Saturday, September 30, 2023



I am finally getting around to posting about my trip to Austria with the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra back in May!  I shouldn't have waited so long, but I am enjoying reliving this trip again. It was great. And apologies now for lots of details that may not interest anyone but me, and this is long, but there are some pretty pictures here and there. 

Oh, and this post mentions a lot of nuns.

I went on this trip with my mom, like I did to Venice when the orchestra traveled last year. No masks this time, though. We had some in case it seemed necessary, but it never did. Which is good, because trying to sleep with a mask on a long plane flight is not fun.

We flew from Milwaukee to Chicago, where there was a lot of confusing shuffling around and a bus ride at O'Hare before we were on our plane to Vienna. (There was also a tense bit of time in Milwaukee on the tarmac where we waited for a part to be replaced on the plane, and I started to wonder if it would be quicker to drive to Chicago and not miss our connection, but it all worked out.)

Getting on the plane to Austria involved the flight crew telling us our bags had to be checked (so I recently bought a new bag that definitely conforms to European size requirements for future trips, because I really hate checking my bag), but I hold firm on not letting anyone check my instrument. I've repaired too many things that got damaged on flights to ever hand something like my mandola over.

The Austrian plane had the weirdest in-flight safety video yet. I wish I could have shown it to my kids, because they would appreciate the glitchy bits. This guy had a terrifying smile and was flying all alone. The only movie I remember watching was Tar, and didn't like it. (Happy to discuss why, just not in this post.)

Upon arriving in Vienna, we had to figure out a train to Graz. We ran into other MMO people making their own decisions about venturing into the city to eat first, etc., but I'm a nervous traveler when I don't speak the language and am unfamiliar with how things work, so I just really wanted to get us checked in to where we were going to sleep before we did much exploring. We found a train to Graz, on which it was hard to decide between dozing a bit, and simply admiring the view out the window.

Most of the orchestra (including us) was staying in a church space run by nuns, and it was an easy walk straight from the train station with one left turn. (Unless you were using whatever GPS map thing we were using, then there were many many turns that looped around and added several blocks before winding up within sight of where we started. Super fun on little sleep!)

I have to say, I loved my little nun room. My mom and I had single rooms next to each other on the third floor, our own showers, lovely view. There was a sheet/bedding situation that I never figured out, but we had wifi and breakfast included, so it was all good. The weird thing about the building in general was it was simultaneously the quietest and the loudest place I've ever stayed. We seldom ran into anyone on our floor, so there was no one else making any sound. But the ceilings were high and the surfaces hard, so everything echoed like you wouldn't believe. Putting my key in the lock seemed like it might wake all the neighbors. 

The place was in an interesting spot. There was a kindergarten across the street, and a creek/canal that ran behind the churchyard. 

But the grounds were all behind a plain wall that ran right up against the sidewalk, so opening the door to all the greenery was like a hidden surprise, with greenspace and flowers.

Entry door
Behind the entry door!



Evening view from inside the walls

The nuns were all very nice but didn't interact with us much. Our buffet breakfasts consisted of simple pastries, meats, cheeses, fruits, and cereal. There were place markers on the tables based on our room numbers that we routinely ignored so we could all sit together, and I wondered if that annoyed the nuns or if they even noticed.

One of the confusing things to me in the nun hotel was the art on the hallway walls along the stairs. Most if it was pretty scenes of the Austrian countryside, and charming cottages, and flowers, but then there was this, and I never figured out an explanation,

Our first day we just walked and tried to get a sense of where things were. Graz is not big. But then, Austria is not big. I think the population of the entire country is comparable with New York City. It is impressively clean. I only saw maybe three pieces of litter on the whole trip, and they were all in heavily tourist-filled areas of Vienna. Graz had some graffiti which all seemed political in nature, but otherwise was neat as a pin.

Things on our walk: This weird contraption that I think had something to do with water? I was mostly entertained by the fact that it had MKE lettered on the top.

There is an art museum/space/something that we never got into, but was certainly interesting to have squeezed in among much older buildings.

Art building on our first evening in Graz
Back of the art building on a sunny day


Bronze sculpture of crazy art building

In the river (Mur) was a building that had a cafe and a gathering space and some art installations. There was a walkway that connected it to either side of the river, so that was a fun way to cross.




One bridge over the river was covered with love locks.

There is a clock tower you can climb to, but we were content to admire it from below. Lots of beautiful architecture.

