July 2008

I just downloaded some photographs and guess what — the Danube/Donau does indeed appear blue in some of these pictures? I could have worn it looked green to me, but perhaps those who joined me in bemoaning the blue-lessness of the subject of the waltz will agree, that the camera (and evidently Strauss) saw things through a different lens?

Meanwhile here’s the justification for my earlier lament …


Schizolingual is a new word I coined to describe my state of speech when I’m trying to speak a foreign language – anything other than Hindi, English or Tamil, it seems. With those three there’s simply a tendency to switch and mix at will, but with the others… boy has it been funny.

It seems as if whenever I’m trying to speak in a foreign language, German here in Austria and Arabic back in Egypt, my brain accesses the most recent unfamiliar word for a word I’m trying to say. For instance, when I first started taking Arabic lessons I found myself frequently using the word “aber” (Deutsch for “but”) while chatting with my teacher. One of the correct words is “lekin” which is also used in Hindi, so it should have actually been easier to remember, but my head is ever the contrarian. And similarly, here in Austria, despite the perfect simplicity of the word Ja (Yes) I find myself saying Aiwa or Si (Arabic and Italian respectively). Definitely Schizolingual! or schizo-something at any rate.

But my truly scariest experience of schizolingualism came about at about 2 am one night when on a cab home from my summer schoolmates’ dorm. I was giving the cabbie instructions in German but said some crucial words in Arabic. (unfortunately can’t quite remember the sentence that slipped out, but it went something like this… Bitte jetst gehen sie shemel). Guess what? The guy didn’t need any translation or explanations.He was an Egyptian who’d lived here in Vienna for many years, and so I guess had had linguistic experiences similar to mine. Go figure! All he did was laugh, ask me where I was from and then proceeded to prove his Egyptian-ness (and especially Egyptian cabbie-ness) by asking about Bollywood and Amitabh Bacchan! So not only was he schizolingual he also proved to be cosmocultural!

Ciao, See y’all spater. I’m sure you have work to do and ana kamen muss arbeiten.

The Donau is what the river is called, not the Danube. And the famous waltz by Strauss is An der schönen blauen Donau (the Blue Danube) Not that is matters, because schön as the Donau is, it has not, under any circumstances (or rain, clouds, or clear sky and sun) or by any stretch or shade of imagination, even faintly resembled the color blau even for a second. I’ve seen it in shades of an olive, green-brown and grey or brown or green but never blue.

But no matter. There we were all in one place all set, with the exception of one of our party (that would be yours truly, the wussy non-swimmer), to go skinny dipping (nackt schwimmen) in the Donau. The party consisted (as agreed there were no photos and identification is by code names only – bearers of the names should recognize themselves methinks) Rabbit, Jessica (the instigator), ‘Roo, Jazzman, the Champion, and me. At the cusp between one day and the next – between darkest midnight and early dawn, at 2:30 AM, six of us walked down from the dorms to the Donau, only slightly tipsy from the heurigen experience earlier in the day, some of us singing all the way, (themes from Singin’ in the Rain, which it was mercifully not!, and the now-stuck-in-my-head My shoes are full of water, (Don’t ask).

After some wandering and looking we found the ideal spot – a raft tethered to the banks just outside the party limits. Off slid the clothes and in they jumped, and while I was slightly jealous (I love being in the water) I was not up for a midnight dunking in unknown waters in the wilderness (okay semi-wilderness) and in the raw at that, especially when I’m done fighting gravity. So I sat with my feet dangling in the water while the others went off swimming, with the Rabbit ( was he ever appropriately named on multiple fronts) periodically cautioning/exhorting the others not to go too far.

The fun part was when the swimmers were trying to clamber back on to the raft. I think it was a wee bit higher than they had anticipated. Anyway after trials and mistrials and few double dunkings later, folks dried off, redressed and we wandered back to our respective sleeping quarters. Wandered doesn’t quite cover it actually – I mean we all wandered, but them someof us had to go on… in cabs, bikes (aah ‘Roo you enterprising soul) etc. But not before a rousing game at the air-hockey (football actually) tables and a riotous rendition of Queen’s We are the Champions (by the losing team!!!) A fitting finale to our intense two-week summer university.

So… Nackt Nacht all. Auf wiedersehen.

P.S. Any comments adding to these memories will be welcome 😉

This certainly has been the summer of chance encounters of the best kind for me. It all began with that day in March when I heard from Vienna that I had been accepted into their summer school. Earlier that day I had sent out some random catch-up/touching base emails to various itinerant friends (I do this periodically), among them Hannes Majer, who I imagined was still at Yale. Imagine my utter surprise, when a few hours after the Vienna email I got this response saying that he had been in Vienna for the past 6 months. His message ended his with the postscript: “You really should consider visiting Vienna.” Ha! little did he know. That my visit to in his neck of the woods was already a fait accompli. Not for a short vacation but an entire summer! Don’t get me wrong — I am not his roomie (psycho or otherwise) but it has been great having a ‘local’ and a linguistic native at that show me around or tell me where to take other visitors. Among other things the best eiskafe in town. Hannes and I revisited Yale in a manner of speaking when we went to see the latest Indiana Jones flick, which was predicable, dreadfully scripted (George Lucas is a stictly ideas man and should not be allowed within 10 feet of a movie-script) but enormous fun for all that.

