While the previous two months seemed to drag with the drilling of the piers, there was a lot more to observe during these two months of construction of the ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit). As the structure lifted itself from below ground, we could witness progress of the construction. We were gratified by physical signs finally appearing after two years of planning and design!
Temporary formwork was built for a concrete retaining wall and grade beams along the perimeter of the addition. There seemed to be as much, if not more, effort put into the construction of the forms than the pouring of the concrete itself, which seemed easy after the complex engineering and layout of the entire space. Needless to say, all of the work that will ultimately not be visible—the drilling of the 30 foot piers, the intricate network of rebars, the wooden formwork that holds the wet concrete—is just as essential as what one sees.
Once the concrete was poured, the formwork was removed. It was sad to see all the hard labor put into its construction disappear so quickly.
House of Sand and Fog
Next, the sandy soil made its reappearance on the site. The backfill was compacted into the large bowl created by the concrete walls.
Layers of Icing on the Cake
Within one week, the finishing touches and crucial layers of protection under the floor were added: 6” of gravel followed by a 2” layer of insulation. Finally, the moisture barrier (yellow plastic material) was added to the underside of the slab.
Dear Little Felix had a field day watching all of the activity, keeping him entertained throughout the day. Watching and learning outside our window was a great home-bound alternative to traveling around the world to see the sights!
The Dining Room Window gives us a front row seat of the ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit) construction in our back yard. For much of the last two months, it felt like watching the grass grow at times, and sudden operatic performance at others. There was plenty to consider, ponder, and worry. With the rainy season emerging, there are additional concerns about weather protection and drainage. Nevertheless, the substructural work inched forward with big digs, long tubes of steel linings welded end to end, gnarly steel cages, and finally concrete.
Recap of Weeks 2- 4 (The First Pour)
During the first weeks of foundation work, the crew mobilized their equipment and laid out all the positions for the piers. They began by drilling the first four pier holes along the edge of the existing house to support the addition and to underpin the existing foundation. As mentioned previously, our site is basically a sand dune and the loose soil is prone to caving. Getting to the 25+ foot depths required by the soils engineer proved to be arduous.
To reduce the risk of caving, the crew poured the piers in two stages. The initial pour included the five 25+ foot piers and seven 8′ deep deck piers. Photos below show the arrival of the truck and equipment assembled for the first concrete pour.
Most of the time, our site looked like a giant bowl of flour! In the beginning, the excavator scraped the edges of the bowl and pushed the floury dirt around. It felt even more similar to baking when the concrete was finally pumped from the hoses during our first pours. The liquified concrete pouring out of the hose looked like thick whipped cream extruded from a pastry tube, but not as appealing.
The foundation crew continued to drill holes, insert steel casings and rebar cages for seven “shallow” deck piers. These piers were drilled approximately 20 feet to bedrock. The sandy soil continued to present challenges, as the soil had no compressive strength and collapsed when drilled. Geo-grout was used to stabilize the openings so drilling could be accomplished more reliably.
It was very humbling to watch as each day’s events unfolded. Every crew member was fully engaged. The video below shows pier holes being drilled by the excavator and a crew member guiding the drill into position while another crew member cleared the sandy soil from the drill. A fourth crew member checked and adjusted the grout in one of the piers.
Week 7 (Pour No. 2)
The final stage of earthworks began. The crew drilled the five remaining 24″ wide holes for the piles that support the addition. The cement truck returned and issued the second installment of concrete.
As in the first pour, the geotechnical engineer, the city building inspector, and the special inspector reviewed and approved the excavation and reinforcing steel before the second concrete pour. Our construction manager choreographed the intricate dance between consultants and contractor.
Once the steel casings were put into place and the holes were drilled, the steel reinforcing cages were guided into place with the excavator.
You can get a sense of the depth of the opening by the height of the caging, which in some cases were over 30 feet long. In order to lower the cages smoothly along the full depth of the opening and to ensure enough clearance for the concrete to be poured around it, the crew attached rolling spacers in intervals at vertical bars along the edge of each cage.
Daily spot checks from Foreman Felix ensured that the construction manager was on site during this stage of construction.
We mobilized our brains and prepped areas of the existing house to make room for the major home addition, which will consist of a kitchen/living dining area, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a small office in the rear yard of the property. All of the existing kitchen casework and appliances were removed for a new kitchen reconfiguration.
Week 2: Breaking Up Isn’t So Hard to Do!
First, two sets of old and deteriorated exterior stairs were taken apart to make way for the new addition. Then, the cantilevered portion of the kitchen that projected into the future new master bedroom area was demolished. Finally, the gaping hole in the middle of the house was covered with a temporary wall. We no longer felt as if we were living in a dollhouse!