The trains are frequent and utterly quiet. It took practice to be aware of the bike paths and train tracks that were all densely integrated with the streets and the sidewalks. The sense of the city was busy but not fast.



Among the things that surprised me in Austria were the cigarette machines, and the amount of smoking in general. For a rather health conscious looking populace, it was a crazy amount of smoking! We saw kids smoking in the park and no one cared. I was also unprepared for how unnerving it felt to have nearly everyone be white. (Last time I was that conscious of such a crowd was at a Bruce Springsteen concert in Detroit in the 80s.)

We couldn't tell if this tree outside of the colorful school was some kind of palm tree, or simply trimmed to look that way.

We saw several buildings with sliding "shutters." I didn't think it was the most attractive thing, but it seemed practical.

That first night we eventually found food. We split a pretty good burger in an outdoor cafe that was near a lot of smokers. The menu looked similar to what you would find in Milwaukee, lots of beer, not a lot of vegetables.

The next morning, a very small group of us decided to rehearse a little outside by the canal under a tree. That was lovely. Although during a brief calamity I lost my pick in the grass, but that forced me to try some different kinds of picks I happened to have along, and discovered one I liked better anyway.

There was some interesting signage that amused me in Graz, including an odd elevator sign where they look like they are sinking (or they are just strangely short), and what I think is a meeting place? Except that I wish I'd gotten the larger context because it was in a weird spot where there was nowhere to stand. The walking dude who looks like he's in a hat and mittens. Lots of signs with matching backs and fronts where on one side things were fine, but forbidden on the other. And the guy who is dragging around a child who looks broken. (Plus he looks like he has a foot going either direction.)

Meeting place? But in an awkward spot.


So much pretty architecture in Graz, along with odd things here and there.

These details floating above the windows were weird.

On that second day we enjoyed gelato! I had the Raffaello I think? It's a kind of fancy white chocolate with coconut we don't have here apparently.

And that night we wound up eating at an Italian restaurant somehow, mostly because we were hungry and tired of walking and it was there. It was good, but not what I was expecting to eat in Austria. It was a nice mother/daughter evening with another mother/daughter pair.

On to some mandolin things! We rehearsed the in a room at the end of the hall on the first floor of the nun house, both on the first night with those of us staying there, and the next day with everyone.

One of the pleasant surprises of this trip was there was rain predicted the whole week, but it really only rained during a couple of times we were scheduled to be indoors anyway. One of those times was during the first full rehearsal and the storm was impressive outside the windows! The downside to so much otherwise pleasant weather was that I packed all wrong.

Our mandola section from Venice was reunited!

The rehearsal later in the church space was interesting. We were performing with the Austrian mandolin orchestra that had invited us, and this was our first opportunity to play with them. The program was them performing a set, then inviting us to the stage to play three pieces they had selected for us to all play together, and then the second half was our set, and ending with their group joining us for the pieces we had selected for everyone to perform.









After the rehearsal, it was late, and we needed to eat. The streets in Graz roll up really early, and I had a feeling by the time we walked home and dropped off my instrument, we wouldn't be able to find anything, and I was very hungry. So we found a restaurant down the street from the church that was still open and decided to simply eat there. And not long after, many other MMO people found the same spot! It was good. Not great. But we were hungry and it was food so it was fine. Good company goes a long way for any meal.



The next evening was our concert!

I packed up my gear, and a group of us walked from the nun hotel to the train stop and to the church.

We were able to run through the pieces with the Austrian group's conductor who wasn't available the day before. Very different from Rene's interpretations when he was conducting everything! That was fascinating for my mom to hear, since like most people it's hard to fathom how much difference different conductors make.

The contrasts made for a well-rounded show. The Austrians played music primarily from the Baroque era, like Vivaldi, and the pieces they had invited us to play with them included music from the movie The Third Man (which is set in Vienna) and a Japanese composition called My Homeland. (Mandolin orchestras have a long history in Japan, since Suzuki brought the idea for them from Italy as an accessible method for teaching classical orchestra music in schools.) After the intermission (where everyone left to purchase wine in the courtyard), we performed a set of American music mostly from the 1930s, and our group pieces were a challenging Mexican suite, and a Brazilian tune. The Austrian audience seemed delighted by all of it.

