Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 13

Sometimes, of a weekend, when Alex and I have enjoyed a lie-in, I will come drowsily awake and roll over to face my wife. She will smile at me from her nest of blankets and I will smile back, and her first words of the day to me will be, “I need to eat.”

This is my way of explaining that, in our house, food is a very serious thing. 

In a sense, it’s ingrained into the culture over here. An Austrian tradition that takes place across the country every lunch time in every office building (back when people worked in office buildings) is the habit of saying “Mahlzeit!”. As we learnt yesterday, German is a very literal language, and literally translated Mahlzeit means “meal time”. 

Now, the convention of giving a pleasant greeting over a meal is not one unique to Austria, but this expression caught my attention as it isn’t solely used when someone spies you about to tuck in to your lunch, but is said broadly anytime from midday until about two pm every time anyone encounters anyone else. You could be catching a lift, heading to a meeting, or making a beeline for the bathroom, and along the way you will be met with a round of enthusiastic “Mahlzeit!” Just a whole nation walking around hallways and offices calling out “Meal time! Meal time!” like excited three year olds.

Food is very important to the Austrian people.

Given that restaurants, fast-food joints, cafes, and bars are all on a global hiatus, a lot of people are now finding themselves also having to care deeply about food and food preparation as they contemplate the prospect of opening their own eatery, also known as cooking at home. 

Luckily for me, my wife’s deep passion and concern for food has translated itself into her being an amazing cook. With a back-catalogue of delicious and traditional Austrian meals, she can step into the kitchen with a handful of ingredients and step back out with a hot and nutritious meal that is a delight to eat. The ten kilograms I’ve put on since moving here from London is a testament to how much I enjoy my wife’s cooking.

I have taken on the role of apprentice in the kitchen and am slowly learning her mysterious Austrian arts, and am proud to say I can now independently whip up a mean batch of Nockerl should the need call. I don’t want to brag, but Alex and I have even released our own cookbook.

Cookery the Austrian Way

The only physical copy of this book was gifted to Peter Robb for Christmas.

As a rule, we mostly cook at home, even when there’s not a worldwide pandemic on driving us into apartments like moles underground, and so far we haven’t had too hard a time adjusting to the new restrictions. We try our best to eat cleanly during the working week, having a small breakfast, small lunch, and a home-cooked dinner that usually incorporates a little of everything from the food pyramid. On Friday nights, however, having completed a full working week like good boys and girls deserving a treat, we indulge in a little takeaway.

Luckily, some restaurants are currently keeping their kitchens open and still doing delivery, so we are still able to sit back to some pizza, wine, and a movie at the end of the week. My thanks go out to these delivery men and women, these savoury-smelling saints, for ensuring I can still partake in my feast of grease and fat.

The deliveries themselves have gone from the friendly drop-off of an evening meal to something more akin to a drug deal. Last Friday, for instance, we received a call confirming the address and were told the delivery would take place in five minutes. We waited, palms a little sweaty with excited nerves, and each of us jumped when the doorbell rang. We checked the peep hole, saw the coast was clear, and opened the door to find our package waiting for us on the doormat. Glancing around, we spotted our delivery man slinking out the building’s doors and he threw us a sly wink and a smile before disappearing like a wraith into the night. We hurriedly collected our goods and retreated indoors to the couch for a hit of that sweet sweet junk food. 

On the weekends, we go for a two-meals-a-day system, which allows us to eat to our fill without feeling too guilty about it later. A big breakfast/brunch ties us over until a slightly more carb-heavy dinner than we would normally have during the working week. Last Saturday, I was feeling fancy and so whipped up a batch of crepes (crepes are really just flour, eggs, and milk, so not fancy at all, but they come from France so I let myself feel fancy when eating them).

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Snacks are also important, so we keep a collection of fruit in the house to tie us over between meals. And when an apple just won’t cut it, I find eating a handful of grated cheese straight from the bag when Alex isn’t looking really gives me the protein hit I need to get through to dinner. 

With no social outings on the calendar for the foreseeable future, mealtime is now the highlight of the day. So whatever you’re dining on during the time of COVID, I recommend a balance of something good and something good for you. Make sure you enjoy it. And make sure every day between 12 and 2 you shout “Meal time!” at anyone you see.

I also recommend a piece of my wife’s cake. If you sneak up to our back window, we’d be happy to slip you a piece as if it were a baggie of Mary Jane.

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Tomorrow: Literature.

P.S. If anyone was enticed and intrigued by Austrian cooking and our very professional cook book, you can download a pdf copy here: Cookery the Austrian Way.

