Category Archives: Joie de vivre

Things with Strings

When Ingrid and I hopped of the Hop On Hop Off bus back in Salzburg, we had a few hours to kill before our marionette performance.  We stumbled upon a very good Indian restaurant.  I ordered my go-to favorite that I boringly get every time I go to an Indian restaurant, palak paneer.  But you know what?  I really like palak paneer, and I don’t go to Indian restaurants that often, so sue me.

We walked around the big garden called the Mirabell.  A statue depicting the rape of Persephone attracted my eye because I had seen another one like it in Rome last fall.  Then I did a 180 degree turn and it appeared that all the statues depicted a rape scene.  It wasn’t my imagination: “In the heart of the garden, you will see a large fountain, with four statue groups around it: rape of Helena, Aeneas and Anchises, and finally Hercules and Antaeus. These statues were made by Ottavio Mosto in 1690.”  That was pretty unclear, but the point is, someone thought it was a great idea to design a garden full of statues about rape.  Yuck.

On a lighter note, there were also statues of my favorite animal:

Then we were off to the marionette theatre, where we spent some time in the lobby looking at the exhibits and reading the history of the place.  My favorite past performance was hands down The Little Prince.  I don’t know what the one with the geese was, and there were many more involving princes and princesses, fairies and witches, and animals both real and imaginary.

When our concierge booked the tickets for us, she said they were great seats.  We were in the second section in back, which made me question her judgement.  How would we be able to follow what was going on?  The marionettes were only about three feet tall.

As soon as the curtain rose and the show began, we realized it was ideal to be a little further back.  The marionettes’ mouths don’t actually move, so being just far enough back to not be distracted by that helps to suspend reality.

It was a performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute, and I have to say it was magical.  The sets, the costumes, the music—it was all spectacular.  Subtitles were projected on the walls on either side in German, English, Spanish, French, and Chinese.  But you could have enjoyed it just as much without them, since the plot was a typical opera involving unrequited love, a quest, and comical misunderstandings.  All operas either end with everyone dying or everyone living happily ever after, and thankfully this was the latter.

As we walked back to the hotel, we spied this on the wall of another hotel:

Rooms, camera?  No thanks, I like my hotel rooms without cameras.

We came across a building we could see from our hotel room window and which I had wondered about.

“What is it?” I asked Ingrid.  “At first I had thought it was an Indian waffle house.”

“Waffen means force, like luftwaffen” Ingrid replied.  Luftwaffen, the World War II German airforce.  “But I don’t know what Sodia means.”

“Ah, the third name, to the right in red, is a store with a location near my house,” I observed.  “I don’t know how to pronounce it, and they wanted $250 for a pair of hiking pants so I’ll never step foot in one again so it doesn’t matter.”

“Let’s go find out what it is,” Ingrid said in a hushed voice.

We rounded the corner of the building and realized it was a gun store.

“Do you want to go inside?” Ingrid asked.


In real time, I am running off to meet my friend Heidi at Wimbledon.  I was going to work all day so I said no at first, then thought, “What am I thinking!?  When will I ever get a chance to go to Wimbledon again?”

I can always work tomorrow.


Ingrid and I were in the quiet resort town of Fuschlsee in the Austrian Alps.  “Quiet” is an understatement; it was completely dead.  We kept walking along the lakefront, hoping to find one place open where we could get a cappuccino.  We found one resort that was open but wasn’t serving anything.  They graciously let us use the bathroom, and gave us directions to another resort that they thought would be open.

We walked through the resort to get to where they had pointed us.  It was sprawling, with multiple restaurants and bars, a spa, gardens, and a game room for kids.  It reminded me of one of my travel dreams.  One of my favorite writers is Somerset Maugham, and he used to spend weeks at a time in resorts like this in the Swiss Alps.  He would sleep late, eat a big breakfast, take a long walk, read the paper, write for a few hours, take a nap, then proceed to happy hour, dinner with fellow sojourners, maybe a spin at the casino or a show, then early to bed—all done among beautiful lakes and mountains.

We walked up the foot of the mountain to the other resort and it was shut tight, so we gave up and walked back to the bus stop.  This taught me an important lesson: When a Hop On Hop Off ticket seller tells you to only hop off at certain stops, it’s for your own good.

The next stop was a scenic overlook where we could all hop off, take a photo, then hop back on and be whisked away to the next stop.  When I used to live in Oxford, it was common for tour buses to do this in front of some of the most famous sites, and I sneered at the practice.  But hey, in this case there really was nothing to do except take a photo since it was basically a cliff.

