Chronicles of a writer abroad



I’ve had a busy few weeks, hence my silence… there has been, among other things, a weekend writer’s workshop, and a trip to the dentist which resulted in my mouth being painfully and expensively but very, very thoroughly cleaned. Now I’m back to share an important development: My two cats are under siege by a bird.

Yes. I did just say a bird.

Here’s the situation: we’ve been living in this third-floor apartment since February 2011, and our cats have been enjoying our large rear balcony since it was rebuilt in March of that year. This spring, however, a bird has nested somewhere in the courtyard formed by a few different buildings that this balcony overlooks. And the bird has begun a campaign against our cats. Anytime they go on the balcony (which they are accustomed to doing several times a day in nice weather, in order to sun themselves and sniff the breeze), it appears in a frenzy of fluttering feathers and chirping calls. Knowing that the cats are watching its every move, it flits from rooftop to windowsill to balcony rail, all while making the sort of tongue-clucking sound that I use to call the cats in off the balcony. Yes, I do believe the bird is imitating me. I know this makes me sound crazy…but it’s true!

The cats, meanwhile, make their ridiculously pathetic bird calls, which are like cranky or injured meows. As the bird becomes bolder and moves ever closer towards them (sometimes it hovers just beyond the balcony rails), they adopt a hunting cat’s low crouch, their muscles storing up the energy to pounce. And that’s when I freak out, thinking that they are going to attempt it. I usher them inside, locking the door between them and the bird, who continues to taunt them by hopping along the railing.

And so it has gone, for weeks. I don’t know how to rectify the situation, and I’m sick of watching the cats while they’re on the balcony. I used to be able to leave them out there by themselves, trusting that they wouldn’t do something stupid, because they understand they’re somewhat high above the ground. But I can’t do that anymore; I understand that birds are one of a cat’s greatest temptations. Not too long ago, in fact, I heard someone who produced “cat entertainment videos” (yes, these do exist, and anyone who has seen their cat go crazy over a nature show will understand why) interviewed on the radio. “Some cats like to watch string,” the man said, “and some go wild for the sound of paper being crumpled and balled up. But what you can count on is cats being interested in is birds and squirrels.” Then, to drive home his point, he said: “Yep, birds and squirrels…those are your money shots in this business.”

Anyway. In my recent writer’s workshop, we talked about the importance of understanding the motivations and desires that drive your characters. As a writer and a human being, I so badly want to figure this bird out, to understand it so that I can author an ending allowing us to all live in harmony. I get that the bird doesn’t understand that the cats have no way to access its nest, and that they are therefore threatening to it. But what I don’t get is why it responds by asking them to kill it. Because now they really want to, and they would, if given half a chance. I suggested to Stelian that the bird is endeavouring to have the cats plunge to their deaths, so that its problem with them would be solved. But he thinks it isn’t that smart, and says that its instinct is just to draw attention to itself in order to distract the cats from the nest, wherever that may be.

An alternate (and more interesting) theory is that this bird is a reincarnation of the one killed in our Vancouver apartment in 2008. We never knew which cat did it — it may have been a tag-team effort — but by the time Stelian came home that day and discovered the bird it was deceased (but not eaten — our cats think that food comes only from bags and cans). I was grossed out and saddened, but impressed that our indoor cats were in good enough shape to catch a bird. Also, I reasoned that the bird had come into the apartment through a window — it had asked for it. Like this guy or gal is now doing.

Bird surveillance photo

The innocent victims

If you have any suggestions or insights into bird behaviour, I would appreciate your advice!



The audiobook version

How do you feel about audiobooks?

I used to be pretty staunchly against them. If I was going to consume a book, then by golly I was going to read it, not listen to it.

Then a few things happened…I became addicted to talk radio (or at least one talk radio show, This American Life), and I realized that audiobooks would not be a huge leap from my beloved hour-long podcast episodes. I also joined the Zürich library system and found that a surprising number of English books were offered in audiobook format. It wasn’t long before I was carting home stacks of plastic boxes filled with CDs, and feeding them one by one into my computer.

Now that I’m a convert, I still read as many physical books as ever, but I’ve found that audiobooks have several distinct advantages. First, unlike library books that have to be returned, the audiobooks I get to keep — in digital form, anyway — because I import them into iTunes before transferring them to my device. Second, a big stack of them weighs nothing on my MP3 player, making them great for travel (though you could say the same about Kindle books) and third, I can listen to them while walking or running, which I really enjoy. The book Eat Pray Love, for example, was helpful in getting me through long training runs in the cold winter months — I’d forget my dreary surroundings and become engrossed in the author’s descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells of Italy, India and Indonesia.

