The Fifth Column: October 2013

Opinion | Vindobona | October 2013

The villa that allegedly belongs to the NSA has sparked protest in Austria (Photo: Google)

Lost Tribe of Spooks

With all the spooks lurking about in Vienna, it seems possible a batch of them, a Lost Tribe, may have escaped into the wilds of the leafy 18th District.

So when the U.S. Embassy suddenly closed the aerial-festooned villa at Pötzleinsdorfer Straße 126–128, it naturally raised a few eyebrows.

It was an "open source center", a spokesman sheepishly insisted – I pictured men in polyester suits watching TV, reading newspapers on the terrace, like the ideal Kaffeehaus, where it’s the customers who get paid.

Just another harmless CIA operation, says the embassy, and nothing to do with the sinister, all-seeing NSA, currently watching me type this article.

Is the embassy sure about all this? The jungle of U.S. surveillance is so huge and unwieldy that even those at the top have little idea who is who, never mind how it all works.

"When I and a number of my State colleagues were new in Vienna, I was once ‘introduced’ at a reception by an Austrian official to a fellow ostensibly from my own political section," says a retired U.S. career diplomat. "I had never seen him before in my life, which was instantly obvious." Similar incidents led to a belated mass "meet and greet" session.

I trust the glamorous new U.S. Ambassador, triathlon champion and Democratic Party donor Alexa Lange Wesner, has by now been briefed about what not to say.


Annoying the Boys Back Home  

When "Mitzi" Fekter, soi-disant champion of small businesses, spends weekends in her home town in the Salzkammergut, there is little danger of her getting bored. The tough ÖVP finance minister’s local feuds may not be quite as numerous or bloody as in Vienna. But one of her most persistent enemies is over the road from her penthouse in Attnang-Puchheim – a well-known local butcher called Hermann Gruber who also breeds rare Mangalitsa pigs.

La Fekter is determined to close down his small slaughterhouse, which has been in operation nearly uninterrupted since 1914. After he was granted permission to re-open for four hours a week in 2011, she appealed the decision, citing "unbearable noise and smell". Gruber has spent over €150,000 on soundproof windows and an elaborate ventilation system to make the slaughterhouse itself inaudible, and protect the jobs of his 50 employees. The only possible noise is from animals in the delivery lorry.

That lorries from La Fekter's family gravel and construction business, Niederndorfer Kieswerke, constantly trundle in and out, apparently does not count. "A slaughterhouse with bellowing animals is something else," says her lawyer Michael Schneditz-Bolfras, who has enlisted the support of Turkish neighbours and arranged a psychiatric report warning of traumatised children.

While the case drags on through the Verwaltungsgerichtshof (administration court) where it has been stuck for over a year, and the local mayor wonders out loud if there aren't better ways of passing the time, the Niederndorfer Kieswerke has forbidden its employees to buy snacks at Gruber’s.


Recovering a Flooded Past in Vienna  

The new documentary film Aftermath describes what happened after some 10,000 people –  a third of the population –  of the remote Nicobar Islands (1,300 km south of India) were all but wiped out by the 2004 tsunami. The islands were then hit by another flood of dozens of NGOs who confronted the survivors and their barter economy with a globalised world.

Dr. Simron Jit Singh, the Vienna-based Indian author and "engaged anthropolgist" who advised on the film, has studied these remote islands for 15 years. He says the flood of aid was "in no sense helpful", almost as traumatic as the natural disaster, all but destroying a remarkable and innocent culture now as obsessed with material goods and alcohol as the rest of us.

These same Nicobars once provided the Empress Maria Theresa with her first and only imperial toehold in the Indian Ocean. The half-dozen colonists who arrived aboard the Joseph and Maria in 1778 died or gave up five years later. But thanks to the Habsburgs' notorious magpie tendencies, the islands' culture and collective memory was kept safe in Vienna’s World Museum for two centuries, to be rediscovered by Dr Singh, making Vienna, curiously, a kind of Noah’s Ark of an all-but-vanished culture. ÷

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