Our Man In Vienna
Her foot kicked me sharply. "You are sitting like a peasant," Charlotte hissed from across the table of the plush Viennese restaurant. I reluctantly straightened myself up and considered the possibility of another attempt at charm.
Beside us, they were there; so I dusted off some of my best German phrases and engaged her father with a few observations about Vienna.
"What is he saying?" demanded mother from daughter loudly. Then to me: "If you want to become part of this family you need to improve your German." So that was it! I was in a serious relationship.
For seven months, I had had a girlfriend and Vienna’s Gate-crasher had been in hiding. In fact having a ‘steady’ is pretty much the reverse. As a Gate-crasher, I had imposed myself on events; in my relationship, my partner’s world had imposed itself on me.
When Charlotte and I started going out, I was like one of those well-appointed parties my pals and I used to bust in on. At our recent break-up, my state corresponded to the post-bash disaster after a few hours of us messing it up: What ever the occasion, we had pushed to the buffet, got loudly drunk and with swaggering arrogance, had hit on the wives and daughters of austere bureaucrats.
I suspect the reason I had frequently tried so hard to assert my idea of a ‘good time’ on a party was because the event’s title and venue had misled me into assuming it was something it wasn’t.
An art preview at the Dorotheum for example had filled my imagination with glamorous vistas of an illusory world of diamond-studded dealers and voracious collectors, but on arrival, what confronted me with an anticlimactic reality of dowdy grey suits and pallor. What choice did I have?
Conversely at occasions came closer to expectation, I found myself behaving with less bravado: as though the possibility of genuinely restaging the shindig reduced my very will to. Therein lies the second parallel: with a relationship too you can make wrong assumptions and later, when they are proven wrong, try all the harder to transform your beau or belle into the original fantasy.
Well, my girlfriend certainly got me wrong. Admittedly, there were many things to mislead her. Maybe she was deceived by my über-cool pad on the Mariahilfer Straße (actually a friend’s flat where I was staying until I could pull some money together). Or it could have been my love of opera and classical music, which I guess she associated with high flyers.
What must have nailed it for her though was my plumy English accent which, failing to spot it as an inevitable consequence of the British Public School system, she must have assumed bespoke an aristocratic heritage – Grand Tour for a couple of years and then back to Pemberley for an eternity of children, tea parties and dogs.
Little did she know that I was more or less a dosser, with no clear future plans and who had left his native land for reasons unconnected with a Byronic discovery of European culture: on the Continent the girls were more receptive and the need to secure a proper job more remote.
I may not have been her ideal man, but she had a damn good try at ‘fixing’ me nevertheless. From the very beginning her number one objective was to move in. She accomplished this with skill. With each visit, she deposited small items of clobber around the place: a scarf, some earrings, a bag (she had plenty of bags) and gradually I grew accustomed to the paraphernalia. Then she suggested there was nothing better for us to do in the evenings that hang out at my Mariahilfer Straße quarters. Finally she aroused my sympathy by displaying her own unfurnished flat while suggesting innovative ways to improve mine.
Next she got to work on me -- with shocking perspicacity. Perceiving my intellectual vanity, she urged me into a part-time PhD at my alma mater, Cambridge. Aside from any academic benefit, a boyfriend doing a doctorate at Europe’s foremost university would have reflected well on her, and given her parents a boast at their drinks parties. Unfortunately my former tutor wasn’t so keen: after having already wasted four years on me, he was understandably reluctant to stage the encore.
Next came how I spent my time. Initially we had remained in the apartment for the entire weekend – that’s what I had always liked doing on days off: reading, listening to Wagner and some hanky panky with the latest squeeze. Soon Charlotte’s vision for Saturdays and Sundays took over.
It was dressed appealingly in the guise of aspiration: deliberations over clothes in Graben boutiques, and spending large amounts of (my) money on groceries at Meinl, rounded off with some upmarket spirituality at the Rochuskirche on Sunday.
Nowhere was I an easier target than in my style makeover though. She ruthlessly exploited my vanity to impose her own views of male fashion. I had always got by on low-slung denims and shirt rakishly open to the solar plexus.
Her idea of taste was different. Like many young Austrian haute bourgeoisie, it came straight from the imaginary American prepdom of the Hilfiger ads: slick hair, pastel polo shirts and multi-coloured pants. Soon my credit card had maxed-out, my wardrobe was stuffed with gaudy togs and my prismatic attire was drawing malevolent looks on the U-Bahn.
Finally, the reality became clear when I met her father. He was sporting green trousers, blue polo shirt and gelled-back coiffure. Shaking his hand I examined my own red jeans, silver sneakers and white shirt. We must have made a gruesomely tasteless pair. From that moment, the weekend became a series of haunting phantasmagorias of my future: the family shopping trip, pausing here and there to quaff Prosecco and mention glamorous friends of friends, trips to expensive eateries (paid for by the father) with mother and daughter rotating their monopoly of attention and the expedition to the local church, naturally inclusive of front row seats and Sunday Best.
The poor father, I thought during one of our dinners, as he sat there draped in weariness. He had been gate-crashed out of existence.
Soon after that was our Viennese dinner. Seeing the father again, a browbeaten – if dapper – representation of what my girlfriend was hoping for me was too much. It was over. As I closed my door for the last time on Charlotte, I wondered how I had almost let her gate-crash succeed. Was it really so easy to manipulate me by massaging my ego? Was it really so easy to convince me to play a role?
I looked from the polychromatic garments scattered around my flat to my reflection in the hallway mirror. I thought. Well maybe, but at least I looked ok…
And I shut the door myself and made my way to a party: There was work to be done.