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.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Al-Qaeda, Red Bull, and Random Acts of Kindness

Here’s a question for you: what do random acts of kindness, red bull, and al-Qaeda have in common? Not much perhaps, but they are all topics that I am keenly interested in, though for rather different reasons. So in this week’s blog entry, let’s start with the bad news first to get it out of the way before moving on to the humorous and the uplifting.
It has now been over seven years since al-Qaeda attacked the USA on September 11. To some extent, this is due to the facts that the al-Qaeda leadership has largely been killed or forced into hiding in the border regions of Pakistan and that some potential attacks have also been foiled by intelligence and law enforcement agencies. However, all this was also true four years ago, when bin Laden reared his ugly head and called on Americans to vote for Kerry. Well, I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I know that bin Laden had to have known in advance that this would make it more likely for Bush to win the election, which, of course, is what ended up happening. Why would bin Laden have wanted Kerry to win? Simple. The Bush Administration had so antagonized the rest of the world, especially Muslim countries. Unknowingly, with their bungled efforts, Bush was playing into bin Laden’s hands.
Likewise, McCain’s bellicose rhetoric and penchant for supporting military action without always considering the possible consequences, the fact that in a recent worldwide poll, residents of every country sampled favored Obama over McCain, and the fact that Obama cuts a far more sympathetic profile in the Muslim world in particular all make it more likely that al-Qaeda would prefer a McCain presidency. So, if al-Qaeda has any capability to attack the USA at all, it seems very likely that it would try and attack the USA directly or at least US interests abroad between now and election day in the hope that it helps McCain. While hesitant to put a probability on it, I would say that the chances of something happening over the next four weeks are at least 1 in 3.
After that disconcerting prediction, a little levity. Many in the states might not know this, but Red Bull is in part owned by and has its headquarters in Austria. So fine, it’s an Austrian drink. But it has an English name, which, when pronounced in German, sounds like Khrrret Bule. If I ask for one in my American accent, no one understands me. So I hef too speak wiss a Gehmun Excent eef I wan too gett a Khrrret Bule...
Finally, a random act of kindness was performed by yours truly together with his better half on Sunday. We gave out about 155 homemade cookies outside the main cathedral in Vienna for no other reason other than to make people smile. It was great to see their reactions, and was lots of fun to coordinate. I’ll keep doing this once a week or so, and update what sort of hijinx we get ourselves into. Any suggestions for future goodwill are of course welcome.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Something I don't understand

Is why in every airplane I've ever been in, including new ones, there is an ashtray in the bathroom. Really, this makes about as much sense as holding an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at the local bar. Someone once gave me the rather lame answer that there needs to be a way for someone to put out a cigarette, just in case they happen to completely ignore all the warnings that "tampering with smoke detectors in an airplane lavatory is a federal offense."
And why do we use the word "lavatory" in this sense and this sense alone in contemporary English? Actually, the language is full of luscious and lugubrious words like lavatory that are woefully underutilized. How about bringing back the word emolument? One's emolument is one's collective wages and perquisities, or perks- although now the word in use here is usually "compensation." Now, I don't know about you, but I don't get "perky" when I hear the word compensation used to refer to both people egregiously affronted by a tort (or a torte if you don't like your repast at a Viennese coffeehouse) and people who have sold their labor for wages and perquisites.
Anyway, just something to chew over. I'm getting back into Carpe Diem mode this week, trying to hew to my perhaps overly ambitious schedule of learning 25 French words per day, and ten new English and German words a week. That doesn't sound like much, but I've also got about 25 other items on my weekly to-do list. Getting it all done is ambitious, perhaps, but if you know of a better way to bleib-im-Schwung, to harness the positive power of inertia, and increase personal efficacy in a way that leads to a superoptimal outcome in terms of both aggregated universal and personal utility, I'm all ears.
In other words, entelechy. The greatest word you haven't heard of. I'd tell you what it is, but better to look up the word on your own- entelechy is good stuff, and the closest I think one can come to summarizing the meaning of life in one word. More later.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Another splendid idea from the mind of one David C. Madden

I'm back in the states this weekend for a quick four days to tie up a number of loose ends. Meanwhile, as I was passing through customs at JFK yesterday, a thought occurred to me that I'd now like to share with all and sundry. More than one European friend of mine has remarked to me how unfriendly and unwelcoming the US Customs Service is. Seeing as though a customs official is usually the first American a foreigner will meet when she arrives in the USA (and we all know how important first impressions are) and that a customs official works for the government and therefore represents the country as a whole, it wouldn't hurt for customs officials to be more friendly. I know their job can hardly be described as the most exciting in the world, but they are nevertheless really hurting our national image. Foreigners are often already fed up with the fingerprinting, questioning, and visa regulations, so why not try and be a little bit more friendly by having customs officials learn how to say "Welcome to the United States" in ten different languages.
For this to work, they wouldn't even have to memorize ten short phrases. It would work just as well if customs officials had a phonetic transcription in front of them. For example, with German, they could have "Vill kom in in dee oo ess ahh." Then, next to the transcription they could have "Use with citizens of Germany and Austria" so that way Austrians would be greeted too. Since customs officials see everyone's passport, they could easily find what to say on the sheet. Even officials who don't have a knack for languages would thus probably memorize ten phrases and their respective countries within a week. The ten languages would have to both be spoken by an overwhelming majority of citizens from a particular country (thus they couldn't use German with Swiss citizens, unless they were trained to spot German names, since 30% of Swiss people don't speak German as a mother tongue) and be commonly found among citizens at a particular crossing. Obviously this would vary somewhat according to region. At JFK, to give just one example, I would recommend the following ten languages be used (in no particular order): 1. German, 2. French, 3. Italian, 4. Portuguese, 5. Spanish, 6. Arabic, 7. Russian, 8. Chinese, 9. Japanese, 10. Korean. Those ten languages certainly account for well over half the people passing through customs.
Like the idea or have a way to make it even better? Post a comment, then. Within a week or two, I'll then sit down and write a letter to a number of different customs postings, along with a proposed table of languages, countries, and phonetic pronunciations. If I get any feedback, I'll dispatch it in this space. To be continued...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Czeching out the neighbors

Last weekend my girlfriend and I decided rather spur of the moment to go to Prague. One of my favorite things about Europe for years has been the ability to decide on a whim to go to a foreign capital for a quick getaway. So this weekend, we went to the Czech Republic.
Last year, Slovenia became the first Eastern European (i.e. ex-communist) country to surpass a Western European country (in this case, Portugal) in terms of per-capita income. Suffice it to say that the Czech Republic is well on its way to following Slovenia on that route. Every time I have visited Prague, it looks just a little bit cleaner, with fewer communist buildings around, and more buildings that would be right at home in Vienna.
That has its pluses and minuses. One of the nice things about going to Prague has been that it's, well, not Vienna. It's cheaper, not as staid, and in more ways than one, Bohemian. Now, with prices having risen by leaps and bounds over the past ten years, Prague is no longer cheap, nor off the beaten path. For those looking for the Prague of old, I suggest Bratislava, or perhaps Warsaw as two other Eastern European capitals that are still quite cheap, far from touristy, and have plenty to offer. Indeed, a trip to Bratislava with my girlfriend on my motorcycle (once I feel confident after lots more practice- for those parent-sorts out there who read this)
is in the cards, as are trips to Ireland, Scotland, Italy, and a few other places too. The rolling stone keeps on rolling...