There are also pitfalls, however, the main one being that a bad narrator can ruin even a good book. Actors are often used as audiobook narrators, and sometimes they go overboard in their attempts to make the voices for each character very unique, which can distract the listener. I was so irritated by the voice that one male narrator gave to a female main character, for example, that I had to stop listening to the book, even though it was one I’d been looking forward to.

The treasures in audiobook-land are those books read by the authors themselves. What could be better than hearing the book exactly as it sounded in the head of the person who wrote it? They know how the characters’ voices should sound, what should be emphasized, which tone to adopt for each scene.

Of all the audiobooks I’ve listened to so far, my hands-down favourites have been those by David Sedaris. I’d heard the buzz about Sedaris’ books (Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day, When You Are Engulfed in Flames) in recent years, but I never got around to reading them. But when I saw an audiobook at the library with that precious “read by the author” label on it, I snatched it up. A few hours later I was out walking and unable to stop myself from bouts of laughter, even in the vicinity of other people. And I don’t laugh out loud often — almost never when reading — but the combination of his funny prose and his style of narration was just too much.

Sedaris, who lived for some years as an expat in Paris, describes in one chapter/audio segment of When You Are Engulfed In Flames how, after he’d given up on French lessons, he took to saying “d’accord” (“okay”) to anything that was said to him…and he underwent a number of frightening, disgusting, and hilarious experiences as a result. His descriptions of the behaviour of many other people — his longtime partner, Hugh, his former landlady, his siblings — are so outrageous that I suspect they are sometimes embellished, but this doesn’t stop them from being very funny. (Note: Sedaris is not recommended if you offend easily!).

Well, that’s the public service announcement I wanted to make before I head out for a run with a new book. Consider the convenience and enjoyment of reading while running, while walking, while commuting! And please do let me know if you have any good audiobook recommendations.


Vienna Part III: Worth the price of admission?

As promised, here is a round-up of the things we paid to see in Vienna, and my thoughts on whether we would pay to see them again…

Schönbrunn Palace 

As I noted before, the exterior of Schönbrunn, one of Austria’s most important palaces, is a delight to look at, especially from certain vantage points on its grounds. As I also mentioned, the grounds themselves are vast and beautiful, with fountains, mazes, and even a zoo (more on that in a moment). You could easily spend a day here without even going inside the Palace.

The grounds of Schönbrunn, as seen from the Palace. To the sides are flower beds, just ahead is a beautiful fountain, and if you hike up to the structure at the top of the hill (called the “gloriette”), there is a cafe with great views and delicious apfelstrudel!

But I felt compelled to see what the inside was like, so we did a quick tour. My problem with the interior of palaces is that I get quickly overloaded by detail. Three or four rococo rooms and I’m done, no longer able to see anything new. One thing I did note is that the beds of royalty always seem so disappointingly utilitarian…why would you rather deck out all this furniture that you rarely sit in, instead of the place where you spend one-third of your life sleeping? It’s a mystery to me.

Uniforms interest me somewhat more than furniture.

The best thing I saw while touring the palace was actually a fluke — I stuck my head out an open window and saw this strange apparition in a window across the courtyard. I have no idea what it was doing there, but as an anachronism and an unexpected surprise, I found it delightful.


My verdict: The interior of Schönbrunn is worth the price of admission if, like me, you sorta have to go in to settle your curiosity (in that case, buy the cheapest, most limited tour, as I did — it costs about 10 Euros, and you’ll see enough that way). If you love architecture/design, you’d probably find it more interesting than I did, and might want to consider the more deluxe tour options.

Schönbrunn Zoo

Stelian and I love a good zoo. But our time in Vienna was short — were we really going to spend part of it looking at animals we could see in many other places?

Our guidebook mentioned that this is the world’s oldest zoo, which made us decide it was special enough to warrant a visit. But just as we bought the tickets, I  started to worry that oldest might equate to most inhumane — I remembered the original bear pits in Bern, for example, and the general inhumanity of menageries in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Happily, like Bern’s bear habitat, the animal enclosures in the Schönbrunn zoo have been expanded and made more species-appropriate.  Some of the original cages remain for people to look at, and for kids to play inside of — a few parents were snapping pictures of kids inside the old lion cages, which would make for a cool keepsake.  The zoo overall is full of trees and is a lovely place to stroll through (but you have to pay for the privilege, of course). In terms of diversity, we initially thought its offerings would be fairly limited, since it is after all just a side attraction of the palace (and once belonged to a single family!). But after a few hours we had to concede that we wouldn’t be able to see it all. This is a large and serious zoo — it even has exotic animals like pandas and koalas, which I’ve only seen in one or two other places.

Just try to resist that sweet face and those prancing feet.

