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Posts from the ‘Travel’ Category


Who’s Conchita Wurst? What’s a Radler? Where do I buy baking soda? When do the subways stop running? Why is the restaurant personnel totally ignoring us and those rude Austrians hurrying past us and grabbing that table?

If you’re a newly arrived expat, after your first couple weeks in Vienna, once you’ve successfully managed to score your Meldezettel, and become a card carrying member of Billa and remembered to stash a few spare plastic bags into your backpack as you dash out of the building at 16:45 Saturday afternoon in a mad race to hit the grocery store before it closes till Monday morning, when the initial shock waves begin to wane, that’s about the time when you’ll start feeling the need to call a friend. Only, you don’t have any friends because you are living in a foreign country. Because with all the bags unpacked and all the forms filled out, the everydayisms and real challenges start. And that’s when you realize that Walmart isn’t in every corner of the universe and no one’s stopping to offer help just because you look a little lost. And not only do you look lost, you feel it too. Really lost.

And that’s when the questions start coming at you faster and more determined than the Oma ramming her cart to be the first in line at the newly opened Hofer register.

Who’s that bearded woman in a long dress and stilettos? (Conchita Wurst) Why does the beer the locals are drinking look different than mine? (they’re probably drinking Radler – 50 % beer and 50% Austrian soft drink called Almdudler mix that is a popular summer drink). Where’s the Arm & Hammer in this town?(You can get baking soda and other non-Austrian grocery products at the Prosi Supermarket, U6 Burggasse) How am I getting home tonight? (Vienna’s subways run all night long on the weekends and till midnight weekdays – assuming you can manage to make it to the subway) Why is the restaurant staff ignoring us? (unless you are in a fancier restaurant or typical tourist area, you’re usually expected to sit yourself in a restaurant and won’t get the bill slapped down on the table (that would be rude) unless you ask for it. If you’re still getting ignored, you might have to take it personally).

But what if you are in Bahrain? Or Singapore? Mexico City? Or Shanghai? KC couldn’t help you there. But other expats living there can. And how do you find them? Internations.

They just contacted me and featured my blog this past week. No. No money was exchanged. Alas, a blog is a labor of love. But hey! If you’re an expat, looking for info, you might want to check them out. The Internations site was started by three Germans who were former expats themselves and now connects over 1 million people in 390 cities and 190 countries around the world. So whether you want to know where to find the best Mandarin tutor or Mandarin duck, there is bound to be some expat on the Internations China site that has the answer for you. And since they also organize local events, you might even make some new friends and get to stop hanging out with the ducks.

Check it out, or just have a look at what I had to say about my experience as an expat in Vienna. You know you’ve been dying to read about my first apartment in Vienna! Print This Post

Internations Website


Heading out of Vienna for the Weekend – 8 Tips to Up Your Fahrvergnügen

“There’s a better life, and you dream about it, don’t you?” – “9-5” lyrics, Dolly Parton

If you spend more than a week in Vienna, and especially if you have a car here, you are likely, at some point, to notice that the Houdini-like parallel parking skills required from Sunday night until Friday morning in Vienna’s single digit districts are no longer needed for the magical 48 hours from Friday afternoon until Sunday. Because “der Berg ruft” Austrians weekly, come Friday, there’s no more resisting that primal call. No one in this city seems to be a true geborener Wiener except maybe Richard Lugner. Nope. And most definitely not the ones who drive their own cars. Those are the Zuagroaster, who come TGIF day, line up in their weekly convoy to head back to the “provincial” roots – the little villages far and wide along the A1 stretching from St. Christopher to St. Lorenz.

Eventually, if you’ve been here long enough, you too may become infected with the weekend desire to get out of Döbling. In that case, here are some things you should know about venturing out for a weekend:

  1. The Autobahn is not THE Autobahn

Ah, yes. Names can be deceiving. You’ve dreamt about the Autobahn ever since Auntie Em gave you your very first cherry red matchbox Porsche and your Uncle Hank mentioned that there is a special place in this world where drivers can speed along 8026 miles of straight, pot-hole free highway and not get a ticket – the German Autobahn. And in Austria, the symbol designating the highway might look like the sky blue signs with white racing lines on the German sign, and the Austrians might even call the A1 the Autobahn, but do not mistake the A1 for the Autobahn of your Nikki Lauda dreams. Germans recommend that you keep a speed of 130 km per hr (80 miles per hr) on their Autobahn. Austrians REQUIRE you maintain a speed of 130 km per hr or even less in some zones.

