House Warming, Literally, or So Someone Set Fire to the Cellar

So I live in a city owned apartment building. It was built in 1930. I rent here. I’m fucking poor, deal with it.

It’s Friday night and someone set fire to the basement.

Someone also set fire to the pharmacy down the street. Two weeks ago someone set fire to the front yard waste bins in almost every building along the street. So my question is…

WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING AND WHY AM I INVOLVED?!

I’ve never been in a house fire. I didn’t even know that still existed, outside of the classic smoked-in-bed-and-fell-asleep. And now I need to vent.

Sometime in the evening I quip that someone’s barbecuing because it smells burnt. I could kick myself for that. Shortly after 8 p.m. someone rings the intercom. This happens, someone always forgets their key, or is trying to get into the house for less than legal reasons. So I usually play dead if I’m not expecting anyone. But then it rings again. And again. So I answer. It’s a neighbour I’ve never met, ringing absolutely everyone that there’s smoke coming out of the cellar. So, off I go, tell Boyfriend to get a move on, throw on some pants and shoes, grab my handbag, knock next door, lock my own door and high tail it outta there like I’m running on auto pilot while phoning the fire brigade because I’m not sure if anyone called them yet and hey, better one time too many than not enough, right?

Apparently not. So the man at the end of the line is really rude. I’m at the edge of panic, telling the exact address, saying there’s smoke coming out of the basement. “Really? I got a call it’s in the yard.” At this point I’m already on the ground floor and can’t see anything anymore because hey, lotsa smoke, bro ain’t never lied. “But I got a call it’s in the yard”, the man says. “No, it’s in the basement, that’s what all my neighbours say and there’s really a lot of smoke.” The man on the phone is getting audibly annoyed: “Now you listen to me! I got a call it’s from the yard. Are you there in front of the fire, do you see the fire?” Sure bro, I’m roasting marshmallows. I step out into the yard, inhale a lung of smoke on my way, and surprise, no fire. Because it’s very clearly coming from the basement. So I say no, it’s not, it’s from the basement. Dude asks me to check again. I say I can’t, there’s such a lot of smoke, I can’t see in the house, but I can tell you there’s nothing at all whatsoever in the yard! So finally he grudgingly says they’ll be right over.

Okay. I get that your job is stressful. I get that you’re annoyed because unbeknownst to me five different people called your department. But seriously, who goes into the smoke to check for its source without some protection? Do you really think I own a gas mask? Am I your colleague? Do I work for you? No! I’m a civilian, there’s smoke, come save me! That’s how it’s supposed to go! Spiderman wouldn’t ask me a million questions before swinging over!

So some guys are trying to get the garden hose going but it’s not long enough. The fire brigade takes some time to arrive, but there’s nothing productive I can do so I slowly venture away from the smoke and towards the sidewalk. I sit down for a minute and grab for my inhaler because I inhaled some smoke while on the phone and even for a non-asthmatic, that ain’t exactly pleasant. My lungs are sending me a warning sign already. Must be it, no one else is coughing. My asthma has been fine for years but little things like this remind me it’s still there. A woman I’ve never met before asks me if I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m the queen of okay. I’m just not happy with my lungs. But my faith in humanity is restoring itself for a minute.

The police come, one neighbour I don’t know wearing a neon orange shirt launches himself into a fit of rage about the rent, the construction work, the police, house management and the world in general. I sit on the other side of the street with Boyfriend and the woman from downstairs. I’m suddenly painfully aware that I’m not wearing any make-up. Not even my BB cream. How long was it since I left the house without make-up on? But that’s a stupid thought, so I shove it away.

Soon there’s a word drifting from police to neighbours to me: arson. I can’t quite believe it at first. I’m theorising about cables fire, it’s been hot these past two weeks, and the construction workers aren’t exactly careful.

Turns out I’m an optimistic idiot.

I notice for the first time we have no fire extinguisher in the entire building. No smoke alarm. Shouldn’t we have that? Shouldn’t that be in every building? I mean, it’s an old house but still. Aren’t there regulations? I make a mental note.

I’m paranoid someone will use the fire as a distraction to climb the scaffold and rob everyone. We all had our windows wide open because of the heat, no one closed them. Unfortunately I say this out loud. The woman from downstairs looks at me with eyes like saucers. I can scare people with a single comment.

They tell us we won’t be able to go back in for two hours. It’s a quarter to nine. Quite a wait for a Friday night. I suggest ice cream. The woman from downstairs suggests the bakery and off we trot. A few other neighbours had the same idea, we see as we approach. A rushed looking young woman is running herself ragged with all the new customers. My lungs feel fine by now.

So we eat. And chat. I marvel at how catastrophe can bring people together in such a way. People in Vienna suffer from a kind of cultural autism. We don’t talk. Not to strangers. Among neighbours we only exchange pleasantries. We gossip like a horde of washerwomen in the office. But we don’t say anything of substance. That’s reserved for close friends and alcoholic nights. I never talked to the woman before apart from the customary hellos in the hallway. And I will probably never talk to her again. She’s about sixty. What do we have to talk about besides chitchat and gossip about our other neighbours, some of which are admittedly very weird? (Especially the guy who robs the fuse box and glues the front door shut. No, seriously.)

We can go back an hour sooner than we thought. Stop to chat with a policeman who gives me a hint about fire safety regulations. Once I’m home I soon find the right paragraph on the internet. I’m no lawyer, but still, if this was America I could sue someone’s pants right off.

We say goodbye to the woman-from-downstairs and happily we still have power in the flat. So I set myself to writing an angry e-mail to house management. Only house management has no e-mail, just some notifying system where you can type 500 characters. So I send two messages urging them to give us some goddamn fire extinguishers and maybe an alarm system. If they’re going to renovate the whole house might as well get to it. Screw ’em. I want them to know about fire safety regulations. I’m going to regret this in the morning. My conditioning wants me to not make a fuss, to keep quiet, to be thankful it wasn’t anything worse. Nothing bad happened after all. Just a spot of trouble. Nothing serious. SCREW THAT, I say. I want to make things better. I want prevention.

