I could never have predicted how special this Christmas in Austria was going to be.
Spending Christmas with your family overseas is entirely different to spending Christmas with another family overseas.
I spent a week with dear friends in London first, who generously hosted me in their spare bedroom (naming rights have already begun to call it Andrew’s Room) It was an inspiring week in my old home for two years back in 2013. I challenged myself to find new experiences every day; one of which included Stonehenge on winter Solstice. How’s that for timing!
Now it was time to head to Austria for Christmas. M had ‘hijacked’ my holiday and insisted I join her family for Christmas; this had all been arranged before meeting me let alone get to know me properly. A gesture I will struggle to repay this lifetime.
The magic starts just boarding Austrian airlines as you are greeted with classical music playing over the pa. It may have been 10a.m, but we were on holiday and so nothing but an Austrian Beer on board would do as the three of us winged our way to Vienna.
I had great anticipation for this part of my European vacation, I’ve never been to Wien (Vienna) or Styria (beautiful countryside about ninety minutes south of Vienna in the hills) so to do this with an Austrian family was going to be a treat beyond belief.
It didn’t take long. K collected us and bounced towards us in hello. It was a gloriously happy welcome – my first experience on Austrian soul and I was already smiling.
For those of you who have travelled, you will appreciate how wonderful it feels to be relaxed about not to think where you are going and how you are going to get there (transport wise) — especially when driving. Even more so when you are now driving on the opposite side of the road.
A short trip into Vienna and my next memorable moment was upon me, G2’s head out the flat window waving with her beaming smile I would become fond of. We were at the parents flat where the mother had prepared Wiener Schnitzels for lunch together with potato salad.
They were the best schnitzels I’ve ever eaten.
So I ate five!
The laughter came unexpectedly as each one of the family spoke a Zulu word to me – I was NOT expecting that! C is doing an amazing job of cross-mojinating Austria and South Africa. Essentially, they were warming me up for all the laughs we would share together during the course of my stay. My abs have never been harder.
K’s flat is wonderfully placed about a twenty minute walk from the city centre. The first night I was treated to a Christmas market in the Museum Quarter. Having Swiss heritage, I am no stranger to Glühwein, but my southern hemisphere brain (a cold wine lover), had forgotten that this is not a wine made warm for the fun of it. With the temperature dropping to -4 degrees and my gloves being in my main suitcase I quickly realised why the wine is heated. Switching to beer at one point I could barely hold the cup for three minutes before switching hands to eagerly shove the other deep in a pocket.
Interestingly, this faux pas on my part meant I noticed an interesting Austrian custom: they take their glove off to shake your hand hello or goodbye. Loved that.
One thing I appreciate about most Europeans is their ability to speak multiple languages. Vienna was no different with most people being able to chat to me in English. I look forward to the day my French and German is good enough to chat to people in their native language.
The next day was spent walking around Vienna sight seeing loads of buildings and monuments steeped in history and culture. Sights from the historic city centre including St Stephan’s cathedral & Hofburg to Belvedere. I was even blindfolded to get a true breath taking moment, enchanted by Schönbrunn Palace (my blog title picture)lit up at night with the Christmas market buzzing below. Centuries have passed since all this was built; humbling to think about what has come and what has gone. You get a true sense of how old Europe is in Vienna. Makes me realise how, in comparison, South Africa is just an early teen sitting with its grandfather.
It wasn’t all walking, we even had a drink in the smallest pub in Vienna.
December in the Northern hemisphere is poles apart
That night we ended up at one of M’s friends’ local pub and I thoroughly enjoyed chatting to him. It highlighted to me the value of travelling and how it opens your mind and broadens your perspective. Makes for deeper richer conversations. My favourite thing about him was that he asked me about South Africa and our challenges – he didn’t just give me his opinion having travelled there three times already. Most people do it the other way around.
Walking back through the city at night you see how many Christmas lights exist. It’s something we don’t get in South Africa. It’s a magical experience to be walking all wrapped up with scarves and jackets; the cold air nipping at the skin on your face and your eyes constantly reflecting Christmas lights. They don’t just feel the Christmas spirit – they embody it.
