Waltzing through the Night at a Viennese Ball

 

Hofburg Palace, Photo: viennaconcerts.com

ONE, two three, ONE, two, three, ONE, two, three is repeated over and over in my mind as I twirled around the ballroom. The orchestra played waltz after waltz at the Ball of the Vienna University of Technology (TU Ball). Even though I have never taken ballroom dance in all my years of dance training, learning to waltz really was not hard at all… I was more worried about getting my feet stepped on and twirling into another pair on a dance floor with hundreds of people crammed onto it. The most exciting part about that night was just experiencing first hand the traditions of the Viennese ball culture.

Viennese balls date back to the 18th century where they were reserved for the elite and nobility. Emperor Joseph II opened up rooms in the beautiful Hofburg palace to enable everyone to participate in the pomp and circumstance of the extravagant balls. Today, the balls still include features like very strict dress codes, a grand opening with debutants, a midnight quadrille and the Damenspende (gifts for the women). Another tradition is if a lady is asked to dance, it is considered very rude to decline… but don’t worry ladies, if there’s someone you want to dance with, there is an hour in the night that is considered “ladies choice.”

19th Century Damenspende, Photo: Andreas Praefcke

My Damenspende

My Damenspende

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the title of my post, it says through the Night. I quite literally mean through the night. The Viennese Balls don’t start (opening fanfare, entrance of debutants, and open dance floor) until about 20/20:30 and they last until 5am. The quadrille is an exciting feature that takes place at midnight; The ball that I attended also had one at 3am. The quadrilles are just as much fun to watch as they are to participate in. It’s a bit easier to watch a quadrille, than try to explain what it is. Enjoy!

 

Midnight Quadrille at the 2014 Vienna Opera Ball

As you can see, everyone crowds into the main ballroom with a partner (yes, there is more than one room open for dancing and each room features a different style of music) and joins the “organized” chaos of the dance. There’s a caller on stage with the orchestra giving out commands to very fast paced gallop and everyone is frantically trying to keep up as the line eventually snakes its way around the room. It is a nice jolt of energy at different intervals in the night to keep the celebration going and to keep everyone awake.

The other ballrooms at the ball I attended featured a band playing jazz music, and a band/DJ that played more Latin music and some popular music in which we called “the disko.” Now, if you thought the quadrille was a sight to see, imagine these bewildering (from the perspective of an American) images: 1. Couples trying to ballroom dance to Gangnam Style and 2. An elderly Austrian gentleman actually trying to do the dance to Gangnam Style. My first though watching this was “How???” I mean, you could clearly tell who the Americans were because they were the ones doing the actual party dance. Looking back, it is interesting to see how generations and styles mix, and how the old traditions of Viennese balls have evolved over time to include some modern day flair.

Winters in Vienna are host to around 400 balls and are organized around just about every professional group there is. There is the Zuckerbäckerball for confectioners, the Kaffeesiedler Ball for coffee brewers, the Juristenball for lawyers and the Jägerball where instead of wearing the formal long gowns and tuxedoes, the mandatory dress is traditional dirndl and lederhosen. The most well known and highest in placement on the social calendar of Vienna are the Philharmoniker Ball, hosted by the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein, and the Wiener Opernball, at the Staatsoper (State Opera House).

Debutants waltzing at the 2015 Vienna Opera Ball, Photo: EPA

There is an array of balls to choose from to celebrate and join in with the locals and international guests. Sadly, this year’s ball season has come to an end with Fasching (Carnival) and the beginning of the Lenten season. Find your dancing shoes and start practicing your waltzing in preparation for next year’s ball season.

Alain Ducasse, Renowned French Chef

When you think of France, a few things come to mind: Paris, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, sitting down for a coffee at a quaint little Cafe, and the beautiful French country side. But we mustn’t forget one important aspect of French culture that can’t be ignored: French cuisine. From the light, airy pastries, the scrumptious macaroons, to the Bouillabaisse, or maybe the Duck à l’Orange, French cuisine is a major part of French culture, and one of the most famous chefs of this generation is Alain Ducasse. 

 

Alain Ducasse is a world renowned French chef. A French native, he has 23 restaurants and 3 inns, creating more of an enterprise out of his own name. He also has created a gastronomy program in Paris for aspiring culinary artists. Ducasse has been active in his restaurants, hotels, culinary arts, and projects for over thirty years. His love for food, culture, and travel has expanded his culinary reach and influence throughout the world. His  restaurants are located in 8 different countries, including the United States.

 

 

 

 

Pictured above is Alain Ducasse at a local farmer’s market in Cubao. He is adamant about using local resources no matter where he is, and frequently immerses himself into a country’s culture.

