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Weird, rude, arty: Vienna has it all — plus a penis terrarium.
One minute it was there, the next minute it was gone.
My suitcase, pinched off a train somewhere between Paris and Vienna.
Did it contain items that will cost me thousands to replace? Yes. Are they of even limited commercial value to anyone else? Probably not, apart from a Patagonia jacket (eBay onsell value: circa 200 bucks). Was there anything irreplaceable in it? Not really — apart from my sketch notebook, containing the originals of this Venn diagram, this Venn diagram, this map of Oxford and many other drawings besides.
Do I realise that this is a hard-core first world problem and I need to just shut the fuck up and make my peace with it?
Yep, thanks, already have. It’s gone, let’s move on.
Now, it might be the lost suitcase but Vienna instantly disagreed with me.
Like when you eat something rancid and have a big bacterial vomit, the first few hours left a lingering bitterness.
It was 5:57pm when I alighted from the train, sans suitcase, and 6pm on the nose when I tried to get into a still-bustling pharmacy in the train station.
A woman marched to close the door on me.
“Please. I just need a toothbrush.”
“No! We are closed!” She moved in front of the door, barring entry, affronted to her core that I presumed to enter the pharmacy at 6pm and 20 seconds.
“Please.” I tried one more time. “I lost my bag and I have nothing.”
She would not be moved, physically or emotionally. The whole establishment watched with mild interest.
“No, the pharmacy is closed now! You must leave.”
So I grabbed her shoulders and brought her face to my knee with a crunch.
I just glared at her for a long moment to let her know she won’t ever be getting into my pharmacy after hours and stalked off, to a night of dental decay.
Straight to the hotel, rather than eat on the way, I ended up getting off a stop early in a strangely deserted neighbourhood.
Several men gave me appraising up-and-downs. I whispered to myself “still got it”.
Later, I realised that quiet neighbourhood was the red light district. I also realised I hadn’t been propositioned and wasn’t quite sure how to take that.
At the hotel: did they have any rooms with tubs? Did they fuck.
I begged the kind lad on reception to please give me a room on the quiet side. The noisy side faced the Prater — which appears on maps as an expansive, tranquil parkland when you book the hotel — but is, in reality, a neon-lit acres-wide amusement park, echoing with the thunder of rollercoasters and screams.
I tapped to unlock my room on the quiet side. A blast of cold air smacked me in the face.
The balcony door was wide open. The room was dark.
A masked chainsaw-wielding lunatic lurched gently from the curtains.
Quickly, I stepped back to the hallway and closed the door. I had to exert extra force against the steady breeze coming in off the balcony.
I went back down to reception.
An older Italian couple were checking in.
“And we booked the breakfast, right?”
“Yes I recommend you to go upstairs and let staff know.”
“But we booked it?”
“Yes, you booked it, but to reserve a table, it is best to let them know.”
“So we take payment ahead of time. That will be 366 Euro.”
Ten minutes of faffing with different cards and tapping and not authorised and insert here and maybe try this card and urgent conversations in Italian between husband and wife.
I felt my life force draining away.
Finally, they paid.
“Ok, and we paid for breakfast too right?”
“Yes, but please let them know upstairs.”
“Yes, you have to let them know upstairs.”
Eventually they exhausted their repository of inane questions and shuffled off.
I explained the situation.
The kind chap switched me to a different room, one without lunatics behind ominously swaying curtains. In the meantime, I asked for a dinner recommendation and, without hesitation, he recommended a place five minutes walk away.
“Best Viennese food in town! You will eat so much and sleep for 12 hours!”
“Great! That sounds perfect.”
They were full.
So, I ended up at a Chechen restaurant where they served me meat-stuffed dumplings in carrot sauce and cherry-coloured tea in little glasses, with a basket of sugar-dusted fried pastry.
It was unexpectedly lovely and just when I was thinking maybe I’ve been a bit hard on Vienna and really it’s quite alright, it was time to pay.
The next evening, I went to the opera.
Not the real opera — let’s not get carried away. Even if I had access to my full wardrobe, I don’t have anything suitable for the Vienna National Opera House. Get real.
No, the one I went to is the Volksoper or People’s Opera. It’s a couple stops away from the frothy centre of the Inner Ring, in a neighbourhood where the best food option I could find was a Vegan burger place.
In any case, I was in no way prepared for even the quiet grandeur of the People’s Opera. Bag still AWOL, no shops or pharmacies open on a Sunday, no deodorant to be had. I was easily the stinkiest and most raggedy person there by a country mile. I’ve never felt more country in my life.
No big deal, just me: the scruffiest, most unwashed person in the Vienna Volksoper.
The lady checking tickets gave me a bollocking for having a backpack with me. It was too big. It must be checked in the cloakroom.
She would not be moved. I sensed a theme.