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 11

I realised that in my post about media, and more specifically the part discussing good media, I left out an important facet of this genre: Music.

I, like 99.8% of the population, enjoy music of one kind or another (I think the 0.2% is made up of people who were born deaf and sociopaths). Music is an outlet, a way of tapping the pressure valve and letting out some of the steam. And so in a time when the whole world seems tight with pressure and ready to burst, a bit of an outlet is no bad thing.

I generally listen to folk music about sad things and introspection that I think is beautiful and my wife finds depressing. She is more into upbeat music that puts a tap in her toes and a wiggle in her butt. While I greatly appreciate a good tapping toe or wiggling butt, particularly when the butt in question is my wife’s, I find that what really leaves me in a better state of mind is a song that is synchronised to some inner sadness, music that resonates with something that’s troubling me and by doing so, by being able to say “hey, yeah, that’s what it feels like”, I’m able to leave some of it with the music and walk away feeling lighter, with a spring in my step and a wiggle in my butt. 

A few people have made the point that now that everyone has some time on their hands, it is the perfect opportunity to learn an instrument. I play the guitar and I wholeheartedly endorse this statement. Playing an instrument for me is a form of meditation. My brain becomes so engrossed in the mechanics of it and the mental concentration that everything else just sort of falls away. And when the music spills out and I know that it’s my hands making it, it’s a wonderful thing. 

It is not always a wonderful thing for Alex, however, who has now heard the rotation of my six favourite songs so many times that sometimes her eyes dart between my head and my instrument in a way that makes me wonder if she’s planning to introduce the two in a more intimate fashion. She was kind enough to gift me the guitar, so really, a certain amount of the blame rests with her. 

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Obviously, the ability to learn an instrument depends on what instruments you have at your disposal during your lockdown. Guitars and pianos are always good, and a violin played well is an uplifting thing. If, however, all you have at your fingertips is a recorder, the instrument of choice for primary school kids because whoever set the musical curriculum is an agent of evil here to make people suffer, then I’d probably recommend you leave it to the professionals. That’s not to say that with time and practice a recorder isn’t capable of making beautiful music, only that you will never get to that point as the housemate you’re socially isolating with will stuff the recorder down your throat long before you develop any sort of proficiency. Or whichever orifice of their choice.

One of my favourite musicians, a Bristol-born gentleman who performs under the name of Passenger, has seen fit during this span of dislocation to reach out from his own hideaway and provide anyone who is interested with a living-room concert. Given that all forms of live entertainment are currently under lock and key, being able to engage with an artist and enjoy their skill, to close your eyes and let go of some pressure, is a beautiful thing. He has been performing live for the last two Sundays, and is kind enough to put the recording up on YouTube for those who missed it.

As it is just him in his home and not a team putting together a production, the intimacy of the performance is ramped up. There are hiccups in the video where the wifi struggles, which I find charming as it really captures a facet of this time and this moment. In the future when the internet will be as stable and steady as any other utility and we’ll download movies just by thinking of them, kids will not understand the concept of lag, much as kids today don’t understand the pops and whistles of a record, or the concept of a record for that matter. 

But to me, this just adds to the authenticity and earnestness of the performance. This is no big-budget arena, just a man stuck in his living room like the rest of us, reaching out through the tools he has, a guitar, a laptop, and a low-speed internet connection, to try and infuse a little happiness and warmth into our isolation. 

Despite the limitations, his voice and guitar comes through pure and clear, singing his melancholy songs in a way that reverberates with me. And as an added bonus, he’s also quite funny, so you get a bit of comedy thrown in if the music isn’t enough of a draw.

Give it a listen, if it’s not your thing, or it doesn’t touch you, then that’s okay, it just means you’re dead inside and have the emotional range of a potato.

Whatever genre of music you like, be it k-pop or Norwegian death metal, I recommend turning up the volume, releasing some pressure, and of course, wiggling that butt.

Tomorrow: Language.

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 8

Health. It’s what the current game is all about. The health of ourselves, our loved ones, our communities, our pets. Actually, no, the pets are fine. In fact, they are loving this whole thing. Really making lemonade out of the lemons that is the human race being trapped indoors all day.

But while we have all barricaded ourselves away in an effort to preserve our health, we have to be careful while enacting these precautions not to neglect our health (seems contradictory, right? She’s a right gordian knot, this health thing).

It turns out that spending all day indoors, away from things like fresh air and sunlight, and dangerously close to things like boredom and a well-stocked pantry, can have serious health ramifications. The problem boils down to a loss of routine. 