Here I am, overlooking Lake St. Wolfgangsee.

Yes, there was a St. Wolfgang, and yes they named a lake and a town after him.  The bus took us into the town, where the first thing was saw was gondolas.

“Do you want to ride one to the top of the mountain?” Ingrid asked.  I really didn’t but if she wanted to, I would.

“Let’s see how much it costs, and what’s up there,” I suggested, stalling.

“Twenty-two euros—that seems like a lot,” Ingrid commented as we looked at the prices.  “But I’ll do it, if you really want to.”

“No, I don’t!”

“Oh, good!” she responded, sounding relieved.  “I’ve done it with Chris and the kids, but I never need to do it again.”

“Me too—I did it in the Canadian Rockies once and that was enough.

We walked down to the lake.  The town and the lake were very pretty despite the dreary weather.

We found a restaurant called Papagano, which is the name of a character in the Magic Flute, which we would see performed by marionettes that evening.  I had ratatouille, and it was the best meal I had in Europe.

On to the next stop—Mondsee, or Moon Lake. This town was not nearly as pretty as the first two, but the wedding scene from The Sound of Music had been filmed in the basilica there.

First, we stopped for “a little cake” and the long-anticipated cappuccino—to give us energy.

The basilica was beautiful; I could see why they used it for the film.

I dropped a coin in the slot and lighted a taper for a friend who had just had surgery.

I also loaded up on some free bottles of holy water; these would make great little gifts for Catholic friends and family. But wait!  What did that say on the side?  Jagermeister?

How did that happen?  There were hundreds of these little bottles.  Did Jagermeister donate empty bottles?   Or was itholy water” (wink wink)?  Maybe the church paid the local teenagers to drink all the Jagermeister, then fill the bottles with holy water?  If so, I wondered if the maker of Jagermeister knew that their brand name was being used for purposes not originally intended?

More Sisters, and Sissi

After coming across two references to Mozart marrying the younger sister twice in one day in unrelated sources, Ingrid and I talked about other eerie coincidences and whether they meant anything.  We didn’t think so, but it was hard to accept that they didn’t.

“So if it is some kind of ‘sign’,” I said, “Of what?  You don’t have a sister.  I have a younger sister—does it mean she’s meeting her future husband right now, and he’s someone I wouldn’t be interested in?”

“Yeah,” mused Ingrid.  “What would be the point of that?”

We talked about Hitler and his siblings some more after turning out the lights.

Ingrid’s voice came from the darkness, “Do you think Eva Braun was a younger sister?”

I groaned.  This could be a night of really weird dreams.

The night was uneventful, but when I woke up, got in the shower, and looked down, I gasped.  My left foot looked gangrenous. Or at least, what I imagined a gangrenous foot would look like from old accounts I’d read of civil war injuries.

The top of it was a dark, ominous green from toes to ankle.  Maybe I’d spilled something green on it?  Nope, it didn’t wash off, and it was very tender.

Then I remembered that four days earlier I had dropped my suitcase on it at the Copenhagen airport while desperately trying to get on a plane to Amsterdam.

That first night, when a green egg had emerged from my foot, my mind had galloped ahead to the dramatic hospitalization, circle of concerned doctors and surgeons (all extremely tall and handsome) surrounding my bed, amputation, learning to walk again in a Dutch rehab unit (preferably in the countryside, with a canal nearby with swans), and of course marrying my surgeon, who fell in love with me because of my bravery and perseverance.  I would not invite my sister to the wedding.

I was so distracted by being with Ingrid and sightseeing that I hadn’t given it a thought since it happened.

I showed my foot to Ingrid, who recoiled, then helped me think it through.

“Can you move everything?” she asked.  Yes.

“Do you have numbness or tingling?”  No.

“Can you feel any broken bones sticking out?”  No.

“Can you walk on it?” Yes.

“Then let’s go.  We’ve got to catch the bus at nine.”  Then she added, “I’m sorry.  Do you want me to help you find a doctor?”

“No! It’s just bruised.  I don’t want to sit in the hotel.”  So off we went.

I have written about Hop On Hop Off buses before.  Sometimes they’re not worth it because in some cities, the streets in the most picturesque part of town are too narrow for them.  Or, like in Malta, they have no signage and you can’t find your way back to the bus stops.

But outside of Salzburg, the HOHO—for around $20—was a fantastic value.  We bought tickets for the Lakes and Mountains circuit and had a splendid day … hopping off and on.

“We recommend you get off at stops seven and nine,” said the ticket seller.