I tried to explain that I had lost my suitcase and all my other worldly possessions. This small backpack contained everything I had left — my wallet, passport and laptop — and, if I lost it too, the consequences were unthinkable. I would be reduced to roaming the streets of Vienna for the rest of my days. Can you imagine. Nothing. She had nothing. She lost everything. Every single thing. She lives in Vienna now, in a box. She’ll find her way home, someday.
I point blank refused to check it and, when she turned away, sneaked upstairs and hid my backpack under my seat. Anytime the upper level steward came near, I shifted my leg in front of it, lest she give me yet another bollocking (so many bollockings and it was only day 2!)
Anyway the dancing was fine. It was opening night for this modern ballet production: contortions, costumes, some nice music. Nothing overtly memorable.
You know that scene in The Sound of Music, at the end of the Salzburg folk festival when they’re announcing the runners up, third prize and then second prize, ahead of the Von Trapp Family Singers? Remember how each act takes an *inconceivably* long time on stage bowing to the audience and to themselves and shaking hands and accepting plaudits and the applause just goes on and on? And on?
Now, I always thought that was for comedic and dramatic effect: to make it more plausible that the Von Trapp Family Singers had time to slip out and go hide in the Abbey, behind those elaborate gates, while Sister Berthe and Sister Margaretta steal the distributor caps from the Nazis’ cars. (Great movie, fight me.)
Well, I’m here to tell you that this is not dramatic embellishment. This is, absolutely, true to life, drawn from reality, accurate as fuck.
The Austrians really *really* like a curtain call. Boy oh boy, do they like it.
I’m telling you this, so you’ll be forewarned and forearmed, as I was not. Clapping goes on for a minimum of ten minutes. Really, a full ten minutes, at least. Count that out and try clapping the whole time, without pause. Your hands will be ringing — throbbing painfully — as were mine.
Each performer, on their own and then in every possible permutation and combination of twos, threes, fours, fives, sevens, comes forward (multiple times) for their own bow and wave. Then the whole line, together. Twice.
You think I’m exaggerating but I’m not. Go to the opera in Vienna, I dare you.
Then, just when I thought they must be done — surely, they must be done now! — someone ran off and fetched someone in the wings: a director or choreographer.
And they ran forward for their own little bow.
Then that person joined the line and they all had another bow together. Then, someone else was fetched from the wings, and the process repeated, I kid you not, about four more times.
Through it all: radiant, ecstatic, unwavering applause.
I was weary. I’ve never felt like more of a foreigner and had to stop myself trying to catch a neighbour’s eye to have a shared moment of disbelief at how completely farcical the whole thing was.
But I dared not.
They take it really seriously and, well, this is Austria. Someone might just step up behind me and take me out with a silencer, for lack of applause stamina, and offences against the dictat on opera bag size.
Day 3 found me searching out a Viennese coffee house. I read
lies good things about Cafe Jelinek, seit 1910, and set off there in the rain. It’s at the far end of tatty Mariahilferstrasse, down a couple side streets, so finding it was no mean feat.
When I walked in, the two women working there looked me over — and continued what they were doing. No flicker of acknowledgement, nothing. I hovered dripping wet in an an awkward space, next to the coffee bar, in between some tables.
There were plenty of empty spots so I pointed to one, questioning, preparatory to sitting down.
One of the women gave me a hand up, now wait just a second there pal, kind of motion.
And continued what she was doing. For the next ten minutes.
Now, under usual circumstances, I’d have taken this as my cue to fuck off. Things can only go downhill from here. But it’s pissing down and not understanding the language or why she might be making me stand there made me hesitate.
I was still standing there when a customer brushed past me to pay. The woman behind the counter turned to her and they conversed in rapid, enthusiastic German.
She paid, turned smiling to leave and noticed me still standing there, with what I can only assume was a superlatively pissed-off and incredulous look on my face.
In perfect English (everyone in Vienna speaks perfect English):
“Are you ok? Can I help you find something?”
“I’m just waiting for them to pay some attention to me and let me sit down.”
The woman behind the counter looked at me like I pooped in her strudel and found me a seat.
The food was overpriced — twenty quid for ham, cheese and crap bread — but at least I learned a powerful lesson. If they won’t seat you in Vienna, you should take the hint and fuck off.
Then it came time to pay:
Of course the ATM she directed me to was broken — of course it was! You can’t make this shit up! — so I hiked to a bank up on Mariahilferstrasse. I toyed with the idea of doing a runner without paying. Visions of jackbooted firing squads swam before my eyes.
I hastened back to the cafe, where I counted out exactly 23 Euro and 80 cents and not a penny more.
Day 4 and I’ve been directed to the Augustine Reading Room in a wing of the National Library, which has the manuscripts I want to see.
When I walked in, the guy behind the counter gave me a look that said: dream on.
“Did you make an appointment?”
“No.” My hopefulness was sweet. “The woman behind the main desk said I didn’t need to.”
“You need to make an appointment.”
I persisted. My persistence was adorable, as if I didn’t know by then that you can’t argue with a rule in Vienna.
