Seven Days. Three Countries.
By Garett Auriemma ’85
I’m 4,700 miles from home, I’m sitting in a church organ loft, and I’ve got chills.
Not because I’ve managed to cajole the church administrator into finally shutting down the giant heater that, until just moments before, had been noisily baking the left side of my head. But because below me, 44 members of the Fenwick Band and Choir are giving a performance that most musicians—most anyone, really—could only dream of.
We’re in the Minoritenkirche, a nearly 700-year-old Gothic cathedral in Vienna, Austria. It’s Spring Break, and we’re at the halfway point in the Fenwick Band and Choir European tour— seven days, three cities, three performances.
This is the group’s second performance. The first performance, two nights earlier at the Danube Palace in Budapest, had led to raucous applause and requests for encores. Likewise, the final performance, at Hlahol Music Hall in Prague two days later, would see the student vocalists and musicians in top form before another packed house of enthusiastic concertgoers.
The Minoritenkirche concert, however, elevates the already extraordinary to the sublime. The choir voices spread throughout the cathedral, becoming one with the building, while the instrumentalists’ final notes resonate throughout the structure for what seems like an eternity.
Had you told me the church walls themselves were singing, I would have believed you without hesitation.
* * *
When I initially decided to take part in the trip, I did so as an opportunity to visit parts of Europe that had thus far escaped me, and to share the experience with my son, Evan, a sophomore and member of the Fenwick Wind Ensemble.
Although our itinerary was jam-packed, a few weeks removed from the trip, I’m finding that, along with the performances, what my mind flashes back to frequently are the “moments between the moments.”
The “moments” are exactly what you’d expect: the walking tours, the museums, the guided visits to landmarks and castles—the itinerary items that were carefully planned out, timed, and pre-arranged. The “moments between the moments,” though, are those bits that didn’t show up on the itinerary—the times we took Europe into our own hands and decided to see what was there.
In Budapest, one of those moments between the moments was a post-performance, after-dinner walk (fully condoned and chaperoned) to a castle-like structure that we had glimpsed from our touring coach earlier in the day. Crossing under the regal entryway, we learned that the building was actually the “Magyar Mezogazdasagi Muzeum,” or Hungarian Agricultural Museum, although from a distance, and illuminated under the night sky, it could have served as a stand-in for Hogwarts’ Eastern European counterpart in the Harry Potter universe.
Though the museum was closed, the grounds remained open, providing us with a serene, fairy tale evening in the midst of modern-day Budapest. Harry Potter never turned up, but it was magical nonetheless.
* * *
In addition to chaperoning my own son, I was also assigned the responsibility for a small group of additional students. My group —”Best Group Ever,” as we humbly christened ourselves—quickly bonded. Specifically, we bonded over schnitzel.
An initial lunchtime excursion in Budapest had led us and another chaperoned group to a small 20-seat cafe, 18 seats of which we filled. While the server tried his best to steer us toward the (likely already prepared) “Tourist Lunch,” we opted for variations on prepared-to-order Hungarian schnitzel. We were hooked.
Flash forward two days, and fresh off the coach in Vienna, there was a temptation among several of my bus-weary charges who eyed familiar-looking arches on a restaurant storefront to take the path of least resistance, food-wise. Risking the wrath of hungry teenagers, however, I stood my ground, reminding them that we were only in Europe for a short time, and that we had only a few meals on our own. And I could not, in good conscience, allow those meals to take place at an American fast food chain.
The area in which we alighted was rich with open-air food stands and vendors–many of them schnitzel-based. Recalling the experience in Budapest, we picked one, and thus began another moment between the moments—my group’s obsession with “street schnitzel.” From that point forward, any independent dining opportunity included at least one — and sometimes several — attempts to secure additional schnitzel.
* * *
Later in Vienna, following the performance at the Minoritenkirche, an after-hours visit to — of all places — an amusement park, provided yet another unexpected moment between the moments. From our hotel, we could see the Wiener Riesenrad, or “Vienna Giant Wheel,” a 200-foot-tall Ferris wheel that pierced the Vienna sky. It was originally constructed in the late 1800s, and until the mid-1980s, it was the tallest Ferris wheel in the world. We were later reminded that the Reisenrad had a rich cinematic history as well, having been featured in classic films such as The Third Man.
At the time, however, we knew none of that. What we did know was that it was still relatively early, the weather was beautiful and there were a whole bunch of other rides near the Ferris wheel. Those other rides were part of the Wurstelprater, or just “the Prater,” as it is often referred to, an area of a park in Vienna that has been designated as a public amusement and recreation area since the mid-1700s.
While the Prater at first appeared to be closed (or closing), the rides were in full swing. So, armed with Euros for admission to the rides and the boundless energy that can only come from being a teenager roaming an amusement park in Europe, the kids (and a few chaperones) embarked on an impromptu history lesson/adrenaline rush that lingered long after their curfew and lights out.
* * *
Prague, the final stop on our tour, provided more moments than should logically be able to fit into one day. As we walked the city, from Prague Castle through Lesser Town, across the Charles Bridge into Old Town, every turn, every street in Prague revealed itself to be more beautiful and more majestic than the one prior. It gave us enough moments — and enough moments between the moments — to last several lifetimes.
It also gave us trdelník.
A trdelník, for the uninitiated, is a rolled pastry cylinder that is baked, stuffed with Nutella, ice cream or other filling, and then—and this is the important part—coated in actual magic. By my unofficial estimation, it is literally impossible to take more than five steps in any direction in the Czech Republic without encountering a trdelník stand. Failure to consume a trdelnik in Prague is, I believe, punishable by law. Or at least it should be.
* * *
I’m back in the Minoritenkirche organ loft. Not literally, of course. Literally, I’m in an office in downtown Chicago, 4,700 miles from that loft. But mentally, I’m back in Vienna, surrounded by the majesty of the cathedral and embraced by the sound of our student musicians. I close my eyes and I hear their performance anew.
The church walls sing again. And I still get chills.
* * *
My thoughts on this extraordinary trip would not be complete without a shout-out of gratitude to Fenwick Band Directors Ms. Rizelle Capito and Mr. Andrew Thompson, without whom the promise of this unforgettable adventure would have remained unfulfilled; to Mr. Brennan Roach and Mr. Phillip Videckis for leading and accompanying the Fenwick Choir; to the other Fenwick parents who helped make the week so memorable for everyone, especially the students; and to “Best Group Ever” for being .. .well, you know, the best group ever. Thank you. The next round of street schnitzel is on me.
About the Author
Alumnus Garett Auriemma ’85, is Director of Communications and Development for the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS), a Chicago-based national animal protection nonprofit organization. He has worked as a marketing, communications and development professional in the Chicago area for 30 years, primarily in the nonprofit sector. Prior to joining NAVS, Mr. Auriemma was Director of Marketing and Communications for the American Brain Tumor Association and Vice President of Marketing and Communications for the Epilepsy Foundation of Greater Chicago (EFGC). He served as Interim President of the EFGC from 2005 to 2006. Over the course of his career, Mr. Auriemma has also directed general marketing, public relations and communications activities for Oak Park Hospital, Borders Books and Music, the Chicago Sinfonietta, Levy Home Entertainment and Proviso Township High Schools.
Mr. Auriemma received his B.A. in English from Rosary College in River Forest, and his M.A. in Communications from Northwestern University. While at Fenwick, he served as editor of The Wick. He and his wife, Brenda, live in Chicago with their son Evan (’21), daughter Rowan (Future Friar ’24) and dog Maddie.