I tend to take educational trips to countries ending in the letter A. So yes, it was mighty tempting to head south to the Land of cigars, Tito Puente & the Buena Vista Social Club. After all, it's the nation that bred Queen of Salsa Celia Cruz and New York Yankees great Orlando ("El Duque") Hernandez Pedroso.
So when I heard rumors about the Mr. and Mrs. Sean Carters heading that way, I was feeling pretty confident about my trendy choice. Just like Jay Z, I've been billed as a modern rap-ster, known to summarize school topics like algebra and feudalism in rhyme. In fact, I was preparing some pretty hip Havana/ Manna/ Bandana/ Rihanna/Hosanna lyrics, when I realized that booking Cuba might prove a tad challenging. Why? Unlike Beyonce, I've
a) never been asked to sing the national anthem at the Superbowl;
b) never been invited to attend the Inauguration or host an Obama
c) never had a direct link to the Treasury Department.
And, by the way, am I crazy or didn't we all learn in high school Civics class that the Treasury Department was in charge of printing money, not authorizing trips across the border? And, if, by some stretch of governmental imagination, the Treasury did have the power to ok such trips, why wouldn't a loyal American citizen and creative rapper such as moi be greenlighted just like Mr. or Mrs. Carter?
And oh yes, what about the exchange part? If BC and JZ were taking in all this art and education in Cuba, what were they giving back?
My options were narrowing down to Argentina (I'm always up for some tango), Mongolia (why not ride with wild eagles?) and Colombia (siestas and the Cartagena beach sounded intriguing). For high anxiety reasons, Korea and Syria were out.
Then it hit me as I was watching an old Schwartzenegger movie. And pouf! I booked a flight to Vienna, Austria, home of the Lipizzaner stallions and Wienerschnitzel. After all, the April 18th anniversary of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations was approaching. And so I bagged Cuba, opting for the Blue Danube-a, flowing into one of the most historic, artistic and romantic cities in the world.
• Salsa or Waltz-a? How can you beat dancing in ¾ time to Strauss? Sure, salsa's more pulsating, and we bow to Celia, but the waltz is seeped in elegance and history. B & J-Z could have danced their fifth anniversary waltz!
• Noodle Strudel Masters & Pastors - Even if you can't pronounceTafelspitz and frittaten, the gastronomic beef broth apfel horseradish root vegetable noodle culture in Vienna is astounding. While munching divine topfenstrudel at Caffe Grienstiedl, I met my own personal pastor from Montreux Switzerland. I coined this curriculum "Viennese Pastry Pastoring 101."
• Melting Pot Yapping/Rapping/Clapping/Tapping - In Havana, Beyoncé could probably get by on her high school Spanish. But Vienna's the instant language lab. Jay-Z could have learned a mean Hungarian, Slovakian or Croatian rap from the taxi cab drivers alone.
Havana vendors may boast platanos and papayas, but Vienna's Rochusmarkt is a true stew goulash -- an exotic blend of Oriental, Mediterranean and Eastern European, from Persian caviar and Indian tandoori chicken to döner kebab and Turkish figs. While tasting olives and pistachios, I met a singer with a new art form: "Spiritain-ment." Talk about educational exchange...
• Coffee: Viennese or Havanese? Ok, so here we have a close toss-up. Cafe Cubano is nothing to sneeze at, but the Viennese coffeehouse culture is priceless. You can sit and sip Melange and Kapuziner till the cows or wienerschnitzels come home, reading your international newspapers, contemplating Freud, or analyzing Jay-Z lyrics. And, at the renowned Cafe Landtmann, I just happened to sit next to a German vocal coach who just happened to have worked with Beyonce... there are no coincidences.
• Black Beans or Black Pudding? We know Cubans love their frijoles negros, but who can beat the pluck, sweat and tears of Austrian blood sausage?
• Sugar Ramos vs. Sugary Pastries - I'd go a few rounds in the ring just to claim my slice of sacher torte. Cuban desserts like dulce de leche and flan are fine, but no contest for sweet vanillekipferl.
• Dumplings are Divine - again, Cubans may have cornered the market on Ropa Vieja and pork sandwiches, but those golden spinach, liver and bread dumplings are as huge as giant gnocchi or, yes, even matzoh balls.
• The (Heavenly) Sisters - Havana may have its Carmelite Sisters, but Vienna has Stephanushaus, a serene hostel for international guests, run by the Benedictine sisters. I began my Viennese educational exchange with a rather aloof Sister Christa, who reluctantly gave me hot rolls and coffee when I arrived late for breakfast. Witnessing my combo of poor German, pantomime and tears to explain my migraine, she escorted me to a freezer for my gel-pac. Next day she squeezed my hand. I call that a Viennese Sisterhood triumph.
• The (Singing) Sisters - America may have Venus and Serena, Malia and Sasha; and certainly the Kardashians. But none can compare to those peppy Puppini Sisters, the epitome of '40s Hollywood rich kitsch and glamma damma style. Sort of Bette Midler meets Katy Perry meets Rosie Clooney. The sassy trio stepped out amidst Vienna's grand opera, crooning tunes from Mr. Sandman to I Got Rhythm. Marcella Puppini (who left a plum fashion job at Vivienne Westwood to start her dream cabaret act) appears with a white crane plume angled geometrically in her hair; pouty-lipped/blonde-flipped Kate Mullins quips with auburn-haired buxom beauty Emma Smith in banter wittier than Lucy and Ethel. Babalu Desi, eat your Havana heart out!
Talk about Educational Exchange. This FSK 13 Culture Festival of dazzling damsels just might give Beyoncé some ideas for a 1940's Gershwin/Porter "Salute to America" nostalgia tour, maybe even with her own sister Solange.
So listen up, mein kinder Carters. We all know about Hemingway's love affair with Havana. But for your sixth anniversary, you might ask the Treasury Department to convert pesos to Euros... and drop Cuba for the Blue Danube-A.