Saturday, September 6, 2008

A Favorite Place

One of my favorite places in Vienna isn't a famous landmark or a fancy coffeehouse or a sophisticated cocktail bar but rather a simple underground gym that I have been going to about 3 times a week since coming to Austria back in March. Earlier this year I started getting a little bit frustrated that certain aspects of my life were lacking in any notable progress. One of these was my physical fitness. Sure, you might think that having just hiked the length of the United States I would be in great shape, but in fact, I lost a good deal of upper body strength over those seven months when my legs were doing all the work.
Well, all that upper-body strength is now back and then some. It's a great feeling to be able to say that I've never been in better physical shape, but this is true. Over the last six months, I've gone about my fitness very systematically, rarely missing visits to the gym, taking vitamins and necessary supplements, and the results are quite noticable- both for me and my new girlfriend.
Okay, enough tooting my own horn- the point is that I think everyone would feel great if they could overcome a limit in any activity in life through sheer determination and hard work. And over time, with noticable positive results, it gets easier as one feels good about it and makes continued effort part of one's routine. Now that I've done this with physical fitness, in addition to my continued workouts, I'll start going systematic on learning French (I'm going to aim for 30 words a day to start, possibly increasing that over time) and feeling better mentally (I've been going through some ups and downs late, but there's so much out there I can still do that I haven't begun to try yet).
And onward to greater success!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Minor Miracle

Picture this: one hundred thirty teenagers, aged 15-18, from all over the world. From Greenland, New Zealand, Honduras, Hong Kong, Italy, the USA, the Faroe Islands, etc. all gathered at an agriculturally-oriented boarding school in the middle of rural Upper Austria for a week's introduction to Austrian culture, the German language, and each other.
It's a gathering like no other you can imagine- no drugs, no alcohol, but lots of singing, dancing, being silly, being young, having fun, and recognizing that people from countries you've barely heard of can become close friends within a few hours. I had the opportunity to spend this past week as one of the counselors at the AFS Austria arrival camp and it was a great time as one would expect.
For those who don't know, I myself was an AFS exchange student in Austria, starting ten years ago this month (gulp). Although I only stayed six months in contrast with most students who spend a whole year, it was truly one of the defining times of my life. It gave me fluency in German, the feeling of being at home in the world, my first girlfriend, two of my best friends to this day, and lots of great memories.
AFS, which formerly stood for "American Field Service" but now is just an acronym, was started by former ambulance volunteers of the two world wars who wanted to found an organization to help prevent another war. So the ambulance volunteers decided to set up the world's largest, oldest, and most respected student exchange program, which now has programs in about forty countries and is expanding its offerings in Africa, the Middle East, India, and China.
True to its volunteer origins, AFS is one of the world's largest organizations that works largely on a volunteer basis. Some 10,000 volunteers or so help provide support for the students, organize arrival, mid-stay, and departure camps, and do all sorts of other jobs. I've never been to an AFS meeting or camp where I didn't have a great time- the energy of the kids and volunteers is palpable and contagious. Feeling this energy led me to do things such as the Swedish frog dance, introduce a guy from Greenland to the pasttime of playing catch, yell out "Yeah Polka!", and participate in all sorts of "energizers" which basically involve acting like an idiot while having a great time.
Bottom line: if you're a cynic, if you're looking to renew your faith in humanity, if you want to see a minor miracle in action, become a part of AFS- volunteer, host a student, or if you're in your teens, consider taking part yourself. You and the world will never be the same.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Olympics in Austria

I'll preface this post by saying that I haven't watched a minute of NBC's Olympics coverage, I've heard the ratings have been great, and that in contrast with previous games, much more additional coverage is available online. Still, having grown up watching numerous Olympics in the USA, I'm pretty sure how the deal works- for every minute of actual sports, there's a minute of human interest stories and a minute of commercials. To some extent, this can only be expected. Not too many Americans, myself included spend more than three seconds following synchronized diving, competitive archery, and equestrian (to name just three sports) in the four years between Olympics. So a little bit of introduction may well be in order.
In Austria (and Germany, and Greece too) however, the emphasis is clearly on the sports themselves. In smaller countries, people tend to be more familiar with their Olympians, even if their success pales in comparison to certain American athletes. To wit, the Austrian swimmer Markus Rogan, who had a disappointing games and failed to win a gold, was an A list star in Austria coming into Beijing. Michael Phelps, on the other hand, though now being compared to the likes of Tiger Woods, Secretariat, and Babe Ruth (and rightfully so) was hardly a household name in the USA, despite having won 8 medals, six of them gold in Athens.
There's no right or wrong here- it may very well be that the approach that the European countries take in broadcasting the Olympics is what Europeans like best, while Americans need a little background info. And to be fair, with four major sports leagues compared to just one in most European countries, this is only to be expected. Still, however, it's sometimes nice just to sit back, relax, and enjoy the water polo or fencing- no human interest stories, few commercials, and a minimum of commentary. Pure Olympic sport is beautiful and worth watching in its own right, even without Bob Costas.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Two excellent decisions

