Vienna Postcard 3 — February 25, 2004


The doors to the Streetcars & the U-Bahns have to be opened manually; that is, you have to pull a lever or push a button. They won’t open automatically at every stop. There’s a situation on public transportation in which older women, usually laden with bags of stuff, gruffly push their way to the doors just prior to a train’s reaching a station & wait with their hands hovering over the lever, ready to thrust it open. At which point they lumber off the trains.

If you have a stroller & especially if you are a woman, even if your child is not in the stroller at the moment, you will be aided in getting on & off a train, as if by a law of politeness. Even old men & women, not themselves very stable, will go out of their way to help you, by grabbing either the stroller or your child. (Ask Rebecca).

For 45 Euros you can purchase a monthly pass for all the public transportation within Zone 1 — a disk of city with a diameter of roughly 30 miles. With this pass, you can ride as often as you want, anywhere you want, on any variety of public transportation vehicles. It’s a steal. You often see a person get on a streetcar — having waited for it to come — only to get off 100 meters away at the next stop.

On the WienerLinien — the official name for the public transportation — riding is on the honor system. At the entrance to any subway stop, or placed on the streetcars, are little boxes in which you’re supposed to validate your ticket. Riding “illegally” — called schwartzfahren — is regulated by Controllers who ride undercover & then ask to see your ticket. In all the time I’ve spent in this city, I’ve been “controlled” twice. If the CTA went to the honor system, it would be bankrupt in a week.

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The variety of butters for purchase at the grocery stores is outstanding. Based on when the cows ate the grass that initiated the process from which the butter was eventually churned, as well as on the quality of the grass itself, you can buy Teebutter, Sommerbutter (made from the cream of cows who chewed on sweet early summer grasses, made either out of sweet cream or sour cream — I’m totally serious!), Sauerrahmbutter (sour-cream butter), or Landbutter. Also, if that weren’t enough, you can also buy Bio-butter, which means it has conformed to Austria’s strict organic agronomy standards.

Because the pasteurization process is different, milk has a much shorter shelf-life here: you have to buy it every two or three days at the most. If you leave a glass of milk out, it will turn sour in an hour or two. However, if you like to stock up, you can buy milk that has been irradiated, which doesn’t need to be refrigerated until opened, & has a shelf-life just south of refried beans. It tastes — to use Grosse Pointe vernacular, ca. 1980 — bogue.

The eggs you buy at the store are amazing: the shells are twice as thick as US grocery-store eggs & the yolks are colored somewhere between saffron & Sunkist. They come in cartons of six & typically contain a story in them about where the hens live who laid them. Plus a picture of the virtuous-looking Alpiner who lovingly gathered them. Eggs are almost always brown, usually speckled.

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Gabby has become fixated on the riff that begins the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” He intones it — interspersed with “Twinkle, Twinkle” — at the top of his voice, when we ride around on the streetcars. Recently, he’s been replacing the notes of the riff with words. Best so far: “candy” & “butt.”

Serious question: when does the repetition of the word “butt” — especially by a two-year old, especially in the form of a tune — cease to be gutbustingly funny. When?

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In the winter months, one of the terrific Viennese streetfoods that you can get are hot roasted chestnuts. Vendors stand over barrel-sized kettles, roasting chestnuts — called Maroni — as well as potatoes — called Edrdapfeln in Austria, rather than Kartoffel, which is what Germans call them — & a delicious treat called a Kartofelpuffer, which is basically a potato pancake. When you ask for one, you can simply call it a “Puffer,” as in “Eine Puffer, bitte!”

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Viennese take their dogs everywhere: to stores, to restaurants, to the coffee houses. On the trains, they have to wear muzzles — called a Beisskorb (“bite-basket”). If they are not allowed in to a store, there’s usually a sign of a dog that reads: “Ich bleib daraus” (I stay outside), with a place to hook the leash. At the Staatsarchive, which is like a wing of the Austrian Library of Congress, Rebecca saw a sign for dogs that reads: “Ich darf nicht hinein kommen” (I am not allowed to come inside). Question: What frequency of this situation necessitated such a sign? Who were the people bringing their dog to the archive who needed to be reminded that this was not an appropriate place for dogs? Of course, it is still permissible to smoke in the archive.