2.  The Ugly Walls

All those ugly walls along the highway aren’t meant to obstruct your view of the rolling green fields of St. Pölten and the golden arches of the next McCafe, they’re called Lärmschutzwände, Sound Protection Walls, and meant to act as sound barriers between the highway and villages.

3. Geisterfahrer (Ghost Drivers)

Driving along, listening to Carole King sing her heart out on Radio Oberösterreich, for the second time in one trip, you’re passing Amstetten and already feeling your pulse sink. Then a loud voice interrupts Carole’s lovesick lamenting with a heart-stopping “Achtung! Achtung! Alle Autofahrer!” and you hear the words “Geisterfahrer” and notice all the cars, even the German drivers, merging to the far right lane and no longer passing. “Ghost Driver?” you think. You turn to your passenger seat to check if Ichabod Crane has joined you to brace for an upcoming encounter with the headless Pinto driver heading your way. But hopefully Ichabod can tell you that a Geisterfahrer might not be headless (brainless perhaps, but not headless) but should definitely get your pulse pumping because he’s (it always seems to be guys, sorry gentleman) actually a nitwit who managed to enter the Autobahn going the wrong direction and something in his frontal lobe hasn’t set off any alarm bells to motivate him to pull over and end his little adventure. Or maybe the Lärmschutzwand (see above) doesn’t give him space enough to do so. An Austrian phenomenon. I guess we must have “Ghost Drivers” in the US too but for the life of me, I have never heard of or witnessed one. Maybe they all have a healthy fear that such behavior in a place like LA could provoke road rage sufficient to draw the Ghost Driver’s death wish to a timely Glock-filled end.

4. Radio Oberösterreich

I recently found myself trapped in a car in which the driver insisted on listening to Radio Oberösterreich for the length of time it actually came in on the radio. This ended up being a torturous stretch from somewhere before Mondsee until about Haag. First we listened to some song by Carole King followed by an interview with a real live geborener Welser who explained to us why he has always and will always live in Wels and why Wels is THE place to visit. Yes, he knows all the Welser in town but if he ever feels the need to get away from it all, there’s plenty of woods around where he can escape for a few hours. Noticing the beckoning Wels sign ahead (fate?) I naturally suggested we give into destiny’s call and see for ourselves what Wels could do for us. My suggestion was ignored and the journey and radio experience continued. From Wels we listened to Dolly Parton’s 1980 hit “9-5” which the radio, obviously surprised as us to be playing such music, displayed as “Milly Parton.” I couldn’t resist commenting that Radio Oberösterreich must be the only station on earth that still played Dolly Parton, only to be countered with some Dolly Parton trivia about the insurance policy on her two greatest assets. Ah, the conversation topics that Radio Oberösterreich can inspire. Dolly was followed by a more modern tune for Radio Oberösterreich – “Millionär” – from die Prinzen from a mere two and half decades ago but then we were catapulted back half a century to the Hollies’ “I’m Alive.” What long forgotten nuggets were bound to be unearthed next? What decade would we land in? Our Radio Oberösterreich encounter crescendoed into a guest interview for the Linzertorte program – a researcher specializing in the fascinating field of fruit flies. Who knew that fruit flies have a grand advantage over other living species due to their “compact brain” that measures ½ mm wide and 1/3 mm high. Sadly, however, this was the point that Radio Oberösterreich faded and we had to bid the hodge podge of Radio Oberösterreich Pfuiti Gott. One question won’t give peace, though: who is the target audience of this novel station?

