Tuesday, July 29, 2014

In defense of the Austrian village

Though my time as an English teaching assistant has come to an end after two years, city choice is still a topic that I see come up quite often with new teaching assistants. Most people coming to Austria want to live in the bigger cities like Vienna or Salzburg or Innsbruck; I don't blame them. I felt the same way when I first got that email that I had been accepted as a TA in Austria. I was so excited; it was my third attempt to go to Austria. Then I saw where I was to be located. Some obscure place called Bischofshofen that I had never heard of. I looked it up and saw that only 10,000 people lived there. Only 10,000 people! Super small by American standards. But I learned, that is not too small by Austrian standards.

For the past two years, I have lived in smaller town or villages. As mentioned previously, the first was Bischofshofen, about 10,000 people.. This past year, I lived in St. Pölten, the capital of Lower Austria. The population of St. Pölten is about 50,000. It is the 9th biggest city in Austria. One thing I tell new TAs to Austria, especially if they are placed in a smaller town or village, is that they need to rethink their definition of what small is. As one teacher said to me last year, "Austria is a bunch of villages and then Vienna." A very true description. Even the next biggest city after Vienna, Graz, is not that big in comparison to many American cities.

I want to defend all the smaller cities and villages in Austria. They have as just much to offer, if not more to the TAs that are placed there. I try really hard to show new TAs all the benefits of small town life and encourage them to live where their schools are located rather than the nearest big city. I'm not saying that I haven't experienced disappointment or loneliness or any other negative feelings in these two places, but overall, I am grateful for the experiences I have had.

The biggest thing that I have noticed is that people in villages tend to be much, much friendlier. Last year, in Bischofshofen, I was shocked that people would say hello to me on the street. I always thought that Europeans didn't smile and say hello to each other. Definitely not in small towns! This doesn't happen so much in St. Pölten, since it's a lot bigger, but in Bischofshofen, it happened all the time. I think some of the townsfolk even started to recognize me and one time, a man said hello to me when we were on opposite sides of the street. It's a nice feeling knowing that people recognize you!

I've been able to get to know the locals in my little towns. I’m sure you can do this in Vienna, but living in a smaller community puts you in closer contact with Austrians, and it prevents TAs from hanging out with only Americans. The tricky part is meeting an Austrian. But once you meet one, it can be a life-long friendship, and they will introduce you to all of their (Austrian) friends. They can expose you to Austrian culture and can explain things that are not in the dictionary or guidebook. When I went to the Christmas market in St. Pölten, I saw that there was a kind of food called "Feuerfleck." I never would have been able to guess what this was, but luckily, an Austrian friend explained it to me. By the way, it's local to the St. Pölten area and consists of flat bread served with a dip of sour cream mixed with chives.

Living in a smaller town allows you the opportunity to better know Austria and to really see authentic Austrian culture. I've had the chance to experience things in Austria that I probably wouldn't see in Vienna--from a Krampuslauf to authentic Heurigers, Again, not that "authentic" experiences don't exist in Vienna, but it's different when you are the only American at a Krampuslauf. Then you know it's not just a show for tourists, but something that the locals do for themselves. Recently, I was in another town in Lower Austria, Krems, and I got to see the local Trachten or traditional costumes of that region plus eat an amazing dish of Gulasch at a restaurant that I never would have found on my own. Though I have to recommend that Gulasch is definitely best eaten when it's cold outside. Not when it's hot!

It can be considerably cheaper! I have had very nice apartments that were much, much cheaper than anything in Salzburg or Vienna. My landlords in both Bischofshofen have been super nice. From making me a cake to allowing me to live at their property on short notice, I have appreciated how kind and helpful they have been.
And finally, Vienna is a beautiful city, no doubt, but when I think about Austria, I will always remember the mountains surrounding Bischofshofen and the terraced vineyards in Lower Austria. The landscape is so beautiful in Austria that it sometimes is like living in a fairytale. 

I highly encourage any new TAs in Austria to live where your schools are located, even if it is in a smaller town. You won't regret it!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Sightingseeing in St. Pölten

Fridays are my normal day off in St. Pölten, so I took the opportunity to go on a short walking tour of the city center with a British TA, James, who also happens to be one of my roommates.

St. Pölten has a pretty compact city center and most everything of interest is luckily in the city center. Despite the fact that St. Pölten is not the biggest city in Austria, it does have a pretty interesting city center. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, there are some interesting shops, cafes and restaurants in the center. But the center is also very historical and even has some art nouveau buildings and artwork.