Our foundation contractors arrived to set up their work. Their first task was to remove two old juniper trees and branches that hindered access to the site. A medium-sized excavator with a jackhammer attachment arrived to cut up the concrete pad, making way for seventeen piers to support the new structure. Ten 25+ ft deep foundation piers will be cast into bedrock and seven shallower, 8 ft piers will be drilled for the deck.
With the slab broken into chunks, the excavator and bulldozer worked in tandem to remove the concrete rubble, loose rocks, tree roots, dirt and debris in a confident, orchestrated tango. Dancers, efficiency experts, and strategists could learn a lot from observing these moves, as we did.
With a box seat in the corner of the dining room overlooking the patio, Felix was fascinated by the unusual activity right outside the window. He watched ten minutes at a time and could have easily lasted longer. He did learn how to cover his ears, however, and practiced using his hands as sound buffers. You’ll hear more from him later.
Week 3: Holey Moley!
The foundation contractors began drilling four 18″- diameter holes up to 31 feet deep along the existing house to support concrete piers for the new addition. Six-foot long steel casings, soldered end-to-end, were immersed into the ground to prevent the soil from collapsing along the entire length of the hole.
Being only two miles from the Pacific Ocean and on a hill, our soil conditions are what you expect from a windswept, coastal environment. The original sand dunes with deep rock underneath produces fine, dry, soil with no compressive strength; it’s so loose that the drill appears to wallow in water. The excavator drilled the four piers with a rotating auger bit that avoided vibration and noise of other methods.
Only the soft whirr of the excavator could be heard during normal weekday work hours. Undeterred by noise, Felix was fascinated by the cacophony of new sights and sounds.
Coming next: Concrete solutions to constructive traveling
During the early days of the pandemic and restrictive travel in 2020, I republished earlier Silk Road travels taken between 2014 and 2019. They started in Mongolia and China, and followed a string of Eurasian countries through Uzbekistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, and Turkey. Like ancient traders, Europe was the final destination.
In November, 2020, I started a Pandemic Diary that traced five months of travel in New Zealand. Our family enjoyed the luxuries of a COVID-free country, that bit the bullet early with strict lockdowns in the Spring of 2020. We went to the cinema, restaurants, performances and indoor shopping the same as we did in the States pre-COVID. As reported, being in a bubble felt strange and lonely. We were not able to share our experience with others as the rest of the world suffered.
Until now, I have recorded events and activities surrounding physical travel. We aren’t likely to see the end of the pandemic soon, so what’s next? In addition to continuing the Pandemic Diary, I’ve decided to switch to a different kind of adventure. I’m going to share Travels with Myself and Others through a building project on our property.
Like travel, construction involves planning, design, a budget, and a schedule. You meet new people, and learn about their social, political and cultural habits. These individuals impact our lives. And of course, many decisions need to be made, and changed. Stories will be hatching and churning as we continue to live in our house during construction.
What is an “ADU”?
Commonly referred to as an “in-law” unit, the ADU (accessory dwelling unit) we are building is an opportunity for residential owners to provide direly needed housing. Cities want landlords to legalize non-conforming spaces or to develop units to increase the housing supply. Both cities and the State of California offer favorable legislation to homeowners and even offer permit fee waivers to build more housing units.
Our goals for the project are to develop multi-generational housing, allow seniors to remain in place, and to provide rental housing. After two years of planning, design, and final permit approval, construction is underway. The project adds two bedrooms, two baths, and an office to the rear of our existing home on two levels.
THREE ARCHITECTS AND A BABY
My daughter, an architect, is acting as the construction manager for the project. She is job-sharing her daily tasks of looking after her one-year old baby with her partner (an architect) and me (also an architect). As Owner-Design-Builders, we are multi-multi-multi-tasking! I’ll be posting some observations through the eyes of Grandson Felix who is watching all the construction unfolding before his very eyes.
7:45am: Demo contractors showed up on time to start the demolition of the existing kitchen. We needed to remove a “pop-out” projection that will be displaced by future ADU space. I explained what appliances would be kept, and which ones would go. The two workmen wanted to make sure that the temporary toilet was functional.
8:30am: Project Supervisor arrived to confirm where the appliances were going to be moved. They demolished the granite countertop and removed each section of cabinetry. They moved the refrigerator into the dining room. The existing cooktop and dishwasher were moved into the garage The vent hood and the sink were discarded. We were undecided about the double oven so kept it in place for the time being.
Noon: The two workmen took a lunch break and slept in their cars. There was the occasional banging from the tile or granite being cracked into pieces for removal.