5. Rest Stops – the Price to Pay

Be sure you have 50 cent coins packed for your trip or you’re liable to get a rude awakening when you make an urgent stop along the way only to find yourself confronted with a turn stile blocking your path to the WC. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

6. The “W” in your license plate

“W” plates are for those who live in “W” and frowned upon beyond the city walls. I have a dear friend who has been dating a guy who lives in the countryside (for Viennese anything beyond the 21st district qualifies as countryside but he lives a bit further away than Liesing). As a sign of his seriousness about her and their relationship, said guy has agreed to move from his comfortable life of Supermega Spar aisles, US-sized parking spots and friendly folk who Griaß di everyone, to an uncertain future in the big city in a yet undecided district of Vienna. The willingness to forfeit his countryside license plate for a Viennese one, however, is about as big of a commitment as a girl could demand of her Lederhosen darling. I’ve known folks who have lived and worked for over a decade in Vienna, but somehow, they just can’t bear the final break with their home town by dropping a single letter like a B or E or L, O, T,U or Y to go from a place like the WB (Wiener Neustadt-Land) to plain old lonely “W” (Wien).

W driver in the countryside? Watch your speed and if you screw up and take a wrong turn, no worries, the locals will expect nothing less from a “W” driver.

7. Sunday & Holidays – Wochenendfahrverbot

I love this rule. In Austria, Germany and Switzerland, tractor trailer trucks (LKWs) are not allowed to drive on Sundays and public holidays. In Austria, the Verbot starts on Saturday at 3 pm and lasts until Sunday 10 pm. Trucks also aren’t allowed on the road between 10 pm and 5 am in general. Don’t have a hissy fit, though, if you happen to see a truck out at 11 am on a Sunday morning. There are some exceptions to the rule, like for trucks carrying perishable food and those assisting other vehicles or clearing the roads.

8. Return to Vienna on a Sunday

If you’ve gone away for the weekend, I strongly urge you to try to get back into town sometime before 6 or 7pm or you are liable to be forced to park somewhere in Niederösterreich. Also, if you are constantly suppressing the fact that stores are closed on Sunday and return to find that you cannot suppress from your stomach the fact that your fridge is completely empty, you can always make an emergency food run to a gas station or to one of the grocery stores at the train stations. But I would only recommend that if you’re truly desperate because there are a lot of foreigners in the city in denial about stores being closed on Sundays and they all throng together in a mess of elbows and grocery carts at the Prater Billa on Sundays. Remember, you can always order pizza. And if you’re nervous about doing so over the phone in German, order online over

Bring a little of the Outing Home to You

And if you want to escape and can’t manage to unparallel park your car, you can always bring a bit of that countryside home to you: In fact, if you are in the US and don’t believe that there is still a station somewhere in the world rocking 9-5, give it a try. You might like it. And learn something fascinating about fruit flies.

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The Beauty and Peril of the Mountains – Thorung La Pass and The Annapurna Circuit

“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn.” – Jack Kerouac

Print This Post This past week I was struck by the tragic news of the trekkers in Nepal who had gotten caught in a sudden snow storm while attempting to traverse the Thorung La Pass on the Annapurna Circuit.

Ages ago, I too had been faced with the challenge of overcoming Thorung La’s 5416 meter high peak.

For Austrians, der Berg always seems to be a’callin’. You’d be hard-pressed to find an Austrian whose DNA isn’t filled with mountain air and hiking blood.

Hiking Group

Group of 6 hikers from 4 countries at Annapurna Circuit Trail Head, Sept many many years ago

Whether they are out admiring fields of wild crocuses in spring, hiking to the snowy rocky peaks in summer, welcoming the cows back from the Alms in fall or snowboarding down them at neck-breaking speed in winter, Austrians are always finding excuses to go to the mountains.

And if you spend enough time here, you will be dragged along too. Dragged until you come to realize the very civilized traditions they cultivate for the the fine art of hiking – Alms.

Yes, they’ve placed Alms at most peaks – sometimes several along a trail — so that you, weary hiker, are duly rewarded with some Bergkäse, freshly baked bread and Bier once you reach the top. That and a Schnaps.

But as much as they love the mountains and being rewarded for hikes, the Austrians know and respect the inherent dangers of their beloved peaks. Austrian radio will report snow falls and avalanche dangers throughout the year and no Austrian in his or her right mind would ever leave the trail head without proper equipment and preparation. And when someone ventures on some mountain in flip-flops, the rescue effort invariably makes the news along with ample attention given to the details (sometimes with photos) of the poor preparation of the idiot tourist who went out in shorts and sandals with no water, gear or food.