We started in the Rathausplatz. Rathaus is the name for town hall in German and this is the plaza where the town hall is located.

Some photos:

The Rathaus! And it's pink!

Rathaus in background.

A mini-train that goes around the city center.

Big statue in the square.

Another interesting place in St. Pölten is the Domplatz. The church on this square isn't very impressive from the outside, but pretty impressive on the inside. While I was inside, a lot of people appeared to be praying, so I refrained from taking any photos except for one. There is also a nice little market here on Thursdays and Saturdays. We just made it to the market on Sunday before it closed. Because it is Fall, there was a lot of wine on display and I ate one of my favorite kinds of sausages with lots of mustard.

From the outside it's not impressive.

The organ.

The Market.

My Käsekrainer sausage.

There is a former synagogue just outside of the city center. The interior was destroyed in 1938, but from the exterior, it's easy to tell it was once a synagogue. I'm not sure what it's used for now, but we had to ring to get inside, and we decided it wasn't worth the effort.

Exterior of the former synagogue.

We were told we had to walk outside of the city center to see the modern part of St. Pölten. And we definitely found it! I had heard of the Klangturm (Sound Tower) from a former TA, but didn't really know what to expect. It's a huge tower, obviously. I thought we would just go to the top and enjoy the great views, but apparently the whole tower is an art installation on sounds, again, obviously. The view from the top was amazing! I could see the whole city. We even tried to see if we could pick out other buildings we knew from up high, but weren't so successful.

We walked down and stopped on each level. Each level had a different interactive sound activity. Including a set of drums that played different mechanical sounds, stories through sound, a map with regional dialects in Austria and probably strangest of all, we set in a room with the voice of a man talking and jumping around as we listened. I wasn't expecting anything like this in St. Pölten and I'm pleasantly surprised that there is this tower with modern art with a touch of humor. 

View from the elevator.

Sitting in one of the strange rocking chairs on the top floor.

The Klangturm itself.

And a few more pictures!

Mary Ward School

Also from the Mary Ward School.

I just liked the facade of this building.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

First Day Jitters

Today was the first day of classes at one of my new schools in St. Pölten. Even though I spent last year teaching in Austria, I was incredibly nervous about moving to a new city and having to start over with new schools, new teachers and new students. And one of my schools has 1,000 students! Which is more than I had in all three schools last year.

To make the jitters worse, I was in Bischofshofen last week and ran into some former students. They were very excited to see me, but once I told them I wouldn't be back in Bischofshofen, they were pretty disappointed. It made me realize how much I liked my schools last year and I almost regretted my decision to move on to different schools for my second year.

However, things went better than expected today and I'm definitely glad I'm here. I already had an introduction lesson that I planned last year and tweaked a little. I could tell that I had more confidence in the classroom than last year and the students, for the most part, seemed interested and engaged and I got them to interact with me. They and the teachers, seemed to like my introduction lesson, even though I think talking about me is maybe not the most interesting thing to do.

I was, of course, very impressed with their English. One student even sounded like a native American English speaker! And their questions and comments were pretty self-aware and insightful. I'm really looking forward to teaching them this year and wonder why I even doubted myself.

One thing that hasn't changed is Austrian schools still are overheated!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

I've Arrived! And First Observations...

I arrived in Sankt Pölten this past Wednesday after 24 hours of traveling. Luckily, the journey to St. Pölten, while long, was pretty smooth. I had to fly from Minnesota, to Chicago, to Düsseldorf and then finally Munich. And then take a train from Munich to St. Pölten. I was worried I was going to miss the flight to Munich, as the flight out of Chicago was delayed. Fortunately, I (and my luggage) had plenty of time to make the flight.

My landlord and landlady greeted me at the train station and drove me to my new apartment. I was able to visit the apartment last Spring, but had forgotten what the room I had chosen looked like. It's actually very cute! In my room were a Milka chocolate bar, a little American flag and also even a Minnesota flag!

Some pictures that I took before flinging my stuff everywhere:
Bedside table and pictures.
My bed before I messed it up.

TV and part of the wardrobe.

Couch/pull out bed.

