Hard Drinking With The Good Samaritans

Resting (too) Easy in One’s Own Imperfections...

On The Town | Peter Falstaff | June 2007

People ask why I gatecrash; I tell them it gives me an opportunity to meet Austria’s social and cultural elite. That is however not the real reason.

In reverse order, my motivations are: free drink, free food and the chance of getting laid on the cheap. The latter is an occurrence depressing in its infrequency. But usually I do get well fed and tolerably drunk.

Two Saturdays ago, I needed a tuck-in. For days, my diet had consisted of McDonalds and packet food as my Godmother who cooks had been out of town. Mealtimes had grown predictably irksome.

I was consequently delighted when my buddy Martin called about a big dinner at the Rathaus that evening, the 80th Birthday of an organisation called the Samariterbund.  It’s a voluntary ‘Hospitaldienst’ he explained and cares for the handicapped and the elderly and gives first aid at the Vienna Marathon.

There is a lot of this in Austria, and in general I have been sceptical. While they often did marginal good, I thought their members insufferable. Filled with an exaggerated sense of their own moral worth, they seemed conceited and self-satisfied. I knew this from my contact with the Knights of the Order of Malta, or the ‘Malteser,’ who were clearly providing a dating service for the socially aspirant haute bourgeoisie.

That night, as I got ready for the celebration, I reflected that it really was best to avoid the traps of insincerity set by such charitable establishments. What self-satisfaction they were possessed of; yet in reality their members were no better than you or I, ultimately self-serving and ever eager for a cheap laugh at the ridiculous. Far better, I happily concluded, to rest easy in one’s own imperfections and flagrantly abuse the expectations of the Guter Mensch.

Gaining entrance to the Rathaus was puzzlingly easy, involving no more than walking past the door staff with a confident smile. The solution to this mystery perhaps lay in the quality of the unpromising scene that greeted us in the central courtyard, suggesting an event secure from the attentions of any self-respecting crasher.

The guests’ appearance was displeasing, to say the least, even making a generous allowance for their age and the disconcerting effect of the light from the red awning looming over head. Many looked somehow both over-fed and under-nourished, as though despite enormous effort their diet lacked some essential nutrient. The Samariterbund did not share the social pretensions of the ‘Malteser’.

Moreover a disquieting proportion of those present were menacing in aspect, with close set eyes and a quality of excess bulk suggestive of ill-maintained muscle rather than pure corpulence.

From the nervous twitching of the invitees and their awkward small-talk it was clear that they resented even their own presence at such a formal occasion, squeezed as they were into suit and necktie: Far better, to be having a few at the local pub, with a bit of banter and the prospect of some fisticuffs later on.

The trickier part of the evening was to come: the banquet in the Festival Hall of the Rathaus. Martin had claimed we were booked into the dinner seating. We discovered that this was not the case. Two years in Austria, however, had demonstrated the value of my Cambridge-honed English. My starring role was modest – ‘I think we were on the list. Surely you can fit us in?’  But it was enough, and we were shown to the free seating section.

Oddly, while the Herr Bürgermeister and other dignitaries were arranged according to a seating plan in the main hall, there was, as if for the very purpose of accommodating those who by mis-chance arrived at the festivities uninvited, an adjacent room with five or six tables, where one was able to choose one’s place.

This had one incomparable advantage: We could select our companions. For, honestly said, from as soon as I had spied our co-celebrants, I had been dreading dinner conversation with almost any one of them.

Apart from one merry party, all the places were free. Martin and I chose the one closest to the buffet and the wine counter, and we tried to appear as uninviting as possible.

A small Sacher Torte had been provided for each guest: Martin not waiting for the post-prandial coffee, un-wrapped it and began. With company like him, I reflected, it did indeed appear we would be dining alone! We started drinking in response to the news that dinner would not begin until after the speeches, and the speeches not for another thirty minutes. When the necessity arose, one of us simply walked to the wine table and fetched another bottle.

Eventually a group of four did join us, understandably with reluctance, as our table was a scene of chaos: Empty bottles of mineral water and wine stood here and there, and Martin had eaten two of the Torte meant for our new guests. The new arrivals, three sturdy young men and a pleasant looking girl of about twenty examined us suspiciously and started looking for the wine. As the last guests took their places and the speeches started, there were still four unoccupied spaces, not without coincidence, on either side of Martin and me.

The speeches were an unexpected highlight of the evening. Together with a video presentation demonstrating the work of the Samariterbund, they successfully altered my ill-informed pre-conceptions. This group did seem to perform genuinely worthy work, particularly with people who fell through the social security net. Moreover the effort and time the Samariterbunders devoted was notable, occupying a significant proportion of their free time. The younger members were encouraged to take First Aid Certificates, and the level of responsibility was striking.

In an excellent, crisp talk the Bürgermeister gave a potted history of the Samariterbund: It had played an important role in the fight against Clerical-Fascism in Austria in the early 1930’s; some members had struggled for the ill-fated cause of socialist Vienna during the civil war of 1934. Forgetting my prejudices, I even began to feel sentimental.

As the speeches drew to a close, I lost sight of my original intention for the evening and instead of joining the throng at the buffet, I engaged my four young companions in conversation. They seemed pleasant, fun and without that touch of self-satisfaction I had initially feared.

Equally they were slightly reserved, almost as though asking themselves why this drunken Englishman, who had at first only been interested in slurping wine and exchanging naughty stories with his similarly intoxicated neighbour, was now interrogating them.

My original arrogance dissolved. These were decent people doing their best for their community, and I really had no place at their party and no justification to mock. One by one they left to pick up their food. I eventually followed and found that the buffet was all that I had hoped: copious in quantity and hearty in nature: somehow though I had lost my appetite.

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