Café Prueckel

Everyone in Austria smokes. Even pregnant women. Even children. You’re issued a pack when you pass through customs.

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Garbage man

There’s a particular type of Viennese Typ (guy) exemplified by one of our garbagemen: roughly middle-aged, sporting a thick moustache, a truly impressive mullet (or Shaum-hawk), with a giant gut (called, sometimes, a Gössermuskel — which is a “muscle” grown from consuming one of Vienna’s native beers), always smoking. Gabby & I ran into this guy & his crew at our local Wuerstel, around 11.30, two hours after we snapped this picture of him. The three of them were chainsmoking & drinking pints of beer (something you’ll see men & women do as early as 8am, Sundays included). Their accents were as thick & chewy as the rinds of meat they were eating for lunch.

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The grocery stores all provide very small carts for you to use when you shop. You have to insert a coin in the handle to release it. All four wheels move independently, which allows for superb maneuverability through the narrow aisles, but also some momentum problems on turns. You’re pretty much obliged to go shopping every two days, which is sweet: nothing ever rots in the fridge, which is really small anyways, & you can always buy what you feel like eating. But it also means you always have to go to the store. Where it’s very easy to buy delicious candy.

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One of the truly delicious foods in Vienna is the Semmel, basically a Kaiser roll, but the best one you’ve ever had. You can get these everywhere: in grocery stores, in bakeries, at butchers. They’re always fresh & they always taste great, especially smeared generously with Sommerbutter & apricot jam, which is called Marillenmarmilade (it’s the same stuff put in the Krapfen (donuts) & used to glaze the Sachertorte, the prince of cakes).

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Austrian television — as is true of all German-language TV (they call a TV a Fernseher & watching TV has its own verb: fernsehen) — is the pits. There seem to be endless, pointless news shows, movies & American shows dubbed into German (“Der Koenig vom Queens” anyone?), & lots of other bad stuff. There’s one exception. On the weekends, the two national stations — ORF 1 & 2 — show nothing but skiing, in all its varieties. Lately World Cup Biathalon footage, which is oddly compelling to watch, like car accidents on tape, & — more importantly, World Cup downhill skiing, especially the Men’s competition. Last weekend, the top four finishers were all Austrians. Number one, amazingly — since his femur is now made out of titanium & two years ago his leg was connected to his trunk by a flap of skin & a handful of nerves — is Hermann Meier, the Herminator, former bricklayer, national hero.

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We’re at the end of the Ball Season, which involves formal balls as well as costume balls (called Fasching, about which Rebecca wrote her dissertation, in part). Everyone has a ball, from the flower-vendors, to the students at the Technical University, to the Coffeehouse servers. But the top ball is the Opera Ball that takes place pretty much at the end of the season (which lasts from New Year’s Day through Mardi Gras, called Faschingsdienstag here). It was on TV last night; the event gets live coverage, with commentary. Kind of like the Rose Parade. What it is in actuality is a huge debutante ball: during the proceedings — it’s kind of like Ice Capades on a parquet floor — the Debutantinnen stand attentively with their Debutanten behind them, the young ladies bedecked in white gowns, their hands gloved, wearing tiaras, & the young men wearing white ties with their tuxedos, with white gloves too. Surrounding them are mobs of people, but tiered above them are various important people and aristocrats, real aristocrats. We saw dozens of older men in their white-tie tuxedos, who were wearing baronic crosses around their necks, & various medals giving off Masonic vibrations & Da Vinci Code tremors. Walking along the Ringstrasse this morning, after buying Gabby an electronic keyboard — “Made for Austria” not in Austria (there’s no indication where this product was made) — we saw these lovely maidens being drawn around the Ring in their chariot. These are not costumes! The tiaras are real! Note the fur coats.

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Nobody uses clothes driers here. If you don’t put fabric softener into the wash, when your clothes dry, they are as hard as saltines. And even then, they’re pretty stiff.

Peter O'Leary (© 2004)