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Austria

After Bologna I visited my friend Claudia in Wels, Austria for a weekend. Again, as often when I am visiting people, not so much to say except that I had a good time. Most of the weekend was spent either at lakesides, in bars, or in bars at lakeside. The area around Wels has many nice lakes and several good bars. Other than that and that the Alpine foothills are beautiful, I couldn't tell you much about it. I got caught in a sudden hailstorm and spent 2 hours (in a bar, nowhere near a lake) with complete strangers, trying (with some success) to converse with them in German (Suddeutsch on their side, to boot). Most of them were fun, but one girl chose to play pick on the foreigner. Very mean person, calling me an idiot because my grammar in German is less than perfect, insisting that Americans can't even speak English properly (apparently only wealthy Brits can), and several insults rather more personal. No one else joined in, but no one tried to stop her, either.

Then Vienna. There's an old joke about the Viennese combining Teutonic charm and Southern efficiency. It's true. To complete this ugly picture, they'd only have to import Brits to do all the cooking.

I stayed in a cheap, ill-maintained room near the Westbahnhof (railroad station). The landlady / tout is probably the most pleasant person I met in my first 24 hours in Vienna, which is to say a reasonably average human. Once I had a room I spent 2 hours, mostly standing in a succession of different lines at the station, establishing that there is no longer a Eurail discount on the Danube cruise to Budapest: the company changed hands and dropped the discount; ultimately I went by train.

After the boat fiasco, I showed the address of the cybercafe (Cafe Stein) to a woman at the tourist office (also at the station). She marked a spot on my map which turned out to be off by 2 kilometers: the cafe is about 2 minutes walk out of the Ringstrasse, she aimed me somewhere in the boondocks. I had a long, hot, not quite linear walk to get here, then there was no one here who could tell me how to use the computer (later, I found out that out the one they let me try for myself was broken. No wonder I couldn't work it out!) and they told me to come back in 2 hours. Which I did, and was pleasantly surprised to find (1) a person with a clue and (2) a very excellent high speed connection for this 4-seat cyber setup in the back of an otherwise no-tech cafe.

Vienna makes a much better impression if you aren't trying to get something done, or, worse yet, trying to get something done quickly. Impressive architecture, which dates from when they had an empire, a culture, and Jews. Not exactly my style, but very good for what it is. As the old joke goes, if you like that sort of thing, it's the sort of thing you like. I prefer buildings which have a little less in common with pastry, but I can appreciate a good pastry.

There is a lot going on in Vienna, and I am sure it would reward a longer visit, which I think I will give it someday. I did get to see a very good temporary Rodin exhibit, which was a treat. Not nearly as massive as the one in the 80s in DC -- the Vienese show consisted entirely of smaller pieces -- but uncrowded and intimate. You could get right up by the pieces without anyone getting panicky.

I also attended a production of Brecht's Life of Galileo, a real test of my German. I think I passed, although I was occasionally a little bewildered. Very good performance, probably the best theater production I've seen in a decade. It's good to be reminded that there is theater even better than the quite good theater we tend to have in Seattle.

Vienna does seem to be a city where it would be nice to have a lot of money. Even a museum visit is about US$9. The proverbial US$5 cup of coffee exists, although if you keep your eyes open you can keep it down to US$3. I approached the problem by keeping my breakfast and lunch down to brown bread and a spread of some sort washed down with mineral water.


Addendum 1999

I made it back to Vienna in spring '99. I can't say I fell in love with the place, although I do have high praise for Pension City, a surprising bargain by way of accommodation right in the heart ofthe old city, 5 minutes walk from the Stephansdom. I suspect that in an earlier incarnation it may have been the model for John Irving's infamous "Pension Grillparzer", since it is in the building where Grillparzer was born.

Probably my best evening was at the Opera (very cheap standing room to see Cavaliere Rusticana and Pagliacci). I hope opera buffs will not take offense when I say that this fact does not, for me, indicate a particularly successful visit to a town. It is a really great opera house, though, amazing acoustics, and the opera was very well sung, although not perhaps as memorable as the theater itself.

I did a lot of wandering, and the city is very lovely, but I think I'd settle happily for less lovely and more lively.


Addendum 2002: further thoughts on Vienna.

Vienna was the seat of the great Hapsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary, but Austria-Hungary was never really Vienna's empire the way the French Empire was Paris's Empire or even the way the British Empire was London's Empire (I guess Manchester would argue...). Vienna was just where the Hapsburgs had their court and hence their capital (a few times they even considered moving it to Prague, but it never happened). As my friend Helene points out, most of the administrators of the Empire weren't even Austrian, they were Hungarian. Now, without that empire, Austria is simply the (wealthy, comfortably bourgeious) capital af a small (wealthy, comfortably bourgeious) country. It is simply not what London or Paris are. It's more like Munich or even Bucharest (which I actually like better).

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First posted: August 1996
Last modified: April 5, 2002

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