As an example, during my trip to work, I used to deliberately take the stairs and not the escalator when leaving the U-Bahn, meaning I would climb four flights before I even made it to work. A shining beacon of health and fitness, I know. But without the usual routine of my morning commute, I now only need six strides to make it from my bedroom to my bathroom, and then a further four strides to make it to my workspace/dining room, and then that’s pretty much me done for the day. Between the journey from bed to office and a number of trips to the toilet, a number that is determined by how well hydrated I am and what sort of effect the overnight oats is having on my digestive system, this new routine, as the judgemental fitness app on my phone keeps pointing out, only has me doing maybe ten move minutes a day. Koalas sleep twenty-two hours a day and still manage to move more than that.

But if routine is the problem, then routine is also the solution (again, seemingly paradoxical, but I swear there’s calculation in the chaos). This new style of living requires the drafting of a new routine, and when sketching out the blueprint of this routine, it’s important to build health into the foundation of it. 

I’m sure by now you are all sick to death of reading graphs and watching instructional videos on how to wash your hands (but these are super important, so if you haven’t seen them, go out and watch them until you’re sick to death of them), so I thought rather than rehash something that has already been thoroughly hashed, I’d go through some everyday tips that you can incorporate into your new routine to ensure we all come through this as healthy as possible. 

1) Start each day with a fresh breakfast: I recommend a bowl of my wife’s delicious overnight oats (as previously detailed in Chapter 2 of this series). Of course, in order to have my wife prepare you a bowl of her delicious overnight oats, you would first have to do what I did and travel overseas, accept her invitation to visit her during your travels, awkwardly start up a romantic relationship while her parents are in the next room, commence a long-distance relationship, maintain this relationship over a four-year period, eventually propose to her by writing her a book, marry her, and finally move to Austria and rent an apartment with her. Given that, it’s probably easier just to make your own oats.

2) Work out before work: Prior to committing to sitting at your dining room table in front of a laptop for the next eight hours in a position orthopaedic surgeons call “woefully unergonomic”, try moving your body a little to shake out those kinks and to give your vertebrae a breather. Alex and I do a short yoga session each morning, but you can do whatever turns you on. A run, a series of stretches, a short work-out routine, or a bout of competitive wrestling with your spouse will all get the blood pumping and preserve your musculoskeletal health.

3) Resist those seductive snacks: If you’re anything like me, the minute you step into your place of habitation, you can hear the whispers drifting out from the pantry, reminding you of that still half-full bag of chips waiting for you, or the block of chocolate you swore to yourself when buying you’d save until the weekend. Living in the time of COVID means rarely leaving your home, which means those snacks have all the hours in the day to tantalise and tempt. If the new routine includes eating your body weight in snacks each day, then a very different person may come out the other side of social isolation. 

4) Eat those snacks, baby! Your mental health is also incredibly important and will be tested during times when you’re deprived of family, friends, and some good old physical contact. So if the need hits, if you’re feeling flat and need a pick-me-up, then you dive into those snacks headfirst and guzzle them up as if fat and sugar were oxygen.

5) Vitamins for vitality: One of the best things you can do to stay healthy and support your immune system is a well-balanced diet including a range of foods that contain vitamins A, B, C, D and E, and the minerals iron, zinc and selenium. Of course, in times where selfish muppets are clearing out the vegetable stands of your local supermarket, this can be a challenge. If necessary, you can supplement your diet with some multivitamins. My wife favours a liquid mixture called Metavirulent that tastes and feels like bleach draining through my sinuses and across the backs of my eyeballs. She swears it’s good for me.

Whatever shape your new routine takes, be sure to factor in health, both of the physical and mental variety, look after yourself, look after anyone who’s with you, and by doing so we can win this game.

Tomorrow: Environment.

(For actual advice without all my silliness, check out my cousin and his fiancee’s health and fitness facebook page. Nikki and Dom have a wealth of information between them and more motivation and energy than two kids who have just slammed back six sleeves of wizz fizz. You can find videos, exercise instructions, and, let’s be honest, a certain level of silliness. But they back their silliness up with expert knowledge so you come out on top.

You can find their site here.)

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 4

I first learnt of the spread of the coronavirus through the media, which is of course the logical place that the majority of us go to discover what is taking place in our world. Except of course when it isn’t and is instead a putrid quagmire of self-serving fear-mongers, inflating issues to pump us full of anxiety and squeeze us for our attention and money. 

