Vienna was like a breath of fresh air: the vacation I needed after feeling culture shocked, a taste of Mozart, Klimt and the Danube. And like any good holiday, it was simple and wonderful, along with me realizing a thing or two about myself.
It’s a beautiful city, more formal than Prague or Wrocław. Vienna felt a bit more grand, and lacked the Soviet-esque apartment buildings. However, it had the same elegance, the same Baroque details on buildings.
And I admit: my terrible German from college came in handy. I could fumble my way through a menu, or tell a cab driver my hotel address and number. Being able to talk and have people understand is such a wonderful feeling. After irritating everyone in Hradec Králové with my phrasebook and bad Czech pronunciation, I was happy to be able to communicate with a certain amount of ease again.
I had two goals in Vienna, my first time in Austria: to visit as many museums as possible, and to dine at some nice vegetarian restaurants. And let me tell you, Vienna has some lovely places to eat that cater to vegetarians.
First stop was at a place called Wrenkh for lunch. In a tourist-y spot in town, it was crowded but still had an airy atmosphere. Both the menu and the specials were so tempting, the kind of place you keep wanting to come back to. I went with the special: an unusual, savory potato soup with greens and red peppers; and lentil salad with a delicious dressing and grilled tofu. The main course was a stuffed pepper with a distinctive, sweet tomato sauce. And the waiter was wonderfully patient, letting me translate some of the menu while he waited.
After visiting the Alphonse Mucha in Prague, it seemed a logical extension to visit the Leopold Museum and the Succession Building in Vienna— to see Gustav Klimt’s large-scale art nouveau paintings. While Mucha channeled the most organic of art nouveau, Klimt was more geometric.
Also, a completely unexpected place I wandered in to: the Natural History Museum. Full of fascinating exhibits about animals, human evolution and geology, I think I wandered around it twice. Also, it had the right balance of scientific talk and whimsical, hands on exhibits, like the life-sized roaring dinosaur and a computer that would show you what you looked like as an early human. (More forehead. Lots of forehead!)
For dinner, I decided to go more upscale, and went to a place called Lebenbauer. (Ok, so I don’t eat at nice places very often. When the waiter brought over the bottle to show me, I panicked, and explained I only wanted a glass! Yeah, I can be a peasant sometimes…) They even brought out a small appetizer, on the house: a smoked tofu pâté. (I’ve noticed that a lot of tofu and tempeh is served smoked in Central Europe.) Dinner was a clear soup with polenta, green onions, and bean sprouts, followed with spinach risotto and smoked tofu. It’s totally the place you would take a date.
The next day, I took a temporary break from museums to check out the Schönbrunn Palace, former home of the Hapsburg clan. Honestly, I’m normally not a huge fan of palaces, so I bought the ticket for the lowest number of rooms. However, the little free audio guide they gave out made it very worth it— I got to walk through one of the rooms where a six-year-old Mozart played a first public performance. Afterwards, the sculpture gardens were a quiet place to relax.
After seeing numerous pizza-by-slice stands, I decided: to heck with fancy food. I needed pizza. Gluten-free pizza is a weird, rare species, even in the U.S. I hadn’t found anything in the Czech Republic, either in a restaurant or in a store. (The gluten-free pizza at Bazalka is tasty, but not quite the glorious cheesiness of American pizza.) Luckily, the Internet provided the answer: Pizzeria Scarabocchio. (There’s also a vegan pizza place I didn’t try, called Casa Piccola.)
The pizza was wonderful, as most gluten-free pizza is served with tasteless, thin, corn flour crust. Here, the pizza came on obviously hand-tossed, hand made crust, with a good crunch and flavor. Also: they served gluten-free beer.
The last museum I hit up was the Kunst Historisches Museum, which I actually got in to for free. It was vast, and wonderful— everything from ancient Egyptian art to decorative arts to huge Renaissance canvases. Also, many of the rooms had places to sit— the museum was seriously enormous. My camera actually just ran out of batteries by the time I got to the old masters section— but I do remember standing in front of the Tower of Babel by Bruegels for a long time.
The language issue was one that struck a cord in me. I realized what one of the lingering things that has been bothering me the past few weeks. While most folks in Vienna were willing to deal with someone who didn’t speak much German, I haven’t gotten the same response in the Czech Republic, particularly in Hradec Králové. There, when waiters, store clerks or other folks realize I can’t speak Czech, they just ignore me, along with all my phrase book-fumbling and badly pronounced Czech words. I’ve lost count of how many times I am simply ignored, even while still speaking, gesturing, or trying to write a Czech phrase down. I’ve had that feeling of being “invisible” before, sometimes in Turkey, especially in China— but I’ve never been flat-out ignored. (Someone suggested this may be my “Western-ness” showing through: less a language issues and more a cultural one.)
If I frequent a restaurant, folks seem more apt to slowly adjust to my non-Czech-ness. But overall, the language barrier has been more difficult here than elsewhere.
On the train ride back, I realized that my vacation was ending in several ways. In six weeks, I’ll have my master’s degree, be done with student life, and need to decide what to do next— and more importantly, where to do it.