 

(Photo: Danny Kim)

 

Although he enjoys traveling to exotic and new places in order to further his learning and to find ingredients to implement into his restaurants, he still remembers his French roots, and resorts back to some of his classic recipes. In an interview, Ducasse said that he felt most proud of his Cookpot, (pictured above) which is a slow-cooked casserole of seasonal vegetables. 

 

Since 1972, at age 16, Ducasse has been involved in restaurants. Beginning locally near his home in Southwestern France, he made himself known at a young age, gaining experience through apprenticeships and small jobs, leading him to an assistant position under Roger Verge. His first position as a chef was in 1980, and he hasn’t looked back. Now at age 59, he holds 21 Michelin stars. Even more impressive, Ducasse has already began progressing to the next step: taking French cuisine to Space.

The Airports in Hell

 

 

Last summer, I was lucky enough to be able to check off one of my top 5 bucket list items: Backpacking Europe. I took a six week trip along with my girlfriend to 9 countries and 17 cities. The trip ended up better than I could have imagined, with some rocky obstacles to get through, and more than a few good stories. We booked lodging mostly through Airbnb, with a few hostels peppered in where we couldn’t find listings, travelled by train, and lived as frugally as we could without missing out. The following, is the story of how we got there…

Well the adventures began before we had even gotten out of the country, our flight from Springfield, MO to Chicago was a late arrival, like a 10 minute window to make it to our next gate… in O’hare, the second we stepped of the plane, we were olympic track stars (queue starting pistol). It was an all out sprint to the next gate, weaving through families, unpredictable child walking patterns, and our arch nemesis of the event, the elderly (it almost seemed like they wanted us to miss it)… Luckily for us, we were relentless, and those who tried (see above) couldn’t stop us. We made it, with about two minutes to spare before the gate closed on us indefinitely. As we had only known each other just over six months, it came as a surprise to me that my girlfriend seemed to be losing her lung next to me when we sat down. Apparently she had “a mild” (because if you heard this, mild would not have been the first word to come to mind) case of athletically induced asthma, for which she had no inhaler. I felt bad for her trying to suppress the hacking in one of the most awkward places to be coughing like that, eventually it subsided, and we were finally on our way to Dublin, and in the clear…

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Fast forward about 9 hours. We land in London on our way to Dublin (by the end you’ll see the haplessness in that flight path). We surprisingly land on time and make our way through customs, a lengthy process as it is. Apparently there is a second round of security at this airport and we miss our flight to Dublin, with the assurance our bags will be transferred (foreshadowing?).  We eventually get on another flight, only to sit on it for 2 hours before de-boarding for mechanical issues. We are required at this point to grab our checked bags which (surprise) weren’t there.

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So we are sent from one person to another in attempt to retrieve them, at one point we end up in a restricted area and get kicked out. Finally we talk to a manager of the airline Air Lingus, and he tells us that Delta is responsible for our lost bags, but he wants to get us to Dublin that day, but we are worried about our two backpacks with everything we brought for our trip.

Apparently it wasn’t up to us and they said that our bags would be in Dublin before we got there… they weren’t. So at 12am we are talking to the bag attendant who tells us that the area we are staying is not a pleasant one, and that our bags will be delivered by noon the next day. Now we are bag-less and a little frightened with the newfound news.

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The place wasn’t as bad as we imagined, and the people we stayed with were great. The bags didn’t come the next day, and we missed crossing the delivery truck’s path to go to the airport and find them. It takes another 2 hours to finally get back to the carousels again, and I watch the bags drop onto it from the plane they got in on, late of course. It was a rough start, but we made it!

I can only imagine that taking a plane in hell, an experience such as that would be the norm.

(Pictures inserted for calming effect)

 

StarCraft in Korean culture

Video game culture in South Korea is often quite distinct from its western counterpart. Among the most popular video games in the United States are Call of Duty, Halo, and League of Legends. In Korea, they’re StarCraft, FIFA, and, well, League of Legends.

My main focus here is StarCraft, however, as for a long time and in some ways still today, StarCraft was a way of life in South Korea.

StarCraft is a real-time strategy game, meaning the player is essentially god and tells his units where to move and what to do from his camera in the sky.

 

Photo courtesy of  Blizzard Entertainment

Photo courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

 

Now when I say StarCraft is a way of life, I don’t mean it in the same way as people who say “fishing is a way of life,” or “music is a way of life,” heck, I don’t even mean it in the same way as people who say “SEC Football is a way of life.” It goes beyond any of that.

When milliseconds matter and the number of actions per minute (APM) you do is measured in the hundreds, only the best can win tournaments to make a living playing a video game.

