February 2-6, 2017: The IAEA Ball in Vienna

Photo album: https://goo.gl/photos/Kg2KMKvqu5RZRKcp9

I love Vienna. I think I could see myself living there one day. The architecture is beautiful. The food is good. Most people speak English. Apparently, the real estate in the city is pretty cheap. And it is an extremely functional city with a metro and trams and cheap cabs. Everything just works there efficiently. And there’s lots of culture.

Our Austrian Airlines flight was basically a SAIS flight. We had more than half the flight. I’ve never been on a flight like that before. It’s how I imagine a spring break plane to Cancun would be like. I was seated next to Audrey and we chatted. It was a short flight so I didn’t really have any time to do any reading. Our flight was delayed so the Airbnb host said her friend would meet us, even though we ended up getting to the city center much earlier than she said we would. It doesn’t take 1.5 hours. The CAT train is only 16 minutes. So we hung out at the train station McDonalds.

Our Airbnb is in a great location really close to the Hofburg Palace. The bed is comfy, there’s a little TV, a good shower, an iron and a backwards toilet. And the reason I really love this place is because our Airbnb has a piano! I miss playing piano so much. I’ve never gone so long in my life without playing piano since before I started learning piano. Music has become an important part of my life. And I’ve been deprived of it in Bologna. The host left some Schubert and Haydn on the piano, not my favorites, but I did some sight reading. What I wanted to play was La La Land because I’m obsessed, but it was copyrighted so it was hard to find sheet music online.

Yu was staying with us at the Airbnb too but he didn’t arrive until Friday evening. He took the SAIS bus from Bologna, which sounded like the worst thing ever. That’s why we flew to Vienna. It took about 9 hours by bus. But we had this dilemma where we were out but had to get him a key. So we left it in a flowerpot outside the building in the courtyard. We took pictures for him so he’d know where everything is. They were detailed pictures we drew on with arrows. The only problem was that the outer door to the courtyard was locked. It would’ve been fine if he’d gotten there earlier because there is a restaurant in the courtyard, but the bus took too long. Eventually he did get in when someone else let him in and then he was able to get the key in the courtyard. But at the time we thought we had to go back to let him in and we were worried and annoyed, but we were kind of slow to react. We were at a bar called “Better Student” (though it was mostly older people still partying hard like they were students plus an annoying bachelorette party) with some other SAISers eating breakfast skillets. We made him wait and then someone let him in—so thank god.

We went to the Leopold Museum by Phil’s recommendation. It is famous for its Klimts and Schieles. Those are actually two of my favorites. I didn’t know Schiele before but I knew I was a fan of Klimt. It’s a great collection. I really like the interesting style. There was a weird material exhibit in the basement that included a video of a guy doing a memory palace out loud associating stories with pieces of art in the collection. It was a weird magician.


There are SAISers all over Vienna because of the ball. We run into them everywhere. We saw Jan Paul, Lisa, Elle and her husband having a snowball fight. And we saw more SAISers at St Stephan’s Church. The roof has a colorful pattern but the inside is not that impressive. It is not as decorated. There is no stained glass. There is a cool organ but the best thing is the roof.


Will and I went to the Sacher Café. We had to wait in line and bit to get in. It’s a tourist attraction as the birthplace of the Sacher Torte. I know that I hate Sacher Torte. It’s like fake chocolate cake. It is ostensibly chocolate, but it doesn’t taste like it. It tastes more like cake and less like chocolate. But I got one anyways. I shouldn’t have. I still don’t like Sacher Torte. I just felt like I had to.


Vienna is very famous for its cafes. They have all sorts of cakes and treats. Phil did a walking tour on Saturday morning. He’s either really smart or made up a bunch of funny stuff. He is very funny either way. They apparently invented croissants in Vienna and they got to France via Marie Antoinette. Stalin and Trotsky apparently have been to some of the cafes. He told us about spies at Café Central playing chess and reading and discussing politics while listening in on conversations. Aristocratic women were fed all the delicious cakes because they are like ovens churning out children. He told us lots of ridiculous stuff.

We got standing room tickets on the balcony level (second highest) at the famous Vienna State Opera for only 3 euros! What a steal! Sure, you have to stand for 3 hours, but it’s 3 euros! That’s less than a slice of cake for world class music. Placido Domingo was conducting. That’s an insult to Placido Domingo. We saw Puccini’s Tosca (I actually really like the music in Tosca—I wasn’t familiar with it) with a Korean woman playing Tosca. We sat on the right so we couldn’t see the right side of the stage but of course that’s where all the action was. Though you don’t watch opera for action. You don’t even have to watch it at all, it’s about listening and enjoying the big sets and costumes. For standing room, you hang a scarf around the bar you lean on to hold your spot. Everyone respects it, that’s just the rules. The opera house is not as decorated as the Italian ones, but it’s obviously historic and beautiful. Will got opera glasses, which is a small set of fancy binoculars. We met this Mongolian girl doing her PhD at Tsinghua standing next to us. I had trouble following the plot. There are subtitles right in front of all the seats but I kept forgetting to look at it. All I know is everyone dies at the end. Plot isn’t terribly important.

