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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

I'm Glad I Was Vaccinated

In the way of cheery news in my neck of the woods, we received emails from our employer today with the subject line "Measles Prevention Measures."  NOT the most reassuring email to receive, particularly since it was sent because of a recent upswing in measles cases.  Also not reassuring was that they didn't really give us useful information on how to prevent getting measles at this given time.  Here is the first gem they gave us on measles prevention:

Regular immunization of children together with mass immunization campaigns are the basic preventive measures to protect public health from disease and mortality burden caused by measles.

Okay, so then what are we doing about the people on campus who were not immunized as children?  Wouldn't a mass immunization campaign have been a good idea some time ago?  Might it be useful now?  I know the students are subjected to mandatory medical checks, so those might be a good opportunity to ask about their immunization records.

Here is another piece of advice:

We strongly advise that block managers provide sanitizers and washing agents for room cleaning, and ensure regular airing of study rooms in the University and residence rooms (in dormitories).

I'm no expert on diseases but is airing out the rooms really effective?  Also, as many people have pointed out, not all the windows open readily, so this is not even advice that can be easily followed.

Many thanks to my parents for having me vaccinated as a child.  I wish everyone had that same opportunity.  You don't always know when you'll be exposed to certain diseases, and I'm glad to be as prepared as I can be.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Parting Thoughts on Vienna AND the Great Astana Thaw

Our Vienna trip made quite an impression on me.  On a basic level, I consider it my first real European trip (I've been the European half of Istanbul, and a handful of European airports, but I'd say that those were very different types of experiences!).  Also, our trip reminded me that under certain circumstances (like when I'm seeing interesting sites and eating lots of tasty food), I can still be fairly cheerful.  With that, here are a few last random thoughts on the trip:

  • The Viennese we encountered were extremely friendly and helpful.  I was feeling guilty about knowing only about four or five words of German.  I would have liked it if I'd had time to learn some before traveling to Austria, but I was impressed not only with the locals' command of English, but how gracious they were about speaking it with us.  I thought that might be the case at tourist attractions, but even in less common tourist situations, such as needing to mail a large envelope of documents to the US, people were able and willing to help us.  Danke, people of Vienna!
  • We got a fantastic deal on our hotel by booking through (I promise they're not paying me to say this).  I didn't really expect any perks beyond having a place to stay close to a lot of the tourist attractions, but it turned out that breakfast was included in our hotel price.  And it wasn't overripe bananas, flavorless apples, and Otis Spunkmeyer muffins that appear to have been sitting around since the Clinton administration like at a lot of hotels in the US.  This breakfast buffet had eggs, breakfast meats, smoked fish, all sorts of fancy cheese, cut up fruits and vegetables, several flavors of yogurt, fresh bread, and granola.  Food was somewhat pricey in Vienna, so it was a huge boon to have one of our three meals taken care of each day, especially with such a wonderful selection of foods to try.
  • Vienna seemed like a very fit city.  We saw lots of people walking and biking at all times of day.  I feel like in some parts of the US, you are just expected to drive everywhere once you reach a certain age.  It was refreshing to see so many adults, including adults wearing business attire, make walking and biking a part of their day.
  • This observation led to another observation regarding the lack of fitness in our lives in Kazakhstan.  Between having our home and work essentially on a construction site and having just come out of a harsh winter, we haven't been walking around outside too much.  I thought we were making up for that by going to the gym frequently, but I no longer think it works that way.  We walked a lot in Vienna, and I was shocked by how achey my legs felt.  I've never had that happen before, even though I've certainly gone on active vacations before when I've had sedentary jobs.  It was a rather sobering observation.
  • Austria gives me hope for other countries.  I spent about a year studying in Syria between 2004 and 2005.  I feel so sad and discouraged about the situation there, and often wonder what they way forward is after so much death and destruction.  It occurred to me that times in Austria's history must have seemed extremely bleak.  While I'm sure that Austria has problems just like anywhere else, an awful lot seems to have gone right there.  It is heartening to know that that can happen.

We've been back in Astana for several weeks now.  When we returned, fresh snow had fallen.  At that point, I lost hope that winter would ever end here.  But it did!  The thaw happened startling quickly, leaving us with a sea of mud.  At this point, though, I'll take mud over snow and ice.  I keep getting mud on my pants, but I'm not really sure how.  Am I really dragging the bottoms of my shoes over my pants that much?  Oh well.