4:00pm: They removed the doors to the casework and a portion of the vent duct. The plumber showed up to cap the gas and water mains to the kitchen.
When I asked the plumber for his name. He blurted out “Fong!” so of course I delighted in telling him that his last name was the same as mine. He asked me if I was from Hoi Ping (a densely populated agricultural district where many local Chinese Americans families in San Francisco are rooted). I detected a slight disappointment when I told him that I was from another district, Zhongshan. That was the end of our brief conversation in Chinese.
5:30pm: The work stopped. The photos show the countertop removed and the remains of the kitchen at the end of the day.
Since the kitchen was going to be “down” for at least awhile, we converted the dining room to a makeshift kitchen. We purchased a used hot plate and convection oven from Facebook, an Ikea sink for $127, and recruited four existing rice cookers for active duty!
After returning to the Bay Area a couple of weeks ago, I have reflected on the past five months in New Zealand. I was able to join my daughter Julianne and her partner Jeff, who brought a newcomer into the family. Felix, born in New Zealand in July of 2020, is the joy of my life and the flower that bloomed despite the pandemic.
Already nine months old, Felix is a thriving infant learning all the motor skills for life from crawling, scaling stairs, picking up tidbits of food from the floor, and eating drumsticks with two fists. He has manifestations of a toddler and exercises his emotions and desires. As a new mother, daughter Julianne is now an exclusive member of the club that is celebrated today on Mother’s Day.
In the two weeks I have been home, the first week was a reverse-order process to traveling to New Zealand. I self-isolated as recommended by the CDC for a week to make sure that I didn’t catch anything on the flight home from Christchurch to San Francisco. I got a COVID-19 PCR test three days before the flight and three days after the flight. And I was able to get the first dose vaccine within a few days of arrival.
Despite all the worries, the transition was very smooth. Yes, I was very nervous and anxious about coming home. The daily news feeds from both sides of the ocean kept me informed. Yet everything appeared to be calm, improving, and with reason to be cautiously optimistic.
American friends still living abroad may be curious about my experience returning to the U.S. At this moment in time and in the Bay Area, it is about as good as it gets. The Bay Area has one of the highest compliance stats in the country. However, there is no guarantee that the present is indicative of the future.
The newly formed Australia-New Zealand bubble allows travel between the two countries. My layover in Sydney occurred the first weekend the “green zone” was created. Domestic flights were busy. Most travelers were reuniting with their families. Airport lounges in both airports were operating, but the international flight from Sydney to San Francisco was nearly empty.
American Customs and Immigration was smooth for returning U.S. citizens. After a taxi ride home, I picked up my car to drive to Daughter Melissa’s apartment in Oakland to self-isolate. It was a therapeutic week in the sunny East Bay. I took daily walks through the Crocker Highlands neighborhood where I grew up and was intoxicated by frequent stands of jasmine and perfume from other Spring blooms.
Fong & Daughter Julianne reunited the second week. I was able to clutch Felix again after a brief hiatus in transit between countries. We all sighed a sign of relief once we were able to dodge yet another pandemic bullet.
We celebrated Mother’s Day by walking a mile to our Golden Gate Park, enjoying the newly minted Ferris Wheel ride, and having lunch outdoors at the DeYoung Museum. It was a day to relish among other families. They maintained clear bubble distance, both designated and unspoken, from other groups. Everyone seemed to know how precious the moments with friends and family were, and to not violate it for others.
(Photo above: Chestnuts foraged from hundred-year-old trees at Hagley Golf Course and Park)
In last week’s post I expected that I would be writing from home in San Francisco. Yet I want to share a few last lingering and loving thoughts about New Zealand.
I haven’t changed my mind about leaving New Zealand to return to the U.S, but I feel melancholy and wistful. Yes, it feels like I am swimming upstream and inconceivably towards more harm than away from it. For me, it is time to return to the real world, while having escaped from it for a while. I have been to the far side of paradise but I should leave it, now that I have been here.
After five months here, I relished the many positive points about this tiny island nation. Tourists rave about its pristine beauty. For those fortunate to live here beyond a dream vacation, they will find a life worth living.
Today, as New Zealand joins the bubble with its big cousin, Australia, there are new protocols. Health providers must suit up fully to administer COVID tests. The requirements change frequently as the level of safety varies. Only half of the population approve of the new bubble and another quarter are ambivalent about the changes.
In my observation and experience, New Zealanders are courteous, cautious and conservative. Those have been the trademarks of managing the pandemic successfully. They wait for the science to prove itself, so there is no rush to vaccinate. Patience is a virtue. There will be enough doses for everyone, whether you hold residency or not.
