Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
When I boarded my plane out of Austria, the newspapers were breathlessly reporting on the just-broken story of Elisabeth Fritzl, an Austrian woman recently freed from the windowless basement where her father imprisoned her for 24 years and repeatedly raped her, producing seven children, three of whom have also just escaped from the dungeon.
It was one of life’s little cosmic ironies–getting out of Austria at just the time when the world’s eyes turned towards it. The last time Austria featured in this many headlines was, well, last summer, when 18-year-old Natascha Kampusch emerged from her 8-year captivity in a cellar less than 100 miles away.
To speculate that these cases have anything to do with the Austrian national character (or, as some Austrians are doing, the provincial character of NiederÃ¶sterreich) would be to succumb to what I call “novelist’s logic,” or the idea that just because it’s a compelling story with poignant symbolism, it must be true.
I do this a lot in my own life, but I’m allowed to be irresponsible with my own life. In this case it’s probably better to hold off and just shake your head at all the bad PR the poor country is getting. (Or to capitalize off of it by making a shirt that says “There are no kangaroos in Austria… unless your next-door neighbor is raping one in his basement.”)
It’s strange, watching the current press onslaught, first because I’m proud to have been hating on Austria since before it was fashionable, and second because of how opposed it is to what I would wager is the average American view of Austria, at least when it’s not being confused with Australia, namely as a sort of Sound-of-Music-Disneyland where people sing in the streets.
And at its best, for me, that’s what Vienna was like. My very first impression of Vienna was actually when I slouched off the night train from Berlin into the bowels of the U-Bahn system and thought “This looks exactly like Space Mountain!”
I immediately said this to the three people around me, two of whom had no idea what I was talking about and one of whom agreed that it certainly had that “Plastics are our future” whiff about it, although they were skeptical about its ability to traverse interstellar space at millions of light years per hour.
They were right to be skeptical–but I’d almost take a well-lit, wide-ranging, and punctual public transportation system over a really sweet spacecraft. Throw in an in-ride magazine and I’m completely sold. (The first time I cried back from Vienna, I was sitting in a train station in New Jersey. Nothing coincidental about that.)
Vienna’s own Space Mountain can and will take you all over the city, including to my former neighborhood (Favoriten represent?), which has one saving grace even a respectable Viennese can appreciate–Tichy, an ice cream parlor packed at all hours of the day and as far into the night as it is legally allowed. It takes twenty minutes to push your way to the counter and five, if you’re lucky, before your order has disappeared in a bout of orgiastic eating. It would be cruel of me to go into further details when all you have is Sharples.
The Viennese love ice cream. I thought I loved ice cream, before going to Vienna, but there are also many things I love which are not ice cream. This is not true with the Viennese. There is one thing and one thing only that can make their collective melancholy heart a little less melancholy, and that is ice cream.
My proof is that although I never did find a 24-hour supermarket in Vienna (in contrast to Berlin: the Russian supermarket under the S-Bahn in Charlottenburg will sell you Arbeitersbier and eggs even at 3 AM) and it took me over a month to even find one that was open on Sundays, Zanoni & Zanoni is right in the center of the city and never ever closes.
So that’s a little bit like Disneyland, right? I realize now that I’ve never written in detail about the eating culture in Vienna, which is something of a pity. Instead I’ll tell you about the Weisswurst Ã„quator, a culinary-political border which divides Germany roughly along the Danube (auf Deutsch, Donau).
Below the Ã„quator, people like to eat Weisswurst, sausages made of fresh veal and bacon which are not smoked and can’t be boiled, so they have to be made fresh every day and are almost invariably eaten as a mid-morning snack. You’re supposed to cut off the ends and then suck the meat out from the skin, and slather up with some sweet Bavarian Senf, or mustard.
As peculiar as this culinary practice may seem, the name Weisswurst Ã„quator wouldn’t have worked itself up into the Zeitgeist if it didn’t also reflect the fact that people in the north think people in the south are backwards hicks, that people on both sides bash the accents of the people on the other side, and that both sides blame each other for the Holocaust.
(Yes, I am drawing cultural parallels here. The North points out that Hitler first rose to power in the South. The South points out that Hitler never ever would have been elected if not for the additional support of people in the North, and also that everyone knows that Prussians are militaristic jerks. I am non-committal.)
But back to Vienna, which I imagine most Berliners would condemn as being “unter den Ã„quator,” but not because they eat Weisswurst. Because they’re backwards.
Adorably backwards, and full of unexpected yet delightful landmarks (and then those Holocaust memorials: I refer specifically to the Memorial Against War and Fascism, which I like more and more the more I think about Rachel Whiteread’s monstrosity, which I mostly dislike because it says to me that the sad thing about the Holocaust was the knowledge we lost, not the people) such as the columns set up to commemorate the end of the plague.
There were several bubonic plagues, actually, and the Viennese never really tired of building memorials to celebrate the reprieves, but the one built to commemorate the plague of 1679, pictured above, is in the heart of the city and looks suspiciously like a tower of gilded swollen disease-infested pustules.
It makes me giggle morbidly whenever I walk by. I don’t know if this is something the locals do. I do know that I wanted so badly to look like a local while I was there that I bought a Deutsch-Englisch WÃ¶rterbuch and buried my German-English Dictionary in the bottom of my suitcase.
I still don’t know how well I did. In Berlin I felt like I fit in despite being a foreigner, that I could even live there, carve out an existence for longer than a semester of study abroad, but in Vienna I always felt vaguely tawdry about being an outsider, and I suppose that’s like Disneyland too. How long can you really indulge in the 19th-century-sweeping-Habsburg-grandeur fantasy that Vienna provides without feeling slightly ill, as if you’ve eaten too much Sachertorte?
(More pertinently, how long can you go without eating too much Sachertorte? And how long can you go before getting sick of Mozart?)
And so perhaps I love this picture the most; I had to be sneaky about taking it, but it captures the moment when the mice (or the Mozarts) are caught with their tails off: good for not much more than a cheap giggle, maybe, but oh, Vienna! Sometimes you are a delightful place.
You happen to also be a place where those of us with a melancholy bent are in serious danger of falling into the abyss. (Proof: basically any Austrian writer, ever. Although I’m mostly thinking of Thomas Bernhard, the playwright who thought you didn’t deserve him after you called him a Nestbeschmutzer, or one who dirties his own nest: he wouldn’t allow any of his plays to be published or performed in Austria after he died.)
Where by abyss, of course, I mean cellar, because guess what? You have more girls stuck in cellars than anywhere else, and that is simply not a risk I am interested in taking anymore. That’s why I’m going back to Berlin (and Heidelberg) over the summer thanks to a Swat Foundation Grant, where I expect to speak more Denglish, have more adventures, and maybe write my German Studies senior thesis. (If anybody has any suggestions on that front, send them over?)
So thanks for reading, everybody. Maybe you’ll see a coda in this same space next semester–or maybe you’ll just have to seek me out and trade stories of cultural confusion in person! I’m always Spiel for some storytelling.
Mit freundlichen (und sehr, sehr dankbaren) GrÃ¼ssen,