To this day, I maintain that one of the best decisions I ever made was made when I was six. That was approximately the age when I decided I would be an exchange student when the time came. Since my mother had been an exchange student in Brazil and had kept up with her family, I was already a little bit indoctrinated. However, it was really something I was always convinced of, and never did I ever really doubt that it was something I wanted to do.
And so, during first semester of senior year of high school, when everyone was stressing out over getting into college and AP courses and all that, I left it all behind and set off for Vienna, and life has never been the same since. Mostly, for the better. I had the privilege of going abroad with AFS, the world's finest exchange student organization, due largely to its lengthy history and worldwide volunteer network. While there were plenty of challenging times while overseas, it was all worth it in the end, as I came back much more mature, fluent in German, and with more than twice as many friends as I had had before.
So, that was the first excellent decision. The second has been to return to Vienna and Europe ten years after. Living over here allows me to pursue life and my dreams at my own, sometimes sclerotic, sometimes manic pace. I have more freedom living here than I ever could in New York, including not only freedom from the rat race, but freedom from being judged by guys and girls- which is an inevitable facet of living in most places in the USA, and especially New York. And also, I have the freedom to do things like start a doctoral study for free, travel to foreign countries about once a week, and the freedom to go to awesome Europe-wide AFS conferences, like the one I attended in France this past week. Certainly the most fun I've had in months- just a terrific bunch of friendly AFS volunteers from all over Europe (and some from the Americas, Africa, and Asia too) and a great chance to network. I made some great connections about my dream of reviving AFS in Morocco. Clearly I could never do it by myself, but with a bunch of friendly, motivated AFS volunteers and staff to help out, why not? And that would not only be fun and a great experience, but would also help out in reaching out to an Arab country that the USA and Europe could certainly use better relations with. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Fun on trains

One of the few redeeming aspects of the recent spike in oil prices is that it might finally force a critical mass of Americans off of the road and onto the rails. I have been an avid train fan since I was 5 years old, and I still get a huge kick out of traveling by train. Currently I am in a brand new, state of the art sleeping compartment that I have all to myself on an overnight train trip from Vienna to Rijeka, a city in northern Croatia. Even though Croatia isn’t even in the European Union and was engaged in a horrible war until about 1995, this is a nicer sleeper car than you would find anywhere in the USA.
Another thing I have often enjoyed about train travel in Europe is that on some trains, you can pull the window down and stick your head out, like a golden retriever in a car. Now of course there are signs on the window saying you shouldn’t do this, and I’ve heard of at least one person being killed this way, but who cares- it’s one of the greatest feelings of freedom in the world to do this. Generally speaking, if you want to lean out a window on the right side of the train, you should wait until the track curves to the right somewhat (and the reverse is true for the left side). This way you can see what obstacles could be in your way (e.g. trains in the other direction, trees, poles, etc.). Then, once your head is out the window, you can typically see obstacles in advance even when the train is going straight ahead or curving to the left a little bit.
Americans might find it odd that this is still possible in 21st century Europe, since the legal risks this pasttime presents meant that it would be impossible to even contemplate being able to do this in the USA. But while Europe (and especially Austria) can be overly bureaucratic, it tends not to be overly legalistic, like the USA. So you can still get away with sticking your head out the window and letting your cares fly by.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

I'm such a rebel

Another small difference between Austria (and Germany, and most of Northern Europe aside from Britain and Russia) and the USA: jaywalking. Hailing from the New York metro area, I take it as my inalienable right to cross a street on my own terms, and not when some red light or flashing orange hand says so. Obviously, I don't walk out into oncoming traffic, and indeed, I make certain to look both ways. But then, if the coast is clear, I saunter off across the street, leaving a host of bewildered onlookers behind me.
Then (and this is the hilarious part) almost every time that I cross a street when the light is red, somebody who had been waiting patiently suddenly gets up enough nerve to cross the street a second or two after me. Certainly I have thus incurred the wrath of scores of parents of 3-6 year old children who tell their children that what I am doing is on a par with armed robbery. But I prefer to think that by jaywalking, I've helped introduce a little bit more freedom into a society that could use a little less classical music and philosophy and a little bit more cheekiness, every now and then.
Also, I had mentioned last time that I would write a little bit about my birding trip to Hungary from last week with my friend Jeff. We had great looks at Great Bustard (the world's heaviest flying bird) Red-Footed Falcon (with young!), Hoopoe, and Grey Partridge. That's probably all the birding for this summer, but lots of family tree research and an AFS conference in France are on the table for the upcoming weeks.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Something You Don't See Everyday

Is an SL Mercedes AMG series (in other words, one damn fine automobile) being lifted into the air by towing cables. Even weirder, here in Vienna, this car had California plates on it, and was illegally parked outside the Iraqi Embassy of all places. Go figure that one out.
Which brings me back to more funny German words and phrases. One sign (that a certain driver failed to heed) that is found often in German speaking countries contains the phrase "widerrechtlich abgestellte Fahrzeuge werden kostenpflichtig abgeschleppt!" which translates into the rather more humdrum "illegally parked cars will be towed" Somehow I'm more afraid of the German phrase. Indeed, I had my first crack at driving in Vienna over the past few days while picking up and dropping off a rental car that I put over 700 miles on in three days while birding with my friend Jeff in Austria, Hungary, and Slovakia. More on that trip in a post this upcoming weekend (I missed last week, so there are two dispatches this week).
Anyway, driving in Vienna is a nightmare. There's a red light every hundred yards, lots of small, narrow, one way streets that were decidedly never meant to be used by cars, heavy traffic, and gas prices of $8 a gallon or more. In other words, take the train. That having been said, though, most Europeans are very good drivers. Highway death rates are considerably lower in most of Western Europe than in the USA, and yet people drive much faster (in Germany of course there's often no speed limit on highways and in most other countries its 130km or 80mph.)
Part of this has to do with the fact that getting a license requires more training, part of this is due to most people driving stick since driving automatic requires less attention, and part is due to stricter drunk driving laws. In any event, it proves my argument (which strangely has never been a hit with the cops in the US) that speed and safety on highways are poorly correlated. Let people drive 80 miles an hour in the USA. Or try it yourself. You will quickly realize that you are forced to pay more attention than at 65. Anyways, I'm glad to be back to taking the subway most everywhere I need, so enough on driving for now.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Live and Learn

Today I was back out on my racing bike going for a nice evening training ride in the scenic wine country south of Vienna. So far, so idyllic. When suddenly my ride seemed a little bumpy, and much to my chagrin, I had a flat tire. And no repair tools. And no cell phone. And no money. Oops.
Fortunately, I was only about a mile away from a nearby train station, so I was able to walk the bike there. And even more fortunately, I was able to catch a train back to the district of Vienna in which I am living within about twenty minutes. And best of all, there was no conductor on board, thus I managed yet another one of my patented close escapes.
Tomorrow, however, I will go to the repair shop and learn how to fix a flat and figure out a way to attach the necessary tools to my bike. It's not quite the same as the rest of the grueling training that I'm putting myself through in a frantic effort to get to the point where I can finish an Ironman Triathlon within the allotted time. But it very well may be the most important thing I can do in order to assure that I finish.
In a related story, a couple of my muscles that I use in running have been giving me a hard time lately, so I've decided to hold off on any more run training until the end of July. But having done a few marathons, and knowing that if it comes to it I can walk a bit during the last leg of the Ironman, the run is the least of my concerns. Swimming is a bit more of a concern, but I'll take a few lessons within the month, and the weather here (not to mention the numerous topless sunbathing Fräuleins) is incentive enough to get to the pool on a regular basis.
Which leaves the bike. Hours and hours and hours on the bike between now and early September. But once I move into my new apartment within a week or two, I'll get a TV and an exercise bike, and training will become much more user friendly.
And in the meantime, I keep on doing my upper body training at the gym on a regular basis. All in all, I'm in the best physical shape of my life and it promises only to get better. Which is always nice to be able to say.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Home again, home again