And finally my desk! Oh, with a little American flag and a Minnesota one!
Some observations I've had over the past few days:
  • St. Pölten is huge! I mean, in comparison to where I lived last year. I actually feel a little overwhelmed, which I never thought I would say. People here seem friendly, but not quite as patient with my bad German as they were in Bischofshofen.
  • Shops/restaurants I've noticed in the past few days: McDonald's, Subway, an Indian restaurant, (and it smelled really good!) bubble tea shop, Mango outlet store, a cupcake shop and an all vegetarian restaurant. I'm sure I will discover more as I continue exploring.
  • St. Pölten seems hipper than Salzburg does to me. Salzburg is a bigger city, but I feel that it's stuck in the past. For example, the cafes feel old, with the women serving cake while wearing maid's uniforms and the men serving the drinks in black tie. I don't get that feeling at all here. It feels modern, but at the same time, it's not Vienna, so it's also not trying too hard. I like it so far!
  • I got lazy over the summer and I forgot how much walking I did in Austria!
  • I visited my main school and it's huge! Much bigger than my schools in Bischofshofen! 
  • Jet lag is terrible. It's even worse than I remember last year. Speaking of jet lag, it's a bad idea to try to run any errands the day after you arrive.
  • And finally, apparently I look either look like I speak English or like I know what's going on, because I've had a lot of people come up to me in Munich and ask me for help/directions. Luckily for these people, both statements are true!
And a couple more pictures:
St. Hippolyta, the town is named after him.

Yeah, I took a picture of a slug. It's been raining a lot, so I see a ton of them around. It's been a while since I've seen them!

Sunday, April 7, 2013


This post is long overdue! I was in Belgium three months ago! I really loved Belgium and hopefully I can go back in the next year. 

Belgium can be summed up in one word: food. I only spent a little over a week there, but I have never eaten so much food in my life! Before I went, I looked up Belgium on Wikitravel and read this, “Belgians like to eat. Belgium is famous for its good cuisine and people like to go to restaurants frequently. Best description for Belgian food would be ‘French food in German quantities’.” Of course I was excited, because I also like to eat, but little did I know how big the quantities would be. I associate three foods with Belgium: chocolate, waffles and fries.

I was visiting a good friend and her husband and their cat. My friend is actually from Russia, but has lived in the US for a long time, so it’s easy to forget that she is not an American. And her husband is Belgian. They live in Gent, and that is where I spent most of my time.

When I first arrived in Belgium, my friends greeted me with a Belgian waffle. I didn’t know this until visiting Belgium, but there are different types of waffles. My favorite kind were the ones from street vendors. They have a caramelized sugar crust on them and are seriously addictive. Before I even knew I would be spending a year in Austria, I had asked my friend’s husband if Belgian waffles were actually good or overrated. When he told me they were amazing, I knew they would be really good. And they were!

I also tried the kind of waffle that comes to mind when I think of “Belgian waffle.” I had it in a restaurant with whipped cream. While it was good, I much prefer the ones you can buy on the street. They are absolutely amazing!

As for fries, they were also amazing. My first meal in Belgium consisted of a “small” portion of fries with mayo and ketchup and onions. I actually prefer fries with mayo now, but as a child, I remember hearing that French people ate that and I thought it was the strangest thing. Little did I know that it’s popular all over Europe, I mean, eating fries with mayo, not just in France! My friend told me that a serving of fries at a fries shop is considered a “hot meal” and Belgians will only eat a hot meal once a day.

My first meal in Belgium. This is a "small."
And the chocolate, oh my, the chocolate! The chocolate is also amazing. I know I need to come up with more adjectives to describe the food, but it’s something that is hard to describe and is better experienced. I visited a chocolate museum in Bruges and according to the museum, the cocoa powder is ground very fine in Belgium, which creates a smoother chocolate. Or something like that. I was in a food coma by that point. My friend and her husband gave me a box of chocolates upon my arrival in Belgium. There are numerous chocolate shops all over Belgium (especially in Bruges!) and you can go and fill a box with as much chocolate as you would like. My friend’s husband’s parents also gave me a box of chocolate on Christmas. I came back with two huge boxes of chocolate. But that is not all! Apparently Belgians like to eat chocolate for breakfast. You can buy chocolate bars that are eaten on bread and butter for breakfast. You can also buy chocolate sprinkles that are eaten in the same way. I thought both combos sounded a little weird, until I tried both. There is also something called chocolate paste or spread. Somewhat like Nutella, but no nuts. I brought back the two boxes of chocolate, the breakfast chocolate bars, the sprinkles and a tub of the chocolate spread. Unfortunately the chocolate spread was confiscated at the airport!

