***I apologize for the length of these posts, but since I can only get spotty Internet connection, I take it where I can. Danke for your patience.***
My suitcases are becoming the bane of my existence. They’re like a relative I can barely tolerate spending my holiday with anymore: “Ack! Do you HAVE to come along? Can’t I go anywhere alone?”
My suitcases are overweight by 14 kilos for the flight to Austria. That will equate to 140 euros. Holy and shit. So I start taking out books. Because you know with me it’s always the books. I take out 6 kilos worth, which I am now carrying around in a plastic hotel laundry bag. Classy. I pay the 80 euros because I am not a pack mule, but whow, those are some expensive books. I wave goodbye to my costly, nuisance luggage, and Maike and I buy chocolate and part ways. She goes to Munich; I wait for my plane to Vienna. So long, Maike! Tschuss!
I’ve had four hours of sleep. Just thought I’d mention that.
We take a bus from the gate to the plane. I’m waiting, looking out at the tarmac, and over the bus’s radio I hear, “If you see a painted sign on the side of the road that says fifteen miles to the…LOVE….SHACK!” I can’t help but smile. Everybody’s groovin’, baby. The bus drives us through the lot and the plane comes into view. Yup, there it is, and my brain starts shouting: Prop plane. Prop plane. Propplanepropplanepropplane. PROP! PLANE! It’s like “redrum” only without Danny Torrance’s creepy finger.
It’s okay. Breathe deeply. I hear we fly over the Alps! Out of superstition, I decide to study the plane safety card. It never hurts to be too prepared. I mean, Cheese Whiz, isn’t that the Girl Scout motto? The safety card shows images of people running for their lives away from the planes. You know what? Let’s not read the safety card. “Love sha-a-ack, that’s where it’s at. Love Sha-a-ack…”
I take my seat. By the window. The window right next to the propeller. I can’t help but think about my travels with Shannon Hale and wish she were sitting next to me singing John Denver songs. We take off and the ride is as smooth as a hot air balloon ride (which I have taken), and soon, I look out the window down at the peaceful green fields and enjoy the flight. They feed you on Austrian Airlines—even for an hour-and-a-half flight. Go, Austrian Air! They bring you chocolate cake. Chocolate cake is the cure for everything. Not that I don’t have a chocolate bar stashed in my backpack. (Did I not learn that from the story about the Peruvian soccer team whose plane crashed in the Andes and they had to resort to cannibalism to survive?)
We land in Vienna and I take a taxi to the Hotel Kaiserin Elisabeth. Vienna. Oh, wow. So beautiful you need to wash your eyeballs. All of these elegant, Victorian buildings. It is quite stunning, as is the hotel. I am greeted by Herr Pohr, the concierge, and the Old World Charm begins. Herr Pohr is a gentleman of perhaps fifty. He is courtly and gracious and, well, a big flirt. This is all fine, as I’m a big flirt myself and so we are speaking the same language. He tells me there is no room ready yet, but if I would be kind enough to wait, he’ll have a special room prepared just for me.
How could I not be so kind as to wait? 😉
“Ah, but I see you are only with us for one night. Tomorrow, we can talk about making it two.” He’s good. Yeah, Herr Pohr and I will get along just fine. If I’m not careful, we’ll end up playing poker all night in the kitchen and I’ll lose all my euros. I go next door to the café.
I’m sitting in an actual Viennese café, the kind I’ve only heard tell of in legend. The floor is laid out in a brown-and-black diamond pattern. The white-clothed table has a vase with a sprig of edelweiss. It’s plastic edelweiss, but edelweiss, nonetheless. I can look out the café windows to see people passing by. It makes me feel very glamorous and international, connected to another part of the world that only used to exist for me in books. In a moment, I am joined by my publisher, Anne Schieckel, and by my translator, Ingrid Weixelbaumer. Ingrid is woman of many talents. She was also an editor, and she is quite cultured. A most elegant woman. She takes us on a walking tour of Vienna.
You cannot imagine the beauty of Vienna. I really love the look of the city. Plenty of late 19th century buildings, as well as churches dating to the medieval age. We step into the gothic wonderland that is St. Stefan’s Church. Ornate doesn’t really begin to cover it. The pulpit (chancel?) alone is a work of art. We stroll, and just doing that feels as if we are part of the Viennese Victorian bourgeoisie. I like watching the cable cars drive past the horse-and-carriages. Such an interesting mix of old and new.