So much for that first encounter. The next one was a little less live. Apparently my old (really old) and very dead neighbor, the Pharaoh Tutankhamun, is visiting Vienna too this summer. Or at least some parts of him and his belongings are. The fact is advertised all over town in posters with the omni-present death mask. The real article, by the way loses none of its power to awe despite the over-exposure and circulation in the rest of the word. Another related familiar face was that of Anubis — the god of mummification — standing several feet tall outside the Hofburg, in the Austrian fußball jersey no less!!! (One of those lost photo opportunities I’m afraid).

The third and fourth encounters were perhaps the less “chancy” of those familiar faces in random places , for Charu/Ravi and Vidur had planned their visit ages ago and we knew that we were meeting (in both Salzburg and Vienna). Ravi Khanna always does things in style, and with them I got a night at a world Heritage hotel in Salzburg, and a glimpse into the former home of Austrian royalty (The Palais Coburn which is now a fancy hotel) in Vienna. Louise, Michel and I had planned their stopover some weeks ago. Details of their visit are on a previous post, so I’ll pass over details except to reiterate how great it was to explore Wien with them.

Saving the best (so far) for the last — completely and utterly unexpected was the chance to meet up and hang out with my cousin and wife, Ravi and Hema, the only other identically spelt Sankarans whom I know besides my immediate family. This meeting was thanks to Guns (a favorite younger brother-cuz) who suddenly remembered mid-chat that these two were planning to pass by Vienna. The miracles of modern technology being as they are (both Guns and Ravi are crackberries), lo and behold, I found out that they were already in town. I spent a great couple of days with them exploring the outskirts of Vienna, riding a bike from Melk to Krems, and sitting around in different places sipping on various libations. A real fun pair who I hope will visit Cairo with their sons while I’m still there.

This is the saga so far. Next week Amma will arrive in town, but I still have a month and who knows whom else I’ll meet here? Anyone out there I know who cares to surprise me? Wilkommen sie hier.

Fabulous! It seems to have become the theme word for Louise and Michel’s trip to Vienna.

Certainly I had a fabulous time with them, and they were truly fabulous guests – my first in Vienna. Not only did I get to show off my new-found knowhow and take them to places I’d already discovered (David’s teashop Süssi, the vinegar store in the Nachtmarkt , the Belvedere gardens and The Third Man at the Burgkino), I also got to check out various restaurants and tourist places I’d wanted to — The oldest running giant wheel in the world at the Prater , Colombo Hoppers, a Sri Lankan restaurant (their favorite meal in Vienna), the Goulash Museum (a great find thanks to David of the afore-mentioned Süssi), the Klimt paintings, a heurigen, the Euro-cup finals at a Spanish tapas place around the corner, and, best of all, make some new discoveries such as the small medieval backstreets near the back of Stephansplatz (Michel’s guidebook zindabad) and learn about things to do in the weeks that follow

More snapshots from a fabulous time..

Riesenrad carriage

<- Doggie do station

Biedermeyer wall ->

I made what I consider my first truly independent discovery in Vienna! Until then I’d been the tourist, with and without guidebooks, doing all the things — admittedly exciting and interesting — but nothing that gave me a sense of ownership or of something that I stumbled on. And then walking through the Nachtmarkt, which I visited with Marie-Therese and Alain on my first Saturday here, I found it.

A fascinating little place with bottles and jugs and casks — containing different types of vinegar. Not wines or even olive oils but vinegar. And the guy obviously knows his stuff! He was demonstrating vinegars with different grapes offering tastes in a manner more reminiscent of sampling perfume rather than wine or oil. Carefully he’d squirt out a few drops onto the back of your hand with a medicine dropper and tell about the grape, its vintage etc. Truly an experience..

Turns out that the shop is even more remarkable than I thought. The casks and barrels of the fruit and vegetable vinegars are not infused or naturally flavored vinegars as I’d originally thought but made from the fermented-then-vinegarized juices of the actual fruits and veges themselves. I bought a tomato vinegar with a wonderfully intense tomato flavor and might buy the fig and apricot ones before I go. The guy — he’s the third generation of the family that began this business in the 1920s or 30s — also had two non-alcoholic digestifs, which I’d defy anyone to identify as a vinegar. Rich, intense and complex, they are quite unique. Louise and Michel picked up one of those as a gift to take back to Quebec to some of their friends and I might have to do the same. And while vinegars are the main event, he also has large bottles of unusual oils — pumpkin seed, walnut etc. But alas! even he has not ventured into the realm of the mustard oil.

Here’s the website for the outfit: Viennese vinegars…

Check it out, and discover a whole new way to say Prosit!