The Fifth Column: September 2013
Now it Can be Told
Margaret Thatcher is safely in another place now, but only a sour-puss would deny the late British prime minister made an impression on everyone she met, one way or another.
Austria’s then Chancellor Franz Vranitzky found himself in Moscow in 1988 to broach the delicate issue of whether or not Austria would face trouble if it applied to join the European Union.
France was very much against, feeling that once Austria was in the club, it would reinforce German bossiness. But the Russians turned out to be less exercised than Vranitzky had feared, even about how EU membership might affect Austria’s permanent neutrality.
But Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev did have one question: Did Vrantizky know Margaret Thatcher (then still securely en poste)? A little surprised, Vranitzky replied that of course he had come across her several times in the course of his duties. "So you know Mrs. Thatcher?" insisted Gorbachev. Well, yes, said Vranitzky.
"You really know Margaret Thatcher?" the Soviet premier pressed. "As I said, ‘Yes’," the puzzled Vrantizky repeated, Gorbachev rejoined:
"And you still want to join the European Community?"
Erasing that Summer of Love
Like graffiti, or ear-rings on middle-aged men, tattoos just seem to happen. Now they are ubiquitous, even in the smartest parts of Vienna – souvenirs of summer love affairs or wild drinking sessions on Turkish beaches, all on efflorescent display during the recent heat-wave.
Fully two-thirds of 30-somethings now have tattoos, dermatologist Dr Brigitte Klein told me, a figure which tallies with my own swimming-pool researches. "The tattoo industry is booming and so are tattoo-removals," said Dr Klein, before embarking on another long day of lasering away other people’s regrets.
These can be the names of ex-boyfriends, exotic writing which turned out to mean "sweet-and-sour chicken", or mis-spellings in Thai, as happened to the footballer Sir David Beckham. "Mainly I am removing things my patients don’t now want to remember," said Dr Klein. "They look at their bodies and wonder what happened. It’s like a hangover."
Who knows how this got so out of hand? Was it started by the ever-irritating Empress Sissi, who had an anchor ("Always I dream of the sea," she explained) tattooed onto her shoulder?
Dr Klein herself has resisted getting tattooed: "But sometimes the designs are really quite beautiful – it hurts me to remove them." Not as much as it hurts those who find they no longer require, say, a battle-scene with multi-coloured dragons on their arms and backs. Cleaning this up can involve 20 excruciating sessions, with six to eight weeks between treatments, and will come to thousands of Euros – a good 10 times the cost of what, at the time, seemed like a cool idea.
News of the Neighbours
Hungary’s simmering nationalism and Prime Minister Victor Orbán’s accommodations with the extreme right party Jobbik make for unsettling times for Austrians with property in Hungary – especially farms, but also weekend homes. A few have been mobbed out, with the more-or-less open blessing of the local authorities.
But what if you have a palace? Life has not become any easier for the old KuK nobility in Central Europe.
As in Austria – ask Karl Habsburg – Hungary’s deep-rooted snobbery has not extended to playing fair with the former aristos exiled and robbed by the Russians, then by Hungarian Communists. Take Duke Anton II. Esterházy de Galántha – heir only to an abolished title – is permitted to live in three rooms in the now state-owned 18th century Esterháza Palace at Fertöd, just over the Austrian border.
Billed as the Hungarian Versailles, the rococo masterpiece was plundered by Russian troops, left empty and scheduled for demolition. Esterházy, 76, who grew up in Austria and studied in Belgium, has extracted substantial EU grants towards rehabilitating the palace.
But he notes ruefully that the Hungarian branch of the family was offered nothing at all for the Esterházy treasures now in the hands of the state; this includes a large chunk of the national art collection. As for himself, "I’m a kind of show-off piece of old furniture", he told me recently, as he prepared to meet and greet yet another visiting motorcycle club who wanted to have their pictures taken with him.