You are in the lobby of Vienna airport. Do you head for Departures or queue for a taxi into the city? It’s the sort of hypothetical question that iconic resident Alexander Schrödinger might have moved onto if he had ever progressed beyond the classic (but frankly less weighty) feline survival paradox. It’s also the question I poked a stick at in my last blog before getting distracted for weeks by modern life.
I’m reasonably well travelled, within Europe at least, and each destination leaves an impression. It seems that there is a general trend for places to gravitate towards bland uniformity, but in the face of globalisation the question I find myself asking is “could I live here?” – language aside. I haven’t visited many places with a strong tick in the “Yes” box but here is a snapshot view of the city and it’s people, broken down into the most important considerations.
As somebody sitting in the “live to eat” camp this is an important factor. Let’s get something straight – the Viennese appreciate good quality wholesome food. They want to eat fresh produce and you simply don’t see anybody stuffing their face with crisps in the street.
They aren’t going to put up with much of the chain-driven dross inflicted upon the British public. Nowhere is this more evident than in the bakeries where even the most indulgent of snacks is produced to be consumed that day, then binned if not sold by closing time. They don’t pump preservatives into the breads and pastries in order to extend shelf life.
Furthermore they use a wide range of interesting flours and grains to make for a better tasting and healthier experience. I’m now a big fan of Stroek which, despite being a local chain is still superior to most independent bakeries in the UK.
The shame is that most tourists will never get to try any of the everyday bakeries here because they are drawn inexorably to the undeniably beautiful displays in the over-priced big-name outlets (Demel, Sacher, etc).
But man cannot live on bakery goods alone. At least not for long. Well, it wouldn’t be pretty. Man should get himself down to a nice restaurant for something like this…
OK, this savoury dumpling is arguably life shortening but oh so wonderful. It’s an Austrian speciality and the outdoor courtyard ambience of Restaurant Mill added another dimension to its consumption. My starter of Wild Garlic Soup was the stuff of dreams. Great smile-inducing food in a beautiful setting. Though for belly-laugh levels of culinary entertainment may I recommend Villa Aurora. Visual pranks abound from the moment the entry sign claims to herald a Coffee House – Restaurant – Beer Garden – Ice Rink. The night garden is curiously decked out with sofas and a vertical lamp…
… while you have the option to dine in a two man greenhouse (so small that the waiter has to pass your food in through the window) or a fishing boat, stranded improbably on a hill in a land-locked country.
The food is no joke however and traditional dishes like kaiserschmarrn are a real treat to share in the candle light.
Austrians love beer. There are many breweries here in the capital and in just a few days I visited several of them without really trying, including Fisher Brau, 7-Stern, Kolar and Steigel. Think of superior Bavarian beer and you are in the right ballpark.
I could go on and on about the beer but that would be a British thing to do. More notable is the Viennese coffee house culture and their reputation for serving a good coffee is not without merit. It’s not just the coffee itself but the whole experience. The following picture sums up what to expect – tray service with a side-biscuit and always a glass of water to cleanse the palette.
The global coffee chains would have you think that coffee is served in a paper bucket but the Viennese believe that quality surpasses quantity. I’m with them. Furthermore there remains a proliferation of successful independent coffee houses while the large chains are barely in evidence outside the touristy first district.
In general terms I must applaud the locals for their good taste when it comes to what they eat and drink. Clearly they have their heads screwed on. Perhaps one reason for this affinity is the seemingly ageing population. My perception might be skewed but there seems to be a larger than average elderly population. This might explain the rather traditional and conservative outlook that permeates every day life here.
Take dress sense – the people you see on the street are classy and never trashy. This may not be a fashion mecca but you don’t generally see too much skin (certainly no tattoos) or crippling high heels. Vienna remains a place where a hat remains a stylish way to keep your head warm rather than a “fashion” statement for the look-at-me generation.
It has to be said that the senior citizens here do have something of a reputation for misery and intolerance. They aren’t likely to smile in public and won’t think twice about admonishing a stranger if they decide some social more has been transgressed. I’m hesitant to be critical at this point as it’s my aim to behave likewise at this age.
In the central First District the rules are different, as the people on the streets are more likely to be tourists. You wouldn’t judge London based on Buckingham Palace or Ireland based on Dublin.
But there’s a welcome regardless and people have got time to help if asked.
When my German failed me from time to time (ie: the times I tried to speak German) the locals were generally friendly and keen to respond in English.
There was something else too – something from a memory. People here seem to have time to stop and talk. The modern phenomena of scowling faces marching head down and focussed towards who knows what, oblivious to their environs, has yet to make it here. Could this be related to the prevalence of local businesses that line the city streets? Imagine working where you live, shopping where you live, knowing your neighbours? That no longer happens in suburban Britain but here outside the heart of Vienna it feels like this is still a way of life. For now at least.
Take this simple sighting of a coffee grinder in the foyer of a local supermarket…
This is remarkable for at least two reasons. (1) The supermarket freely offers a facility for customers to grind their own coffee beans after purchasing them. (2) It’s not locked down. A business promoting the principles of civility and trust. When did you last see that in your home town?
The community spirit doesn’t stop there. The local transport system is superb – integrated, reliable, efficient and cheap.
How did we ever fall so far behind in the UK? Privatisation? The consequences of such a good public transport system include fewer cars on the street, less pollution and more time spent alongside your fellow man as opposed to solo journeys in sealed metal boxes.
Viennese society is geared up for sociable co-existence and the locals respond to this environment accordingly.
One of the aspects I particularly like about city life here is that you can go for a beer of a coffee on your own without any stigma, and that applies for women as well as men. Indeed many regular coffee house customers will go for a quiet drink on their own but within a shared environment where they can watch proceedings from their table. People understand this unwritten social contract, none more so than the waiters who know all the rules.
Departure gate or taxi rank? That was the question posed and I think don’t think there’s a simple answer. On one hand I love the civility of this place, the standards it aspires to and the values shared by its people. A few days here only goes to expose so many failings back home. On the other hand I’m used to a slightly more outward looking environment. For a capital city there’s not the cultural diversity I’m used to nor the internet connectivity one takes for granted at home. It’s almost like some grand old village on a massive scale with this rich history that still sets the tone for modern living. I wonder how long it will be before the bubble bursts.
So for now it’s Goodbye Vienna but I want to return before too long. If I get nostalgic I’ll just watch a DVD of The Third Man with cake in one hand and beer in the other.