Friday, November 30, 2007

Memoirs of a Non-Geisha in Salzburg Part 3

All of the Salzburg College students plus Petra stood on the platform of the Vienna Bahnhof, awaiting the train that would carry us away from Vienna and home to Salzburg. We surrounded our pile of backpacks and suitcases, like a herd of buffalo protecting the young. I needed to go use the W.C. and so did Megan, and we asked Petra if we had time enough. We were almost a bit afraid to ask her, just in case she would wig out on us. But no, on this home stretch she must have chilled out a little, as we were closer to the end of our trip than the beginning, and she said it was fine and that we had plenty of time.

When we were washing our hands after using the W.C. (52 euro cents to flush! Outrageous...), Megan slowed the pace down. “Hold on, we’re not in a rush. We can talk. I got a question. Do you think that Emily likes Eric?”

“I was thinking that! She kind of stole my standing place next to Eric at the opera last night. I had a feeling she would, and I didn’t mind at all, but I predicted in my mind that she would shoulder her way over when I was away at the W.C., and sure enough she did. She has a boyfriend though, I don’t know.” I shrugged my shoulders.

“Yeah, I noticed how she’s always hanging around him. But I was thinking.. isn’t he.. uh, you know… ?”

Even if he was, I didn’t think it was necessary to discover what exactly the specifics of it, but since she brought it up. “Probably. Not that it changes anything. I’m not going to treat him any differently. But Emily…”


“Did you hear about Petra last night?”

She cracked up. “Yeah, Dom said Petra was getting some booty call last night.” Geez, so happy to know that Dom's semantics have infiltrated general conversation. As soon as she said that, I glimpsed Petra walk ten meters behind Megan, past her, from the W.C. to the entrance to the platform.

“Whoa, shh. Look who’s behind you?”

Megan gasped. “Not Emily? Oh- Petra… She didn’t hear me, did she?”

“I don’t think so,” I said, as she disappeared into the crowd. We cracked up. “That was close!”

“Really! Hey, I’m really glad we go to hang out today, even when we were dragged all over town by that girl Jennifer and crazy Ethan. I think he was digging you.” She smiled mischievously.

“You think so?” I said. Earlier that day, we had rand

omly struck up a conversation with a couple of American students while waiting to see the Vienna Boys' Choir perform at Palais Augarten in Leopoldstadt. They were study abroad students from Wheaton College studying at the University of Bonn, and told us about this Hundertwasser Haus somewhere in Vienna that they were interested in visiting. Since our train was leaving later that day and we had made no real plans to see anything else in Vienna, we decided to tag along with Jennifer and Ethan. We spent the entire day combing the streets of Vienna, navigating the U-Bahn railway, attempting to find this colossal house of

architectural insanity. The houses was painted an assortment of bold, contrasting colors. The architect Hundertwasser wanted to defy typical architectural styles, topping the roof with grass and trees, creating winding staircases that led nowhere and a cobblestone floors that rippled unevenly throughout. Ethan seemed to take a particular interest in me, periodically stealing me away from the group to talk one-on-one and as he was sort of mildly cute, I allowed it and we later exchanged email addresses. From that moment on, I decided I would forever label this experience as my "European fling."

“Today was fun. I feel like we’ve been in cliques since we’ve gotten to Vienna.”

Megan breathed a sigh of relief. “I’ve thought that, too. It’s just because back in Salzburg, Linda and Dom live five minutes from us, though. We naturally do everything together. And Kacey and Emily aren’t exactly the friendliest people.”

Megan and I stood talking about our different perceptions about Kacey and Emily.I had gotten to know Kacey much better on this Vienna trip. I ought to know better by now, not to make assumptions about people, especially the shy, quiet ones. Introverts are often the most interesting of all! In Megan’s view, Meredith and Emily were a bit too sarcastic for her. I understood both sides. I still urged Megan to give them another chance. She conceded.

“Well, we better get back to the group, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, Petra’s probably freaking out, wondering where we are.”

Satisfied that we had this conversation, I walked back to our herd of buffalo, feeling like we had cleared some air between us. This little clandestine conversation had somehow formed a common bond, for we had articulated thoughts about the people in our group that otherwise would have been left unsaid. The group dynamics always intrigue me, and it was nice to discuss them with someone.

Sure enough, as we neared our group, I commented, “Look, there she is, freaking out.” Petra was straining to see us through the crowd, and a look of relief crossed her face when she finally saw us. We casually sauntered up to the herd, and glancing at my watch, I said “And with time to spare.”

“The train will be here soon.” Petra shot us this disapproving look that said “you could’ve missed the train!”

“What cabin number are we?”


As the train slowly pulled up next to the platform, our herd began to move quickly past the cars, straining to keep up with our fearless leader, as she forged on ahead, keeping a sharp lookout for number 455. We passed car after car. No 455. We passed other herds of backpackers, tourists, and families, all pushing through a cascade of backpacks and luggage. Forging became a brisk, manic run. Running became a stampede. I could almost see the end of the line of cars, where open track began and receded far off to the horizon. 455 was nowhere to be found.

“This is soooo weird! We’ve skipped from 400 to 900!” The edge in her voice signaled a change in Petra’s expression from one of calm and controlled, to rage and frustration. She stopped to ask for help from a train official, but he was preoccupied with another customer, and she growled at him and moved on ahead. We reached the end of the line. No 455. “Wait here. Don’t move,” she ordered us. “I am going to see what’s going on.” With that, she dropped her wheeled luggage and sprinted off in the opposite direction, until she became a tiny blonde and green speck amidst a throng.

