Vienna Postcard 2 — February 17, 2004

Much as Vienna is a city that leans heavily on its past — especially in its Baroque & Mozartian epochs — such that it can feel like a changeless place, even morbidly so (This, I feel, is the feeling Freud so momentously autopsied, revealing swarms of thriving, if perverse, bacterial life in the corpse of his home city’s past), walking around these past two weeks, I’ve had the distinct impression of difference. My spidey sense is not after all so finely tuned, but there are certain peripheral awarenesses I’ve been able to make use of from time to time. Take birds. When I go birdwatching, I’m able to notice interesting birds (which means those outside the ordinary) when I recognize unusual motions in the foliage. The patterns of the motions of house sparrows, for instance, are so ingrained, it’s when I see unsparrow-like movements that I begin to focus my attention. The year we lived here I had a thirst for being in the ambient aura of English speech — a bell of sound that simply didn’t exist. So when I noticed familiar lilts & momentums of phrasing characteristic of American, my ears pricked up, my hearing focused like a sonar.

Viennese German has an unmistakable sound. Viennese — the dialect — is another thing altogether: perfectly incomprehensible to us. Last week we went to have dinner in a corner Gasthaus; the patroness croaked at us through a fog of smoke, her vocal chords gravelly & her words like Indo-dwarvish or something. Here’s a funny example of Dialekt: D’schuidigung. Is des des Beagl wo di Tschuli Endruhs aum aunfaung vun “te Saund of Mjusic” gsunga hot? Translation: Excuse me, is this the hill where Julie Andrews sang at the beginning of “Sound of Music”? Pronounced:
Chewy dee gung. Iss dess dess bagel vo dee Chewly Endrews omm ownfong fun “De zound of music”gusunga hod? (Taken from the Viennese for Americans website). Those of you who know German know how funny this is; those of you who don’t, well — it’s funny because “The Sound of Music” was filmed in Salzburg & it’s funny to imagine Viennese going there to take the “Sound of Music”tour. Which is something I’ve actually done. Ahem.

But the German of Vienna lilts heavily, it’s got a thickness to it, & it’s rather lovely to listen to. It makes the German Germans speak sound robotic. In its aura — on the streetcar, in a coffee house — you have a natural sense of what’s being discussed, even if you don’t understand it so well (I feel my German coming back, but slowly). When American speech interferes in this aura, it’s immediate, even across the room of a crowded coffee house. At any rate, I mention all this to say that I’ve noticed a lot more English being spoken; not sure what to attribute it to. The other day I heard a woman in a luxurious fur coat talking about getting her nails done & going for a massage. We also saw this punk rocker teenage gargoyle on the Strassenbahn the other afternoon who spoke Viennese German in one phone call on his “handy” (everyone has a cell phone in Vienna — even us), & then perfect American English the next. Gabby kept asking “What’s that man doing?” as we watched him “text” furiously into his phone.

Gabby at Am Hof holding a donut (Krapfen) aloft

Well, there are other big changes: there’s an elaborate Museum Quarter built in the Kaiser’s old stables, just behind the two massive national museums, the Kunsthistorishesmuseum & the Naturhistorischesmuseum (Athena, the city’s patroness atop one, Apollo atop the other). It’s an exciting new museum space in a city filled with them, that includes the Leopold Sammlung, one of the most impressive collections of Viennese Secession arts & crafts (including a killer collection of Egon Schiele paintings), & a new children’s museum (which we’re trying out this week). And the internet is everywhere, even here in our rented living room.

