Auf Wiedersehen aus/von Österreich

Our time in Austria is coming to a close.   This will be our final blog posting from Österreich.

We’ve spent the past few days walking around the city we’ve grown to love:  a last look at Karl Franz Universität; one more church visit –Dreifaltigkeitskirche (the Ursuline Holy Trinity Church), built on the site of the early city moat; shopping for some gifts; trying out a few new restaurants (tapas and traditional Styrian haut cuisine); and stumbling onto some surprises along the way (a Big Band playing in the Hauptplatz during an passive energy fair; a race up to the top of the Schlossberg).   It seems each time we walk, we run into this kind of thing!

main building of Karl Franz Universitat, Graz


Bill at the well before his office building










checking out of Graz; changing our meldung (enrollment) at city hall

water display at Jakominiplatz

Big Band Music – Jazz is basically the same everywhere! (they even have the same playbook our son, David, does!)














race to the Turm at the top of the Sclossberg

love the shoes! they matched his outfit, too!















church across from Schlossbergplatz (Ursuline Holy Trinity church)

Bill and his Gekochter Tafelspitz vom Almo at Stainzerbauer















me with our shared Steirisches Schokoladenmousse mit Rhabarber-Erdbeerragout

me with our shared Steirisches Schokoladenmousse mit Rhabarber-Erdbeerragout


the Renaissance courtyard of Stainzerbauer














We’ve also set aside time to be with some of our fondest acquaintances here in Graz – Sebastian, the blooming ornithologist (look out David Sibley!); Steffen and his family; Christina and Gernot, with whom we visited Christina’s childhood home and family on a farm and their alpine Hütte (hut), both on the border with Slovenia, only 1 1/2 hours from Graz, where we were fed (again) and warmly welcomed.

The Birk family

Sebastian and Martina

Gernot and Christina outside at her childhood home near Eibiswald












the bell tower of a small church high on the border of Austria and Slovenia

looking over at Slovenia

OE = Oesterreich

RS = Republic of Slovenia












I am standing in Slovenia

we were standing RIGHT THERE when the bells started to ring at noon (101 times!)












looking toward Graz – der Schöckl is the large mountain with the flat top

our dinner after the hike to the church on the border of Slovenia

these flowers looked totally artificial but they were real!














We had to change tables three times.  Once to move to a larger table than the only too-small table  available when we arrived, a second time to give a larger family a bigger seating area; the third time because the person sitting next to us dropped his mug of bier and it went all over my hiking shirt, Gernot’s trousers and shoes and the seat cushions.  The person wasn’t drunk or anything – the glass was simply slippery!

Oma Bertha (Christina’s sister in law) and Annelena

Gernot teaching Annelena to play soccer – no wonder these European teams are so good!








Christina raking – there is always work to be done!











the spring outlet – water in Austria is mostly UNtreated and totally drinkable. Bill did have some suggestions, though, to help with the ants living in the wood and to keep them out of the water supply!

window in the hutte; the hutte was built by Christina’s sister – no electricity, a cellar for a fridge; and absolutely quiet













We’ve weighed the bags and are reasonably sure hopeful that the scale we borrowed is accurate and that we are underweight on everything!

As we leave we will surely take with us the kindness extended, the smells of the woods, the breathtakingly beautiful scenery, the amazing food, the sheer history of this place. We’ll remember, ein bisschen, the dust, which invaded our apartment no matter how often we cleaned!  Graz is known as a UNESCO City of Design (or maybe it is trying to gain this coveted status).  On one of the storefront windows that slogan was crossed out and now reads:  Graz, City of Design Dust.  ♥  As well, we will recall the smiles of children, how people helped us as we stumbled through our Deutsch, which did improve some during our stay.  Wirklich! (although certainly not enough to write this episode auf Deutsch!)