“What do you think the deal is?”
“We have reservations. The car exists.”
“Yeah, we probably just missed it.”
“Ten bucks says it’s all the way down at the front."

"Don't you mean ten euros?"

"With this exchange rate? Negatory."

Someone shaded their eyes, and saw Petra desperately running toward us, yelling instructions at us and waving us to come back. “What’s that she’s saying?”

“It’s at the front? Crap, it’s all the way in the front!”
“You mean we have to run all the way back?”

I picked up Petra’s black Samsonite luggage, intending to bring it to her. The winds changed, so the herd started to move back toward the front of the train. Petra blew right past me, searching frantically for her luggage. “Um, Petra?” I motioned to the luggage at my feet.

“Thank you, Melissa! We have to run! Go!” And so began the mad rush. Again. The stronger, less apathetic ones sprinted all the way to the very front, where a very faint, ghetto sign said “455” in a nondescript color that has no place in a civilized spectrum. The stragglers slowed to a brisk walk, confident that this Austrian train would wait for them. And it did, with plenty of time to spare. There’s nothing like running foolishly in front of a crowd of people when you really don’t need to. That tortoise fellow did have that race thing figured out.

Then our seats disappeared. Although we had reserved seats 55, 56 and 57, they simply did not exist on this train. That means three of us didn’t have guaranteed seats. I think Linda and Dominique were still strolling down the platform and hadn’t joined us in our stampede, so they would probably have to be the ones to fend for themselves. Petra told us to find what seats we did have and then disappeared to go yell at a train official.

I sat in a six-seater compartment with Ben, Aery, Kacey, Chrystal, and Kira. I immediately noticed that Chrystal and Megan chose to sit in separate compartments. I shot an appreciative look to Megan: she was attempting to split up her clique, and talk with people other than Chrystal. Good for her. I was trying to do that and sit separately from Kira, but she didn’t get the hint, so we still sat across from each other. The rest of the train ride was a contemplative blur as the memories from the week melted together with the Austrian landscape.

After the train pulled into Salzburg, I had this strange feeling like I was returning to familiarity and comfort. I felt relieved to see the familiar streets, the Salzach River, the unmistakably Baroque skyline, the quaint homes, the hills and mountains. I looked forward to sleeping in my own bed, tucked away in my cedar-walled room on the upper floor of Frau Repp's house.

Vienna had been unpredictable, exciting and even a bit glamorous.

But Salzburg was home.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Memoirs of a Non-Geisha in Salzburg, Part 2

We were a quartet of pianists, dressed to kill, if I do say so myself. I imagine we looked something like a walking jewelry display case of slick, sparkling onyx. Dom did the European thing, and had a black knit sweater slung boldly over her shoulders, accented by a silver necklace. Emily G. had the classic black pants and blouse. I wore my cocktail dress, faintly splashed with silver designs. Classic black. All except for Kacey. Miss strawberry-blonde curls was decked up in a nice bright orange blouse and flowery skirt. She was like a cheerful bowl of sherbet uncharacteristically juxtaposed next to us onyx slabs of stone in the display case.

I was importantly clutching the city map of Vienna, and also my legal pad, on which Petra had scrawled specific directions to help us find the Konzerthaus for the piano concert we were to attend. Take the U-Bahn to Kagran, and get off at Karlsplatz. Alright. I got it.

We stepped onto the half-empty U-Bahn and sat down, four in a row, chatting about nothing important in particular. We were speculating on the nature of this concert, if we would even find the Konzerthaus.

Emily piped up. “Oh, look there’s Petra. Hello, Petra!” She waved enthusiastically and spoke almost a bit too loud.

We looked curiously over to see Petra swirl into the bus, blinking in recognition at us four students who sat quite casually on the seats, looking back at her in surprise. She had exchanged her jeans for a pair of tan ones, complete with a dark brown, beaded belt. A stylish, sparkling necklace hung from her neck, which seemed to intensify her sudden burst of swirling energy.

“And what are your plans for tonight?” Emily wanted to know.
A bit flustered, she swallowed some air, and said: “I’m meeting a friend. She’s meeting me in the city.”
“Oh, that’s nice.”
As the U-Bahn began to pick up some speed, she said: “I’m actually getting off at the same stop as you.”

We all breathed a sigh of relief. Including me. I didn’t trust my navigational skills one bit. We exited at Karlsplatz, and turned left, and headed up the escalator, carefully obeying the sign that said “Bitte stehen rechts.” Except for Dom. I don’t think she ever realized that this sign meant “Please stand to the right.” Oh well.

“Do you know where you’re going?” Petra asked us.
“Yes… We think so.”

She pointed to a path through a park that lead up to the Karlskirche, an opulently domed cathedral that seemed to be guarded by two strong, straight pillars. A fountain in the front anachronistically had a large, metal modern sculpture in the middle. “Just follow the road past the church, and that is where you are going.”

“Thanks, Petra. Have a good night!”
“Enjoy the concert.”

And she disappeared in the opposite direction.

We strolled through the park and headed in the direction of the road.

“Shouldn’t we cut across and make a turn here?”
“She said to follow the road. The Konzerthaus will be on the road anyway.”

“True true.”
“But there is a lot of construction going on here. I hope that this road still leads to where it’s supposed to!”
“Relax, I’m sure it does.”
“These heels are killing me already. This better not be a long road.”
“She said it would take about ten minutes.”
“My feet don’t have ten minutes.”

I kept alternating peering at the road and then perusing the map. It should be on the right, next to the Akademie. I squinted. “There’s a crowd of people in front of that building.” My eyes traveled up the building. “Konzerthaus. This is it!” I said excitedly.