I’m not sure I went two hours without hearing Christmas carols or songs of some sort either. For the first time in years I was completely overflowing with the festive spirit.
This was all just building me up to two experiences that will live with me forever.
In Austria, just as it is in Switzerland which I experienced as a child, the main celebration with family is Christmas eve. Usually the tree is only decorated that day by everyone but G2 had already sorted that. A real tree. Incredible ornaments and to top it all off – real candles. Small differences that make a world of difference.
Before the evening wonder, I was treated to a scenic drive up the hills by G1. The city was not too visible as mist from the Danube slithered its way through Vienna, but I still got a beautiful sense of the city below. There was still some snow on the hills as we stopped for a beer to enjoy the sunset over Schneeberg next to a church, built in honour of King Jan (John) III Sobieski of Poland for his assistance in defeating the Turks. Like I said earlier – history at every turn.
We even made a quick stop to Klosterneuburg Monastery. The finishing touch to a wonderful afternoon being driven around learning even more about one of the world’s most liveable cities
Thankfully I had been warned so I was prepared for this part; everyone dresses smartly for the occasion. With dinner nearly ready, presents are exchanged before you eat and I was honoured to be able to share in a family’s love and appreciation for one another. The love covered them as though a gift wrapped in shimmering paper under the tree.
This was my Christmas present this year.
True to their generous spirit, I was handed presents too to which I will treasure – especially my beautiful pen and my orthodox prayer bracelet. This was the next best way to spend Christmas without my own family. I honestly felt like I was part of theirs.
My new Austrian family.
The goose was exceptional and had been hand selected from G2s sisters farm in Styria. Í ate so much I’m sure they thought I was pregnant. I felt like what the Roman emperors must have felt like during their feasts.
Happy Head, Happy Heart, Happy Stomach. My physical holy trinity.
Christmas day service
We attended a service in a church over three hundred years old; a truly impressive building with lavish decorations; sculptures and paintings galore – even Christmas trees inside!
Although the entire service was in German, the choir and orchestra made me feel like I was privileged to be attending a show in one of the oldest theatres. It was a treat with every song that they sang and played.
The standout moment though, was the finale. The very definition of saving the best till last. The hard wooden bench seemed to turn to a lazy boy recliner as Silent Night started.
I have no words.
I was reminded of the prisoners in Shawshank redemption standing mesmerised as Andy Dufresne played an opera song over the pa. Appropriately, that Song is by Mozart – Canzonetta Sull’aria.
At first, two voices alone. Seamlessly joined by everyone in the choir moments later only to sing alone again in an instant; this left my hair standing at attention and my heart overflowing in the moment.
There is no amount of money in the world that can buy that experience.
They say the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it. I believe the same is true for culture. Having the opportunity to live as an Austrian for a week has given “once in a lifetime’’ true meaning.
Standouts of this experience
The beauty about travelling is the insights it gives you, here are some of my observations
- We really are all the same. Language, culture, geographic location may differ; but everyone connects, has dreams and worries about aspects of life common to all of us.
- Subtle differences. While on the surface things may look the same, it’s the small finer details where things change and that can dramatically change an experience; remember that in your own life because you may be looking to make a dramatic change, when all you need is a subtle one
- Hospitality. Never underestimate how the power your generosity of spirit will positively impact someone else’s life. What may appear small to you could just make a world of difference to them (being picked up at the airport as an example)
- Special ingredient to thrive. The one thing that stood the most for me in a city that’s rated as one of the happiest places to live – is respect. I’m not sure if it’s because as a nation they have experienced countless wars and difficulties that this is so prevalent; almost like an adult in their 40’s that’s been through the highs and lows of relationships appreciates a working relationship more. Respect for one another; for your city; for where you have come from (even the bad parts of your history)
- Humour is so important. Even with limited understanding language wise, we can all still laugh together. If you choose to look for humour in moments and can laugh at yourself perhaps you could enjoy yourself even more so than you are right now?
When I arrived, it was with two people very special to me.
When I left, I had five I was carrying close.
This is the beauty of life. If you are open to it, you can have experiences that most people only dream about.
This was most certainly one for me. Thank you – my new Austrian Family.