Nicholas Parsons: Too Nice to the Austrians

Discovering make-your-own culture with travel writer and ‘non-expert’ Nicholas Parsons

On The Town | Dardis McNamee | December 2011 / January 2012

Sometimes the truth about national character is easier for a foreigner to see than a local.  It was with this in mind that, years ago, I put some hours of careful study into a little book called the Xenophobes Guide to the Austrians, by one Louis James, part of an engaging series of revelatory tomes intended as cultural "user’s manuals" for the bewildered traveller.

Thus I learned that, unlike the French or the Germans, Austrians worry about their identity with a kind of obsessive hypochondria, as, for example, a Frenchman might nurse his crise de foie – apparently hoping that in the fussing, a solution might be found.

To help them along, the author had dutifully checked with the neighbours: "A German historian once remarked, a trifle ungraciously, that Bavarians were the missing link between Austrians and human beings," he reported. And in light of the fact that Germans travelled south mostly on holiday, they had become convinced that their southern neighbours were not entirely serious people. "Germans feel that the Austrians, especially the Viennese, have a tendency to Schlamperei (sloppiness or muddle), which the locals do not seem to view as a failing."

It was then that I knew Vienna was the place for me.

It was some years, however, before I learned that "Louis James" was in fact Vienna writer Nicholas T. Parsons, also author of several guidebooks, including The Blue Guides to Vienna and Austria, and more recently Worth the Detour: A History of the Guidebook" (2007) and Vienna: A Cultural and Literary History (2008).  The Xenophobe’s Guide has been in print steadily since it first came out in 1994.

So why the pseudonym? I decided I would ask when we met at the Café Dommayer in Hietzing on a fiercely cold day in late November. I had come by bicycle and my face was numb.

"I was a little nervous when the Xenophobes Guide was first published, thinking it would upset people," Parsons confessed, as the waiter brought the coffee. And sure enough, one of his friends rang him up.

"I’m phoning to complain about your book," the man had said. And Parsons remembers thinking, oh God, here we go… "What’s the problem?" he asked, bracing himself.

"You’re much too nice to the Austrians!"

Thus emboldened, Parsons plunged into the depths of national identity deconstruction and has turned out a guide-book every couple of years ever since.

"I am always working on something, even when sitting in a Viennese coffee house," he told the Budapest Bardroom in 2010 – although he admitted that "unfortunately there were persons who seem unable to grasp" that what he was doing there should be classified as work. The truth is that Parsons is a fixture at his Hietzing Kaffeehaus and can tell you quite precisely what breed of customer will be filling the tables at which hours of the day ("by 16:15 the Mehlspeisen types will have taken over…").  He also takes the traditions of the Kaffeehaus, and its cousin, the Gesprächsrunde, the intellectual salon, seriously.

"Quite early on, I was introduced to the concept of the Gesprächsrunde, which doesn’t exist in England," he said. "Or if it does, it’s ridiculed." When novelist and historian Antonia Frazer started one, for instance, it was regarded as "a diversion for smoked-salmon socialists." So Parsons was delighted to find that it had taken root here, "or rather continues," he corrected himself, where "experts" meet to discuss the burning issues of the day. ("I was the exception, of course," he teased, as he was "an expert at not being an expert.") He found the whole phenomenon intriguing. "It’s something that in a digital world, most people feel they don’t have time for."

But it is this style of "make-your-own culture" that Parsons thinks is characteristic of Vienna, and that distinguishes it from other European capitals, that also includes home readings and book circles, and venerable traditions like Hausmusik. It’s the virtues of a metropolis with a provincial atmosphere, which he means as a compliment.  In the public sphere, this becomes a "celebration of the city" – with events like the Lange Nacht der Museen, begun in Berlin in 1997 and followed in Vienna in 2000, that he considered among "the most brilliant inventions ever," enlivening locals (even more than tourists) to enjoy their heritage all the more.

All this is closely bound with the process of integration. "The interesting thing is that the actual pride in being Viennese usually seems to have been acquired in one generation," he said, mentioning the examples of the Czechs and Hungarians. "This may have changed some today, because you do have a slight tendency toward multiculturalism – you know, parallel worlds – but the Viennese government has handled it more successfully than most cities.

"Everyone gets so exercised about new laws to make people learn German, but actually, that’s the kind of thing that will help people integrate. It shouldn’t be seen as a hostile measure."

Of course language isn’t everything, as witnessed by the Austrians’ clearly mixed feelings about the invasion of Germans, who now make up the largest annual number of new residency permits. This is particularly frustrating in the case of the thousands of German students, closed out of their own universities by the "numerus clausus," who now pack the seats in Austrian lecture halls. Parsons thinks the Austrians should fight back.

"The universities here should not be a dumping ground for German medical students who couldn’t make the cut – which is what’s happened," he said. "That’s wrong, whatever the European Union says." For now, in a sort of "Austrian solution," officials have finagled a deal with the EU to allow them to limit the number of foreign medical students, if they can demonstrate that it results in a shortage of practicing doctors – while German medical graduates often leave in frustration, when they find they simply can’t get hired.

But then, all integration requires compromise, which Parsons knows all too well. For Nicholas and Ilona Parsons, coming to Vienna had also begun as a compromise: She was a Hungarian whose mother was living in Budapest, at the time still under communist rule. Neither wanted to take on the risks of living there, and London was just too far away; the next best thing was Vienna.

"Which of course, turned out to be a lot more than ‘the next best thing.’ "


Books by Nicholas T. Parsons

Humgary, A Travellers Guide

Xenophobe’s Guide to the Austrians, "Louis James"

The Blue Guides to Vienna and Austria

Worth the Detour: A History of the Guidebook

Vienna: A Cultural and Literary History (for a review see the Feb 2009 TVR)

Other articles from this issue