“Thank God.”

A queue of cars were crawling slowly past the Konzerthaus, but it stopped to let us pass. We entered through one of the many pairs of double doors that graced the front lobby.

There was an unsettled, pristine orange glow that immersed the open, cavernous hall. Polished parquet floors shined, reflecting the faint shadows of the fashionably clad Viennese that tread upon them. The scent of expensive perfume wafted in and out of reach, and the clink of crystal glasses filled with champagne, juice, and sparkling water chimed around us in aristocratic flair. Fine ladies swathed in expensive silks and knit wraps surrounded us, as some gentlemen escorted them, while others congregated in dignified broods, speaking rapidly in German. The hum of conversation bespoke of anticipation and a determined sense of enjoyment. I checked my ticket. It said “Galerie Links.” Emily’s and Dom’s said “Galerie Rechts.” “I suppose we’re split up, then. Kacey and I are to sit on the left. You guys are on the right.”

“How can you tell?”

“Well, ‘links’ means ‘left’ and ‘rechts’ means ‘right’.”

“Oh, sweet.”

“Why don’t we meet after the concert, right here in the front lobby?”

“That sounds cool.”

And there our paths divided. Kacey and I turned left to hand the young usher our tickets, and he spoke in German and pointed us upstairs. Sometimes the best thing to do in these situations is to pretend that we understand, and we smiled and said “Danke” and headed upstairs.

The plush carpet that covered the marble stairs seemed to spiral up forever. It seemed like quite awhile until we reached the Galerie. We were early, and so it was no problem to slide into our seats. As I began to realize that our seats were directly in the middle of the galerie, I began to laugh. Perhaps we would see Emily and Dom after all. Sure enough, they appeared to our right and slid into the seats right next to us.

“That worked out well.”

“I was wondering about that. It makes more sense that we sit together.”

Alfred Brendel was a small, far off figure hunched over the nine foot Steinway, but all energy and concentration in the concert hall was directed to this man. His hands glided over the keys, and produced a beautiful, deep-set tone that precisely brought the works of Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert to life. The concert was absolutely astounding. It was a pleasure to recognize Brendel’s infinite sensitivity for dynamics, tone, tempo, touch, and emotion. Then the music, and not the famous celebrity and persona of Brendel, suddenly became the centerpiece, and my mind tried to follow the musical ideas, remembering that only the morning before, I had visited the Viennese residences of all three of these great composers. I listened for the distinct characters of each piece, the deceivingly simple nature of the Mozart Sonata, the poetic and sensitive quality of the Schubert piece, and the radically rapid and shifting emotions of each Beethoven bagatelle. I allowed my mind to rest upon the knowledge that had been shared with me, and the pleasure of allowing history to come alive within the confines of my mind. I knew I wasn’t the most intelligent, aware musician, but I knew I recognized beautiful music when I heard it.

I discovered that night that the Viennese love to applaud for an infinite eternity and shout “Bravo.” They could applaud until the blood stopped circulating in their limbs. Alfred Brendel entered and re-entered, bowed and re-bowed. I was thinking, “Let the poor man go home and kick off his shoes and go to bed early.”

The burst of applause finally began to recede, like the wave of people already ebbing toward the door. We followed the crowds down the staircase the spiraled down toward the lobby, and then stepped out into the cool night air.

As we strolled from through the streets of Vienna, Dom--in her infinite eloquence--remarked “Dude, that was so cool. We should all go out drinking tonight.”

There was a long pause. Kacey spoke up, “I’ve actually never gotten drunk before.”

“Really?” Dom was in pure amazement. “Never?”

Emily said “I tried to get drunk on my twenty-first birthday, but I couldn’t. It didn’t work.” She gave a short laugh.

Dom was clearly stunned. “Dude, I thought everyone at UF got drunk.”

“I’ve never been drunk either,” I offered. “And we’re the number two party school in the nation!”

“For real.”

“I think Melissa and I may be skewing the statistics a little. If not for us, UF would be number one.” Emily chuckled.

We laughed at this absurd notion. Dom said “Hey, that’s totally cool. I just assumed everyone at our school got drunk.”

Emily said what I wanted to say. “There’s more to going to college than getting drunk.”

“Yeah, but there’s nothing more fun! It’s the freakin’ weekend, baby! Whoo!” Dom charged down the streets.

We passed the Karlskirche on the left again, and saw our familiar friends Eric, Meredith, and Emily R. lounging out by the side of that grotesque, metal sculpture in the fountain.

“Hey how was the piano concert?”

“Awesome, dude, that guy was so good.”

“It was really something. He had incredible tone.”

“I enjoyed it, I thought it was good.”

The four of us sat down at the side of the fountain. The air was perfectly cool, and the streets weren’t crowded. A few faithful pilgrims, attracted to the beatific glow of the cathedral, were drawn like moths to a flame, and their dark figures standing on the not-too-distant church steps were emboldened by the light cast by electric torches and candles. A lone man was walking his dog, and a couple sat cuddled on one of the many park benches that lined the path across from us. And we chatted under the starlight, about nothing truly important, just the animated, slightly eccentric chatter that may inevitably arise from a group of music majors. We compared classes, theory professors, gossiped about the “incident” that happened last semester with “we won’t name names” from the clarinet studio, and how a bunch of students were caught cheating on an exam, while Kacey and Emily R. regaled us with the quirks of their experiences at UCO.