There’s a big military holiday coming up on Sunday, and so the plaza is filled with tanks and helicopters; tents have been erected. It’s all guarded by soldiers carrying honest-to-God AK-47s that make me jumpy. It’s like an occupation and creates a really surreal scene against the backdrop of the elegant Viennese town hall in the distance, the colorful flowers and restful fountains in the park. The soldiers are baby-faced. I can’t stop staring at one who looks no older than sixteen, though I’m sure he is, but probably not by much. Another solider shwooshes by high over our heads on a zip wire like something out of a James Bond film. Surreal is the word.
Ingrid indulges me and guides us to the Sigmund Freud museum, which is a bit of a hike, but the walk feels good in the brisk air. I don’t have time to tour the museum, sadly, but I do take photos and grab some souvenirs. My favorite is a sponge with the word “Neurosis” on top. We take a taxi back to the hotel and from there, we move on to the Literaturhaus, which is a library where the Jury fur de Jungen Lesser meets. This is a group of teens who discuss and evaluate books for the Jury Prize much like the ALA Top Ten. They discuss my books—what they thought, what they liked or didn’t—and it’s fascinating to listen to them. Their analysis of the work is incredibly deep and insightful, plus it has the added bonus of helping me remember what happens in my own books, which, I have been discovering during my reading tour, I have forgotten most of. I’m really having a good time and wish that I could stay much longer but after two hours, I must head to the reading.
The reading takes place in a cozy bookshop called, “Lhotzky’s Literaturbuffet.” (www.literaturbuffet.com) I love the image of this—“I’ll have the George Saunders with a side of Emily Bronte and how is the Neil Gaiman today? It looks delicious. Yes, I’ll save room for the Pynchon—but just a slice of The Crying of Lot 49. I don’t think I can eat the Gravity’s Rainbow today.” Herr und Frau Lhotzky greet me warmly. They’ve been reading my blog and promise that there is no kartenschulter for the bathroom lights and they present me with a fabulous box of Viennese chocolates, which I offer to share with everyone while gripping it tightly and shaking my head. This is how I work: “I am being polite, but you don’t want these chocolates. No, you really don’t, but please remember that I have offered as my mother taught me.” The chocolates are all mine and I rip open the box and eat one right there. Heaven. They also present me with a hilarious Franz Kafka chocolate bar, which is wrapped in foil with Kafka’s face and a cockroach body for his “Metamorphosis” story. Literary humor. You gotta love it.
I meet the Lhotzkys’ daughter, the lovely Sabina, along with her friends Isabella, Julia, Christine, and Sabine’s brother, David. David brings me some water (Danke!) and the girls show me where we are on a map of Austria, since I asked. I goad Julia into showing me her Irish dancing, and the girl can throw down with some fancy footwork. It’s like Celtic DDR time. Very cool. We stand around chatting and getting to know one another, and I really appreciate that they’re taking the edge off my nerves. The reading begins, and I suddenly feel like I’m going to die. Heart racing. Mouth dry. Sheen of perspiration on my upper lip. It’s an intimate group, and everyone’s smiling, but I can barely talk about my own books. I read and babble some (Is it hot in here or is it just me?) and eventually we get to the Q&A part, thankfully, where kind people come up with intelligent questions for me and Ingrid, and I am awash in relief. Ingrid tells an interesting story about how she actually translated the anagrams by doing them the same way the girls did, with letter tiles. She had to change the name of Miss McCleethy because her name wouldn’t translate to the anagram properly in German. See, it’s things like this that are so cool to find out. Earlier, with the Jungen Lesser Jury, one of the teens, Margaret, whose mother is American, asked if the jokes translated and how hard that was. And Ingrid said that sometimes the humor was difficult. It took Ingrid six solid months to translate TSFT into German. She deserves a medal.
There is a young woman named Shrulti there. She is American of Indian descent and moved to Vienna for her dad’s job two years ago. She asks me some great questions about Kartik and afterward, we talk for a bit. She’s in college now, and I’m trying to imagine what it must have been like to transfer in junior year to a high school in another country where you don’t know the language. Wow.
Herr und Frau Lhotzky take us to dine at a traditional Austrian restaurant. We’re all so tired and giddy that translating the menu into English becomes a bit of a game, and a giggly one at that. There is a bit of discussion about what a particular word means in English—deer, venison—but first Anne puts her fingers to her head like antlers, and that is actually the way I always want to remember her. My “Deer” Anne. I settle on some sort of meat that is the size of a football field and potatoes. When I get back to New York, I will be eating lots of broccoli. I can’t manage the meat. It’s GINORMOUS.
Ingrid gives me a serious look. “You are weak.”
“I admit defeat.”
“I am disappointed. You are from Texas.”
And we laugh.