Readers who followed my hike of the USA will recall that the oddest thing to happen to me over those seven months (and that's saying something, given the number of wacky adventures I had) was that my hair turned blonde due to being outside in the sun for about ten hours a day or so. What might be even weirder, though, is that by now, any hair that was exposed to the sun during my hike has certainly been guillotiened by my barber, but lo and behold, I'm still blonder than I am before the hike even though I haven't been spending any more time than usual outside over the last few months. Um, any theories here folks?
To perpetuate a dumb stereotype, I even had a blonde moment during my trip to France last week. At some point my credit card went completely AWOL and I have no clue how, where, or why. That marred what was otherwise a great, if at times grueling trip from Vienna to Germany, Switzerland, and France, which included a highly successful birding trip to Provence and the Camargue in France with my friend Jeff. I saw 13 new species including long sought-after European specialties such as European Roller and European Bee-Eater, not to mention the symbol of the Camargue, the Greater Flamingo. Heading there and back, I managed to see other friends in Strasbourg and Geneva, work in two productive business meetings in Switzerland, and conduct some genealogy research in the Black Forest in Germany.
All in all, a great trip, but as I was either driving or on trains for an average of 7 hours a day, each day, I am very glad to be back in Vienna. Not that this is an oasis of serenity by any means, though. A severe thunderstorm that passed through town last evening caused a mandatory evacuation of the outdoor screening area where 70,000 people were watching Germany's exciting 3-2 victory over Turkey in the semifinals of the European Soccer Championships. Also, even though the game was played in Switzerland, the worldwide TV transmission for the game was coordinated out of Vienna, and that was knocked out by the storm during the second half just before the deciding goals were scored. Oops.
Next up for the Danube Dispatcher: making headway on the outline for the book on my family's history, lots of triathlon training, and finally getting into the apartment that I bought two months ago, hopefully within two weeks time.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Back in Vienna - Fun with Deutsch!

Now that I’m back in Vienna, I’m back to having no excuse not to blog. I had a rather exciting two weeks in the USA, though, before returning to my Viennese haunts yesterday. Highlights included my 5th college reunion, working at the national quiz bowl championships in Chicago, spending an afternoon at the Jersey Shore, and passing the tryout test for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. We’ll see if I’m accepted into the contestant pool- I should know within a few weeks.
I will send along a more complete update on my progress towards some of my goals later on this week, but for now, I’d like to pause for a moment and consider some of the more amusing words of the German language. Just for kicks, you know.
1. Hochzeit – This is the German word for wedding- translated literally into English it means “high time”
2. Schnitzeljagd- The German word for “treasure hunt.” Translated literally, it means “schnitzel hunt.” Well, sort of. The German word Schnitzel is a South German derivative of Schnitt, meaning a cut. Usually of meat, but in this sense, it refers to the cut up pieces of paper one employs for a treasure hunt.
3. Handschuh- The German word for glove. No extra credit for guessing why this word ended up on the list.
4. Unkraut- This is the German word for weed, as in a plant that’s growing where it’s not supposed to. Kraut, in German means herb or plant. Meanwhile, the prefix “un” in German has the same meaning that it does in English. So an “unkraut” or weed, is actually a “not plant”
5. Paradeiser- An Austrian dialect word for tomato, which means, as you might have expected, “native of paradise.” Given the current hullaballoo surrounding tomatoes in the USA, this seems a tad inappropriate this week, don’t you think?

Friday, May 30, 2008

Back in the USA

For at least a little while. No fear, though, the blog will continue. Actually I've been doing quite a bit of writing this week, cranking out the pages for On the Road Shoulder, the memoir of my hike of the East Coast. Other goings on in the states include six Rotary Club speeches over the next few weeks to continue to raise funds for the Fisher House Foundation, my fifth college reunion this weekend, a good amount of family tree research, and working at the National Academic Championship in Chicago (a high school quiz bowl tournament). I will continue to update at least once a week, but expect short entries like this one as I am rather busy.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


I have always been one to, for better or worse, swing for the fences in life. And so it was, in a fit of delirium after my smashing success at the Miami Marathon back in January, that I somehow thought I would be up for doing a half ironman triathlon in May, followed by a full one in September.
But oh, was I ever in for a wake up call yesterday. I had somehow thought that a half ironman would be just a little more work than doing a full marathon, and that the endurance capacity I had acquired from hiking and running would translate well into swimming and biking skills, despite my near total lack of training in those two disciplines.
Needless to say, the fact that my last competitive swim race was when I was ten at the Ridgewood 5th Grade Olympics and the fact that I have never before done a competitive bike race showed through. Especially since, despite it being only a half ironman, all of the other competitors seemed orders of magnitude more serious than the far more democratic and diverse crowd that I saw at both the Miami and Vienna marathons earlier this year. Still, I got through the 1.2 mile swim and the 56 mile bike ride okay. The bike ride in particular took me along the Danube, through the beautiful Wachau wine country in Lower Austria, and then up and over a scenic if strenuous climb back to the city of St. Pölten.
Unfortunately, history has a way of repeating itself. And once again, just like in Linz, I somehow made a wrong turn during the early stages of the half marathon run, and ended up at the finish line after all of about a mile. Oops. I have no idea how this happened, as I followed what was very clearly a path intended for runners out of the changing tent after the bike ride. I suppose I could have retraced my steps and gone back and tried to find where I went wrong, but that probably would have thrown off the timer. In any case, I was getting hot in the sun, and had felt (after having done one of the longest swims of my life and easily the longest bike ride of my life) that I had accomplished enough for one day.
Most importantly, though, yesterday was clearly a much-needed wake up call if I have any illusions about competing at the Ironman I have signed up for in England on September 8. I can't promise anything right now- three and a half months might just be too little with everything else I have going on- but I do certainly want to up my training, especially now that I have a racing bike of my own. Also, a friend of mine here in Vienna has a cousin who is of all thing specifically a triathlon coach, so I'll be giving him a call too.
All in all, it was clearly a learning experience and despite everything, a good time. And while my first triathlon will be remembered primarily for my foibles, it certainly stoked my desire to keep at it. I'll do an ironman one day, you can mark my words. With luck and a lot of training, maybe even on September 8.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Abbreviated Balkan Trip

