Ambient music

Vienna has a different sound than what I was used to in the States.  At home, the single most pervasive ambient sound around my home was traffic — I lived very close to the DC beltway, and I could hear it at all hours from my house (unless my air conditioner was running, in which case I couldn’t hear anything but that).  I considered it part of suburban living, and accepted it as fact.  When I wanted to hear “nature”, or at least the absence of “city”, I went out to see my horses and experience the outdoors.

When I wasn’t hearing car sounds, I was hearing other sounds that I took for granted — loud music from someone else’s windows (typically hip hop or pop, or something else that had come out in the past few months), sirens, helicopters, planes, dogs barking, sometimes people arguing.  There was always a lot of sound, everywhere, all the time, and I just understood it to be part of life around a lot of people.

Vienna is more different than I could have imagined.  Here, we live not in the suburbs, but smack in the middle of the largest city in Austria.  Instead of living in a condo with about 30 units, I live in a building with more than twice that, and the building is also home to several businesses, including a few restaurants.  I almost never hear sounds from my neighbors — either through the walls or out the (often open) windows.  Austrians are quieter than Americans, certainly, and we keep up with the stereotype — we’re probably the noisiest people in the entire building.  With two little kids, a dog, and quiet Austrian neighbors, it would be hard to imagine it any other way.  (Part of the difference is also the building construction, I imagine — when the windows are closed, you really don’t hear anything from your neighbors at all.)

And here, instead of being confined to my car, I’m out walking around the city, nearly every day, fully aware of the sounds around me.  The vehicular sounds are much less pervasive.  The street I live on is busy but narrow — although there is a lot of traffic, especially at certain parts of the day, most of the streets right around where I live are one way and one lane.  A busy main road is just over a block from here (closer than the Beltway was to my home in Virginia — but not by much) but I almost never hear the sounds from it, either.  Instead, when I’m out on the street, I hear the sounds of hooves on cobblestones, and the ding of bicycle bells warning pedestrians to look both ways before they cross the one way streets.

And the music that I hear is very different.  People keep their windows open here a lot more than at home, so it’s much more common to hear music coming from inside someone’s home that in was in the US.  Music coming from a car driving down the street is uncommon, though.  And in both cases, whether it comes from a house or from a car, it’s overwhelmingly likely to be something classical or something from an opera.  I can only remember hearing more recent music — anything rom the last century — emanating from a car on one or two occasions EVER since I”ve been here.  And, when the classical music comes through the open window of a home here, it’s very often being played live by one of the residents.  I’ve heard flute and harp played, but most often it’s the piano.  One of our neighbors plays (very well) and we’re often treated to their practice.

A large part of the seemingly clichéd auditory experience I have here is where I live — we live in the relatively fancy downtown 1st District, where, I guess, the people are pretty fancy, too.  (I imagine my experience would be different if I lived a few blocks closer to the University, for example.)  The experience of stopping on the way home from the market to hear my neighbor practice his piano is every bit as charming as it sounds, and being serenaded by opera blasting through a car’s windows while I sit in an outdoor cafe makes me smile every time it happens (and yes, it’s happened more than once).  These sounds are just another piece of the many “pinch me I live in Europe” moments that I get to enjoy all the time.  I love it.


As far as I know, I was born knowing how to swim.  I have vague memories of my dad teaching me to float on my back in my grandmother’s pool, but the basic principles of swimming came early enough that I don’t remember ever not knowing how to swim.

039I always knew my kids would be the same.  For the sake of safety, as well as fun, I wanted them to learn early.  (Especially because it’s one of those things where not knowing creates such fear around water that at some point it becomes incredibly difficult to be in the water long enough to learn how.  I knew someone in college who didn’t know how to swim, and he was so deathly afraid of the water that I’d imagine he never learned — his fear was the result of not knowing how to swim, not the cause of it.  Because he didn’t know how, he was terrified to go in or even near water.  How was he ever going to learn?  And if he ever did, I’m sure just getting in the pool the first time was profoundly traumatic.)

040Unfortunately, when we left Virginia, and our DC-suburb condo, we also lost regular access to a swimming pool.  We’ve been swimming a handful of times since we’ve moved to Austria (many of them when we were visiting the States last summer), but not enough for the kids to really learn how, and I feel the fear of them not knowing how creeping in on me.  I want to take care of that before it sets in for the kids, too, so the boys took their first swimming lesson on Saturday.

As always, finding instruction in something in a foreign country is a challenge, especially because we wanted to find lessons in English if possible.  Dan found a place, and we took a scenic strassenbahn ride out to a lovely part of Döbling (an outer district of Vienna) that we’d never visited before.  And, as always, there were cultural lessons to go with the swimming ones.

First, even though I live in Europe, and have for two years, and even though I consider myself open-minded, I am always shocked by the lack of modesty and body consciousness here.  When we got to the pool and went to change into our swimsuits there was only one changing room.  Co-ed.  They had little changing closets with doors for privacy, but I’d say just over half of the people used them.  The others changed, with varying levels of discretion, right by their lockers.  While it was a surprise for my prudish American sensibilities, it also meant that I certainly had no qualms about changing the boys’ clothes out in the open, which made things easy.

Out by the pool, the same lack of body consciousness was evident — in a really positive way.  People of all sizes and ages and levels of fitness and physical attractiveness exhibited the same level of comfort with being in or around the pool.  Some wore tiny swimsuits, some were more covered up (though none more than me in my skirted suit — and I was far from being the oldest or heaviest person there).  I didn’t see a t-shirt or a cover-up anywhere, either.  And it just truly felt like no one cared.  No one was being objectified — neither being snickered at or leered at.  There wasn’t any staring, of any kind.  I got the sense that people were there to swim (duh) not to evaluate each other.  Everywhere I looked, I saw people just being people.  Not hiding or being embarrassed, but just sitting or walking or getting in the pool.  A few of the fit, pretty young women were preening a bit (and only a VERY little bit), but there just wasn’t the air of critique and shaming that I am so used to feeling poolside in the States.  Again, I felt silly for being so modest in my own swimsuit choice (which, interestingly, feels almost inappropriately skin-baring back home).  It’s an incredibly liberating feeling.  After my years of indoctrination into the American cultural idea that most people are unfit to wear a swimsuit, this feels like being dropped off on an alien planet (but WOW does it feel better).

043The swim lesson itself was great.  Our teacher, who thankfully spoke excellent English and didn’t seem put out about having to use it, did a great job of combining practice for B on basic skills like paddling and holding his breath with some introduction to other strokes and kicking styles.  Liam got a little overwhelmed and opted to mostly play, but he got more comfortable by the end, too.  B did the backstroke and even jumped into the pool on his own (which surprised me — especially when he repeated it several times) and, perhaps most importantly, did a little “swimming” by himself (with a ring) and climbed OUT of the pool on his own several times.  We go back again in 2 weeks, but I feel like we’re on our way to setting a good foundation for a really important skill.  And I’m always grateful with the eye-opening, preconception-breaking cultural education I get just from living here.  I’m learning to see a whole other possible reality.