Eating chocolate in Europe has made me realize how bad some American chocolate can be. My Mom had sent me all the ingredients to make peanut butter blossom cookies, including Hershey kisses. I ate a Hershey kiss and while I knew it wasn’t the best chocolate, it was amazing how bad it tasted. Fortunately they still taste OK on the cookies. I made those cookies and took them to a party and it was funny seeing how suspicious everyone was of eating this strange American cookie.

As for the massive quantities of food, well Belgium definitely delivered. Granted, I was there during the holidays, so that might explain the copious amounts of food.

My “stuffed” Christmas

I celebrated Christmas at my friend’s husband’s brother’s house with the whole family. That morning, my friend made a big American style breakfast, so I was full before we even left the house. Before going there, however, we stopped by his aunt and uncle’s house.  There we were served cake, coffee and ice cream. I don’t speak any Dutch/Flemish, so I would smile and nod a lot when people spoke to be in Flemish, which I soon learned really quickly is a bad idea. Because it means you will be given more food.

After eating the cake and ice cream, I was stuffed. We continued on to the brother’s house. There, we had some appetizers. I was stuffed at this point, but was still eating, because I do love food. We were there for a couple of hours and then the second brother brought over the “real” appetizer. I was shocked, because I thought we had been eating appetizers for a couple of hours. The “real” appetizer was seafood mixed with a béchamel sauce that was baked in a shell. Very delicious!

We took a break and then were called back for soup. Another break and then the main entrée, which consisted of three kinds of potatoes, steak and salad. (A note about the salad: I had never eaten a salad like this, but my friend told me it was very Belgian. You take whole pieces of lettuce, tomatoes and I think there was also chicory, but I can’t remember for sure. You put it all on your plate and drizzle mayo on top and then cut it up. Then the dressing covers all of the salad and you have pieces of lettuce and tomato.)

I only ate half a steak because I was so full, but everyone else, except for my friend, ate a full portion of steak. Dessert was served later, but I wasn’t able to eat any, but everyone else did! I finished the night on the couch in a total food coma. I can’t even believe how much food was served and how full I felt.

All of the people I met seemed to have a strategy to get me to eat as much as possible. “Would you like some cake? No? Well then, how about some coffee? Ok, since you’re having coffee, do you want some ice cream with that? No? Well, would you like some cake?” Rinse and repeat. 
As for other interesting experiences and observations, I’ll just list a few.

Spa/Sauna: My friend mentioned a spa in Gent that she and her husband sometimes go to. She said that it was “no clothing” and that there was a women only day, which happened to fall on Christmas Day, so we ended up going on a normal, mixed gender day. When we arrived, the man working the front desk greeted us and told us a little about the spa, including that it was supposed to be a relaxing atmosphere, so you were supposed to be mostly silent in the spa. He told us to put on our towels and he would give us a tour. We went to the dressing room, and in the hallway, which overlooked the cooling off courtyard, I saw a completely naked man leaning over. I knew that everyone inside the spa would be naked, but seeing made me start laughing. I had to have a five-minute giggle fest in the dressing room before I could even enter the main part of the spa. Hey, I’m American and I couldn’t help myself from laughing! I just had to get it out before going inside. Once I got over my giggle fest, I really did enjoy the spa. I couldn’t manage to take a dunk in the super cold water, though!

Window blinds: In Belgium, everyone seems to have these window blinds that completely block out all light. I have never seen them in the US. However, since I saw them in Belgium, I feel like I’ve been seeing them all over Europe. I like to call them “vampire blinds” because they do block out all light. I spent the night in a house in Belgium that has these kinds of blinds and it was so disorienting. I thought it was still dark outside, but had ended up sleeping until noon!

Bruges: I went to Bruges and was not that impressed. Yes, it was beautiful, but there were too many tourists and tourist traps. I find Gent to be just as charming without the massive hordes of people. 

Antwerpen Centraal Station: I didn’t actually visit the town of Antwerp, but hopefully I will on another trip. But I had to change trains in Antwerp and it has the most beautiful train station I’ve ever seen. It’s the kind of train station I imagine when I think of a European train station. 
At the top platform looking down.
Ceiling of the station.
Just beautiful!


Now for some more pictures!

Horse meat at the grocery store. It's the very red meat.
The French coast.

My friend and I on the French coast. My hair does not normally look like this!
Penguin house!

House that looks like a windmill.

Houses in France are very colorful.
Got to meet some donkeys!

And a horse!

Unfortunately, we forgot to bring some snacks for them. The horse showed us how he felt about this by drinking muddy water.
The castle/fortress in Gent.

