August 2008


I’m sitting in one of r’glar spots of this summer, the Blue-Orange in Vienna’s fourth district on my penultimate day in Vienna, having drunk what might possibly be my last coffee shake of the trip – a drink that all the waitstaff here now get for me without even my having to ask – typing my last blog entry while still in this city (all others will have to be backblogs) and feeling quite melancholy at that thought. Summer is over, though the heat is not (and in fact will be on in more ways than one upon my return to Cairo on the morrow), and all good things must come to an end. And certainly my Viennese summer of 2008 counts as one of the good things in my life.

Met interesting people, made new friends, reconnected with old ones – both unexpected and scheduled, made up (more than as the Viennese Clerks will attest to) for my movie deprivation in Cairo, enriched my art and musical experience repertoire, and caught up on my cafes. The litany of names is too long to list here, but I will say a special thanks to the denizens of the city for all your contributions to the fun I had. In the days ahead, I’ll be backblogging my adventures here – such activities will help keep the memories alive, not just for me but I hope also for my friends.

And now I must sign off and visit my cafe Sussi one last time and have a farewell dessert with David and Kristoff before leaving town.

So long Vienna, Ich liebe dich!

The first time I saw directions to a ‘Rathaus‘ I was in Heidelberg (2002), and based on the name, thought that the place was some sort of tribute to the Pied Piper. Okay, I knew it was the wrong town – since the Piper’s story is set in Hamlin not Heidelberg, but there was the German connection and the story is world famous and so, I just figured it was some sort of ref/verence to national folklore. Why else would town officials about rats in the house? Unless they had bats in the belfry?

Needless to say, I figured wrong. Rathaus (pronounced as if it has 2 a’s Raathouse) is just the German word for City Hall, and as I’ve since found out, there is one in every city and town in most German-speaking countries. Other than knowing that Rathaus existed in Heidelberg, however, I have few memories of it. Most of my memories of that town are clustered around its famous Schloss. But Vienna’s Rathaus is special and will not be fading into obscurity anytime soon at least from my memories.

Here is a shot of the building presiding over the Fanzone during the Eurocup festivities.

I have to thank Pierre-Olivier for first introducing me to the joys of the summer jazz fest at the Rathaus. This two-month event featured broadcasts or taped musical events every night from mid-July to mid-September, that were screened on a giant screen in the same area as the photo above. All day up until midnight there is an active food court happening around this fest, the site of many a dinner and snack for me over the past several weeks. My special favorites at this court were the various fruity alcohol concoctions (himbeer-, erdbeer-, waldbeer- and pfirsige-bowles to name just a few) and the perennial favorite – sangria at the Spanish kiosk. The musical events I attended here included a Beethoven/Tchaikovsky concert in honour of Karajan, a Leonard Bernstein revisitation, jazz of a guy called Django Rhinhardt or something and Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. The musical broadcasts began at twilight, which, for these interludes, was especially apropos given the neo-gothic architecture of the Rathaus with its spires and turrets and whatnot. Here’s another picture (lifted from the internet) of the venue in the witching hours:

I always associate the Assmans, all of them but Jan and Aleida in particular, with my favorite activities: cooking – often with what’s on hand – followed by conversations around the dinner table (usually about books and films), and this time was no different. Inspiration for the first course struck within the first hour of my arrival at their beautiful summer retreat in Traunkirchen, as we we were rummaging through the fridge for cold cuts and sundry edibles for a mid/late morning snack. Amid the slices of various cold meets was a chunk of speck (bacon/pancetta depending on language of choice) that was too fatty to be sliced and eaten as was, but too precious to be chucked out. That’s when I had an idea, acted upon later that night, for a tide-your-hunger-type salad that served as an interlude between our post hike-n-swim pangs and the real dinner (Indian naturally) that followed. Here’s what we did:

Chopped the chunk of bacon/speck into small bits and heated it in a fry pan with a cut clove of garlic which had been rubbed all over the salad bowl. While the bacon was cooking/melting/crisping, halved up a goodly number of ripe cherry tomatoes into the garlic-rubbed salad bowl. Sprinkled with salt (judiciously, keeping in mind the salt in the bacon) and pepper (generously) and added plenty of chopped dill. There was a ripening avocado in the vegetable bowl so chunks of that followed their way into the bowl. By this time the speck had browned nicely and it was tossed into the bowl. Normally speck gives off plenty of fat when heated but not this time, so I added salad oil to the bowl. The pan itself was deglazed with balsamic vinegar (after removing from heat) and added to the bowl. We followed with a few squirts from a tube of some special balsamic-flavored mustard which they had in the fridge. All of the above were mixed well and then in went the salad greens: most of a package of youngish arugula (rocket / ruccola) and an equal amount of mixed greens. Almost as an afterthought (though really it shouldn’t be) I also added small chunks of a local cheese akin to Emmenthaler.

