***I simply could not allow the last entry for this year to be the one from February 12th. It is almost impossible to imagine now how different the world was then. And while #oldladywriting is not chronological, I do occasionally respond to current events. The trouble is, the events of the past ten months have altered my life in ways invisible but irrevocable, have killed my soul, and have not yet been processed to the point where I can write about them. At all. And yet, the pre-war post must not stand at the last one. So here we go. And for the record, we here at #oldladywriting are, and have always been, against wars of aggression.***
Almost 42 years to the day I was first supposed to come to Vienna, I finally did. I was trying to imagine what it would have been like to have seen it back then, but it could have been like my first encounter with Rome, chaotic and no-budget. https://oldladywriting.com/2021/01/18/roman-holiday/ Vienna was supposed to have been our first stop out of the Soviet Union, and it actually seemed more real than Rome, the planned second stop that ended up being the first. For me, the main reason was that shortly before our departure flight, I saw a segment on Vienna on the TV program, Cinema Travel Club. Why “cinema” travels? Because the vast majority of Soviet citizens had no realistic hope of seeing any of these sights in person. But I did. I knew we were going to Vienna. I think the program was careful not to show any capitalist sights as too enticing, so there were no videos of stores or restaurants. I glimpsed the famous statue of Johann Strauss in the city park, and that was enough. I held on to that image, exotic yet relatable, and the arch under which he elegantly held his violin was going to be my personal gateway to the West.
What happened instead in December of 1980 was the first of the many shocks and disappointments of the journey as long as life itself, because instead of allowing a handful of Soviet refugees to roam freely in its stadtpark and look at the gilded statues, the Austrian government preferred to hold us in a detention facility until we could be shipped off to become the Italian government’s problem. And thus, for the next four decades, my only memories of Vienna consisted of an empty train station platform, a terrifying nighttime bus ride to we knew not where, and a crane that was visible beyond the tall brick wall surrounding the courtyard where we could promenade.
Coincidentally, once I got out of a cab at my hotel when I was finally let loose on Vienna, the first thing I saw was a crane on the other bank of the Danube. Surprise—it did not trigger anything. Too much time has passed, and too much has changed. I was mentally and emotionally ready. It was my fifth and finally successful attempt.
Yes, incredibly, I was foiled more than once! The second time was when I was spending my summer in Paris, and after crisscrossing Europe for a month, I planned to swing by Vienna as my final stop. Exhaustion prevailed. I literally got on the train in Amersfoort, realized that I could not face another night on the train, disembarked at the next stop, and returned to my Dutch family for a couple of weeks of playing board games and going to bars. It was what I needed.
The third time was when my son went to Austria as an exchange student, and my mom and I figured we could meet him there. I went so far as to buy a Lonely Planet guide, which I ended up finally using this month. Then my beloved grandfather was diagnosed with cancer and given just weeks to live. All plans for the immediate future were cancelled. He lived another year; no regrets about any missed trips, just gratitude for the time we had. My son brought me back a statuette of Strauss, and I still treasure it.
Finally last year, I came the closest, buying airplane, opera, and Spanische Hofreitshule tickets, and reserving a hotel for a week in Vienna with mom, to celebrate her half-milestone birthday and enjoy the grandest Christmas markets in Europe (and I am nothing if not a lover of Christmas markets). Just days before the trip, the plague closed down Vienna, and the refunds for everything I bought and reserved trickled in.
And so we tried again, a year later. And we succeeded. And ultimately, who knows if me at twelve, with my first Western European encounter, or me at nineteen, with my last backpacking-through-Europe adventure, or me at closing in on forty, with enough to spare but still focused on the career that was in the ascendant, would have enjoyed this city as much? On the flip side, would it have touched me in some more remarkable way than it did now, after decades of semi-luxury travel?
As one gets older, sees more, experiences more, those thunderbolts out of the sky experiences are fewer and far between. Vienna is a lovely city, but it is just another beautiful European capital. Its museums are grand, but I have been to the Louvre, Prado, and Zwinger—not because I am so fancy, but because I am now so old. The food is delicious, but eating in an expensive restaurant is not the event of the decade that it would have been, well, decades ago. At that detention facility, I was impressed with the miniature butters (being fully aware of the fact that these were not, in fact, holdovers from the Olympics, but were how people in the West ate every day) and Manner wafers. OK, so I still bought several bags of those, but that’s because they were the seasonal kind. I grab everything that’s labeled “seasonal” or “limited edition”.
It was still a gorgeous trip, because, well, look at these museums, palaces, restaurants! For a Euro-centric traveler that I am unashamed to be, there are no complaints here. And the piece of the proverbial resistance—Christmas markets! As much as my allegiance will always rest with the one in Paris, Viennese merchants have pitched tents in literally every open square and alley, so one could basically engage in a punsch and sausage tasting as a progressive walk through the city. As shocked as I was to finally make a trip to a location colder than the one where I live, this experience was absolutely worth it.
And since I am not a travel writer of even the humblest kind, I can only conclude with a brief record of what impressed me the most in the City of Music:
- Statue of Strauss – pure nostalgia for me, but in any case, you cannot miss The Waltz King if you come to his town.
- The food – everywhere, but especially at the Twelve Apostles, which was recommended by a friend and serves delicious black currant wine. I do not know what a vegetarian, let alone a vegan, would do in Austria, however.
- Kunsthistorisches Museum – on par with any great art museum in the world. I was ever so pleased to run into my childhood “friend”, Infanta Margarita.
- The Jewish Museum – if you are Jewish, it will confirm your worst suspicions. If you are not, hopefully it will open your eyes.
- The Vienna Opera – we saw “Tosca”. I thought “The Magic Flute” would have been more appropriate, but it was my mother’s birthday, and she is the opera connoisseur. I loved it; she less so. I maintain that a live experience is always greater than the televised one, so we agreed to disagree.
- The Belvedere Palace – we came for the Klimt, but left completely mesmerized by this 15th century carved relief altarpiece. How come it is not more famous? (Or is it, and we just don’t know?)
- Oh, we also went to Salzburg, which is exactly what you would imagine—quaint, cute, picturesque, and full of Mozart. Definitely worth a side trip.
- And Bratislava – to be continued.