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And the former president …

4 Dec

And the former president of Austria, Heinz Fischer, recently was at a gala concert in the Musikverein to celebrate pianist Rudolf Buchbinder’s 70th birthday. One thing I have always appreciated about Fischer is that he likes classical music and can often be seen at concerts, usually without any obvious security. The first time I saw him, I was dissecting a concert with some Austrian friends and interrupted to point and say, “Der Bundespräsident!” They glanced over and said, more or less, “Of course. What did you expect? He often comes to concerts” and turned back to continue our conversation. What did I expect??? A security detail taking the president out through a back passage, not this short, middle-aged man walking out alone looking contemplative.

A new president for Austria

4 Dec

Austria has elected Alexander van der Bellen as its new president. Van der Bellen was formerly head of the Green Party and ran as an independent. He won against Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the right-wing, nationalist party. Thank you, Austria!


1 Dec

After four months in the U.S. Maylo and I are back in Vienna. Anyone who’s been following this blog at all knows how much I love this city, but what did I notice most in the last 48 hours? Sadly, how much and how indiscriminately people smoke. Ah, well. Nothing is perfect.

Karlheinz Böhm, 1928 – 2014

31 May

I went into the Trafik as usual this morning to pick up my Saturday Kurier to read at breakfast and saw on the front page of every Austrian newspaper a large photo of Karlheinz Böhm and his dates. This news led me to break my otherwise firm habit of starting the Saturday paper at the back of the supplement and working my way forward and then starting on the last page of the newspaper itself and working my way forward. I turned immediately to pages 17 and 18 to read more.

Who is Karlheinz Böhm and why so much news coverage of his death? What follows is a very personal response to that question. The short version: Karlheinz Böhm was a dashing actor who became famous playing the Emperor Franz Josef (second to last emperor of Austria) to Romy Schneider’s Empress Elisabeth (“Sisi”) in the “Sissi” films of the 1950s. Thanks to genuine acting talent he was, miraculously, able to move beyond this role and later even played the part of a serial killer with success.

At some point he was on vacation in Kenya with friends and was appalled by the gap between the relative wealth of the tourists and the poverty around them. He decided to do something and changed his life completely. On a famous German TV show “Wetten, dass …?” (more or less “Do you want to bet …?”) he expressed the bet that not even one-third of the viewers (an estimated six to seven million people) would give one Deutschmark (this was a long time ago!) or one Schilling (for the Austrian viewers) to alleviate hunger in Africa. He won that bet, but enough people gave that over a million marks came in and he was able to start an aid and development project in Africa, ultimately in Ethiopia.

There’s an interesting story about how the country was chosen, if you were wondering why Ethiopia when he had the idea in Kenya. Apparently, he went to the Kenyan government first, but they did not want to accept his terms (he wanted full say in how the money was spent) so he carried on from one country to the next. The first government to agree to his terms was the government of Ethiopia and his organization “Menschen für Menschen”  (“People for People”) was born . He gave up his acting career and devoted the rest of his life to helping people in Ethiopia.

His way of using the money from “Wetten, dass …?” He went from village to village with an interpreter and sat down, literally, on the ground with the people in these villages and asked them what they most needed. Everything Menschen für Menschen does–and they’re still around after 30 years–is based on the answers he got.

Some of what the short version above leaves out is that, on top of being a famous actor himself, he was Karl Böhm’s (the world-famous conductor’s) son so he was brought up with considerable privilege. The short version also leaves out why Menschen für Menschen (MfM) is one of the few charitable organizations I contribute to on a monthly basis. First of all, I love the picture of this man leaving behind a career with the kind of success most of us would give our eye teeth for and going and asking what people need and then doing his best to deliver it. In addition, by focusing on one country MfM can apply an integrative approach to development very effectively. That means they don’t just focus on clean water or education or more productive farming techniques or making women more independent or health care. They work on on all these aspects at the same time to increase the impact of what they are doing in each area. And, as well as focusing in an ongoing way on making people independent from their support, they are also there quickly with help when there are natural disasters.

Austrian TV is, of course, in addition to the commemorations of Karlheinz Böhm’s life and life’s work, showing all the “Sissi” films over the next week or so. So please forgive me if I leave you now to go watch them one more time. But first I need to go and increase my standing donation to the work that meant so much more to him.

Eurovision song contest 2014

10 May

From today’s International New York Times (the new incarnation of the International Herald Tribune): “Over the years, Eurovision has reflected Europe’s social and political changes, and this one is no exception. Along with the requisite scantily clad women and hunky men, an Austrian transgender singer, Conchita Wurst, advanced to this year’s finals, to the consternation of Eastern European social conservatives who have called Eurovision the epitome of the morally corrupt West.” There was a photo of Conchita on the front page of the print edition of the International New York Times . Fame indeed! The Austrian media I have seen seem to be simply pleased that Conchita made it to the finals, is representing Austria, and has a chance of winning, so don’t seem to share the opinion of the stated “Eastern European social conservatives”.

One point to clarify, though, I’m not sure that Conchita Wurst is transgender, as reported in the article. My source for that statement is German Wikipedia, so I don’t know how reliable or up-to-date the entry is, but there it is stated that Conchita Wurst is the stage name of Thomas Neuwirth, a cross dresser. Apparently as a homosexual from a small town in the province of Styria, he suffered a lot of discrimination and created the figure of Conchita Wurst to make a statement against discrimination of what is different. The first name was given to him as a nickname by a Cuban friend of his. The last name “Wurst” comes from the expression in German “Das ist wurst”–in other words “that doesn’t matter”. He wanted to express with it that it doesn’t matter where one comes from or what one looks like.

The whole INYT article can be found at:

State holiday

26 Oct

Absolutely perfect fall weather (see below) for the Nationalfeiertag today and a record number of people in the Vienna Woods to make the most of it. What does Austria celebrate on its state holiday? Many Austrians themselves are not sure. A quick look at the German-language Wikipedia shows that it is Austria’s return to sovereign state status when the last occupying troops (Brits in the province of Carinthia) left. The Austrian parliament then immediately enacted a law ensuring Austria’s eternal neutrality, a point that is now viewed with some skepticism given Austria’s EU membership. So today Austria celebrates its sovereignty and its neutrality. True to Austrian custom there is no extra day to make up for the holiday even though it falls on the weekend. On Monday we all have to go back to work. In the meantime we get to enjoy this:


Another website

24 Oct

In looking for information on Austrian demographics (in which I found out that in 2006 about 9.8% of the people living in Austria were non-Austrians, which is one of the highest percentages in the EU) I came across this website with impressions of Austria written by an Austrian: I wanted to share that with you.

Wine trip – photos

6 Oct

A typical Kamptal inner courtyard Leaves vineyards_01_blue grapes

Luxury hotels

5 Oct

There was a time I think, although I’m no expert, when luxury hotels advertised with products from foreign places. The trend seems to have reversed itself, at least in Austria. Suddenly there is Strassertaler honey and jam made by a local farmer (or more likely the farmer’s wife) out of their own “house plums” at the breakfast buffet.