The verdict on this verdant vorspeis – Every remnant of salad or dressing in the bowl was mopped up with bread. Based on that, I’d say it was successful!

Batman (loved the movie The Dark Knight by the way), not Superman, was ever my favorite superhero along with some of the lesser knowns such as Green Lantern and Green Arrow – because something about their very quirkiness intrigued me. And yet here I am invoking the man from Krypton in the title of this post.

Walk around the mineral rooms of the Naturalhistoriche Museum in Vienna and perhaps the reason will make itself clear – crystal clear in fact, if you’ll pardon the pun. Large-fortress like formations of crystal salt, brought over by the Emperor’s explorers, are given the pride of place in the show cases of these rooms, which number 4 in total and take up an entire wing of the ground floor of this impressively huge museum in fact. Each room is filled with rows and rows of glass-covered display tables with the samples in them arranged alphabetically. According to the museum’s literature, the museum boasts the largest such collection in the world, and I can well believe it. Cataloging the collection must have taken forever! Some samples that caught my imagination in June…

In larger showcases around the room are bigger finds, including both natural and man-made of the ingenious and mundane uses of rocks. This is where I found the large fortress-like formations of salt crystals. One reason for the special abundance of these fortresses must be the fact that Austria is home to these structures. Salzburg (literally the “salt town”) is named as such for a reason. And as I found out just yesterday while out by the Traunsee (Lake Traun) the economy of the region of the country used to (and still does?) depend on salt. So while many explorers were off in exotic landscapes discovering geodes – the museum owns one that weighs about 730 lbs, trust me it’s huge!) – and other cool stuff, some worked closer to home and brought in just as much. Not that the salt crystals were confined to the region. They had some pillars (might the biblical Lot’s daughters be entrapped in Vienna perchance?) hailing from as far away as India if I recall right. I wonder that these things didn’t melt during travel!

I never made much farther than beyond mineral rooms but I should also mention a few other interesting details about the museum. The building itself was constructed in the later half the 19th century under the orders of Emperor Franz-Josef I (husband of the iconic Empress Elizabeth – Sissi) and is a mirror image twin to the Kunsthistoriches Museum (KHM) that stands across from it Maria-Theriesin Platz. Though very much like palaces in their style and décor, these museums were never intended or used as royal residences, and may in fact, be the only palaces in Vienna to to have never served in that capacity – certainly all the other sites of museums – the Hofburg, Belvedere, Albertina and Schonnbrunn were residences at one time or another. Though both architects were Austrian, Gottfried Semper and Karl von Hasenauer, the buildings are very Renaissance Italian in style, a deliberate reference to the epoch when the arts and sciences were believed to have reached their zenith.

Franz-Josef I may have had these museums built but it was his great (x2 ?) Grand-daddy Emperor Franz I, husband of Maria Theresa who amassed the specimens – not just of rocks but of animals, birds skeletons galore – that form the core of the collections. He began the collection by buying off a Florentine nobleman but added to it immensely by sending out expeditions. In the main foyer is a painting (of either him or one of his equally obsessed successors) meant to show off his love of knowledge, exploration etc.

The organization of the museum is neat – beginning with the minerals on the lower right wing, everything is arranged in an ascending spiral corresponding to their evolutionary stage. A single room at the top was reserved for special exhibits – on the day I went it was devoted to some spectacular underwater photography, which (schaade but rightfully) I was not allowed to take photos of. I’ve also (again schaade, but this time wrongfully) forgotten the artist’s name.

I wasn’t able to visit the Dodo’s skeleton but one other room I did visit was on the 2nd floor directly next to the cafeteria (though that was not the reason) devoted to microbes and microscopes, and named after the philosopher-biologist Haeckel. The windows of this room are adorned with magnified images of microscopic critters… Also in this room is a small theatre where they have live demos of projections of a 3-D microscope that we get to watch with 3-D glasses on. Though the commentary was in German (and I by that time too tired to absorb most of the info) I did enjoy (in an eeyew! sort of way) watching engorged bloodworms swimming my way!

P.S. An interesting thought just occurred – product of free association I suppose. If the salt crystals in Vienna’s NHM are reminiscent of Superman’s fortress, then the mineral room of Natural History Museum in New York surely evokes the batcave – a basement room, dark and mysterious, full of unexpected treasures for those who go looking or better still, stumble upon it unawares. It was my first favorite in this genre, and will always hold a special tug on my loyalties. Just like Batman himself.

