Tuesday, December 27, 2005
Merry (Austrian) Christmas!
Merry Christmas Everyone!
Over the years, I have spent Christmas at a lot of different places. Anywhere from the US to the Caribbean, to Europe. Lately however, I have been rather particular about celebrating Christmas in Austria. The setting and overall atmosphere is very hard to beat. Like a fairy tale, really. It is quite a bit different from Christmas elsewhere (in particular the US), so let me tell you a little bit about it...
In Austria, the Christmas Season starts with the pre-Christmas period called "Advent". Advent starts 4 Sundays before Christmas (very early this year since Christmas was a Saturday... more about that below). During this period, Christmas markets are open, Christmas decoration is displayed, and in general, everyone tries to be in the Christmas spirit. Christmas-themed plays are arranged by schools and Christmas carols are sung and played just about everywhere. Children have an "Adventkalender". This is a calendar that shows 24 days (December 1st to 24th) and each day one can open a little "door" (each door represents a day). Most Adventkalender have chocolate in each door so they offer a little treat every day up to Christmas. (Adults sometimes use a box of beer the same way...yup, 24 bottles... a little treat for every day in advent...)
If you ever come to Austria (in particular Salzburg or Innsbruck) during Advent, you must visit a Christmas market! Have some chestnuts and some "Gluehwein" and listen to the choir and enjoy yourself. I can not imagine a more peaceful and romantic setting than a Christmas market in Austria.
December 6th is the holiday of "Nikolaus". Nikolaus would be called "Saint Niklaus" in English (I think) and is probably the closest thing we have to Santa Claus. The Nikolaus brings small presents to Children, but only if they were good all year. Typical Nikolaus presents are peanuts and mandarin oranges. I like peanuts ok but never cared for mandarins, so I never had much of a reason to behave. But then on the other hand, the Nikolaus brings along the "Krampus". The Krampus is a bit of an oddity. It originates from a pagan tradition where people dressed up in scary costumes to scare away the bad spirits. Today, the Krampus has its official day on December 5th, and there are lots of events (festivals really) revolving around the Krampus. And then of course the Krampus comes along with the Nikolaus and puts the naughty children in his sack. The Nikolaus does seem to have some power over the Krampus though and even when I had a particular naughty year as a little boy, the Nikolaus always managed to keep the Krampus at bay, although sometimes just barely... ;-)
Here are pictures of Krampus and Nikolaus:
The photos are referenced from www.stoanameapass.at, where you can find more information about this stuff...
The rest of advent is spent with much singing and shopping and lighting up candles on the "Adventskranz". This is a little ring made of evergreen-branches with 4 candles. On the first Sunday of advent, one lights one candle, the next time 2, and so forth. Here's a photo from the wikipedia:
Oh, and we bake and eat Christmas cookies. Tons of them! And hundreds of kinds. Everyone bakes them.
Christmas in Austria (as in much of Europe as far as I know) is on December 24th. We celebrate Christmas Eve here and that's when the big get-together is and when presents are exchanged. (None of that getting-up-early stuff on the 25th! Who ever came up with that nonsense?) There is no Santa Claus either. Instead, we have the "Christkind". The Christkind is basically the little baby Jesus but apparently it must have wings because it mysteriously flies about and brings presents and the Christmas Tree. Usually, a few days before Christmas, one room in the house is locked, because the Christkind is already working on the setup. At that point, one has to be very careful and no matter what happens, do not try to look through the key-hole! Because it scares the Christkind away and one might end up completely without presents!
There is other proof that the Christkind can fly: For instance, when one writes a letter with one's wishes, the letter has to be put on the windowsill and the next time one checks, it is guaranteed to be gone. Even if one lives on the 5th floor! So there can be little doubt about its flying abilities.
The 24th of December is quite the deal. Most people still have to work until noon and all the stores are open until noon or 1pm. Then, there is the traditional lunch on the 24th. There seems to be much argument about what is to be eaten for lunch. The 24th is a day of fasting up until dinner (whenever one has dinner), so lunch can not be too festive. There seem to be many different versions of what is to be consumed. Most of them are wrong however, so you are lucky to have come to the right blog to find out what to eat: Lunch on the 24th has to be "Bachikoch". This is a rather nasty stew made out of milk and flower. Poor people's food, basically, although there can be some applesauce on top of it. Ellen says she couldn't imagine Christmas without it.