Which, in case you’ve been a bit preoccupied, is the current order of the day. On some of the cheaper and dirtier rags *coughdailymailcoughcoughheraldsun*, the most common headline screams “KILLER VIRUS!”. Now, I will not argue that this virus has taken many lives and therefore in a literal context fits the label killer virus, but I will argue that beating people over the head with this terminology doesn’t aid in creating an atmosphere of rational and informed awareness, but instead induces an environment of all-out panic wherein morons end up squabbling over rolls of toilet paper. 

And context is vital here. For the majority of us, contracting COVID is not a death sentence. It’s more of a hibernate-in-your-bed-and-get-your-partner-to-bring-you-food sentence. For the vulnerable in our communities, those with pre-existing conditions and the elderly, it is a very real threat, which is why I’m currently shacked up with my wife instead of cuddling up to her Oma. This context allows us to treat this situation with the seriousness it deserves without succumbing to the savagery and insanity of what has been the equivalent of Mad Max set in supermarket aisles with shopping trolleys and the last of the good pasta. 

The second problem with the media is that it is not always concerned with a little thing commonly referred to as “facts”. Sensationalist media has resulted in widespread xenophobia to anyone of Asian ancestry, regardless of if the person subject to the abuse has even been to China, much less Wuhan, in their lives. The media has fuelled this with a series of outlandish tales that range from the virus being bred in Chinese labs to “reports” of the source of the virus being from a Chinese bat soup. Some papers have even had the gall to state that the rapid rise of cases in Italy was due to Chinese big pharma deliberately seeding infected people into Europe. Others believe the situation gives them the right to make racist puns, such as “Chinese Virus: PANDAmonium”. 

I wish I was kidding:

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As idiocy tends to breed idiocy, the eventual outcome has been a backlash at innocent Asian people and moronic moves such as parents refusing to let Asian doctors treat their children. The list goes on, but it gets more depressive as it does, so let’s call it there.

While we are drowning in this fetid sea of media, there is a life raft that I believe we can all cling onto: More media! I should be clearer: Different media!

I’m referring to the best kind of media, good media, which is of course books, movies, television, podcasts, and, technically a repetition on the theme of books, but I like them and am even a member of a club honouring them, and this is my blog not yours so I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway, audiobooks.

Using media to combat media: sometimes you have to fight fire with fire, baby. 

Here is a current list of the good media that is being digested in our home to help drown out all the bad media:

Each morning after completing yoga and while enjoying a bowl of overnight oats, I watch 15 minutes of an episode of HBO’s Watchmen. I then commute to work (two strides from the couch to the dining table) and launch into my work day. If the work I’m doing can be done with half an ear, I listen to podcasts. Currently, I oscillate between No Such Thing as a Fish, 99% Invisible, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, Anthropocene Reviewed, and Comedy Bang Bang. And, as an always safe back up, relistening to The Ricky Gervais Show, which, beyond being hilariously funny, has the added benefit of having been recorded almost twenty years ago and so contains no mention of the coronavirus in case you’re in need of a palate cleanser.

Lunch sees me dropping back into another 15-20 minutes of Watchmen (in the bedroom or on the balcony to ensure the blood-curdling sounds of my mastication stays well away from the delicate ears of my wife). 

After our stroll, Alex and I sit down to a tasty dinner and an episode of BBC’s Sherlock, not to be confused with CBS’s Elementary, which is also very good. It’s hard to go wrong with a genius British consulting detective. This is approximately my fourth or fifth viewing of Sherlock and it only gets better with each watch. I would recommend it to anyone, up to and including Alex’s aforementioned Oma.

While drawing after dinner, I plug my headphones back in and get an audiobook rolling. At the moment, I am listening to Stephen King’s The Shining. I am enjoying it, but realised too late that it may not have been the most appropriate choice given my current voluntary incarceration and its themes of isolation and a man’s deterioration into madness (allworkandnoplaymakesjonnyadullboy). I swear not to go mad and chase Alex with an axe. Where would I even get an axe, all the stores are closed.

My wife spends this time also enjoying a book, but in the more traditional sense, with her eyes. I would tell you what she is currently reading, but she eats her way through books so fast that it’s impossible to say. If reading books were a sport, she’d be an olympic athlete. If she is a bookworm then she is one of those monstrous sand worms from Frank Herbert’s Dune (for those of you playing at home, Dune was one of The Audiobook Club’s most recent reads. Or, to be more accurate, listens).

While holed up indoors keeping clear of COVID, the vulnerable, and Omas, I whole-heartedly prescribe a healthy course of good media while steering mostly clear of bad media. And if you must wade into that bog of eternal stench, try to stick to official sources and journalists you can trust, who make it their business to monger truth and not fear.

