With Italy and Barcelona done with, I felt I could give my language and mime skills a break and let Lisa take the reigns. Vienna is Lisa territory. Her dad is Austrian and she has been there more than me. And she did German at school. She even cooks the odd gugelhupf (an Austrian cake). I felt we were in safe hands, until we were walking through the airport and she said, 'I can't remember what the word is for hello.'
We learnt later, it is 'hello'.
I remember so clearly what it used to be like travelling from country to country in Europe. There would be passport control and customs, and for some countries we even needed visas. Then there would be the hassle of changing currency. All of which made you feel like you were entering another country. It's been so different for a long time now.
You get on a plane for a short flight and walk out into a different country. The only way you know you are in a different country is because the signage in the airport is in another language. And when you enter Austria, you can tell things are a bit more serious because the signs have words like 'Achtung' and 'Halt'. They also like putting exclamation marks on their signs just to make sure you get the message. Even if you don't understand the language, you know there is a serious message there and you'd best behave yourself and stop whatever it is you were doing or thinking about doing.
One of the owners of a small animal travelling on the plane certainly got the message. They had a dog. It was too big to sit on their lap in a bag, so it travelled in a plastic cage. It must have so happy to be let out, that it it did a pee on the floor in the terminal. Standing astride the puddle was a big Austrian bloke. He wasn't a cleaner, and he wasn't a security guy. He looked a bit like a young Arnold Schwartzeneger. He was dressed in black slacks and a skivvy and he was standing with his arms folded across his chest telling the dog owners that they had to go and find a cleaner. They were suitably cowered. I hope that happy little dog made it out of that airport.
We were picked up from the airport by a local. That was a first. So we didn't have to work out the taxis or public transport system. For the first three months of 2013, we had an Austrian family staying upstairs in our Airbnb pad, and Andreas (the dad) kindly met us at the airport in Vienna. He then delivered us to the guesthouse - Villa Nina - we were staying in. They had booked it for us and it was down the road from their house in Perchtoldsdorf, the same village Lisa had first stayed in nearly 40 years ago. How coincidental was that.
I went or a walk around the village on our second day. It was a cold (for me) Sunday afternoon. I went out behind the guesthouse and through some local vineyards into the village centre. Part of my plan was to try and find some wine to bring back for dinner. I must have passed about a dozen people out for walks and not one person returned my smile and nodded greeting. It was so odd. They would glance at me really quickly, and look away. I passed one bloke out walking with his wife family twice and he ignored me both times. When I got into the village centre, I had to check my smile in the reflection of a window to make sure the cold hadn't frozen my face into a grimace. A few days later when we were both in the village, Lisa got me to give her a demo of the smile I was using. She said it was a bit smirk like, but not too bad. Her theory was that with my trim, dark Italian/Spanish looks, and my unshaven face, I might look a bit like a gypsy, and they've never been very popular in those parts.
I think the middle aged and older Viennese may just be wary of people they don't know. When you manage to get below that surface, they are warm and friendly people and very hospitable. They're just a bit guarded at first. Boy, their kids are open and well educated, though. We met half a dozen teenagers and all of them spoke great English and were studying at least one extra language. It's not unusual for young people (that's anyone younger than me) to know their way around four languages including their own. It made me feel a bit dim seeing them slip so easily in and out of English and German.
I had forgotten about the gausthaus tradition in Austria (note the way I slipped into German, there). They're sometimes just like big houses with lots of bedrooms and shared bathrooms and a common dining room. Villa Nina was very nice - a bit like an upmarket motel. It was four floors with a common area on the bottom and maybe 15 rooms upstairs. Lisa got into trouble on our first morning when she went downstairs at ten minutes to eight to see if she could make herself a cup of tea. We had been told the night before that breakfast was at 8am, so she was sent back upstairs. If it was Italy, they wouldn't have minded. If it was Spain, they would have still been in bed.
