Our apartment got some kind of benediction applied by carolers some time in January, apparently. We had to ask Greg's officemate what it meant, that someone had taken a crayon and written 20 - C + M + B - 08 on our lintel. C, M, and B stand for the 3 wise men, and 20 08 is the year... We thought our door was going to be painted or something, but apparently that means that carolers came by to sing at us and see about getting a little donation for the church, and then in exchange we get a little benediction for our household. Except they came when we weren't here, and so they didn't get any money and we got blessed anyway. It's good that we found out what that was all about before we inadvertently wiped the markings off. It seems like if we wiped off our benediction, our neighbors are very likely to worry about what kind of people we are...
We're in an awkward in-between phase with our visas, which will most likely be extended, but the university feels no sense of urgency about getting the paperwork done for Greg's new contract, so it's not official yet. Our German class still has a few more weeks to go, right now we're wallowing about in the passive constructions. For example: The language will eventually have been learned by us. (We hope.) The cat was sick last week, but we decided you probably don't want any pictures of that.
We finally got a TV license, and have been watching some films to help us with our language skills. (And, you know, because we like films!) The weekends have a continuous stream of decent films. We can't watch all of them, of course, but we did get to see The Return of the King, Fargo, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Italian Job, The Hunt for the Red October, and a surprisingly dull Patrick Swayze film about an ex-CIA guy in Russia and some bio weapons and uh.. OK. we actually lost the plot on that one. Don't even know what it was called.
There is also a lot of news coverage, and a kind of variety show that involves singing, and bad jokes, and seems to be very, very popular. They have one-liners, like "Between liver and kidneys, there's room for a few beers" ... this rhymes in German, and is therefore--apparently--quite funny. If the audience reaction is to be trusted. The audience was probably already drunk.)
Since watching originally English-language films dubbed into German is kind of exasperating, we have also been watching some random episodes of local TV series. In general, they're deadly dull and revolve around family drama. To be fair, we wouldn't have willingly watched that kind of thing in the US. It's probably fine, if that's what you like to watch...? Some other popular shows are: Farmer Seeks Wife (a dating/reality show) and Men Alone At Home (a homemaking/reality show, where the wife goes to the spa for a week while the husband has to tend to the household, including kids, cooking, and so on. Hilarity ensues.) The five most popular TV series in Austria right now are all American syndications with voice-over: Scrubs, The Simpsons, Friends, Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives....
It probably gives a sense of the social values that the main presenter on a show called "Hi Society" (actually, not in translation, it's just called that) has just won the national "Journalist of the Year" award. Not that there aren't LOTS of great news shows. The news here is overall pretty in-depth and not terribly sensationalist. But Hi Society, which mostly has important coverage of where prominent people get their dogs washed and so on... *that* won the top prize for journalism this year. We are ... a little baffled. Maybe they don't take those awards very seriously here?
We did learn how the TV license works here. Every region/state in Austria has a fixed set of channels which can be received in-home without special equipment. It's all digital signal now, which is nice, that means we're not paying for any blue-snow channels. Here in Steiermark, we get 7 channels, but two of them are the same. (No, we can't explain that. They might only be the same some of the time.) Anyway, the various channels around the country charge a per-household fee, so in our area, we're paying the fees for the 7 different channels we get. The neighboring state will have some channels in common with us, and some different, so they'll pay a slightly different rate. The total cost of our monthly TV license is currently about €24, and it's going up to €28 in June, because one of those channels has just authorized a 10% (!!!) rate increase. Apparently Steiermark (where we live) has the highest TV license fees in all of Austria. Not all channels have advertisements, or at least not at intervals we can predict. Not all films have commercial breaks, some are run straight through. It probably depends on how much it's costing the network to put it on?
The rule is, anyone with a television shall pay the licensing fee, whether they watch or not. Same goes for radios. If you have a device capable of radio, like a clock radio, even if you never use it for that, you are legally obliged for this fee. In practice, it seems like a lot of people don't pay, which is probably why the fee is so high. When a person moves and registers their new address with the local bureaucracy (required by law), a letter will show up asking how one wishes to pay the TV fee. If you tell them you don't have any devices that do that, the TV fee authority will call and ask, "What? Really?" As far as we know, they don't actually come to your house and demand to see your lack of TV and radio devices. However, they threaten steep fees for not paying. It's not clear to us how they would ever enforce that, since they don't check.
In other, less bureaucratic news.... food pictures! This week: Cheese!
This is a mild, pleasant sheep cheese that comes from the Turkish market in Lendplatz. There are probably 100 Turkish markets in this town, so it's important to know which one has the good cheese. We actually haven't found anyone else selling sheep cheese this tasty. Their olives are substantially better than most, as well. As a bonus, that particular market is open on Sundays and is only a 20 minute walk from the house, which means that people who planned poorly and get to Sunday without any food can run down there and get some cheese and olives and spinach and make a fantastic salad.
Another special food this week is a slice of chestnut torte. (In German: Kastaniantorte) This was Holly's birthday slice. It was *hard* to make a decision, at the pastry shop. On the bright side, that means it's also virtually impossible to make a poor decision...
This is the torte, wrapped up in some kind of pastry origami. Not only did it look tidy, it also allowed this slice of torte to travel home in a shoulder bag without sustaining any damage at all. We have *no idea* how the counter guy wrapped it like that, it only took him about 15 seconds.
And, this is the torte in its full glory. Those roundy things--two in the layers, and one on top covered in chocolate--are spheres of chestnut paste, just like marzipan, but with chestnuts instead of almonds. The layers are chocolate mousse (dark) and chestnut mousse (light), with a slim margin of sponge cake, covered in ganache. Accompanied by a cappuchino, of course. There wasn't room for the appropriate number of candles, so we just dispensed with that tradition entirely. (Besides, the cake wouldn't look half so appealing completely covered in melted wax and on fire.)
We were discussing how fortunate it is that people can just go and get a single slice of whatever kind of confection they want, without the burden of keeping an entire torte at home. Probably one could get diabetes just carrying an entire torte of this kind from the bakery to home.
And, finally, the traditional picture of the cat:
She's got us trained now, she can stand by the couch and look crabby until we make her a little pillow fort to crawl into. It's a tough life, to be a house cat...
Every day it looks more like spring outside. It smells like wet dirt, tulips are coming up, and some trees are budding. Also, all the birds are making a TREMENDOUS racket in the trees by the river, which means little birds will be along soon. All of these signs of the end of winter make it easier to pretend there weren't ice chips floating down the river yesterday, or that the temperatures hasn't been above 8°C (46°F) for weeks now. Some day it'll be nice out again, and then our exploratory adventures will resume.
Oh, and, for the curious: Ground Hog Day isn't a thing here, but they did mention the American observation of it in the news. However, ground hogs (Murmeltier) are generally very popular here, so any excuse to put a picture of one in the news is readily accepted.