And now that things have calmed down I’m back to thinking about myself. I was calm. Not running around like a headless chicken. Not scared. No screaming. Just practical and controlled. Not taking any risks. That’s good, right? But now I feel guilty in a way. I think I could have done more. I could have been more perceptive and noticed it smelled like smoke, not like someone cooking. I could have gone upstairs to check if really everyone was out. I could have gone and checked for the fire source. I could have gone around being comforting, even though in the wall of stone-faced strangers no one seemed to need comforting. I could have tried to calm down orange shirt guy who was screaming loud enough to be heard from two blocks away. Why do I feel the need to do that? Is not being trouble not enough? Do I have some kind of saviour complex?

Mostly I feel on edge. And angry. Angry like I let this happen. Maybe I’m just a control freak.

The fire was only in the cellar. Nothing ruined, just kinda smoky. Definitely arson, the police say. We’ve had a few of those recently. Who the hell does this? Why would you do this? Teenagers being bored, Boyfriend says, it’s the summer holidays after all. If that’s true, whatever happened to just getting drunk somewhere or chilling with friends, possibly while being drunk? That’s what I did when I was a bored kid.

Someone on the ground floor already has their music turned up to maximum again. Panic time over and we’re back to being cultural autists again. No talking to neighbours for a long while.

And if I catch the asshole who’s been doing this he’s going to be so dead he won’t even know it.

“Easy for you to talk, I have to live here!”: Christmas Edition – A Brief Survey (And Damn Long Post) of Christmas Traditions in Austria

Ah, Christmas.

Ah fuck, Christmas! And I haven’t even started my Christmas shopping!

After I did the Halloween post back in October I thought, hey, that was kind of fun, being all high and mighty and lecturing people. So, since I couldn’t do an episode of how-we-do-things about Thanksgiving in Austria, I decided to do one on Christmas. Why? Because Thanksgiving doesn’t exist here. Stuffing our faces is part of our lifestyle and doesn’t need a holiday of its own. Also, we didn’t have pilgrims, nor did we have native inhabitants to kill. We are our natives, ever since the Indo-Europeans made their way to Europe a good 3000 years ago. Ergo, no reason to celebrate.

So Thanksgiving doesn’t make much sense. We do small local harvest feasts at the end of summer, though. Fresh must and cider, now that’s something to be thankful for.

I think everyone, all over the world, is very familiar with stereotypical American Christmas. I mean, we’ve all seen so many movies about it, right? So why not think about how we, all us non-Americans, celebrate our christianised solstice? So this is what this segment is for. Keep in mind that this is a secular and very limited perspective, locally speaking, I’m only talking about Vienna here.

Okay, so Christmas, yeah, of course we have Christmas. Even though about half of people under forty identify as atheists, and every second child in 2013 was born out of wedlock, we’re not some sort of godless heathens (as far as you know, and you can’t prove a thing!). Also, food. FOOD! Nothing better than cheating on your diet with “But it’s Christmas time!” and have that extra gingerbread, that extra cookie, that extra piece of roast, that extra ANYTHING!

I mean, I assume you already know this, but on the off-chance that you don’t: Christmas has been celebrated way before Jesus and way before it was called Christmas. The Christians moved their festival to the day of the winter solstice, which has been celebrated since humans in this area discovered, hey, the days are getting longer again. Knowledge like this, the solstices, the equinoxes, have been vital for our survival in the past and should rightly be celebrated because they are useful, especially in an agricultural context. The gods came later. Nothing wrong with keeping them about, but just remember, they’re not the reason for the season. The season is the reason for the season.

The most interesting part about Austrian Christmas traditions is perhaps that the action happens before and after the Christmas date. On Christmas itself, you just stuff your face, maybe go to church if you have to. But mainly, you eat, exchange presents, pretend to be delighted, try not to pick a quarrel that results in a mighty family feud again, and fall into a food coma as soon as you’re home.

Now first things first, the date. We usually celebrate on the 24th of December. Can be midday, can be afternoon, can be evening, that depends on every family’s tradition. Like, me and mine, we usually get together about late afternoon, because my mother said, and I quote “I’ll be damned if I get up at 6 am to start cooking!” (She tried this a couple times when I was a kid and the family was still well enough to visit, and she was not happy.) Families gather together to eat and exchange presents and have coffee and sweets and maybe engage in group food coma. There’s family drama and debates from god-knows-when and tears and whiny children and drunk grannies telling their first dirty jokes in years. Hey, some people (especially in rural communities) even go to church for midnight mass! All in all, pretty usual stuff.

After food there’s usually the traditional exchange of peace gifts presents which may or may not involve sending the little children of the house off into a different room while the parents get their Xboxes and iPhones (or whatever it is kids get these days) out of their careful hiding places and arrange them around the tree, then ring a small bell to pretend the Christchild has made his delivery and shove the kids back into the room. Magic! Aren’t you just so surprised, our Franzl?

Someone might even choose to torture the entire family with Christmas music. Christmas music falls into two variations: the traditional and the imported British and/or American stuff. I still can’t decide which is worse. Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht, Alle Jahre Wieder, Es Ist ein Ros Entsprungen, Leise Rieselt der Schnee, O Tannenbaum, Kling, Glöckchen, Klingelingeling, or, the very worst, Es Wird Scho Glei Dumpa, all those songs from the early 1800s, when everyone was suddenly into family values, family religion, and family Christmas. If anyone, and grandmothers are infamous for this, insists on hearing “something nice for once” or, worse, something “besinnlich”, you know you lost, because the above mentioned are what you will hear until your eyes pop and your ears bleed. Youtube at your own risk. I’m going to hear this all month.