But perhaps the subtlest, most persuasive change sits off-center, gnomic & lorn in the Judenplatz: the Vienna Holocaust Memorial. I saw it for the first time last summer. It’s as destabilizing as it is grave. Last weekend, our friend Hannes insisted that he & I go see “Mystic River” at the Artis — ne of the English cinemas in the Old City (I didn’t think the movie was all that good). We decided to go to a late show. Hannes lives two minutes from us; we agreed to meet at Aumannplatz to take a Streetcar into the city, whose end-of-the-line is Schottentor, a Streetcar/U-Bahn station placed at the location of one of the old entrances into the city, when it was surrounded by a thick wall (the very one leveled by Franz Joseph to create the Ringstrasse that encircles the old city — a stroke of genius that makes for one the great streets in the world). From Schottentor, we strode into the Freyung, an opening up of narrow streets into a plaza of sorts; the Freyung squeezes into a much larger square, Am Hof, which is surrounded by banks overlooking a rather large square (off in the corner of which is one of my favorite Wuerstelstands in Vienna). From Am Hof, you walk down a narrow corridor to reach the Judenplatz. All of this is on the way to the Artis movie theater. As we walked through these various squares & came upon the Judenplatz, Hannes said to me, “This is my favorite walk through Vienna; these are my favorite squares.” Hannes is a native Viennese; this seemed less an opinion than a proclamation of the fact of familiarity. There’s a kind of baroque rhythm to the arrangement of these squares, the way they relate geometrically but congruently, not in some kind of immediately cohering pattern but one that is nonetheless felt as you stride through the different passages & openings, turning various corners. It was around 10pm that night when we walked by the sepulchral library that is the Holocaust memorial. Designed by sculptor Rachel Whiteread, the memorial is a block in stone rendered from the shapes of thousands of books whose spines are turned inward, so that all you can see are the tightly closed leaves of the book. The memorial block sits atop a platform which names all the concentration camps. Its construction was a little controversial: as the foundation for the memorial was excavated, the remains of Vienna’s oldest synagogue were discovered. This led to the creation of a museum for the synagogue — plus some political wrangling. It was finally unveiled in 2000.

Holocaust Memorial at the Judenplatz

To say the memorial is haunting is perhaps too much of a cliché. Rather, it’s sealed — like a tomb. But a bodiless grave, represented by books — hermetically clasped shut — so that you can never read them, never even know what knowledge they contain. The monument is a nonplus. There’s nowhere further to go. All you know is that the books exist never to be leafed through — thousands of records & histories. What I like most about this memorial is its incorporation of the city’s environment into its commemorative power: Vienna’s Judenplatz, while being the place to which its Jews have longest historical rooting, is also the site of pogroms & periodic viciousness. At the east end of the square is the Haus zum Grossen Jordan, which bears its own memorial from the 1421 pogrom, showing a bas-relief of the baptism of Christ, sure sign that the Jews had been eliminated from their own precinct (The cleansing of the Jews is analogized to Christ’s baptism). It’s hard not to feel some sense of memorial echo in the square, disharmoniously. Whiteread has also planned for the deterioration of the memorial, which she has given a rough texture. As it ages — as it gets grimier & sootier — the leaves of the books will take on color, so that its current monolithic look will be variegated, appearing to age, or to be smoked. Upon seeing it last summer, it became one of my favorite things in the city. Sitting by it, you notice visitors & tourists inspecting it; but mostly you see people striding by, doing their thing, going to work, going to eat. It’s this unavoidable reality that makes the monument memorial, or perhaps immemorial: we live, as we know, by our ability to forget.

Last things: everywhere there are crows. Vienna hosts two species of crow: the hooded crow, which looks like a crow in a gray tux — in shape & form otherwise a perfect reflection of the American crow — and which live here year-round; & what I first learned six years ago were Siberian crows (that’s how the papers described their return), which winter here. I brought a Peterson’s Guide to the Birds of Britain & Europe, planning to catch the spring migrations along the Danube — sure to be spectacular. This book calls these crows rooks. They’re feral looking creatures, with tiny heads & enormous beaks, bald at the base, presumably because they are carrion-eaters. There’s something amazing about them: they have the semblance of creatures perfectly adapted to the human inhabitation of their world without any sense whatsoever of being attached to our presence (as it is, say, with house sparrows). Yeah, the old clichés about menacing murders of crows. But these do seem brutal. Every evening at dusk they fly in a stream to the north part of the city, thousands of them. What are they doing?

A rook

Coffee: just a little revelation. Viennese coffee is a classic “city roast,”which means the beans are roasted just to the point before they start to burn (which is where you get the dark roasts, like espresso or French). This means the coffee has a nutty, winey flavor to it — that it doesn’t knock your socks off, is a little more soothing. If you go to a Viennese coffee house, you’ll probably order a mélange, which is like a strong cappucino. If you don’t order a mélange, you might order a Brauner, which is Viennese-roasted coffee expressed through an espresso machine, served with a tiny pitcher of condensed milk. It’s delicious. Anyways, I like to drink a cup of black coffee in the morning. At home, I use one of those Italian stove-top espresso makers, get a really strong cup. Doing the same thing here (actually, just using a Melita filter), it just doesn’t taste that good. Until I started adding a little bit of condensed milk. It’s a whole different world of flavor. Like I said, a small revelation. But worth remembering. Don’t manfully turn away from the milk in your coffee here. No self-respecting Viennese would.

Peter O'Leary (© 2004)