A Different Kind of Vienna

To a young expectant visitor, Austria’s capital is an endlessly variable urban stage

On The Town | Natalie Lampert | September 2010

Vienna this summer did not always bask under a cloudless sky, but as a place to be, it was a summer paradise of a different kind.

On the occasional morning that brought rain, the drizzle stopped almost as soon as it began. When the sun reappeared, it was not an accident, exactly; it was more like dialogue, part of the endless conversation in the unfolding of a day. And to a young expectant visitor, Vienna was full of conversations like these, taking place in a concert hall or a street festival, at an exhibition or on a river walk, in the rare summer rainstorm or in an encounter with any of the players on this endlessly variable urban stage.

There was no rain falling on the Rathaus that Friday night, much to the delight of the crowd that gathered for the 7th night of the 2010 Rathaus Music Film Festival. I had settled in a seat a few rows from the front with a plate of calamari in my lap – one of the international dishes offered at the many outdoor food kiosks that line the wide plaza in front of Vienna’s City Hall.  I was proud of myself: I had greeted the server with Grüßgott! instead of Hallo!, the standard greeting I knew from living in Germany.

I was learning Austrian colloquialisms from my new friend Tobias, who studies at the Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien by day and works at a youth hostel by night. Vivacious and accommodating, Tobias had taught me a handful of other things; for instance, that Starbucks in Vienna represents a form of cultural blasphemy. He helped open my eyes to the city’s ways and means, the coffeehouses leading the list – where I have since spent hours reading, scribbling, and enjoying the special ambiance each offers.

An afternoon in a Viennese Kaffeehaus will convince even the most loyal Starbucks consumer that a cup of coffee should always be served on trays by wait staff wearing formal black instead of mass-produced at the end of the line by an anonymous green apron. And I’ve already forgotten why anyone would drink coffee on the go instead of taking the time to enjoy it in a pleasant, romantic setting like the Café Central.

These little lessons in Viennese manners and mannerisms have helped me feel a little less like a tourist – though I still see things that make me wonder what’s normal here, like the girl I watched traipse barefoot through the Volkstheater U-Bahn station yesterday. Was it the heat? Had she broken a heel on a cobblestone street?  No one seemed to be paying the least attention, leaving me to conclude that everyday oddities are a common occurrence here.

Settling back with a mojito in my seat on Rathausplatz, I gazed up at the gothic grandeur of Vienna’s city hall by night. The great clock, hanging in easy majesty next to the moon, sitting directly above the huge red film screen; a deep blue, summer sky provided the backdrop for the evening performance. As if on cue, the Ballets Russes lit up the screen and conversation immediately died down.

Lured by the dancers, the audience was drawn into each dramatic scene by the graceful, effortless movements, while the music of Stravinsky and Debussy – under conductor Vello Pähn – provided the storylines. In one segment, a fierce creature was betrayed in the wild, and the dancers’ body-pained, animalistic costumes – tails and all – looked so real I forgot I was watching a performance on a screen. In another, a chubby Spanish suitor’s failed attempts to win over a beautiful young woman had the audience laughing along with the jubilant music of the orchestra.

Maybe it was the warm summer air, or the many glasses of wine, but the audience was relaxed and engaged throughout the evening’s performance, and it was easy to sink into the congenial atmosphere on Rathausplatz. What began for me as an evening of self- indulgence – fine food, famous musicians and dancers – softened into one of simple, easy pleasures; which, I quickly learned, was the best way to enjoy a night out in Vienna.

The dramatics of the performance kept us chatting animatedly on our way to the U-Bahn afterwards. A young woman from Kazakhstan approached me in English. Introducing herself as Dina, she asked if I knew of anyplace "like a 7-Eleven" where she could buy some yogurt or fruit. It was 11:30 p.m. I laughed politely and explained that, other than the train and gas stations, there weren’t; the best she could do in that neighborhood was probably a late-night kebab. Dina, who had a striking square face and huge, dark eyes, frowned slightly, so I offered her a granola bar I had in my purse.

Dina had spent the past few years living in Singapore and Malaysia, and had just arrived in Vienna for a short holiday. I was able to commiserate with her.

Having grown up in the U.S., I too used to be accustomed to twenty-four hour convenience stores where I could buy food whenever I pleased. Today, this "24/7" custom is also common in much of Asia, leading Dina to expect to find a similar plethora of places to buy food late at night in Europe.

But stores closing early in Austria reflect a core value of this social democracy: that time off work is a privilege to be enjoyed by all, and that leisure – not convenience – is meant to be revered. As I watched Dina munch hungrily on the granola bar, though, I decided this wasn’t the best time to share this piece of cultural background.

Exchanging small talk, late-night traveler’s advice, and a snack in exchange for a pen I later needed on the train, I realized how Dina’s and my affinity for outdoor music, travel, and even a 7-Eleven struck up a sort of camaraderie between us that I found around every corner in Vienna. We didn’t exchange addresses, but for me, our encounter that evening was enough.

More so than the beauties of Schloss Schönbrunn (visual) or the Staatsoper (aural), or even cultured summer evenings at the Rathaus, my encounters with people like Tobias and Dina were what I ended up writing home about on this trip. A seasoned European traveler, I’ve learned that the life of a city often begins after you finish visiting its castles, museums, or monuments – no matter how famous – that for many are the only visit.

To me, the spirit of Vienna lives in its streets, paved with "culture instead of asphalt," as Karl Kraus wrote. How else do you explain the drum lines, wailing horns, and thousands of people who marched from the University of Vienna to Heldenplatz on Jul. 20 as part of the "Human Rights and HIV/AIDS: Now More Than Ever" campaign? Or a bathroom in a subway station (Stephansplatz) adorned with music paraphernalia inside that plays opera music overhead?

This spirit lives in the idiosyncrasy of its people, often in its most tangible sense. The other night, as I watched a blind couple get off a train, make their way through the station, and board a bus, I fell a little bit more in love with Vienna and its extraordinary public transport system, both safe and accommodating. A few days before that, after being rung up by a deaf cashier at the H&M on Kärtner Straße, I learned about Caritas in Vienna and programs to employ people with disabilities in the city in the Trafiken, or shops, or city offices.

And when you throw in a glass of wine that costs less than a soft drink and a €2 container of strawberries that comes from Wiesen – near Mattersburg, 40 minutes to the south – we discover the real Vienna, each day, in our own hands.

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