May 27, 2007

Serbo-Hungarian nights, part 2

At last, the ever-present Catholic holidays have come to the rescue to provide us all with an extended weekend and the chance to get our bearings - more than necessary after last night's extended house party (20-08); more on that in a moment.

Lessingstrasse, one of our region's typical streets.

It's the city's biggest church and two blocks away from our flat, but yesterday was the first time I visited the Herz-Jesu-Kirche. For the wedding of one of her Russian acquaintances here in Graz, Nashata (letters mixed up to preserve anonymity) put together a "Russian choir" (read: a sextet made up of four Ukrainians, one Lithuanian and one disoriented Finn) to perform traditional Orthodox melodies during the ceremony. Afterwards, we were invited to the reception at Gasthaus Jöbstl but unfortunately I had to leave before the wedding couple even arrived.

Plans for a spectacular Russian-speaking party were hitched and I made my way down the steep streets of Waltendorf towards Merangasse where there wasn't much time left before the flat became a focal point in our city's "vibrant student-propelled nightlife" (quote: LP). Preparations involved: stopping our bathroom from flooding, trying to control our washing machine which tends to take a life of its own during our frequent "Pflegeleicht"-cycles, almost making the house come down while hammering both of my doors open, and turning one of the double rooms into a closed space where anything too space-taking or breakable was thrown in (unfortunately, since the room was already crammed to bursting point due to Anna's Czech visitors, this made Petra decide to evacuate the place).

Thomas being laid-back. Note flip-flops. I want those.

Accompanied by the rumbles of a fantastic thunderstorm, the guests started streaming in with their bring-alongs which ranged from quiche to tortilla to Greek (fruit) salad to Japanese meatballs - it felt like all nationalities were represented except for Austria itself. In general, the party was in full gear until well after midnight. A bunch of people took their leave as dawn approached, and the last survivors emptied my bed later in the morning. In general, I suppose you could call the evening a success.

After a chamber music rehearsal this morning (or wait, was it the afternoon), I came home to float in a sort of stupor. It felt very relaxing to walk around the flat in socks, let the fresh summer breeze in through the windows, know that my flatmates were at home although I couldn't hear a sound, and look forward to tomorrow, another saint's day. For the first time in weeks, my two replacement siblings gathered for a cozy moment on my bed (it is a very comfortable bed, you know) to meditate on the rich fabric of life. Afterwards, a jogging session. I went to get us a pizza for breakfast at around 19. Petra and Thomas, I am going to miss you more than anyone else here :(.


Wait a minute - wasn't this supposed to be an entry about the rest of cpmg's trip? I was going to write about frighteningly unforgettable pyjama parties, concerts where time seemed to stand still as I got to conduct one of my favourite Finnish songs, heaps of greasy food to make your indigestion go into major overdrive for days (judging from what I've heard, I wasn't the only one who thought planning a night, say, out at the movies, was too much of a risk) and the Mundharmonikachor Laakirchen - I think I've found my calling.

May 21, 2007

Serbo-Hungarian nights, part 1

I wouldn’t really be able to say I have gained a sharp insight into choral societies in Austria without having experienced an Austrian choir on a concert tour. The perfect opportunity for such an informative lesson in Central European group trips presented itself at the beginning of this year, when the exceptional chor pro musica graz (non-caps deliberate) invited me to join them for four days in Serbia and Hungary this week. What follows is an abridged version of my extremely accurate travel notes. Enjoy!
Early on Thursday morning, struggling to keep awake after hosting a spontaneous Finnish-Spanish-Lithuanian-French dinner party the previous evening, I took the tram to meet the friendly singers of the choir. Since the drive to the Serbian city of Subotica was calculated to take eight hours, I expected there would be plenty of time to curl up, close my eyes and shut down for some hours, maybe also listen to some music – however, after just ten minutes of driving, the bus came to an abrupt halt, an over-enthusiastic soprano grabbed the microphone and announced: “I hab’ die Jause mitgbrocht!” (Austrian for “I brought the snacks!”) and everyone delightedly emptied the bus to have breakfast on a parking place in the outskirts of Graz.

