The Gate Crasher: Overdressed & Undertitled

Hobnobbing with the Remnants of German Aristocracy: the Woes of a Fortune Hunter

On The Town | Peter Falstaff | September 2007

My life is generally pretty sorted thank you. Not much work, great partying and plenty of women. There is only one problem and that is, I always seem to be short of cash. Not that it’s an immediate concern. One can get by well without much of the ready. It even has its advantages; women for example do really seem to appreciate paying for my drinks.

Still ultimately I want to be surrounded by luxury, you know stuff like the enormous gold elephant I saw in a London shop recently or a Mercedes SLR which I can drive around the town centre from time to time, or even to be able to open a bottle of Bollinger and not feel like I have to finish it. ‘Well’ as my loaded American friend David said – with an unnecessarily superior tone of voice I thought – ‘teaching a bit of English and doing a bit of writing is not going to make it happen.’ I teach research methods for social scientists, not English, in fact David, but still the point is taken. Luckily Viktor a man who leads my kind of life was more helpful: ‘You need a rich woman John.’ What an excellent idea!

It was around this time that Elke invited me to The Ball of the German Aristocracy, or to give its formal and slightly less pretentious name Die Frühlings Ball in the spa town of Karlsbad in the Czech Republic. Elke, 25, was a former Miss Santa Cruz (the one in Bolivia) and was a recent conquest. She had been seduced by an old trick of mine: The Box. This involves asking a girl to imagine a box in a desert and three imaginary properties it possesses which then correspond to facets of her personality. (It’s great; guys: Try it!). For the chance to attend what is; according to my Viennese acquaintances; one of the most exclusive events in Central Europe and the chance to find my own rich, beautiful Arian princess; I had this piece of psycho-babble to thank. In fact; on its strength I was allowed to invite a guest of my own; and I naturally decided to bring Viktor along.

Viktor is like me: he loves women, and he loves being in the wrong place. Only the other day we spent the evening together, crashing two wedding receptions, one of which we were eventually kicked out of and then a birthday party and finally for good measure bagging a pair of decent girls. He is no Neanderthal though, for he has an air of dignity and refinement about him, fitting his self-bestowed title of privatier and would be ideal company for such an occasion as the Karlsbad ball.

Well almost. For he possessed questionable political and racial views and he occasionally embarrassed me by the readiness with which he displayed them. Fanatic in his belief of the existence of a Jewish conspiracy for him it was natural that any stranger at a party would be delighted to listen to his opinions. When I had first met him he had badgered me with his rants and his conspiracy theories although thankfully, due I guess to the expression of distaste I had assumed when he did so, he had quickly stopped. Our conversation now almost entirely revolved around the safer subject of our private lives. Still if he wanted to vent his views amongst the scions of the German Aristocracy in the Czech Republic, the erstwhile Reichsprotectorate, then I couldn’t stop him.

According to the program sent along with the invitation, the Frühlings Ball was actually less a Ball but rather an entire social programme spread over four days. In fact, there were four balls: The Eintanzen on Friday evening, the ball itself the next day, then on Sunday a ‘Casino Royal’ evening and finally a costume party on Monday. Moreover there was also a series of events of a recuperative nature, such as a ‘wellness day,’ a concert and various brunches. Viktor had to be back in Vienna on Sunday evening, so we decided to only sign up the Eintanzen, the main Ball and the brunch on Sunday. On top of those decisions, mysteriously, we also had to fill in our ages and heights. Apparently this was to ensure an ‘aesthetic balance’ at the tables for Saturday dinner.

In early May, a month or so after having sent off our completed forms, we set off on the long trip to Karlsbad. After a tiring drive via Prague, we reached the outskirts of the nineteenth century spa town. The years of Communist architecture had reaped their predictable and ugly reward. Blocks of leaden, utilitarian flats rose up the side of the valley along the road leading Karlsbad, arbitrary and obtrusive. Sporadic, single storey bundles could have been warehouses or small factories, soulless and dead. We were approaching through the industrial quarter, and judging by the desultory figures loitering on street corners, also the red-light district.

Our advance was slow, as Viktor was not having much luck in locating the town centre. Indeed given his unintentional detours into a few insalubrious looking industrial estates, one could have easily assumed his Porsche on the hunt for some cut-price Czech action rather than an Aristocratic ball. Finally we did hit the correct turning and escaped a plethora of dead ends to arrive right in the centre of historic Karlsbad. It was a forbidding sight: Tall town houses, six stories high rose on either side of the narrow streets. And as we drove up the hill towards our flat, I reflected that my first impression was not favourable.

At the apartment, Viktor was insistent that we change into black tie for the Eintanzen. I had pointed out that the organisers hadn’t specified a dress code, but he remained adamant. Apparently a friend had said that all those ‘in the know’ dressed for the Friday evening. I knew the real reason of course. Someone had told him once that a "Smoking" made him look like James Bond, and he figured this was his best chance to win the draw. We would see about that, I thought as I glanced in the mirror! No question. The best girl would be mine!

We strolled together to the Eintanzen in the Hotel Imperial – after the Grand Hotel Pup, of Karlsbad’s premiere address for the luminaries of the nineteenth century – leaving competing trails of expensive scent hanging in the air. The Imperial was an enormous white building, statuesque and grand, undiminished by time. In ambition and grandeur, it was comparable to those Grand Hotels along the coast at Nice, temporary palaces of recuperation for the aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie of Europes’s Industrial age. Yet unlike those, this was no museum: Karlsbad’s Hotel Imperial seemed just as vibrant and vital as it must have been when first built, perhaps as much as two centuries ago. Its paintwork was pristine, an almost radiant white as if to proclaim the golden age of the genteel spa town was now, and not the later nineteenth century, when Bismarck and the statesmen of the Great Powers had met there to informally settle the affairs of the world.

Splendid in our evening clothes, we joined the short queue at the receiving line. That was when we noticed that the other guests were in jeans, slacks, and open necked shirts, in fact all manner of dress aside from formal evening attire. This took a few seconds to sink in.

‘You look smart’ said a young man on the committee to me, needlessly in English. He himself wore red corduroys and a blazer, and tempting as it was to respond to his oily sarcasm, I refrained. Whether it is better to be over or under dressed is a moot point. In any case, my hopes of making the perfect entrance had been dashed. Whispering to Viktor to summon his confidence, we strolled in to the Grand Hall – where my second shock awaited me.

The average age of the participants of the Eintanzen was high, more suggestive of a Sunday dance at a high-ticket retirement home. This was hardly Europe’s premier match-making event for young eligibles. Mellow, aging gents in shirt sleeves shuffled correctly coiffed ladies around the dance floor, while yours truly, attired in best Aquascutum dinner suit and lashings of the finest scent, looked on. I was not sure who was the more ridiculous. In any case my hopes that I would finally meet the ravishing heiress who would finally put end to my years of aimless and exorbitant womanising evaporated.

We skipped the ball the next night and spent the evening in the local disco. It was back to the old ways. But with one important difference: With the cheap Czech booze and the money I had put aside for hunting my princess, I was loaded.

For one evening at least.

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