On the other hand we have your foreign classics like Rudolph, Jingle Bells, Winter Wonderland (uuuuugh), Let It Snow, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, Santa Baby, and the worst Christmas song in the history of ever, Baby It’s Cold Outside (seriously? If someone asks “Hey, what’s in this drink?” how is that not a rapey red flag?! Yeah, nothing says peace on earth like the prelude to sexual assault.) for the more open-minded cosmopolitan and, most importantly, younger crowd. And also every store everywhere ever, and I’m about ready to shove an oboe up my auditory canal. No one ever plays the funny songs like Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.

And since eating is so important on Christmas Eve, what do we eat? Again, depends on the family tradition. Some have goose (still very popular, but hellish to make I hear, takes forever), some have roast pork, some have roast beef, some have fish, some have duck, some have chicken, with a range of sides like various aggregate forms of potatoes (cooked, mashed, fried, french fries, oven grilled, pan grilled, do you even know how much you can do with potatoes?), green beans, salad, cooked vegetables, gravy, and so on. Some have something different every year. Some say, fuck it, and book a table at a restaurant and no shame, a lot of people do that. Like, book a table a week or a month in advance. Then there’s the cookies. Oh, the cookies. Non-German-speaking world, do you even have Vanillekipferl? Linzer Augen? Zimtsterne? Spekulatius? Kokosmakronen? I dare you to google pictures!

Okay, before you drool all over the keyboard, let’s consider the word itself. Christmas consists of mas, meaning “feast” (see also mass and German Messe), and Christ, so the feast of Christ. Weihnachten, the German word, comes from ze wihen nahten, a Middle High German phrase first found in a 12th century sermon that basically means “at the blessed/hallow night”. It is not a plural form, a question I sometimes get from people who are in the process of learning German. (German has so many damned different plural forms, it’s okay if you get them confused sometimes.) Anyway, only the part about “blessed night” survived, and tada, a new word.

Everyone together say “Uuuugggghhhh”.

 

Let’s now consider the word besinnlich. Old fashioned cards and old people like to wish you “besinnliche Weihnachten”. This is probably one of the most German words EVER. A dictionary will tell you it means reflective, contemplative, or tranquil, but it’s all of those and more. It draws you right back to the time when Germany could rightfully claim to be the country of poets and thinkers (“Land der Dichter und Denker”, notice the alliteration and compare Ireland’s “land of saints and scholars”. It’s aaaall marketing.), back when Kleist and Heine were big shots of the German literature scene, the time of the Bildungsbürgertum, the intellectual and economic upper bourgeoisie, in the late 18th and early 19th century. It’s like this state of mind you should reach around Christmas, this kind of ur-Christian feeling of being a) thankful, b) believing, c) reflecting about your life and the universe and everything, possibly in context with your flavour of Christianity. It’s the kind of feeling that you should experience listening to Silent Night, Holy Night, that insufferable song I’m going to hear until New Year’s that doesn’t make me feel besinnlich but more like homicidal. So it’s a pretty rare feeling, I’d say. It’s not something you’ll readily feel while hunting through the malls and shopping streets, checking off many an item on an ever-growing list. Then again of course it developed before malls and shopping streets. Nothing besinnlich about shopping unless you’re a real fashion victim.

Do we have Christmas trees? Well, duh, where do you think this tradition comes from? Dragging evergreen plants into your home is about as Germanic as you can get without drinking ale out of your enemy’s skull (for some reason that’s frowned upon these days). It used to be for magic purposes (however the hell that was supposed to work) to bring spring back, or, on a more psychological level, as a green beacon of hope to make people endure the cold and patiently wait for the next spring without too much of a nervous breakdown. Now we just hang balls and garlands on them. Or X-wings, depends on the people and their personal fandom. Most people still buy a new genuine tree every year, because plastic may be cheaper and less hassle and less needles but it is just. Not. The. Same. Sorry, we’re a bit too traditional for that. Needles are a bother, yes, but on the other hand, a real tree feels better and smells better. And, well… do you know how many pines and firs and other coniferous trees grow in this country?

But who puts presents under those wonderfully smelling trees? We don’t have Santa Claus. AT best we have the Weihnachtsmann, but he’s only been moving in for the past 30 years or so (thanks, America). We get our presents from the Christkind (Christ-child), which is basically baby Jesus, not only come back from the dead but also suddenly a lot smaller. It’s like Jesus is a Time Lord and he regenerated shortly before Christmas and something went wrong and he didn’t take an adult form and that’s how the legend was born. Okay, it’s baby Jesus merged with the holy spirit merged with an angel like thing with blond hair and wings. Blame Martin Luther and the Protestants who didn’t want to continue the Nikolaus tradition because worshipping saints is too close to polytheism but angel-like things from heaven that are inspired by local nativity plays are a-okay.

The Christkind doesn’t crawl through the chimney. First of all because no one has fireplaces anymore, and second because, well, it (he? No, I think it’s an ‘it’.) can just appear if he wants. It doesn’t need any reindeer pulled sleighs either. It’s also shy as hell, so if you try to sneak around the house and spot it, it won’t come and bring you presents!

Now, if you’re a kid in Austria and you grow up with the tradition of the Christkind AND somehow got an impression of the Santa Clause tradition, you might have a period of confusion before putting two and two together and surmise that either a) they work together, or b) DOUBLE PRESENTS! Let’s just say parents of small children around here have some ‘splaining to do this time of year. (If kids these days even still believe in anything, because I’ve overheard 6-year-olds making fun of their peers for believing in such figures as the Christkind. Like, everyone knows it’s your parents, dude, we’re all just playing along to spare their feelings. Then again, if there’s presents involved, kids can be very believing all of a sudden. Or at least pretend to be. Sneaky little secular bastards.)

Also, if you’re an Austrian child and you know that the Christ-child is more or less baby Jesus, who is male, but on every Christmas market you see a post-pubescent woman in a blond wig parading around as the Christchild, you’re going to have a long period of confusion, and your parents will haven even more desperate ‘splaining to do. (“But if the Christkind is Jesus, why is it a lady?” – “Because the Christkind is a baby, after all.” – “But she doesn’t look like a baby! Babies are very small and can’t walk!” Ah, children. They know when things don’t add up.)