Did we take his advice?  Of course not.  We got off at the first scenic spot, a resort town called Fuschl am See, after Lake Fuschl (pronounced foozle).  It was beautiful, but utterly deserted.  We walked down the main drag and there were no cars, no people, and most distressingly, nowhere to get a cappuccino.

As we walked, Ingrid told me the story of Empress Elizabeth of Austria.  There was a movie made about her life called Sissi (her nickname), and Ingrid thought it might have been made in Fuschl.

Suddenly she stopped walking.  “She was the younger sister.  Franz Joseph was supposed to marry her older sister!  It was all arranged, then he met Sissi.”

“Oh my God!” I couldn’t help exclaiming.  “It has to mean something!”

We walked on and Ingrid told the whole story, which was pretty interesting and which I knew nothing about.  It highlighted for me how limited we are by language.  I can list many of the English kings and queens but my knowledge of European royalty is nil.

Thunder and Rain

As you know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, I am really good at getting lost.  I can study a map for half an hour, even write directions on the palm of my hand so I don’t have to take out the map in public, then I walk out the hotel door and will be deeply, hopelessly lost in five minutes.

Ingrid, thankfully, has a well-honed sense of direction.  We came out of the underground station in Salzburg—the worst for getting lost because you don’t know which direction is north, etc.—and she pointed, “Our hotel is that way.”

“Um…I think it’s the other way,” I suggested tentatively.  Why was I even bothering to trust my “sense of direction?”  Ingrid had us to the hotel in no time, with no detours.

As is unfailingly the case in Europe, the room was on the top floor and there was no elevator so I had to lift and drag my suitcase up six flights of stairs, one step at a time.  The hotel, Pension Elizabeth, was basic and functional.  When I booked it and requested a room with two beds I had received a message, “We will do our best to accommodate your request.”  And they had.  The room had a queen sized bed with a folding cot right next to it, which was quite comfortable, according to Ingrid—who made the sacrifice of sleeping on it.

It was early evening on a public holiday, so the city was quiet.  The holiday is called Whitsun, or Pentecost, which for most Europeans is now just a Day Off.  We ran across the street toward a neon sign that flashed Pizzeria.  The place was run by Bangladeshis, and the only other customers were half a dozen motorcyclists with Bison Thunder emblazoned on the backs of their black leather jackets; they were smoking cigarettes and drinking beers at an outside table.  I thought they might be a gang, although they appeared to have escaped from a geriatric home.  Turns out that Bison Thunder was an Austrian motorcycle made in the1920s, just like the geezers riding them.

Ingrid and I took a table inside and ordered.  I got a panini and she got schnitzel, which is a breaded meat dish.

“The sky is very dark,” announced the owner from the doorway.

Suddenly the heavens opened up and buckets of marble-sized hail thundered down.  The bison thunderers scurried inside as the cafe umbrellas pitched over.  Cars stopped in the middle of the street, then crawled onward slowly.  We all oohed and ahhed and ate and drank from inside the restaurant as we watched the show.  Then Ingrid and I and the bikers retired to Pension Elizabeth for the night.

Salzburg is the city of Mozart.

I never listened to classical music until about five years ago, when I became serious about meditating.  I had a score (ha, ha) of meditation CDs, and my favorite was called Zen Garden.  It was a collection of classical hits overlaid with chirping crickets and birds.  Sounds woo-woo, I know, but it helped me fall asleep many nights.  Eventually, I quit meditating, gave my old school CD player and CDs away, and had music only on my phone.  I did it because I thought everyone was doing it and it would simplify my life, but I regret it.  The quality of music on an iphone is just not good.  If and when I settle down anywhere again, I’m going to go all the way back to my first gen of music and buy a record player.

Anyway, meditation was my gateway to classical music, which I listen to instead of the news, especially since November 2016.

The next day, Ingrid and I walked into the city center and spent hours in the two Mozart museums—one a house where he lived with his family as a youth; the other where he lived as an adult with his wife and children.

Mozart was composing by the age of five and performing for royalty at 17.  There were numerous references to him being “childlike,” and “in his own world.”  Was Mozart special needs?  Was he an 18th Century rain man?

Independence Day

Happy Independence Day, if you are an American.  I’ve spent the last month with friends and colleagues who are Dutch, Japanese, Kenyan, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Australian, and British.  Now I am in England, where for a long time I had daydreams of moving permanently.  Today I read an article in the Sunday Times by Andrew Sullivan, an English-born journalist who became an American citizen after living there for 30 years.