In Korea, professional StarCraft players often live together with their teammates in houses in which the sole purpose is to play StarCraft and improve. They play nearly constantly. The worldwide StarCraft community divides itself into two groups, “Korean,” and “foreign.” That’s how seriously they take the esport.

That’s right – esport. Short, of course, for electronic sport. These competitive gamers play in StarCraft tournaments with prize pools upwards of $250,000 (notice the top three players’ country of origin – South Korea).

At one point there were two cable TV channels in Korea focused on broadcasting competitive StarCraft matches.

So why is this game so popular in Korea? Well. according to “Ask a Korean,” it’s due to the Cyber Cafes, or “PC Bangs,” in the 1990s. PC Bangs in Korea aren’t like what many Americans think of when they think of CyberCafes. Why they are often run by small business owners, PC Bangs often have hundreds of high-end computers for use, not three or four old ones.

The initial popularity of the first StarCraft when it was released in 1998, followed by its support from PC Bang goers and owners, followed by its television and tournament presence, turned StarCraft and its sequel into a video game phenomenon yet to be felt in, dare I say, any other place in the world.

 

Other sources:

Dan “Artosis” Stemkoski

KoreaBang.com

EatYourKimchi.com

TechCushion.com

HardcoreGaming101.net

Pegida and the Future of Islam in Germany

The movement called Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) has dominated headlines in Germany for months. News reports and blog posts have quieted down in February, so what now? Did the Pegida movement enjoy a prolonged fifteen minutes of fame and will soon fizzle out? Or are we merely witnessing a temporary lull in activity, before the movement once again forces itself into the headlines?

The Sprengsatz blog provides short, well-defined commentary on politics in Germany, and has commented frequently on the issue of Pegida. The blog’s author, Michael Spreng, maintains that Pegida is finished. A combination of factors has led to Pegida’s fading. Mr. Spreng is quick to point out that Pegida’s fall is more the result of self-destruction than the reaction of Germany’s leading political forces. The latter’s attempt at addressing the Pegida issue has been poorly coordinated and at times contradictory. For readers unfamiliar with Pegida, its talking points can be boiled down to this: Muslims and mass numbers of immigrants are subverting Germany’s economy and culture. This complaint is not new; from intelligentsia on down to neo-Nazis and hooligans, the idea that Muslim immigrants are burdening the German state has existed for decades. What sets Pegida apart is its membership from many different social groups. Such a large number of people demonstrating in the streets for a common cause, one as divisive as this, were bound to gain media attention.

Pegida protesters on the march

Pegida protesters on the march (Photo: Zukunftskinder)

Pegida’s apparent strength in numbers hasn’t gone unquestioned, and Spreng is quick to point this out. He distinguishes those caught up in the furor of Pegida as either Anhänger or Mitläufer. The difference is an important one, given that an Anhänger is someone who fully supports a movement. Mitläufer tend to be people who are involved in a movement but whose commitment and conviction is tenuous at best. Spreng considers a large portion of Pegida’s so-called followers to actually be Mitläufer, which is significant in that it means the number of people who actually believe in Pegida’s platform is smaller than people realize.

When it comes to the establishment response to Pegida, Germany’s two leading political parties, the CDU and SPD, have shown a surprising disunity. Standing up against racism and bigotry is a mutual priority for both parties (in the broadest sense the CDU is conservative and the SPD is liberal). While Chancellor Merkel (CDU) has unequivocally rejected what Pegida represents, members of her own party have shuddered at her assertion that “Islam belongs to Germany.” Countering the Chancellor’s assertion was the governor of Saxony, Stanislaw Tillich (CDU), who retorted, “Islam does not belong to Saxony.”

The contradictions continued within the SPD as the party’s General Secretary utterly rejected any notion of holding a dialogue with Pegida. Strikingly, Sigmar Gabriel, an SPD member and Vice-Chancellor in Merkel’s government, chose to meet with Pegida supporters (Spreng uses Anhänger, meaning that Gabriel met with devoted members of the movement). Spreng’s contempt for this is plain to see, and he refers to such actions and contradictions as “spineless” and “opportunistic”

The issue of Pegida would perhaps be less complex were it not for its timing. Pegida’s arrival could not have come at a better time for the AfD (Alternative For Germany), Germany’s Euro-skeptic party. The AfD has had its own share of controversy and accusations of having intolerants within its ranks, but that has not stopped them from making electoral gains. What connects the AfD and Pegida is the issue of immigration. With the appearance that Pegida was gaining popular support from regular, fed-up Germans, the AfD sought to capitalize on the moment and join forces with Pegida. In this regard both Pegida and the AfD are populist movements, whose emergence Spreng again attributes to social and financial angst.