Then there’s the whole business with St. Nicolas (who we call Nikolaus or Nikolo), an old man in a bishop’s robe and a giant beard, and Krampus, a devilish lookin’ fella with horns and hooves. (In the Netherlands, he’s called Swarte Piet, “black Peter”, and apparently there was some postcolonial controversy about that recently.)

“Ho, ho, ho, would you like to talk about our Lord and Saviour?”

Remember Gandalf? This is him now. Feel old yet?

No reindeer here either. Both are part of our pre-Christmas traditions. The Krampus’ feast day is on Dec 5 and Nikolaus’ on Dec 6. And if you’re not from Central Europe you’ve probably never heard from them. Which is a pity, because Nikolaus is one of the bases for Santa Claus, as is obvious from the name alone. It’s not a state holiday here, though, and it’s more important for example in Finland and Spain. There are various theories about the origin of Nikolaus  and all make a certain amount of sense, but which one is accepted usually depends on where in Europe you are. One of the established and long-going theories is that Nikolaus himself is based on Odin (also known as Wotan in the south), himself a bearded old dude, but during the Christianisation he merged with a bishop (hence the name) to include him into the new religion. (It was vital to make this tradition extra-Christian because early Christians in German-speaking regions were so afraid of the old gods, we don’t even have Odin’s name in our names for the days of the week. English has Wednesday, “Wotan’s day”, German has Mittwoch, “middle of the week”.) Bishop Nikolaus of Myra, who apparently gave three young women gold for their dowries and did similar things that made him fit for the role of… bringing small sticky children chocolate to make them even more sticky. (Used to be oranges and nuts, but you know how kids are these days.)

What do we do on Nikolaus day? Well, before Christmas gift giving became a big thing in the 1800s, Nikolaus was the traditional gift day for the kids. Nowadays they get chocolates in various forms, sometimes still traditionally to be found in their shoes in the morning, and usually Nikolaus- or Krampus-shaped because gimmicks sell. All through the schools and day care facilities children are forced to sing cheerful songs about the joyous reason for the day (Kling, Glöckchen, Klingelingeling, fuuuhuuuuck youuu….). People dressed as Nikolaus and Krampus run around desperately trying to impress our increasingly unimpressed children. Usually they visit the local kindergartens to give out candy. Sometimes, in the evening, parents blackmail an uncle (or Mom just forces Dad) into dressing up and giving out chocolate to the children of the family, who usually already know who’s trying to hide under the not-at-all-convincing beard, but hey, free chocolate. And if you can scare your little siblings/cousins by telling them how they are going to be punished, hey, more power to you, kid.

Us grown-ups sometimes participate in the festivities ourselves, to varying degrees: chocolate,  sexy chocolate, other sexy things for when the kids are long asleep (because there’s nothing sexier than being bad and we’ve all been naughty, oh, very naughty indeed, “oh, Krampus, are you gonna spank me?”. Don’t. Ask.). Some just stuff a jute sack with chocolate, peanuts and marzipan and try to stuff it into their boyfriend’s winter boots (hint: boots can never be big enough, it seems).

There are many Germanic traditions surrounding the time between the winter solstice and the early days after New Year’s Eve. You may have heard of the Twelve Days of Christmas? That’s the twelve days between Dec 25 and Jan 6 now. (Feast Day of the Three Wise Men, very big in Spain as well.) For ancient Germans, this period was called “Rauhnächte”, and it was a baaad time to venture outside, because Odin and the dead (that’d make a great band name) went a-hunting, what was called the Wild Hunt.

What Odin also supposedly did, either during the Rauhnächte or on St Nicolas’ feast day, depends if we’re talking before or after the missionaries made their move, was to reward good people by bringing them presents of food, and punishing bad people. People were also supposed to put carrots in their boots and put them outside for Odin’s eight-legged horse (which Loki gave birth to – Germanic mythology, ladies and gentlemen!) to have a snack, and Odin would then deposit gifts where the carrots had been. Sounds familiar yet?

The Krampus, known as Knecht Ruprecht (“servant Ruprecht”) mainly in the protestant regions of Germany, especially in the north, on the other hand, is of a more obscure origin. He’s on the punishing side of things, rattling chains and brandishing a rod, or at least he was before people started to be all “Won’t somebody think of the children!” Now there’s no more spankings and you can buy chocolate effigies of him as well. (Funnily enough, when people dressed as Nikolaus and Krampus come to visit kids in kindergarten, as is practised, kids are usually more scared of Nikolaus.) Krampus, in a Christian context, is basically Beelzebub, a stand-in for the devil, a lesser demon who can punish children on Nikolaus’ command. (Remember, kids, devils need heavenly permission to whip you stupid. Isn’t that a comforting thought?)

“Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me.”

Such a jolly time of the year!

In a pre-Christian context, Krampus has a lot of roots. The parallel to the devil is more than obvious, but that came later, with the Christianisation of the continent. He is associated with the Wild Hunt, and his outer appearance resembles the Perchten tradition, which we’ll come to later. The name Krampus comes from a Middle High German word meaning “claw”. He carries either a sack or a wooden tub to carry off bad children. He usually is clad in fur, has a tail and has cloven hooves for feet, again, see devil depictions, it’s not far off. During the Early Modern period until about the 17th century it was actually forbidden under penalty of death to dress up as Krampus, because a good Christian could of course not dress up as a demon or diabolic anything. Nevertheless, some people just carried on with the tradition like they just didn’t care and so it survived and was re-established somewhere around the Enlightenment period. When the Perchtenläufe came back in full force and quickly gained popularity again all over the Alpine region (southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, you name it) at the beginning of the 19th century, a time marked by a general return to traditional German values and customs, a want for some good ol’ Brauchtum, the Krampus’ appearance began to resemble theirs.