Annapurna Circuit

Annapurna Circuit

Me? I hail from city of steel and bridges. Pennsylvania has hoagies and chipped ham sandwiches, but mountains? So when I moved to Austria, I had a lot to learn. So much in fact that I could eventually rattle off terms like “Gletscherspalte” and not readily know the English translation for it — glacier cleft?

For this reason, when I ventured the Annapurna Circuit trekking route many moons ago, I was uneasy. The circuit winds through the Annapurna mountain range in the Nepalese Himalayas with stops along the way in remote villages where you can eat and spend the night.

The trek takes 18 – 21 days, and for 200 miles, you lug your pack through tropical jungles which lead into dry land in the shadow of the Himalayas and eventually high alpine terrain which then circles back down again to drier land and lush fields.

In his book about trekking, David Nolan writes about the attitude necessary to enjoy a trek. One must have the “ability to shrug off – or even relish — minor hardships.” He even uses the words “stoicism in the face of difficulty” and a “willingness to suck it up.” And some days you have to “suck it up” quite a bit. The trail isn’t for the faint of heart and most people who ventured on it were well prepared. At least back then they were and I assume today isn’t much different.

Annapurna Circuit Hanging Bridges

Annapurna Circuit Hanging Bridges

The group of us who had happened to meet up in the village at the trail head were small but amiable and we would meet up for the next three weeks in various villages at various times throughout our hike. A growing bond formed at these meet ups that would increasingly last late into the night as we shared tales about hanging bridges and the impressive loads of the “Tigers of Snow”. Though I started the hike rather slow, and most of the others fast, after a few days, they slowed and I picked up speed until eventually, at the base camp before the daunting pass, we all met up again.

We were weary from 10+ days of 8+ hour a day treks and apprehensive about the 5416 m (17,777 ft) pending peak. Everyone had heard the horrifying tales of trekkers who had died of altitude sickness, of the guy who had to help carry the girlfriend who didn’t make it back down the trail. The nationality and circumstances of the victims often changed, depending who was telling the story, but the message was always loud and clear — the mountains deserved respect and sometimes, things happen beyond your control and there is nothing you can do about it.

Village Along Annapurna Circuit

Village Along Annapurna Circuit

As I watched the images on CNN of the Nepalese soldiers loading stretchers on the helicopters and could spy the brightly colored woolen caps sticking out from under the black plastic tarps, my mind returned to my own trek and I couldn’t help but wonder, seeing all that deep snow, if any of us would have survived. The trek was and remains one of the most amazing life experiences I have ever had. It was one of the hardest but most rewarding things I have ever forced myself to do.

My heart goes out to the families of those trekkers who didn’t make it and I am rather certain, every trekker from all over the world who has ever ventured that pass feels a bond thinking of them.


DAY 10 Phedi, meaning foot of hill (someone’s idea of a joke like calling the Danube ‘Blue’) is far more rotten than Mr. Oregon described. Initially vehemently opposed to the idea of rushing over the 5416 m high “hill”, preferring a day to rest and acclimatize, I have experienced a drastic change of heart. I want to get out of this place as soon as possible and we will join the Germans – Andre and Christian — and the Dane with his Sherpa guide, Tok, to go over tomorrow.

Annapurna Circuit Village

Annapurna Circuit Village

Tok is a great guy who spends his hours coaxing everyone to eat raw cloves of garlic to help our bodies produce more red blood cells which are responsible for transporting and distributing oxygen throughout the body. Either that or he is on a crusade to scare off all the vampires from here to Kathmandu and produce extremely foul smelling gastrointestinal winds. Did I mention how absolutely uninviting and cheerless the base camp is? The prices are extremely inflated and stretching our budgets. I doubt any place in the world exists where instant noodles are more costly. To quote another hiker’s eloquent but poignant observation describing our current state of affairs, “We are freezing our asses off at 4500 meters high.”

DAY 11 Phedi – Muktinath

Thorung La Pass Marker

Thorung La Pass Marker

Thorung La Pass

The big day! After a polar night without sleep in a concrete room with two cots and only sleeping bags for warmth, we awoke at 4 am to a dark sky full of more stars than I had ever seen in my life. Grateful to have survived what seems to have been quarters designed as the cool house, we go into the lodge at 4:30 am and order breakfast.

