A Night in Vienna: Clichés from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire
Geneva to Vienna
December 29. Snowflakes falling like leaves of autumnal trees stripped off in a windshot. Railways apparently did not bear this new and soft white nudity: “Geneva-Zurich cancelled,” shows the board. “How’s that?,” I think, “the Swiss cancelling trains! Everything in this world is collapsing!”
Delayed trains bring people closer: on the platform, a man is waiting for the same missing train. He looks new, from his tidy hair dress to his technical outdoor clothes — “looking Austrian,” says my mind, however it materializes that he is actually French. Before the controller who exposes us all trains and connections we are going to miss, we meet. We need to choose between the train of 10.04 that stops in every train station and a direct one that leaves at 10.14: life is a continuous line of crucial choices. We finally decide — after a 15mn discussion about pros and cons of each train – to wait for the first option. It is bitterly cold out on the platform and we plunge in this organized commercial labyrinth – also called “train station,” where culture and consumption are from now on just one word: books, clothes, CDs, food — all the same. Even consuming landscape from our still seat isn’t free. “He also caught the idea that the weapon we need for freedom was money,” thinks in another time the character of The Radetzky March. But the lake and its invisible borders filling the window, the white stretches of land and the small towns we cross are a relief to the eye.
Relief to reliefs. Eventually after jumping on our delayed train from Switzerland’s mountains to Austria’s peaks, we walk inside through another forest of new-looking technical outdoor clothed travelers, as if all these people were ready to get onto the top of a snow-covered slope. Swiss and Austrians have something inherently “neat and tidy” about them: orderly, smooth, clean. Clothes-folded in the right places and hair combed in the right direction — “which direction is that?” you ask. Well, the right one, of course! Whatever is said about it, weather forecast vagaries has made them unable to follow their notorious exactitude, which seems to bring some of their dark side to light. You thought they were the paragon of accuracy and tidiness? Not so, here are some flaws emerging, which are reassuring to know that they are human after all.
While my “missed train-buddy” tells me (“about everything,” I think. But these are merely pieces of life that only disinhibition by alcohol or time permits. Puzzle pieces then) how he ended up moving from French to Austrian Alps — “because of…or thanks to women” (his girlfriend); I watch all this snow — layers of beauty, which I start fantasying melting in my mouth. Yes, I forgot to buy a water bottle and this endless train trip begins to dehydrate me. Layers of beauty, layers of time too: the train crosses the blanket more and more slowly. On our vessel high-tech screen penetrating the early Austrian winter night, times fastens up: what had meant to be 20 minutes until “Verspätung” changes soon to 40 minutes. The hope of catching my next train fades into this hourglass.
“55mn Verspätung” later, here comes the Austrian capital city, destination for thousands of travelers in this end-of-year festivities time. All that I want though is to end the day in a peaceful bed. The first signs of aging: when the idea of sleeping in an unknown train station doesn’t thrill you at all anymore…
It is midnight now, Princess Sissi has long since been in bed with her prince, and I’m still dragging my suitcase onto the melted-salted and graveled snow to the first hostel. Being in these wide streets, it feels suddenly like being in Germany — memories of Berlin, another capital that I have spent time in swim into my mind. Only enormous cakes in pastry shops seem to change the scenery among the same fast-food places, from burgers to kebab. Half asleep, my first perception of the place is rubbed on the city’s rough surface: same coldness of the people, same youth meandering with alcohol-happiness printed in their gait. It is not déjà-vu, it is sameness. Sameness in the unknown: my tired eyes see only strangers here — a Turkish immigrant living down the street, an Austrian tourist (“from upper-Austria” he says in an accent that transforms all words). The first yells at me “this way!” the second takes 15 minutes to read the virtual map appearing on his wonderfully-smart screen to show me the same way.
Berlin or any other capital. We are all foreigners in big cities. At least in the solitude of the night.
