Three happy places

Vienna, Austria Sometimes all you need is a change of direction to uplift your spirits, and that’s what we had today. Rather than focus on the dark and gloomy aspects of this city, we went to see the KunstHausWien, a museum designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an Austrian visual artist and architect who died in 2000.

How to describe his style? Imagine if you took the work of The Secessionists, particularly Gustav Klimt, combined them with Antoni Gaudi, and then added the design house of MacKenzie-Childs into the mix.

What you would have is an accurate description of the KunstHaus, which Hundertwasser renovated in the late 1980’s, whose base was the 1892 building which housed the Thonet furniture factory.

It’s quite a bit changed, as I imagine the Thonets preferred their floors to be level. Mr. H. abhorred the straight line and walking on one of his floors is not for the tipsy or unbalanced. He was also a leading environmentalist, and used plants everywhere to clean the air.

The building is his art come to life in architecture, and today houses the only permanent collection of his work. I personally love his use of color. The man was incredibly talented and designed everything from Austrian stamps, iconography for the UN, flags for new countries, churches and villages. He even found a way to decorate the Vienna sewage plant. How did I not know about him??!!

Nearby is the Hundertwasserhaus, a city-owned apartment block also designed by Hundertwasser and completed in 1986.

It features undulating floors, a roof covered with earth and grass, and large trees growing from inside the rooms, with limbs poking out of the windows. Inside, there are 53 apartments, four offices, 16 private terraces and three communal terraces, and a total of 250 trees and bushes. Municipal housing never looked so good, and it is one of Vienna’s most visited buildings.

All in all, seeing Hundertwasser’s work can’t help but make you smile.

Our second happy place was one with lots of history and nostalgia built into a still-thriving enterprise. We went to the Steiff store here, and saw the amazing range of animals available to the discerning child or collector.

Steiff was founded in 1880 by a German seamstress, Margarete Steiff, whose elephant pincushions found favor with her customers’ children. Things progressed, and then her nephew joined her in 1887 and expanded the line with animals made from drawings of zoo animals. What tipped the business into the stratosphere? An American buyer ordered 3,000 bears in 1903 after President Theodore Roosevelt was shown playing with a young bear cub. The Teddy Bear craze was off and running, and it has never slowed down. By 1907, Steiff had manufactured 974,000 bears and now they are everywhere.

I promised three happy places. For the third, I turn to my co-pilot….

Don’s Food Corner

We took a break from schnitzel, boiled beef, roast pork and all things traditionally Austrian and went for Chinese today.

Although there seems to be a burgeoning Chinatown near the Naschmarket, we opted for a old-timey Chinese restaurant right in the center of the city. It was small — only eleven tables — in a beautifully decorated space just a few doors down the city’s centerpiece church, St. Stephen’s.

And what is the Austrian spin on Chinese food? First, there was nothing remotely associated with schnitzel (Jo survived the shock) or spaetzel. Yet, we looked for things that looked familiar. We didn’t want to rely on a literal translation going from Chinese to German to English. Things could go shockingly wrong. Ground meat? What kind of meat exactly?

I started with spring rolls. Very nice. No surprises. They came with a little sampling of beef slices, vegetable slaw and pickled cucumber.

Jo ordered what was called Hong Kong wonton soup. It was disappointingly bland. The wontons were delicately made, but flavorless. No MSG?

For my main course, I had chicken with cashews and peppers. No surprises here either.

Jo went with something called New York orange beef. True to its description, it tasted just like the orange beef we could find in any Chinese restaurant in New York. Crispy, stir-fried beef in a mild orange flavored sauce. A New York invention with no Chinese roots?

Comparing this Chinese meal to the one we had in London, I would say that the London version was closer to what we experienced during our visit to Hong Kong. The Viennese interpretation of Chinese food was closer to what we know in New York, in other words less authentic than the London version. While London’s Chinese restaurants could be reflecting the (Imperial) connection between the Brits and Hong Kong, the Viennese style could be reflecting the taste demands of the American armed forces who occupied Austria from 1945 until 1955. At least that’s my guess.

(Jo here: I loved it! I needed that change and my beef dish hit the spot!)

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