The day of the ball, I went back to the Airbnb after lunch to get ready and then very quickly ran out of time. I polished my shoes for the first time. I didn’t really know how to do it properly but I kind of just brushed the polish all around the shoe and it looked fine.

There was a reception for us at City Hall, or Rathaus. The restaurant in the building was really cool and we hadn’t even got to the palace yet. The whole place looked like a cellar. SAIS is very in with the Viennese government. Students from Vienna all get huge scholarships. And the Viennese students are responsible for organizing the trip to Vienna. There was a speech in German with an Italian translator, but obviously, we all speak English. Clearly, they didn’t know that. There was some finger foods, sausages, hors d’oeuvres, and dessert and wine and juices and water. Drinks at the ball are super expensive so there was plenty to drink here. Everybody looked so good in their tuxedos and gowns. We all hung out and took pictures and chatted before heading over to the ball at Hofburg Palace.

We actually missed the opening waltz. We weren’t in any particular rush to leave the reception. And some people got sidetracked at the winter wonderland outside the Rathaus, particularly the ferris wheel. We didn’t have to queue to get into the palace like we were told, but instead they made us walk all the way around to a side entrance. They ran out of space at the coat check. They were panicking big time. Too many people arrived at once. Eventually, they made makeshift space on the racks, but they were quite flustered. SAIS had bought a bunch of tables, but this palace is enormous and we had a very difficult time finding them. We actually gave up and just stumbled upon them by coincidence eventually. The place is so big—there are different rooms that have different kinds of music. It’s like a magical labyrinth. And there is a very wide age range. Who are these young people at a fancy ball? Who are these old people partying it up? And why are the drinks so expensive? Water is more expensive than soup here. But sometimes you just really need water.

The main room has an orchestra and a broadway band that alternates. And the other rooms have rotating acts of different genres. The reggae room is really cool and there is a silent disco in the hallway. There’s the latin room and the pop room, etc. I tried to waltz in the big room. I figure if I’m going to embarrass myself I might as well do it on the biggest stage. You can tell there are some people that are there on a regular basis that got the waltz nailed down. I actually did ok. You kind of just make it up. You spin a lot and hope people aren’t looking at your feet. That emergency waltz came in handy. That one year of ballroom dancing I took in high school paid off haha. I was actually much better than the other SAISers. The main room also hosts the main events, which are special dances that they put on and broadcast to all the other rooms. For example, there is a traditional Bavarian dance and Scottish dance, etc. They walk around in their ethnic formalwear, and that is acceptable. It never occurred to me that kilts were formalwear. And there is such a thing as fancy leiderhosen. I do appreciate Indian and East Asian national formalwear. There are lots of places to take pictures around the palace but it’s also very crowded and so it’s difficult to get good pictures. It’s actually hard to find people you know because it’s so big but at the same time you randomly run into familiar faces everywhere. Some people I didn’t see at all and I caught a glimpse of Professor Plummer at one point. It was even difficult to find the coat check because there are two. We stayed until around 3:30am. The place is so big my feet hurt from exploring. I think it took us 30 minutes just to find our coats.

We woke up late the next day and got a late start. We went to brunch and it was so good. It’s always good to have brunch food. We picked a random place close to us called Erich and it was like something straight out of Brooklyn. Good find.

Yu understandably didn’t want to take the SAIS bus back to Bologna. It’s very long and doesn’t give you much time to explore Vienna. So we were looking for an alternative route for him. Here was the problem. He didn’t have tickets for alternate transport nor did he have his passport. The Chinese embassy didn’t answer the phone on a Sunday.  So we got him a train ticket hoping he could avoid passport check—it’s “random” on the trains; they only check foreign looking people. Only on the highway do they not check passports. We even looked into getting him to the border by train and then he go by road across the border to another train station. But that was overly complicated. We risked the train. We had to go to the station to buy tickets because it didn’t work online. It was actually cheaper there. It worked, thankfully, but the great irony is that they didn’t check our passports at the airport, though our flight was really expensive for last minute tickets.