PPS. Another thought – observation actually – to jam in here regarding aptness of the title: Solitude is not exactly a feature of most museums, indeed nothing could be farther from the truth, as my trip to the Hofburg’s Scahtzkammer (Imperial treasury) bore ample witness to a few days ago. But on the particular day in June when I went to the NHM I was in a relative haven of solitude, likely the product of the fussball mania. Also, it may just be that the place is massive enough to accommodate veritable tons of us tourists and still give us plenty of space!

PPPS. Meanwhile news from back in the batcave: nooo… this is NOT Kryptonite!

I may not be the world’s biggest sport fan, but spending June 2008 in Vienna and not devoting at least one post to football (soccer to Americans) is just plain wrong! After all this was city hosting the 2008 European Cup tournaments. Ignoring it would be the same if I omitted the Eiffel Tower from an account of Paris. Unthinkable. Anyway there was no getting away from the fußball craze during the month of June. Everything was structured around the event. Concerts, museum exhibits, and of course, city transport was arranged or rearranged around the games. A large section of the city center from the Hofburg up to the University was cordoned off into the Fan Zone, encompassing the Rathaus and the Burgtheatre, the latter sporting a giant ball atop its roof!

And while I’m not the biggest (or even a moderately big) fan, I don’t (as many locals professed to) hate the game. Merely indifferent most of the time, as I am to most sporting events, unless I’m witness to a game -to an actual live on or to a live broadcast – by invitation, accident or any other circumstance. Then I’m as engaged as any fan, I’ll pick a side, root for them despite all odds, cheer hysterically, groan in despair, cross my fingers bite my nails … the works. And I’ll even make the effort to initiate a game-viewing myself. And so it was with the Eurocup this year. I ended up watching 4 games in full and bits and pieces of some others as well. Here’s a recap…

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The first match I watched was an elimination round game — Switzerland vs. Turkey — invited by the Swissman in Vienna, Dr. Hannes Majer, who during the game told me what the offside rule was. The venue, Swiss beach, was interesting, a bar by the Donau canal. We watched the game sitting on a blanket on the sand before a giant screen. Out of courtesy to my viewing companion (and because I was otherwise uncaring) I rooted for the Swiss, who lost not only the game but their chance to advance in the tournament. That depressed Hannes enough to call the rest of the evening to an end. So that was that.

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Game #2 for me was a yet another elimination, this time with higher emotional stakes in this city – Austria vs. Germany. Now Austria hasn’t won a match against Germany in 30 years – not since 1978 in Cordoba. Given that Germany was being touted as a finalist (most people in the know were predicting a Germany vs. Netherlands final), and that Austria really only even made into the tournament on account of it being the host country, the odds of repeating a Cordoba were remote in the extreme. None of this deterred the fans in the least, as we (Ravi, Charu and Vidur Khanna and me) witnessed in the train over from Salzburg that morning. A train so full of sozzled soccer fans from both Austria and Germany (people were travelling in from Munich) that’s is a wonder the train didn’t sway like a drunk itself.

I watched this game, thanks to Ravi Khanna, on the terrace restaurant of the very fancy Palais Coburg, after a fabulous dinner with lots of great wine. Out of courtesy to my summer host country, not to mention our hosts for the evening, I rooted for the clear underdogs – Austria, even wearing a tight T-shirt (I returned at the end of the evening) to declare my loyalties. The game itself was not as exciting as the hype surrounding it. Germany won, as expected, but not by much: the score was 1:0

The next evening I caught the tail end of the Italy vs. France game, which even the sports-ignoramus I am could tell was played at a higher level than the previous evening’s match. It was a face-off between the finalists of the 2006 World Cup tournament but at the elimination level didn’t elicit much excitement where we were. A few days later walking home I paused to watch the last few minutes of Croatia vs. Turkey (the next round already, I believe). The score was unbelievably still at 0-0. I didn’t stay to watch the tie-breakers but Turkey was declared the winner. I know this because they played the semis against Germany, a face-off that had been the prospect of much dread in Germany during the World Cup matches in 2002.