We’ve seen here many things which remind us of home—the love of nature,  the prevalence of areas set aside for children, the treasure of music and art, the participation in activities out of doors, the attention to silence, the passion for learning.  There have been differences as well, namely how much these Austrians (and other Europeans) walk everywhere, how knowledgeable they are of world affairs, and how they actually take time time for den Genuss und die Freizeit (pleasure and leisure).  Yes, you still see the interruptions of Handys (cell phones) and Fernsehen  (televsions), but people actually take time to linger with friends at a cafe, walk through the woods, sit by a pond, or just stroll on one of the pedestrian Straßen.

boy getting ready to slide onto the next station in the Kletterpark near our apartment in the woods

the rowboats wait on the Teich; when we came the pond was frozen

Today, as I am writing it’s the United States celebration of independence, the 4th of July.  What comes to mind, however, is not independence but interdependence.   Spending some months actually living, observing, and being in another country allows one to see just how similar are the people of the world and how much we need each other.  How much we all –regardless of nationality–long for peace in the world.

peace rose in the garden of Schloss Seggau, near Graz

Tomorrow, 5 der Juli, we will lift off from Graz with a last ride down through the Leechwald and fly to Frankfurt, Newark, Denver and touch down in Missoula more than 24 hours later.   We won’t mind the trip through, because we are coming home to this.

Our new granddaughter.

The Austrians are fond of saying  ‘alles ist gute’ when you shake their hands to say goodby.  I would add to that, “alles ist Gnade” (grace).  We’ve appreciated the support of all our friends, Austrian, French, Swiss, German, and American, and we thank you for reading along as we’ve spent these last 4 ½ months where the hills are most certainly alive with more Gemütlichkeit than you can even imagine and for which we are so very grateful.

view of Graz from the south

Servus and Auf Wiedersehen aus Österreich!






Haus der Stille

People often speak of ‘coincidences’ when paths cross or events that seem related but unusual come together in amazing ways.  Personally, I think there are no coincidences, just those times when our awareness has been broken open and our defenses lowered so that we can see the whole picture.


So, I did not think it a coincidence to discover that our friends, Gernot and Christina, were active meditators, attended a meditation group several times a month and every few months, attended a meditation retreat at the Haus der Stille.


In mid-May and again in late May, they invited us there . The first time was for a Mass at the chapel, and the second time was for a silent weekend retreat.  Bill and I attended together the first, which was followed by a lunch in the reception hall (more opportunity for meeting great Austrian people!), and a hike in the area around the Haus der Stille on the Markus Weg.  I alone attended the second, a Zen-style retreat, with maybe 14 others from various parts of Austria.


The Haus der Stille is located in the countryside not too far from Graz.  It’s surrounded by farm houses and fields.  Once, it belonged to a order of RC sisters, but then was purchased by the Franciscans.  A priest ( Fr. Karl Maderner, OFM, friar, priest) had a vision to create a beautiful space for worship and contemplation.   He succeeded in so many ways.

the Haus der Stille, chapel, Peace, reception area and Christina


Today the Haus der Stille offers individuals and groups the opportunity for quiet and reflection.  The chapel invites one to the same. The Mass held there is contemplative in nature, although a ‘regular’ mass, and it is very inclusive.   Some people kneel on prayer benches or sit on cushions; others use chairs.  It’s inclusive in other ways as well.  The first thing one sees upon arriving is the word ‘peace’ spelled out in a field being used by sheep to (safely) graze.  The second thing is a semi-circle of monuments to world religions (named) and in the center,one to the unknown Mystery.  As we walked up, I was pinching myself to make sure this was ‘real’!


semi-circle of pillars of peace


The ‘Stillegarten’, with labyrinth and ‘stations’ for reflection that consist of readings from all the world’s great religions and poets, is lovely.   On my retreat there I walked that area several times a day.



scenes from the stillegarten at Haus der Stille



countryside, sundial on residence building, roses along the peace wall


Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of the Haus der Stille is not only the immediate area but the path known as Markus Weg (Mark’s Way).  It’s a 4 km long trail with 13 stations of words from the Gospel of Mark,  other words of silence, beautiful sculpture/art and a place to rest.  It connects with another trail, “Ermutigungsweg” which features 7 stations with spiritual encouragement, to make a 8.5 km long circuit.   You may walk alone, as part of a group, and you may remain silent, or you may wish to leave thoughts on paper provided at each station.   This was a project of the Haus der Stille, in cooperation with Holy Cross parish, and the political entities in Styria and it was dedicated only two years ago.




along Markus Weg - sharing my life, responsibility for others, the last station


Walking the ‘weg’ I was once again reminded that the road we travel is already within us.  As I opened myself to sights, noises, smells, tastes and touch (exterior and interior), I became one with the journey that is the way.





It’s for the birds!