I mostly listened, then I began to tune out the conversation, busy with my own thoughts. I was so busy soaking in the experience as a whole. Sometimes I felt as if I were soaking it in too much, that I was missing it altogether. Talking with Kacey sparked my interest: we shared a common desire for music ministry, and she had some interesting stories to tell about The Stellas, the band she was formerly a part of, acting as a keyboardist, keytarist, and back up vocalist.

Group conversations like these always make me step back and say to myself, “This is college.” Conversation just flows so naturally and uninhibitedly, that the seams of mutuality almost are invisible- these seams are merely accepted as a part of the fabric of life, and conversation continues as normal; however, one either consciously or unconsciously remains aware of and enormously grateful for that mutuality.

After an hour or so, we decided it was time to head back. We headed through the park to the Karlsplatz U-Bahn stop. Since it was rather late, the train stops became less frequent and we had to wait a few more minutes than normal. The group started talking about Petra again, and how she is constantly freaking out when any one of us is thirty seconds late for a meeting place.

I suddenly remembered seeing her on the train earlier that evening. “Hey guys, who here thinks Petra is on a hot date tonight?”

Dom, Emily, and Kacey all nodded vigorously and raised their hands, laughing, and suddenly remembering. It was as if we had a collective reawakening from the same dream.

“She did look really dressed up tonight.”

“And she was wearing mad cool jewelry. That girl’s got some mad cool jewelry.”

“And she looked kind of nervous when we asked her where she was going.”

“Wait, tell them the story,” Dom said, motioning to Meredith, Eric, and Emily R. “They don’t know what happened.”

We told the three of them how Petra had come on the train, and she was fabulously dressed, and was kind of secretive about the whole thing.

“Definitely on a hot date.”

"I still say she's a secret agent." More laughter.

Eric piped up. “I think we collectively figured her out the other night at dinner. We (I still don’t know what the boy meant by “we”… I think he was alone in this analysis) decided that she’s about thirty-three years old, and she’s waiting to have a family of her own. She’s not married, but she wants to be, and she wants children. We noticed at dinner the other night that she was watching Mutlu with her baby, and there was a bit of longing there.”

“She would make a good mother.”

“She kind of has that motherly instinct with us, doesn’t she?”

The train pulled up and carried us away from Karlsplatz toward Kolschitzkygasse. With a laugh, I suddenly realized why all of us were so fascinated with Petra’s mysterious date. We are a group of 15 college students, mostly female, with the exception of two guys. The first, Ben, is engaged and very much in love with his fiancée. And Eric is in love with his clarinet. So naturally, all of us are happy that one of our kind is getting, what Dom so eloquently describes as, “Booty call.”

We disembarked at Sudtiroler Platz, then looked for the sign that said Kolschitzkygasse. I think it was named after the chap who introduced coffee to the Western world. Those Turks did something right when they left behind those strange little green beans.

We parted our separated ways to separate rooms, after retrieving our keys from the receptionist at the desk. I went up to room 307. Kira was inside, stretched out in front of the television. “Hey you! How was the concert?”

“Amazing. How was your solo adventure?”

“Unbelievable! I have to show you pictures. I went to Café Demel, and I think I tricked the waitress into believing I spoke German.”

“No way! That’s really neat.”

“Well here’s what happened. I sat down at a table, and ordered ‘Ein Einspanner und… und.. und’ and I couldn’t think of what I wanted, so I said the first thing that popped into my head: ‘und tiramisu, bitte.’ And instead of acting all snooty like the travel book said she would, she took my order and was actually quite friendly about it. Then she came back five minutes later and started rattling off to me in German, and I just kind of acted like I knew what she was saying, and nodded my head and said ‘Ja’. It wasn’t until she walked away that I actually somehow figured out what she was saying. She was saying something about how the tiramisu didn’t have the normal amount of chocolate in it, and if that was okay with me. So she totally thought I was German!”

Kira happily prattled on about how she had wandered the city, and took the city tram system, and accidentally ended up in the ghetto. She excitedly clicked through the pictures in her digital camera, showing me snapshots she had taken of her einspanner and tiramisu, as well as the princely array of tortes and assorted pastries that lined the glass display cases of Café Demel. “Oh by the way, you’ll never guess who I saw when I was walking around the Stephensplatz.”


”Petra! She was with a girlfriend.”

“No!” I jumped up from the bed. “She’s supposed to be on a date with a guy.” I explained to Kira the whole business of Petra on the train, and how we all thought that she was meeting a secret date.

“Darn it. So did you say hi to her?”

“No she was kind of far away, in the crowd. Plus she looked like she was having fun, and I didn’t want to interrupt or anything. That would have been kind of weird for me to wave and go ‘hey, Petra!’ Then she would just have to explain to her friend, ‘yes, this is one of my crazy students’ No way, man.”

"Dang it! We really wanted to her to be on a date. Oh well.” Kira was laughing at how upset I was.

There was a knock on the door. It was Kacey. She wanted to know if she could use our hair dryer. As she began to dry her hair, I sat down to write in my journal once more, and Kira continued to chat away. When Kacey was finished, she came in and sat on Kira’s bed. “Kacey, do you want to look at the pictures of my little adventure tonight?"


“I went to this café, and the waitress totally thought I was German!...”

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Memoirs of a Non-Geisha in Salzburg

I have decided to post memoirs from my time in Salzburg, Austria in the summer of 2003. I was recently digging around in my old hard drive from my college desktop computer and I found 20 Microsoft Word pages worth of my random impressions and memories of Salzburg. I enrolled in a 5-week summer study abroad program in Salzburg, the city famous for Mozart and the Von Trapp Family singers.