He says a lot of things about why he has chosen to become an American.  He says it suits his temperament—“independent, pushy, outspoken.”  Um, that doesn’t sound like a compliment.  He talks about how England is focused on the past while American relentlessly strides toward the future.  Americans are optimistic; he finds it funny that a common response to every proposal is, “Sure!”  He appreciates that no one categorizes him based on his accent, and no one cares what class he’s from.  He admires how America has accepted and integrated more immigrants than any country in history.  He notes that America is both “deeply conservative and equally radical,” how if you fail in one part of the country you can start over in another, and he marvels that he was made editor of a national magazine at the age of 28.  There’s plenty that horrifies him about the States, like our gun obsession.

I can’t say I disagree with him on any points.  For me, the word that sums us up as a people is Independence, which many translate into “no one can tell me what to do,” as when former National Rifle Association president and B actor Charlton Heston’s famously said, “you’ll have to pry my gun from my cold, dead hands.”  We don’t like signs.  We don’t like rules.  If someone is poor, we expect them to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.”  We look down on anyone who accepts government assistance, even though over 50% of us get it in some form.  We like to believe we are pioneers, clearing the land and building our own house with a white picket fence.

I thought about going to an American expat bar in London on the 4th of July, then came to my senses and realized it could be a terrorist target.  That’s a shame.  I’ll go for a long walk along the Thames instead.

If you’ve ever been to the Netherlands, you probably know that the Dutch are the tallest people on earth.  The average Dutch man is six feet (183 centimeters) tall.  When Ingrid and Chris and I went shopping, I lost them in the store and I thought, “I’ll look for the tall guy,” then realized that Chris, at 6’4”, isn’t exceptionally tall.

Ingrid, however, is short, thanks to her Austrian mother, who met her father through a pen pal program.  The fact that Ingrid speaks German would come in handy.

Since I had a big suitcase, Chris drove us to the local train station.  I averted my eyes while they said good-bye.  It was sweet.  They just celebrated their 18th wedding anniversary.

While Ingrid and I waited at Central Station, I noticed these eyeball-like contraptions everywhere.  Were they CCTV?  Ingrid didn’t know.  If they were cameras, they weren’t catching much because it was early morning on a Dutch holiday.  I realize this is not a great photo but I was trying to take it surreptitiously in case security didn’t have a sense of humor.

On the train, which was clean and quiet, we moved east through Arnhem toward the German border.  We would pass through Duisburg, Dusseldorf, Cologne, Frankfurt, Mannheim, and Munich on our way.

We passed the time talking, which always makes time fly.  Unless you’re with someone you can’t stand, in which case it makes you want to hurl yourself off the train.

I perused the train magazine, whose cover featured a famous actress I’d never heard of who had great eyebrows.  “The Big Wanderlust” was clear, and something I could relate to.

Ingrid translated an article about naked hiking.

We ate crackers and the funny-sounding (to me) smeer kass.

We passed the enormous Cologne cathedral.

After nine and a half hours, we rolled into Salzburg.

Dutch Landscapes

I’ve spent the last two weeks traveling around the south coast of England—Cornwall, Devon, and Dorset, and now I am ensconced in Eton, home of the boys’ boarding school of the same name that was founded in the 15th Century by Henry VI.

I’ve visited so many quaint little seaside towns, shopped in so many independent stores, and supped in so many Ye Olde Tyme pubs that I’ve lost track.  But all this is to say that it makes me sad that people come to the UK and never leave London.  They say London is a country all its own, and that’s probably true.  But there’s so much more to Britain than London.

And that’s true of the Netherlands, too.  Most people only ever visit Amsterdam. They wander around the red light district (tee hee), take pictures of the canals and all the bicyclists, smoke some pot in a “coffee shop,” and go see the old masters at the Rijksmuseum.

I feel really fortunate that I had my personal guide and good friend Ingrid to show me around. As I wrote in my last post, she lives in Utrecht, a sizeable university town about 45 minutes from Amsterdam.  Probably everything in the Netherlands is about 45 minutes from Amsterdam.

My first night there, I was awake late because it was light out until 11pm.  Then I woke early because it got light at around 4am. Besides, I was excited about the day ahead, which Ingrid had promised would involve bicycling in a national park.

We drove about 45 minutes to Park De Hoge Veluwe. I am no great judge of space but it had to be larger than Central Park in New York.  We parked the car near the entrance, bought our tickets, and picked out bikes in the bike lot.  The bikes were all white, all had child seats, and they were free.  There were no helmets or locks in sight.

The great thing about biking in the Netherlands is, it’s so flat.  Therefore it was no need for more than one gear, since the biggest hill wouldn’t cause you to break a sweat even if you were totally out of shape.  The weather is also mild, so no sweating.

