The Brits Invade Vienna

Whiskey tasting, Beatles music and fish and chips: party time for the middle-agers at this Anglophile extravaganza

On The Town | Joanna Castle, Melinda Perez | May 2010

Standing in the front row energetically bobbing her head and shaking her pelvis like Elvis, was Betsy Tiefenbrunner, an American living in Vienna for the last thirty years. She never missed a lyric, her silver hair supporting her claim that she had been on hand the first time around, rocking out at three (yes 3!) Beatles concerts back in the glory years of the 1960s. And though the Beatles tribute band entertaining today weren’t the real deal, they were more than good enough; she couldn’t have minded less. Each song stirred her blood anew, and her excitement level would surge, covering her mouth with her hands and jumping up and down like a giddy teenager with a crush.

Betsy, like many others, attended the first day of British Week in Vienna for a variety of reasons. Whiskey tasting, catered food and the unveiling of the new Jaguar XJ were among the primary attractions. The inside of the Ringstraßen Gallerien on the Kärntner Ring near the Opera was decorated with long strings of British flags. A stage in the center of a rotunda held approximately one hundred guests, and was surrounded with tables displaying British products.

The event kicked off with words from a grey-suited, enthusiastic Christoph Mahdalik, the event moderator of the Gallerien, introducing the British ambassador, Simon Smith who joked about his imperfect German and touched on the British venues present showcasing their support of the British community in Vienna.

"The best shops are in England," stated one of the venue owners, "and we’re trying to bring more of that to Vienna." The event lasted one week and would host fifteen British exhibitors in all.

One of the shops, House of Scotland, with a prestige location on the Kohlmarkt, brought colorful Scottish kilts, Highland dress and Celtic jewelry.

Another was Potstill Whiskey at Strozzigasse 37 in the 8th district, represented by Mario Prinz, a tall, lean man with a thick accent filled with tales and insight into the lore whiskey. As the managing director of the Vienna store, he filled a table with a variety of single and double malts, recommending different brews for each passer-by.

"All whisky is good," he claimed, proudly reporting that his store sells over 1000 varieties. His favorite: Bunnahabhain from the island of Islay, with what he described as a ‘nutty’ taste. (However for someone who was not a connoisseur, it smelled more like rubbing alcohol…).

The table from the British Bookshop was filled with English literature, showcasing their upcoming events. Michael Lock, manager of the bookshop greeted lingering guests with his warm and outgoing personality. Since its establishment in Vienna in 1974, the shop has remained a fixture for the British community.

The introduction, however, continued, on and on it seemed, and the crowd became restless, eying the bar in anticipation of their next move. Soon the bar area became a thickly-populated danger zone as drinks became a hot commodity.

The true highlight of the event, however, was the performance by the Beatles tribute band from Hungary, The Black Birds. Projecting their voices into their microphones, Central European accents melted away and the legendary Liverpudlians were back to life once more. The musicians had met by coincidence in Budapest and their love for the Beatles had inspired them to form the band that had now played together for six years.

The sound of the harmony and familiarity of the music was a relief after the interminable announcements, the vibe of the room transformed as the first song blared through the speakers, and the throngs of happy people sang along: "Help! I need somebody! Help! Not just anybody. Heeeeelp…"

Older men in business suits lingered in the crowd, becoming progressively intoxicated with Potstill Whisky. These paragons of civic virtue, eyed us like juicy morsels, as we were by far the youngest women present.

"I luff zhe Pritish veh uff life," proclaimed Viennese Ernst Gager, as he sipped a glass of brown whisky, swayed to the music and socialized with people around him.

Vienna is home to some 5,500 UK citizens, making British culture a relevant and active presence in city life. Of which Ambassador Smith is duly proud.

"The relationship between the Austrians and Britons is growing stronger," he said as he closed his remarks.

And for the promoters? "The event was a big success," claimed Mahdalik smiling broadly, with a look of satisfaction on his face.

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