With the CDU and SPD providing confusing and unorganized responses to Pegida, and with the AfD actively seeking to fan the flames of populism, what more could possibly assist in Pegida’s rise? Enter Charlie Hebdo. The terrorist attack in Paris was as tragic as it was inopportune. The tragedy transcends the deaths of innocents in that those seeking to advance a narrative use those same deaths as fodder. Germany’s far-right political forces, both big and small, fringe and legitimate, have sought to describe the Paris attacks as motivated by an entire religion and culture: Islam. Before this situation could progress any further, action had to be taken.

Vigil against terror

Political and faith leaders rally in solidarity after the Charlie Hebdo attack (Photo: DailySabah.com)

Thus Angela Merkel flew to Paris and walked in solidarity, with a throng of other world leaders, for the victims, for free speech, and to show defiance against extremism. What was striking was to see the leaders of France and Germany, historically not the best of friends, tightly linking arms and walking together for a common cause. Merkel then moved quickly to quash whatever xenophobia may have been simmering back home. In front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Merkel stood with fellow German leaders and leaders of Germany’s main religious groups, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and asserted the official position that what occurred in Paris was not indicative of an entire religion’s goals. On the contrary, Merkel has promoted the narrative that extremists who would or have committed terrorism, have perverted the teachings of Islam. Lastly, Merkel addressed Muslim leaders in Germany by declaring that members of the Islamic faith have a responsibility to assuage the fears and bias the German people may hold against them. That process includes an outright repudiation of extremist and fundamentalist ideology. To my surprise, Mr. Spreng gives Merkel full support for her actions, stating “Merkel has done everything right,” and asserting that the Pegida issue is or very soon will be over. Pegida’s founder, Lutz Bachmann, was recently ousted after a picture of him surfaced sporting a Hitler moustache and hairstyle.

Founder and former leader of Pegida, Lutz Bachmann

Founder and former leader of Pegida, Lutz Bachmann. Photo: The Guardian

Bachmann’s indiscretion and the AfD’s beginning to show a lack of support are contributing to what Spreng refers to as the “self-destruction” of the movement. He describes it as an issue worthy of only a footnote in the history books. I am not so convinced. Europe is facing some very tricky situations: terrorism, the financial crisis, the Ukrainian civil war, immigration, social issues, and even the fight against ISIS. Any one of the preceding issues could be the spark that ignites further upheaval on the political fringe. What will be left to be seen, is whether such an upheaval will activate the passions and frustrations of the general population and influence elections.

Vaginas connect cultures, end violence

Vagina.

I know, it’s a scary word, right? But why? Why are we all scared of a body part? Think of how bizarre it would be if people reacted the same way to the word “elbow” as they do to the word “vagina.” The funniest part to me is that even women are afraid of the word. It seems as though every time I say the word “vagina,” I’m given a startled look/blush followed by a “shh!” and by biological WOMEN: humans who have and see and touch and are connected to their own vagina every day. It’s sad that some women have this sort of “vagina-shame”, but it’s not their fault, really. It is the society we were all born into.

There are strong social constructs that cause words like “vagina” to be taboo. Luckily, there are people worldwide deconstructing these constructs and dismantling the oppressive systems that control our daily lives and dialogues. One such woman is Eve Ensler.

Eve Ensler, photo from vday.org

Eve Ensler is a feminist, activist, and playwright queen. Her best known play is “The Vagina Monologues,” written in 1996. The play is a collection of monologues that tell stories or experiences of a woman or multiple women. These monologues range from funny and uplifting stories about body positivity, women loving or discovering their own vaginas, love, menstruation, and, in contrast, incredibly heavy and raw stories of sexual violence, female genital mutilation, and abuse.

The first time I saw “The Vagina Monologues” was almost exactly a year ago today. The production was hyped all over campus, especially in the social justice organizations I was in. I was a freshman in college (at the University of Missouri) and I had no idea what “The Vagina Monologues” was, but I went because what’s more intriguing than a play all about vaginas???

Photo courtesy of MU Vagina Monologues

 

It was incredible. I laughed and cried and I was shaken by how important stories can be. In the two hour span of the show I learned more about women’s bodies, cultural customs of women, intimate partner violence, and feminine experience than I ever could have imagined. My sentiment after watching the production was something along the lines of “Wow. I have a vagina. And I rock!”

Now, one year later, I am preparing to perform in “The Vagina Monologues.” I knew before joining the cast that “The Vagina Monologues” was a production to raise money for local organizations to help end violence against women and girls, BUT I didn’t know that it was an actual international movement.

