Forum Holitorium

Category: History

Reentering Roman Territory

Dear readers, I have emerged out of hibernation, my Winterschlaf (literally winter sleep). I think you will be happy to hear that I am carving out a space for writing once again. My refuge of snow and ice has melted and I find myself back in Felix Austria, tracing a triangle between Graz, Klagenfurt and Vienna. Today I found myself heading to the small town of Tulln an der Donau for what I thought would be a peaceful stroll along the banks of the Danube in the late winter sunshine. By the time I got there, the sun had gone into hiding behind the clouds. Despite the chilly, damp weather, the journey was well worth it, for I received a gentle nudge to return to the Forum Holitorium from this famous man on horseback.

On the river walk in Tulln, Marcus Aurelius sits on horseback, contemplating the sleepy Danube in front of him. The area of Tulln was already settled before the Romans arrived to build the camp of Comagena along the Limes, the frontier that marked the edge of the Roman Empire and followed the curve of the Danube River. Little did I expect to find traces of the Romans on the menu today. The Roman Museum was still closed for winter, but I was able to admire the Römerturm (Roman Tower), one of the oldest buildings in Austria that dates back to the 4th century. It is also one of the few antique structures north of the Alps preserved in its entirety and has been used as a repository for weapons as well as a storehouse for salt.

Besides the Romans, Tulln’s other historic claim to fame dwells in the realm of myth. An event memorialized in the German epic the Nibelungenlied is said to have taken place in Tulln: King Etzel (otherwise known as Attila the Hun) proposes to Kriemhild, widow of Siegfried, in Tulln. They marry and live not quite happily ever after down river in the land of the Huns. There is a statue with a fountain on the river walk commemorating this momentous occasion. My previous exposure to this Germanic saga was limited to a theater production of Friedrich Hebbel’s Die Niebelungen, and I must admit it extinguished any interest I had previously had in reading the German sagas. The Nibelungenlied is a medieval crime story about the murder of Siegfried and his wife Kriemhild’s avenging of his death. I find revenge one of the silliest and most immature actions on earth. My eyes start to glaze over at the mere thought of trying to keep all the plot twists straight. Instead, I prefer to shift my focus to more peaceable creatures like this cute little rat that looks upon the scene of Etzel’s proposal to Kriemhild and laughs.

May only peaceable creatures cross your path!

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Turning Forty in Vienna

When I wish to hide behind words, I respond to the question of what brought me to Austria by saying because my birthday is the Austrian National Holiday, or Nationalfeiertag. In 1965, October 26 was declared an official holiday to commemorate the day in 1955 that the Austrian parliament issued its Declaration of Neutrality. My birthday won out over May 15, the date in 1955 the Staatsvertrag (Austrian State Treaty) was signed that declared Austria a free and democratic state, the date that foreign minister Leopold Figl made his famous statement: Österreich ist frei! (Austria is free!).

A few weeks ago, I was asked anew what I thought of Austria. Evading the question, I replied that I have been here too long. More than a quarter of my life, to be precise. I have been learning German for more than half of my life and started wishing I could speak German more than three quarters of my life ago. The Austrian variant of the German language has sent down roots in me so deep that their removal would be painful. This language has become an integral part of me, shaping my thoughts. English is home, and German is Heimat. What linguistic abundance I enjoy! I would like to officially retract my statement. As long as Austrian German is spoken, I have not been here too long.

A sassy, literal answer to the question “Wie bist du nach Österreich gekommen?” (How did you come to Austria?/What made you come to Austria?) is on the night train from Poland. Early on May 1, 2003, I arrived at Südbahnhof (R.I.P.), Vienna South Station. My first experience of the famous Ringstraße that curls around the center of Vienna was the traditional parade celebrating Worker’s Day. That September, I moved to Graz for what I thought would be a brief period of time, intending to eventually relocate to the capital. Which still hasn’t happened. Nevertheless, I have come to know the city quite well over the past 13 years and am always looking for an excuse to spend time there.

For my fortieth birthday, I treated myself to two days in Vienna, meeting up with friends, strolling around the center, drinking coffee, browsing in bookstores, talking to a chimney sweep in a silly white hat, lingering on the Schwedensbrücke bridge over the Danube Canal and gazing north toward the hills as the sun set and commuters rushed home in anticipation of a day off. As part of the National Holiday celebration, the Austrian military displays its equipment to a mostly uninterested public. I was happy to walk by this helicopter and discover that I had left danger behind me and was heading in the opposite direction – a good sign for the upcoming decade.

What is a stroll around Vienna without a close inspection of a statue or two? I found a serene mermaid in the atrium of a shopping mall. What is a visit to Vienna without a good long coffeehouse session writing in my journal and luxuriating in the feel of a marble tabletop? I spent a few hours at my favorite café.