My verdict: The Schönbrunn zoo is worth the price of admission (I forget exactly how much, but between 15 and 20 Euros) if you are an animal lover. You have to not mind that most of the other visitors are of the typical zoo-visiting demographic (i.e., parents and occasionally-very-cranky children).

Morning Exercises of the Lipizzaner Stallions

We were interested in seeing a performance by these horses, whose forebears were brought to Austria from Spain in the 16th century, leading their home in Vienna to be called the Spanish Riding School. For hundreds of years, the mostly-white horses have been carefully bred and used to entertain patrician (and now, tourist) audiences. No performances were scheduled during our visit, but we found out that we could see the horses go through their morning exercises. Sounds like fun, we thought. And it was…we watched a succession of horses and trainers running through the strict patterns and dainty, mincing steps that they have been trained for. We got to watch this in the Riding School performance arena, which is impressively opulent. The only problem was that the training session was two and a half hours long, and I reached my saturation point after about half an hour. At about the hour mark we ended up tiptoeing out, along with a number of other people who had grown bored of seeing the same thing done over and over with different horses.

The stallions in the Riding School

My verdict: I wouldn’t do this again. The price of admission, at 14 Euros, seems quite high in retrospect. Plus, you can see the horses in their stables if you walk past the Riding School stables at night (there are windows that the public can look in). I would only pay for this if you are crazy for horses. The performance area of the Riding School is grand, but so are many other places in Vienna.

Freud’s Apartment/Museum

Even though a lot of his ideas are no longer in vogue, Freud was a towering presence in my undergraduate psychology degree, and I always thought that if I went to Vienna, I’d go check out his apartment (which doubled as a place where he saw patients). Once we got there, Stelian and I decided to go into the museum (admission is 8 Euros). We soon found that the museum was mostly papers and photographs — you have to have time and patience to go through them (by this point, you may be picking up on a theme — we didn’t have a lot of  time and patience for things that felt tedious. And why should you, when on vacation?). It turns out that Freud (like anyone, I guess) wrote a lot of banal correspondence, and appeared in a lot of not-so-exciting photos. In my view, the highlight of the museum was this:

My mental images of Freud’s couch were much more…comfortable-looking.

My verdict: The Freud museum felt to me as though someone said, “You know, we really ought to have a museum here,” but then they didn’t put their heart into making it interesting (whereas the Einstein museum in Bern is, in my opinion, an example of a person-based museum that does succeed). I did see this right before lunch, when low blood sugar makes me easily critical, but Stelian also thought it was a bit of a bore.

Naturhistoriches Museum

Whalebones flank a doorway

This one is again tailored to our interests — specifically, to Stelian’s love of dinosaurs. 🙂 It, like the zoo, offered an impressive number of well-designed and interesting exhibits, was a beautiful space in itself, and gave us an opportunity to walk through the lovely Museum Quarter.

Hello, up there!

My verdict: This was worth the price of admission for us, but Vienna has many museums, and there may well be one of more interest to you. I recommend learning about the options in advance. There were major attractions — such as the Hofburg Palace and the Belvedere — that we chose not to see during our trip. Vienna is a city of many attractions, so the challenge is to spend your time wisely.

Kudos to anyone who read all the way through this post — I hope it was interesting and/or helpful to you. I’m finished talking about Vienna now, I promise!


Vienna Part II: The best things are free

In the spirit of offering genuinely useful travel advice (which I occasionally aim to do), I planned to write a post about which Vienna attractions we found “worth it,” in terms of the time and money spent, and which we might not recommend or do again. In the process of writing said post, I realized how many enjoyable things on our trip were completely without cost. Vienna is a high-class city, but there is a lot to savour, for free, outside of its fancy restaurants and decked-out palaces. So here, I present

The Top Ten Totally Free Things to Enjoy in Vienna 

(and we’ll talk paid attractions next time).

10. Wander the streets in the city centre — the sights are magical by day and by night.

9. Watch people taking carriage rides. Bonus: by watching, you get all of the nostalgia and romance, with none of the personal embarrassment.

8. Stop to listen to some very talented street musicians.

7. Visit a very famous church (one that I wish I’d taken a better picture of — es tut mir leid, Stephansdom).

6. Visit the grounds of Schönbrunn Palace — it costs to tour the interior, but the exterior and grounds are the best part, in my opinion.

5. Take a stroll through a great city park (the Stadtpark).

4. Appreciate art on the street.

3. Do some window shopping.

2. Take in an opera al fresco — when playing, operas are projected live on a screen outside the Opernhaus.

1. Tiptoe through the tulips (also in the Stadtpark).

I feel compelled to explain that I am not actually trampling on flowers here; I am standing on a swath of concrete separating two differently-coloured flowerbeds, but the photog (Stelian) did a good job of concealing that.