Sunday, January 4, 2009

Bon Soir de Lyon!

Technically, this ought to be my first entry for Rhone Ramblings, as I have finally arrived in Lyon, although having never finally tied up Danube Dispatches, I want to do one last entry here for completeness's sake.
A week or so ago, Nolwenn asked me what my thoughts were on leaving Vienna. Having now spent the last few days in France, I can clearly say this: I will miss the keyboards in Vienna tremendously. Seriously, the French computer is such an indecipherable morass of incongruity that I am missing Vienna already, where the only major difference between the German and English keyboard was the switched position of the Z and Y. In France, on the other hand, just enough letters have been left where you'd expect them to be to lull you into a false sense of typographic security. Then you realize how zrong you qre... The pièce de resistence is that the period and the semi colon share the same key- just the semi colon (which is used no more in French than in English) is the default setting and you have to hit the shift key for the period. Go figure.
But of course, obtaining an appreciation for German language keyboards was far from the only reason I set off for Vienna back in March. So now that I have left town, it would be an appropriate time for a little deeper reflection on my part to see what I gained from my decision to set up shop in Vienna for nine months.
Although many of my original goals (see ironman triathlon, learning the guitar, etc.) remain unfulfilled, I leave Vienna and set off in Lyon having accomplished that which was most important to me at this stage of my life. In order of importance, three things come particularly to mind.
First, I figured out what I want to focus on careerwise over the next 5 years or so. While I may have driven a number of people nuts over the past two years (including my self at times) while figuring out what I really want to do, I am now set on pursuing a masters at a university in the UK or Ireland (hopefully and probably St. Andrews) to deepen my knowledge of the nuclear terror threat and what can be done to prevent it. I firmly believe that by becoming an expert and advocate for action within this field, I will be doing the greatest service possible to my country and humanity. There is nothing- not the economic crisis, not global warming, nor even a global influenza pandemic that would knock global civilization off its moorings so quickly as a nuke exploding anywhere. And yes, sadly, the threat is real. Also, I plan on learning Arabic to help AFS in its efforts to expand in the Arab World (this is another thing I can do to help counter extremism). And while doing all that, I also plan on turning one of my favorite hobbies, genealogy, into a profession by becoming a certified genealogist specializing in research within Europe. Finally, if that weren't enough, I also have at least two secret business plans that have come to mind during my time in Vienna that I will pursue over the coming months and years. Stay tuned.
Secondly, I came to Vienna while still struggling with depression and a hyperactive superego that was making me doubt whether I was a good enough person. I could write a book about this, and I just might, so I don't want or need to rehash everything here. Suffice it to say, however, that as frustrating as it may have been to put greater plans on hold for a while in order to come to a better understanding of what it is I was dealing with, this is exactly what the situation called for. Trying to manage a more stressful job than AFS would have been courting disaster. In fact, AFS was the perfect job for me at this point in time, and over the past four months, I have felt relentlessly better each week. I enter 2009 more confident in my future than any year since 1999, 2005 (my first 9 Jeopardy wins took place in the last weeks of 2004) included. Again, stay tuned.
But most importantly, I came to Vienna looking for love and found it. Personally, I wanted no part of the superficial dating scene in New York, or even anywhere else in the USA. Knowing that I liked European girls, was fluent in German, and had friends and prior experience living in Vienna, it wasn't a difficult choice to come to Austria. And thanks to a chance decision to go to a couch surfing party there on the auspicious date of 8/8/08 I got to know Nolwenn. It's no coincidence that I have been feeling much better since I've met her. Moreover, knowing her has helped me to focus on what I want out of my future and fight harder for it than I have in the past. She is whom I was looking for in Vienna, and she is whom I found. And so for so many reasons, but above all for her, I bid a fond auf wiedersehen to a successful 9 months in Vienna, and an even fonder salut to the next chapter of my life in Lyon.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Winding Down

In all likelihood, this will be the penultimate posting to Danube Dispatches, before my blog is reincarnated as Rhone Ramblings upon moving to Lyon, France on January 3, 2009. That having been said, this is not the time for pensive reflection- no, it's the time to be zany (in fact it's always the time.) So without further ado, here are some of the things on my mind this week:
Yesterday I discovered that there is exactly one person in the German telephone book ( whose last name is Hitler.
I wonder what the odds are that the next governor of Illinois goes to jail for corruption charges. If it happens, that would make 3 in a row, and someone would win big for having bet on a trifecta.
I will miss Vienna. I will not miss Viennese weather.
What happened to the British after Lexington? Ans: They got Concord.
I think I am finally starting to tire of baking chocolate chip cookies. I will never, however, get tired of eating chocolate chip cookies.
While making a chicken curry dish yesterday evening, I experimentally put three tomatoes in a plastic bowl and then took a beater to them. It was fun! It also made a good tomato paste substitute.
This is the first year that I am sending out a generic Christmas card letter. Either this is a nod to maturity or a sad sign that I don't have the time to write 40 odd longhand notes unlike last year.
I am considering pursuing a career as a nuclear terrorism risk analyst and consultant.
I am learning 175 French words, ten new English words, ten new German words, and 21 random facts this week.
I wish I had become a skeleton or luge racer. Oh well, there's always next year. And one of these years, I AM going to start throwing the hammer and playing the guitar.
So long for this week!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Family Tree Adventure