Austria’s National Holiday is not a patriotic extravaganza. Instead, it has become a day people like to go for a hike. One Austrian, two Italians, and this American spent a couple of hours meandering through the autumn woods and golden leaved vineyards just south of Vienna in Gumpoldskirchen. The cultivation of grapes and production of wine in this area are yet another testament to the far-reaching influence of the Romans.

Wishing you a pleasant walk in the woods and golden autumn!

My Viennese Songline

Café Nil, Siebensterngasse, seventh district. This is where any visit to Vienna starts. Turkish coffee with cardamon, maybe hummus with bread or lentil soup if I need more nourishment, a slice of basbousa for a bit of sweetness. A group of community radio people introduced me to Nil shortly after I moved to Austria 13 years ago. Then I rediscovered it a few years back when I spent one weekend a month doing Luna Yoga  just around the corner. Now whenever I come to town, I throw out my anchor at Nil, have a coffee, and wait until my breath settles into the rhythm of the city.

On most visits, yoga and friendship keep me occupied in the seventh and eighth districts. Yet there is usually time for a stroll through the first district, the place where the lines of Austrian power intersect and tourists flock. I come from the direction of the MuseumsQuartier, walking by the statue of Maria Theresia. Having crossed the Ringstraße, I approach the Hofburg Palace, the center of Austrian imperial power until 1918. Today the huge complex hosts a number of museums and is also the residence of the president of Austria. (Since this position is currently vacant, you might be able to stay there if you come to Vienna in September – maybe it is listed at Airbnb?) The only part of the Hofburg I have actually visited is the wing where the Austrian National Library is located. A collection of historic musical instruments awaits visitors with a hankering for lutes, harpsichords, crumhorns, and ranketts (also known as sausage bassoons).

Vienna is a paradise for statue and doorway enthusiasts – and admiring them is free. Just brush up on your Latin first for the full experience. I continue my walk and brave the passage full of tourist trinkets for sale, traverse the main courtyard, go past the Spanish Riding School and its lucrative Lipizzaner horses, and finally come out of the dark into the light of Michaelerplatz.

The Romans were here, of course. For around 350 years, Vindobona was a military post on the Danube where the Limes, the line delineating the edge of Roman influence, crossed the Amber Road, the trade route between the Mediterranean Sea and the Baltic Sea. At its peak, it had 30,000 inhabitants. The center of Vindobona is just a short walk northeast of Michaelerplatz. Excavations from 1989-1991 revealed the foundations of Roman houses that were part of Canabae, small civilian settlements that developed next to military posts and provided them with goods such as food and clothing. Since Roman legionaries were not allowed to marry, their partners and children lived here. What would it have been like to stand here two thousand years ago, long before men from the lands of the former monarchy dressed up like Mozart and peddled tickets to classical music concerts?

Though I am not a fan of monumental statues, I have always felt drawn to this fountain by Rudolf Weyr entitled Macht zur See (Power at Sea), which also watches over the lively action on Michaelerplatz. The woman looks very confident, relaxed, in charge as she strikes a pose while dancing on the bow of the ship – souverän, you could say in German. Now it’s time to leave this square behind and continue along the periphery of the Hofburg, past the Lipizzaner stables, past the doorway flanked by two huge stone women seen in the film The Third Man. Eventually I arrive at the steps leading up to the Albertina, one of Vienna’s many excellent art museums. And here they are, the statues representing the rivers of the monarchy. I give my regards to the statue of the Mur before returning to the MuseumsQuartier and the seventh district.

Have a nice stroll along your personal songline!

The Woods are Watching the Bounty

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We thought we were alone, walking along the trail to the reconstructed Celtic farmstead near the village of Kleinklein. But then I spied this fellow, most likely an intimate of the Green Man, and recognized my error. These hills have long born witness to settlement, to cultivation of the land, to farmers and smiths and weavers and people not incredibly different from you and I in their hopes and dreams. Love, understanding, acceptance, meaningful work, prosperity, good health, enjoyment. In our pursuit of our dreams, we humans tend to leave traces, and those in southern Styria date back more than 6000 years. This past weekend, TC and I visited numerous sites populated by the Romans, the Celts, and those who came before them. The lush, fruitful landscape of the Sausal region is still an attractive place to live, work, and play, with a microclimate much warmer than the Alpine region located just to the north and nourished by the Sulm and Lassnitz rivers. It is equally beautiful yet much more peaceful than the popular South Styrian Wine Road to the south.