Keep in mind that I was 18 when I wrote this, and it's quite ridiculous to consider how much I have changed since then. Nonetheless, I am more or less posting this in its original form, with a few edits here or there. I honestly don't know what is possessing me to post this--it might have to do with the late hour and the fact that I am a bit bored at the moment--but I figured, what better way to say hello to my 23rd year by indulging a bit of nostalgia.

Also: I am definitely not posting this all at once... I wouldn't do that to you... Think of this as the first of several installments.

Enjoy! (before I undoubtedly delete this by morning...)

So without further ado, and keeping in tune with the theme "randomness and ruminations," I give you:

Memoirs of a Non-Geisha in Salzburg (Part 1)

My first encounter with Salzburg College was amidst an overwhelming feeling of culture shock and jetlag. My roommate and I arrived at our host home in Salzburg 1 o’clock earlier that morning. The next day was drizzly and cold, and tired though we were, we had to find our way to Salzburg College, trying to learn the names of the bus stops we needed to know, simultaneously not being used to European public transportation or German language. That first, gray morning in Salzburg I was wide-eyed and terrified of the strange new world that didn’t speak a word of English.

Trying to concentrate on directions, and keeping warm and dry under a flimsy London fog umbrella can prove to be more frustrating than one would initially think. We crossed a bridge from Theatergasse, over the Salzach River, and scrambled over cobblestones and wet pavement, and, impatient for some dry shelter, we were relieved to finally reach the heavy iron door to Salzburg College, at Ursulinplatz 4. We pressed the intercom button, and the voice of a happy, Austrian lady greeted us with “Who is this?”

“Kira and Melissa.”

“Come on in!”

The door clicked, and we pushed through and stepped into a small lobby area, with a stone floor, and rows of pegs to hang coats, umbrellas and hats. A spiral staircase beckoned us to come up, past a bulletin board, papered with announcements and information. We met Gretel, the voice from the intercom, and she was a petite, cheerily dressed bundle of energy. The square, stylish glasses could not hide the smile in her eyes, and her short, cropped hair seemed to get their spike from sheer joy. She welcomed us, and directed us to the library which was on the top floor of the four-story converted townhouse.

The library was surprisingly bright and airy, and the shelves of books circled around us like an embrace, eager to welcome a new batch of incoming students. It was a relief to see Chrystal, Megan, and Emily already seated at their desks, and there were six new faces, segregated on the other side of the library, sprawled behind tables and desks. One alert, smiling girl straightened her posture as we walked in and gave Kira and me an openly curious and friendly grin. I smiled cautiously (as shy people always do- you’d think we’d get over the initial “surprise” of new faces and just simply dive in, but no, for some reason we shy people are always genuinely surprised by friendliness), and the alert smiling girl introduced herself as Annette, she explained that she was born in Salzburg, but moved to America when she was eight years old.

We eagerly exchanged stories about our first night in Salzburg, about what we had for breakfast, and what our living situations were like. Annette has to take a train every day to class, because she lives with her aunt in Obendorf, a town several miles away. Chrystal and Megan had the entire top floor of Frau Schreiner’s house to themselves, complete with a bathroom and kitchen area, much different from our situation: Kira and I each had our own separate bedroom, but we had to share the guest bathroom, which was on the first floor.

“And Emily, we’re glad to see you. What happened? How did you get here from Munich?”
She gave a regretful laugh. “Yeah, I waited in the airport in Munich all day yesterday for you guys, then I got tired of waiting and checked into a hotel. Then the next morning I took a taxi to Salzburg.”

My jaw dropped open. “You took a taxi from Munich to Salzburg?” I didn’t even want to think about how expensive that was.

“Yeah, my first two days out of the country, I’ve spent 400 euros.”

Ouch. “That’s rough. I’m sorry.”

She shrugged. “What can you do?”

“I’ll just be grateful that you’re here.”

Another regretful laugh. “Yeah, me too.”

Gradually, the rest of the students sauntered in the room, each gingerly picking their prospective seats. One had the feeling that we had to be extra sensitive about everything in our new surroundings. I strained to see the other four unfamiliar figures. One short, pig-tailed head was propped over the backpack that she clutched, while a shock of curly, strawberry blonde hair faced forward, staring straight ahead at the projector screen and shelves of art history books. An elderly gentleman peered at us through large, round glasses and sat tentatively at the back, as if he were the caretaker of this gaggles of grown-up school children, and unsure if he should let us know if he were the leader, or here of his own accord. A guy with a long, blonde ponytail and clad in a conspicuously enthusiastic Bob Marley shirt greeted us with a “How y’all doing?”

“Where are you from?”

“Rome, Georgia.”

“We’re all from Florida!”

He nodded his head and smiled. “Cool.”

“What’s your major?”

“English. But I’m taking German here.” His heavy Georgian drawl was somehow strangely comforting.

Eric said something about having corn flakes for breakfast. Kira and I chimed in that we had corn flakes as well. Must be an Austrian thing….

A young woman, dressed in a black business suit, whirled her way into the library. She wasn’t too tall, but she had a commanding presence, and to me, she fit my idea of the Austrian stereotype- she had fine features, with a crown of honeyed hair, and a surprisingly warm smile. She introduced herself as Petra Jenewein, and she was to be our academic advisor for the next five weeks.

Her youth was quite misleading, and I assumed that she was new at this, and I dismissed the notion that she would be the great giver of advice and support and information. Her brief introduction of herself was disarming and surprisingly impressive: she was an English and Geography major at the University of Salzburg, where she specialized in Geographical Informational Systems, with an emphasis on satellite-based urban planning and remote sensing. This complicated technical jargon founded the basis of her dissertation work, which she was currently in the midst of completing.