“But, you see, I made the order. I showed the woman behind the desk my order and she said it was ordered. She said to just come here to view it.”
“They are students behind the desk there.” Scoffing at me, at them, at anyone who doesn’t know the rules. “They don’t know anything. You must make an appointment.”
There’s just no arguing with this kind of rule-stating. It can’t be overcome. It’s inflexible, a fundamental law of physics, like gravity.
Compliance is the only option.
“Ok, how do I make an appointment?”
“You must email the curators.”
“How long does that take?”
“Usually three days.”
I’m leaving the day after tomorrow. This is terrible news.
So I emailed the curator, explained the situation, explained what I wanted to view and why — and, within an hour, had a cheerful response from a lovely woman telling me that I could view the requested manuscript the next day.
All I have to do is show the guy behind the desk her email.
To celebrate, I treated myself to a petits-four and coffee in Cafe Central, where Freud and Trotsky whiled away their days. It is every inch the splendid Vienna coffee house. The waiter was friendly, the cakes were great and I could feel myself warming to Vienna, by inches and degrees.
Speaking of inches, on the way back to my room later, I spotted this penis terrarium built into a wall, which made me like Vienna even more.
Who needs luggage when you have a penis terrarium.
Last day in Vienna and, after a return to the Reading Room to finally (finally!) see those documents, I decided to give my cross-eyes a break and gorge at the Kunsthistoriches Museum.
Now, I’m not much of one for Hapsburg gilt or naked Renaissance flesh, but the Kunsthistorisches has the largest collection of Brueghel the Elder in the world. You may recall, I am a sucker for Flemish art in general — and for Brueghel the Elder in particular.
I always find myself drawn to the backgrounds in his paintings. I’ve written about the concept of wimmelbilderbuch before: the world in a painting, every corner filled with detail, scenes within scenes within scenes. All of my favourite art is like this, and my favourite books too. The little scenes spied far off: people carrying things over bridges, carting firewood (a big theme in these pre-central heating, frozen Central Europe days), people playing, fighting, dancing. Stories of how people just lived everyday. I could — I did — stare at them for hours: Babel, Peasant Wedding, Hunters in the Snow, Children’s Games, The Fight between Carnival and Lent (my new favourite, detail at the top of this piece, with a fish-pig joust). Avercamp does wimmelbilderbuch too, and Teniers, but nobody does it like Papa Brueghel.
Later, I left the Kunsthistorisches feeling like Vienna and I might have got off on the wrong foot.
This city doesn’t give itself up easily. Just ask Napoleon or the Ottomans.
I realised that, if I’m ever to start trying to get a handle on sprawling, sumptuous and utterly unmanageable Vienna, I need to learn the rules.
I need some context, detail and a hell of a lot of background.
An addendum from the return journey:
This piece covers, cumulatively, about an hour and a half of what I got up to on a five day research trip to Vienna (not counting a day of travel on either side).
Yes, I lost my suitcase on a German train. There was also a German train strike. In a country as efficient and well-organised as Germany, this struck me as unfortunate. What are the odds of a German train strike on the one day — ever, in history — on which I have to travel from a country on one side of Germany to a country on the other side of Germany, through Germany?
That, plus the theft of my suitcase, leaves me feeling charitably indisposed towards the entire German rail network. Needs a small measure of improvement, I would say.
Incidentally, what needs no improvement — and the undisputed high point of my return trip — was the police report I made in Munich about the theft of my suitcase.
Now, you may not be aware of this, but let me tell you: the police in Munich are incredibly attractive. I know, I know: problematic, let’s be professionals. Perving over German figures of martial authority: not a done thing. I know.
But, seriously: wow. Five stars, would recommend.
He asked for an itemised list of what was in the bag and I named a couple of big-ticket items. It occurred to me that, in anticipation of a solo week in Vienna, the suitcase also contained my best dildo and charger.1
I left that off the itemised list.
Anyway, here I am on the Eurostar on the way back to London (hour and a half delay, nice!) to meet Joel, who just came off a 14-hour journey of his own, back from a conference in the States.
I had planned to go with him up until a few weeks ago but some internal urgency compelled me to put my story first. To go to Vienna alone and spend a week immersed in that story. Way better than sitting around coffee shops outside a conference centre in San Diego.
Now, I need to take stock of my trip, write up notes and begin a lengthy process of — actually — writing this story. It will be a matter of months, if not years, so please be patient. If you’re interested, I’ve set up a log of the journey. You can check it out under Log 📊 on the Litter homepage.
There’s more still to research — endless questions. I won’t say more about the research but I will say that, as in a wimmelbilderbuch painting, nature abhors a vacuum. My horror vacui leads me to fill in gaps, where no information exists.
After all, isn’t that what fiction is?
Perhaps my beloved dildo is furnishing a new penis terrarium by now, who can say. I live in hope. My only consolation about this whole debacle is that, when they open my bag, whoever stole it will get a nice dildo surprise.
Fuck you, thieves. 🍆