Vienna has my heart.

I knew so little about Vienna before I got there it was almost criminal. I knew the Habsburgs were important. I knew about the Opera house, and I knew that Rick Steves loves Vienna. If I’m being honest, the last reason alone was enough to get me there, but man, was I in for a treat. While in the city of music, I discovered SO MUCH MORE to love about the former seat of a powerful empire, and the cultural hub of Europe.

To start, knowing as little as I did, I followed a TripAdvisor “Three Days in Vienna” itinerary. The Ringstraße, or ring road, circles the city. My hotel was outside of it, so getting to Ringstraße, and following it became my initial method of navigating the city. My first stop was the Winterpalais, per the itinerary’s suggestion, and what I found upon my arrival left a bit to be desired. Their exhibition at the time was modern art, and the art found in various rooms included a Bud Light box, a display of assault rifles made out of metal pipe, and stuffed sock monkeys. The palace was beautiful. The exhibit was something else. I decided after that experience I would just walk and see the city for the remainder of the day.

I made it a priority to find the cakes that Vienna is famous for, making my first choice the Sachertorte, a Viennese specialty made of dense chocolate cake and a thin layer of apricot jam, that is covered in dark chocolate icing. I stopped at the less touristy location of Konditorei Heiner, on Wollzeile, instead of the location on the main shopping thoroughfare of Kaerntnerstraße. I might have gone back the next day to try the other cake the woman helping me suggested, where I also happened to meet a lovely woman from Pittsburgh who had lived in Vienna for the last 20 years. Good conversation always enhances good dessert. I also had the chance to stop at the famous Café Sperl and enjoy a Sperltorte. Kaffee und Kuchen is a tradition I can definitely get behind. It’s a good thing I was only in Vienna for three days!

I also spent most of a day at Schloss Schönbrunn, exploring the beauty of the Imperial Palace and gardens. It was a busy day at the Palace, full of large tourist groups, but it was definitely worth the time and energy to get there and endure the crowds. I could have spent all day in the gardens, if there wasn’t so much else to see and do in Vienna!

I wandered through south Vienna for the rest of my second day, found a little bit of hipster Wien that reminded me of the Lyn-Lake area of Minneapolis, and finished my adventures at Silberwirt. I had a delicious Tuscany Cordon Bleu filled with Parma ham, mozzarella and basil, breaded in sunflower seeds. Hands down, it was the best meal of my trip; the setting of Silberwirt’s garden in their courtyard was perfect, John Legend happened to be my dinner companion, and the concern and care my waiter showed me made the night even more lovely. The Austrian people have been nothing but kind and caring in my several experiences in Salzburg and Vienna.

Other reasons to love Vienna:

  • The Kunsthistorisches Museum is incredible–not only do they have a huge amount of art from the Habsburgs, while I was there, they had an exhibit on photographs taken in Egypt in the early 1900s, so while experiencing Greek, Roman, Habsburg, and global history otherwise, I could also revisit one of my favorite travel experiences.
  • It has craft beer stores, where I found Surly. Beer that’s produced 10 miles from my house is available in Vienna. Though I always try to stick to local brews when traveling, my affinity for Vienna grew exponentially with this discovery.
  • It has some of the best street food–if you’re not sick of sausage, stop at Bitzinger Wurstelstand Albertina right across from the Opera House. I had the käsekrainer–a cheese sausage inside a delicious, crusty piece of bread. Keep in mind, if you’re trying to be a good guest in Austria (or Germany for that matter), don’t offend them by putting ketchup on your sausage!
  • The Viennese Opera is world-famous. If you can’t get tickets (which you should try to do), they’ve started live-streaming the shows outside the Opera House. Pick up some quick dinner across the street (see above!) and enjoy the Opera outdoors.
  • It is also an incredibly progressive city–there was a change several years ago to make the Ampelmännchen more representative of modern Austrian society. The change was supposed to be temporary, but as of July, they were still there, as public symbols of tolerance for all to see.

I can’t wait to get back to Vienna, and experience everything else the city has to offer. I’ll definitely plan for more than three days next time!

MC Lean

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Praha, in Czechia

A little aside before I begin: If you’ve been reading from the start (hi mom! 🙂 ), you may or may not remember me mentioning the “nickname” or shortened name the Czech Republic had decided to start emphasizing earlier last year. Turns out…very few people are using Czechia. [edit: I received an email from a gracious reader in Switzerland (!!) who informed me that google maps is already, in fact using the name Czechia. The reader is a member of the “Civic Initiative Czechia” (Občanská iniciativa Česko) that is working to mainstream the name that has roots in the Bohemian and Moravian history of the nation. He pointed out, very rightly, that it will certainly take time to get the name more mainstream, but it seems it is definitely gaining steam.]