Strong family values fostered by the Maori community are often mentioned in the media. Bilingual messages delivered through public media spread the latest information about COVID-10, the importance of getting vaccinated, and personal hygiene measures to avoid COVID.
Farewell to a Cute Country
New Zealand is a country I would describe as “cute”. Its people, land formations, and customs give me a warm and endearing feeling. While it’s also “rugged” or “raw”, I am drawn to its mild-mannered people, their mindfulness, and their ability to be kind.
I don’t intend to compare the pros and cons of New Zealand characteristics with ours in the US. The world can learn alot from this tiny country that could. Over the past months, I have grown fond of New Zealanders, their tenacity, and can-do mentality. I will really miss New Zealand.
Yes, back to masks. And I will perhaps be deterred from many freedoms already offered here: get my hair cut, go to a movie or attend a concert, or ride the bus mask-free. Hug friends and family readily. But maybe one day. Soon.
The decision has been made. I am returning to the States after nearly a half year in New Zealand. Following the news on both sides of the Pacific has been fraught with uncertainty. My reasons for returning only slightly outweigh remaining in this picture-perfect island paradise on earth.
First of all, there may not be an active vaccination program in New Zealand until July. Word has it that it can be as early as May, but there is no assurance of that. Extending a stay here to complete both vaccinations would require complicated housing, flight arrangements, and family decisions.
Returning to the States involves where, when and how to be vaccinated. With anyone over 16 being eligible, the appointments will be much more competitive. The race against variants is worrying. Flights and the quarantine process on arrival require reverse-engineering the outbound San Francisco to New Zealand process.
On return, I do not look forward to the restrictions and mask-wearing, After savoring so many natural and human facial gestures throughout New Zealand, it will take some time to readjust. I’m not sure where the real world is anymore.
As part of my farewell, I made a special purpose visit to Marlborough Country. It’s famous throughout the world for its Sauvignon Blanc wines. Similar to the Sonoma Coast, the climate is milder for producing the whites that are delicate and flavorful. The vineyards are pristine and unlike other wine regions I have seen.
It’s not the Destination, but the Journey….
One of the two great rail journeys based from Christchurch plies the northeastern coast of New Zealand to Blenheim. (The other journey is through Arthur’s Pass to Greymouth on the West Coast). This coastal journey takes about five hours, where you can opt for a four-course dining experience during the trip or enjoy coach seating with access to a cafe and outdoor car. And yes, for now people travel maskless but are very conscientious in recording their whereabouts on a contact tracing app installed on smartphones.
The pastoral landscapes with rolling hills carved by many of the rivers and 27 earthquake faults, vast farmlands along the Canterbury Plain, and direct views of the Pacific Ocean (on the east coast here) were spectacular and helped me to momentarily forget my future travel woes.
By the way, everything in New Zealand is backwards to what Americans are used to! Driving on the left side of the road, water running down the drain counterclockwise, the strongest sun in the north, and Christmas in the summer are just a few phenomena to keep you wondering and on your toes.
Cloudy Bay and Wither Hills Wineries and Vineyards
As mentioned earlier, coming to paradise with freedom to move about can be a lonely experience. Friends and family in the States are unlikely to understand or relate to my time here. Maybe astronauts who have traveled to outer space feel the same isolation. Nevertheless, I am grateful that I came and will find ways to cope.
Sketching and Exploring at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
In a recent sketching event at St. Paul’s Church in Northcote, I couldn’t help but notice the tombstones included in my sketch. It took a second visit to the church to read the epitaphs to long lost and forgotten individuals. How fleeting is a mortal life! We are specks of dust that appear and disappear in a flash of light. The stone monuments in the graveyard attempted to extend the memories of an individual, until they also eventually disappear and are forgotten.
A few of the moving epitaphs of children who died over 100 years ago are captured in the attached slide show. It may be a bit difficult to decipher, but worth zooming . A few quotes on the stones gave me a glimpse of each individual. I could sense the deep love devoted to them by their families.
Continuing on a roll from the 100 People One Week Challenge, I found more subjects to sketch at the Mediterranean Cafe and at the Willowbank Cafe. And continuing the Zoom Portrait Parties from the Bay Area hosted by Jen and Govind has been a godsend. I painted my interpretation of a painting by Klimt below.
Before long, I will be back in the U-S-S-A. I am somewhat sad and ambivalent about the return home, as New Zealand has provided a semblance of normality in an abnormal world. As this is probably my last post from Christchurch, New Zealand. I hope you have enjoyed them! Please let me know, and look for my report next from San Francisco!