The evening is rather different though and we have an opulent meal. We like to have various cold delicacies such as French pate, beef tartar (it is completely safe to consume raw beef here due to food preparation laws here... even though it freaks Ellen out), cold cuts, various salads, shrimp, and much much more. (Other families have completely different dinners and - unlike lunch - that is OK). I do not remember Christmas in Austria without having gotten completely stuffed! (This is much needed after the Bachikoch too...).
Then, after dinner, everyone waits for the big moment when the Christkind indicates that it is ready and everyone can enter the room. This is indicated by the ringing of a little bell. Sometimes, when one is especially lucky, the Christkind has to leave the room in such a hurry before everyone enters (because it can never be seen by mortals!), that it loses the bell, which can then be found under the Christmas Tree. But that doesn't happen very often.
As mentioned above, the Christkind brings all the gifts as well as the tree. There is no tree here before Christmas. And we... I mean, the Christkind... lights the candles for real. We can do that, because our houses are made out of concrete rather than tinder. (It freaks Ellen out too, but not as bad as it used to). And no matter what people (Ellen) will tell you, our trees do not resemble "Charlie Brown trees" even remotely. Here is a picture of the tree we have this year:
Check out all these presents! Proves that we all have been very good this year. (And consider the aerodynamic attributes the Christkind must have to carry all this!)
Traditionally, there also is a midnight mass, although I noticed that this year, they had it at 11pm. I guess nobody showed up at midnight anymore. I remember going to midnight mass once when I was a teenager. The priest was completely shitfaced. It wasn't very Chistmas'y. Overall, I think as a generalization it is safe to say that nobody goes to midnight mass. Christmas here is like a lot of things in Europe: Inspired by religion, but then the religious parts were eliminated a while back.
Then of course, there is the 25th of December. It is referred to as "Christmas Day". (When people here say "Christmas", they always refer to the 24th). This is when we get together with relatives or friends and have yet another large meal. Usually Fondue in our case. There really is a lot of eating at Christmas, but hey, one gotta work hard for traditional values and to keep the Christkind happy!
Then, Christmas is over, but in a way, it lives on. Most people have a few days (maybe even the entire week) off, and there are Christmas trees everywhere. And the fact that snow is almost guaranteed at Christmas makes it easy to stay in the Christmas spirit. And there are cookies left!
Posted @ 2:18 PM by Egger, Markus (email@example.com)
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
Conde Nast Names Salzburg Europe's 8th Best City
Conde Nast Traveler magazine names Salzburg the 8th best European city in their November 2005 issue. Cool!
Here is the full list:
Looks like Italy cleaned out. No big surprise here, I guess. Those first 3 cities are pretty cool (although personally I enjoy Paris more than Rome). 2 Austrian cities in the top 10. That is pretty neat. Interestingly enough, no German cities are in the list (I think Hamburg would be pretty neat...). But from an Austrian's point of view, that is perfectly fine with me. ;-P. Overall, the French didn't do nearly as well as I would have thought (perhaps because it is an American magazine voting). No Eastern-Europe cities are here like Prague or Budapest. Both are neat, but I guess still have some catching up to do.
Their worldwide top-city is Sidney. No big surprise here either. The US' top city is San Francisco. Vancouver claims top spot for "the Americas". Bangkok ranks number 1 in Asia. Cape Town is at the top of the list for Africa and the Middle East (I was really surprised that Dubai only ranked 5th there with a relatively poor score... but they are the world's top city for lodgings).
Here's an interesting tidbit: If Salzburg was in the US, its score would have made it the 8th best US city. Not bad for a small city (less than a quarter of a million people) somewhere in the mountains ;-)
Posted @ 11:09 PM by Egger, Markus (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Sunday, December 18, 2005
A Busy 2 Weeks...
Boy, these last 2 weeks have been rather busy!
I went from Austria back to Houston (on a Monday) and got to Houston in the evening. Then, I spent some more time preparing for a conference (Visual Studio launch) in Houston. I missed my rehearsal that Monday night, but I blame that on Air France. So Microsoft wanted me to show up at 7am on Tuesday, but I couldn't do that either, because I had some stuff I needed to take care of in the office. So I went there at noon, which was still early enough for my 4pm talk (although checking out whether everything was set up correctly was a bit of a pain). Anyway: It went fine. We had dinner with Microsoft guys, and it ended up being a rather long day considering I had just flown in from Austria the night before.