What I had assumed would be a dry, pedantic information session was transformed into an animated string of anecdotes, random trivia, and good, practical advice. Perched casually atop a veneer library table, Petra related to us stories of her initial encounter with American culture, when she visited the States for the first time. She described her awe at the vast size of a supermarket, and she poked fun at the American tendency to say “Excuse me,” even though your shopping cart may be three meters away, with no possibility for collision! She explained the mystery of “Der Föhn,” a warm, westerly wind that blows through the mountains, and she gave us the permission and the privilege of native Salzburgers- the ability to blame the klutzy moments in our lives on “Der Föhn.” So if we were “sick in the morning, late to class, had a horrible music lesson, stuck in traffic” or even stubbed our toes, we could just shrug our shoulders and account such misfortunes to this infamous, meteorological scapegoat.

Perhaps the most valuable piece of advice that she imparted to us was this: “In any culture or city, you can only see as much as you know.” She explained that, though Salzburg was an extremely beautiful city, as evidenced by its skyline, which boasts the coppered domes of Gothic cathedrals and Baroque chapels, these buildings “will have no meaning if you don’t know the history behind them”. Thus began our history lesson, about the principalities of Austria, and the governing structure of the Old City, and the influence of St. Rupert, and the rule of the prince archbishops. Punctuated by slides which gave us a taste of the city which would be our home for the next few weeks, Petra prepared us for our walking tour of Salzburg, and breathed life into these tall, imposing structures which we encountered on every sidewalk.

In a way, Petra herself was very much like the fortresses and cathedrals that we saw in Salzburg. I was very impressed by the outward, imposing grandeur of St. Peter’s Cathedral, the Franziskenkirche, and the Festung. But this impression never went beyond superficiality until I understood the history behind the ancient buildings and forms of architecture.

Such was the case with Petra. I had no knowledge of who she was as a person, beyond that brief autobiographical blurb she had given us. As the weeks passed by, I began to understand how deeply the level of commitment and passion really went, concerning this job that she had. In fact, after that first day of orientation, for the next two weeks, I never gave Petra a second thought. I was so consumed with adjusting to life in Salzburg, and meeting new people, and practicing for piano, that I never stopped by her office once.

And then came the Vienna field trip. The hint of the role she would play in that Vienna trip came earlier that week, on Tuesday, when our entire group met at Salzburg College to go to the Mozart Wohnhaus. As our first field trip together, all fifteen of us had no idea what the routine was, but Petra met us there at the cobblestone square at Ursulinplatz 4 that morning, and then she guided us by the riverside, and over the Salzach, to the Theatergasse, where Mozart’s residence is sandwiched between jewelry and china shops and a café. I remember her randomly stopping in front of the Hotel Sacher Café, bidding us wait while she ran inside to make what we could only assume to be a purchase. Who eats Sacher Torte at 9 in the morning? We stood outside of the café, puzzled at this seemingly random detour from our itinerary. If there is one thing Petra is not, she is never frivolous.

We never did solve the mystery of that random stop. We often joked that Petra really is a CIA agent, and that her penchant for satellite-based research actually served as a cover for her true covert operation, in which she is the designated spy with access to all forms of surveillance, and that the Sacher Torte Café was the rendezvous point with her higher up contacts and fellow agents, to whom she relegated all procured information from her Salzburg College base of operations.

Ah, yes, the imagination of over-stimulated college students.

Monday, November 19, 2007

hey facebookers!

If you're on facebook, our band the OaKs is now add-able (is that even a word?) through the iLike application. I actually resisted adding this application many months ago, because it made my profile look too cluttered.

However, since then, I've added iRead, Movies, Mafia, Scrabulous, Pet Dragons, Harry Potter Sorting Hat, Pirates, Ninjas, Pirates vs. Ninjas, Pirates and their Mothers versus Ninjas and their Second Cousins twice removed, etc.... and totally neglected to re-add iLike, therefore perpetuating this never ending stew of mind-numbingly pointless yet somehow strangely diverting world known as facebook.

So, come add us to your profile!;)

src="" alt="iLike The Oaks"/>

Friday, November 16, 2007

Bad Drivers in America

According to a recent CNN article, 36 million American drivers would flunk a driver's test. Idaho had the highest number of knowledgeable drivers, and New York was at the bottom of the barrel (big surprise)... along with Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Washington D.C.

You can take a driver's test and see how well you would do!:

Sadly, I scored right about average at 75%...

However, I am not putting too much stock on the national statistics, because strangely enough, the most populous areas in America scored the lowest. I have to believe the numbers are slightly skewed, because the urban areas, home to Chicago, Pittsburgh, NYC, Boston, the northern Jersey area, etc. scored low, while the least densely populated states in America (Idaho, Alaska, South Dakota) scored relatively high. The numbers probably had more to do with the statistic sampling in proportion to the overall population, rather than actual driving ability. Still, I still think the numbers are on target for drivers in America.

On the road, these are common blunders I see:

Failure to signal before making a turn
Failure to merge properly into traffic on the freeway
Failure to pull to the side of the road when an emergency vehicle is attempting to pass
Road Rage: Unnecessarily honking, tailgating, flashing high beams

Any others?

Thursday, November 8, 2007

NYC photo

In celebration of finally finishing the OaKs second album, I am posting these pics.

Tim, I hope you don’t mind I’m stealing this photo from your flickr.

I am just posting this because I felt silly for not taking any pictures while in NYC. Forgive me, for those photophiliacs out there.

Anyway this is a photo of Greg, Matt Ryan and me outside of

Fontana’s in the Lower East Side, shortly before we went tramping around Manhattan to find the Fanatic Promotion office.