Perchten are a very Alpine thing. Just look at this:

“Hello, we’re the Millers, just moved in next door.”

Google it if you like. Google pictures. Things like this could only ever be conceived in the Alps, because if you get right down to it the Alps are fucking scary as hell. Bitter cold, biting snow, sun sets too early, harsh winds, echoes everywhere, one false step and you fall down a cliff, just imagine how it must have been for people living there 1000 years ago or even longer.

Perchten are not just some weird hairy things. In a real Perchtenlauf they have roles, and those roles and their costumes vary sometimes greatly from region to region. In such processions you might also find people donning what looks like gigantic hats made of fruit, flowers, or mirrors (also known as Schönperchten); other people with wooden tubs strapped to their backs sweeping the streets; others still with giant feather headpieces; some decorated with pine cones; people dressed as exaggerated representations of old women or witches; generally you can say that the hairy horned Schiachperchten symbolise evil spirits and the Schönperchten, who in the procession follow after the Schiachperchten, symbolise the good spirits of fertility and spring. Pretty simple concept, really. It’s all traditional, but no one is really sure anymore how or why it was started.

Few things ignite so much debate as the custom of Perchtenlauf, giant processions through the village and/or adjoining fields by dozens of pretty fellas as those you see above, all during the twelve nights. Some communities have a fixed date for this, and apparently it varies by region. We don’t do it in Vienna, it being more of a rural west part of the country thing, so it’s pretty alien to me, too, but it seems to be slowly gaining interest. I’ve seen Perchten on the subway, probably on their way to perform a show for us town folks, and it’s kinda surreal. (And not a single kid screamed! Kids are weird.)

There are a lot of theories about the name. The name itself has been used since the Middle Ages. The most popular one sees the root in an Old High German word, berchttac, the old name for the holiday of Epiphany. It’s definitely the root for bercht, a Middle High German word meaning bright. If those words have anything at all to do with the custom, however, is up to debate.But then again, just because you didn’t call it Perchten back then doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.

There is also a lot of discussion about a possible pre-Christian origin, because the first written statements about Perchtenläufe date from the 16th century. Again, maybe people just didn’t write much about those weird mountain folks living in regions you hardly ever wandered through if you could avoid it. There are some ancient Roman reports from the 5th century about parades of masked people running about Alpine towns around the time of the solstice, expelling winter and evil spirits with noise and bells, stomping all over the fields to break the ice on the ground, and invite the good, nice and most importantly fertile spring spirits back. Well, I mean. Look at those masks. Let’s just say good Christians aren’t usually that creative.

Another big point is the supposed worship of Frau Perchta. There is a theory that a goddess of that name or a similar one was once one of the main deities in the region. There’s not much evidence for that, though (well, duh, not like people did write a lot until a few hundred years ago), so this theory not taken very seriously. Granted, the Perchtenlauf role of Frau Perchta/Witch exists. There definitely is a mythological figure know to the Alpine and some Slavic regions of that name, though in how far there was any worship involved ad any time is unknown. She might be the result of centuries worth of cultural contact and fusion between Celtic, Germanic and Slavic tribes. Then again, there are similar figures of different names (Frau Holle (the fairy tale of the same name is based on her) in the northern part of Germany, Frau Fricke/Gode towards the Netherlands) in German-speaking regions, so it might be a case of an archetype. Maybe this figure is old enough to have travelled with the Indo-Europeans.

According to mythology, Perchta is a witch-like figure who punishes bad housekeeping and bad farming practices, punishments ranging from nightmares to plain ol’ bloody death. Like… she hacks people to pieces. Or disembowels them. I told you the Alps were scary. On the other hand, she rewards diligence, hard work, and helpfulness, so if ever an old woman in the Alps asks for your help you better go and do what she asks, it might be a test. During the Rauhnächte she flies through the houses to check that everything is clean and orderly (might explain why we do Big House Cleaning Action shortly before Christmas, maybe it’s not just for the visiting relatives) and WOE BETIDE YOU IF IT’S NOT! Excuse me while I go find my swiffer kit.

Maybe we should return to less violent matters? During the Twelve Days of Christmas, but especially on Jan 6, you might also find what we call “Sternsinger”, people, mostly children though, dressing up as the Three Wise Men (or as we call them, “die Heiligen Drei Könige”, the Three Holy Kings, again, they’re really big in Spain and Spanish-speaking countries), going door to door to sing and collect for charity. This is a relatively old custom, dating back to the 16th century. This explains a lot. Like, why sometimes one of the kids is in blackface. Well, Caspar has been represented as a black man since the 13th century, that’s not our fault! And certainly no one thought anything about it in the 16th century! So if you’re a tourist, maybe hailing from the Americas, be assured no one means to offend, just trying to be historically and religiously accurate. And because we’ve always done it this way and we don’t like change. “But why can’t you just get an honest-to-God black kid to play Caspar?” Because there are not that many black kids here, sorry. And isn’t it kinda racist to ask the black kids to play the black character just because they happen to be black? What? I’m sure I already put my foot in my mouth so I might as well chew on it. There are not that many black people in Austria in general, seeing as we never had oversea imperialism or slavery (and, for the sake of completeness, minstrel shows or what you call it, I just learned about them this year). Sorry? We have a really good black soccer player, though, we get points for that, right?

What you might have noticed if you’ve ever been to Vienna is that some houses and apartments will have a date written in chalk above the door. This is basically a “we were here” graffiti of the Sternsinger.

