Monday, July 05, 2004


St. Fiachre is the patron saint of Dublin cabbies and I wonder if there is any connection at all with the horse cabs of downtown Vienna. Here they're called "Fiaker" and they are everywhere. The taxi we took from the Westbahnhof to our hotel was the kind with a motor in front, driven by a jumpy African gentleman who came to screeching halts just inches away from cars and people and other obstructions, cursing and swearing the whole time in broken German. I suppose that was for our benefit; had he been alone he would have been screaming in his own language. Our hotel, when we jerked to a final halt ("Everybody OK?") was right in the heart of the Old City only a five-minute walk from the central landmark of Vienna, St. Stephen's cathedral. This is "Stefansdom" in German, but to the locals it's known as "Steffl", which is like calling the place Steve or Stevie. No matter what it's called you most certainly can't ignore it: it's slap bang in the middle of town and dwarfs everything else around it.

I'm going to stop here and see if I can dig up what I wrote about Vienna the last time I was here. That might be interesting. Then again ....

Vienna under the Habsburgs controlled a ramshackle polyglot Empire that embraced, in whole or part, nearly every modern country of Eastern Europe. In this century Austria has shrunk to such miniscule proportions that the erstwhile imperial city with all the overblown pomposity of its architecture seems laughably out of proportion to the rest of the country. In the course of several visits over the years I have tried to develop enthusiasm for Vienna but without much success. The art museums are magnificent; the musical performances are still among the best in the world; the "heurige" wines are tasty, cheap and plentiful; the pastries and cakes are magnificent, a glutton's dream of paradise; and the grand old coffee shops still provide international newspapers and magazines that one can spend the whole day reading for the price of a single "Einspanner" (what the Viennese call "Viennese Coffee"). This is all very true. But it's still a smug, self-satisfied, very inward-looking city, and the fabled Viennese charm doesn't hold up to close inspection -- it's not in the least bit genuine. The natives when they're not ostentatiously ignoring you adopt one of their two modes of expression: astonishing rudeness or fawning servility. Nor is it the Blue Danube that runs through the city, it's the Danube Canal, and both, in any case, are a turbid browny-yellow. Perhaps I'm being a little one-sided? Perhaps. Vienna has been trading on its romantic reputation for a long time: it's about time someone took a swipe at the place.

"Look," said the taxi driver as we drove from the Westbahnhof to the Hungarian Embassy, "nobody really likes the bastard (we were discussing the President of Austria, a suspected war criminal) but we didn't want to be told how to vote, either. The damned World Jewish Council made such a fuss that it became the main issue in the election." I remarked that whether Waldheim was guilty or not he had still lied about his past. The driver snorted in derision. "There must be half a million old guys running around this country who don't want to talk about the war. And who can blame them?" Well, maybe the 200,000 Jews who once lived in Vienna; there's less than 10,000 of them now. But I didn't say it. I was still reeling from the effects of the Westbahnhof.

Most of the big railway stations in Europe act as a sort of magnet for drifters, drunks, and the homeless, but Vienna's Westbahnhof is in a class of its own. I had arrived from Munich on the morning train and after changing some money had gone to the main buffet-restaurant for breakfast. At 8 in the morning the place was crawling with raucous drunks. I was to be in and out of the Westbahnhof several times during my stay and no matter what time of day or night I happened by the restaurant was full of people boozed up to their eyeballs. I even came to recognize some of the regulars. It reminded me of years ago when I came down here to see off Dean, a friend who was leaving for Munich. Since there was plenty of time before his train we went to this same restaurant for a few farewell beers and because the place was packed (as usual) some of the regular boozers joined us. They became quite maudlin when they heard that Dean was leaving. Nothing would do when the time came but that they'd all come down to the platform to see him off and, sure enough, the whole crew came stumbling after us. Dean told me later he woke up on the train the next morning in Germany with one of these guys snoring away under his seat. He had jumped onto the train while the rest of us had been saying goodbye on the platform. To avoid the ticket inspector he had hidden under the seat and fallen asleep. He came to on the other side of the border with no ticket, no passport, no money, no coat, and was last seen waving forlornly from an empty platform in the middle of a snowstorm.

