Sunday, May 06, 2007

Weekly Graz Letter

(Note: Here is this week's letter from my friends Greg and Holly in Graz.)

Hi there! Welcome to another update from Austria. Hope this finds you well & enjoying spring. Lots of pictures this week!

In case you ever needed absolute proof that words and sounds just don't mean the same in different places, we present you with Chokella cereal. The best one can tell from the box, without purchasing a 3€ box of cereal just to take a picture of it (and then taste it, to know what it was)... it's probably the prepackaged answer to the question, "What would happen if toast spread with Nutella was shrunk with a shrink-ray and sold as a breakfast cereal?"
Also, briefly returning to the issue of the Austrian keyboard, which swaps the position of the Y and Z keys (among other changes), we present a familiar product with a slightly unfamiliar name: That's right. Oil of Olaz. We're kind of wondering if that was a typo and they just rolled with it, or if that was some kind of marketing scheme. In German, Z makes a "ts" sounds, so it'd be pronounced something like "au-ill uff oh-lats" .... so, probably not just a phonetic transcription. Very popular here, despite the mysterious name change.

We received a very official looking notice in the mail last week about our Rundfunkempfangseinrichtungen, or lack thereof. In poor translation, it's the broadcast-initial-access form... meaning the state radio/tv broadcast organization wants us to register our TV and/or radio, and pay the monthly fee for receiving broadcast programming that is mandated by law. They included a copy of the law, down to the last sub-clause, and a rate sheet. Curiously, it's more expensive here in Steiermark than anywhere else in Austria. Also, we don't have a TV or radio, so they won't be getting much out of us, although there is a real possibility that by sending a form claiming not to have a radio or TV, we may be provoking an actual physical inspection of the premises--as allowed by the law. The fines for lying about that are quite stern. The letter that accompanied the registration form was amusing, in that it faux-politely offered several possible reasons that we might have recently moved into an apartment and did not already register and begin paying without being prompted by a snotty letter. Maybe we forgot? Or maybe we already registered, in which case, please accept their faux-sincere apologies for sending a letter so presumptuously... Not one of the faux-polite possible reasons for our failure to register was that we don't have the necessary equipment to access the broadcast media--this is apparently inconceivable.

Tuesday was May Day, which is a national holiday also known as Labor Day. Labor Day, as in other places, acknowledging the hard work of a lot of people historically and currently. Unlike in the U.S., pretty much everyone really DOES get the day off. However, the Labor Day thing is just a thin veneer on the true origins of May Day, which are all about spring, fecundity, and abundance. So much so, that there is an enormous maypole down in the Hauptplatz, carved with floral swirlies, crowned in multiple wreathes, and although we were not there to see it, almost certainly having been danced around by children and adults with ribbons and flowers. There were some goats, and a corral full of toddlers, and many vendors. Cotton candy is apparently the official May Day sweet. Also, there was a stage set up, with a band playing all the old pagan ritual favorites, like ... Country Roads. (Yeah, we were wondering about that, too.) These modern holidays might be a bit jumbled, but nevertheless, it's a day off.

Since Greg had Tuesday off, we made a longish bike ride, about 16 miles round trip. We had biked about as far south as the airport when we turned around. Only another 27 miles to get to the Slovenian border... Everything is lush and green, and it's been raining somewhere north/west of here (or there is snow-melt going on), so the river is fairly full right now. We have even seen a few people kayaking in the river, which is mostly quite shallow and fast-running, and generously adorned with jagged rocks. On the way back from our bike ride, we saw an old soap factory, which is fairly picturesque. We're not totally sure, but it almost looks like the place could still be in operation. If it is not, it's in surprisingly good repair--there weren't any broken windows, and the lot was well-maintained.

Wednesday, the first business day of May, was the day they shut off our power. Well, not OUR power, exactly. They shut off power to our apartment, because there was no record of a paying customer. A cursory investigation revealed that the real estate agent who'd tried to fax our account info to the power company had never actually received confirmation that the fax went through. Either it didn't go through, or the power company lost the order. Anyway, that got fixed in short order, and the agent was pretty impressed that we had 3 months of power without a problem. In retrospect, so are we, although we hopefully have learned an important lesson about believing it, when people tell us something got done. It'll be exciting to pay 3 months of power bill all at once!

Down in the altstadt, there's a showcase window that the tourism bureau uses to promote various current exhibitions, and there is one at the Landesmuseum right now apparently involving local fauna. They've so far totally failed to get any decent amount of explanatory text into the window, so we don't know exactly what the show is about, but they did get a stack of stuffed animals in there. It's like someone got the food chain and the nutrition pyramid mixed up, and it makes us laugh every time we walk by, so we finally got a picture of it. It kind of seemed like we were the only ones who found that remarkable at all, but just after taking a picture, Holly nearly bumped into someone else standing right behind her, taking the same picture.