By 5:30 we are inching our way up the pass. The air is crisp and we are all wearing every single piece of clothing we have in our packs – too much to freeze to death yet not enough to keep warm. My Tibetan llama wool sweaters prove a good investment. In the south, the snow-covered peaks of Gangapurna and Annapurna III majestically dominate the dawning sky. As the sky lightens, the sun’s golden rays highlight the mountains making a beautiful backdrop with tones of red, orange and purple contrasting the white snow-crusted peaks. The path is dangerously steep and the air thin. We proceed at a snail’s pace because it is impossible to breathe and walk fast. None of us is showing any signs of altitude sickness. The morning is clear and beautiful. The further we climb, the more mountains we see.

Thorung La Pass Annapurna Circuit

Thorung La Pass Annapurna Circuit

False peaks have become the bane of my existence – elevations that taunt us from afar, leading us to believe that the actual peak is close because nothing seems to be higher. Yet once we reach the area, we realize the actual peak is still further on. I concentrate on placing one foot ahead of the other. I stop every 20 paces to catch my breath. I muster what seems every last bit of energy and determination to manage each additional step. I scan the landscape for a rock to rest without any luck. I fear, anyway, that if I were to take a break, I would fail to find the stamina necessary to continue.

At 10:30 and not a minute too soon, we finally reach the peak of Thorung La – 5416 meters high and marked by prayer flags strung from a pile of rocks!!!

Child in High Mountain Village Annapurna Circuit

Child in High Mountain Village Annapurna Circuit

We’ve made it!

Two Nepali tradesmen sit leisurely having their lunch beside their donkey – for them probably just one of several visits to the top. Yet we don’t let this dampen our sense of accomplishment. They greet us with a wave and then it is our turn to take possession of the rounded hilltop, stacked with stones and strewn with prayer flags tattered from flapping in the wind.

We all huddle on the peak, on top of our packs and shield our faces from the stinging Himalayan wind with scarves. Our eyes are protected from the glaring sunlight with sunglasses. The peak is a mixture of brown interspersed with patches of white snow.

The break proves more amusing than originally anticipated thanks to the Dane forcing poor Tok to document his hundreds of macho poses next to the marker. He is exemplary of a postcard I have describing all the characteristics of a perfect European. For example, the perfect European should cook like a Brit, drive like a Italian, have the patience of an Austrian, the sense of humor of a German and the modesty of the Dane. He is so into his photography session that we suspect he has hired Tok — not as a guide – but rather as a photographer.

Annapurna Circuit Album

Annapurna Circuit Album

With the Dane’s film out and our entertainment at an end, I sit on my backpack and enjoy the view and inactivity of my muscles. After about a half an hour, however, we notice that our clothes, wet with sweat and windbreakers thin, are not meant for long leisurely hangouts at the top of such a high peak. We all start to feel the chill of the wind biting at our bones.

Slowly we begin our descent. My knees ache. I try to adjust my walking, rolling from my inner soles to my outer soles instead of my heel to my forefeet. This doesn’t help. After about an hour, the snow dirt becomes dirt with a bit of grass. Another hour passes and we are hiking through a dark green grassy knoll resembling the postcards I have seen of Scotland. Large white rocks adorn the landscape and sheep graze about lazily.

Muktinath is 3800 meters high and we have a good 1600 altitude meters down – very steep – and our legs hurt more than when we climbed up. About 3 pm, totally exhausted and starving, we finally reach Muktinath. Oh – the wondrous sight of Muktinath.

As we lumber into the town of a hundred waters, we pass villagers carrying on with their daily routines. I try not to let their lack of enthusiasm sober my spirits. Throughout life, I have done many seemingly non-extraordinary things. I have let out high-pitched squeaks playing clarinet in our middle school band’s rendition of “Lady”; mumbled entire stanzas of “Flashdance” during the spring choral concert. I have stuttered through public speeches and nearly truncated fellow baton dancers during what was supposed to be a throw, spin, catch number. Throughout and unfailingly, unabashed innocent bystanders have shamelessly applauded for each and every one of these feats. And now – now after what may very well prove to be one of my greatest feats, I stumble onward without notice. Perhaps the moment of my greatest personal triumph, no one ventures to drop a hoe or release a donkey rein to clap or give a weak hoop of cheer. And why should they? Crazy foreigners. So I plod after the rest of our group, too elated, exhausted and hungry to think while we search for a place to dine and sleep in the holy mountainous village of Muktinath.