I follow RNZ, or Radio New Zealand, daily as a source for local information in the country. The feed earlier this week reported a COVID-19 case, where the virus was transmitted to two health care workers in a Christchurch quarantine facility last November, 2020.
Russian sea crew staying at the hotel spread the virus when they walked through hotel corridors to the smoking area outside. Sometimes they went up to 4 times an hour, so the movement was significant. They infected two health care personnel in the hotel through microaerosols in the air. After discovering that, the Ministry of Health put crew in single rooms (previously they had shared rooms) with balconies so the crewmen could smoke directly adjacent to their rooms without having to go through the corridors to do so.
This is just a good example how easily the virus can be transmitted. Knowledge about personal behavior and simple modifications can avoid transmission. But it is a huge challenge to change human behavior. It’s already difficult to convince people to wear masks. To ask them to refrain from smoking would be impossible.
In another story I read in the New York Times, a journalist traveling by car across the U.S. discovered little or no mask wearing during his stops. He was traveling from Connecticut to St. Louis to take his mother to meet a relative. The journalist was appalled at the lack of compliance in mask wearing. Signs were posted everywhere, but no one was complying.
This journalist’s report was discouraging to me. It didn’t give me much confidence in rushing back to the U.S., despite promising plans to vaccinate everyone. In the mean time, we continue to live safely in New Zealand. We take each day at a time and wait to see whether conditions will improve in the States.
We go about our daily activities, visiting the local library, shopping at the supermarket, running errands in town, and enjoying New Zealand’s beautiful, pristine environment. The oceans surrounding the islands and the mountains carved by earthquakes and volcanic activity are clearly visible everywhere. Sun, wind, and rain change constantly from hour to hour, so the weather is, yes, a major topic of discussion.
A hike up to the top of Mt. Pleasant near the house we are renting gave us spectacular views of Christchurch. The harbor at Ferrymead, beach at Sumner and many inlets along the bay provide housing sites with views to cherish. Paved and gravel roads to outlying areas lead to many walks and pathways for hikers and bikers. (See featured photo above)
Taking strolls along the Esplanade reminded me of the fancy turn-of-the-century promenades I imagine along Brighton in the U.K. Today they are filled with surfers, families, and foreign visitors. The scene looks very SoCal or something out of La Jolla. Like in Papamoa, the distance from car to beach is only a few steps.
Unfortunately, this Sumner building is a sad reminder of the earthquake in 2011. The first earthquake in Canterbury weakened the structures in Christchurch, then a second one in Lyttelton caused most of damage to buildings like this one. Buildings still standing vacant are looking for a developer to raze and renovate.
Finally, a chance to sketch via Zoom with local Bay Area sketchers!
Officially, we are just completing Week 2 of our “Freedom from COVID” visit to New Zealand. We spent the first two weeks in a managed isolation facility after leaving San Francisco on a flight to Auckland via Los Angeles. We were released and allowed to enter normal society on November 23.
After celebrating Thanksgiving at Papamoa Beach in a sprawling suburban house with our family in the Tauranga area, my husband Gee Kin and I transferred to a cozy cottage in the Papamoa Hills. There is a view in the distance framed by the Bay of Plenty, Mt. Manganui and the South Pacific Ocean.
Our short walks up the road from the cottage revealed plenty of flora and fauna. Without much effort, we sauntered past sheep and cattle grazing in the rolling hills, a horse next door, and birds including tuis, pheasants, and hawks.
I picked a bouquet of wild hydrangeas and daisies along the roadside in the midst of tropical ferns hidden in an alien pine forest. The non-native species here are now shunned. A massive national campaign is underway to return the natural environment to native species.
By the end of the week we couldn’t wait to get back to the beach. We could roll out of car in the free parking lot in 15 minutes and immediately feel the sand between our toes. We walked an hour each way without seeing many people as the beach stretched miles before us.
Daughter Julianne, partner Jeff, and precious Baby Felix are having lunch on the balcony of their barn on the avocado and lemon farm where they are staying in Te Puke, kiwi fruit capital of the world.
Why are we in New Zealand?
Five million residents in New Zealand (of which 13% are Maori) are currently able to move about and conduct daily life normally as they have always prior to the advent of COVID-19 in March, 2020. Under the leadership of the prime minister, the New Zealand government tackled the pandemic early and “hard”.
Around 70,000 New Zealand citizens who were living abroad have been repatriated. Qualified spouses or partners of New Zealand citizens, like me, are allowed to join members of their families. New Zealanders have had a tradition of taking a couple of years abroad to do an “OE” (overseas experience). Many who have been living in other countries are now returning for the first time.
