Schönbrunn summer concert

Every year, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra puts on an outdoor concert on the grounds of the Schönbrunn Palace here in Vienna.  The concert is recorded and rebroadcast in the US (and perhaps elsewhere) later in the summer, but it actually takes place in May.  (As a result, every summer we get calls and emails from friends and family asking if we are going to a concert that actually happened months earlier.)  It’s a free event, but due to busy schedules, sick kids, and inertia, we’d never been before.  This year, we made the trip out to Schönbrunn to see it.


Weather-wise, we may have chosen the worst year of our time here to finally go.  It was raining, and though we hoped that the drizzle might hold back the crowds, there were lots of people in attendance (though, since we’d never been before, it’s possible that it WAS significantly less crowded than it would have been in great weather).  When we arrived, we got to walk through and under the palace to enter the grounds (a passage I’d never seen open before), and out into the gardens, which were fenced off and organized to corral the people and protect the flowers.  There was no chance of getting a spot (standing only) anywhere near the orchestra, so, after a bit of wandering, we took a position with a good view of one of the tv screens showing the action (the point being to hear the music, anyway).  The Gloriette was lit by colored lights, and the atmosphere among the crowd was happy and relaxed, excited for the concert.




And it was lovely.  The music was fantastic and the setting absolutely stunning.  It was fun to be out for the evening, even in spite of the rain, and the kids enjoyed themselves more than we had expected.  It started relatively late (for us), so we knew we wouldn’t be able to stay for the whole thing, but the boys happily stayed for over an hour of classical music, which was pretty impressive.  They danced and clapped and ran around as much as the crowds allowed.  After about an hour, the boys were getting antsy, and we were all getting a little stiff-legged from standing/holding kids, so we decided to call it a night.  Rather than fight our way back out through the crowds, the way we came in, we opted for a side exit, through the gardens and out towards the zoo.

And that was the most magical part of the night.  We could still hear the music from the concert, but, as we walked through the trees, we were mostly in darkness.  There were spotlights among the trees, which gave us some guidance, and a steady flow of other people also leaving the show, but we were mostly on our own in the warm, summer darkness, in the gardens of Schönbrunn Palace.  We let the boys run ahead, warned them to watch out for puddles and for other people, and listened as their laughter came back to us as they ran and leapt through the gardens.  It was so joyful, so peaceful and so beautiful, I could have stayed there forever.  It was an absolutely perfect summer night, in an improbable place, with my most favorite people.  It was like a dream.  I imagine that if my boys remember it, it will be the kind of memory that seems like it wasn’t actually ever real.  I doubt I will ever forget it.

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.

Christmas carols

I love to sing.  In high school and in college, I sang a lot, but there’s less of a market for it as an adult.  I still would sing along with songs in the car, and at a very occassional karaoke opportunity, but that was it.  I miss it, especially around the holidays — Christmas music is my favorite.

I have found two new fans, though:  my boys love for me to sing to them.  As little babies, of course, there’s plenty of opportunity to sing them pretty much whatever comes to mind, but even as they’re getting bigger, I’m grateful that they’re remaining enthusiastic.  A few weeks ago, I started singing Christmas songs to the boys while they were in the bath, and they LOVED it.  Liam smiles, transfixed, or giggles.  Benjamin starts to learn the words (and even the melodies) almost immediately — he now has a favorites list (and if I vary the words at all, he notices — I can never remember whether Santa Claus knows who’s “naughty or nice” or “naughty and nice” and he calls me on it every time I switch it, and when I finally looked up the last line of the first verse of “Good King Wenceslas” he corrected me because it was supposed to be “la la la la la la la la la la la la la la”).

I love catching Benjamin singing little pieces of the songs I’ve been singing to him — this evening, he kept singing the 8th day of Christmas, over and over.  I am really enjoying singing for them.  It’s nice to have an outlet for that part of me, and it really adds to the feeling of Christmas.

Pachelbel’s Canon

A friend of mine once told me that I have music in my heart.  He might be right:  music affects me pretty profoundly.  When I hear music that I connect with at all, I find it difficult to concentrate on other things — I think I’m one of the only people I know who has a hard time reading and listening to music at the same time.  I know I’m not alone in this, but even a piece of a song that means something to me can take me back to a moment or a feeling in an instant.

We went to see Schonbrunn Palace today with my in-laws.  It was my fourth time to the palace, and every time I’ve been there I manage to see something new and have another phenomenal experience.  (Today was no different.)  We arrived at the palace and I enjoyed seeing them goggle at it (they’ve travelled throughout Europe and I think they might have thought we were overselling how grand Schonbrunn is).

Then, walking towards Neptune’s fountain, I heard the faintest strains of the violin — so soft I actually thought I was imagining it at first.  But as we continued, we saw a string trio, played by three young women.  They were playing Pachelbel’s Canon.  I love that piece of music — it’s the song I walked down the aisle to at my wedding, and I listen to it all the time.  In that moment, in that grand, fairytale place, it was a moment of magic.  Standing there, with my children, on a perfectly beautiful day, listening to this amazing music — it was just one of those moments that feels so perfectly right that you almost don’t want to breathe for fear of spoiling it.

I did breathe, and the moment lasted anyway.  We listened to the song, Benjamin clapped, the music changed, Liam dozed.  A few minutes later, Benjamin asked to go see the fountain, and I thought the spell would be broken, but it wasn’t:  we went and sat on the edge of the fountain and looked at the ducks and he told me about the shapes he saw in the clouds.

I am so grateful to have had this afternoon, exactly as it was.  These moments, when I find them, make me feel like being here is the right choice.


Vienna street music

047We went out this morning for coffee and breakfast, which is fast becoming a weekly tradition here.  After a rainy couple of days, today was beautiful:  sunny and cool, so we decided to walk “the long way” for breakfast (i.e., a 10 minute walk instead of 2) and we came upon the Stadt Fest Wein (Vienna City Festival) at the Hofburg.

It’s really a bonus to just happen upon things like that — and it seems to happen to us all the time, here.  Not only is it just a nice addition to a morning walk, but it also takes the pressure off — we didn’t make any particular effort to attend the festival, so we don’t feel like we have to stay a certain amount of time, or see a particular number of things.  We can just really be “in the moment”, enjoying ourselves, and go when it’s time.  It’s really liberating, and it works great with two little kids.

048When we came upon the festival at Michaelsplatz today, there was a three piece musical ensemble (piano, violin, cello) tuning and warming up on stage.  Dan & I had intended to pass by and see what was going on at the heart of the festival, but Benjamin was captivated (Liam was asleep).  Benjamin loved the sound of the music, and he wanted to stay and watch.  So, we did.  He danced a bit, and then he wanted to find a seat, so we sat and watched.  They warmed up with short pieces of songs (mostly tangos) and Benjamin clapped after each one, and made sure that I joined him.  Since it was early, and they were just warming up, we got front row seats to watch.  It was an amazing thing to just “come across”, and such a great experience for him to be able to have — not only did he get to 089enjoy the music, but he got to do it on his own terms:  we sat where he wanted, we stayed as long as he wanted, and when he’d had enough (just as they got started in earnest) we left.  That’s a rare experience for a 2 year old.

We wandered through the next section of the festival (Benjamin did some coloring, after helping set up, at an arts-and-crafts tent and turned down an offer to have his face painted) but then it was nap time, so we headed home.  Of course, it’s just down the street, so after nap and lunch time, we were able to go back.  (The festival was winding down by this point, but we did get to explore a bit, and we ended with a walk and some play time in the Hofburg Volksgarten.)  And Benjamin had his first ever ice cream cone.

And that’s a Sunday for us.  It’s pretty great.