Tom Simard

Poetry, Music, and Prose

Archive for the tag “Christmas”

The Pet Shop

Having an aquarium meant going somewhere to get our fish. It must have been the only place nearby. Otherwise, it makes no sense why we went there.

The pet shop was a one-floor brick structure all alone on a corner surrounded by thick forest. Lest you think my own backyard was slack in this regards, besides the numerous oak, maple, and cottonwood trees, there was a wonderful willow that always struck a pose somewhere between mourning and supplication, a birch whose bark was second to none, and huge pine trees that at Christmas time were hung with lights that took forever to be untangled. There were lots of squirrels and chipmunks, all sorts of birds and not just sparrows, blackbirds, robins, and bossy blue jays. Once we even spotted what we were convinced was an Ivory-billed Woodpecker but probably was just a Pileated Woodpecker. Which is which, by the way?

800px-Ivory-billed_Woodpecker_by_Jerry_A._Payne(Photographers: Arthur A. Allen and Jerry A. Payne)

PileatedWoodpeckerFeedingonTree(Photographer: Joshlamon)

Raccoons occasionally peered from above, and at nights, sometimes, overturned garbage cans.

800px-Raccoon_female(Photographer:  Gordon E. Robertson)

Salamanders hid in leaves, and deer every so often would grace us with their presence.

But on that windy back road to the pet shop, it was as if you’d taken a detour and were smack dab in the middle of nowhere.


It was always dark despite the eerie light that came from row after row of aquariums that were seldom if ever cleaned. There was also a terrible smell that made my relatives’ cattle ranch resemble the latest Fendi fragrance. Various birds sat perched in rusty cages, the floors of which were covered with a sandpaper-like material that was always splattered.

We tried to make the experience as painless as possible and were fairly successful in this regard, my usual indecisiveness suddenly conquered by my even stronger sense of smell.

After a quick tour of the tiny, claustrophobic establishment we were in possession of several baggies filled to bursting with water.

The owner, a short unshaven man, went about slowly punching the keys of the cash register, having difficulty making out the numbers despite his reading glasses. He reeked of tobacco and this in an era when nearly everyone smoked, which might be, if you are willing to accept the latest quackery coming out of the medical profession, a sign of mental illness.

After taking our cash, he began to talk to us about the Good Shepherd. My father, who despite his Catholic upbringing was not religious but infinitely patient, nodded his head as the man rambled on, and we made our escape. While leaps and bounds was what we would have preferred, slow backward steps are what were taken.

We were relieved to be outside and able to take deep breaths of fresh air.

“Does a good shepherd take care of his sheep?” my dad asked.


We flew into Vienna a few days before Christmas, and through a complete fluke found ourselves in the best hotel we’ve ever stayed at.


It was about a minute or two on foot from Belvedere and about a mile and a half from the center. Nearby was a rink where we skated:


Vienna has plazas and stately buildings.


(Photographer: Jorge Lascar)

The Kunsthistorisches is one of the best art museums I have ever been to:

Brueghel Tower of BablePieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Tower of Babel

466px-Raffael_030Raphael’s Madonna of the Meadow

Arcimboldo,_Giuseppe_SummerGiuseppe Arcimboldo’s Summer

The Albertina is impressive:

Durer_Young_HareDürer’s The Young Hare

510px-Maler_und_KäuferPieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Painter and The Buyer

If you visit Prater, you will no doubt ride the Ferris Wheel made famous in The Third Man. We went on a gloomy day, and our cabin was decidedly rundown, but we still got a good view of the city. No zither music was heard.

In the Sala Terrena we heard a string quartet perform pieces by Mozart, Bach, and Haydn. The latter being a favorite, we made a pilgrimage on 3 separate occasions to his home but each time found it closed. Don’t let anyone tell you there aren’t disadvantages of traveling during the holidays.


A visit to Vienna would not be complete without seeing the Schönbrunn Palace. As palaces go, I invariably find the exterior more appealing than the interior. Enjoy the Christmas markets with their ornaments and knicknacks. Try the hot spiced wine.  While not to our liking, others seemed genuinely enamored by it.


(Photographer: David M. Cerna)

The food we had throughout our stay was good – schnitzel and sausages the basic fare. However, on New Year’s Eve we treated ourselves to a four-course dinner atop the Danube Tower, which while quite a walk from the underground stop did take us through a park with lamp posts that brought to mind Lucy’s first trip to Narnia.

Vienna is well known for its pastry shops. Although Café Sacher is probably the most famous, I would avoid it at all costs. It wasn’t that there was anything terribly wrong with what we had, but neither was it worth waiting in line for an hour only to be served by an overly stuffy waiter and afterwards be given a bill so inflated one could not help but wonder whether the hyperinflation of the 1920s had returned. My willingness to occasionally be drawn into tourist traps no doubt has its origin in the family vacations of my youth.

Please do visit others though as your sweet tooth will be thoroughly satisfied. On our last day, we stumbled upon one whose display window itself was a work of art.  We struggled to make ourselves understood (I’ve forgotten what little German I had.), and then sat in the company of two old women in furs and a man slowly sipping his coffee as he paged through his newspaper.

Vienna is a beautiful city, and is well-worth visiting, but it does have a darker side.  Scroll up to the third photo. It is Heidenplatz where the Anschluss took place. It is also the name of a play by Thomas Bernhard whose Wittengstein’s Nephew should be on everyone’s shelf.

Should you find yourself in Judenplatz, you will come across this:


(Photographer: Hans Peter Schaefer)

The inscriptions below the door reads:

Zum Gedenken an die mehr als 65 000 österreichischen Juden,
die in der Zeit von 1938 bis 1945 von den
Nationalsozialisten ermordet wurden.

זכר למעלה מ-65.000 יהודים אוסטריים
שנרצחו בשנים 1945-1938
.ע”י הפושעים הנציונלסוציאליסטיים ימ”ש

In commemoration of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews
who were killed by the Nazis between
1938 and 1945.

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