I can’t tell you much about that first day in Vienna.
We had lunch at Naschmarkt, which we all agreed had excellent dining and people-watching options. We enjoyed a nice Italian dinner with Hermann (head of the Institute), Verena (one of the extremely kind assistants at the Institute) and Elizabeth and Christine (two of our German conversation teachers at the Institute). When we went back to the B & B at about 8 p.m., most of us walked around and explored for a little bit, but we all wanted to fall asleep. So we did. It was a sleep that was interrupted by loud city noises, but a sleep we needed nonetheless. Plane flights are hard.
After breakfast, we left most of our heavy luggage in the care of Baronesse. We would not need it for the next five days. Just a small bag, cameras and a mind ready for Austrian mountain fun, which is not too different from American fun, but maybe with just fewer SUV’s and more spoken German.
We boarded a train at Westbahnhof, which is in the 15th district of Vienna (there, a brief Vienna geography lesson for you), which was like a mini-airport, with people bustling about. Up, down, out, in – on to the next destination.
We were en route to the Gasteiner Valley to spend the next four days in Dorfgastein (Dorf means village in German), which is a tiny town with a profitable ski resort. Of course, we would not be skiing. Somewhat difficult to ski when the slopes are all green.
But Gastein was green and beautiful and like a dream. It was as if the mountains and the fresh air and the green would never end and just carry west to Switzerland, north to Germany and south to Italy, forever and ever. The cottages and B & B’s were sleek white against the mountains, covered in multi-colored flowers hanging beneath the windows, beckoning you to the town, asking you to throw on a Dirndl or some Lederhosen and grab a mug of beer.
I’m serious. This place did not feel real. Was life real? Maybe this is why Nietzsche became a recluse in the Alps for a while (he was also just a strange man, but that is beside the point).
I never wanted to leave. How could I when I had fantastic views on my deck and everywhere I went?
My deck was located in Pension Theresia, run by two wonderful people. Fritz, one of the owners of the Pension,was always wearing a bright T-Shirt – orange during two of the days – with a rugged pair of jorts. Jorts were perfect for the scenery, and Fritz was part of the scenery, whereas we were completely apart from the scenery--mainly because we do not speak German well.
OK, some of us can speak a minimal amount of German, and some are quite good at German, but most of us certainly do not know enough German to have long, full and meaningful conversations. In fact, five of us (out of ten) had never taken a German class in our entire lives before this trip, so the language barrier was going to be tricky at the beginning.
Luckily for us, we had wonderful conversation teachers named Elizabeth, Christine, and Wolfgang. Wolfgang is Hermann’s brother. Christine is just twelve days older than me, so it was great for our group to get to know someone our own age right away. The people of Dorfgastein were all friendly and welcoming. We all quickly learned (or, for those with German experience, used our previous knowledge) how to accomplish back-breaking obstacles, such as ordering food and beer and coffee, or asking how to reach a specific destination.
Of course, we could not have asked for a better place to immerse ourselves for these first four days. Whether we were hiking at the top of the Dorfgastein-Großarltal (the mountain where the ski lift goes) or at the end of the Gastein valley road at Sportgastein; or sitting on our deck or enjoying a night out at the local bar, Stoani’s and drinking Feurwasser shots (schnapps with an orange on fire that you blow out before you drink the shot); or enjoying a wonderful breakfast in the morning (“semmel” is a type of roll that is found all over Austria according to our teachers. This is good, because I discovered that I am definitely a semmel fan). We still had trouble believing that this was not a vacation. We were in a foreign country, and we would be for four months. Dorfgastein was just the beginning.
So as we packed our bags after the four days in the lovely town, the answer to the question, “Is this place real?” presented itself.
Yes. It is real. We are here in Austria. It will not all be like Dorfgastein, but we are ready to take a serious plunge into an entirely different world. We are ready to speak German, eat semmel, learn about the culture and disconnect from an American life.
If we do that, our experience will be as gorgeous as the view at Sportgastein.
Wunderbar. Goodbye, Dorfgastein.
(written on August 20, 2013)