When we came to Graz, our plan was to rent a car at some point and tour the Austria we had not previously seen, or at least get to some of the places around the Styria we could not easily visit otherwise.  It turns out that so much the area IS accessible by regional train, or bus!  Plus, we’ve had wonderful friends who have taken us with them on their excursions out of town, so there has been no need for car rental.


Two trips I took in early May and June were ‘for the birds’.  Literally.   Our bird-watching friend, Sebastian, called and asked if we wanted to go see the European Rollers (May 10) and then to “the best birding spot in all of Austria”, the Neusiedlrsee (June 7).  Unfortunately, Bill was teaching both of those days, but happily, I was available!


Austria is the summer/breeding home to many bird species migrating from as close as Italy and as far away as South Africa.  The European Roller (Coracias garrulus) is one of the latter, and I feel very fortunate to have seen it while it still exists!  Sebastian explained that this area of Austria (right on the border with Slovenia) used to support many breeding pairs. Now it’s down to about 8 breeding pairs, and the day we visited, we could only find one breeding pair.


The man who was driving also was interested in looking at one of the more scenic villages, up on a large hill.


looking toward Slovenia; Straden. Austria


Naturally, we didn’t just drive all that way just to see European Rollers.  Any time birders are out, anywhere is a good place to bird.  Part of the trip allowed Sebastian to release a duck family that had been rehabilitating at Wildtier im Not, the small animal shelter/short-term rehab. facility near our flat.   It was funny to watch Sebastian trying to catch all 7 members of this family, racing around after them in the closure with his net.  If I had not been trying to help, there would be photos.  As it is, we saw many other birds – storks, crested grebes on their floating reed nests, and one slightly angry swan defending his nest.



European Roller, angry swan, releasing the ducks, a stork on the roof


The trip to the Neusiedlrsee (see = lake) was more than amazing.  Of course, almost every bird we see in Austria is a ‘new’ bird for us, even if many of the species are closely related to the ones we see in North America.   At the ‘see’ my Austrian bird list ‘doubled.’   Again, we stopped on the way down to the ‘see’, a large steppe lake (36 km long, and  between 6 km and 12 km wide from east to west) but shallow (no more than 1.8 m deep), surrounded by brackish wet-lands, and lying on the border between Hungary and Austria.  In Austria it’s in the Austrian state of Burgenland.    And we birded all the way back.  In fact this was a marathon of bird trips! We left at 5:30  in the morning (which meant I had to be up by 4:30) and, due to running into a huge thunderstorm and torrential downpour, we didn’t get home until midnight!   I think it was worth it!


The Neuseidlrsee area is a National Park in Austria, but only since the 1990’s, so instead of the purely wild landscape of a national park you might see in Montana or California, there are mostly farms, fields, hunting areas, and so on.  This was fascinating to me.   As well, this is an important wine production area, growing the best red wine grapes in Austria.  The ‘see’ straddles the border between Austria and Hungary, thus there are remnants of the communist era – guard towers, barbed wire, and signs. These have been left up, perhaps as a reminder.  Because Hungary is part of the Schengen Area ,  one does not need to check in at the border when passing through from Austria.



a Hungarian regional train, the lay of the land in the national park (lots of farms and fields!)



the border between Austria and Hungary - the canal is the actual border here



on an old farm - storks, horses (Lipizzaners?), and a kestrel nest under the peak of the roof



guard tower from 'former' times, rooks on haystack, an Hungarian village


We saw many birds (waders, geese, raptors, warblers), and both a cuckoo and a nightingale.  Since the latter two are quite elusive, this was a thrill!  In fact, it is due to the skills with hearing and imitating bird song that Sebastian has developed that we found these birds at all. And it was due to Franz’s knowledge and persistence that we found no less than 3 kestrel nests and several hidden owls!  We also found Hungarian Longhorn Cattle, brought back from near extinction after the two world wars and the communist era.  Christian, the driver of this expedition, told me that after WWII, the US sent some Texas longhorn cattle over, and they promptly died!  The environment (grasses/water)  there was too salty!  We also passed through a hamlet where Franz Liszt lived for a period. (It’s his anniversary year this year -a big deal in Hungary!)



vineyards, wetlands, Grey Lag Goose, wildflowers!



drama in the wetlands - stork attacked by lapwing for infringing on territory; stork flies off; lapwing wins (for now)