And yes, I am glowing for some odd reason.

This is one of the promo shots taken by Stephen Taylor. We basically covered the walls and ceiling of Ryan and Denise's ex-dining room into this master piece. While taking this picture, Stephen told us to look at our favorite artist up there. You can't see in the picture, but trust me when I say I am looking at Billie Holiday. Somebody tacked one of her albums to the ceiling.

Anyway I am basically just thrilled I don't look like an Amazon warrior princess. Stephen used a wide angle camera lens on several of the pictures and I just happen to be at the end of each of those pictures. Consequently, I look like a monstrous lady with her tiny band of Ozian munchkins. I actually voted to rename the band Big Lady and the Munchkin Band.

Or we can just keep "the OaKs", with a capital K.


Monday, November 5, 2007

killing God?

Okay, so now that the film The Golden Compass is coming out, many film critics, conservative Christians and Pullman book fans are in a tizzy because of what the film—in their opinion—has failed or succeeded in doing.

Thankfully, The Golden Compass film has eliminated any anti-church, anti-God sentiments and instead portrays the conflict as being merely anti-power-hungry-religion organizations. I can deal with that. I am actually hoping the films do a great job of telling the story of Lyra and Will without all of that atheistic crap that was in the book.

That said, this film is probably doomed to fail, mostly because although it will be fairly innocuous on the big screen (pleasing conservative Christians, while angering devout atheists and Pullman fans), the film will undoubtedly spark interest in the book (angering conservative Christians and pleasing devout atheists and Pullman fans).

And all of this would undoubtedly perturb Michael Scott, and his preference for win/win/win scenarios, sans compromise;)

Ultimately, I predict the film version will probably only satisfy two camps of people: 1) people like me, who appreciated the compelling storyline, prose and characters in the books, but found the atheistic element forced and contrived and will be glad to see it go … and 2) people who know nothing about the book and just came into watch the film because the trailer looked interesting.

The element I find most fascinating in the critique of the books is that this idea of “killing God.” I think many people are hearing the idea of a young girl “killing God” and associating it with the film, and immediately label it as unsuitable, heretical, dangerous, etc.

I am more interested in Pullman’s assumption that one could actually kill God. What does that exactly mean?

To take offense at Lyra supposedly “killing God,” one would first have to examine the book and see how God is portrayed in the novels. Is it the Judeo-Christian God, YHWH, Creator, all-powerful, all-loving God that we see in Scripture and in history? Or is it a false God that is merely after power, with no love or regard for humanity?

Having read the entire trilogy, I can say with a definite assurance that the Judeo-Christian, all-loving, all-powerful God is NOT the God portrayed in Pullman’s book. The God in Pullman’s book is manipulative, fickle, destructive, insidious, powerful but not all-powerful. He may be a god, but he is not God.

My God cannot be killed. And if He were anything less than what He is, He would not be God. If He were mortal, He would not be God.

So tar and feather me if you may, but I have no problem with Lyra killing this “God” who in fact is not God at all, but merely a god. The god Lyra destroys is finite, non-eternal and non-loving. The “God” in Pullman’s books has a beginning and an end. There’s this passage where this “God” (or Authority as he is named in the novel), is admittedly described as not being the creator, only that he assumed credit for doing so and deceived others that followed into believing he was the original creator.

I honestly think Pullman unseats himself in his atheistic worldview, because while his storytelling is magnificent, his point is laughable. He has not achieved anything remotely Nietzsche-esque in his quest to kill God, he has only killed a character, and not a likeable one at that.

The God I know and worship and serve and believe in looks nothing like this “God” portrayed in Pullman’s books. So if he wants to kill this entity in his alternate universe that bears no semblance to reality or truth, then how can I fault him for killing a mere character? It’s his literary universe, he is entitled to develop characters and storylines as he wishes.

That said, there is a dangerous element to his novels, mainly because the books have been widely read and accepted by children. As a liberal arts major with a penchant for literary critique and analysis, I have the luxury of sitting back and blithely enjoying the trilogy (even if the books’ moral and metaphysical conclusion is a bit self-indulgent and contrived) because I can filter. However, if kids are going to be reading these books, I can see kids mistaking “God” for God, and swallowing Pullman’s worldview whole. And this is where parental caution and concern needs to intervene.

And as far as the “anti-church” sentiment plays through the novels, I believe that the true Church—the remnant—has never been about gaining power and ruining people’s lives through ambition and greed. Historically, that undoubtedly has occurred (Spanish Inquistion, the pre-Reformation Catholic Church with indulgences and simony, the Crusades, etc.) but such an abuse of power is a corruption of the true nature of the Church. Or what my friend David calls the drawing the line between the true Church and the “apparent church.”

This is where I believe Pullman’s anti-Christianity diatribe is contrived and a little—for lack of a better word—silly. He attempts to point at Christianity and say “look, look at them and all of the terrible things Christians have done to gain power over people’s lives, to oppress, and to withhold truth”, all in an attempt to make God and the church seem like the enemy. The ironic thing is that the God of the Bible stands opposed to oppression, and defends the poor and the needy, and even suffered to the point of death on behalf of humanity to ensure that we enjoyed an eternal life with Himself. To me, the passion and the cross speaks volumes about how far God is willing to go to prove His love to humanity.