Yesterday I got back from a trip to Ireland, the main objective of which was further family tree research. There were two clear highlights of the trip- being shown to the tomb of my third and fourth great grandfathers of the Madden line by PJ Madden of Ballycastle, County Mayo Ireland, and realizing that I have Madden cousins in Louisiana, North Carolina and Virginia!
My girlfriend Nolwenn and I flew to Dublin on Saturday, and then rented a car and drove four hours in the rain out to County Mayo. That part of Ireland has surely seen better days- before the potato famine about 500,000 people lived there- now there are only 110,000 or so. However, it does seem to be doing okay- most of the houses were in very good condition, and I did not get the feeling that I did in parts of the former East Germany that the area was on its way to becoming a series of ghosttowns. After a night at a lovely hotel, we drove into the Maddens' ancestral hometown of Ballycastle, where one cousin, PJ Madden, still lives. Unfortunately, neither I nor the people at the North Mayo Family History Center have been able to figure out how we are related, but it seems safe to say that in a town of about 220 people, we are somehow cousins. PJ and his wife and daughter were very kind to meet Nolwenn and me on five minutes' notice. We had tea with them for half an hour and then PJ showed us to the site of the Madden tomb in the abandoned churchyard of Doonfeeny Parish. The location is even more dramatic than I imagined it- rugged pastureland for sheep farming and peat bogs, that then drop off into the Atlantic off a 100 foot cliff about 100 yards from the gravesite. The grave itself was worn, but unlike all others, was a sort of tomb enclosed by an expensive iron fence from the 1800's. This was important, because I know that Daniel Madden, my 3rd great grandfather was a wealthy landowner, but there was another Daniel Madden in Ballycastle at that time as well, who was a poor laborer. It seems highly unlikely that the laborer would have ended up in such a final resting place, so the impressive gravesite is thus evidence for the identity of my 4th great grandparents, Daniel and Sarah Madden, who are buried in the same tomb. We then had the chance to visit the town of Belmullet, about an hour's drive away, where my great-great grandmother Mary Rose was from, and where she married Joseph Madden, my second great grandfather, and the grandfather of my grandfather George Madden, who as of last Friday is 90 years young! George Madden's father was James Madden, and his son and my father is Timothy Madden, to round out the Madden line of my ancestry.
This was all a coup, but perhaps even better was that PJ told me that other Madden cousins claiming descent from the same Daniel Maddens had visited the site this past summer. These other cousins were from Virginia, Louisiana, and North Carolina, and he had their contact information, which he passed onto me. I was unaware of these cousins, but will call them this evening, to try and find out just how they are related to me.
Monday was then spent in the National Library of Ireland in Dublin, where I combed through ancient records of Maddens, although unfortunately, I couldn't connect any of them to Daniel Madden or indeed any of the Maddens of Ballycastle. Still there was some interesting information there, and I will return to do one more day of further research in Dublin sometime next January or February.
Further updates of my genealogical quest to be included in early editions of Rhone Ramblings, come 2009.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Little Merman & Food Matters

After posting last week's diatribe about how little there was to see in Bratislava, I received a biting rejoinder about how there was so much to do and visit in the Slovak capital (see comments under last week's entry). Granted, we hadn't brought a guidebook so I suppose with just a little more effort on our part, we could have had a far more enlightening experience in Bratislava. Still, I would recommend that the Bratislava authorities erect on the banks of the Danube a statue that would draw tourists from far and wide: The Little Merman.
Now I'm not sure what this would look like, but it seems only fair that if guys like me can fondle Copenhagen's famous Little Mermaid (which I did in fact in 2001 do) then women and gays should have a statue of their own. Again, I'll write to the Bratislava Tourism Authorities and see what happens.
Changing gears, I come to my final point for the week: now that the USA is cool in the wider world once again, why are all products horrible that have an American flag on them, or say "American-style" in Austria? Popcorn, white bread, chocolate chip cookies, whatever- it's all rotten. Given that the only other example of American food in Austria is McDonald's, I can see why Austrians think American food sucks. Please, it's not that bad, it's just that you are sadly missing out on all the good stuff (pulled-pork sandwiches, cheesecake, Cajun food, crab cakes, etc.)
In fact the only thing that's sorrier is the shape of Mexican food in Europe. You wouldn't think it's possible to screw up salsa, but then again you've never had the horrendous excuse for salsa that one gets over here. Looking forward to missing a Thanksgiving feast for the sixth consecutive year, sigh...