I had high hopes for Prague. I had heard wonderful things from several friends, one of whom says it’s his favorite city in the world, and I had wanted to go for quite some time. It is a beautiful, historic city, and parts of my experience were thoroughly enjoyable, but in my short time there, it never really felt like a city I could fall in love with. However, there were some definite highlights: the free walking tours I took were great, and Prague Castle (and the monastery’s restaurant just outside the castle complex) are definitely worth a stop. I had some really interesting food, and some delicious beer (that in some cases is actually cheaper than water), and the weather could not have been more perfect for my time in Praha.

My most favorite part of Prague was its Jewish history walking tour. The one I took was self-guided, and included visits to several Synagogues, a few museums, and the Jewish cemetery in the heart of the Jewish quarter. Had I planned better, I would have also gone to Terezin (Theresienstadt in German), especially after I learned so much about the significance of that particular labor camp during World War II. I would definitely suggest a visit there, as it provides incredible (often missing) context for the Second World War, and the Jewish experience outside of Germany.

Prague seemed like a really little “big” city–or a really big “little” city–with its historic center compact and wonderfully walkable. It’s been the backdrop to many movies set in Europe, and partially as a result, it has been touched by western commercialism and consumerism, and not in a fantastic way. Economically, I understand the need for it, but I ended up in a mall that would unrecognizable from an American mall on more than one occasion. I had the opportunity to shop in pretty mainstream European stores more in Prague than I did in the rest of my solo trip combined–certainly avoidable, but as I love to wander, it was an unfortunate side-effect of my methods. When I go to Prague again, I’d take a few day trips outside of the city, to Terezin, and to Český Krumlov, a castle that is an hour or so outside of Prague. Nevertheless, everyone who is interested in important history, beautiful architecture, good food and drink, and seeing parts of the world they haven’t before, should go to Prague, and decide for themselves–I’m sure there are really appealing parts of the city that I missed out on.

Tell me what I missed–let me know what fantastic Prague attractions I neglected, or some Czech experience that I didn’t partake in that would have made the trip for me–I’m sure there are some out there!

I was fortunate, however, to find a little piece of Americana in Prague, as I was there over the 4th of July. A jazz club right off Wenceslas Square was having a night of American show tunes. If you know me at all, you know I love me some good old-fashioned musicals, and enjoying them while also honoring our Founders was an unexpectedly great way to commemorate the Declaration. It was as John Adams would have wanted.

On to Vienna, Austrian hospitality, and a return to the German language!

MC Lean

The Stasi Museum, data privacy, and yet another difference between Germany and the US

29 June, Berlin

Our third day in Berlin was actually spent largely outside of Berlin, at the Biosphärenreservat Schorfheide-Chorin, where we got to experience Germany’s outdoors at their finest. We met with youth rangers, and experienced some of the activities they do with German children who come to visit the nature preserve. We communed with nature, had an incredible lunch cooked in their outdoor kitchen, and got to decompress from city life and busy travel days.

One of the really reassuring things for me, just as homesickness was setting in, was experiencing landscapes that looked just like what I see at home. It all of a sudden made perfect sense that during the period of massive German immigration to the US in the middle of the 19th century, so many of those Germans came to the upper midwest in search of a new life. Turns out, it looked just like home. That had to be as comforting for them as it was for me this afternoon.

30 June, Stasi museum, East Berlin

Today was an incredible day, full of brain-stretching and challenges to our current expectations of human decency. We started the day listening to Dr. Thorsten Wetzling, a fellow from the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung, a think tank focused on how German politics and technology intersect. Dr. Wetzling took time to discuss security and data privacy in Europe with us. Not only was he incredibly fascinating, but it seems in our conversations afterward he also illustrated to the group of 15 of us just how little Americans know about data privacy, and for better or worse, how much we just trust that the right thing is being done for the most part.

One very insignificant, but illustrative example of this was our experience the first morning we were in Germany. One of our group members wasn’t in the lobby at our meeting time, and it seemed logical to all of us that we could just get the room number, and go knock on the door. Because of the importance of data privacy in Germany, the front desk staff wouldn’t give out the room number, even to our group leader, who was responsible for the entire reservation. Until put in historical context, this just seems like an inconvenience to Americans who lose hotel key cards and get new ones at the front desk without even verifying their identities. Germans are leery of allowing anyone access to information that could potentially compromise their safety and security. This is even evident to a much lesser extent in their public bathrooms. There is zero space between the door and the walls in German restrooms; no accidental peeping or feeling of slight discomfort in German toilets!