The Hungarian Embassy was packed to overflowing with visa applicants. Waiting patiently in line is something everybody who visits the Eastern Bloc must get used to: waiting around at the embassy could be seen as an initiation into life "on the other side". When I emerged several hours later it was pouring down rain so I decided to buy an umbrella, which was not at all cheap (this being Vienna) and shortly self-destructed. It was one of those compact, spring-loaded models where you push a button and WHAP! it opens out. That's the theory. Not much later in the day I nearly beheaded some poor woman when the top part came whizzing off the handle like a rocket. When a sudden shower began I'd forget to aim it against a wall first and the damned thing would go flying off in the air. The Viennese would stare and edge away from me in frozen horror. A few days later when the same thing happened in Budapest the Hungarians would all burst out laughing.

Although shorn of its imperial grandeur Vienna still performs one of its old functions as a clearing house for all the nationalities of the old Empire. They say in Vienna that the East begins at the Mexikoplatz, a huge drab market on the banks of the Danube. It was just as apparent in the Mariahilferstrasse near the centre where hordes of Hungarians and other non-Austrian types were loading up with cut-rate goods to bring home with them. It was to Vienna that most of the Hungarian refugees fled after the failed rebellion in 1956, just as the Czechs were to do after the Russian invasion in 1968. There's not much love lost between their former imperial subjects and the Austrians, though. In 1867, long before the First World War put an end to the Habsburgs, the Hungarians had wrested virtual independence from them. The Czechs were perennially restive as were all the other Slavic nationalities and the aging Emperor, the walrus-like Franz Joseph, lost both his wife and his heir to assassins. The Austrians, of course, were German-speakers and as champions of Germanic culture had a tendency to ram it down the throats of the "lesser breeds". They insisted on the superiority of all things German in a way that the German-speaking Swiss, very significantly and very successfully for the future of their country, did not. The other nationalities of the Empire, the Hungarians, Italians, Czechs, Rumanians, Poles, Croats, Slovenes, Ruthenians, Slovaks, and so on and so forth, were singularly unimpressed, and referred to imperial rule as "Kakka". This came from the official initials "K.u.K."-- Kaiserliche und Königliche (Imperial and Royal) -- which the obstructive and all-too-numerous German-speaking bureaucrats carried as a talisman and badge of office into all the towns and remotest villages. In the vast sprawl of the 19th century Austrian Empire many of the linguistically and culturally estranged farmers and townsmen and traders, these vast swarms of ordinarily apolitical folk, began to conclude that Kakka just about summed it up. Kakka means shit.

The Austrians had fought the Prussians in 1866 and lost, as usual, not for the defense of hearth and home but as jealous rivals for the leadership of the European Germans. The Prussians went on to unite Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm I (1871) and subsequently the two great German empires in Europe became allies that stood together -- and fell together -- in the First World War. Germany was allowed to keep most of its territory after the war but Austria was pared down to its German-speaking heartland, which reduced it to only a small fraction of its former size. The 1920s and 30s were hard and hungry times for this shrunken country and it is no secret that Hitler's Anschluss of 1938 was greeted with hysterical delight on the streets of Vienna. The Austrian-born Fuehrer had reunited "das deutsche Volk" and was poised to make them masters of Europe. Most of the Austrians were all for the idea. and were proud to claim Hitler as one of their own. When he brought the walls of Europe crashing down on their ears, however, he became a foreigner again and they disowned him in double-quick time.

The following morning I was on the 9:20 express to Budapest . . . .

What happened next? Hungary happened next which I thought was a great place. It made me laugh which Vienna certainly didn't. But we didn't go there this time.

