Sunday, June 09, 2024

Vienna: Take Two

About 30 planes descend into Vienna every hour. Each of these metal birds cruises through the air, seemingly by magic, carrying human lives along with their hopes, dreams, anxieties, and plans. When the skies are clear, one of the most noticeable features of the Austrian landscape visible from these planes are perhaps windmills. Their white blades turn slowly and languidly, appearing to yawn and stretch, almost slowing the passage of time.

The passage of time has always been more a product of fragile human imagination than an immutable truth. Attempts to quantify this infinity have confounded us for ages, and we find solace in sayings like: Years fly quickly, but hours stretch long. Or more simply: life is short.

The city of Vienna has seen its years, and life in those years. Generations have lived through tragedies, wars, prosperity, and resurrections, all woven into the ebb and flow of the city’s history. From Roman military camps in the first century, to the Babenbergs a thousand years later, to the Habsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the World Wars. History only occasionally throws surprises; pick any parcel on the planet from any era, and you will find humans surviving under kingdoms, religion, tribalism, business, and propaganda, and yet creating thoughts and objects of incredible beauty and value. Vienna generated its share of art, music, architecture, and intellectual life with composers like Beethoven and Schubert, luminaries like Sigmund Freud, and painters like Gustav Klimt. And it produced architecture like the 12th-century Gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral, 17th-century Baroque palaces such as Liechtenstein and Belvedere, and the Neo-Renaissance Opera House (Wiener Staatsoper). The weathered cobblestones of Vienna still murmur the tread of generations.

Vienna State Opera (Image courtesy: Official Website)

Time also offers perspective, which perhaps is nothing more than an assorted mélange of experiences, learnings, some wisdom, and a healthy dose of nostalgia. However, one must pay attention to discern this perspective.

My last visit to Vienna was ten years ago, in May 2014, as my social media ‘timeline’ keenly reminds me. A decade is usually considered a milestone, rather arbitrarily, because at some point in time, the decimal number system won over other formats, and we thought fives and tens were nice ways to measure life. Ten years, that flew by. Or ten years, that fundamentally altered who I am: it’s perhaps both a Ship-of-Theseus question and an egoistic proclamation. But I digress.

Ten years ago, Vienna was merely a checkbox on my backpacking itinerary. Traveling through Europe's iconic cities on a shoestring budget is a common, yet challenging dream for most youth from my part of the world. I arrived in the city in my late twenties, stayed for two days in a hostel, and set myself up to the task of circling everything the city could offer on a paper map through free walking tours, wandering by myself; capturing, and often posting every sight on social media for a combination of instant connection and perpetual archiving, or something in between which is now difficult to remember. I saw Vienna from the tourist’s eyes: the Wiener Staatsoper, Karlskirche, Kohlmarkt, Naschmarkt, Albertina – neatly tagging each picture with its corresponding location. I clicked pictures of streets, supermarkets, people, spices, food stands, road signs, and skies. The visit was an exercise in optimization: seeing everything in minimal time and at minimal cost. The trip included an expensive hospital visit for an ankle sprain, a moderately priced ‘Strauss and Mozart’ concert at Kursalon for an ‘experience,’ and a somewhat costly visit to ‘Café Sacher’ to sample their famous torte and coffee. I felt happy and fortunate to be in Vienna, but the city was always distant and elusive – to be looked at from outside the glass, like Mont Blanc and Cartier products neatly displayed at airports. Knowing something like that exists was enough, the thought of actually using or owning a piece of it was absurd. Vienna existed, like a wonderland where I had a two-day economy access pass, and I had to see the most of a city where ‘other people’ lived, on the other side of the glass; it wasn’t a place where I could imagine myself. Even the extravagant desire to eat a Sacher torte was overlaid with self-doubts of the possibility of being denied entry based on appearance, uncertainty about being offered an actual table, anxiety about the prices on the menu, potential self-humiliation of having to leave if nothing seemed affordable, and a lack of confidence about trying all this anyway regardless of the outcome. I had managed to dare back then, picking a low-rush time to visit the café, asking for the cheapest combination of torte and coffee, fumbling my way through documenting the process using my camera while no one was watching, eating and drinking with trepidation, and leaving without a tip. I do not remember whether I liked or disliked the combination – it was a time when if someone offered me a Mont Blanc pen to try, I wouldn’t observe the quality of its writing.

My Sacher-torte and coffee, May 2014.

Ten years flew by. And I found myself in Vienna again.

The Viennese experience is perhaps a nice sliver of European summer. There is an elegant charm to its urban life that is organically slower, lived at an unhurried and intentional stroll, perhaps flowing with the pace and tranquility of windmills. For most of the local populace, life is lived more in the streets, cafés, parks, and performances than in offices, stores, cars, and bank accounts – the defining characteristics of America. In the morning, there is no queue of supersized vehicles outside schools with haggard parents dropping their wards for the purpose of education. Instead, there are 8-year-olds standing on their scooters, pushing their way to school with apparent autonomy, distinguishing themselves from the overtly protected enterprises of child-rearing elsewhere. Cyclists zoom past at almost dangerous speeds, and trams chug slowly through the streets depositing and collecting people across the town. By the evening, a relaxed fervor starts to build up. Streets have more activity, with perhaps everyone getting out of stone and glass buildings around the same time, ending the rationed hours allocated to capitalism. The flavor of businesses shifts to the more relaxed pursuits of horse-carts ferrying tourists, well-dressed waiting staff serving coffee and schnitzels and radlers, hawkers in uniform selling tickets to concerts and exhibitions outside the opera house, and violinists and saxophonists in parks hoping to be graced by a few coins from sympathetic ears. As I stroll through Stadtpark just before dark, a group of elderly men and women are doing tango on a makeshift dance floor with a Latin American background tune. In Leopoldstadt at dark, there is an African movie playing on a giant open screen. There seems to be a certain poetry to humans extracting more of life from the metronome of existence and the jaws of mortality. A cynical view could be that this life is afforded by the arc of history that deposited wealth from elsewhere in the world into Europe through plunder. A counter view could be that history has always been a story of the plunderers and the oppressed, of the winners and the vanquished, and those roles have kept changing around different parcels of the earth more or less equitably, in accordance with the fundamental laws of nature.

Graben near the Pestsäule, Vienna (Image courtesy: Viator)

I try to measure myself across the short span of ten years – it’s a good perspective, however biased by the interspersed experiences of life, the winnings and losings, the happiness and pain, and healthy doses of nostalgia. Ten years hence, I have more agency, and the city responds by being more accepting and accessible. I do not experience the city as an ‘other,’ through an insurmountable glass barrier, and I am able to feel its breath and blood and sparkles and wounds. Imagining myself here does not seem to be an audacious indulgence. I have grown enough to have the privilege of being able to exercise choice, discern my likes and dislikes, and feast upon sights and things that soothe my mind and senses instead of documenting them. Ten years later, the torte at Café Sacher feels a tad too sweet, and its coffee a tad bit disappointing by Viennese standards. The café itself feels small, like the houses and rooms where you grew up as a child that feel smaller when you revisit them after years. The sense of wonder and enchantment is muted, and I question the notion of an objective reality and the nature of memory. Perhaps time has shaped my identity and tastes differently, and perhaps there is some personal growth and an evolution of perspectives in the past ten years. Or perhaps, I just liked my flaky croissant and wiener melange elsewhere in the city too much!

My Sacher-torte and coffee, June 2024.