I AM weak, but the potatoes are outstanding and the dessert—potato noodles rolled in buttered poppy seeds and served with plum compote and fresh cream—is amazing. Herr Lhotzky tells me they are so easy to make and then gives me a description that is several steps beyond, “Open box, pour pasta in, toss with butter,” which, I am sad to say, is my preferred cooking style. But it sounds yummy and I’m sure I would impress my guests with it. (Note to future guests: Don’t get your hopes up. We will probably still be ordering Chinese.) It’s close to midnight when we get back to the hotel. I call the boys and hit the hay. The pillow is so soft it’s like I’m falling into a cloud of feathers. You can’t beat that with a stick.
I have put in for a wake-up call at 7:00 that comes at 7:45, but it’s no matter as I have been up since 6:40. Anne and I have a little breakfast and then we meet Ingrid at the Albertina Museum for the Van Gogh exhibit. It’s already crowded at 9:00 a.m.—lots of school visits. The exhibit is astonishing. It starts with Van Gogh’s early drawings, which are dark and somber and quite bleak. The trees seem particularly anguished. Then, Van Gogh moves to Paris and his paintings explode with color. But the most interesting and intense paintings to me are the ones he paints in the asylum after he mutilates his ear. The landscapes are downright threatening, the brush strokes furious. It’s like what he sees outside wants to eat him and the world around him is unraveling like his mind. It’s very powerful as are the paintings from the last 70 days of his life, before he shot himself, and I find I need to just sit quietly for a while after viewing them.
It also makes me think about the Hansel and Gretel book that won the Jury Prize for picture book at the Frankfurt Book Fair. I’ve always loved fairy tales even though they are dark and gruesome and frightening or perhaps because of all those things. I was a macabre child. Cheerful, but odd: “Hello! So nice to meet you. Would you like to come to my room to play? (whisper) I will show you my collection of fingers. And then we can play Barbies.” I would argue that this version of H&G was not so much a children’s book as it was an art book, but the art was spectacular and very disturbing.
After the exhibit, Ingrid and Anne take me to the famous Sacher Hotel to their coffee house where I am to have the famous Sacher Torte. It has the feel of old Vienna, with red-flocked paper on the walls, gilt and mirrors, and cozy booths to tuck into behind a little marble table. The cake is…how shall I put this? It is the absinthe of cakes. Sinful beyond belief. Chocolate on top of more rich chocolate. Add the coffee, and I will be buzzing for a week. Ingrid presents me with a book of old Viennese postcards of the city, and I am so very touched by her kindness. She is a class act.
While we wait for the taxi, Anne tries to help me shove more stuff into my suitcase, which resembles a portly man in need of an exercise regimen. We can’t stop laughing about these cases. Even the nice man who takes them to the taxi and the driver make comments. My suitcases have become quasi-celebrities. I have the slowest taxi driver in all of Vienna, and I’m starting to panic a bit. There are only ten minutes left to catch my train in a station I’ve never been to in a language I don’t know hauling all of Europe in my overstuffed luggage. I think I’ve found my train, but I want to be sure (Can you imagine if I ended up in Salzburg instead of Nurnburg?), so I find the youngest person on the platform and ask politely if he speaks English. His English is crazy good and once again I am shamed. But yes, I am in the right place and even one away from the right wagen (car). I find my seat…and there’s a woman sitting in it. I can see the electronic readout of my reservation above my seat, so I just take the seat next to her, and in a few minutes, a young guy comes along and lets her know that seat is taken and all is well.
Now, I am traveling back to Germany for five hours, which should be heaven. I love riding the train, and the scenery is still captivating to me. There is a dusting of fog on the countryside—perfect for spooky October just outside of Vienna. It puts me in the mood to write, and since I have a spooky short story due, I’m in luck. I shall get to it.
The train ride is the most beautiful one yet. Lots of trees and hills and adorable hamlets tucked away. I manage to eat in the café car and order only using my new German. The waitress is sweet and patient and when I get stuck finding the proper word for something I say it in English and she translates to German for me so that I know how to say it properly afterward. When I leave, she thanks me for using German, and I feel good. That is one of my goals when I return to NYC—to learn a language, probably German as it feels good in my mouth and Anne says I seem to have the knack, despite my protestations to the contrary.
When I disembark in Nurnberg, I am to meet Thomas, but apparently, I’m so fast off the train—even with my enormous suitcases, which I consider using like a toboggan in order to get down the stairs—that we miss each other. What follows is a hilarious twenty minutes of cell phone conversation and a game of hide-and-seek:
Thomas: What are you near?
Me: A store called Ditsch. And a McDonald’s.
Thomas: Did you go down one flight or two?
Me: One. I think. I’m pretty sure.
Thomas: I am standing in the middle of the hall. Can you see me?
Me: No…do you have your cloaking device on? Are you in Thomas stealth mode?