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Bratislava: Seeking attractions

Know what the hardest job in Europe might be? Head of the Bratislava Tourism Authority. Most of the times I've been to Bratislava (the capital of Slovakia and a mere 40 miles from Vienna) lately have been for cheapo Ryanair flights that fly out of its airport. Ryanair actually advertises these flights as leaving from Bratislava (Vienna). Now, it's bad enough when, say sports teams who play in New Jersey insist on calling themselves the "New York Jets" or the slightly-more-geographically-correct-but- nevertheless-appalingly-stupid "New York-New Jersey Metrostars." But in Bratislava's case, Vienna is in another country all together. And what's more, Bratislava is a national capital of a European country with about 5 million people, which would technically mean that Bratislava should be about as famous as, say Copenhagen, which also is the capital of a European country with 5 million people.
Anyway, yesterday, Nolwenn (my girlfriend), two of her friends, and I set off for a day in Bratislava. We arrived in Bratislava at 2:30pm. Nolwenn had wanted to stay until 11 originally, but I convinced her in advance to take the 9pm bus back. In the end, we took the 7pm bus back, having, well, seen basically all that there was to see. Bratislava has a lovely, well-restored old city, but its main square is basically the same size as the main square in my hometown of Ridgewood. It also has really touristy restaurants with lousy waiters who serve garlic soup in breadbowls that have the constituency of iron and the most garlicky pesto I've ever had.
So, let's put our heads together and come up with some possible tourist attractions that Bratislava could use. Answers will be posted in this space next week.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Crowing around

If you're from northern New Jersey, or really most other places in the world, like, say Vienna for instance, chances are you share your living space with crows. True, they might not be the most beautiful of birds nor the most mellifluous, but they are keenly intelligent. For example, crows have been known to take nuts and put them on roads where cars are driving, so that the cars will drive over the nuts and thus open them for the crows to eat. It's not quite rocket science, but as animal intelligence goes, that's a lot higher than most species get.
In Europe there is one major crow species, sometimes called the Carrion Crow (although it, like most crows will eat just about anything- not just rotting meat). Interestingly the Carrion Crow comes in two major races, the western race, which is all black, and the eastern race (sometimes called the "Hooded Crow" although the two forms are conspecific) which is gray below. Their ranges barely overlap (crows usually don't migrate either), but Vienna, ornithologically as well as culturally, is right on the dividing line between eastern and western Europe.
Thus I had the opportunity yesterday to come across two crows, one western and one eastern on a Vienna street. At the time, I had just bought a chocolate muffin and became curious. Do crows have taste buds? Could they pick out the taste of a chocolate muffin? Would they enjoy it? Although I had never really thought about it, I would assume that all three questions can be answered with a yes. Clearly, my pet parakeets over the years have preferred certain foods to others, so one assumes that crows must too.
I would further assume that these two crows had never tasted a delicious chocolate muffin before, so I thought that I would bring some unexpected delight into their lives by feeding them. Probably not the healthiest thing to do, but they both sure enjoyed it.
And that got me thinking- if crows enjoy chocolate, maybe they enjoy other aspects of existence that we overlook. And maybe, though unable to speak or do higher mathematics or write a blog entry, maybe they and their animal kin should be treated with a lot more respect than we normally give them. This doesn't mean we should all become vegetarians- I'll explain why next week- but it does mean that when we think about how best to help the world out, maybe we ought to give the other tens of billions of birds, mammals, and other sentient beings (i.e. beings that can enjoy life, feel pain and even express certain emotions) their due. And maybe people (who rather selfishly and solipsistically often say that "man is the measure of all things") should recognize that on any reasonable moral grounds, the distinction between humans and animals is not as big as we think. Again, more on that next week.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Dangers of Motorcycling

When I got my motorcycle license earlier in the year, numerous people told me that this was a very dangerous activity. I parried that by replying that so are skiing and ocean swimming, and that's never stopped me.
Nevertheless, I must confess that two nights ago, motorcycling put me in a rather dangerous position. I was about to take my girlfriend on her first ride ever, just a little bit around Vienna at night, but after we had walked the half mile or so to where my motorcycle was parked (on a side street), there were some twenty police officers there, and they told me both that I couldn't access my motorcycle and that we should run away as fast as possible.
Apparently, some crook was holed up in a parking garage whose entrance was next to my motorcycle, and he wasn't taking no for an answer. We didn't stick around to see how the altercation ended, but as we went away, I looked back and saw a policeman with his pistol drawn inside the garage. Finally, after we had turned the corner, three female police officers, all of whom seemed to be about 18, ran toward the back of the garage saying "Scheisse! Ich hoffe es gibt keinen Ausgang dahinter!" or "Shit! I hope there's no back exit!"
Which really inspired confidence in me for Vienna's finest. Moreover, though, what are the odds that of all the streets in Vienna, which is literally the safest city in the world with more than 1 million people, that there's a shootout on the block of the street where I parked. Bizarro, but I don't think anything can surprise me anymore after the hike, where it was one coincidence after another.
One final thought. I hate Kid Rock and his stupid song that's a complete rip off of Warren Zevon.