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Harvest time: gathering, collecting, celebrating the year’s bounty. The grape harvest is in full swing. Apples, pears, and quinces may or may not still hang heavy on the trees in the Streuobstwiesen, or traditional small orchards that can feature a variety of different kinds of fruit trees and that are unfortunately endangered by the spread of monocultures like grapes or corn and the building of new houses.

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Though the idyllic image of life in the countryside rests upon the expectation of peace and quiet, working farms are loud with heavy machinery like tractors, harvesters, and liquid manure spreaders – at this time of the year in particular. The fresh air often contains pockets of diesel fumes from said equipment or tourist automobiles (thank you, VW). Nonetheless,the chance of finding pockets of stillness where you can breathe deeply without fearing for your life is much higher than in the city, and we were very fortunate. Autumn is truly a splendid time to visit the Sausal.

The hikes we took over hill, over dale, over the rivers and through the woods, were incredibly restorative. At night when the clouds rolled away, I could see the stars and waning gibbous moon. In the early morning when the mist had risen up from the valley, I felt cozy and happily cut off from the rest of the world. And in the late afternoon sun, it was so warm that I was able to sit outside knitting, drinking lemon balm tea, and savoring homemade walnut cake.

Yes, it is nut season, and I am married to a squirrel. We drove home with a car weighted down by 10 kilos of walnuts, 2 kilos of chestnuts, and several kilos more of apples, pears, and quinces. Bounty: abundance, plenty, something given in generous amounts, a word that dates back to the 13th century, when it meant goodness or generosity.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Enjoy the bounty of the season!

Why Go against the Grain?


TC’s latest loaf made my mouth water. The joy of anticipating the taste of the first slice of bread from a freshly baked loaf has been commonplace for the past 10,000 years since the the ancestors of the wheat and spelt in this loaf were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. I recently finished reading the book Am Anfang war das Korn (In the Beginning was the Grain) by geobotanist Hansjörg Küster. It tells the story of how the domestication of plants changed the course of human history. According to Küster, agriculture (a word that comes from Latin and means the cultivation of fields) is the central innovation of human history. The choice to cultivate certain plants with qualities we found desirable (including being able to be stored for longer periods of time) radically altered our whole way of life. Previously hunters and gatherers that moved around constantly in search of food, we decided to stay in one place and devote our efforts to tending a few special crops. Over time, we developed trade routes to obtain tasty things that didn’t grow where we lived. Our numbers grew with this stable source of food.

Since we need a combination of carbohydrates, fats, and protein to meet our nutritional needs, it should come as no surprise to learn that our ancestors in Southwest Asia who domesticated the founder crops, as they are called, chose plants that provide these three fundamental macronutrients: emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, and barley for carbohydrates; lentils, peas, and chickpeas for protein; flax for oil. With time, other plants joined the roster, diversifying our food portfolio: fruit-bearing trees such as olive, fig, and walnut; poppy seed, which was used not only as a spice but also for oil; grapes for wine. The list goes on and on, and at some point I stopped taking notes and realized that when this book comes out in paperback, I want to buy a copy to have as a reference because there is so much in it worth knowing. It boggles my mind how many people today demonize grains because they are full of carbohydrates (which we need to live). Knowing the history of our relationship to grains, it seems a bit uncivilized, this rejection.

Despite being a staunch supporter of a grain-based diet, I am not growing any on my balcony, which is full of herbs, fruit, flowers, and vegetables. All the perennials are thriving with the warm spring temperatures. As it is wont to do, the savory above has just exploded, and I am happy to see that the sage I transplanted into the big planter feels good in its new spot. My camomile, thyme, lemon verbena, lemon balm, mallow, mint, and rue are all doing well. It looks like the parsley seeds I sowed a few weeks back have started to germinate. The only loss has been my marjoram – and that was a case of neglect on my part, I’m sad to say.

As for our garden, the strategy this year is to make one big bed (2 by 6 meters), enclose it with a slug fence, divide it into three sections, take good care of that, and not feel guilty about what happens outside that fence. The big bed is nearly ready to go, and after a round of weeding I started planting orach or mountain spinach (Atriplex hortensis) and kale in the two sections that have already been cleared. Outside the garden gate was a box with free sage plants, so I took one and planted it outside the bed in a spot that gets lots of sun. TC has already planted a bunch of Jerusalem artichokes along the edge of the raspberry bushes. If you plant by the moon or are a biodynamic gardener, this week is a good time to sow seeds as the moon is waxing. We hope to get peas, radishes, carrots, beets, red onions, and turnips in the ground soon. It’s also time to start zucchini and squash inside. After all that work, I can hardly wait to taste the first ripe strawberry of the year. I have never seen as many blossoms on the strawberry plants as there are this year.

I hope your gardening plans for 2014 are coming along. Enjoy the longer days and savor the grain of your choice!