Since, as in every socially respectable choir, cpmg also has several couples among its singers, some people had brought their children along for the fun. A 12-year-old girl told me her family had been on holiday in Finland three years ago and she proudly wanted to show me what she remembered of the language. It was with no little surprise that, as we crossed the Hungarian border, I listened to little Natalie list colours, food ingredients, names of countries, dishes and cutlery in Finnish. Her friend got jealous, they frantically dug out their notebooks, and I ended up giving both a crash course in some elementary basics.

We were about to learn how to introduce family members when the first Pinkelpause was announced, everyone once again swarmed out of the bus, and a very heterogenic queue formed at the door of the gas station’s unisex toilet. Once we got back on the road, the general atmosphere started to crisp up as people woke from their slumbers, and of course no choir bus trip would be complete without some impromptu singing – for Austrian choirs read: yodeling. Between highlights from "Heidi" and regular folk song arrangements, I had my hands busy documenting the happy atmosphere with my Sony and Nokia gadgets. Then, finally, the moment everyone had been waiting for: the mighty Lake Balaton showed itself through the bus windows, accompanied by sighs of “Uuuuh!”, “Na geeee schäään” and “Meeeeeei”, and we promptly stopped for lunch at its shores.

Things calmed down again considerably while the food was being allowed to digest, and for about an hour or so, total silence reigned as we sped ever eastward through Hungary’s rather boring scenery. We reached the Serbian border sooner than expected, crossed over, and, almost at once, found ourselves in Subotica’s outskirts. The city, Serbia’s fifth largest with about 100 000 inhabitants, looked somewhat morbid at first glance, but before getting the chance to explore, we were driven straight to the Studentski Centar, where our accommodation had been arranged. Located outside the centre, this student dormitory with its cracked facades and Yugopop blasting from the windows seemed like something out of Moscow’s suburbs, but fortunately the rooms were very comfortable.

After a lukewarm dinner, the trip’s gastronomic lowlight, at the Centar, we headed to the centre to take a look at the city we had just arrived in. The first challenge was to find a)a currency exchange and b)water bottles. With the help of our organist who spoke some of the local language (Serbian, Croatian, Serbo-Croatian, or a mixture of all three – I’m still somewhat in the dark when it comes to the politics involved in the local lingo of the Balkans), we achieved our goal and soon found ourselves at the Trg Republice in front of the impressive town hall. Since there really wasn’t a choice, we had a couple of drinks, checked the city map to get an overview of where we were, and headed back for a good night’s sleep.

To be continued….

May 14, 2007

The Spontaneous Trip

Last Thursday, the sudden re-emergence (is that without a hyphen?) of the idea to go to Leipzig kept bothering me all morning, and, deciding that there was only one satisfactory solution to my indecisiveness, I called ÖBB's efficient customer service, squeezed my eyes shut and dictated the credit card number, met Maiju at the mensa to get my backpack back (repeat those last two words in quick succession), informed a couple of friends and some teachers warning them about my vanhisment and, some hours later, set out.

For my first time here, ticket inspectors invaded the tram (my Stundenkarte was valid). The train trip to Vienna (always longer than I expected) was spent chatting with a freshly graduated singer from our university, a viola teacher from our university, and a businessman who, midway, realised the company he works for sponsors certain facilities of our university, so I guess you could say we were all magically linked together by coincidence. I dug out my iPod when the conversation turned to the wonderful world of parenting.

At Vienna's Südbahnhof, I headed to my platform only to find that the train standing there was heading to Moscow via Warsaw. Since Germany is not exactly in this direction, I went to the information desk to ask where my train was, but the clerk was adamant that the "Chopin" service to Russia was my train. Still very unbelieving, I went through all the wagons to see where they were headed. When I arrived to the last wagon and saw a group of drunk Russian teenagers smoking outside it, I thought that I was being played some very unamusing joke, but going back to the beginning of the train I found a wagon with a small noticeboard with Dresden written on it.

I was lucky to have a sleeping compartment all for myself. The ones next door were filled with women in their 50s on some sort of group tour. They lost no time in digging out their booze the minute we left the station, and kept walking past my open door and flashing frightening smiles at me, at which point I felt grateful the door could be locked. I spent some time awake in my compartment, listening to a very nice cd I got from a friend who compiled it for me as a late birthday present, writing and drawing in my journal, having a delicious Austrian yoghurt, enjoying the feeling of the railway tracks speeding under me, taking me with them wherever I wanted to go, and then turned off the light for the night.

