Tag Archives: Vienna

Double-take

Surprise free afternoons are great. Crossing things off a to-do list earlier than expected, I can wander free and roam wide, going wherever my feet or my stomach take me. I keep discovering new corners of my adopted city, wondering how another gem had escaped me until then. With no guide book in hand, I stumble on some of Vienna’s treasures completely by chance. I sniff out my adventures in a variety of ways. I sometimes hear some music or spot an interesting shopping bag or catch a whiff of something delicious or simply follow the crowd when I get off a tram somewhere completely new.

One such afternoon, I asked a lady who was getting on my tram where she got the unusual flowers she was carrying and realised that it was just around the corner. I promptly jumped off and made straight for the flower shop. What greeted me round the bend was a market I’d been to before but this time I approached it from another side.  Even though I was slightly disappointed it wasn’t a completely new place, I decided to take a second look. Ambling past stalls with fresh produce, I began to notice things I hadn’t the last time I was there. Not only did I find the unusual flower shop, I also observed the demographic around me start to change.

As I tried to find a non-creepy place to watch the life around me, I stumbled into Himmelblau and almost forgot my mission. I got distracted by all the gorgeous Indian-looking prints in the shop and gently picked up and replaced quite a few things before I realised there was a matching cafe through a secret doorway hiding in plain sight. How had I missed this little gem before? Unashamedly feminine and playful in its decor, this cafe was perfect for me sans husband. Munching on yummy salad and sipping fresh carrot juice, I looked out onto the street to witness the slices of society at the market that day.

Friday afternoons are seemingly when the yummy mummies with fashionable buggies meet working friends who aren’t accompanied by little people. Eventually, the partners of the largely female populace start to appear and many greeting kisses are exchanged. The waiters of the cafés scurry around to add chairs to growing tables and start taking several new orders while picking up cutlery that children fling in all directions. Retirees meet young professionals one can only assume are their children who they are clearly proud of. A book club convenes and serious chatter is punctuated with laughter. Many exclamations are made and there is a general air of relaxed friendship and familiarity. This afternoon changed my perception of a notoriously snobbish district of Vienna. I saw something different. I am happy I chose to take a second look.

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Reading in Public

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Does anyone know why we go to cafés to read? Reading is arguably a private affair; one that requires concentration and a fair amount of time. Unless you have a soap-box from which to megaphone your manifesto, reading in public is generally a quiet pastime and some might even say, an anti-social one. In Vienna, a city dedicated to the art of whiling away hours of your life drinking beverages, reading in public is no new trend. In Alt Wiener-style establishments, regulars are brought their coffee and their favourite newspaper bound between two wooden splints. Public private reading is not just accepted in these ornate coffee-houses, it is encouraged. Have a cuppa, sit a while and read in peace.

In many modern cafés you will find that newspapers have been replaced by magazines and tabloids. The truly on-trend café however, not only upgrades you from smut to classic literature but offers you the option of buying the reading material you see. Café Phil is one such trendy hipster locale. You are invited into their exposed concrete space to sit as long as you like, drink ‘homemade’ beverages (100% fairtrade, of course) and gaze at their rows of contemporary and classic tomes every time you look up from your Macbook. You can buy some of the motley artistically random collection of furniture and furnishings just in case you felt the need to reconstruct a perfect reading area. What you can’t recreate at home is the quiet hum of conversation of other ‘organic’ people and background music that isn’t distracting because you don’t know the artists.

This schizophrenic place jumps from café to bar to counselling centre to bookshop to restaurant to chair village to retro-ville in a matter of seconds. I love sipping my way through a good book but I’m not sure I could in such a self-conscious manner. Reading to me, is absorbing another’s words, engrossing yourself in a written world to make you completely unaware of your surroundings. When I entered this carefully curated area I felt an instant urge to resist the indie being stamped on me but I soon found myself thumbing through books that looked cool enough to read in public and even ended up researching retro-bikes on my way home. Reading in public can do that to you.

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How to Lose Cells and Alienate People

 Warning: Proceed with caution. Contents may be disturbing.

There are few things which truly gross me out.  In fact, the more gruesome something promises to be, the more intrigued I am by it. Think about why one side of a motorway gets clogged when an accident happens on the other. We slow down to look, wondering just how bad it really was. When a friend invited me to a private English tour of Vienna’s pathological museum, this feeling of extreme curiosity took over and I had to take a look.

Walking towards the museum tower through the grounds of the old general hospital, I thought about the times I snuck into the medical school at university hiding my hulking anthology of English Literature or some other non-scientific book in my coat. The foyer had two elephant skeletons which ushered you in to view an incredible selection of both human and non-human specimens preserved to further our understanding of the life on earth. Edinburgh had more impressive galleries dedicated to pathological and anatomical wonders but it was always the quiet halls of the medical college that allowed me to walk from one display to another, wondering away to my heart’s content with no one interrupting to tell me it was closing time.