In March, there was a complete lockdown throughout the country. The international borders were closed and all incoming travel was banned. All businesses were closed (no takeout or delivery) and residents could not leave their homes except to buy groceries. This lasted for about a month. Except for a few minor breaches, the country has managed to contain any major outbreaks. Services and facilities were gradually opened by levels in a rational, consistent fashion with minimal reversals.
Around 6,000 hotel spaces are provided throughout the country to monitor and test returnees before they are released after 14 days with no symptoms. Travelers cannot come to New Zealand without a voucher for managed isolation facility. Over the upcoming holiday period, spaces are booked out. Airlines do not allow passengers to fly to NZ without a valid voucher for quarantine. Other island countries such as Taiwan, Korea and Japan have implemented similar policies for quarantine.
During the 14-day isolation period, travelers are given two nasal tests. The Ministry of Health calls daily to check in and take temperatures. The only times isolees are allowed to leave their rooms is for pre-booked 40-minute exercises in a confined outdoor area, where those exercising are escorted and monitored by Defense personnel.
New Zealand has always been extremely protective of its land and environment and prevents external hazards or pestilence to enter the country. COVID-19 policies are an extension of existing policies. Because New Zealand relies heavily on its tourism industry, it is also important to preserve its crown jewels for the future.
While only a tiny country by international standards, New Zealand has focused on what it can do in a responsible manner to protect its people. In close collaboration with the Ministries of Immigration and Quarantine, Health, and Defense, the government has maintained an explicit program to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
And to complete the punchline for being here: it was a serendipitous adventure by Gee Kin’s father, who arrived in New Zealand in 1906 at the age of 19 from China to discover, like all immigrants, his fame and fortune. He stayed and left a legacy for his descendants from which we now benefit.
Okay, this is going to be a fast landing. I am uploading a cache of pictures from the Goethe Institute’s class tours for the second week: Vienna’s Insider Walking Tour of its oldest area from the Middle Ages; the collections from the Decorative Art Museum; and the Friedhof, or Cemetery outside Vienna, where many prominent and famous people of Vienna are buried.
As these posts are compiled from more than one post, they tend to be long. Apologies in advance if it rambles. Due to COVID travel restrictions, revisiting these past trips is a way for me to share and enjoy travel virtually for the time being together.
At the end of this post, I am including outer reaches of Vienna: Baden bei Wien, a resort area an hour’s drive from Vienna where Beethoven lived for a period of time, and Sankt Florian, a hidden monastery and delight outside of Linz, Austria, where composer Bruckner is buried under his sacred organ.
As mentioned in the last post, I am using slide shows for photos to conserve room. Don’t forget to click or swish on the images to scroll through each series.
Back Streets of Vienna
I had dismissed Vienna as being pretty dry and uneventful until the second week. The language class outings picked up the pace and delivered pretty juicy stories about the history of Vienna. In three prior visits, I was completely unaware of the medieval section of the city. After starting at the edge of the old harbor to the Donau, we wound our way through crooked alleys and a labyrinthine course, passing many exclusive cafes, shops and historic businesses. We emerged by the end of the tour at the doorstep to St. Stephan’s Church in the heart of town.
Decorative Arts Museum (Museum für Angewandte Kunst)
The applied arts museum offers an extensive collection of Baroque, Rococo, and Art Nouveau era furniture, household items, and special exhibitions..
The Greek Orthodox Church in the area was a reminder of the waves of immigrants who had populated Vienna and contributed to its growth and success.
Vienna Central Cemetery
Established in 1874, this cemetery reminded me of the one in Montparnasse, Paris. The loess soil in the outskirts of town was considered a better site for interment, especially after the cemetery had to be moved a couple of times. The first location inside the walls of the original city was bulging at the seams before long, so districts outside the city walls began to create cemeteries for specific ethnic and religious groups.
With so many people dying from the plague and pestilence in the 13th C, plots became scarce. Dogs were digging up the bones of those who had been laid in shallow graves and reintroducing body parts and diseases into areas occupied by those still alive. Soon these local cemeteries became too crowded. (2020 update: a grim lesson for us in COVID-challenged times!)
This time the cemetery was centralized. Cemeteries from individual churches were combined, but it created new challenges. Being nearly an hour outside the city, it was difficult for relatives to attend to their dearly departed. Administrators found clever ways to encourage people to buy and maintain plots in the new location.
They provided a grand church for services, leased and subleased unused plots, and offered a park-like setting with a cafe to enhance visits. There were strict rules to maintain supply and demand. A “Famous Composers” section with the remains of famous composers like Beethoven, Johann Strauss, Brahms and Mozart was created to attract tourists. The wealthy built artistic monuments and used expensive materials to flaunt their prestige and wealth.
