A Gravely Sophisticated Event to Greet and Meet And Score Some Free Eats.

On The Town | Peter Falstaff | May 2007

The early evening event is a particularly Viennese affair. Romans may go for an apperitivo, Londoners an after work pint, but the inhabitants of Vienna prefer a more cultural occasion.

The Vernissage is a gravely sophisticated idea. It provides an opportunity for the Great and the Good to meet, exchange Ideas and to keep up to date with the New.

A visitor taking an early evening stroll through the back streets of Vienna would be impressed by the sight of earnest looking crowds spilling out from cozy galleries chatting frenetically about what can only be weighty artistic matters. As a Londoner new to the Austrian capital, I was awed by this phenomenon, representative as it seemed to be of a city with a laudably vibrant cultural life. Compare this, I thought involuntarily, to the raucous and slightly threatening scenes outside a London pub at dusk.

I quickly became eager to join the bright looking Vernissage throngs and once, on a whim, I even made a nervous attempt to gatecrash. Informed by a stern lady that entrance was strictly by invitation, I eventually attended my first such occasion with a friend.

As we arrived my pal Kurt, a man of respectable and refined appearance, informed me we hadn’t officially been invited before nevertheless briskly striding in. I learned later that Kurt was fastidious in his attendance at such events, often going to as many as five a week, apparently without being on the guest-lists of any.

The private viewing of 18th Century British paintings was at the Dorotheum and the stately room in which it was being held was fairly full. The guests were a disappointingly mundane looking set though. Such gatherings in London invariably attract a democratic bunch, ranging from a few English eccentrics in worn corduroys and tattered sports jackets to a smattering of thuggish individuals in stained T-shirts. Here the clientèle were undeniably smart; but depressingly uniform in attire. They had come directly perhaps from anonymous positions in the upper echelons of the corporate world, and, well, you can guess what that means.

This hoard paid little attention to the artworks on display and a portion of its number seemed to actively resent the very presence of the Regency furniture, which appeared to be inconveniently positioned for a drinks party.

By far the most popular attraction was the wine table, replete as it was with excellent Prosecco. Kurt of course headed there immediately and, returning triumphantly, carried not just two glasses but an entire bottle as well. As we contentedly drained it underneath Gainsborough’s imposing portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, I caught snippets of passing conversations about love lives, mutual acquaintances, the respective fates of the Austrian Bundesliega football teams, in fact a plethora of subjects that had depressingly little connection to Georgian England.

My friend had just spotted a suitable opportunity of appropriating a second Prosecco when waves of excitement started to roll through the room. I asked Kurt what was up. Perhaps the arrival of an eminent specialist to give a talk? ‘No, the food!’ came the response with more than a hint of excitement.

There then followed a scrum, bordering on the unseemly, it may be added, around the table, where the wares – fine meats, cheeses, salads and warm schnitzels, were being laid out. Kurt, being Kurt, managed to worm his way to the front and came back with two heaving plates piled with gargantuan portions of nutrients.

I recalled a distant conversation with this Viennese Epicurean in which he had said that he preferred not to eat out and that he didn’t enjoy cooking for himself. At the time I had been left wondering what it was that did sustain his ample figure. As he joined the vanguard of forces pressing for ‘seconds’ the mystery had been solved. No wonder he was such an avid attendee!

Left alone with the fizzy wine and Gainsborough’s Andrewses, I light-headedly contemplated what they would make of it all. I looked from the dignified pair, statuesque and at peace, to the by now pink faced crowd gossiping scandalously to each other, pausing only to guffaw and knock down another glass. Did the couple not find it strange that their gentle serenity went so unobserved? Perhaps not. Maybe three centuries experience had taught them to expect no less?

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