I had never heard of Graz, Austria, until I met a scholar from the University of Graz at a conference two years ago. Learning that she ran a center for American studies, I asked if she could use me if I got a short-term Fulbright grant. First, she said, you must learn to pronounce the city’s name correctly: It is Gratz. I know only a few German words, I admitted to her.
Nevertheless, for five weeks this fall I taught writing by black women and American Indian women writers. Students at Uni-Graz (as it is called) come from all over Europe. A few come from Asia, Israel and the Middle East. On the first day, I was startled to see veiled women in the front row, from Morocco and Jordan, but soon learned that online women’s studies courses from UMass Amherst had prepared them well for our course readings.
Graz is a wonderful city, honored by UNESCO for its combination of preserved old architecture from the Hapsburg empire and modern architectural masterpieces. When Graz was named a cultural capital of Europe in 2003, architects created a huge whale-shaped building with many spouts coming out of the sides and top. This is the Kunsthaus, or art museum, officially named “The Friendly Alien.”
It’s never too late to explore and be surprised by what you encounter.
As I wandered the streets of a city apparently completely devoid of American influence, I felt like a friendly alien myself. Later I discovered a Pearl Vision shop and on the outskirts of town a Shell station. Graz may be the only large European city to have escaped a Starbucks.
The huge main cathedral, the Dom, has sections dating from the medieval period. The emperors had a palace across from the Dom. On an outside wall in the courtyard of the palace, I found a plaque honoring a 13th century rabbi. Centuries later, of course, Jews were slaughtered or driven out.
Religious symbolism is everywhere in Graz. In the huge plaza next to City Hall, for example, is a wall painted with St. Christopher carrying the baby Jesus, and across from that a statue of the virgin Mary crushing a snake with her foot. In another plaza is an enormous gold statue of Mary on a high pedestal. I discovered that a city tram went all the way to a magnificent baroque cathedral, Mariatrost (our Lady of Consolation).
Although most Austrians pay a tax to the Catholic church, the country seems largely secular. Those raised Catholic whom I met respect church history and the cathedrals and value the wonderful church choirs but do not go to church.
Public transportation in Graz is first-rate: Trams and buses running every few minutes cover the city. The large, modern train station has a stunning ceiling painting titled “The Big Bang.”
Because Uni-Graz has 40,000 students, experimental music, art and theater enrich the cultural life of the city, and its beautiful opera house escaped bombing in World War II.
A friend familiar with Graz told me that Austrian hospitality is exceptional, but I was not prepared for the extreme warmth and kindness of the staff of the Center for Inter-American Studies, where I was assigned. They arranged private tours for me, treated me to meals (dinner in Graz can take three hours), introduced me to professors who would be interested in my work, helped me with the Internet when Fairpoint refused my password, made sure the office table was well supplied with chocolate.
People on the street were friendly, too, sometimes going out of their way give directions. I was mystified by the contrast between the large quantities of chocolate, pastry, sausage and beer consumed and the slender look of nearly all of the people. How do they do it?
The Styria region of southern Austria where Graz is located is famous for its pumpkin seeds and pumpkin seed oil. Styria is also a wine region. In fact, the highest vineyard in Europe is several miles from Graz. Locals go there in the fall to drink Schilcher Sturm, a seasonal red wine from the first grape crush. I drank it whenever I could, finding it even at the farmers’ market.
Two really bad things about Graz are air pollution cigarette smoking. Tram stops reeked of tobacco. The nonsmoking sections of most restaurants cannot keep out the stench of tobacco.
Despite these drawbacks, I hope to return.
Margaret Cruikshank is a faculty associate of the University of Maine Center on Aging and a former lecturer in women’s studies at the university. She was recently a Fulbright senior scholar in American Studies and Aging at the University of Graz in Austria.