The Viewing Shelf
That's what we affectionately call it in English. I don't know what Austrians call it. I should ask them. The Viewing Shelf is part of an Austrian toilet bowl. I've been meaning to write about it for four years. It's now the last day before we leave Austria forever. The clock is ticking. I feel cornered. I want to get this story in the can, so to speak. But there is so little time.
This will be my last blog post here. It's the last of 135 posts. I think I'll put the humor aside so we can talk about all I've learned. How I've grown in four years. What I can share with the world.
But I can't get the Viewing Shelf off my mind.
Toilets are different here in Austria. The toilets I'm used to have a large reservoir of clean water at the back to catch falling matter. Sometimes, if all goes well, the stuff just plunges through the water vanishing into the pipes like my college ring that time. In Austria it works differently. There is a flat shelf at the back where the water should be and the drain pipe is at the front of the toilet. In simple terms, the toilet is reversed and would work perfectly well if your urinary tract and anus were exchanged. For a long time I didn’t understand the design and I tried to use it sitting backwards. I don't recommend that. You risk pulling your groin.
So here's the deal with the Viewing Shelf. When it goes, and by that I mean when it falls, crash-lands, slap-lands, flops-down, and/or splatters onto this shelf it rests there. It waits. It waits until you stand up, give it one nice (long) look (you can't help yourself), and then you flush it down. But the flush is different. A quick blast of water from the back of the toilet propels the material forward and down the drain, which is at the front, which it not where you ass was (if you remember). What does this mean? Well, all the material sat on that shiny clean white ceramic shelf while you filed your nails, read that Maxim article, or finished the Sudoku puzzle. During this time it cemented to the bowl. The high-pressure water is powerful, strong enough to scrape last night's meal off the shelf and down the drain, but you're left with three nasty streaks. Twelve if you've had schnitzel and beers.
In the US the toilet brush is an optional accessory. Here, it's a necessity.
I've heard explanations of why the Shelf exists. In fact, I've spent the better part of my four years in Austria searching for the truth behind the Viewing Shelf. The purpose of it. The secret behind it. Austrians are not arbitrary in their design. There is always a reason for the things they say and things they do; such as why you shouldn't sit at the table with your hand in your lap, as we are taught in the USA. Austrians wonder what you're doing under the table with your hidden hand. It's not a bad point.
During the course of my investigation, I've asked many Austrians about the Shelf. Austrians are usually puzzled when I ask them about it. Perhaps they are unaware that other toilet designs exist. Some Austrians say the design uses less water. Possible. Some say it's to avoid the splash of water you can get back on your ass. That's true. But the answer I've heard most often…
It smells less.
It smells less? A turd in the open air is less smelly than underwater? Are you serious?
Bah! I've unofficially concluded that the Viewing Shelf actually stems from a sick, Europe-only fecal perversion.
Four Years in Austria
I'm sitting in our empty apartment, just a sofa, a chair, a suitcase and a bed. I just looked at my watch. I've only got 36 hours before I hop on a plane. Forget the Shelf, I need to provide some context to my years here, my 135 posts of mindless rambling. I need to reflect on four years living overseas. I need to figure out if I've learned or if I've grown.
Four years changes a man. I greet people with a kiss to both cheeks. I eat with a utensil in each hand. I carry flowers upside down. I reuse my grocery bags, I turn off lights to save electricity, I walk more than I drive. I wear scarves in summer and sometimes I wear them indoors. I say ciao instead of good-bye and cheers instead of thanks. It's not soccer it's football. I obey crosswalks but I cut in line when I think I can get away with it and if you look at me on the street I'm going to scowl. I never leave home without an umbrella. I don't wear baseball caps and everything I wear is a size too small. I like dark bread, cold schnapps and thick espressos. I like to learn other languages and I'm patient with those who don't know mine. I'll say hello and good-bye to every person in the elevator. I'll never put my hand in my lap during a meal and to hell with the feet and yards, I'm fully metric.
And I'm taking all this back with me. I can't help it. It's who I am. I'm European now.
Okay, I can hear you all. "No, Greg, you're not European. You lived there for a measly ten percent of your life. You still love ice cubes, NFL and Denny's and if I were going to give you a label I'd call you a jackass before anything else."
Jackass. I agree with that. That gives me an idea. I'm going to combine jackass with my being European. Here's how. First off, when I touch ground in the US of A, I'm only going to use metric, you know, kilometers and kilograms. You have heard of these, right? Well I'm bringing metric back with me and when someone looks confused or scared or angry when I say grams or centimeters, I'll tell them this:
"It's how we do it in Europe."
Now that’s some European jackassness.
And if they ask why I'm wearing a scarf when it's 80, I'll say coolly that it's only 28 to me because I'm European and then I'll add, "It's how we do it in Europe."
I'm seriously considering it. I think the US can stand to learn from a European like me. I think metric is the place to start. Why? It has nothing to do with the practical nature of a base-10 measuring system founded on logic, it's because for the last four years I've been baking my chicken at 200 and I've never gotten sick. That is gangster!
I'm not just bringing metric back, I'm going on a metric crusade! I'll be easy on you from the start. My first lesson to my American comrades will be the meter. I know you're scared already but a meter is pretty easy to remember. If I lined a long row of alternating sun dried tomatoes, Italian olives and bonbons, and I asked if it was one yard long or one meter wrong, you'd be correct no matter what you'd say because they are virtually the same. Try it. Replace meter for yard and you're on your way.
But there are more reasons. For all you round-the-year-thanksgiving-eaters, you should switch to the kilogram because it makes you sound like you're half as fat. As for the kilometer, it kicks ass. Sixty mph is a whopping 130. I routinely drive 150 on the highways. That's some cool shit. Listen, for the dietary aspects and the seemingly incredible speeds the metric system is simply way cooler than the English system, and by the way, yes, it is not the US system but the English system. Not only do we use the language of the UK, we also use their system of measurement. And we call ourselves independent. Independent my ass.