Vienna has half the population of Sydney in about one tenth the area. It's much more compact. I guess not too many years ago, there would have been green space between Perchtolsdorf and Vienna, but now it's suburbs. It's a quick trip into Vienna on the train, but we only did it a couple of times thanks to the car and the kindness of Daniella and Andreas (and their patient teenage daughter Bianca).
I like having people come to stay because it makes me see bits of Sydney and do stuff I don't do often enough. I think Andreas saw the famous dancing horses in the Spanish Riding School for the first time in his life with us. We went to one of the practice sessions as opposed to a performance, but Andreas assured us that in the practice session they would do everything horses do not naturally do. And he was right. They daintily pranced around with their heads down and tucked uncomfortably into their necks. They went sideways and backwards. Lulu made the observation that they didn't look very happy. The guys riding them certainly looked happy - and pretty smug. But of course nobody looked at them at all. They are completely irrelevant to the crowd. At the end of the practice session, the riders dismounted and stutted off and grooms came out and took the horses and mercifully let them lift their heads up - I bet those horses like the grooms more than the riders. It was a fantastic building that the horses dance in.
All of the central part of Vienna is made up of fantastic buildings. I can't imagine another city that would have such a concentration of amazing buildings. I reckon Vienna would be a great city for someone who has never been overseas before to start off in. Nearly everything that people want to see is inside The Ring - an area easy to walk. The traffic is okay and the city feels very safe and organised. It would be a good base.
We went to the zoo one day (mostly for the kids). It's a zoo with a good scale and all the celebrity animals you expect to see at a zoo - I think us Sydney people all need to admit that Taronga Zoo has way too many antelope type things and they're all a bit boring. This zoo even had a couple of koalas. One of them was the most active koala I've ever seen.
Maybe it was the cold? We also saw a couple of pandas. They've just had a baby and it's a big draw card for the zoo, but it didn't show itself on the day we were there.
We of course went to the Schonbrunn Palace one afternoon. The girls had seen loads of museums and galleries and churches, but no palaces. It's so long since I had been there that I had completely forgotten what it was like. What an amazing thing it is. The only problem is that those places attract a lot of tour groups. There is a path marked out by ropes that everybody follows through the rooms. For some reason, the group guides pick the dopiest places to stop and do a bit of a spiel. And then everything stops. It's like a pig in a python - nobody can get past. Twice I managed to use my mime skills from a distance and get the tour guide to make their gaggle move over and let people past. A third time I asked a guard to make it happen or I said the girls and I would have to cross the rope to walk around them.
New Year's Eve was a good night. We went to the apartment in town of Daniella's sister, Sabine, and her her husband, Alex. I'm guessing they are a pretty classy Viennese couple. There were about a dozen guests. Sabine gave a little speech welcoming us and thanking Alex for preparing our meal. Alex, far better dressed than I ever am when I cook for people, responded and gave us a run through of what he had prepared (including three different types of caviar) and where some of the food came from. Then he set to work opening some massive oysters from France with an enthusiasm and complete disregard for his left hand that was really admirable.
The oddest thing I found in Austria is that it's possible, and very popular understandably, to buy fireworks. How long is it since we've been able to do that in Australia? We used to call them 'crackers' in Sydney, and every year there was a night called 'cracker night'. I have no idea what it was all about, but as kids we loved it. Kids in Vienna were letting off crackers for days before New Year's Eve, just like we did. And on the night, fireworks starting going off in town hours before midnight.
Alex, our host, had his own stockpile and we went downstairs to let them off at around 11pm. It brought some great memories back - the sound, the smell. Mimi got to do something none of her friends would have done and will probably never do - she got to light some fireworks.
The firework pace picked up close to midnight, but then went for an hour afterwards till people gradually ran out of steam and supplies.
The next morning, I went for a walk and all round the streets was evidence of fireworks. The only thing missing was kids picking up each one in the hope that it might have been a 'fizzer' and could perhaps be resurrected. That's where, I recall, things sometimes got really risky as kids. I asked Andreas whether kids ever tie a bunch of fireworks together and put them in people's letter boxes. 'But this would damage them?' He said. 'That was the point', I replied.