It’s a pretty good guess that one of the Hapsburgs had a hand in creating nearly every institution in Vienna, and this cemetery is no exception.
Thanks to the Alps, there are plenty of resorts in Europe endowed with natural spring waters. The Europeans love to indulge in the purported therapeutic value. The Austrians are no less dedicated to magical wonders. Just one hour outside of Vienna lies a hidden gem known as Baden bei Wien (Bad is not bad, but good, for “Bath”).
That is, if you count having a casino as a gem. It’s a package deal, with a free music performance nearly every day in the summer in a toned-down version of Las Vegas or in a Riviera Wanna-Be. There are also miles of garden paths for “wandering” (a German-speaking country’s favorite past time), pedestrian-free shopping streets, and Baroque-era historical buildings. I even discovered one advertised as: “Beethoven slept here”.
Aside from the cutesiness, this little town is an easy escape from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis. Vienna is alot like Paris–overwhelmingly huge boulevards, huge art collections, and huge burning heat waves.
After a week communicating exclusively in German and starved by little or no English, my brain has had trouble with the cultural shift. Scrambling for a translation within whatever comes closest, glue exuding from my eyelids when I didn’t comprehend answers to questions, and the flippant responses emitting from my ignorance definitely caused Angst (a German word). Try a week of this and you will understand how I felt.
The planned mini-getaway with and from myself helped me to recover. Since there were no performances at the Vienna Opera House during the month of July, I searched my trusted operabase.com website and learned that the nearest opera performances were listed in Baden bei Wien.
The “operas” were more like musicals, but the underemployed opera performers were very highly skilled and talented. This was a performance of “The Vogelhandler”, or the “Bird Trader”.
(2020 update: this was to be a year of celebrating the 250th year of Beethoven’s birth, but unfortunately travel and performance restrictions have dashed the grand displays of Austria and Germany’s claims to Beethoven’s fame)
The small town, not unlike Bath, England, yielded an unexpected find. Beethoven had spent many holidays in Bad bei Wien during his residency in Vienna. The museum provided interesting facts about Beethoven’s life, health, and companions.
Beethoven’s deafness was well-known, but he also suffered from various ailments. (See the diagram showing his various sicknesses.) His moving journal notes, posted on music stands, indicated how much pain he endured and how he tried to find doctors and remedies, to little or no avail.
Despite these illnesses while he was in Baden bei Wien during the latter part of his life, Beethoven managed to write some of his best work. The Ninth Symphony, the Eroica Symphony, and Missa Solemnis were among some of the pieces written while he lived here. A summary of his arrival in Baden and a sample of the various voices and instruments he wrote in his music are shown below. (Click on images to increase for easier viewing).
A video showed the individual instruments or voices presented during a performance of the NInth Symphony, with Daniel Barenboim conducting at the BBC Prom. The complicated nature and integration of pieces are demonstrated. Watch the colors on the left screen as they coordinate to the music graphically, while the voices and instruments are shown on the right screen below.
Although I didn’t expect to be coming to Baden bei Wien to learn about Beethoven, I found this tiny museum packed with moving and compassionate information about purportedly the world’s best classical composer. It made up for the operas that I had come to see.
I also managed to get a few sketches in!
St. Florian, Anton Bruckner’s Sacred Burial under the Chapel
As a contrast to my onslaught of cultural cities, I decided to take a different path and stay at a monastery in Linz, Austria.
My first glimpse of the monastery was breathtaking, after a short but determined path uphill through a winding path. The landscape in the area is exquisite, with rolling hills and tenderly groomed patches of yellow and green plots. You would never leave here if you were from this area, I thought.
The monastery has rooms for visitors at a reasonable price, and has daily performances of one of the most magnificent organs in Europe. The highlight will be another (gulp) mass in the evening with an organ performance.
Anton Bruckner, who was an organist and composer, is a native son of the area. There is now a trail connecting Ansfelden, where Bruckner was born, and the Augustinian cathedral at St. Florian, where he was a choir boy. You can read about him: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anton_Bruckner
A billboard advertising the Bruckner Way is located on a path outside the monastery. It lights up each path you select among several different paths. You can view the Google image below. “Wanderers” can choose from the more mild “running shoes” paths and those for more advanced “hikers”. Trips run any where from 5-20 km.
The walk even has an MP3 player for hire that has all 12 Bruckner symphonies on it, so you can listen to it while you are on the trail. You can also arrange for a taxi to take you back if you only want to do a one-way trip. I thought that this was a clever idea and wished it was available in the U.S.