The incredible carefulness of most Europeans on the issue of data privacy is very clearly rooted in their own national and continental histories. After that meeting, we ventured to the Stasi Museum, which reinforced the importance of that context. The Stasi, or Ministerium für Staatssicherheit were the secret police of the East German government, and the influence they wielded was incredible. Our tour guide at the museum talked fast and was an incredible storyteller with incredibly personal connections to the subject. About 10 minutes into our tour, I was thinking out loud, and said: “think about how much more we’d know if everyone talked this fast and passionately.” The museum, and our guide, were both incredible sights to behold.

Following the atrocities carried out by Hitler and the Nazis during World War II, the Stasi ruled the lives of East Germans and those along the border during the Cold War. As with the gentleman we met at Point Alpha, who served as a West German guard along the border, the lives of those who were designated threats or even potentially connected to western, capitalist ideas were targets for psychological warfare. Schools indoctrinated students to believe that anyone who didn’t adhere strictly to the ideals and beliefs of the East German government was an anarchist bent on bringing down the fatherland. They created mobile units of solitary confinement, drove people around aimlessly to disorient them, randomly moved bicycles and cars from their designated spaces to make people think they were losing their minds, and pitted family members and neighbors against each other, in tests of loyalty and patriotism. The files the Stasi kept on DDR citizens have been opened, but many East Germans still don’t want to relive this incredibly painful, divisive era of their history.

Disgusting, immoral bottom line: if humans are intent on it, we can do incredibly damaging things to each other, without inflicting a bit of physical violence. Second moral of the story: if ever you’re in Berlin, make sure you stop at the Stasi museum.

Our fifth day was unplanned for the most part; some went to Sachsenhausen, some went to Museum Island, and I wandered the city, trying to plan a lesson and take in the city in whatever way it happened to unfold. Turns out getting stuck in an hours-long downpour was a part of the spontaneity of that day. Those of us who stayed an additional day also had the chance to watch the Euro Cup game in the Tiergarten, right in front of the Brandenburg Gate. As someone who’s not a fan of crowds, drunk people, or soccer, it was much better than I was anticipating. I could definitely see the excitement of enjoying soccer. I’m still not there yet, but much closer to potentially trying again…at some point…in the distant future.

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Praha awaits…stay tuned!

MC Lean

 

Berlin; Day 2

I apologize for the tardiness in keeping up with these posts; I figured that I should finish one adventure before I take on my next, so I’ll hopefully be more faithful in documenting the last weeks of our trip. This is all more for my own memory than anything else (…and also for the two family members who actually read this!), but if I can encourage even one person to do or see some of the things we had the chance to experience, it’ll be worth it.

28 June, Berlin

Our second full day in Berlin started with a wonderful surprise. Though I’m sure many of us had heard of “Cabaret” or read the Berlin Diaries, I had no idea prior to coming who Christopher Isherwood was, or why his tales were such an important part of Germany in the inter-War era. We took a walking tour of the neighborhood Isherwood experienced as an adult. We learned about Isherwood, his experiences as a gay male in Hitler’s Germany, the Schöneberg district of Berlin, and got to hear wonderfully-told stories that we may have never encountered otherwise. It was an incredible morning in the most unexpected of ways. If you’re interested in taking the tour, Brendan, a Brit expat, was a wonderful guide, and gives tours regularly.

We then had the chance to experience the Topography of Terror, which is a necessary stop for anyone who wants to feel the weight of life in Berlin during and after Hitler’s Germany. The documentary evidence of the Third Reich is incredibly moving and heavy; the remnants of the physical structure of the headquarters is eery, and the traveling exhibits they have are well done.

The remainder of the day was one of the most emotion-dense afternoons I’ve experienced. We had the incredible opportunity to hear about the experiences of Margot Friedlander. I’ve written about our experiences with Mrs. Friedlander before, because such an experience needs to be documented in numerous ways. The inhumanity and injustice of her experiences and the experiences of millions of others have weighed on me many times since, and it doesn’t get easier to understand. I think of what she shared with us on a near-daily basis, and often repeat the mantra she shared with us for living in the modern world:

“Be a mensch. Be a human. Be a thinking, feeling human being.”

We then got to experience the German people’s second favorite food–Italian– as we met with a representative of the federal foreign office for dinner. I enjoyed our conversations with someone so interested in our experiences and the education systems in the United States. It’s still incredible to me that the German government has made such a concerted effort (and financial investment) to help others encounter modern Germany. I’m grateful for the chance to have participated, and for the continual chances to relive it; here, in my classroom, on social media, and through the hundreds of photos and memories I took back home with me.

A really productive, thought-provoking day. One that will definitely be motivation to get back to Berlin soon!

MC Lean