When you think about it, Christmas is really all about the kids while the adults rush through work, Christmas shopping, and a million item to-do list. There is so much stress involved about:

  • the food: One doesn’t eat that, the other doesn’t like this, Grandma wants her traditional meal that she used to cook before she was to weak to hold a pan, Aunt A is allergic to X thing, while Cousin B is experimenting with vegetarianism, etc.
  • the grocery shopping: What with all the stores being closed from Dec 24th noon to Dec 27 7:30, because holidays, which sucks really bad this year because the 26th falls on a Friday, probably making Saturday a bridge day, and before you say, oh, just do your shopping on Sunday… nothing is ever open on a Sunday here.
  • the family: Let us feel pity for the big families where it’s always guaranteed to be two people who cannot be in the same room together without killing each other. Then the feeling that you, as the host, have to please fucking everybody adds a dozen extra layers of stress. But even in small families, where everyone hates everyone else, you’ll have a million words to swallow just to keep the peace.
  • the presents: No one has any damned money anymore, and everyone has everything they could possibly need already. So what do you get them? Then there’s the kids who can never have enough of the new expensive anything and somehow despite very careful explanation still believe that money grows on trees; the teenager who doesn’t know what they want aside from a different life, less embarrassing parents, the new iphone, and a hundred items of designer clothing; and the older person (aunt, uncle, grandparent, anyone) who just complains about everything.
  • the gathering: Who will host? Who will come? What will be eaten? When will be the gift exchange? At least two people don’t know if they can make it, then show up just as the food is on the table, kids everywhere, teenagers who would rather be in their rooms masturbating, someone started talking about politics, throw alcohol into the mix and merry nervous breakdown.
  • the time: There is never enough damned time. Consider all those things: Deciding on the host, deciding on the food, sending out invitations, calling everyone three times to make sure everyone’s on the same page, planning the grocery shopping for the feast and the following holidays, preparing the food, buying a tree, decorating said tree, buying presents, wrapping presents, maybe even decorating the house, baking cookies, possibly with whiny children, cleaning the house, washing and ironing your and possibly your immediate family’s nice clothes, because Grandma always tuts if you show up in sweatpants… all this while you still have to work, pay your bills, do your household stuff, maybe take care of children, maybe go to school, maybe take care of sick or old relatives, maybe all of those…
  • And then after the holidays are over you sit yourself down and start telling yourself how you will do it all differently next year, how you will start preparing earlier, how you will not be influenced by the judgy stares of your in-laws or own family members next year. Guess how well that works out?

Sometimes I wonder why we still do it every year. If you objectively look at it, Christmas sounds like utter madness. First people worship the sun, now they’re having heart attacks over their child’s presents and their in-laws’ opinions. Insanity! Lunacy! What fit of frenzy made us think this was a good idea?

Ah, well. At least there’s gingerbread. Can’t argue with gingerbread.

Easy for you to talk, I have to live here: Halloween Edition

Hello and welcome to another possible semi-regular feature of this here blog-thing where I tell you interesting and mildly infuriating things about my home town. You’re really getting swamped with my posts this week, aren’t ya? Well, it has to be today, because posting something about Halloween is the cool thing to do.

Now this bitching about my loverly little city is aaaallll my personal opinion of course, and as we all know, a person is entitled to their wrong opinion. I mean, with your home town,  it’s a bit like with family. You love them and you know they love you, and nothing is ever going to change that because after all you’re family, but sometimes they do something so abjectly stupid you just have to vent. So here we go.

Some days I’m absolutely convinced that the cause for all my troubles lies in the fact that I was born and raised in a small city full of bitchy people who do nothing but complain all day.

Okay, so Vienna is maybe not that small. 1.7 million people. That’s a decent enough size for a central European capital. I mean it’s no London but we can’t all be London. But let’s just say it’s not the most popular or populous city in the world. It’s not going to be the staging ground for the next evil overlord/alien invasion/zombie apocalypse, nor is it going to be blown to bits in the next big Marvel anything. (Seriously, how are they rebuilding NYC so fast every time? And the people living there must be like, “Welp, another superhero fight, time to hit the bunker. Hope they don’t blow up my office again.” Does New York have superhero insurance by now?)

Maybe there’s something in the water. I mean, people have been living around here for a good 100,000 years, were they all bitchy and complainy too?

Maybe it’s just an inferiority complex, because there’s nothing left of the Grand Austrian Empire(TM) that lasted for millenniums about 600 years, give or take, I mean, it depends on what you count as part of Grand Austrian Empire(TM). Wasn’t always that Grand. Or that Empire-y. And now everyone keeps thinking we’re Australia and we have to sell shirts with helpful prints in the hopes that this year’s batch of befuddled tourists will finally stop asking where the fucking kangaroos are. (Although maybe we should arrange a sort of cultural partnership with Australia just to fuck with American tourists. They send us kangaroos, we send them dirndls and beer and some decent fucking mountains, don’t worry, there’s plenty and to share.) And if it’s not a case of mistaken identity, no one knows we exist. So, yeah. I guess Austrians are big on inferiority.

And in that spirit, let me tell you fun stuff about us wild mountain fellows.

Like, Halloween. We don’t have that. We don’t really do Halloween. Which is ironic considering it likely originated here.

Jep, you read that right. What’s that? The Irish made it popular, you say? Where do you think the Irish come from? The Celts came to Ireland about 300 BC from mainland Europe. Central Europe. Hell, their own mythology puts their origin close to this our general region. Did you know that Irish mythology has stories about a bunch of people called Túatha Dé Danann? Did you know that this means “people of Danu”? Did you know that Danu is apparently the name of a goddess? And that the word is related to “Danube”? You know, that river that flows from the Black Forest riiight through here all the way to the Black Sea?

So there’s a good chance that at least some Irish Celts were starting out as misplaced Austrians. This is a very depressing thought, I’m sure.

It’s also really ironic, I mean, whole Celtic tribes apparently wandered from here all the way to Ireland in 300 BC, then in the 5th-7th century AD they came back for the vengeance to bring us their newly acquired Christianity. And had to deal with a bunch of suspicious Germanic clans before they could establish monasteries here. (With help from the Romans. Mainland Europe during the Migration Period was like a free-for-all of peoples.)