We were told by the Austrian group that after the concert there were reservations at a restaurant where we could all eat together. Sounded fun! Until we realized that it was the same place we'd eaten the night before, and that we did not actually have reservations, so the staff had to scramble to find room for everyone. I didn't want the same thing I'd gotten the night before, and I really wanted some crunchy vegetables, so I asked if the fried chicken strips on lettuce really came with just lettuce. They said just lettuce, and I asked if it were possible to add more vegetables. They said sure! I'm not sure what all the vegetables were that they tucked under the lettuce, but the best word to describe them was soggy.

We wandered home afterward in a small group through the deserted town, got some good rest, and thgen Mom and I wandered to a different section of Graz to admire more architecture before finally meeting up with everyone at the train station to head to Salzburg.

These crazy chimp/monkey lamps are little hard to see in this window, but they won the weirdness prize for us among all the things we saw for sale in Graz.

And I loved this little bike repair kit just available on a wall for people to use as needed.

Some architecture was better than others, but none of our walks were boring.

The view on the train ride to Salzburg was spectacular. Mountains, and picturesque little towns in valleys, and every yard was perfect and tidy, and the skies were blue with fluffy clouds. I have no pictures that come even close to capturing how lovely this 4 to 5 hour train trip was.

When we arrived in Salzburg we were met by some friends of one of our group who were so helpful and kind to us! They loaded their car with our things to make getting to where we were staying a lighter trip, and even gave my mom a ride so she didn't have to do extra walking.

Bikes. So many bikes!

The bulk of the group was staying in another nun hotel, but Mom and I were a short walk away at a hotel this time. This was my first encounter with an energy saving system of needing your key card in order to turn on lights in the bathroom and parts of the room at large. It took me a long time to figure this out, and I had to pee in the dark before I did.
This was the view from our window (which we could open!).

And this was our fancy "mood clock" setting on the TV in front of the bed. I'm not sure what mood it was supposed to be.

 And this was the floor to almost ceiling art. I'm not clear what mood this was supposed to be either.

This was the somewhat disorienting carpet in the hallways.


After settling in and getting our bearings, we met up with friends for lunch, which was some very good Italian food (my gnocchi was delicious) by a little fountain/water feature that was fun to watch children play in as we ate.

(Tonia took this picture)


Salzburg is beautiful.

In the afternoon, we met at the church hotel (where most people were staying) to hear Rene Izquierdo run through the set he was working on for a concert in Puerto Rico that immediately followed this trip to Austria. He was feeling pressure about the limited amount of time he had to work on that music, and he practiced during every spare moment, including all our train rides. It was quite a treat to get a small, private concert. (Pull up any recording of his you can find on YouTube and you won't be disappointed. Also, unsurprisingly, the performance in Puerto Rico went very well.)


The next morning (after a nice breakfast in the hotel) we rehearsed in the church hotel. The concert in Graz went well, but things can always be better, so we spent a good amount of time reviewing everything Rene thought could use improvement. (Which would be most things.) It was a fun rehearsal, even though the space was somewhat awkward for arranging ourselves because of columns in the middle of the room.

After the rehearsal we had the afternoon to ourselves, so we wandered with friends first to the interesting cemetery space on the church grounds behind the building, and then to the gardens and fountain that most people would recognize from The Sound of Music. (My mom had somehow in 80 years never seen The Sound of Music, so we watched it before we left on our trip. I think she was annoyed that I broke her perfect streak.)


Before we reached the gardens, we did stop for a basic lunch of soup, and we walked in some inefficient circles for a while, but everything was beautiful, and it didn't really matter where we walked.

After heading home to change, we tried to meet up with people who knew how to catch public transit to the concert location. But we were lucky enough to catch a ride in an Uber with a couple of players who decided to go that way, and that worked out very well.

Our concert was in the building that was used for the outside establishing shot of the home in The Sound of Music! The inside is nothing like anything from the film, but it was genuinely amusing to pull up in front of this place that was so recognizable. (This was in good keeping with our nun theme, seeing as the main character in that musical/film was a nun.)

We were a bit concerned about how everyone was supposed to crowd into the small room that was chosen for this performance, but in the end it all worked out somehow. Although the people in the first row of the audience were close enough for me to touch if I had wanted. Again, a very appreciative audience. And I think we played very well.

Our imported audience!

I love this picture so much.
Milwaukee mandolas in front, Austrian mandolas in back!

A successful concert! 