The next day I got up early (6am flight) to fly to Eugene, Oregon. This seems to be getting a semi-regular trip these days. It was relatively uneventful, although there were some "seating problems". I had an aisle-seat, which was fine, but there was a rather large women next to me that on top of being big also insisted on keeping her hands on her hips, which practically left no room for me or the guy sitting by the window. She also had at least 3 jackets on and refused to put them into the overhead bin once she took them off. It was a mess. I think it was the first time she was on a plane. I managed to get moved to a different seat (I even volunteered for a middle-seat, but I got another aisle). A while into the flight I went to the bathroom and thus passed by my old seat. The women was still in the middle seat, although my isle seat was now available. The guy by the window still didn't have any room, but apparently she refused to give up her assigned seat and move to the aisle. I think I would have strangled her...
Eugene was OK. Cold, but otherwise enjoyable. No snow though. I expected some, but I was told they never get much snow there. From a travel point of view, not much interesting happened there. 3 busy days of work. I flew back Friday night through Las Vegas (which sounds a lot more exciting that it is). I had an almost identical problem with the seating arrangement on the return flight. This time it was a relatively young girl who was huge. Not fat (although she was somewhat overweight) but more just large in the way basketball playing college girls are large. Scary actually. I normally am not easily intimidated, but she could have eaten me alive with hair and bone. There were no other open seats in the plane, so I could not move. I decided to not say anything. She was obviously not comfortable in this slightly-larger-than-city-hopper plane and I was sitting in the aisle more than in the seat. I couldn't even lean against my seat back due to a lack of space.
I got back into Houston just after 4am Saturday morning. At that point, I was pretty much beaten but happy to have made it. I slept well that morning once I got home, although between being jet-lagged from the trip from Austria, the short stint in Houston, getting up early to fly to Eugene and having 3 real busy and long days, and getting into Houston at 4am, my brain and body ended up entirely confused and just kinda threw their hands up and said "Whatever!.... We are going to pass out right now with no regards to whatever time it might be...". It was fine with me.
Last week was better in terms of travel-schedule, but it was a very busy work week (after not having been in the office for a while). I did speak at another Visual Studio launch on Thursday though. I thought it was in Austin, but it ended up in San Antonio. I am glad I checked the night before, otherwise I would have ended up at the wrong place. (But on the other hand, I always check, so there really wasn't much of a chance for that to happen). I drove there, so it was an 8-hour round trip for a talk that was just over an hour long. I do this sort of thing a lot, so it never strikes me as odd. However, on the way there I was stopped by a cop who asked me where I was going and why. When I gave him this story, he found it hard to believe, so he decided to check my record (I guess somewhere between the Visual Studio launch-event story and my long hair he lost confidence). In your face, cop! My record is entirely clean. Not even a parking ticket! Since he couldn't think of anything else, he gave me a warning for an obstructed license plate. He says the plexiglass covering was not transparent enough. Whatever. It wasn't my car anyway...
So that's it! We had our Christmas party on Friday (at Perry's Stake House in Houston, which was very good). Now we are on to just a regular week of long-hour work to close out the year before Christmas. It will feel like a vacation...
Posted @ 1:38 PM by Egger, Markus (email@example.com)
Thursday, December 01, 2005
Hotel San Gabriele, Rosenheim, Germany
Ellen and I spent the last few days at software developer events (conferences) in Germany. At one conference in Rosenheim (a town about an hour outside of Munich) all the speakers were put up in a hotel that used to be a medieval monastery. It is very nicely renovated, and it is quite fancy. Here is a picture of our room (each and every room is different):
It is always difficult to take a good picture inside a room so this does not do it justice. We really enjoyed staying there and can only recommend it. It is quite different from any other hotel I stayed at. For more information, visit their web site: http://www.hotel-sangabriele.de/
Here are some more pictures from their own site (I hope they do not mind that I link to them):
This is one of their seminar rooms:
So it's quite different! I just wish we had more time to stay there...
Posted @ 3:50 PM by Egger, Markus (firstname.lastname@example.org)