Well, so my original plan for a massive two week long road trip through the Balkans came to nought (discretion being clearly the better part of valor here). I've also learned that it takes a good deal of time (really at least two months, preferably longer) to set up school visits in parts of the world that aren't as readily accessible as Vienna. No worries, though. My timeline in setting up ASAP (the American Student Ambassador Program) is still fine. I did manage to do visit ten classes in Vienna this year, with one or two more still possible. Come next fall, I will continue to do more visits myself and start looking for other young Americans to also head to classrooms to talk about life in the USA and spread some much needed goodwill for our country. Then, by the fall of 2009, with a year and a half of experience under my belt, I'll be ready to start looking for donors.
But while I didn't manage to make it to Kosovo, Bosnia, or any other small countries usually followed by the word "crisis" in international news reports, I did spend three days in Romania last week, volunteering with Project Centipede. I was first motivated to go on this trip when I saw a slide show with pictures from around 1990, which showed how desperately poor many of the children there were as well as the appalling conditions in which they lived. However, having been there myself, eighteen years after, it's readily apparent that things have improved dramatically. Romania may still be the poorest country in the EU, and have plenty of people living in poverty, particularly among the Roma minority, but it's well on its way to becoming a middle-income country.
The part of the country in which we helped out (Transylvania, and yes, we saw plenty of Dracula-associated kitsch) is actually inhabited primarily by ethnic Hungarians, even though it's quite far away from the Hungarian border. Our primary task was to visit schools and orphanages and distribute care packages that Viennese volunteers had put together for the children there. Of course the best part was the chance to get to play with the kids. My friend Nick had sent over some frisbees at my request from the USA, and they were especially a big hit. The only thing I regret is not taking the time to have learned some pleasantries in Hungarian, so that I could have had a chance to talk a little bit with the kids, but I'll keep that in mind for future school visits in countries where the children speak something other than German and English.
P.S. There will be another blog entry later this week to make up for the lack of one from the week prior.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Thames Dispatch

I'm in London this weekend visiting my friend the brilliant Filip Matwin. Remember that name- like me, he'll be famous some day, although we're both not yet quite sure what for. During most of my past few trips to London, I've come with Ryanair (the cheapo bare bones airline that makes Southwest and JetBlue look like first class) and have landed at Stansted Airport. Stansted is a pain in the neck to get to and from, not to mention that the round trip train tickets from Stansted to London and back usually end up costing as much as the whole flight). But it does have one thing going for it. Since they always have about twenty times the number of EU citizens on flights going to Stansted as opposed to us luckless non-EU sorts, and since they still divide the queue (not a line, please, we're in England, my good chap) into EU and non-EU citizens, the customs line at Stansted always takes about a minute for me, as opposed to maybe close to twenty or so for everyone else. Ha ha. The other thing worth mentioning here is the heat. It's 84 degrees outside and it's early May still. In friggin London! Yeah, no global warming. Riiiiight. So that's London for you, hot and a perfect way of shifting travelers through customs. Then again, the UK could just be a normal EU country and join the Shengen agreement which permits passport free travel. But that would be too easy.
And one last juicy tidbit of news: I'll be trying out for Who Wants to be a Millionaire in New York in June! Whoopee! The Fisher House Foundation stands to make 50% of my winnings, provided I get into the hot seat.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Hostel Environment

I arrived in Vienna on March 11, and with luck, will be moving into a new apartment I am in the process of buying on June 11. But in the three months between those two momentous dates, my living situation has been chaotic to say the least. For the first two weeks I was here I stayed with my former Austrian host family, which was a terrific way to ease myself back into life in Vienna. Then, for a week I couch surfed which, as always, was a great way to meet people and make a bunch of new friends. While some (maybe most?) people might feel uncomfortable with the idea of crashing on the couch of someone you just met four hours hence, I’ve couch surfed close to twenty nights over the past year and have never had a bad experience- indeed it’s always been a lot of fun. Like ebay, couch surfing works largely on a reference basis- once you’ve stayed with someone or someone has stayed with you, you are encouraged to write a short reference that then appears on the other person’s profile. This way, future people you might meet through couch surfing can see that you’re both a fascinating and fun individual and not likely to dress up in a Mickey Mouse costume and start singing the national anthem of Botswana at 4 in the morning.
Following my week of couch surfing, I entered the apartment with the landlady from the eighth circle of hell, a story which I’ve already spilled too many pixels on. But after that amusing episode, I decamped to the Wombats Hostel where I’ve been for most of the last three weeks (with the exception of five nights last week when I stayed at a friend’s place while he was away). I’ll be here through Saturday, then to Italy for three nights, then back here for three more nights or so, then off to London, then off on my Central and Eastern European road trip for two weeks, then back here for three nights, then back to the states for two weeks, and then and only then, will I hopefully be able to start living in my new apartment (more on that next time).
So here I am, 26 with two degrees and living out of a suitcase in a youth hostel, since obviously it would be silly to rent with my wacky travel schedule. But honestly, with the exception of my own apartment, there’s no place I’d rather be. Wombats (the name has its origins in a drunken game of pool in Australia back in 1988) is clearly the coolest hostel I’ve ever stayed at, with the tempermental wireless access in the lobby where I’m sitting now the only drawback. Aside from that, though, it has a central location, a great bar in the basement, and a great atmosphere that lends itself to drunken pillow fights, marathon cookie baking sessions, and meeting cool people from all over the world. A hostel environment, no doubt, but by no means a hostile one.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Planning the next twenty months - Part 2