Now that spring has actually sprung, we have a few excursions in the offing, so I hope to have some more pictures soon!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Last Days in Vienna

Our last couple of days in Vienna were pretty low-key, aside from visiting St. Stefan's cathedral on the Friday.  On Thursday, we wanted to do something different from visiting churches or palaces.  I did a little bit of research and suggested Hundertwasserhaus, an apartment building designed with the concept of man living in harmony with nature.  Not only did this promise to be a quirky site, but there was supposed to be a penny squasher (er, a Euro two cent squasher) in a nearby shop.  For anyone reading this who hasn't traveled with me recently, I think squashed pennies make some of the best souvenirs because (a) they are inexpensive, (b) they are small, (c) they generally incorporate the name of the place you visited, and (d) I can turn them into charms and make jewelry out of them.

There was actually quite a crowd of photo-takers at Hundertwasserhaus (architecture buffs, perhaps?).  It was a cool building, and I did find that coin squasher.

Coin squasher, Austrian style!
We also went to the second half of the Jewish Museum (it is housed in two separate buildings).  Both buildings had guards at the entrance.  It is sad to think of the need to have guards at so many public places, and very sad to think of a place needing protection from hatred, but this seems to be the reality we all live in.  The first half of the museum we visited focused more on Vienna's Jewish community centuries ago; this one focused on more recent history, particularly how the Holocaust and then waves of immigration from Central Asia had shaped the community.

On Friday, we visited St. Stephen's cathedral.  We stayed at a hotel near it, so we had seen it from the outside every day.  Our guidebook suggested devoting half a day to it, so we though it would be a good activity for the day we left.

The reality was a little different from what I expected.  From the guidebook, I was under the impression that we could pretty much explore at leisure.  The reality was a little more complicated, with all sorts of separate tickets to see different parts of the church, package deals, and places where we had to wait for guides to start tours and then pay them in person at the end.  It was also extremely crowded inside.  Granted, this is a very popular site to see, but I also have the sense that the number of tourists was increasing with every day we spent in Vienna.  I think we arrived just at the end of a tourism lull.  Anyway, I got a few pictures inside and outside.

This one was taken on another day.  :)

We decided to forgo much of the confusion of different ticket prices and tour options, but did decide to see the catacombs.  This entailed loitering near a staircase for a tour guide.  We actually had to wait a while because someone leading an organized tour (one of those deals where the guide carries a brightly colored sign that everyone follows) sort of muscled in and took the other guide's time slot.  Sigh.  Anyway, it was interesting, if pretty creepy.  I was horrified to see human bones in the catacombs!  I couldn't take pictures there, but maybe that is just as well.

Our last couple of days in Vienna were also an exercise in eating.  I had been curious about the various sausage stands on the street, and ended up eating sausage for lunch on both Thursday and Friday.  I had some sort of bratwurst on Thursday.  American hotdog vendors should visit Vienna and take notes.  First of all, both the sausage and the bread were good.  The bread was a baguette-type bread, rather than a squishy hotdog bun.  Secondly, the vendor poked a hole through the center of the bread, rather than cutting it in half lengthwise.  That ensured that the sausage and the mustard stayed in place and that my hands stayed clean while eating it.  A perfect hotdog-eating system!  On Friday, I tried a currywurst, something I had heard about, but couldn't quite believe would be good.  It was, though--there was just a slight taste of curry in the sausage, just enough to make it interesting.

We also did some wandering and eating at a couple of outdoor markets we found.  These markets had a good mix of crafts and food.  And plenty of Easter eggs.  :)  I feel lucky to have visited so close to Easter so I could see all of the beautiful eggs.  I'm wondering what was made with the eggs that were blown out of their shells.

There were even ostrich eggs.

We also each had a fascinating pastry at the market.  It was some sort of dough wrapped around wooden poles and baked in an oven.  I've never seen anything like it.