I loved it, biking along on a beautiful summer day in the wild with a good friend.

We arrived at our first destination, the St.Hubertus Jachthuis, a hunting lodge built by the Dutch architect H. P. Berlage in 1915 for a German couple, the Kröller-Müllers, with money pilfered from her father’s company.

Hmmm … it reminds me of something ….

The lake is artificial; the first iteration drained because they hadn’t realized it was sandy soil underneath.

Inside, Berlage had created a unitary design—from floor to ceiling and everything in between, the furniture, carpets, art, light fixtures, etc. were designed as a single work of art.  It was never meant to be lived in, but to be a monument to his genius.  Frau Müller had other plans, fired him, and lived out her days here.

Ingrid joined a group of Dutch tourists with a Dutch guide, while I listened to an English tour on a handset.  The English version would finish, then the Dutch docent would talk on and on for another 15 minutes before we moved on to the next room.  Was it because Dutch words are so long?  No, I learned afterwards, it was because the Dutch guide was telling the group a lot of bonus tidbits, like that Frau Müller had a young male “companion” on whom she lavished attention.

After the tour, we biked to the Kröller-Müller Museum.  Frau Müller was an art hound, and luckily for us she used a lot of the money embezzled from her family company to buy art.

The museum had an incredible collection of van Goghs, most of which I had never seen.  It held lots of other famous painters too, but annoyingly it closed at 5:00 and its surrounding sculpture garden closed at 4:30.  Why?  It was summer.  It was light out until 11.  We arrived at 4:15, made a beeline for the van Goghs, and only saw the rest in passing.

Auf Wiedersehen

Greetings from Salzurg, Austria.  I am sitting in the breakfast lounge at Pension Elizabeth, where Abba is playing on a loop, the Internet is super slow, and the hotel staff are having some kind of meeting with a salesperson at the next table.

I’ll leave for the airport in a few hours to fly to Ethiopia, where I’m told I’ll have no Internet.  I would love to say I’m going to write enough posts to take you along with me, but that’s a fairy dream.  Complications are following me, and I can’t say I’ve really had one day off since I left 11 days ago.

I’ve got 200 emails in my work inbox.  The June 1 payment from my renters back home hasn’t shown up in my checking account.  I am getting texts and phone calls from someone who needs to know something about the sale of my condo and I have no idea who they’re from or what they’re about.

The most “exciting” complication happened when I flew from Copenhagen to Amsterdam.  I received a reminder from Expedia the night before to check in.  Norwegian Air’s website didn’t recognize the routing number but I got a message that said, “Don’t Worry! We’re still working on our website.”  Really?  Did Norway just get the Internet?

The train to the airport the next day left late and stopped twice to let other trains go by in the other direction.  In general, I think this is good, but not when it keeps you standing still for 20 minutes at a time. Finally, we were told to get off and take another train.  I had, as they always advise you, allowed plenty of time to get to the airport early but got there about an hour before my flight was to leave.

And Norwegian Air had no record of the flight.

It’s a long story, but I ran from one terminal to another, then back again, then back in the other direction, and was quoted up to $800 for a new ticket.  I did all this with my big bag full of books, since I hadn’t been able to check it.

In the end, I was lucky to get the last seat on a Scandinavian Airlines flight for $406.  Expedia says their records show I took the Norwegian flight.  They are telling me to call Norwegian Air id I still think there is a problem.  Call?—as in make an international call that will cost me $1 a minute to sit on hold?  I protested, but Expedia hasn’t responded.  If anyone has advice to doing battle with Expedia, please let me know.

Four hundred bucks is a lot of money to lose, but also in the mad rushing around in the airport, I must have dropped my bag on my foot.  Once I arrived in the Netherlands and took my socks off at my friend’s house, I saw an alarming gold-ball sized green swelling on the top of my left foot.  I immediately thought of the American journalist Miles O’Brien, who had a freak accident where something fell on his arm.  The incident seemed mild, but it caused something called Acute Compartment Syndrome.  He had to have his arm amputated.  Boy, is he good looking—you really should check out that article.

My foot swelling went down that night, but my whole foot has been black and blue for a week.  I showed it to my friend and we went down a check list: it’s not numb.  I can bend my toes.  It’s tender to the touch but not painful to walk.  The swelling is gone.

Good to go to Ethiopia, right!?

Other than the potentially fatal foot injury, $406 loss, and the nonstop rain that follows me everywhere, I’ve had a great time so far.

Okay, I’m off to bring the rain to Ethiopia.

I’ll write more when I get to Cornwall, England in a week or so.