Thomas: Not today. (polite pause) Can you see an exit?
Me: Yes! I do. I see Burger King.
Thomas: Ah! Burger King. I can see it. (pause) But I don’t see you.
Me: Well, Burger King is reflected in the window because it’s backward.
(This goes on for several more minutes. There are two police officers standing nearby, watching. They think it is hilarious. In another few minutes, a few more officers come, and I wonder if they think it’s funny enough to share the joke with their pals or if they are assessing me as a dangerous character.)
Thomas: Can you see a track number anywhere?
Me: Track 1.
Thomas. Ah. Super. If you would please go to track one, I shall meet you there.
(I haul the suitcases to track one.)
Thomas: You are at track one?
Me: Yup. It says one. The numbers are the same in English and German, at least, right?
Thomas: Hmmm. I don’t see you.
Me: That’s because I have MY cloaking device on.
(This goes on for several more minutes. I stop a passerby and ask if she could please speak to my friend on the phone. She does, and then she leads me, like a little lost lamb, to a different part of the train station where I am reunited with Thomas.)
It’s great to see Thomas, and we walk to the hotel and then head to the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut for the evening’s program. A journalist, Wolfgang (!), has come to interview three American students about the elections and I am added to the mix. I mostly talk about what I have heard from teens while traveling around Germany, about their interest in our elections. I say goodbye and go to meet the teens in the other room. Kathleen Rober, the director, says she’s heard I like a microphone, so she gives me one, and I have a little fun then give it back. The room is small and I don’t want to blow everybody out, like a stack of amps at CBGB’s. The students are quite shy about talking, so I babble on for a bit about the books and writing and then I read from all three books, which makes me tremble, but I do it.
But the cool part comes afterward. The students’ English teacher, Stephanie, has given them a creative writing exercise. They were given a small passage from AGATB and then asked to write their own stories from that jumping off point, and three winners have been selected. The stories are WRITTEN IN ENGLISH. OMG. And they are so good. I mean, creepy, creepy good. The first, from Florian, is about Count Dracula raising an army of murderous creatures, and the last line is a killer: “Go, and show them the true meaning of fear!” (I may be paraphrasing.) The second, from Nicole, is a dream within a dream, or I should say, a nightmare within a nightmare. It is a series of nightmares that happen to a man on a bus ride. It’s delightfully disorienting. The last is from Hannah, and is uber-creepy. It involves a boy who is sent away to a boarding school where “disobedient” children are sent, and they become marionettes. It was called “The Dollhouse.” I find dolls exceedingly scary, so this did a number on me. I should have a link to all the stories soon so that you can read them. They were really great.
I meet one of my LJ-ers, Mona, who gives me a CD that she and her Canadian friend, Renate, made for me. It is filled with songs that they listened to while reading my books, and there is a wonderful note with a list of the songs and which characters they correspond to. Again, I am quite touched. Thanks, ladies.
Thomas, Kathleen, and I go out for dinner. I find out that Kathleen grew up in the former GDR. She says it was a happy childhood, but that it has been interesting to find out the history of Germany that is not the Russian side of things. Thomas gives me an account of going into the Czech Republic with his parents as a boy and being warned to be careful and not wander into the woods as there were mines.
By the end of the evening, we’re all falling asleep in our food and so it’s time to say guten nacht.
I get up early and join Thomas for breakfast and then he acts as my tour guide for Nurnberg, a very picturesque city, indeed. If you’re ever going to tour a city, it helps to have a historian as your guide. Thomas is a historian, and he tells me about the old medieval walls that once guarded the city and shows me that the street is much higher than it was back in the day when the walls looked quite intimidating, I’m sure. We take a peek inside St. Lawrence (I’m using the English spelling, sorry.) And then we walk through the absolutely charming center of town so that I can see the tower of the castle in the distance. We make one last stop at the river and the statue of Albrecht Duhrer, and then I have to grab a taxi to the airport. Thomas and I say “Tschuss!” I get to the airport and take flight #1 to Frankfurt. On the plane, I’m seated next to another American, Brad, who has been in Germany for a conference on bio-toxins and vaccines. He’s a scientist and he deals with serious CDC kind of stuff, real “Andromeda Strain,” and even though I am super, super, duper curious, I am not about to get into it. I’m not going to start peppering him with questions about MRSA and Hanta Virus and Ebola and all those gruesome things that will scare the crap out of me for the next week.
I wave goodbye to Brad and wait for my flight to Rome. That’s where I am now, using an hour’s worth of purchased T-Mobile Internet connection to post this.
So Tschuss and Ciao for now. Goodbye Germany. Time to start memorizing things from my Italian phrasebook. ☺