Friday, April 11, 2008

Vienna, 8.7.03: Heurigers, Extra-Early Sauerkraut, and Holocaust Monuments

Impressions of Vienna, warm summer afternoon, a breeze blowing down the Ringstrasse and ruffling the leaves outside our balcony where I sit and write (a sycamore? like but unlike): a hard city; a heartless city; a beautiful city; a charming city.

A city I’d definitely like to see more of. Each day, I’m intently aware of how much (how much more) there is to see. This is a city that reveals its hand only by tiny degrees, and perhaps never to the stranger, whom it treats heartlessly.

We decided to do the tourist thing this afternoon and have coffee and Sachertorte (linzer for me) at the Sacher. When Steve ordered in perfect if halting German, I noticed two middle-aged women beside us smirk. The waiter, a young man, was very pleasant….

After he left, I said to Steve in German how tiring travel can be, and how lack of friendliness and hospitality can make it harder. The women heard us talk, and perhaps to their credit, looked a tiny bit ashamed.

Earlier, we’d walked through the Naschmarkt. I was very aware of the sotto voce comments some vendors were making as we passed, though I ignored them. Most were Middle Eastern and spoke Viennese, which I wouldn’t understand anyway.

We passed a sauerkraut vendor with a big barrel of kraut. He, too, was Middle Eastern. As we passed (they always hail you, trying to get you to stop: Grüss Gott, Bitte, Bitte), he said, “Extra-heuriger Sauerkraut.” Steve replied, “Sehr net.” The Middle Eastern vendor across the way said to the sauerkraut man, “Nichts verstehen.” Steve stared at him.

These are experiences I don’t ever recall having in Germany. What is it about Vienna? How can a city so cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic, and polyglot be so insular, self-infatuated, and unwelcoming to the Other? Solve that riddle, and you’ll begin to understand Hitler.

It’s a culture that has long accepted vast disparities in wealth, and, at the same time, a city that had a Socialist mayor before the war. Empire and Church have played a role in keeping people parochial.

It’s a sensate culture, more interested in architecture, coffee, music, painting, fine dress, cakes, church-as-theater, than in the spoken word. We went last night to the English Theater to see Ronald Harwood’s “Quartet.” The cashier at the box office didn’t speak a word of English. That would never happen in, say, Hamburg. It’s a parable. It says everything about something distinctively Austrian.

There’s a definite air here, undeniably so, and it’s not unattractive. The way middle-aged women hold themselves; the way they dress in linen and modified Tracht (well, that overstates it—but definitely that Austrian country look that’s as chic and aristocratic as, say, country tweeds in London); the chignon many of them wear; the defiantly undyed hair. Ladyhood lives on among them.

But more indicators of the complexity of the culture: yesterday, we passed a building commemorating the Austrian soldiers who made Austria free again at the end of the war—as if Austria did not welcome Hitler (its own) with open arms, the bishops at the head of the parade; as if Austria were an occupied nation in the war.

And today, in Albertinaplatz, we came on the monument of Alfred Hrdlicka, which we’d passed several times without stopping. Deeply moving, the granite monument, Gateway of Violence, vs. the Nazis and fascism, that leads immediately through a narrow passage to the bronze monument of a Jew with barbed wire all over his back, grovelling as he’s forced to scrub pro-Austria slogans from the streets. I was moved to tears as I made the passage and came on this all-too-real depiction of someone bearing the sufferings of everyone.

I wanted a postcard, a photo, anything. We walked across the street to the Albertina, hoping it would have a poster or postcard.

The lady in the gift shop, very helpful and kind, said no, she wasn’t aware of any picture anywhere. She went to ask. Whoever she asked thought none existed. Across the street from the monument is a kitschy pseudo-Heuriger, Volkslieder schmalzing outside into the sidewalk.
That’s Austria. Wants to remember. But not too much. Puts its anti-Nazi monuments on a back street (and forgets them), while it refurbishes its huge imperial buildings with their gold-engraved pronouncements about peace and justice. And accompanies the statue of the prostrate, humiliated Jew with a pseudo-Heuriger.

Not that Americans have anything to boast of. Day after day after day, news of the Iraqi war. I seriously doubt we’ll erect any monuments to commemorate our historic guilt there.

And, on the streetcar today to the Rupertskirche to buy tickets for a concert tonight, my esteemed fellow citizens talked loudly in English—as if no one could understand them—about the ugliness of the architecture of modern buildings we passed. They shot pictures all over the place with their expensive high-tech cameras. I wanted to crawl under the seat.

Naschmarkt fabulous. I wish we’d have had the sense to go sooner. How well we could have eaten, and how cheaply. We bought two bottles of Marillen (i.e., Aprikosen) schnapps from a very nice man who told us it’s from a particular area of Austria, and rare. One will go to Pepper and Rusty, who brought us grappa from Italy.

Also went to the Secession, where we saw Klimt’s Beethoven frieze. It was fascinating, but honestly, doesn’t do much for me. I tire of the cult of Klimt, the endless kitschy reproduction of “The Kiss,” the colonizing of his work by middle-class heterosexuality that wants it to be an icon of (their) sexual liberation.

Not that Klimt and Schiele did not leave themselves wide open to such a reading of their work. All that homoeroticism just barely concealed, especially in Schiele, and yet the desperate need to profess themselves straight. It’s repulsive, and makes me think of the rotting humus out of which, like some deadly fungus that springs up only by night, Nazism arose. This was not art that spoke the truth to power, even as it professed to do so.

The Judenstadt area, where Rupertskirche is, is another of those little worlds Vienna seems full of, of which I’d like to see more. It’s up on a hill, up steps to the church, as in Prague, with little gasses leading everywhere.

We’re in one now called Salzgasse, just off the platz in front of the church, where Salzgasse, Judengasse, and Ruprechtsplatz meet. A cool breeze is blowing, the air crisp, a touch of sunlight entering the gasse and falling on the table beside me.

Up the gasse is what seems an apartment building looking down over a wall to another restaurant down the way. Immediately across is a pub with a sign saying Morgans, Rum and More, yellow letters against a dark brown background. Bright posters in primary colors advertise Vodka Bull, Vodka Lemon, Cuba Libre, and something called Caipi Riha.

Above are more apartments, two with curtains wafting from windows. One set is scarlet with crescent moons and stars, somehow ominous. The other is yellow crepe, mustard yellow.

The building on the Judengasse/Ruprechtsplatz corner looks as if it belongs in a Moravian or Bohemian village, with golden plaster flecked with a patina of city grime, and Corinthian pediments on the windows. Underneath is a card and poster shop we visited today.

Three days ago was Aunt Kat’s birthday. She’d have been 89, I’ve just calculated. I didn’t realize the day—lose track and have to ask Steve both the date and day of the week. As I remember her on this trip and this evening (and have remembered her in the days after the 5th), I feel great loss, and also gratitude for her legacy. The bit of money that makes my life a little easier is only part of it. “In paradisum te angeli….

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