Hungarian long-horned cattle, kestrel nest, long-eared owl, birdwatching stand


One curious structure was a little hut which my friends said was a ‘shepherd’s’ hut, adjacent to a well.  These were not for sheep herders but for the herders who took care of the cattle and the horses.  Today they are not used, except perhaps by migrants or hikers. I don’t think most of the wells were ‘active’, although there was water in them!



ancient house with stork nest, Lange Lacke, 'shepherd's' hut and well (with tree growing in it)


Perhaps the most beautiful bird of all that we saw was the European Bee Eater, a bird described in an October 2008 National Geographic article as a bird with a life  “like an epic novel, sprawling across continents, teeming with familial intrigue, theft, danger, chicanery, and flamboyant beauty”.  We had hoped to see these in Spain when we were there over our Spring break holiday, but the weather was awful.  Here, they nest in sandy cliffs, along with Jackdaws, Little Owls, and Kestrels who all live in holes previously excavated by the Bee Eaters.  Before the rain came down, it was an amazing sight and a perfect end to the day.



approaching storm, avocet on nest, Franz gets the last look



more vineyards, European Bee Eaters, Little Owls, cliffs for nesting



Jackdaws nesting, Kestrel feeding, the common grape type, heading home



Americans in France: Part 2 – L’Isle d’Abeau and Lyon

As we rode on the CVG train to Lyon and our friends, the fields of wheat, and rapeseed whizzed by, that is, when we could see them.  With high speed trains, apparently we trade scenery for rapid transit, as much of the journey was in a straight and narrow trench with only occasional glimpses of the French countryside.


Lyon, in the Rhône-Alpes region, is another old city, and is known for its role in silk manufacturing.   It seems all great cities have rivers that run through them, and Lyon is no exception, except there are TWO rivers (Rhône and Saône) which converge just south of Lyon and then flow toward the Mediterranean 230 Km away.  We drove on bridges over both in a little car tour of Lyon before we headed toward the town where Chantal and Andre live, about 28 Km south-east.

Enroute we paid a visit to the home of their oldest daughter for introduction to 4 month-old ‘le petit Victor’, the first grandchild.  Finally, we arrived in at their home in L’Isle d’Abeau, adjacent to a large plaza and surrounded by beautiful gardens.  Chantal was in the backyard, in her atelier, guiding students who come for pottery lessons.  After receiving, for so many years, photos of the house, the gardens, and the workshop (which Andre built), it was wonderful to see Chantal and her husband in their surroundings and in action.  Bill enjoyed chatting with the 8 and 9 year-old students, quizzing them about which singers they liked (Lady Gaga – oui!; Justin Bieber – non!) and testing if they could understand any English (they could, but were shy about using it!).


practicing with le petit Victor, Chantal at work in her atelier, Andre watching, la Tartiflette


Paris may have the renowned tourist attractions but Lyon (and environs) gets our vote for the food, and that began with our first delicious meal with our hosts at, oh, about 9 PM.   Chantal whipped up a Tartiflette, a dish from the Savoie region. It is made with potatoes, onions, reblochon cheese, cream, and lardons. So yummy, but pass the med for cholesterol name!  How do the French manage all that fat content? By walking in proportion to what they eat! After dinner, we took an hour walk up to the church and around the town! Fantastique!


walking to the town church, the city 'hotel' (offices), le jardin, the old town well


The next morning was market day, which meant simply stepping out the front door to the stands set up in that big plaza in front of their home:  more cheese, interesting meats, and fresh fruits and veggies.


Chantal buying the lamb, cheese everywhere!


Then it was off to Lyon, via the metro system leading first to the funicular up the hill of the Basilique de Notre-Dame de Fouvière (a basilica with sanctuaries on two levels and gorgeous mosaics!) and eventually down to old-town Lyon.