Yesterday in the U-Bahn, I saw a two year-old girl, arguing with her mother, in German of course. I don’t know why, but I always get a kick out of seeing little kids speak foreign languages. And German has an absolutely perfect word for two year-olds: “doch.” There’s no counterpart to this word in English, though “au contraire” comes close. “Doch” is used to raise an objection to a point being made, e.g. “You need to go to bed.” “Doch!” or “It’s not a good idea to put toys made in China in your mouth.” “Doch!” Anyway, every other word this little girl said was “doch” and it made me smile.
Continuing on with my lists of goals from earlier this week, here’s the stuff that I’ll actually be doing to make a living here in Vienna. And let’s put the emphasis on “living.” While I’ll never criticize anyone else for their chosen path in life, working 100 hours on Wall Street or for a law firm does not constitute “living” for me. It’s been said that Americans live to work and Europeans work to live. Well, I’ll get plenty of enjoyment making a go of it doing the below listed jobs and such, so for me it’s all good and a false dichotomy.
1. Writing up my memoir for my hike, entitled “On the Road Shoulder”
-Not sure if I can get it published, but it’s worth a shot, and it seems like I met plenty of potential readers on my hike anyway.
2. Working for AFS Austria for 30 hours a week starting in August
- AFS, the exchange student organization that I originally came to Vienna with in 1998, is famous for not hiring many people since they rely heavily on volunteers. I’m very fortunate to have been given an offer from them.
3. Helping out at the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency)
-I wrote my master’s thesis on nuclear terrorism, and will be going for a doctorate researching contingengy plans if all works well. Being able to volunteer at the IAEA would be great experience, if things work out.
4. Coaching a quiz bowl team
-Have been meaning to do this for years, and should be able to find an international school that will take me up on it next year.
5. Becoming a certified genealogist
-Will be working hard over the summer on my own family tree for a book on my family for my grandfather’s 90th birthday in November. Then, I’ll get certified and do it professionally for others.
6. Going for a doctorate researching contingency plans for nuclear terrorism
-See number 3. Won’t start this until fall of 2009 though, in all likelihood. Before then it would be too much.
7. Setting up the American Student Ambassador Program (ASAP)
-This is my idea to send young Americans living overseas to foreign high schools to talk about life in the USA, with the hope of improving our image overseas. It’s sorely needed, and I’d like to set this up as a non-profit and get a modest salary for doing the organizational work it entails.
8. Rental Income
- I’m in the process of buying an apartment, and according to the real estate agent, I could make close to €100 a night renting the place out to tourists. I just need to find the right platform online, and might even set up my own for other would be renters as well.
9. Trivia
- Will try out for the American version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire this year, the Austrian version late next year, and meanwhile, Jeopardy might come calling for a 25th year anniversary show. At the very least, I ought to be able to crack one of the €1000-1500 trivia jackpots at various Vienna pubs (like the one where I’m writing this now). Three friends and I won another 35€ worth of free drinks (with 18 out of 20 right, just two questions away from 1400€!) on Monday at the Four Bells- we’re saving up the certificates for a big party there in the fall.
10. Setting up the Vienna International Club
-Another non-profit that I will set up could potentially make a little bit for doing the office and organizational work for. Details still emerging on this one, but think of a cool outing club / language club / debating society / random acts of kindness purveyor, etc.

Now that’s my idea of “work.” So now that work is done, here’s a list of ten fun ways to play- just for shits and giggles, as they say.

1. Learn to play the guitar
-Like Oktoberfest and shooting under 100 in golf, this is just way overdue. And with my host brother (hey God, can I drop the “host” please?) Laurenz being a guitarist in a band and a music student, there will never be a better time or place to learn, nor a better teacher.
2. Setting up an Ultramarathon from Vienna to Bratislava
-There’s no other place in the world where you can have a one-day run (realistically) between national capitals. My friend Dominik and I are all over this.
3. Learning CPR. No, for real this time.
-I have done CPR courses before. I have forgotten what I learned before. Meanwhile I have memorized the capitals of the voivodships of Poland. There is no excuse for this, but at least I have already got on the ball with this one and did a 5 hour long first aid course with the Austrian Red Cross yesterday.
4. Learn how to waltz and trip the light fantastic at one, no, make that many, of the balls here.
-This is Vienna, after all.
5. And if I’m going to learn how to dance, I need to learn how to cook.
-Beyond just chocolate chip cookies. Specifically, I want to learn a bunch of Asian dishes that I can’t find in restaurants here, how to make a New York style cheesecake, and a smattering of traditional Viennese dishes. For starters. And main courses, and desserts too, ha ha.
6. Driving stuff
-Including but not limited to, improving my shoddy stick-shift skills, my non-existant tire changing skills, and getting an Austrian motorcycle license. And then doing a whole slew of classic road trips.
7. Setting up a second fantasy baseball league in the USA
-For Brad, Mark, Luke, John, Adam, Nick, and whoever else wants in. Have been planning to do this for years, and will come back to the states for our inaugural auction in March 2009.
8. Knots
-Yeah, knots. Starting with a Windsor, but also going back to all those rotten rope routines that frustrated me in scouts. Hey, I hated running once too, but seem to have conquered that. I’d put studying algebra and learning to play the oboe up here too for good measure, but I’m trying to stay sort of realistic here.
9. Volunteering at least twice at an orphanage in Romania
-I’ve done well with fundraising and donating over the years, but have done pathetically little actual volunteer work. I’m heading down to Romania though in May for three days to help out with Project Centipede and I’m really looking forward to it.
10. Keep this blog up to date.
-Twice a week, if possible, once a week come hell or high water.

That’s not it. There’s lots more in fact. But this is a good start, and just about everything listed here is doable. Welcome to Vienna. Anything goes in a place like this…

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Planning the next twenty months - Part 1

I was reading "Rabbit, Run" by John Updike today and Rabbit was listening to a radio broadcast about Chinese communists battling Tibetans in Lhasa. That was in the 1950's. The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh?
So I realized that now that I've planned the next ten years, it might not hurt to get down to business as to what I actually plan on accomplishing while I'm based out of Vienna. I get asked this question on a daily basis (sometimes an hourly basis, or so it seems), so here's one way of answering it, for the blog and for the record. While at the gym today, I decided to make a list of forty goals I'd like to accomplish by the end of 2009. I tend to do better at accomplishing things when I know what I'm gunning for, so hopefully this can serve as a to-do list of sorts in the months to come. Not that this list is by any means all that I'll be up to, but all of the below listed goals are doable, don't depend on outside circumstances (well, by and large at least) and even if the list seems a little manic, it will all be a rollicking good time! Here are the first 20, in sports and travel. The second twenty in Job Stuff and Just for Shits and Giggles will turn up later this week.
1. Run a marathon under 3:00.
I've got a decent shot at running Vienna in 3:30, or close to it. In January, I ran my first marathon in 3:51. So at this pace of improvement, this can be done.
2. Go to skydiving school in the Czech Republic.
Won't get to it this summer, but plan on jumping out of airplanes for 3 weeks in August 2009.
3. Climb the Matterhorn.
Precisely because it's so cliche. And because Teddy Roosevelt did it, enough said.
4. Shoot a golf round under 100.
This one is just way overdue.
5. Take Krav Maga lessons.
This is the martial art used by the Israeli Special Forces. And a friend of my host brother Laurenz is a trainer in it.
6. Learn Snowboarding.
Filip, if you're reading this, we are hitting the Alps next year, or I am ending our friendship.
7. Try out the luge and the skeleton.
I've wanted to be a luger since age 6, when I watched the Olympics from Calgary. And skeleton looks even cooler.
8. Learn how to surf.
Preferably in Morocco, as doing this in Austria might involve some difficulties (though I'd like to learn windsurfing too, and that's a definite go)
9. Learn the hammer throw.
And compete at the Highland Games in Scotland in 2009.
10. Ironman Triathlon
This one's set for September 8, 2008 in Dorset, England. And I'm training two hours a day for it already.