While walking around town last week, Holly saw a poster in a pub window, advertising sign-ups for the "Blasrohr Wettbewerb" accompanied by a picture of a happy looking guy holding a piece of pipe. About half a block later, her brain finally came up with the translation for that phrase, which also (sort of) explained the picture: Blowgun Tournament. This seems even less safe than a regular dart tournament, which is bound to involve drinking & airborne pointy things. Some casual internet research suggests that this is an official sport, with proper, published rules (in 5 languages), and an organizing institution. Possibly a safety goggle manufacturer?

Saturday we went to the big grower's market at the Opernplatz as usual, and tried to get a picture showing the scale of the thing. We got a picture, but it really only shows about 20% of the market. We did, however, make a picture of our purchases, so you can get a sense of what kind of things we're getting. It's not cheap, by any means, but it is always better quality, and fresher, than the produce in our local chain markets. We buy relatively few things out of the many that are offered, and fairly un-exotic items. The overall experience is rather as if we were buying our weekly veggies from our grandmothers (if our grandmothers were Austrian), or someone's grandmothers--nearly all the tables are marked with a sign indicating the name of the family that runs the farm--Familie Werner, Familie Strensdl, Familie Hagen. Most of the tables are supervised by grandmothery women who probably have forgotten more good recipes than we'll ever know. They don't really care that our German is poor, and they often seem mildly disappointed that we're only buying so little, or that we don't want any of these, to go with those that we are buying. They always hold one of our hands with one of theirs, as they count our change into our palm, and sometimes there is a pat on the arm to send us on our way.

Often we are pressed to take additional quantities, or additional items along with the things we've requested to purchase. Buying a 1/4 kilo of baby spinach today, we'd already paid, and were presented with an onion as a parting gift. After weighing out a 1/4 kilo of shallots, an additional handful was stuffed into the bag. The woman who sold us our soup greens this week indicated that instead of the usual flat parsley, we were getting something exotic, and if we needed additional, she had a pile of it handy. We don't actually know what the stuff is, it is reminiscent of celery greens, but isn't that, and has a slightly citrusy flavor. Our soup would undoubtedly have been twice as tasty with additional of whatever it is... and next time, we'll probably do that. As the season progresses, some of the vendors who were selling root vegetables and dried beans are now selling potted plants, almost every kind of vegetable, herb, or flower one could want. The strawberry farmer had a tremendous volume of ripe strawberries (possibly too ripe) that were making a cloud of strawberry perfume that could be detected 4 stalls away.

Greg bought some beer this week purely because (for no reason he could determine by reading the bottle) they'd printed the word "Blopp!" on the label... Fortunately, it's pretty good beer. (Again, halfhearted internet research reveals that the Blopp! refers to a beer-cap-removal-gadget. If you want to see that, and many *extremely* Austrian words, go to the Ottakringer Brauerei website:
Other new gustatory experiences included a "Topfentascherl" pastry, consumed on behalf of Holly's grandmother Florence. "Topfen" means curd-cheese, and "tascherl" means "little pocket" or "little bag"... it was a mild sort of danish-style cheese with apple bits, folded into an envelope of savory, not-very-sweet dough. We also discovered a coffee shop in the Hauptplatz that sells some coffees we've never heard of or seen before. We tried a Mexican coffee called "Maragogype" and an Indian coffee, "Malabar". They're both good, the Mexican is more to our taste. We've had coffees from Mexico before, we don't know of ever having had coffee from India before. Coffee beans can be purchased in 100g quantities, which is good, because some of them are outrageously expensive. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, for instance, which is one of Holly's favorite coffees, is €20 for 100g. (For those who don't want to do the math, that means about $28 for 3.5 ounces--about the same price as an entire pound of it, in the US!) And, no, we didn't buy any Jamaican Blue Mountain this week. Maybe someday we'll win the lottery or something.
Also found the gummi bear exhibition, that's been installed in the altstadt, with ENORMOUS gummi bears. To see what size they are, look for the group of 5 women standing in the background...
Also added to the photo album this week are some pictures of buildings we like around town, the Murinsel--a cafe/recreational area/amphitheater in the middle of the river, the facade of a building that's been graffiti'd to good effect, and a bunch of tree flowers from the stadtpark. Many trees are blooming now, which makes it doubly nice that it's been a little rainy. Washing some pollen out of the air is important!


Rufus said...

If I ever write a book, I would like that animal stack picture on the cover. No matter what the subject is.

Holly said...

I can't actually think of a subject for which that would be inappropriate.

gregvw said...

Better hurry before Chuck Palahniuk uses it first.

Rufus said...

"The New Our Bodies, Ourselves".