Near the train station was the Belvedere Museum, which has lots of really cool art. The Kiss, by Klimt is there. Adele Bloch Bauer used to be there too, but now it’s New York after a very publicized court battle because it was stolen by the Nazis. No pictures are permitted but it is a palace so the rooms are really cool. There is a replica of the Kiss that you’re allowed to take pictures with, but how lame is that? The ceilings are carved and have bulges. I thought to myself that they must’ve carved the whole ceiling in order to get bulges. It’s very impressive. I like this museum a lot. It even had a small medieval section with all the typical Jesus art. But it was the more modern section that really appealed to me. The grounds are pretty. There are actually two separate museums on opposite ends of the grounds, and we only did the upper one. But there are zodiac statues and a pretty garden in between.

We tried to go to Café Landtmann, but it was very expensive for dinner. Instead we had dinner at a restaurant Phil had recommended (and so does Michelin). It was really good. There is a beef broth they do with slices of pancakes in it. I had a good polenta, which is odd because I don’t usually like polenta. Then we tried to go to Café Central for dessert, but they closed early. So we went back to Café Landtmann, which was more reasonable for dessert. I had a warm apfelstrudel in vanilla sauce. It was so good. There was a pair of siblings (boy and girl) next to us that harmlessly (though quite racist) asked us if we three Chinese guys were siblings. We are not, and we countered jokingly that they look like siblings to us. And they were (or they were lying, also possible). Ironically, we ran into them again at Rathaus, and then we ran into the brother again at a Vietnamese restaurant the next morning. Small town.


Over the few days we were there, we crossed the opera house and Rathaus several times. We did a lot of walking and Ubering. I feel like I know the city now and how to get around. Uber is really cheap in Vienna, so we used it a lot (though it adds up). Also because Will is lazy and we’re spoiled. He’s the new Gianna with all the Ubering. The walking traffic lights are funny. They have weird figures on them. Some of them have two people holding hands, some are male, some female, some ambiguous.


The Rathaus has this incredible winter wonderland in front of it. It is really pretty with all the lights and it has a ton of activities. There are food stands and hot wine of course. There is curling even. But the main attraction is the skating rink, which actually isn’t a rink at all. It’s a skating course, which I’ve never seen before. It was really cool. It was a path that was made out of ice. We would’ve skated if the rentals weren’t so expensive and our time so short before closing.


And as if we didn’t have a full enough weekend, it was Super Bowl Sunday—we stayed up all night watching, even later than the previous night at the ball funnily enough. It was worth it though, I’m glad I didn’t go to sleep. We had a small TV in our Airbnb and watched there. The first half of the game was boring, but the last quarter was incredible. It was the biggest comeback ever, with the Patriots making up a 25 point deficit against the Falcons (Will is a Patriots fan). Even I admit it was a really exciting last quarter. I didn’t think it was going to happen. Yu didn’t really care, he went to sleep in the second quarter. He was unfamiliar with American football. I was excited for Lady Gaga, who killed it. The German commentary is super weird. They’re in what looks like an airplane hangar with a crowd watching the game. They had someone singing Michael Jackson and they are sponsored by “eat the ball” bread. Do they even know anything about football?

A lot of the other SAISers were put up in the same hotel and they were watching the game there. There was a small private plane that slipped off the runway in Bologna, making a mess, and so all flights to Bologna got canceled. The Italians couldn’t clean it fast enough because there is no efficiency in Italy, of course. Austrian Airlines had to put them up and they got buffet vouchers and everything. They ended up on our Monday flight.

The next day, none of our planning went right. We were going to go to Bratislava, but the times of the trains didn’t work out, because Will had to return his tuxedo and the place only opened at 10 and then we had to be back to catch our flight. They we wanted to go to Schonbrunn Palace, except it was raining. We ended up going there anyways because the Kunsthistoriches Museum was closed on Mondays. We didn’t pay to go in the Palace, just to the grounds, which is also very pretty and free and all we had time for.  There is a great view of the city from there. We had our luggage with us. There were locker options, but out plans kept changing so much. The right move would’ve just been to sit in a café or something. We were a little too ambitious. There is still plenty more to see in Vienna. I’d like to come back.

Will got me into the business lounge at the airport because he’s a frequent flyer on Star Alliance and Austrian is in the Alliance. I’ve never been in the lounge before. There’s lots of free food and drinks, fruits and really good chocolate mousse. There is a shower and a clean bathroom, comfortable chairs. We were living that high-roller life. He could also get in the priority line, but we knew everybody on the flight, so he didn’t want to be that guy visibly openly leaving everyone behind while he goes to priority. It’s one thing with strangers, but when you know everyone it’s awkward.

It was a very cool experience that I know I will never have again. It was a real life ball in a real life palace. How cool is that?


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