This path forms part of the “Jacob’s Way” and leads a pedestrian all the way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I googled it and you can do it in a mere 19 days from here. If you “boots are made for walking” here’s a place to use them. This walk was one I had always contemplated doing, until I realized why they advised carrying a poncho.
St. Florian Upshot
Time to reflect on St. Florian, the Augustinian monastery outside Linz, Austria, where I spent my last three days. At first it seemed very grim and austere, but by the time I left I felt the urge to return. (Which I subsequently did with friends in 2018). It has its undeniable charm, and the offerings in the area were far beyond my expectations. The biggest draw, although I did not do it, was the Bruckner Weg, or Symphonie Weg. I described it earlier, but it’s hard to describe how excited I was by it. It combines my love of walking and music!
It’s a great way to learn about the music of a composer, who was so dedicated to organ music, that he wanted to be buried under the church of St. Florian. And indeed, here’s a picture of his crypt in the basement!
I was able to discover this grand old monastery and its historical treasures that are now under-appreciated and forgotten. The library holds over 140,000 volumes and about 4,000 are original books before the printing press was invented.
Other treasures were the performances in the cathedral itself. I took many videos of the two daily performances and the mass at six just to record the music. I guess it wasn’t really a mass because the monks all came out and chanted for about 20 minutes and there was very little audience participation. I got really curious about the Augustinians. Here’s a description of what I read in Wikipedia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustinians
The interesting aspect is the psyche of monks. Apparently, monks here were high on the masculine scale but also had a very high preponderance towards female qualities of neuroticism and detail. Wow. What a combination. I wondered if I was material for monkhood??
In any event, that minor piece of information got me to thinking what could have motivated these men to join the order. I was surprised to learn that Martin Luther was an Augustinian before he protested against the Catholic order and the papal Bulls. Eventually, he got married.☺️ Others like him must have suffered some hardship or divine inspiration. The Augustinians also have hermits too, so their monastery is a perfect place to try out the lifestyle. Could this be how Herman’s Hermits picked their name?
As the monks left the cathedral, I studied each face. Hmm, older, tall, and pretty handsome for their age. Is that where all the men have gone? I’m still on the lookout for my single lady friends.
It all starts to come together. All the glorious trimmings at the expense of the people. But it was interesting to see the development of the environment and understand the conflicts that were subsequently caused by it.
I mentioned some of the wonderful paths and “wanderings” available throughout Austria and Germany earlier. Switzerland probably has an awesome offering, but I haven’t heard about them yet. Although I was unable to do Jacob’s Way to Santiago de Compostela (my 19 days were already numbered), the Bruckner Way or the Symphonie Way (the museum at the far end was closed for the month of August), I took a short walk a mile away to the Hohenbrunn Schloss. It was blazing saddles, so I had to shade-spot along the path. Before arriving, I stopped to enjoy looking back at St. Florian in the distance beyond the road (pictured in the header).
Hohenbrunn, shown below, is some version of a hunting lodge built between 1722 and 1732. No one was there except me, and for a few quid I could see the entire place to myself, unaccompanied. At first it seemed a little creepy, as it felt like someone had just occupied it and left the water running somewhere. And all those guns. The one I took the picture of was one-of-a-kind. It actually is used for shooting ducks on a boat, so the boat supports the long barrel. I’ve captioned a few of the other photos that struck my fancy as I pranced through.
The up close and personal with the animals got a little weird. They all seemed to be having Gary Larson conversations with each other, wondering where all the human pets had disappeared to. I felt like Ben Stiller in “A Night at the Museum.”
Despite my digs at the culture in and around St. Florian, it was really pretty sweet. It took a bit of courage and good faith to come here on my own, but I stayed in contact with my support staff. Many of you know, it is not about the destination but the process of getting there.
At times I wondered what I was doing. When I finally played my on-line music appreciation class that I brought along with me, I realized that this is real-time learning. I can hear and relate to music that is being performed. Ironically, I was at the point of learning about “Baroque” as in Bach, vs. “Classical” music by Beethoven. That was awesome!
I hope I can convince any of you to come back with me to St. Florian (as I did with friends in 2018!) The surrounding area is luscious and vibrant, and you feel the freedom to explore at your own pace. It’s heavenly to hear the organ and Bruckner here. And yes, I am a little sad to leave.
These posts are from travels to Austria in July 2019 and to St. Florian in 2015.
Future Posts: Continuing the string of cities connecting the Silk Road from Beijing, we will visit Germany next and highlight cities of Munich, Schwabisch Hall, Dusseldorf, Dresden and Berlin.