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I caught the entirety of the Spain vs. Italy quarter-final match quite by accident. I was working on my computer (as I’m doing now) sitting outdoors at a restaurant called Point of Sale, near my place and directly in my line of vision me was a large screen put up by Johnny’s a pub across the street. I was joined at my table by a German couple who were divided in their loyalties. The guy basically wanted Italy to lose because they had beaten Germany in the last World Cup (quarters or semis I can’t remember). The game was another tie breaker with two overtimes and finally a penalty kick-off to decide on a winner. As everyone knows by now Spain emerged the victor. Seemed like however slight my loyalties, the team I rooted for always lost 😦

I didn’t watch any more games until the final, although I caught the aftermath of the Spain vs. Russia semi-final at the neighboring Spanish tapas bar, Aquilice, where the chef was kind enough to give a hungry trio of non-soccer fans (Michel and Louise were with me) a great bowl of paella that we washed down with beer (Michel) and sangria (Louis & me). Sufficiently impressed with the place and its atmosphere to make reservations for the night of the final.


As things turned out we almost didn’t make it to the finals. Having spent the day wandering about the city — Schonbrunn, a heuriger, a monastery atop a small hill from whence we hiked (me in high heels) down to the riverside — we were tired. But since we were also hungry and had reservations we already with a great view of the screen, we ended up going to the restaurant. The game – Spain vs. Germany – was fun. Since everyone knows the outcome of the match, I won’t be giving anything away when I say that FINALLY (pun intended) I rooted for the winning team. And it was clear right from the start that Spain took ownership of the ball and the field and even though they did not score many goals, they were very effective in preventing the Germans from making any. And since we were in a Spanish restaurant, the mood was very merry indeed.

Some pictures of sundry fans that night:

K is also for Klimt and Klee and Kokoschka. Taken together these artists introduced me to Art (Kunst in German) in Vienna. Of course they are by no means all that I’ve been exposed to here – there’s also Egon Schiele, the entire Biedermier lot (names unknown) and the Gaudi-esque Hundertwasser (to whose work I’ll have to devote a separate post), but the K-series embody the most memorable of my Art museum experiences this summer.

Klimt’s Kuss (Kiss): Reality surpassed all expectation, which I think is true of many arts and artifacts unlike cinema, where more often than not, the hype has diluted the effect for me. But both with Klimt’s paintings as well as the King Tut artifacts in the Egyptian museum, the real things really made me profoundly glad for the opportunity to bear witness. One thing the hype over Der Kuss did was obscure information about his other works. Even more than that painting I was taken with two others that are also displayed in the Upper Belvedere. I can’t remember their titles, but will describe them. The first is a silver-gray themed portrait of a woman, whose decorations left me with a misty impression that evokes romance in the same way that a light drizzle does in Northern India (and in certain well-done Bollywood films). This painting is in the same room as the more famous Kiss and Judith. The other painting is another room amid works by other Austrian artists, and is a portrait of a beautiful young woman, who was the wife of an industrialist and may or may not have been Klimt’s lover while he painted her. She is wearing a pink dress full of frills and ruffles, which should look girlish and ridiculous but does not. Instead she is a lovely and uplifting confection, whom I have since asked my Mom and my cousins (on separate occasions) to say hello to on my behalf.

Vienna really is/was Klimt’s city – his work is everywhere here. In a ceiling at the University, in a mural at the Secession building and in several other museums besides the Belvedere. Somewhere in town is his last studio, which I shall certainly try to get to before I leave.

The second K is Klee, (pronounced more as if it were klay not kli) who was Swiss originally (as Hannes reminded me) and whose bright colors and cartoon-y and architectural work I was vaguely familiar with. His work is one of the exhibits this summer at the Albertina. Turns out my impression of him as architectural was correct for he is was associated for many years with the Bauhaus school as a teacher. I liked his stuff and am glad I got to see it but as a body of work it didn’t blow me away.

The works of Oskar Kokoschka, another Bauhaus teacher who lived for a time in Vienna, were also displayed at the Albertina. He was a totally new name, and though I might not be able to identify his work from a line-up, his subject matter left more of an impression than Klee. Especially his portraits/paintings of various cities. He did a gorgeous one of London and a lovely golden-hued one of the Viennese Stadtsoper by night, which perfectly evoked (for me at any rate) the glittering spectacle that the Opera house here is (or should be when a show is done right).

Besides the K-trio another artist I should mention is Egon Schiele, whose main body of work at the Leopold museum I’m yet to see, but the few portraits I did catch at the Belvedere and the Karlsplatz museum are haunting to say the least. His gaunt images, somewhat reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s work, are not pretty or upliftng, but they demand reaction and leave a lasting impression.

This post may be tooting my own horn some but… I can’t help it. It is after all my first bonfide publication (barring the diss of course) as a historian of science. Legally I’m not allowed to include the paper on any website, and I suppose that includes my blog, but here’s a link to website of the journal in which it was published:

P.S. If interested get in touch. I’d only be too flattered to forward a copy 8)

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