Houses on the canal in Gent. Apparently, houses in Belgium flood a lot. Even ones not on the canal!
Bruges is pretty cute, but I still prefer Gent.
Only in Europe! This was one statue of the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."

Lace map of Bruges.
In Gent.

Yeah, I forgot to mention all the beer. 
Monster stuck in a cannon!

There are great views of Gent from the fortress.

Disclaimer: Any statement I made about Belgian culture, especially the food culture is just from my and my friend’s (who is also not Belgian) observations/experiences. If any Belgians are reading this and don’t agree, I would love to hear your thoughts!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Austrian Food, Part II

I have been thinking about food a lot lately, mostly because I miss a lot of food in America. While I definitely do not feel home sick, I am looking forward to going home, mostly because of all the foods I miss. I do miss my friends and family, but this post is all about the food.

Before coming to Austria, I would have said that I didn't really like German/Austrian food. I've eaten sauerkraut and brats in the US, but German/Austrian food was not something I grew up with in Texas. In fact, I remember when my family lived in Texas and we would visit my relatives in Wisconsin and they were all eating bratwurst. I remember thinking it was the strangest thing, because in West Texas, no one eats brats.

However, after my many trips to Germany and living in Austria for a year, I have come to really like a lot of German/Austrian food that I would have formerly turned my nose up at.

Some things that I've discovered that I love include the following: pumpkin seed oil, pumpkin cream soup, (I've had this in the USA, but it's so amazing in Austria) Wiener Schnitzel, Preiselbeere, (lingonberries) Gulasch, dumplings, spätzle, lamb's lettuce (this isn't exclusive to Austria, but I've never had it in the US) Schweinebraten, and duh, sausages.

Pumpkin: Austrians love their pumpkin. I was actually a little surprised, because I thought pumpkin was more of a North American thing, seeing as how pumpkins did originate in North America. However, it seems like pumpkins here are only used in savory dishes. I haven't seen any pumpkin bread, pumpkin cake, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin pie or even pumpkin in a can. But pumpkin seed oil is amazing and the creamy pumpkin soups you can get in most Austrian restaurants are also amazing.

Wiener Schnitzel: I don't think I've ever actually eaten Schnitzel in the US, but I crave it all the time in Austria. It's a piece of meat that is pounded flat, breaded and fried. Most restaurants serve it here, but the best Schnitzel I've had was at Figlmüller's, a restaurant in Vienna. The Wiener Schnitzel served there is larger than the plate! I prefer Schnitzel made with pork and this is technically not Wiener Schnitzel, as that is made with veal, but it's still made in the "Viennese style." I also love to eat Schnitzel with a side of Preiselbeere. These are lingonberries, which are very similar to cranberries. I already loved lingonberries from my time spent in Sweden, but I love them even more now.

Blatantly stolen from another TA. Schnitzel from Figlmüller's.
Lamb's Lettuce: I don't recall ever seeing this type of lettuce in the US, but it's all over Austria. The first time I had it was when I was at Figlmüller's. It was served with the most amazing potato salad I've ever had. The salad was also drizzled with pumpkin seed oil of course!

Schweinebraten: This is basically roast pork. While it sounds like nothing special, I had some at one of my schools and it was one of the most amazing things I've eaten. Most people prepare it at home, but I have found a grocery store that sells it in slices.

Sausages: I'm actually a little disappointed by the sausage selection in Austria. It's much better in Germany and I was even impressed by the selection in Belgium. I included it in my list, because I do love the sausages in Germany. One of my favorite things is ordering a sausage and roll from a street vendor in Berlin.

Gulasch: I LOVE Gulasch! I think I crave it even more than Schnitzel now. I've had it many times, always with dumplings or spätzle. I've even had it made from venison and also had some served with a fried egg on top and a pickle on the side. I even had Gulasch in Hungary, and while it was good, I think I prefer the Austrian version better.
Gulasch with spätzle, a fried egg and pickles.

As for the foods I miss in the US, I miss Mexican food the most, to the point that when I was in Budapest, a city I do NOT associate with good Mexican food, I visited a taqueria and another Mexican restaurant. Hey, I was desperate! The food was pretty, good, however, and so was the margarita!
A burrito, a margarita and me in Budapest!

I know my first meal when I'm back in the US will definitely involve Mexican food somehow. I know I will miss Austrian food when I'm back in the US, but I bought an illustrated cookbook from Figlmüller's and will probably be attempting my own versions of Austrian food when I'm back at home!