“When you get to Vienna, you must eat Mozart’s balls!” my Italian friend Serena enthusiastically suggested. Serena was walking me through the ethanol precipitation procedure, a common method for purifying and concentrating extracted DNA, when she made this somewhat startling statement. A very intelligent and competent molecular biologist, Serena also has a good command of the English language but could occasionally use some fine tuning. I looked to our friend Kyle, we shared a moment of eyebrows-raised, silent confusion, and then all three of us moved on to discuss how much glycogen to use for my purifications.
Two months later, I am in Vienna, Austria, or Wien, Österreich. Yesterday evening I wandered into a grocery store and the first thing that greeted my naïve American eyes was display full of Mozart’s balls, or rather, Mozartkugel, which I can only assume (and hope) that these sweets are what my friend Serena was referring to. Mozartkugel are dark chocolate-covered confections with a nougat-pistachio marzipan interior. They were originally created in 1890 by Paul Fürst, a confectioner in Salzburg (Mozart’s birthplace). If you want the real deal, it’s possible to still find Mozartkugel that are hand-produced by Fürst’s descendants, but from what I’ve seen, industrially-produced imitations are available almost anywhere you can buy chocolate.
The real deal.
I was just reading an article from The New York Times on jet lag. The author provided an estimate that it takes one day to recover from jet lag for every time zone you cross. This is not encouraging, as I traveled across ten time zones, so I thus surrender myself to the experience of helplessly falling asleep at 21:30, waking up at 2:00, and falling back asleep at 5:00 for another seven hours. The article also recommended that I wake up and go to bed earlier than normal to more quickly align my internal clock, so I arose at 6:00 to make coffee, which I haven’t done yet due to my lightning inspiration to write about Mozart’s balls.
I am in Wien for two weeks to receive training in developing assays for my Master’s thesis. A year and a half ago, in the middle of the Nevada desert, in a place called Las Vegas, I attended the 15th International Hibernation Symposium and heard a talk given by Dr. Thomas Ruf on telomere length change in hibernating edible dormice. A year and a half later, here I am, in my own guest room that has a window overlooking the forest where the dormice live. Briefly, I am here to learn two techniques: the first is how to determine if a gene of interest (in this case, in my arctic ground squirrels) is non-variable in copy number; that is, if all individuals of that species have the same number of copies of that particular gene. Once I find my non-VCN gene I will be able to proceed with the second technique, whereupon I will use that gene as a reference for measuring variable telomere lengths between individuals and between tissue types in arctic ground squirrels. Everyone here at the institute has so far been remarkably kind and generous in their time and accommodations. I hope to come away from this experience with the confidence to accurately and efficiently measure my own samples in the coming spring.
Yesterday I dipped my toes into some Viennese cultural offerings. I arose at 12:30, which was shockingly late for me. It started my day off right; I hadn’t sleep much during the 28-hour trip to get here and I was immensely pleased that I had slept so late. I dressed for the howling snow storm (not exaggerating) that was awaiting me outside and quietly froze for four long minutes waiting for the bus to arrive. As I turned into an icicle I listened to the babbles of German from the others waiting for the bus. I silently wondered if they knew if I was an American, if they knew I had knew no German words, and if they knew that I wouldn’t know whether or not they were concernedly discussing my blue-ish lips (okay, my lips were not blue).
As I did when I was in London, I thoroughly enjoyed taking the public transportation to downtown Vienna. I made it with no mishaps and enjoyed a fine lunch of clear beef broth soup with shredded pancakes (pancakes in soup!) and Tafelspitz (a very traditional Viennese meal of boiled beef and fried potatoes served in broth with sides of sour cream/chives and applesauce/grated horseradish). I also had a cappuccino with a mountain of whipped cream which felt indulgent and perfect. My waiter knew little English but was very kind and helpful. He pointed me in the direction of the Karlplatz Christmas market, located in front one of the most beautiful of Vienna’s baroque churches: the Karlskirche.
I did not take this beautiful photo of Karlskirche. I have so far only taken photos of Mozartkugel.
Being at the Karlplatz Christmas market was the highlight of my short day. I was full on Tafelspitz, it was pleasantly warm with all the bodies blocking the wind, and I eventually squiggled my way up to the front of an intimidating mob to get a piping hot mug of glühwein, or spiced wine. I sipped and wandered, looking at the beautiful and whimsical art on display in the myriad stalls. It reminded me a bit of the Oregon Country Fair, except completely different. As the glühwein dripped into my veins I felt incredibly happy, inspired, energized, and alive. The setting was gorgeous, the feeling was festive, and everywhere I looked young and old were practically skipping with excitement and cheer. I was happily alone, cupping my steaming mug, and observing it all with a keenness that I rarely feel when at home.
As I left the periphery of the Christmas market I was drawn to a particularly beautiful building just across the main street. When I arrived I saw that I had stumbled upon the Musikverein, the home of the Vienna Philharmonic. I was thrilled! A goal of mine easily realized. A perfect way to end the day.
The Großer Saal, or Great Hall, of the Musikverein is one of the greatest concert halls in the world. Nevertheless, I see plenty of empty seats. Hoping to put my butt in one of those this morning.
I returned to my room after a quick, wonderful trip to downtown Vienna, mind full of ideas for my next outing, which will commence within the hour. Top of the list is to get a matinee ticket for the Vienna Philharmonic this morning; it is their only performance while I’m here. It looks like standing room tickets started to sell for this concert in April, so I’m sure I have an excellent change of securing one. In case I don’t manage to procure one of these highly-coveted tickets, I have plenty of other things on my to-do list: Mozarthaus (the only preserved Viennese apartment lived in by Mozart. According to the Mozarthaus website, this apartment is “virtually lordly” and it was here that Mozart produced more music than any other residence). I also plan on visiting the Wien Museum, eating schnitzel and pastries, gazing upon the Danube, and finishing my day off at the Österreich Bibliotheken (Austrian National Library), another stunning work of baroque architecture.
(Side note: I will be remarkably disappointed if I don’t see the Wiener Philharmoniker. I plan on shamelessly shedding tears all over Mozart’s impeccably preserved chaise lounges if I miss this opportunity).
As the title of this entry promises, this will be the first on many Wien articles to come. I’m looking forward to having more time to write, and more time to sleep, and more time for Mozartkugel.