V-Day movement logo, photo from vday.org

 “The Vagina Monologues” is only a part in the V-Day movement, a movement that creates events and performances to raise money and awareness for violence against women and girls including rape, sex slavery, incest, and genital mutilation. The V-Day movement and “The Vagina Monologues” are an international movement that is increasingly spreading across the world. The production of “The Vagina Monologues” has been translated into over 48 languages and performed in over 140 countries. In Brussels in 2012, nine members of the European Parliament even  performed “The Vagina Monologues” as well as danced on February 14th to help raise awareness of the V-Day movement.

A crucial role in being a part of “The Vagina Monologues” cast is education and awareness of women’s issues and body positivity (loving your body as it is). Being a part of the production and getting to hear various monologues really reinforces the importance of storytelling and human experience. Women are treated differently and oppressed differently in each culture. The monologues give a heart-wrenching sneak-peak into the lives and truth of women’s experiences. Not only that, but the monologues provide a unique perspective of women’s lives in various cultures and parts of the world.

Throughout the process of being a performer of “The Vagina Monologues,” I have become one with my monologue.  I will be reading from the monologue called “The Vagina Workshop,” which is about a woman who discovers and falls in love with her vagina in a workshop. It’s truly inspiring to me how one woman’s story could hold so much weight and meaning into my life. What’s more, I think of how many women have also been affected by the same monologue throughout the years of thousands and performances, and it’s astonishing.

These monologues don’t just hold value for those watching and/or listening, they hold the same, if not more, for those performing. I am forever changed because of my experience of seeing and being in the production of “The Vagina Monologues.”

And that is something to blog about.

Stromae – the maestro of international pop

My high school French teacher was an interesting woman. At the time I knew her, she had beaten cancer no fewer than three times, claimed to have a gift in palm reading, and had an almost uncomfortable obsession cats. She only gave her students one rule: No Bleeding. I learned much from Mrs. Gallagher, though I don’t hesitate to admit that most of what I remember learning didn’t have much to do with our French curriculum. I do however recall a specific lesson about francophone music in which she cooed over a catchy club song called “Alors on Danse” by Stromae (Stroh-my, French slang for maestro), an up and coming Belgian artist she just knew would make it big. I would, years later, come to have almost the same obsession with Stromae as Mrs. Gallagher did with her cats.

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Cover of Stromae’s single, “Alors on Danse” from wikipedia.org

I forgot about Stromae until the summer of 2013 when I interned and studied in Brussels, Belgium for the summer. I worked for a fashion and lifestyle magazine and once had the assignment of interviewing a young DJ for an article to be published in the next issue. One of my questions for Pierre, said DJ, focused on his favorite artists. Voilà, Stromae was at the top of his list. Remembering the name and the catchy tune my teacher showed my French class, I started asking Pierre about Stromae, and at the end of the interview I had a few song recommendations included in my notes.

 

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Photo from thewinehousemag.com

So, who is this Stromae? His real name is Paul Van Haver, and is part Rwandan, part Belgian. In 2009 he released his first single “Alors on Danse,” which was soon after remixed by Kanye West. Stromae’s  sophomore album, Racine Carée, French for square root, “went platinum eight times in Belgium went platinum eight times in Belgium, held the No. 1 chart spot for several weeks in countries throughout Europe and sold 1.5 million copies in France alone,” according to Time Out Magazine. His song, “Ta Fête,” was the Belgian National Team’s anthem for the 2014 World Cup and was played over and over again at the public match viewings I attended in Brussels this past summer. If you have the time, I also recommend watching this video of Stromae’s quest of having his song selected to be the Red Devil’s anthem. It’s pretty entertaining.

 

Not only is Stromae a talented performer, but his lyrics are incredibly deep. “Papaoutai,” Belgian slang for “Dad, where are you?” is about his own father who left his family when Stromae was young. He discusses illnesses like alcoholism, AIDS and cancer in a way that somehow still makes the listener want to dance around. He also has a thing for stereotypes. In a live performance of his hit, “Tous Les Memes,” Stromae transformed the left side of his face into that of a woman (quite successfully, if I may). The video for his song “Formidable” was filmed by hidden cameras as he stumbled through the streets of downtown Brussels, apparently drunk and worrying several onlookers. The video now has more than 100 million views on YouTube. Not bad, Stromae.

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Stromae as he appears in “Tous les Memes.” From hulkshare.com

 

Slowly, very slowly Stromae is working his way to becoming a household name in the United States. This move was helped when it was announced that he would collaborate with the musician Lorde among others for a track in The Hungergames: Mocking Jay Part I. I can only dream that one day I might see him in concert. Until then, Spotify will have to do.