We arrived some minutes late at Dresden, and since I anyway only had 7 minutes to catch the next one, I was practically out the door before we had ground to a halt at the Hauptbahnhof and ran for my life, reaching the bullet-age ICE train at the other side of the station at the very second the conductor blew his departure whistle. I reached Leipzig's railway station, one of the biggest in Europe, an hour later, after travelling for thirteen hours.

The two days spent in Leipzig with CM Swing were fun. The weather was extremely windy, and since we often had to walk past a construction site it sometimes felt like half of the city was stuck in our nostrils and throats. Central Globetrotters Hostel was located between a cannabis-themed shop called Kif Kif and a Sex store, and very near the railway station. The closing concert of the a cappella festival was impressive, hosting big names like The Real Group (on very bad form, it seemed to me) and the German group Basta, a group I definitely want to hear more from in the future.

On the trip back, I didn't have a sleeping compartment, but the compartment I was sitting in during the night-time trip was anyway empty (except for a hippie who joined me for some hours and asked me to wake him up when we were in Nürnberg) so I was actually able to sleep two hours straight before the Austrian border. The rest of the trip went remarkably quickly. I listened to Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony three times, read a little, stared out the window into the night, almost lost my glasses, and, at the crucial moment, tried to catch Bamberg's station dashing by for waving to my cousin.

Bright and modern Linz railway station wasn't my idea of the perfect place to spend an hour in the early morning, but I had no choice and spent it getting some coffee and breakfast and browsing magazines. On the last stretch of the trip, a woman with a speaking disorder started chatting with me. Since I was too tired to concentrate too much on the narrative, one misunderstanding led to another and soon she saw me as a poor boy studying music in Graz because it was better than studying in Germany - I only got to go home to Leipzig every two months but, yes, kept contact with my parents as often as possible.

May 04, 2007


I'm afraid I'm becoming addicted to coffee - no doubt a result of M's visit, during which we went to have one every day. After taking her to the taxi at eight in the morning, I made something I don't think I've ever done before: I got myself a latte and sat down to drink it while reading the newspaper. The next day, another ground-breaking first: I used our cafeteria's coffee vending machine. Only with 50 cents in my wallet, I went up to it, chose the cheapest drink and put my money in. I got a cup of warm milk. It was slightly disgusting but I sat outside to drink it anyway.

New drinking habits aside, there's nothing really revolutionary going on. M and I made a lot of long walks together, and on one of them we went to a small manor house outside town to listen to the Styrian Youth Choir give a recital including works by Debussy, Whitacre and Rautavaara. Now I'm really curious to see what I think about Finnish choirs and their conductors when I go back. You might not believe it but I actually felt something close to tear-wrenching feeling-at-home when the choir burst into Carinthian folk song arrangements like Wås kümmern mi die Sternlan and Håldje-du-i (a yodel). I love Austria! (This is not sarcasm)

I've been playing around with Google Earth and I learned how to draw and save paths into the satellite images. So, I went through my train trip log for the last seven months and sketched the routes I have travelled by rail during my stay here - check it out, I think it looks nice! I can't wait to add some more and watch the web of lines expand. No train trips in sight yet, though - I was considering going to Leipzig next weekend to support CM Swing at the a cappella contest there, but the trip lasts over 11 hours and costs more than a cheap flight from Helsinki to Berlin, so that plan was short-lived.

Okay so you might be one of those who just felt sorry for me because I don't have anything better to do with my free time - but the truth is, I have hardly had any free time these last days. That's fine with me, though. Petra and I were just discussing people's attitudes to Erasmus students here - it's way too often that professors and students see an exchange student and think "great, so this person has come here to party all year long and not study any further than taking a few lectures, into which he/she'll come completely wasted". I'll never forget those exchange students from Ireland at a hostel in Zagreb: "Oh, Erasmus too, eh? Well, you know what we mean when we say ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION! (annoying wink)".

Okay, so it's true that a lot of the exchange students here get no further than getting to know the shops, bars and nightclubs, and maybe one or two locals - an exotic event in itself ("It's always nice to go to have lunch at the mensa because you get to meet people who are from here" - no comment). But it's not fair for the ones who have really come here to study.

Sorry if this entry was boring. I'm having writer's block. Also, I'm afraid the entries are becoming increasingly self-centred- I used the word "I" thirty-one times today. You can count them if you like.