Before I ramble into a very long account of everything I want to say here at the end, I'd first like to thank the Attaché for getting the job. It was the experience of a lifetime for me, and us, and you deserve full credit for getting us here. While I've been piddling around on the soccer field, at the grocer, pecking away at my novel, and generally having the time of my life you've been working hard, making our nuclear-world safer. For all of you who have not heard, the Attaché's work did not go unnoticed. She was recognized by the Ambassador here as the best diplomat he's seen in 31 years of public service.
On account of her kick ass job, not only is the Attaché going to be the first inductee into the gregorykemp.com Hall of Fame, I am hereby retiring the name Attaché. No longer will she be known to the world as the Attaché. She is now…
Of course, I'd also like to recognize the support of our families and friends because I have to tell you, experiences are always much more fun when shared. Thanks to all my readers and especially those who dared to comment here at gregorykemp.com Also, we've made many new friends, both ex-pats and Austrians, and I hope we will see you all again one day.
One thing I'm going to miss is soccer. 120 matches. 33 goals. 9 yellow cards. 2 red cards. One broken foot. One broken thumb. A visit to the police. And one use of my diplomatic immunity get-out-of-jail-free-card. My football club, AS-Koma, was the most organized club I've ever played for. We had sponsorship, a paid coach, we won the league title several times. I played every chance I could, I made great friends, had lots of laughs. There is a tradition in Austria in which a retiring player has an Abschiedsspiel, a farewell game. My final game was a few weeks ago. I was injured and the doctor told me not to play. I didn't listen, how many farewell games does one have? My intent was to play the first half and then spend the second half icing my injuries and saying farewell. We were losing 2-0 at halftime and I really didn't want to end my career with a loss. Andy, a key player, gave a nice half-time speech calling everyone to, "Do it for Greg." I decided to play on. Everything was in place for the comeback story of my life.
We got annihilated 5-0, my biggest lost in 4 years with the club. So goes my final game.
Man has it been great. It's been a big part of my life here, not only in Vienna but traveling around Europe doing half-marathons: Malta, Iceland, Hungary to name a few. I've covered about 3000 miles while I was here. My favorite run is the 3 mile loop around Vienna's old city. I figure I've run the Ringstrasse about 200 times, totaling 600 miles. That's a lot of time out there. I'll miss seeing Rathaus, Parliament, Opera House, drunk dudes at Schwedenplatz. When I'm done writing here (if I ever get finished) I'm going to lace up my running shoes and do a final run around the ring. I might cry.
What I'll Miss What I'm Looking Forward To
There's a lot I'll miss here in Austria. Walking to the store, the architecture, the timeless statues, the sneaky alleys, the big oak doors, streetcars, language, the weather (cooler summers and warmer winters than DC), new friends, soccer, Icepresso, ½ liter beers, and the metric system, of course! I'm looking forward to returning home. I'm looking forward seeing our families more often, all those shopping conveniences, the lake by our house, building a cabin in West Virginia, my old running trails, and being a jackass. It's so much easier to be a jackass in English.
What's Next for Us?
So what's ahead for us? How can we top the experience of a lifetime? Well, we're going back to Maryland but first we're taking a 2 month vacation. The Diplomat has worked 19 years for the NRC and this is a unique chance for her to take an extended break before the second half of her career. On Oct. 2nd, our 11th wedding anniversary, we're flying to Dubai. Then we'll go to China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong, then a month in Australia in a camper finally ending in Tasmania, a place I've wanted to go for a very long time.
Trying to Make Sense of It All, aka Conclusions
Forgive me for all my meandering. When I started writing this, I really didn't have much of a plan. I just wanted to cover the topic of the Viewing Shelf and figure out really what these four years were all about. First off, I think it was about seeing what's out there. It was about adventure, about fun and new experiences. It's about realizing what's great in another country, and at the same time, what's great about mine. Most of my thoughts are on the United States right now. I'm looking forward to returning. But I see America differently now. America is a place of choices, creativity, and leadership. It's also a place of arrogance, ignorance, and fear. There is no place like it; there are endless opportunities and unnecessary conveniences. Too many roads and stadiums but not enough trains. People are friendly. People smile when you look at them. That's nice. Americans are fat. The cities are boring but the national parks are unmatched and by God I'm going to see more of our parks. I still can't believe you can go three thousand miles without crossing a border and you can mail a letter from Florida to Alaska for 44 cents. That's just crazy. As for the taxes, we are one of the lowest-taxed developed countries in the world. I'm happy to pay my taxes. I think as an American I get a lot for my money.
But Europe is great too. There is history, real history. The cities are incredible. Things are cleaner. Europe has something called the train. The question I ask myself is this: which is better? Europe or America? Dare I answer this? Do I need to pass judgment? Can I be objective when I dearly love my own country? I bet you want to hear what I have to say.
It's a no-brainer.
America is the better place. You know why?
Right there, that's why. (Relax, it's just a bratwurst.) US toilets are not showrooms for bowel movements. I never want to see those filthy streak marks in my toilet bowl again. I'm so happy to move to the land of the watery catch basin. I am so looking forward to that ice cold ass-splash…
America, here I come. (Well, after I evaluate Asian and Australian toilets anyway.)
Lastly, here are a few final pictures of Vienna, Austria. I took these pictures over the last few months as I said my good-bye.
Please check-in at gregorykemp.com in October and November as I report from the eastern frontier!
Signing off from Austria...
-Greg (formerly Mr. Hausfrau)