This time in Vienna I had to revise a few of my outspoken opinions from former times. When you go back to any place that you didn't like before you can either shut your eyes and pretend it's the same or open them and see the differences. Usually it's not as bad as you thought. But never go back to a place where you were happy in the past, particularly if you lived there as a child, because you'll come away disillusioned, sad, and sorely perplexed. You can't afford too much of that in your life.

Vienna to me was full of memories of ripoffs and rudeness so when the hotel clerk gave me change of 1900 Schillings (about $120) when I asked him to break a 1000 Schilling note for me did I respond with a dazzling display of honesty? I did not. Not at the prices they were charging. Right, says I, that'll pay for dinner. We set off for Grinzing on the tram, a village on the edge of the Vienna woods packed full of restaurants and famous for its "heurige" wines. In the place we went to we called for the best they had and an hour or two of happy guzzling (food, wine, and a bit more of the same) was followed by a languid hour or so of just hanging about and waiting for the bill. We kept asking for it and they kept telling us to wait so in the end we just walked out of the place. Did we feel badly about that? Not much. Well, all right, yes, so I raced back in a frenzy of honesty (you have to do these things quickly: otherwise you might stop and think). Everyone I spoke to passed me on to somebody else who passed me on to somebody else. In the end I just walked out again. Visitors-2, Vienna-0.

The museums were all closed on the next day, Monday. This was Vienna's subtle revenge.

Apart from these two unexpected financial windfalls (rare as snow in the Congo) I found Vienna more or less unchanged. Staying in a hotel so close to the centre made it easy for us to wander about the city since Vienna has grown in size over the years like an onion. The oldest parts are in the middle with the rest of the town moving outwards in concentric circles. We ran into a group of street performers outside St. Stephen's (French, you could tell at a glance) just minutes before the killjoy cops moved in. I love street theatre but I'm getting a bit tired of all the adenoidal guitar players who seem to hang about the streets in nearly every damn city in Europe. To be fair, though, the street musicians in London were very very good indeed, especially around Covent Garden. I just wish that in most other places they didn't have to be so damn BAD and I mean that in the ordinary dictionary sense of the word, as in awful.

Just down the road from St. Stephen's is the Kaerntnergasse which is the main shopping street of Vienna, fashionable and unbelievably expensive. Looking is free. Just off it is the Graben, a 17th century pedestrian mall with a gilded statue in the middle to commemorate one of the periodic Plagues which did away with so many people here as they did throughout most of crowded unhygienic Europe. Plagues, riots, some memorable music, boredom, wars, rebellions, some great literature, boredom, some great pictures, some more boredom, some more plagues and wars and pictures : there you have it, that's Europe, that's Vienna. People have been walking around these streets for the last 2000 years.

It was the 200th anniversary of Mozart's death. He was from Salzburg originally (where the tourist trade now depends on him) but it was here in Vienna that he made his name. It's interesting to note that the film "Amadeus" had to be shot in Prague because it looks a lot more like 18th century Vienna than Vienna does itself. The city here has had to put up with a lot of 19th century delusions of grandeur and the architectural results that followed. The Ringstrasse, for example, is full of ponderous heavy buildings that look like large white tinsellated droppings from some giant creaking mastodon. These are large awful buildings, intellectually barren and artistically dead, reminders of the groaning mental constipation of the latter-day Austrian Empire. Kakka.

The Hofburg itself is a case in point. This was HQ for the Habsburgs, a scattered rambling palace with hundreds and hundreds of boring boring rooms. Parts of it are open today and you can see the Emperor's dining room, the Emperor's bedroom, the Emperor's study, the Emperor's bathroom -- the Emperor's toothbrush is still in there somewhere -- and the whole thing is just stolid and stiff and depressing, depressing, depressing. Parts of the palace burnt down recently (December, 1992) and there are plans to rebuild at enormous expense. Why bother?