Outside/inside the bascillica Notre Dame de Fouviere


old town Lyon, the river, the plaza, Notre-Dame de Fourviere


On a street lined with restaurants (Chantal visited at least 3 before deciding which one would do) we ate salad Lyonnaise and les quenelles avec sauce aux écrevisses (crawfish), quite possibly the best food of our lives.  (the foie gras in Paris pales in comparison and I have officially eaten food I never thought I would!)


la rue des restaurants, Le pere Fillon aux les trois cochons (pigs), les quenelles avec sauce aux ecrevisses, salad lyonnaise, Place des Terreaux, fountain of the 4 rivers of France


Old Lyon is largely Renaissance with a very interesting feature:  traboules,  passageways between buildings, and sometimes between streets.  You will find passageways and courtyards in Graz, but rarely do they rise and criss-cross several stories off the ground.  Although most of the traboules lead to private residences, many city-dwellers have opted to keep the historic traboules accessible to the public.  One only has to ring a buzzer and push on the heavy wooden door to stroll through the tunnel and arrive in a light-bathed courtyard offering a photographer’s dream of wells, stairs and gargoyles.


les traboules!


We finished our day with a visit to the Lyon Cathedral with its astronomical clock, and a walk to the river.


The cathedral also has an astronomical clock from the 14th century.


The next morning was for preparing for dinner with le petit Victor and his family, plus the other grandparents (from close to Grenoble) who arrived at 11:30 AM.    On the menu:  l’oignon tarte, homemade foie gras, little breads with various tapenades, sliced terrines, fresh baby radishes, nuts, and several types of liqueurs, including orange liqueur à Chantal. This was a living tableau of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and those were just the aperitifs!


getting ready for Sunday dinner


Dinner was lamb (including the kidneys!) and vegetables en brochette, tabbouleh made with couscous, bread and wine. Following that, the cheese course.   Et en fin, dessert.  Chantal served a cherry clafouti created earlier that day, with 2 or 3 choices of ice cream, which alone seemed perfect.  But we also had visited the bakery on Sunday morning (bakeries there are open on Sunday; closed on Monday) not only for artisan baguettes, but also an insane variety of dessert pastries.


le boulangerie, les grandmeres, the cook!


the table of aperitifs, brothers in law, Olivier, family shot


dinner (for the dog, too), dessert, rest


We lounged a while in the backyard, entertaining the dog, and then it was time for …. a stroll!  This time we walked to an old amphitheater, and by an old quarry for a view of the Alps.  OK you had to squint to see them, but they were there.


after dinner relaxing, and then...the walk and the alps.


The other families departed, Clementine (daughter #2) arrived for a brief visit, and when the conversation drifted to the royal wedding, the modeling began.  Somehow French women just look better in their clothes, and their hats!

Still, the night was young, so we zipped out in the car for a look at the old chateau that was the reception site for Aurélie and Matthieu’s wedding, again with a gorgeous view.  Between the company, the food and the scenery, we felt absolutely complete!


views of the countryside, 3 generations love NY, our hosts, castle ruins

Clementine in her mother's hat, the grandparents adore the baby, Clementine with her parents


All too soon it was time to depart.


leaving Lyon, Chantal's orchid, a view of the alps, a view of Graz


If I were home this would be the point at which I would pull out my worn copy of Le Petit Prince by Lyon’s famous native son, Antoine de St. Exupéry.  When I continued my French studies in college, I wrote a paper about this brave and adventurous man who shared such wisdom in his novella.  As Chantal dropped us off at the airport which bears his name, we both had tears in our eyes:  Sadness at the parting but joy for the time we spent together. And in our hearts, delicious memories.  No words needed.

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret; it is only

with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

–Antoine de St. Exupery

Saint-Exupery statue

Au revoir pour maintenant.

The French in Graz, or what language do we speak now?

When our daughter was almost 15, she participated in an exchange program to France:  touring Paris, other cities down toward the south of France and a few weeks home-stay with a French family.  She came home a confirmed Francophile/phone (and I had someone with whom I could hone my many years of studying that language).

One of the lovely consequences of her travel was the beginning of a long-term friendship with our friends, Chantal and Andre.  They mothered and fathered her in France when she was a typical goofy teenager, and helped her with her French vocabulary.  Over the years, we have watched and celebrated, via photos and packages, mail and email, the Christmas holidays, their move to a new city, new jobs and enterprises, our children matriculate through high school and into higher education, their oldest daughter and our son marry, and most recently, the birth of their first grandchild, a boy, and the anticipated arrival of our first grandchild, a girl.

They’ve been once to Montana, and our children visited them again during respective short and long-term residencies in Europe.  So we were thrilled when they wrote to say they could visit us in Austria, while en vacances in Italy.  Between our trip to Spain and a planned meeting in the Salzburg, Austria area, the timing was perfect!