But we don’t do Halloween in Austria. There’s evidence that local Celts had their share of end-of-summer, be-nice-to-the-spirits death festivals around that time of year, complete with laying out food and wearing costumes so they wouldn’t be recognised by the original evil dead. But then the Irish party pooper monks came and suddenly it was called All Saints’ Day ‘n shit and no more booze or costumes. I swear, we never get any fun holidays around here.

I mean, Austria has a lot of great things. Clean water. Health insurance. Good food and alcohol. Drinking age of 16. Those are all great things. But holidays… nope, we have to borrow those, if at all.

I think one of the reasons for the complete lack of Halloween spirit around here is because most of us only know the US movie version of the holiday. It’s a holiday for kids, people say. And we can’t do it like they do in US movies. First of all, most parents around here are very uncomfortable with the thought of their kids running around strangers’ houses. Not kosher. Not to mention in Vienna, most people rent flats. Owning a house in or around Vienna usually means you’re loaded, whether you admit it or not (or you slept with your estate agent, in which case name and business address please, or you’re eating nothing but pasta so you can afford your show off house). If people are not comfortable with their kids running around strange people’s houses, guess what they have to say about kids running around apartment buildings, especially in certain parts of town. Apart from the fact that we all were beaten about the head with the old “Do not talk to strangers, do not accept things from strangers” when we were children. Now you expect us to do just that. Inner turmoil!

Another reason is, well… it’s become a holiday for kids. That usually means no alcohol. Austrians love their booze and will use any and all excuse to get buzzed. Any event, if there’s drink to be had you will find a happy Austrian right in the middle. There is a reason why Oktoberfest has become so strangely popular, even though it’s a German holiday. (Austria-German relations are complicated, like any dysfunctional family.)

Then there’s the weather. Sweater weather in Austria means three sweaters. Under a coat. This year has been an absolute exception. We’ve had a real Californian autumn until mid-October with temperatures reaching up to 24C (and now it’s getting cold. Like, really cold. Yes, right before Halloween. Vienna weather, ladies and gentlemen!). That is very unusual. What is usual is you freezing your toes off bang on time on October 1st and you don’t even want to leave the house by the end of the month. So not only would Halloween in Vienna mean to let children be around strangers, but they’d probably come home with a cold because you can’t fit three sweaters under those costumes, and wouldn’t that be a nuisance.

Lastly, I think the fact that we already have an event that encourages fancy dress and consumption of copious amounts of alcohol (as well as questionable life choices at around 3 am) may stop Halloween from getting its big break around here. We have Fasching (Carnival), which is basically an excuse for partying all February long (okay, until Ash Wednesday, but who the fuck even remembers when that is? Especially after the third round.).

And Carnival has less death about it. Not that we mind death. After all, the morbidity of Vienna and its people is the stuff of legends. Also, Vienna is home to one of the largest cemeteries in Europe, 330.000 graves and counting. Someone even wrote a song about it (not a good one, but hey, a song). Actually, a feast as morbid as Halloween would be perfect for our weird local sentiments. After all, by celebrating the dead you are simultaneously celebrating that you are alive, and it is generally agreed that being alive is better than being dead.

But people here like to at least pretend to have some decency or decorum, and decency and decorum means to don their appropriate frowny faces at any funeral, which usually lasts until the exact moment they set foot in the restaurant chosen for the funeral feast. We like to keep up appearances. So no frolicking about in our best horror garb for us. With Carnival, however, you are basically given free rein to be as merry and drunk and horny as you like, go find someone like-minded and enjoy yourself.

Problem is of course, Fasching is way less fun if you don’t like being drunk and you have to be completely shit-faced to deal with all the horny drunk people, rampant stupidity, and bad music at parties. That’s why I would prefer if Halloween could finally take root here. Halloween has always been my favourite holiday and I never got to go trick-or-treating as a kid. No, I’m not still bitter, why would I… oh, that’s preposterous… now, listen, you… no, you shut up….

Let me tell you about my weekend! (Now with shitty cellphone pics!)

And now for something completely different.

It’s the weekend AGAIN?! How the hell did that happen?!

So after my initial shock (what happened to the week? There was a week! I know I saw a week around here and now it’s gone!) I decided to make the best about the fact that time just doesn’t stand still and went museum hopping.

But before we get to that, a word from our sponsor: When life gives you lemons, you’re supposed to make lemonade; but when life gives you old rotten bananas that you bought two weeks ago and then forgot about, you make cookies.

Tada! And now for the museum thing: Every October, there is an event in Vienna where you pay for one ticket and you can visit as many museums as you can fit into the 7 hour span of said event. It’s practically and all-you-can-look-at buffet, and I always use it to visit all the small museums that either are not usually open to the general public, or that I wouldn’t want to spend that much money on, because museums are hella expensive (knowledge doesn’t come for free, so bend over).

So I’m officially old now. I go out on a Saturday night to go to a museum, don’t even have a single drink, and go home at 1 am. Yup, that’s my exciting 20s right there.

(No museum pics for you, btw, because I was either not allowed or too lazy to take any. That’s the weird thing about museums, they won’t always let you take photos, but they don’t sell postcards either, all like “This whole picture business will wreak havoc on your memory!”)

And in case anyone asks, no, I’m not being paid by the department of tourism to write any of this. Sometimes I actually go out and do things.

The entire city was alive and running on Saturday. Between Long Night of the Museums and the usual weekend traffic of dance-happys and barflies there were also a good many events pertaining to the infamous Oktoberfest, aka the weekend everyone gets drunk and blames it on the Germans. So as I stepped outside my door, I was immediately greeted by the sight of various folk attired in Dirndl and Lederhosen, ready and eager to break it down to German Schlager, drink overpriced beer, and generally have themselves some Hüttengaudi (some of them evidently already regretting their choice of dress because it was going to be a cold, cold night).

