it was a painless process. In the first few days, I met up with friends (some Austrians, some Americans), while exploring a bit of the next place I am to call home. A city hike (Stadtwanderweg) and several visits to the Naschmarkt (the main touristy market by Karlsplatz) added to the highlights prior to my much-anticipated trip.

So now it was time for me to embark to Northern Europe. Where exactly you ask? Two weeks making my way through the capital cities of Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and Latvia, was my plan to bring my country count up to 40 and to achieve my New Year's resolution for 2015. I could not have felt more fortunate for this time of connecting with new and old friends, and exploring countries (especially Sweden) that have topped my bucket list for years. I'll give a brief synopsis of each country, but I imagine you'll find the Facebook albums to be more exciting. And most importantly, I cannot express enough gratitude to those I met and/or helped me along the way.

Sweden (#37): I flew to and from Stockholm, Sweden, which book-ended my trip. I was extremely lucky with the six days I spent in Stockholm. My hosts, Nancy and Kaj, were a welcoming wealth of knowledge and hospitality. If I didn't see the sight by bike, I made my way there on foot, forever in awe of the balance of water, greenery, and people in the Scandinavian city of my dreams: everything was spectacular...and yes, the Swedes are a beautiful population. The touristy spots were nice, but Nancy took me to many other corners of the city, which showed a lot more than the typical image of Sweden. Some highlights included the Vasa Museum (a sunken ship that was lifted from Stockholm's harbor after being there for 333 years), the ABBA Museum, Drottningholm (one of the royal family's residences), and the dozens of miles biked around the city under the sun. My time spent with Swedes made these days all the more special, making me feel immediately welcome. If I have a favorite city in the world, Stockholm is now at the top of that list.

Finland (#38): After one day in Sweden, I was enthralled with what was to come. My friend from TCNJ, Nic, hosted me at his grandparents' home just outside of Turku (in western Finland). I cannot thank them enough for their generosity and willingness to show me around. As a Swedish-speaking Finn and fellow language nerd, I was immersed into Finnish life from the get-go. What does that involve? Hiking, water, and many trees! Finns have managed to center their culture and way of life around the very nature they are lucky to have. I loved every bit of it, especially the moose crossing signs. While I was thrown into the Swedish language (I'm glad I took that beginner Swedish class in Linz), we took a boat ride to the Archipelago, toured the cities of Turku and Helsinki, enjoyed a campfire in a hut, and of course, had many reflective discussions about language, culture, and international relations. It was very cool to learn so much from Nic and his family. To be honest, there was always an element of surprise because I didn't always know exactly what was being discussed between Nic and his grandparents - like I said, my Swedish is pretty rudimentary. From Turku, Nic accompanied me to Helsinki for the day. I spent one more night in Finland's capital before touring Seafortress Suomenlinnea (an old fort island that was run but the Swedes, Russians, and Finns, in different eras of its history) and taking the evening ferry to Tallinn, Estonia.

Estonia (#39): This pleasantly quaint country of 1.3 million people is full of history around each corner. The resilient Estonians have thrived since their independence from Soviet control in the early 90s. Tallinn is a precious city with adorable nooks and crannies that make the old town exciting to explore. I met some interesting people along the way, which made my day even more enlightening over a bowl of elk soup. My day concluded with a tour of a former Soviet prison that operated until the early 2000s as an Estonian prison. Cold and creepy can begin to describe the vibes of the prison, but the stories shared by the tour guide only got darker as the sun set. Our one-hour tour ended up being almost three, so I would say it was more than thorough and worthwhile! The next day, I was signed up for a tour that showed the scenic route from Tallinn, Estonia to Riga, Latvia. Our guide was so full of information, it was enriching yet exhausting...I loved it and it felt like I left no stone unturned in my first Baltic country.

Latvia (#40): The same informative tour delivered me to country number forty. I was happy and proud to share this achievement with my small tour group, and they agreed it would be worth a photo when we crossed the Estonian-Latvian border. The Baltic countries are remarkably flat, and only boast a few hills. The green landscape was still refreshing after so many cities. The majority of my time was spent in Riga, where I reconnected with an old friend from my exchange year in Krefeld - it was incredible how it felt like no time had passed at all. The weather definitely played in my favor (like 95% of the entire trip), and Laavanja provided a helpful perspective into Latvian society. The former Soviet influence was obvious with a large Russian population still present, but the city was quite versatile in my opinion. The old town was marvelous, but the central market stole the show - you can find anything there! Don't even get me started on the food and drinks, Riga has it down. 

After such a blessed time of travels and generous people, I felt like a new, overwhelmingly optimistic energy was pumped inside of me. I returned to Vienna and quickly met up with my fellow teaching assistants. It was also my last week before starting work. The explorations of Vienna continued, including a successful trip to IKEA and my birthday. I celebrated turning 25 with a city hike and with dinner at Vapianos, one of the average TA's favorite food establishments. Even though, I still felt pretty new to Vienna, September was a whirlwind welcome that is already making Austria's capital and Europe in general feel like home...and I'd like to give a special thank you to my friends and family abroad for reaching out from all over to acknowledge me (and cupcakes with candles over Skype from my parents definitely take the cake)!

Happy Fall!

Facebook albums:

Stockholm, Sweden

Turku & Helsinki, Finland

Tallinn, Estonia

Riga, Latvia

September in Vienna