Daniella did tell me a couple of days later that a father died that night in front of his kid from a firework mishap. She suspected it was a big one that might have come in from another country - one a bit less cautious than Austria. The dad apparently lit it, waited a couple of minutes but nothing happened, then went and had a look at it. His head was over the top of it when it went off. Probably wouldn't have happened if he had honed his skills blowing up letterboxes.
Our last night in Vienna was at the Vienna Opera House in a box watching the Nutcracker ballet. I'm not a huge fan of ballet, but I am a fan of new experiences and being in a private box - just the six of us - in that fabulous place was a great experience.
There was much more security leaving Vienna than arriving - when we arrived, we just walked straight into the country from Spain. It must annoy the Austrians that they are at the mercy of the Italians and the Spanish and most of the EU when it comes to vetting people. Our bags were a collective 85 kilos when we checked them in at the airport to leave, so we (and I'm using the plural pronoun charitably) picked up about 16 kilos, but still had a spare 35 kilos. I wish I could have auctioned them off somehow - that would be a good idea for an 'app', matching up people with excess baggage with people who have a spare allocation.
Some of that weight increase would have been Mimi's metal gladiator helmet. She saw them in Rome. Every tourist stall had one - it was their big ticket item. I suspect if those Bangladeshi guys managed to offload a helmet, they would take the rest of the week off. The helmets were always positioned on the top row of the stall right in the centre. Mimi loved them, and I had to admit if I was a kid I would have loved them, too. She fixated on them the whole week we were in Rome, so I snuck off one day and found the best made one and did some negotiating. We surprised her with it at Christmas.
I like the cameras that Emirates (and no doubt other airlines) these days have outside the plane so you can see what's happening. Lisa doesn't like them - she thinks it's a bit like the cameras some dentists have that let people see what's going on in their mouths when the dentist is mucking around in there. It was foggy taking off in Vienna and I was watching things from the nose camera. I was thinking that if I was driving a car, that fog would make me knock a few klms off my speed and here we were hurtling down a runway in something much bigger than a car. I was hoping he had his fog lights on.
The plane change in Dubai was much more relaxed than the one heading over so that was good. We boarded our big plane - the A380 again - but there was a delay while they waited for some baggage from a connecting flight. Then, when we started the taxi to the runway, the pilot stopped the plane and said there was a 'technical problem' and he had to take the plane back to the gate so the engineers could look at it. I knew then that it would probably mean an overnight stay in Dubai as we would miss the 11pm curfew cut-off in Sydney. But ten minutes later, the pilot said, 'I've been negotiating on the phone with my head office and they are allowing us to take-off'. His negotiation would have gone along the lines of, 'If I don't take off now, we're going to have to put 500 people up in hotels overnight.' Next time I have a technical problem with something I'm going to try negotiating a fix. He probably should have told us that that the 'technical problem' turned out to be a faulty light globe or something.
Anyway, that's it - Rome, Venice, Barcelona and Vienna all ticked-off. The kids were fantastic. Lisa has thousands of photos to sort through. There were no mishaps - apart from Lulu's pavement head butt in Rome. Nobody lost anything - Lisa did drop her favourite scarf 5 times, but twice the girls noticed and three times I did. The poo man and t-Rex seem to be settling in okay. And I'm back at work.
Auf Wiedersehen (that's some more German for you).
The helmet is great, Chris. She did some stuff on ancient Rome in school last year and really liked it. When we were out on one of our first days in Rome and saw one of those helmets, I think we both almost simultaneously looked at eachother and said, 'I want one of those.' Then I had to spend a week telling her they were rubbish and too expensive and too heavy, while I was all the time sussing them out to find who was selling the best made ones. Then I had to get one back to our digs secretly and conceal it in my bag till we got to Barcelona for Christmas and I could give it to her. It was worth it to see the look on her face.