If there’s one thing Austrians know how to do, it’s playgrounds. Also hotdogs, but that’s a different post for a different day. Anyway, the playgrounds here are amazing – always meticulously cared-for spaces that include plenty of death defying action for kids of all ages. That’s right, I said “death defying.” I’m talking super steep slides, zip lines, crazy climbing structures, and indescribable fun stuff like this:
Yes, that kid is jumping from one tall pole to another, without any kind of helmet, safety net, or parent worrying. It’s not quite a free-for-all adventure playground, but it is definitely a far cry from the sad plastic padded playground equipment we find back home. Another big difference? There are actually kids playing on this one.
A few weeks ago, I went to pick up The Babe from preschool. I don’t usually stop to chat with the teachers because it’s always chaos at pickup time, but on this particular day the head teacher pulled me aside with a rather concerned look on her face.
“Your daughter was talking about seeing all the people on fire last night. All the people and a big fire and everyone was nice and cozy,” she said, looking at me like I had roped my child into some kind of satanic ritual over the weekend.
I blanked for a second, and then I remembered: Funkenfest. That traditional Vorarlberg festival that includes music, Funkaküachle donuts and, you know, a giant flaming pyre. We had gone to check out this cultural phenomenon over the weekend at Am Himmel, a beautiful park up in the hills overlooking Vienna. The Am Himmel newsletter had promised “sparks and wine heaven” (according to google translate), so it seemed like something we shouldn’t miss.
And of course after arriving to find this incredible tower of kindling waiting for us…
I forced my kids to stay up way past their bedtimes to watch the big show.
The Babe was absolutely terrified and kept asking if Krampus was coming. Cletus wanted to run directly into the flames. But mom and dad got donuts and beer, so all in all it was a successful family outing. And thankfully The Babe’s teacher knew exactly what I was talking about, so Austrian child services did not have to be called.
Yes, I’ve been MIA for months now. But I’m making it up to you by going back and sharing all the awesome weird things we’ve been doing around here. Like celebrating the death of St. Leopold III, patron saint of Lower Austria, by taking a slide down the side of a 300 year old wine barrel roughly the size of my condo back in DC. Yes, in the spirit of Leopoldifest I climbed a ladder with The Babe and pushed her overboard first, into the arms of two wine barrel slide spotters. Then I took the (surprisingly short) plunge, making a wish for the new year before my feet touched the ground. Only in Austria.
Why head to Mardi Gras or Carnivale when you can really let your hair down for Fasching?! Here’s a sample of the Faschingsamstag party going down in my neighborhood this weekend. Please note that one of the drummers is dressed like Super Mario. But hold on to your sombreros (another popular fasching costume), because the real ruckus happens on Faschingsdienstag, also known as Fat Tuesday. That’s when all of the kindergarteners will be wearing costumes to school!
I’m guessing I shouldn’t flash anyone from my balcony?
They’re really big on social order here in Vienna. This is a place where no one crosses the street until the signal tells them to, and where the local newspaper shames you into cutting your grass by posting a photo of your slovenly yard for all to see. I thought at first that this was just one of those inherent cultural things, but come Christmas time, I quickly learned the secret to all this orderliness: the Austrians have an enforcer.
His name is Krampus. He is your perennial not-so-friendly Christmas demon, a pal of Saint Nikolo. It seems the threat of coal wasn’t an effective enough deterrent for the devious children of Austria, so Santa hired Krampus to be his heavy. Krampus looks like a cross between Satan and a wild goat. He carries whips and chains to beat the naughty kids and drag them back to hell, where they will be turned into demons themselves (please see this excellent claymation reenactment if you’re wondering what that might be like).
Around mid-November, Krampus starts appearing in chocolate form, dangling from shop windows to remind the little ones he’s watching. Krampus gingerbread cookies line the Christmas market stalls, along with creepy red devil plush toys and the even creepier vintage Krampus dolls and decorations. He’s everywhere.
But sweet edible Krampus wouldn’t be traumatizing enough to scare the masses straight. So on December 6th, grown men dress up in elaborately decorated, often hand-crafted Krampus costumes to run down a designated street in the city, scaring the begeezus out of children and adults alike. And if you’re thinking “what’s so scary about drunk guy dressed as a Satan-goat?“, just imagine this chasing you down a dark street while the do-gooders cheer with glee:
If you had that image seared into your young mind and haunting you for life, you’d always wait for the walk signal, too. Elf on a Shelf has nothing on this guy.
We are nearly three weeks deep into Christmas festivities here in Vienna, which means every street is lined with twinkly lights and every corner has someone roasting chestnuts on an open fire. But most importantly, it means the miracle of glühwein is upon us.
For the uninitiated, glühwein is a hot mulled wine beverage, sold from quaint little stands at every Christmas Market across the city. It doesn’t necessarily taste good, but it’s warm and smells like Christmas and you get to drink it outside in the dark, so it feels a bit naughty and reminds you of high school nights spent drinking pilfered booze in the woods.
It’s also exactly what you need when your children are hopped up on sugar cookies and demanding another ride on the Christmas Market carousel. Liquid anti-anxiety in a decorative mug, I tell you.
There are other kinds of warm alcohol-infused mugfuls to choose from as well, called pusnch. These include a good dose of the hard stuff, like amaretto or rum or Jaegermeister. I tried something called a turbo punch that probably had all of the above, since it tasted like hot jungle juice and made my face numb. My favorite was a Mexicaner punsch, spiced with cinnamon and primarily based on straight tequila. Probably not the most authentic, but points for creativity.
That’s all to say that the glühwein/punsch options are vast and sugary, and the perfect accompaniment to a cold, snowy night. Or, afternoon, since the sun goes down at 4pm. Or morning, if you happen to find yourself at a market that opens early. I won’t judge, because I’ll probably already have a mug in hand.
I didn’t think anything could be better than a warm croissant, fresh from the oven of your local Parisian bakery. The crackly exterior giving way to chewy, paper-thin layers of dough. The buttery flakes of pastry fluttering down your shirt. The extreme joy when you remember there’s another one in the bag waiting to be devoured (because honestly, who can stop at just one?).
Well, buckle up people, because IT GETS BETTER.
Imagine if that perfect Parisian croissant made a voyage back to the motherland of Viennoiserie and found itself entangled in a wild tryst with one of the many native pretzel folk. The resulting illicit love child would be a pastry creature of mythic proportions. Some might even reckon it a unicorn among the other pedestrian bread basket offerings.
Dear readers, I have eaten the unicorn. Behold! The Laugencroissant:
Image: Thank you Wikipedia!
It is, essentially, a magical pretzel-croissant hybrid: The shape and consistency of a croissant, enrobed in the shinier, chewier exterior of your favorite bavarian beer tent snack. The rich buttery goodness remains in tact, and is inexplicably elevated by that distinct pretzelish flavor that only a good soak in food-grade lye can provide.
Sweet pain au raisins, I have found your Austrian replacement.