Second entry on Wien; Philharmoniker, lab work, and Franz

I was applying mascara in my room this morning when I saw my gray hair. It lives in my bangs and sometimes lies very prominently, right in the middle of my forehead. I like it. To me it implies I’m getting wiser and through this process becoming kinder, to both myself and everyone I meet. I’m also pleased that it doesn’t bother me, that I welcome it to my head.

Somewhat surprisingly, being in Vienna reminds me of my first meditation retreat in Herefordshire, England. The institute where I live and work is adjacent to a hilly forest, and the building where I sleep, drink tea, and eat Mozart Kugel is rather squat and compressed, like it has been here for a long time. The meditation center was also in a little forest and the living quarters used to be for livestock and farm hands long ago. Another similarity is that I often feel alone here, as I did at the center. Although almost everyone here speaks wonderful English, I often feel separate, different, and spend a good deal of time being quiet. “Being quiet” is a firm requirement at the meditation center, so in this way I feel an additional parallel.

(Please stay tuned for how I will link my one gray bang hair with remarks on resemblances between this ecological research institute in Vienna and a silent meditation retreat in rural England).

Due to uncharacteristic bothering and steadfastness, I secured a (free) ticket to the Vienna Philharmonic last Sunday morning. I arrived at the box office a half hour before they opened and waited in the chilly shadow of the building it was housed in. After being admitted, I confidently walked to the counter and said, “Hallo.” (There is always a moment right before initiate a conversation with an Austrian where I get a little nervous that it’s obvious that I won’t be able to go past “Hallo”). The woman also said, “Hallo.” I said, “I don’t know German.” (Very typical conversation starter for me in Vienna).

Ticket lady: Yes, what do you want?
Me: Can I please buy a ticket?
TL: What?! No. There are no tickets.
M: Really? There’s nothing I can do? No standing room tickets?
TL: Sigh…come back five minutes before the concert and see if there are any that weren’t picked up.
M: Okay, danke schön.
TL: You’re welcome.

I wandered around sunny Vienna. It was crisp. I found myself in an antiques show in a mall and little kitschy trinket stores full of Mozart’s face. I also poked my head into the National Library, which I plan to really explore tomorrow.

I meandered back to the box office. The woman told me to sit, that I was too early, so I sat. I was too determined to be put off by her brusque attitude. She probably has to deal with stubborn, naïve Americans all the time…ones who think they can just waltz in and buy a Vienna Philharmonic ticket an hour before the performance!

Right when TL had me come up to get a ticket, a young man dashed in to grab a last-minute standing room ticket as well. TL told me I needed cash, which I was slowly taking out, 20 Euro cent by 20 Euro cent (I was almost out of cash). She finally just gave me the ticket and told me good luck. I walked over to the Musikverein and saw the young man. I asked him what we had to do now. We checked our coats and went to the “standing room only” location, far in the back of the Musikverein. I didn’t have my phone so I took no photos. If I did have my phone, the photos would have been mostly of backs-of-heads, as we were some of the last to arrive. If I scooched about I saw musicians, statues, painted lutes on the ceiling, six huge chandeliers, and, eventually, Maestro Riccardo Muti.

Muti in his younger days.

The sound was exquisite, the hall was beautiful, and the magical hush that fell over the audience made the whole experience quite ethereal. I had my friend, Alex, to chat with at the break. He’s a conducting student in Vienna so he had all the super cool facts on the hall’s construction, Muti’s techniques, and how the Bruckner symphony was written as the composer was dying. I wish I could say more about the Philharmoniker experience here, but it really must have been heard to be understood. I plan on seeing Alex tomorrow for more Viennese exploits/espresso/cake.

I started work on Monday. I’ve worked in the genetics lab every day since then. My new friend Franz, a post-doc who works with telomeres in Siebenschläfer and Gartenschläfer (edible and garden dormice), is my trainer. He teaches me how to pipet properly; how to make master mixes; how to take care of DNA samples; how to load the pipetting robot; how to run, interpret, and troubleshoot different PCR techniques; and how to calculate telomere length. He also tells me how to make espresso in the fancy machine, translates German for me, tells me about the good restaurants, lets me know that I bought the “not-so-good Mozart balls”, and assures me that my dog is “so so cute” when I show him pictures. It is a rare moment that we are not giggling and/or personifying the pipetting robot. My time in Vienna would not be close to the same without his charming, warm, and patient presence and I am deeply grateful for the time he has taken to train me in essential techniques for my master’s project.


I am still getting over my jet lag, and I am still being patient with that. I hope to sleep well tonight so I can take over Vienna tomorrow. I am happy with the progress I’ve made in my project this week but recognize how much more needs to be done in the remaining three work days I have. I hope this isn’t the last time I visit this special institute tucked away in the Viennese woods.

I was last in Europe seven years ago, innocently entering into what continues to be a deeply meaningful journey of self-discovery. It is almost inconceivable to think about all that has happened to me in seven years, yet at the same time it is humbling to realize what is still with me. I didn’t have any gray hairs seven years ago. The simple act of applying mascara and spying the gray hair this morning helped me remember how far I’ve come and reminded me how far I have yet to go.

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