1. St. Patrick's Day in Ireland (an absolute must)
2. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (have heard great things about Central Asia- beyond Borat)
3. The Faroe Islands (because who the hell visits the Faroe Islands?)
4. Oktoberfest (absolutely embarassing that I haven't made it there yet)
5. Road trips through the Balkans, Italy and the South of France (the Balkans show kicks off on May 11)
6. Easter in Jerusalem (I had originally thought of doing Easter in Rome, then remembered that it's always better to go over the top)
7. Roskilde (arguably Europe's greatest music festival- it's Woodstock, Danish style)
8. Hogmanay (New Year's in Edinburgh- much better than being in cramped Times Square)
9. Family tree research trips (to Germany, France, Croatia, Scotland, Ireland and England. And Austria, but that doesn't count)
10. Tracking down the elusive and endemic Corsican nuthatch in its remote pine forest habitat. (don't ask, unless you're a birder, in which case this probably sounds like more fun than everything else)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Planning the next ten years

One of my hobbies for some time now has been sketching out where I want to live for the foreseeable future. I learned very quickly back in 1998 when I first lived overseas (as an exchange student here in Vienna) that there is no substitute for living in a place if you want to get to really know the people that live there, what makes them tick, and above all, master their language. Given that moving around becomes severely more disruptive once future children start heading off to school, now's the time to seize this bull by the horns.
And so today on the back of a napkin while I was downing a falafel, I sketched out precisely where I will be for the next ten years of my life. Of course, tongue is planted somewhat firmly in cheek here, and obviously, plans will change on a daily basis, but for now, here goes:
thru Dec. 2009 Vienna
Jan-Oct 2010 Scandinavia
Nov 10-Aug 11 St. Petersburg, Russia
Sep 11-Mar 12 Italy
Apr 12-Oct 12 South of France
Nov 12-Oct 13 Marrakesh or Fez, Morocco
Nov 13-May 14 Barcelona
June 14-Feb 15 Latin America (3 months in Mexico, 1 in Central America, 2 in the Andes and Southern Cone, and 3 in Brazil)
Mar 15-Oct 15 India
Nov 15-Aug 16 China
Sep 16-May 17 South Africa
And then after that back to the states- either New Jersey or Vermont. Now count the languages: 1. English, 2. German, 3. Swedish (with additional Scandinavian languages possible depending on where I end up) 4. Russian, 5. Italian, 6. French, 7. Arabic, 8. Catalan, 9. Spanish, 10. Portuguese, 11. Hindi, 12. Chinese, 13. Afrikaans, 14. Zulu
Here's the best part too: assuming I can make a go of professional genealogy, writing books, getting a doctorate in security studies and doing independent consulting work, helping friends with their projects, setting up my international club idea, and setting up the American Student Ambassador Program (ASAP, ha ha) there's really no reason I shouldn't be able to make a go of this. And clearly, additional entrepreneurial ventures will come along, as will more traditional jobs like working for AFS. Also, I just found out I can earn up to $2000 a year selling blood plasma in Vienna- which, don't laugh, actually works out to about $35 an hour.
And while the above listed timeframe might not allow enough time for perfect fluency in the above languages, I know that I can become conversational within 3 months in any Romance or Germanic language, or 6 months for any other language. It just takes a lot of grunt work, but that's okay.
So there you have it- with luck I'll be about to turn 36 with kids about to start kindergarten and be able to speak 14 languages. You only live once, so why the hell not?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Austrian names are fun

When it comes to last names, Austria finds itself in the same league as Sri Lanka, Georgia, and Thailand (home to such whoppers as, respectively, Jayasinghe, Shalikashvili, and Chulalongkorn) Witness the quattrosyllabic names of three prominent Austrians- Danspekgruber (a professor of mine at Princeton), Gusenbauer (the current Austrian chancellor) and Schwarzenegger (him you know).
But while Austrian last names are definitely longer on average than the average last name in Germany, the city names here in German are often quite short, with a particular plethora of four letter words. Witness Wien, Graz, Linz (the three largest Austrian cities), but also Ybbs, Wels, Melk, Gurk, Steyr, Lienz, etc.
Still, two Austrian city names stand out above the rest. The first is Fucking which I've known about since 2000 when I read an enlightening article on the town in that distinguished journal of arts and letters, Maxim. While browsing through the above Wikipedia link, I also learned that in neighboring Bavaria, one can find the towns of Kissing and Petting. Better visit those first. And just for the sake of thoroughness, once you're done with your, uh, romantic tour of cities in Bavaria and Austria, be sure to visit the district of Wedding in Berlin.
The other city name that makes me laugh out loud- and I only found out about this one this week when I saw it on the license plate frame on a car- is Rottenegg. Scroll down on the wikipedia link and you'll see it's a part of the town of Walding. Insert your own obvious joke here about the town's air quality...
For more procrastinatory fun with geographic names, click here. I had the great good fortune to pass by Intercourse, Pennsylvania while on my hike, and while doing research for a book project in Wisconsin in 2007 also unexpectedly came across the Bong Recreation Area. Good times.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Ups and Downs (but mostly Ups)