I confess to feeling a twinge of pity for the last of the great emperors, Franz Josef II (1830-1916), because even though he had a mind like a block of concrete he suffered so much in his emotions. He came to the throne in 1848 at the height of the revolutionary storms that swept throughout Europe (comparable to 1989 in modern terms), and for nearly seventy years held on doggedly to all he could of the bewildering conglomeration of hereditary family possessions in spite of military defeat at the hands of the French (1859) and the Prussians (1866), the execution of his cousin Maximilian in Mexico, the contemptuous rejection of the Hungarians, the suicide of his only son under shameful circumstances (Mayerling, 1889), the assassination of his beautiful beloved wife (who refused to sleep with him), and, in his old age, the assassination of his heir and successor Franz Ferdinand in 1914, which led to the World War and the dissolution of the Empire. He never lived to see the end; he caught a chill while reviewing troops and died in 1916. It was a merciful release in that it spared him the final humiliation, the end of a family line that stretched back without a break to the early Middle Ages. He was a reactionary, an aristocrat, a snob, and a deeply unhappy man. He pushed himself hard, spending hours and hours at his desk every day in a futile attempt to control an empire he no longer understood. You can see the old newsreels with this aging old buffer trying so desperately to do the right thing as far as his limited mind could conceive it. God rest him now he's gone. He can do with the odd kind thought and mine among them. Useless fellow, of course.

We walked. By God, how we walked. Then we walked some more to see Sigmund Freud's apartment.

Freud was viewed askance in Vienna long before he came out with his "disgusting theories" for the simple reason that he was a Jew. The Germans have tried to come to terms with the Jew-baiting hysteria that swept their country under the Nazis. The Austrians have not. They don't care much for Jews even now and don't like to talk about it because -- well, because it's a fact. In the early years of this century Hitler was mooning around Vienna pretending to be an artist. He picked up on the anti-Semitism and this is something he never forgot. He took it to unimaginable extremes and the Germans have been trying to live it down ever since. Not so the Austrians. The Germans insist on examining the Nazi years in their schools; the Austrians do not. Germany "invaded" them so whatever happened afterwards is not their fault. Sure. If I were a Jew this is not a country I would choose to live in. I'd feel safer and happier in Berlin or Munich.

Something very interesting has been found in the square just in front of the Hofburg. The way these discoveries usually come about is that the City starts to dig sewer lines or lay down new pipes for gas or water. I'm not sure what happened in Vienna but when they started digging they found a complete Roman village with bricks and walls still standing. Vienna used to be Vindobona, a northeastern river outpost of the longest-lasting empire ever seen in Europe (so much for Charlemagne and Napoleon, Mussolini and Hitler: the Romans were the firstest with the mostest and they hung around for centuries). This Roman town has been here all the time, sitting on the front doorstep (literally) of the acquisitive, militarily cautious Habsburgs. The Habsburgs created their sprawling empire through clever marriages and not through war. What wars they fought they usually lost -- against the Swiss, the Dutch, the French, the Prussians, the Allies of WWI -- but one of the crucial battles they didn't lose was against the Turks in the 1680s, and that was thanks to a lot of outside help. The Turks got as far as Grinzing. I hope they got a free meal out of it.

On our first evening after the triumphant return from Grinzing, it was still early when we got back to the hotel. S. and Siobhán, being sensible and female, decided to make an early night of it. Time for a walkabout and a few jars. The first place I went to was so-so and boring. So was the second. This is no good, says I, I might as well get back to the hotel, and I was on my way when I spied a place called "Alt Wien" (Old Vienna) and stepped into an underground cavern just seething with people. All right, says I, this is more like it. Next thing I knew I was sitting on a bench with some of that tart "heurige" in front of me and listening to the fellow next to me arguing terms with his publisher. The publisher was ignoring him and stuffing his face with sausages. The writer (as he must have been) glanced over at me and I give him a nod:

-- Hello there! (an unbeatable opening, I recommend it)
-- Oh hi. Where are you from?
-- Ireland.
-- Oh. North or south?
-- Eastern Ireland, in fact.
-- No, I mean, you know, north or south?
-- It's an island.
-- Ahhh (penny drops)