I met a pretty girl at a bus-stop on Oxford Street. We spent 24 hours together, then she flew home to Vienna, and I was sure I’d never see her again.
Thirteen months later and I’m still here, staring out of her apartment, in Vienna, listening to the old lady below me berate the builders for spreading their dust and dirtying her drying linen.
I guess that’s what she’s saying, I don’t know, I can’t speak Deutsch. In fact, I struggle to order my lunch. My desperate efforts to point at the Wienner Schnitzel burger are invariably met with a breath-less blast of German… (Zum hier Essen oder zum Mitnehmen..- eat here or take away?). “Nein Deutsch” has become my mantra, although it makes me feel like the stereotypical imperial English speaker.
Living in Vienna
In this city I have no friends, I spend entire days without uttering a word of English, except to the cat. Skype is my new best buddy. I can’t watch TV, it’s all in German, although I’ve trained myself to laugh at South Park all the same (Cartman speaking High German, come on!).
The Turkish man I buy coffee off most mornings still thinks I’m Italian, I regale him with homesick tales of beautiful beaches but he farewells me the same way every time… “Grazie Ragazzo”.
My hairdresser confuses my German numbers and shaves my entire head.
My girlfriend’s family have long gotten over the novelty of remembering high school English and now I sit alone at family gatherings, laughing along with who knows what.
But, you know what? I don’t care. I love this city, in my very isolated world I don’t feel alone. I don’t get bored. A sunny day brings a smile, every time. Even if I’m busy I can’t resist a day of walking through the First District. In fact, in Vienna, that’s all I do. I walk and walk, and then I walk.
Invisible in Vienna
Most people spend two or three days here exploring, I’ve spent over 300 and I’m still finding new treasures, I’m still getting lost down forgotten alleyways, I’m considering carrying breadcrumbs to really find my way in this labyrinth puzzle.
In Vienna I think maybe I’ve become invisible, I walk down cobbled ancient streets and no-one can see me, I’m just some “dude” from Byron Bay,
I’m not meant to be here in this fairytale world. The only ones really that seem to notice me at all are the gargoyles that hiss at me from high on top of 500 year-old buildings. When Greenpeace stop me on the street it jolts me every time.
Being here calms me, most days when my girlfriend’s at work I spend the day watching Vienna change. If I allow myself to slow down enough I swear I can notice the seasons: a twig of life on a tall tree that wasn’t there yesterday.
In Australia I need to be entertained, I have to be doing something. In Vienna I can just sit and stare for hours: at people, it’s easy to imagine the old man at the café has been there since Mozart’s time; at buildings so ridiculously historic, like St Stephan’s cathedral in the dead heart of Vienna, a 900 year-old Gothic relic from the Middle Ages that was for centuries the tallest building in Europe. In all my time here I’ve never caught a tourist bus or taken a tour of any major building.
In Vienna, you should just roam, past the wedding cake architecture, past ancient buildings of white, calico, pink and yellow with their cast iron balconies and sinister angel and demon statues.
I can see what entranced, and inspired history’s great Viennese residents: Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss and Schubert. I mean, God, even I wander the streets, notepad in hand like some Hemingway wannabe. But in Vienna nothing seems contrived. People sit alone in the city’s infamous coffeehouses reading poetry.
Coffee is just the excuse to be there, some people don’t even bother to sip, they just sit and smoke and watch their smoke clouds pirouette against the colourful low ceilings. In the summer, I think it disappoints them to see it escape into the fresh air.
Vienna in summer
And summer is what Vienna, like most European cities, is about. Like butterflies who only live for such a short time, Viennese attack the season with an energy and enthusiasm that’s completely intoxicating, although it can leave you feeling giddy.
In winter they pack down like bears, hiding their smiles and hardly daring to leave their houses. In summer Vienna’s First District is a non-stop carnival of film festivals, music concerts, art shows and food fairs.
On most evenings in summer, when the mercury never drops below 25 and the sun doesn’t set till nearly midnight, we take the tram to the Rathausplatz intent on watching a free film but invariably end up drunk on cheap Weissbier and Glühwein with thousands of others right next door. It never worries me, just being here in summer is like great theatre anyway. In the summer the First District is like a cultural Disneyland.
Formed by the world’s largest boulevard of its kind, the Ring, a four kilometre long circle enclosing Vienna’s oldest and most significant district (built by Franz Joseph in 1857), the First District is a myriad of baroque mansions, Italian Renaissance architecture and Greek classicism.
Seeing it is almost overwhelming, I remember my first visit here in 2004, it was impossible to try and remember the Hofburg Palace from the State Opera House or from Parliament or the Albertina or the Volksgarten from the Burggarten.
In the end I sat sunning myself with the students in the Museums Quarter and gave up altogether. I still do that, or I ride the rickety old red and white trams that circle the First District and just stare out the window getting dizzy.
I love that when I return home my friends call me a wanker just for saying I live here, that’s what enamours me with Australia. But here I can carry flowers for my girlfriend all day and no-one batts an eyelid. I can drink wine at a traditional Heurige at 10 in the morning and no-one cares.
Here, when pigeons hump each other at tram stops it almost looks romantic. Buskers wear tailored suits and play priceless antique double basses or violins, there’s no Bob Dylan wannabes warbling rock tunes.
Somehow, people don’t look real, they seem conjured up by magic, just for me. I like that, after all was life really meant to be as real as most of us suburban slaves make it?
I probably forgot to mention, I’m leaving tomorrow, for good. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I can’t believe I spent so long doing so little. I miss Australia, but there’s something about Vienna that drives you a little crazy. I know I’ll miss it, but it’ll wait, it’s not like some hot-spot coastal town that you have to see before it’s pillaged.
No, Vienna will continue to grow into itself, the butterflies will attack it each summer, but it’ll survive bigger, and stronger than the year before.
Vienna is like a fine old Cabernet waiting patiently to be consumed. My problem is I feel like another bottle already.
Getting there: Austrian Airlines fly direct to Vienna from Sydney daily.
Accommodation: Try the excellently located, and romantically furnished Hotel Tyrol on the Mariahilferstrase
For more see www.austria.info