My experience in Vienna’s Narrenturm was quite different and more disturbing. The tower was designed for people with mental conditions that were not understood in the 18th century,  two patients per windowless cell. After they were moved to friendlier surroundings in the countryside, this unusual prison-like facility housed a growing collection of medical specimens. Rooms were filled with glass jars of varying sizes around a theme. The Lung Room, for example, showed me how different life was for city and country dwellers. Miners, smokers, carpenters and factory-workers all had signs of their environment marked on their bodies.

These glass jars have in some way influenced my quality of life. The medical care we enjoy in Austria today is such a world away from that suffered by people without something as basic as sanitation a mere century ago. I saw wax-casts of dermatological conditions we simply do not see anymore because symptoms are detected early, preventative measures are taken and people are followed-up. I also saw some examples of alienesque mutations caused by damaged DNA sequences and was reminded of the horrors faced by people exposed to nuclear-radiation in my own lifetime. I am thankful for people who found a way to put mercury in thermometers safely so I can take my own temperature, for people who risked exposure to radioactive elements so I can have an X-ray and for all the people who dared to look, investigate and record so I can choose to look away today.

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The End of the Line

One sunny weekend, my husband and I decided to take a tram to the end of the line to see what we could see. We get out and are greeted by an imposing castle gate. Slightly deterred I fish out my phone. My map app tells me there is a vast green space mere metres away so we march on hoping we aren’t trespassing.

We soon see signs of plebeian activity. Unrelated children running amok, an assortment of grandparents sitting around, dog-walkers with little black bags and then the most comforting, runners of various shapes and sizes galloping past.

We walk on happily and take in the summery beauty all around us. Spotting signs that politely ask you to stay on the marked paths, “or else”, we start wondering why you would have paths through tempting meadows in the first place. We soon find out that this park is actually the grounds of a stately home that has been opened up for the public to enjoy and is home to a variety of woodland creatures. Happy not to disturb them, I take to stopping at annoyingly regular intervals to pick up a seed pod, look at a stone, point at a worm, etc. My husband rolls his eyes at the city-kid.

On our way back to the tram, I drag my willing husband to the petting zoo. I join in the squeals of the children who happen to be the majority at the fence and point excitedly at the animals. The goat kids hop about awkwardly, the pygmy pigs snort around their pen and the insects buzz around their mansion. So much to see and do so I decide we should bring our niece here when my sister visits.

Fast-forward a month, my sister, my niece and I go to the end of the line again to see the animals. Unfortunately, there was a fire that spread across the petting zoo, killing several animals. Massive fail. While my sister and I were busy thinking sad thoughts, my niece was occupying herself with some stones she found. She doesn’t even know there are animals missing when she doesn’t see one. City-kid.

 

 

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Pop-ups Enabled

A scene from ‘Komm, süßer Tod’: ‘Come, sweet Death’

Vienna offers a never-ending supply of interesting adventures. With a sobriety that becomes this former imperial city, Vienna entertains, amazes and confuses me daily. For starters, I have never felt less groomed than a dog before moving here. I find this hilarious. Walking through a park, using the underground or at the theatre, there is no place a Viennese person considers it inappropriate to shout at a complete stranger, showing extreme irritation over a seemingly trivial thing. Truly amazing. It only follows that the Viennese taste in film should be equally inexplicable. Austrians, I’m told, have a morbid sense of humour which is perfectly encapsulated in the indie films by Josef Hader.

I once read Komm, süßer Tod for an Austrian-German class so when a friend of mine invited me to go see the film at a pop-up ‘heuriger’ recently, I decided it was time to actually understand the plot. A heuriger is usually a restaurant managed by a local farmer or vintner, set in leafy surroundings, selling homegrown produce and authentic Austrian cuisine. In an attempt at being ‘alternative’, a selection of freshly made Austrian delights along with an inflatable cinema screen and a few picnic tables, were dropped into an old ballroom hidden on a forgotten street. The people who attended this unusual showing were clearly rebels from a typically conservative art-scene, buying fruity beers from the pop-up bar and chatting seriously about the brilliance of Hader.

I think about 20 minutes had passed when the Austrians in our group suggested we move to a quieter corner because they couldn’t understand the dialogue. Not entirely sure whether they withdrew for my sake or genuinely because they could not understand the Viennese dialect but I gratefully joined the exodus to the garden. In true Austrian fashion, the beer garden was closed before the rest of the venue so we made our way into another spacious room. Perhaps we were keeping the neighbours awake with our alternative event which featured no music, laughing or loud noises. Being linguistically challenged and therefore, unusually quiet, I busied myself with taking in the atmosphere. The peeling paint, the ornate plasterwork on the ceilings, the scale of the rooms and imagining what might have happened in this once beautiful space. I am sure it was positively amazing.

 

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