I fear this photo does not do the pastry's structure justice.
Late Friday afternoon, after purchasing some cheese and chocolate to take back to Kazakhstan with us, we sadly bid Vienna farewell.  We couldn't have asked for a better vacation.  I had forgotten what it was like to not feel tense all the time.  I am relieved that grouchiness doesn't have to be a permanent part of my personality.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Danube River Valley

Before we traveled to Austria, we booked a tour of the Danube River Valley for the Wednesday we were there.  We figured it would be an easy way to see some of the countryside.  Ordinarily, we aren't big tour people, but considering how tired we had been in the weeks leading up to this vacation, I'm glad we planned a day when we didn't have to do much thinking.  The company that operated the tour seemed to do a very brisk business.  We were picked up from our hotel in a van.  At first, I thought that we were going to be on a very small tour with only a few other people.  But then, the driver of the van took us to some sort of central depot where there were several large tour buses taking people on a variety of different tours.  Our guide moved very ably between German, English, and Spanish.

Our first stop was Krems, a very picturesque town, where we were given an hour to wander around.

Then we started heading toward Emmendsdorf for lunch.  The guide showed us barriers that were put up to protect the valley from flooding (he described them as ugly and expensive), and told us that most people in the valley make a living either from tourism or wineries.  He also told us that apricots would be in season in a few weeks.  I was regretful to have missed out on that, although I will say that I got to eat plenty of other tasty things over the course of the trip.

After that, we headed to Melk.  The purpose of going to Melk was to visit a Benedictine abbey, but Scott and I also nipped into town before the abbey tour started.  While there, we saw a few quirky sites:

A bicycle covered in yarn...

A polished stone machine...

And a sign in Arabic advertising apple strudel!  Too bad the words are both backwards and disconnected!

Part of me wanted to skip the abbey and see what other amazing surprises Melk had in store, but the abbey was lovely, also.

View from the abbey
All in all, a lovely day.  When we returned to Vienna, we ate dinner in a tiny, decidedly non-touristy restaurant (no languages on the menu except German!).  The employees there were very gracious about translating for us.  We split a whole steamed artichoke as an appetizer--no doubt the last one I'll have in a long while!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Tuesday in Vienna

Tuesday took us to the Museum Quarter, and, specifically, the Kunsthistorisches Museum.  Vienna has an amazing number of museums, and if I ever return, I hope to visit more of them.  But as much as we like museums, we find them exhausting pretty quickly, so we decided to be selective regarding our museum visits this trip.

On the way to the Museum Quarter

View approaching the Kunsthistorisches Museum and Natural History Museum

Kunsthistorisches Museum
We actually arrived shortly before the museum opened (jet lag worked in our favor in the sense that we were up early every morning!).  I was impressed by how quickly we were able to purchase tickets, in spite of the crowds.  I was also impressed that school groups seemed to be able to go for free.

The Kunsthistorisches has any number of fascinating exhibits, but our favorite was the Kunstkammer, which housed a tremendous collection of objet d'art collected by the Habsburgs.  It is amazing what large sums of money (and perhaps a certain about of disregard for the wellbeing of one's subjects) can buy.  I was impressed by both the workmanship and materials involved, and I liked some pieces very much.  Others, however, I frankly would not want to have in my home, no matter how expensive or impressive they may be.  One sculpture particularly comes to mind.  There was one sculpture featuring three people standing with their backs to one another in a triangle formation.  One person was an attractive young woman, and another was an attractive young man.  The third person was clearly much older, and appeared to have both male and female characteristics, namely sagging breasts and a receding hairline.  It was an interesting way to conceptualize the fleeting nature of youth, but hardly seemed like an uplifting reminder to see every day.

After our morning at the museum, we left for lunch and a wander.  We wandered in the direction of the University of Vienna, enjoyed some gelato, and saw some interesting sights along the way.

Parliament building

The University of Vienna was founded in 1365 and is the oldest university in the German-speaking world.  We hung out there for a while.

We then headed back to our hotel for some rest and some decisions on dinner.  We ate dinner at the Greichenbeisl, one of Vienna's oldest inns that was apparently visited by Mark Twain.  I'll have to reread Innocents Abroad sometime to see if it is mentioned.  We then ate dessert at the lovely pastry chain Aida, where we knew the sweets would be tasty and a fraction of the price.

Parting picture of the day:  a confusing mixture of old and new.