Sun’s sting. Humming of a city already moving. A morning like any other — in the light, the skin slowly emerges from the sheets, dreams still swimming on the surface. Slowly though memories of the actual place fill the body as I wake up: I am in Vienna! In my mind lingers the flow of The Blue Danube. Vienna, a major European center, renowned for its culture and come to think of it – with the flow of The Blue Danube still lingering in my mind – especially for its classical music. Through the window, the color of the sky matches the imagery in my head: the space is blue with few clouds; smoke escape from buildings painted by shadows giving materiality to invisible workers, a thick white smoke in the icy air.
From my improvised balcony — the room is located just beneath the roof offering a wonderful view behind the anti-birds spikes – what I hear and see though is another kind of dance: the waltz of people, a continuous shoppers’ stream. We are actually overlooking Mariahilferstraße, a huge commercial artery connecting Westbanhof to the Museumsquartier. Overlooking the street, the peaks of Vienna are regular — big buildings in the neo-renaissance or some other neo-style from the 19th century. But piercing the blue, there are sharp steeples scattered across the space, their golden pinnacle always by each other’s side, replying to the sun. Every place in central Europe has its own cathedral or church, sometimes both, sometimes several of them such as in the big cities, such as in Vienna. The buzz of a city’s mechanism and the feeling of being apart stick around, the space remains divided in two separated things; and going back to the inner world of my hotel room, I feel like amalgamating my perceptions (and warming up my frozen fingers!). The Radetzky’s March imperial rhythm soon permeates the air while I read a couple of pages from the eponymous book by Joseph Roth. It is a story of decline, the decadence of Austro-Hungarian Empire leading to the First World War. The account of foggy battlefields, the soldiers’ misery losing their soul in precarious relationships with women, money and booze kind of contrasts with the lively atmosphere of a capital city lit by feast days.
Trying another method to steep myself in Vienna’s rhythm, I move to the breakfast room where an Italian family and some other tourists are already filling up their stomach with bread, muesli, eggs, bacon, croissants and other victuals. I don’t think the weak coffee will help me dive into Vienne’s air, nor these bad-imitation croissants. Only some small elliptical rounded and golden rolls (also called Kaiser Brötchen) differ from my usual image of breakfast, there are just bread but it feels more right than eating a fake croissant. The lady from the hotel is going back and forth, stopping sometimes at the back table where she chats with what is probably a colleague in a foreign language, perhaps Turkish, surely not German!
What can we know of a city in a couple of hours? Nothing but buildings we can also see on the internet — and there are almost prettier there lit up by timeless sun. Going down Mariahilferstraße, the winter sun soon hides itself behind crowds of grey-white clouds pushed by a biting wind. On the shop-windows‘surface, monuments are on sale — “Riesenauswahl aktueller Modelle, bis zu -50%” — and feet are crushing a heavily salted and graveled snow covering the cobblestone’s pavement to “places of interest”. Mariahilferstraße leads to a huge crossing with an imposing building on its corner — das Kunsthistorisches museum. Inside its courtyard shared with a second building — das Naturhistorisches museum, a whole crowd of wallets and cameras is wandering about an everlasting Christmas market, toilets included. If you follow the curve of the RingStraße molding the Danube, you reach then the Parlament, with its quiet statues posing against the white screen of the sky. On the ground, people are posing too, watching themselves more than the place they came to see. “Go back and love your own city,” the memory of a slogan yelled by some anonymous wall in Berlin emerges suddenly to consciousness, resonating for a while, then disappearing again as I try to appreciate the view through my own lens. If you take some time looking at the stoned silhouettes presiding at the top of the building, you will actually probably put back your camera to its case: one needs more time and more angles than what a photograph can provide.
While plunged into touristic contemplation, a bell somewhere reminds me that time doesn’t stop with every individual: my next train won’t wait for me and I head next to Wien-Hauptbahnohf, overtaking more impressive historic buildings and their employees dragging tourists to some special event — a classical music concert in the best tradition of the great Austrian cultural center — and kebabs/schnitzel stands, along the curve that The Blue Danube gives to the city’s arteries. I leave the humming capital with new snowflakes blown by a wind that scours the surrounding land.
 Novel by Joseph Roth telling the decline of the Hungarian-Austrian Empire