On Monday: Shopping.

(And because today’s post was a bit of a heavy one, here’s a picture of some ducks I took the other day, because, you know, who doesn’t like ducks. Have a great weekend, everyone.)

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Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 3

As my wife and I near 168 consecutive hours in each other’s company, I am learning that in these troubling times, good communication is an important skill to master. 

To be fair, my wife and I have always been good communicators. Having spent the first four years of our relationship in a dual-country long-distance relationship, without good communication our status would have slipped from partners to pen-pals. During those four years, we had a standing eDate every evening after work. Our romantic location of choice was skype (occasionally mixing it up with facebook messenger or even viber when skype decided to crap itself) and we would chat every evening through our computers, doing our best to convince ourselves we were a normal couple.

But the good news is that we don’t have to pretend anymore! We share the same bed, kiss each other goodbye when we go to work (back in the days when people used to leave their homes to go to work), come home to the same apartment, and kiss each other goodnight. It is domestic, and ordinary, and we fucking love it. 

With a solid foundation of keeping up the communication chain across international borders, we still communicate regularly and deeply. I keep waiting for us to run out of things to talk about, but so far, I keep thinking of things I want to tell her.

These talks have recently been taking place as we go on our after-work, let’s-remember-what-the outside-feels-like walks. Yesterday, both due to Alex’s work and the desire to be a sterling example of social distancing, we strolled in the late evening when the streets were deserted, the night quiet, and we ambled through our neighbourhood with our conversation as rich as ever. 

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Also in these troubling times, I am learning that not communicating can also be a crucial piece of the mutual co-habitation puzzle. For instance, I have discovered that when my wife is on the last gripping chapter of her book, it is not a good time to tell her a hilariously funny joke, nor to then go into further detail explaining why the joke was so hilariously funny.

Being a bilingual couple brings its own set of challenges. Alex has more than mastered English, but I am still a novice when it comes to German, and so I have many questions when it comes to particulars with the German language. These questions usually come in the form of “But why?! That makes no sense! Why is it like this in this case, but completely different in this case?? I hate the German language!” 

When interrogating my wife on the semantics of a language she did not invent, only speaks, and therefore holds no responsibility for its inconsistencies, I have learnt that when her eyes begin to bulge and lips thin to the point of disappearing, I should promptly and politely shut my damn mouth. This non-verbal communication informs me that she has reached the edge of her explanations and further questioning will only end poorly for me. Perhaps with a fork in my baby-soft skin.

One of my goals from having constant, relentless access to my wife is to try and improve my German skills during this time of COVID. There’s a good chance I could walk back into the normal world (once it, hopefully, resumes) with a broader vocabulary. There’s an equally good chance that Alex will walk back into the normal world with a splitting headache and a sigh of total relief. If I was a betting man, I’d wager on the latter.

The Austrian government is currently doing an excellent job of communicating. There have been press conferences wherein the Prime Minister has given clear instructions with digestible explanations for the decisions that have been reached. They have maintained a strong social media presence and have been supportive and transparent about the actions they are taking. They appear to be proactive in their measures and this speaks volumes.

New forms of communication come through via this process, and some things can say a lot with very little, such as in the photo below. 

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(Photo credit: Natalie Kern)

 

For me, being from international origins also increases the importance of communication. Despite being a twin, my brother and I never got our telepathy up and running and so we are forced to rely upon more conventional methods. Thankfully, we live in an age where technology has just about reached the level of the supernatural, so it is an easy thing for my face to appear in the homes of my family and their faces to appear in mine.

The variety of apps that allow for communication are invaluable in this time of social distancing. We can remain safe and social simply with the click of a button. I encourage everyone to lean into these forms of communicating.

Yesterday, my sister-in-law sent out a welfare text to every member of my immediate family, checking in and seeing if anyone was low on supplies (my wife did mention we had run out of a certain Australian treat I enjoy, but apparently Austria is outside of Holly’s delivery route). I had a morning chat with my brother through his google Home while he prepared dinner, I messaged simultaneous with my parents and my cousin and his fiancée throughout my work day (please don’t tell my boss I did this, I don’t think she reads this blog), I have an early morning skype planned with my sister for tomorrow, and will be on the phone with a friend back in Australia come Saturday (Jess, you’re back in the blog!).

Even from our tiny apartment in Vienna, I am able to communicate with the whole world, and by doing so, defeat the distance in social distancing. I recommend you do the same.

Now I’m off to ask my wife about the correct German case to use when referencing someone in the informal collective sense. Wish me luck!

Tomorrow: Media.