The French occupied Graz at least once before, Napoleon in 1797, and laid siege to the Schloßberg in 1809.  The Austrians successfully defended against 8 attacks but had to surrender after Austria was defeated by Napoleonic forces at the Battle of Wagram.  All the Schloßberg fortifications were ordered destroyed but the bell tower and the civic clock tower, often used as the symbol of Graz, were spared after the people of Graz paid a ransom for their preservation.  The Schloßberg is marked with plaques with references to Bonaparte and to the French in general.

Napoleon’s troops didn’t have a GPS to find Graz.  Our French had one but it was fairly useless for direction into the Leechwald where we live! Our French arrived the day before Easter Sunday, bearing not arms but gifts:  French cheese, wine, salami, house gifts, Italian Easter Bread and best of all, themselves!



Andre and Chantal on the funicular up to the schloss

busker at the top

never have seen a Renaissance busker with a program before!













Chantal, who's an artist, loved the artistic bird houses!

Bill, Chantal and Andre













the gardens in Graz are coming along!


The second day of their short visit, which was Easter Sunday, we took a trip out to the Piber Horse Farm, about 25 km from Graz.  It’s the farm where the Lipizzaner Horses are bred and raised until they are about 4 years old, at which point, stallions who seem ready are sent to Vienna and the Spanish Riding School to continue their training.  The mares stay on the farm to raise more foals!  The stallions return to Piber when they are 25-28 years old to enjoy a well-deserved retirement.

It was a gorgeous day!  Piber has a schloss (palace), an old church, a small but informative museum, and the farm!


the little church in Piber


and the Schloss










We tried a little driving practice while we waited for our tour. Kein Glück, es war gebrochen!

Chantal tried her hand at braiding. Very important skill (for Moms and Lipizzaner owners)!

Andre tried out the wind up merry-go-round




But the real attraction at Piber is, of course, the horses.  There were some new or soon to be new additions to the Lipizzaner family.  The foals are born black or brown.  At about 6 months they would join other 6-month old foals and their moms in a cohort of black, brown and white.  Later, they would be branded, depending which of the of 6 Piber stallion ancestry lines they are born out of.    And (gasp) some would be sold!  One in about 100 is born black and stays that way.  I wonder if we could get a discount on him?

4-day old foal and Mom

We're soooo cute!

Buy me! Only 12.000 € !

the 1/100 throwback to the black horses!

brands, first of which dates back to Leopold I

pretty nice retirement, n'est-ce pas?


I don’t think we can ever resist seeing the inside of these Austrian churches!

Romanesque beginnings, baroque overlay

Lots of people were coming in their holiday best to Piber.  This is a traditional Styrian look:  green for the intense green of the land, blue for the sky and sometimes dotted with pink for the wildflowers.

The last day of their visit, Chantal wanted Sachertorte.  Never mind that it’s in Vienna, many specialty bakeries or konditorei try their hands at the famous dessert.  We found a great konditorei – no Sachertorte that day,  but it did have some awesome desserts.  We  brought them back to split up after lunch.  We also shared with Kristina via Skype! She was, after all, the reason for our original connection!

Philip Konditorei: cakes, breads AND ice cream!

mmmmm (no translation needed)

Skyping the desserts

Although we weren’t sure, having just arrived back from Spain, what language we were speaking  at any moment, there are some things that simply transcend differences in dialects and les langues maternelles.  Friendship is one of those.

guys and engines - everywhere the same!

Friendship needs no language except that of the heart.

Merci bien for reading!  Jusqu’à ce que plus tard!

© photos, unless noted, are property of the blog writer and may not be used or reproduced without permission.

A little bit of musical heaven, definitely not singin’ the blues

I didn’t think it was possible to experience more musical delights in one week, but we did!

Late last week (the week of March 7) we finally connected with the folks we had met on the trail (see this post) a few weeks back.  Christina had been trying to reach me via phone but because we hadn’t really learned these new phones yet, we were a) unaware we had received calls and b)couldn’t retrieve a voice mail message at all.  So, after taking ourselves back to the phone store and finding the same clerk who helped us before, we managed to install a system for voice mail.  I hope that after the rapidGermanthatIcannotunderstand finishes, I can just enter my pin and listen!  Texting (or SMSing here in Europe) is infinitely more reliable, once you figure out how to do it! (my adult children can stop rolling their eyes, now!)