The funny thing about the book is that despite heavy references to Adam and Eve and the Garden and Eden, Pullman virtually eradicates any mention of Christ. And you know why? If you’re going to espouse any atheistic argument, you almost have to leave Christ out of it. Because in Christ, so much of the atheistic argument is laid to waste… One of the biggest and most famous arguments against the existence of God is the problem of evil. This argument against Christianity typically goes as follows: that the all-powerful, all-loving God of the Bible can’t exist because either A) he may be all-powerful but he’s not all-loving, because what loving God would allow evil in the world? or B) He may be all-loving but he’s not all-powerful because he is unable to stop suffering and evil, as much as he might want to. This is a valid, formidable argument that must be wrestled with.

But to me, Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross—while it may not conclusively prove the existence of God—it proves at least the converse side of the argument. In other words, the cross proves that merely citing evil and suffering in this world is not a sufficient argument for proving that God does not exist. And more than that, Christ himself entered into our suffering. You can rail against God all you want, but in Christ, He offers us the ultimate picture of sacrificial love as an offensive strike against suffering and evil, and He’s proven His suffiency in doing so.

No other religion claims that God has suffered on behalf of humanity. None. That is one of the most compelling distinctions about the Christian faith from all other religions…You have to deal with the truth of the cross and the mystery of Christ. Period.

If anything, I think Pullman’s books constitute an important dialogue between conservative Christian and atheistic circles. Both groups have at least some misunderstandings about the other camp, and I think it’s important to address these issues. I would be annoyed to see Christians hear the words “a little girl kills God” and run away or blindingly decry the book, without ever having even tried to understand what’s really going on at a deeper level with our Western culture and intellectual ideas being spun around. I am also annoyed that many atheistic Pullman fans would automatically assume that the book is saying what they think it’s saying and that Christians ought to be automatically against the series, period.

I think this trilogy ultimately represents in our culture today two worldviews at work and what can truly happen when they’re rubbed up against one another.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Christians and politics

So I had an interesting (and somewhat heated) conversation with a couple of co-workers today about Christians in politics.

Remember that rule of etiquette someone somewhere in the distant past of our childhood told us are the taboo topics for polite conversation? Yes, religion and politics.

Oh yes.

Anyway, one friend put forth the argument that the “Church should be the Church” and that Christ rejected all forms of political power and political expectations, and therefore shouldn’t we as followers of Christ remove ourselves from the political arena? He said that the Great Commission and the call to serve is not fulfilled in ballots or legislation, but in serving one another and being the Church. He also posed the question “Is it possible for a Christian to remain in political office without compromising Christian values or faith?” He seemed to answer “No,” in so many words.

I am still wrestling with this, but think I generally agree with his statements, but not his rhetorical framework, and surely not his final conclusion.

I do agree that Christ did reject political power. It was not his intention to assume an earthly kingship, by any means. I do believe however, that it was His intention—through humility, love and sacrifice—to establish a greater kingdom (“All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me…”) By dying on the cross he (among many other greater things) also overturned popular cultural ideas concerning power. His example as a Servant King surely teaches us to serve one another, and not for any kind of political ambition or gain.

My friend also said “serving one another” and “being the Church” is what we are called to. Also, I agree. But I think I differ with him in that I think it is possible to be part of the Church and step into the political arena.

The best example I can think of off the top of my head is William Wilberforce. I know I’ve blogged about the man before, but his biography was probably one of the most fascinating books I read in the past year. All this man wanted to do was retreat into his garden and reflect on God and his creation within the safe realm of a humble botanist. Circumstances, conversations with certain friends and ultimately the call of God led him to be a part of British politics. As many of you know either from history or from the film Amazing Grace, his battle for votes and legislation eventually led—albeit circuitously—to the abolition of slavery, a universally agreed social evil. And Wilberforce pursued abolition, fueled by a personal conviction which was unequivocally grounded in Scripture. Wilberforce deeply believed in the intrinsic value of people created in the image of God, the dignity that comes with that, and the call to love people. For Wilberforce in his place and time and circumstance, “loving people” meant doing something about the millions of people around the world who suffer physical slavery. For Wilberforce, the kingdom values of freedom from oppression and defense of the poor and needy were translated into action, mostly in a political arena.

I’ve found that many Christians don’t fully understand the issues regarding politics. It is boiled down to morality voting (vote no for abortion, no to same-sex marriage) and that’s pretty much as far as most average American Christians take their voting. And because this simplistic view prevails, many Christians simply retreat from engaging thoughtfully with these issues, never considering that there might actually be an appropriate, biblically-based, strategic response to issues like poverty, war, environmental problems, not even counting stem-cell research, abortion and same-sex marriage, the issues that a majority of American Christians seem more comfortable debating and voting on, whether or not they are well-informed.

I’m not proposing a “social gospel” that focuses on “doing.” I’m talking about how kingdom values translate holistically into how we participate in culture and engage with the people around us. Christians talk all the time about “being in not of the world” but very few actually make this a holistic lifestyle. The Church—when genuine and true—has historically been radically opposed to assumed cultural values, by being an alternative community that promotes God’s kingdom and embodies Christ’s love and example through love and service.

I find it hard to believe that God means for us to retreat from the political arena, simply for fear that we might compromise our values in the dog-eat-dog atmosphere of modern politics. Does the common person struggle less with temptations of power? True, power can heal and restore as easily as it can corrupt. But to me, that is simply not a sufficient argument for overall Christian withdrawal from politics. If anything, it’s a statement of how much more followers of Christ should at least thoughtfully engage these issues and participate when necessary. Ideas will continue to shape the destiny of this world…

I really enjoyed the conversation. Since graduating, I feel like my brain muscles have severely atrophied. So this was a good exercise for my deteriorating brain.

Any thoughts on this issue? I don’t claim to have a well-defined stance on any of this, but it certainly is a heated topic!