We parade to the same hotel where it’s rumored that we’ll find — of all things — Mexican food. We drop our bags in the dorm and trudge to the dining room. We all order beer and Schnapps. Goose bumps drape my limbs and I hunker into myself trying to warm my weary body as we wait for the rice and beans to arrive. Almost asleep before the food is served, I force myself to eat at least half but it’s useless. My desire to sleep surpasses my desire to celebrate. I wish everyone much mirth and merriment as I announce that I am off to bed.  I lug my iron feet back to the dorm and am fast asleep before my head hits the pillow. Never in my life have I been more physically burned out. Each of my muscles ache in competition for my undivided attention but I don’t have the strength to notice. Print This Post 



Writing, wine and great people – the 2014 Women’s Fiction Conference in Matera, Italy

Sitting on the patio of my hotel room in Matera, Italy this past weekend, the following notions filled my mind. The first was, “What a view, looks just like the Tower of Babel.” The second, “They’re all so friendly here.” And the third, “I got this.”

Print This Post A day after returning to Vienna, though the warm pleasant tingles of Monticello Vino Rosso have subsided, nothing will erode my now ironclad conviction that I am writer capable of controlling my own destiny.

Pure liberation.

Women's FIction Conference 2014, Matera, Italy

Women’s FIction Conference 2014, Matera, Italy

I’ve been writing stories since I could hold a pencil. The first real money I ever made came from mowing grass in 100 degree heat an entire summer long so I could purchase a typewriter so advanced, it could store an entire line of words and magically erase them all at the touch of a button.

So I wrote and after some time resisted the urge to erase all the lines. And keenly aware that to get from Once-Upon-A-Time to The-End, I’d have to be disciplined, so I was. And once I managed that, after saving money from years of working a non-writer’s job, I completed an MFA writing program to improve my craft. There I learned that to sell my book, I’d need an agent and to get an agent I’d need the perfect pitch. And even if I managed to successfully sell its irresistible traits in this speed dating equivalency game of the publishing industry, there were still no guarantees that my novel would ever glimpse the whites of a reader’s avid eyes.

Oh, and, don’t forget the eight percent. Yep. Eight percent is what I could expect to garner from each copy sold. So if a book cost about 10 USD, I could buy myself one packet of a Vienna McDonald’s ketchup for every sale.

Shocked? So was I.

Matera, Italy, view over the Sassi

Matera, Italy, view over the Sassi

Something seemed wrong in the world (besides the fact that I was eating at McDonald’s). Something needed to change. And thanks to the advent of digital media, it has.

And that’s why the Women’s Fiction Conference proved to be a wealth of indispensable information. Agents, publishers, and authors spent Wednesday to Sunday openly discussing everything related to writing, publishing and selling books. Topics included digital productions, promotion tips, translations, audiobooks, and more. Top selling indie authors like Bella Andre, Tina Folsom and Debra Holland graciously shared their personal self-publishing experiences. Meanwhile gurus like historical fiction writer, David Gaughran, offered one-on-one sessions to help writers interested in self-publishing. British agent, Andrew Lownie, and US St. Martin’s editor, Monique Patterson, sat down with writers to listen to pitches and share their views. Sessions like “United We Stand: Helping Each Other” and “Indie Unconference” provided writers with an extensive overview about the challenges and rewards that lie ahead for writers who self-publish.

Besides vino rosso, tiramisu (oh the things you discover about name origins), freshly brewed cappuccinos, enlightening after-hours discussions and funky silent street discos, what made Matera such a great conference, was the people. Attendees and speakers alike united in the common language of book lovers and storytellers to open up and cut through the current industry tower of babel to tell it like it is.

So I think I got this now. My future holds more than just a packet of ketchup.

Many thanks to Elizabeth Jennings for all her hard work in putting together a conference like none other of its kind in Europe, and to my former professor, Shelley Adina, for suggesting I attend.

Women’s Fiction Conference Website: Print This Post

Brueghel's Tower of Babel. Vienna Museum of Art History

Brueghel’s Tower of Babel. Vienna Museum of Art History

The view from my hotel balcony in Matera, Italy

The view from my hotel balcony in Matera, Italy