Christina and Gernot invited us to a concert in, she said, “the church near the school where I teach.”   She said some of her students and former students would be performing.  We were thinking, ‘kids’ choir concert’ but we were so wrong and completely blown away by what we encountered! (side note:  Concerts happen in churches all the time here in Europe.  When we were in Prague in the mid-90’s, there were at least 2 or 3 different concerts a day in various churches — all open to the public usually for a small fee. Here, they tend to be more formal and people dress up!)

They picked us up near the corner market (how to tell someone where we live?) and we drove about 20 km east of Graz on winding, narrow back roads to the charming town of Nestelbach bei Graz.


location of Nestelbach bei Graz (‘by Graz’)–purple pin is Nestelbach

It was apparent right from the start that this was no small ‘kids concert’ because right away, even though we had arrived 1/2 hour early, there was NO PLACE to park!  (note:  in Austria, there are very few parking lots; you have to find a place on the street, usually, and in big cities like Graz, you must put two of the wheels up onto the sidewalk if you don’t want your car to get clipped by a tram!)  And as we walked into the church, there was also NO PLACE to sit.  Ahh, but Christina’s friend (a mom of a student) had, without being asked, saved us seats.  What seats they were!  We were about 3 rows back from the front and we felt like we were sitting IN the orchestra.  Yes, full orchestra!  Behind them, after the beginning instrumental piece, the choral group – about 30 singers, mostly adults but some youth and one little girl (10 years old) – filed in.


the church in Nestelbach bei Graz - built 1678 ('neu' by Austrian standards!)

What proceeded, after the Allegro in G by Vivaldi, was an amazing concert of alterations of readings from the Bible (creation through the passion, resurrection and ascension of Christ) and choral (satb) or instrumental works.  The very first choral piece was the Gloria from Vivaldi (yes! another point of familiarity!).  These people were not professionals:  mostly it was the church choir and church members, with some students from the university community.  14 pieces in all, mostly choral but the orchestra played on every one.  Absolutely impressive and sung and performed from the heart.    The Austrian audience very respectfully did not clap until the end, but when the last note was sung in the Benedictus, there was uproarious applause, so much so that the groups performed 3 encores!


the orchestra standing at the end; Mag. Hubert Stoppacher, Chorleiter, on the left (glasses).

The choir leader has had no ‘formal’ training as a conductor.  He reads music and he put together the entire program, re-arranging some of the pieces for his groups, and published a 9-page glossy program with photos to accompany the text of the songs. It’s title was “es werde Licht!” or “Let there be Light!”  The groups had been working on this for about 5 months, and it is something they do each year, especially during Lent.  This was the second of two performances this weekend.   Is there something in the leitungswasser (tap water) that leads to such musical talent in this small country? If so, it is time to drink up!



more orchestra


the choir


these folks had the BEST seats! (actually I think they stood for most of it!)

Afterward, there was a reception in the parish hall, with beer, wine, water, Pfirsich-Nektar (peach nectar, right from the orchard up the street), sandwiches and some kind of sweet bread shaped like a treble clef.  Am I in music heaven or what?  Bill and Gernot chatted (we found out he is some kind of sound engineer working with the Austrian highway department — you know those walls you often see separating the interstates from residential areas?  That’s what he designs!)  and I went with Christina as she met all the other people in the room, or so it seemed.  I tried a little German and they tried a lot of English!  We laughed and smiled, and it was just a ‘super’ time!  It was clear she is a much beloved teacher and the feeling between her, her students or former students, and their families is mutual.

At the Fulbright Orientation in Vienna, the program’s director mentioned that Austrians tend to appear outwardly ‘gruff’ but once you got to know them, they are delightfully warm and hospitable.  As we’ve walked around Graz, we have noticed that.  Most people do not look you in the eye or if they do, they rarely smile or speak even if you speak to them.    Bill is sure that is just ‘big city’ culture but this Montana girl was starting to feel a little discouraged, after so many smiles and Grüss gott’s were not returned.

After our visit to Nestelbach bei Graz, it was like the world had changed!  We felt such joy at being with the people there!  In the program notes, the director wrote about this time of Lent being thought of as morose and shadowy.  While he wanted to present a contemplative program, he did not want to ‘sing the blues’.  And after that night, we couldn’t agree more!