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Food & Wine

How to survive the winter doldrums with Viennese flair

Unlike Cinderella, I've been invited to a ball. It would be nice if a fairy godmother sent me a ball gown, slippers and a carriage - and dancing lessons. Maybe it was she who sent me the brochure from the dance studio.

Austrians aren't born knowing how to waltz; they take dance lessons as teenagers. Attending one's first ball at 16 or 17 is an important rite of passage, where parents look on proudly as they reminisce about their own first formal wear, sweaty palms and excited anticipation.

There are balls that cater to different strata of society (the New Year's Ball in Vienna, for instance, which kicks off ball season and in a recent poll edged out coffeehouses as the best-loved symbol of Austria), but for the most part, balls are for everyone. Buy a ticket, assemble a group of friends and enjoy.

Balls are not the only way to brighten the cold, gloomy winter months. Music, theater, operas and operettas are ubiquitous.

Last night, I attended a performance of Emmerich Kálmán's "Die Zirkusprinzessin" (The Circus Princess) in the beautiful 1909 theater in the heart of Baden. The cast took three curtain calls after the three-hour performance, an opportunity used by an older couple in the first row to lean into the orchestra pit to heap abuse on the first violinist for playing out of tune. The poor fellow didn't know where to look as he stood with the orchestra while this couple dogged him from above and the cast continued taking bows every time the huge red velvet curtain swept open. They take their music very seriously in this town where Mozart and Beethoven composed part of their repertoire.

The big news is the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth. Mozart fever is sweeping the country - buildings where Mozart composed are being renovated and reopened, concerts planned, books issued and balls dedicated.

In Mozart's own words, "Music, even in situations of the greatest horror, should never be painful to the ear but should flatter and charm it, and thereby always remain music."

Mozart's home state of Salzburg will be crowded this summer since the famous Salzburg Festival has been designated "Mozart Year 2006." For dates and details about the 22 operas, 10 drama productions and 67 concerts scheduled, visit www.salzburgfestival.at.

Austrians pursue fitness and outdoor recreation with the same passion they bring to the arts. In every sort of weather, with ice and slush underfoot, they jog or Nordic walk (brisk walking with ski poles) or promenade their dogs along the wooded trails. Every town has an ice-skating rink. My daughter and I taught a group of local children how to play Crack-the-Whip. A little shy, (but reluctant to miss out on fun), more and more children joined in until we had a laughing, screaming "whip" flying around the ice.

On weekends, families take to the nearby mountains to ski, snowboard and snowshoe. They bring a competitive spirit. A man I know broke both bones in his lower leg last weekend - while sledding. Even family dogs are part of the action; they gallop up and down the slopes chasing after sleds and occasionally are harnessed for the uphill part of the journey.

Clean air and water are considered a human right, vital for health. Locals distinguish among mountain air and forest air and relative air quality in different regions and villages. "Ah, Losenheim, the air is good there," they'll say before they ask how you liked it and what you did there.

I asked my cousin why so many people smoke in a country that values pure air so heartily. He explained that since the air is so good, the baseline damage to lungs is much lower, so they don't worry about smoking. I'm not buying it, but there you have it.

Eva Ciabattoni is a Los Altos resident and freelance writer living on the outskirts of Vienna for one year. Her family roots go back generations in Baden, Austria.

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