And we were assured this time by the Austrian group that afterward they had reservations at a restaurant back near where we were staying. Great! But then, no, it was a sports bar kind of place that served drinks fairly late, but the kitchen was about done for the night by the time we got there, and our choices were a white sausage, a red sausage, or the potato goulash. Lots of potato goulash all around! And someone gave me a pretzel they weren't going to eat. Not the kind of dining experience I was hoping for, but again, the company was great, so that helped carry the goulash. For most of us, this was the last big goodbye before we headed our separate ways on the journey home.

The next morning, after one more hotel breakfast, it was off to the train station and on to Vienna. We ran into a few people we knew at the train station headed that way as well.

My mom and I did not have reserved seats on the train, so we ended up having to sit apart. I got to spend the ride with this lovely person! She was originally from Sicily, and told me she missed the comforting glow at night of the volcano there, but enjoyed living in Austria and doing administrative work for various theaters. I had expected to nap the whole way to Vienna, but we found too much to talk about to want to rest. (She had a violin with her, so how could I not?)

Vienna is just stunning, and if I had it to plan again, I would have made sure to schedule a few days there with my mom so we could really do things. But as it was, we arrived at our airport hotel at an inconvenient time in the early afternoon where there was a lot of time to use, but not enough to really get anywhere to actually use it. With more time I would have figured out how to get us to the Palace where the museum is, but tickets were timed, and I just didn't feel competent at that point to get us there. I had done all the navigating and decision making, and by Vienna I was feeling burned out, because I'm not good at most of that when it's all in English, but I was not confident about any of it in German, Although, we did take a tram as far as a station where I felt we should get off, which is good, because it was headed off into some kind of suburb.

My rule of thumb when lost is to talk to a person with a dog. People walking dogs tend to know their way around because they have to walk a lot, and there is always an easy entry point of conversation by simply saying how much you like their dog. We found a guy with a cute little dog, told him generally where we wanted to go, and he gave us detailed directions that was convinced I would forget, but no! We did it! And I'm still very proud of us for managing to go into the train station and figure it out.

We wound up on the main drag where there was lots of activity, tourists, and shops. We also grabbed dinner at a Turkish restaurant which was probably our best meal of the trip. (Leaps and bounds above the potato goulash.) 







Only place I've ever been with multiple crystal stores of the same brand.

Crystal display


I like the little love couple crossing

We decided on tickets to the opera as our Vienna activity. We didn't care what, and it turned out what was playing was Dialogues des Carmelites (Dialogues of the Carmelites) by Poulenc. It's an opera about martyred nuns! So this trips was nuns all the way down. 

The opera house is almost too beautiful. And we bought our box seat tickets from some sketchy looking little table outside the theater that we were skeptical about, especially when I didn't have enough cash for two tickets, so he just settled for what I had. Which was fine, because it was not expensive, and I used up the last of my euros.

There were doors leading to the individual boxes, and a little coat area, and then the seats. And we figured out quickly why our seats were so cheap! We were the second row in, from which you couldn't see the stage. Luckily the family in front of us (a mother with two teenage children) said they didn't mind if we stood behind them occasionally to see what was happening. (Which turned out to be not much every time we checked.) And luckier still, they left after the first act and we got to have a real view for the rest of the show. Unfortunately the people in the box to our left were obnoxious. They were actively filming the whole thing and talking as if they were at home. At one point when I was tired of not being able to see around a woman who was leaning out on her elbows, I tapped her, and she at least looked chagrined about having blocked my line of sight. But overall, it was fine! We got to see an opera in Vienna! The singing was beautiful.

I loved the little pads they had available that would translate the libretto for you!

We struggled a little to get back to the hotel by the airport, mostly because it was late enough that the normal places I would ask for help were closed. Luckily there were enough people out and about willing to help guide us the right direction, but I was worried for a bit that my mom and I were going to end up sleeping in the train station if I couldn't figure out the schedule.

It worked out really well to be in a hotel right next to the airport the morning we departed, so I would definitely splurge for that again in the future. The plane ride back over the Atlantic included an open seat between us, which was nice for spreading out ourselves and our stuff.

The last really funny thing was that the tiny little plane we took on the last leg back to Milwaukee had the special first class people separated from us with a teeny curtain just over the tops of the seats! So fancy.

A great trip! I've been so lucky to get to travel with my mom. Fingers crossed she's free for wherever next year's mandolin adventure takes us.