Fun fact: Long before the Oktoberfest became popular beyond Germany, the word ‘Dirndl’ used to denote nothing more than the type of working dress worn by female farm workers in the Alpine regions. It comes from the German word ‘Dirne’ (which, in turn, apparently comes from ‘*þéornōn‘, a Germanic word meaning ‘unfree woman’ or ‘female servant’) which used to mean ‘girl’, but soon acquired the meaning of ‘prostitute’. However, with the added diminutive of ‘dl’, Dirndl is still used as ‘girl’ in rural regions of Austria and Bavaria (Upper German dialect continuum). So remember, kids: diminutives make girls less whorish.

So off we went. My ingeniously planned program ran thusly: Planetarium, Police Museum, which is only open for this specific event (because it’s a regular station otherwise), quick coffee break, film museum, and Roman museum. So after we learned about the history of astronomy complete with computer generated night sky it was time to go bother the police. On the way through the inner districts we found many an interesting thing, like the Soviet War Memorial:

We also found about a hundred young human females selfie-ing away at the fountain, as well as a dozen or so tourists armed with the type of heavy-duty cameras that tell everyone that they mean business with their vacation. Anyway, Police Museum. Hundreds of officers everywhere. Is it only me, or does anyone else ever feel guilty when in the presence of police officers, even though you haven’t done a thing? Does anyone else do that? I always feel like they feel like I’m up to something.

At any rate, coffee break time! So off we pranced to Starbucks because that’s the only coffee place that’s open at 10 pm. I have some sort of love-hate relationship with pumpkin spice lattes: I love them and they hate me. I know, everyone who is remotely American will now groan, because pumpkin spice?! You are probably sick to death with pumpkin related anything and it’s not even Halloween yet, but to me, that shit is downright exotic. We don’t have that over here! We don’t make pumpkin pie! (I tried last week and failed!) We don’t have pumpkin spice, much less pumpkin candles! I don’t even know what pumpkin pie is supposed to taste like. You know what we use pumpkin for around here? Soup. That’s pretty much it. So in the four weeks that Starbucks actually has pumpkin spice lattes I try everything in my might to get a hold of a cup of delicious overpriced pumpkin-flavoured mostly-milk.

And not only me, because it’s always sold out. (See? Exotic. That’s what makes it so popular.) Or I’m a week early. Or a week late. At any rate, pumpkin spice lattes apparently hate me because they won’t let me drink them. They flee. They hide. They probably laugh at me.

Also, according to the Internet I just outed myself as a typical basic white girl. Okay. Whatevs. I can’t even with that definition, like, totally.

(Before anyone asks, no, I don’t own a pair of ugg boots. You know why they’re called that? Because the first time the designer presented them, the audience went “Ugh! Ugly ass boots!” (Hehe, ‘ugg’ly. ‘Ugg’ly, get it? Geeeet it?))

What were we even talking about? Oh, yeah.

The film museum regaled us with the delightful topic of 100 years of WW1 by showing us real footage from 1914 soldiers and the declaration of the First Austrian Republic and so on. After that, because Vienna is tiny, we walked to our last planned point, the Roman Museum (don’t bother with the homepage, it hasn’t been updated since 2010, even though the entire museum has been renovated, like, twice in the last five years. That should tell you something about mine beloved countrymen and their attitude towards technology.). Here’s some pics from our walk:

Dun, dun, DUUUUN! Church all up in your face!

Vienna is a place of magic and light shows.

Even more church!

So, Roman museum. Boyfriend tries to re-enact Asterix the Legionary with the two poor dudes guarding the entrance dressed as Roman soldiers. Inside, there’s stones. And more stones. Stones, stones, stones, lotta stones. You might say the museum was stoned. (Haaaa, lame joke is lame, five bucks into the lame joke fund, please.)

And information. Lots of information about Roman life in Vienna some 2000 years ago. And sometimes I think Vienna really is something, like, historically. I mean, every European city is, but I was born here, so, you know? There have always been massive amounts of vastly different people in Austria, all kinds of folk all running around. 2000 years ago there were Celts to the South and West, Germanic people to the North, Slavs and Magyars to the East, and Romans fucking everywhere in between. And in the middle of all this a small Roman outpost which was many other peoples’ settlement before that. And the bigger streets they used, they have different names now and decent pavement, but mostly they’re still the same. Same goddamned street, same direction and everything.

And then I had my philosophical five minutes, which happens every couple of months, and suddenly my thoughts ran a little something like this:

“On the streets that I walk everyday, people have walked for over 2000 years. People have taken the same roads thousands of years before we were born and we are looking at their remains, studying, trying to understand, and maybe 2000 years onwards someone will exhume our computers from the rubble of these same streets and wonder.”

And then Boyfriend was like, “Do you think they ever excavated a Roman bordello?” aaaand it’s back to reality. And I was like, “Suppose they have, all the hookers are dead as dust. How would you even know what that place was? You think they wrote it on the door? ‘Park your biggus dickus here’?”

And on our way home our talk was the usual mix of comic book characters, the incalculability of public transport, and That One Time I Almost Got Run Over By A Police Car.

Sunday, I have decided, is pancake day. It’s also Sleep For Twelve Hours day, but we have to be flexible, right? When I was growing up every Saturday was pasta day. I kept with that particular tradition (which of course has nothing at all to do with pasta still being one of the cheapest food stuffs out there as well as goddamned yummy), but I also believe in adding my own. So, pancakes. Because… pancakes! Look at the cute widdle baby pancakes!

I call this one “Still Life with Hungry Man in the Background”.

Boyfriend didn’t even like pancakes until I started dressing them up a bit, because as we know, it’s aaaalll in the presentation. Now he feels indifferent towards them. Food is food, he says.

Then it was time to play mind-numbing MMOs, watch some episodes of the thankfully last season of Babylon 5 (why, Boyfriend, why?), and that was my weekend. Now it’s Monday (weeeell, it’s midnight, so yeah, technically it is already Monday). Mondays are generally dontwanna days with a side of meh. Let’s see what this week has to offer. Oh yeah, classes start on Wednesday. Joy.

Also – and I’m writing this with one hand while my other one is knocking on wood vigorously – I may or may not have a job.