Just finished making it two weeks in a row at the pub quiz at Johnny’s Irish Pub. Tonight, we won by a quarter point since we knew that “A Ticket to Ride” was a song from the Beatles movie Help. So we needed Help and we got it :)
The best news from this past week was that AFS, the exchange student organization I first came to Austria with back in 1999, agreed to hire me for a 30 hour work week starting at the end of August. Granted, it might not be the most lucrative job in the world, but for a whole slew of reasons, it’s more or less my dream job here in Vienna. For starters, AFS is a non-profit that does great work, so the part of me that feels the need to work for a higher purpose is happy. Also, in addition to being an AFSer myself, my mother and aunt were both AFSers when they were in high school, my family hosted an AFSer from Indonesia two years ago, and I have worked for AFS on a paid basis before in Germany and as a volunteer for them in Egypt. So I’m on familiar territory. Finally, from a logistical standpoint, it’s not easy to find a job without a work permit (AFS will support my application for one, though many employers wouldn’t), a job where I won’t be starting for another four and a half months, or a job where they’ll let me work thirty hours a week when I want to. All of that, of course, is essential for me in order to continue with my other projects apace.
The worst news from this past week was that my apartment situation, which I thought had worked out very nicely, is now completely back to square one. The primary renter in the apartment where I’ve been the last week is a weirdo to say the least. Matters came to a head when she waltzed into my room on Sunday morning, glass of wine in her hand at 10am and more than a little shitfaced. She insisted on telling me some rambling and cockamanie story about her night before in some club even though your average imbecile, drunk or sober, would have noticed that I had utterly no interest and was trying my best to ignore her. That’s when she accused me of not having greeted her appropriately at one point when I was in a hurry the previous week- even though this was a few days ago, and on Saturday night, she had been with my friends and me, enjoying wine that I had bought, and all seemed perfectly fine. She then said she wanted to rethink the contract with me for this slight infraction. Somehow this all seems to clash with her stated desire to have “friendly and uncomplicated” people in the apartment. Meanwhile, I had baked cookies for everyone before I moved in as a friendly gesture, and a few days ago she helped herself to a carton of strawberries I had bought without asking me. To top it all off, her dog took a shit and pissed on the floor in my bedroom on Saturday and this woman has apparently never wandered down the deodorant aisle in the local supermarket.
Yuck. And sorry for the rant, but I have to speak to this woman tomorrow to tell her I’m out of here, so I guess I’m using the blog as my oppoprtunity to get all my arguments lined up. As a parting gift, I’m going to give her a bottle of Lady Speed Stick. Hopefully by tomorrow, I’ll have a new place (of my own) to rent, although I’m planning on buying an apartment by mid-June, at which point I’ll have finally settled the housing issue for good.
On a more positive note, I continue to do loads of training each day and have literally more energy than I have ever had before in my life. Highlights from this past week include doing my first biking hours in a beautiful part of Vienna near the famous “Wienerwald” or Vienna Woods. And then today, I was running to the gym through the beautiful historic center of Vienna when out of nowhere the theme from “Chariots of Fire” started playing. That made me smile and gave an added burst to my run. It’s so funny how in high school, when it was obligatory and involved going around in a circle at 8am, running was my least favorite thing in life- even more than my traumatic relationship with algebra. But now, as running involves barely more effort than walking, when I can run at high speeds for miles – faster than I ever have before in my life, I find that running, as well as my other time spent training, has brought me to a point that I’ve never been to before- and it’s only going to get even better. Noticing such progress and overcoming my limits is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done, and it is noticeably leading to an increase in something that I have had far, far too little of in my life since 1999: joy. And with all due respect to the hokey pokey, that’s what it’s all about.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Quick update

We won the pub quiz :)

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

How life should be lived, if I don't mind saying so myself

Greetings from Cafe Central- a beautiful, typical Viennese coffeehouse in the middle of the first district of Vienna. A few years ago, an American political scientist named Robert Kagan wrote a little book called "Of Paradise and Power." His central thesis was that Europe had moved beyond being overly concerned with the Hobbesian nature of international politics and had settled rather nicely into being some sort of post-historical "paradise." Of course, this was only possible because the United States was acting as the world's policeman, projecting its power all over the place so Europe didn't have to.
Well, that was all before a minor bump in the road (see catastrophes, Iraq) and now's not the time to debate systemic changes in the post-Westphalian, post-9/11international system. Suffice it to say, a day in my idea of paradise would be spent much like the current one. I've now been at Cafe Central for over three hours, and have dined langouriously on Gulaschsuppe and a Viennese specialty called Kaiserschmarn (sort of like french toast with plums) while drinking coffee and an Austrian beverage called Almdudler. I've been writing postcards to friends and family in the USA and have been corresponding with friends old and new (especially one particularly awesome new friend...:) via Couch Surfing (more on that in another post) and Facebook. Along the way, I've been studying Swedish, German, and English vocabulary and reading select articles from the New York Times and the Economist. And listening to my Ipod and making liberal use of the free wireless internet access here. Earlier I was even sitting outside in some unexpected vernal sunshine, though about an hour or so ago I moved inside to recharge my laptop and avail myself of the impending piano concert.
A little later on, I'll be moving into my new apartment- also in the first district next to the university- lifting and running at the gym, continuing my memoir of hiking the length of the USA, and meeting with friends with the objective of inflicting utter terror on the Vienna Pub Quiz scene.
It's at times such as these that I really regret my decision to forego law school or the ninety hour work weeks on Wall Street. Sigh.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Grüße aus Wien!

Hello and a herzlich willkommen to my continuing adventures in Vienna. So, what does one do if one just finishes hiking the length of the USA? Well, if you're me, the decision was pretty obvious, actually. Move to Vienna without having a job lined up. No really, it actually makes a lot of sense, allow me simply for the 93rd time in the last two weeks to explain:
To begin with, there are two big book projects on my agenda. The first, not surprisingly, is writing a book on my hike. Since I have my notes, journal entries, blog entries, and photos with me, I can write just as well here (actually better thanks to the wonderful Vienna coffeehouses) as in the states. The second project, meanwhile, is to continue with my family tree research that I started last year. This will involve going to all the countries my family came from (Germany, England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Croatia, and yes, Austria) so Vienna makes a great home base for that too. Next, with my flexible schedule, I've taken it upon myself as a challenge to get into excellent physical shape, especially since I'm planning on running in two marathons next month (including Vienna) and an ironman triathlon in September. Beyond that, I already have lots of friends in Vienna dating to the time I was an exchange student here, and yeah, beyond that, I've always had a thing for European girls...
But wait, there's more! Note that while all of the above are perfectly valid reasons for wanting to come to Vienna, there was no real mention of the notion of work in the above paragraph (well, unless the memoir of my hike becomes a runaway bestseller...). Still, there are quite a few options potentially workwise as well. With my master's in international relations, I'll be looking for jobs in the NGO sector, ideally with either the UN (the International Atomic Energy Agency is located here) or AFS, my one-time exchange student organization. I also might be able to do some work for a former professor, English tutoring, freelance research, etc. But really what I can foresee myself doing is some combination of the above, plus becoming a professional genealogist (I'm looking to get board certification by the end of this year), setting up a non-profit that would send young Americans living overseas to foreign high schools to talk about life in the USA (and also to improve our image abroad), and various other projects as they come to mind. Stay tuned for updates, about once a week or so, same bat channel, same bat website!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

First Post from Vienna!

Greetings! Just a quick post tonight to get this blog off the ground. Will post again within a few days with a more detailed update on events here. Auf wiederschreiben, David