Christmas in Austria (featuring half-man, half-goat zombie-devils)

It had been a good week. For some reason, most of my classes had been in a good mood and I’d really made an effort to plan fun activities and take liberties a bit more with the teachers. Of course, I’m always slightly constrained by what topics they want me to cover, but I’ve decided that if they’re not going to give me any support during the lessons, I’ll teach however I like – and it seems to be working well. We played a lot of games (they’re all obsessed over whether or not I have a boyfriend) and the stereotypes lesson has come back with a vengeance, which is always a laugh.

I also bit the bullet and finally signed up to the (very expensive) gym in Rohrbach. I was finally pushed into this decision when the temperatures hit -8 degrees, and going for a run after school always ended up with me getting lost in clouds. Seriously, actual clouds – I used to think it was just fog, but because Rohrbach is on a hill, it very often gets completely lost in cloud cover.

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Signing up to the gym was an interesting experience given that my level of German is low and my level of dialect even lower. I worked out why it was so expensive though – there is a special room in the gym that’s like something out of a sci-fi film. On registering, I was presented with a card that slots into each of the machines in this specific room. When the trainer showed me around, he adjusted each of the machines to my body so that now when I put the card in, the machine automatically moves around me to my exact dimensions. There is a pipe in the middle of the room with coloured bubbles that flow through at intervals. When the bubbles are flowing, you’re supposed to start your reps – the machine counts for you and beeps when you get to 15. The bubbles go blue to let you know you’re almost out of time, and when they stop flowing, everyone in the room gets up and moves on to the next machine. The card is really clever and remembers which weight you were working at last time you were on each machine, which is helpful to me because I used to spend half of my time in the gym fannying around on my phone making notes of weights and machines and reps. It’s a bizarre but fun experience – and of course, it’s a really fancy gym with free drinks of every kind imaginable and a sauna, so (almost) worth the ridiculous amount I paid for it. My only complaint is that I’ve already run into two of my students there, which wasn’t awkward but it wasn’t exactly not awkward either. It’s mainly for this reason that I’m too scared to ever used the showers.

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This is what happens when you sign up to an Austrian gym without being able to speak German

A fun weekend to follow a fun week. All the British and American teaching assistants in upper Austria were invited to a feedback day in Linz. As luck would have it, both Emma’s phone and my phone have decided to give up the ghost in terms of Internet and we subsequently got lost and couldn’t find the meeting place, resulting in us huddling together outside Billa for the free WiFi and trying to group call Bryony, but actually just ending up standing next to each other on the phone to nobody except each other for a full 3 minutes. We did, however, arrive just in time to try some of Jake’s monkey bread, so all was right with the world.

After the feedback day, we celebrated Bethany’s birthday by heading out for drinks at the Chelsea Pub (where the bartender took my decision to drink Corona a tad too personally), then for dinner at Vapiano which is essentially Italian Nando’s, then back to Bethany’s for a brief game of Cards Against Humanity and then out to our favourite boat bar on the Danube where we had a surprisingly fun night (and I say surprisingly because we’ve had to significantly lower our standards for nights out since arriving in Linz). It was 70s night which meant the DJ refused our requests to start with, but then gave in and let us choose songs from his 70s Spotify playlist – enter T Rex, ABBA and the Gilmore Girls theme tune.

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The night culminated in Emma doing Tequila shots alone and a horrendous hangover the next day that could only be cured by McDonalds at the station, who were giving out free doughnuts with the Austrian flag on them to celebrate presidential Election Day. Spoiler alert: Van der Bellen, of the independent party The Greens was elected as President rather than right-wing racist knobjockey Nobert Hofer, proving once and for all that Austria may be one of the few countries left in the world that hasn’t completely lost its mind.

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With our hangovers at bay, we hopped in the train to Gmunden to see the Christmas markets, which were beautiful. There were also some llamas there for some reason, which we decided not to question too much.

On meeting the American TAs, we gathered to watch the Krampuslauf. Now, a little history for you so that you can better understand what you’re about to see.

Austrian traditions are a little different to British ones. In Britain, good children are treated to gifts from a lovely, jolly, fat man with a beard. On the 24th of December, he flies around the whole world in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, inexplicably fits down the chimney (even in houses that don’t have them) and leaves wonderful presents for everyone in stockings and under Christmas trees. We are all overjoyed with our presents on the morning of the 25th, and then proceed to eat as much as we possibly can and get very drunk while watching the Christmas Special of Sherlock or Doctor Who.

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What a nice bloke

In Austria, things are slightly different. It is not Father Christmas who brings them gift but the Christkind. It is unclear whether the Christkind is an angel or baby Jesus himself; either way, it doesn’t make any sense at all that he could bring presents because he’s just a child. I asked my classes how he gets into the houses and if he comes down chimneys and they said they didn’t know. It’s just very far-fetched, really. Get yourself some flying reindeer, mate.

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I’m not buying it

They do have someone a bit like Father Christmas, or, more specifically, Saint Nicholas, the saint on whom Santa Clause is partly based. St. Nikolaustag (Saint Nicholas Day) is celebrated on 6th of December, and on the evening before, young children leave their shoes (not stockings) out for him to fill with sweets, fruit and other small presents. This, I could get on board with; it seems like a more wholesome, less consumerist version of Santa and his stockings.

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St. Nikolaus is distinguishable from Santa because he has a sick hat

Saint Nikolaus doesn’t come alone though. The worst you’ll get from Santa if you’ve been bad is coal in your stocking – and seriously, have any of you ever received coal!? The worst you’ll get for being bad in Austria is that Saint Nicholas’ companion, Krampus, will come and stuff you in his bag or basket, kidnap you and beat you. Krampus was originally a half-man, half-goat zombie-devil, but now takes all kinds of forms – as you’re about to see.

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Krampus

An Austrian tradition is the Krampuslauf, where young men get drunk, dress up as Krampuses (we had much discussion over the plural of Krampus and ‘Krampuses’ won, even though I was vouching for ‘Krampi’ and ‘Krampini’ for the young ones) and run through the streets. There are rules and regulations to this now; the crowds who gather to watch stand behind barriers and the Krampuses aren’t allowed to actually hurt anyone (although there was some serious whipping/hitting/jumping/grabbing going on that wasn’t entirely painless), but in less careful times (i.e. ten years ago) the men dressed as Krampus would actually kidnap children, put them in bags and beat them with chains. Merry Christmas!

I was enthralled with this idea – if you are too, you can find out a bit more from Austrian bae Christoph Walz explaining Krampus to Jimmy Fallon and in this 45 second video.

The Krampuslauf itself was so much fun. After getting over our genuine terror to begin with, cowering away from the Krampuses that stormed up to us, hit us and ran away, we began to have a really good time and to really admire the costumes. I’ve heard since that the Krampus costumes, in particular the masks, are passed down through families and can be worth thousands of euros.

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The Krampuslauf eventually ended after an hour and we hung around for trains back to Linz, warily avoiding the last of the straggling Krampi especially after one grabbed Emma and dragged her about ten feet before whipping her and running away. Nice.

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And finally, to end this blog on an educational note, I learnt some more funny words this week. The contraceptive pill is called the Antibabypille. The word for ‘lightbulb’ translates literally as ‘glowing pear’ and the word for ‘turkey’ is ‘threatening chicken’.

This isn’t a joke. I’m being deadly serious.

That’s all.

Until next time, auf Wiederschauen!

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