September 4, 2011
Before I write my usual blog, I want you to know that the apartment we are staying in has been a little bit of a disappointment. In addition to the fact that it is not (as noted yesterday) actually IN Vienna, it has proven to have less than ideal amenities. By “amenities”, I mean “a working toilet and lights”. We discovered rather quickly that the toilet does not really flush. Luckily, there is another option 30 feet away in the compound we are staying in. Last night, as we were turning on some lights, a breaker popped and all our lights went out. Also, the bed makes us long for the relative comfort of college days when we crashed on the lumpy futons of friends.
Finally, the promised wi-fi internet connection is essentially nonexistent. I can, for brief periods of time, walk out of our apartment, across a courtyard and up a flight of stairs to a balcony. From this perch, I stand outside the door of another renter and hope to get the necessary signal. If I stray more than 4 feet from this unknown occupant’s door, I lose the signal. This high level of internet connectivity came AFTER a 30 minute discussion with the owner of the compound. For this reason, the last blog and this one are without any pictures.
I had said that this was not a luxury vacation, but we have outdone ourselves here.
These issues, however, did not impede our enjoyment of the city.
Vienna is beautiful, but a little sad.
Like many great European cities, it has an abundance of great churches, parks, museums, and statues (I counted over 10 dudes-on-horses). The city has a wide esplanade (a wide road for walkers only) featuring at least a dozen street performers.
This was the seat of the Habsburg dynasty, later called the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Habsburg residences are eclipsed only by Versailles in France. With two separate compounds, these people knew how to live big. No gate is a mere portal. Instead, it becomes an opportunity to create another statement about the grandeur of the family. For example, at the main compound in the city, every archway is accompanied by two 15 foot statues depicting one of the labors of Hercules.
We saw a statue of Vienna’s most famous son, Mozart, in front of a grassy lawn adorned with a treble clef made of red flowers. We ate kebob sandwiches in the park. We listened to a quartet of violin, cello, bass and dulcimer play 6 songs, including a song from “Last of the Mohicans” that we use at camp for the Trojan-Spartan games.
We especially enjoyed a street marionette performer who made puppets sing, play piano, beg for tips and dance with a toddler. This final interaction was particularly amusing. The baby (we are guessing 18 months old) was simultaneously fascinated with and repelled by these puppets. He would get close to a puppet sitting at a fake piano. The puppet would rise and walk to the boy. On one occasion, he chased and danced with the baby. On another, it stuck out his tongue 5 inches (the puppet, not the baby). The most amusing was when the puppet’s eyes came out of its head on 4 inch springs. This, the baby was not expecting. He repulsed, then leaned in, then stepped back, then approached again. During this entire exchange, the puppet does not move at all. The puppeteer has recognized gold and knows that the little boy is now the show. He keeps the odd little marionette frigid – with eyes a-bugging – for about 10 seconds as the child continues to vary his reactions.
So you can see that Vienna is lovely and fun. So why is it sad?
It lives in history and not today. Let me share some examples.
Everywhere is a celebration of Mozart with daily concerts at multiple venues. One particular group has hired at least 30 people to dress like Mozart (waistcoats, wigs, uncomfortable shoes) who give out fliers to a particular concert. At these concerts, they play a selection of Mozart pieces for 45 minutes. I suspect it is the same concert every night. Perhaps they have 2 different concerts, but there are clearly a group of people that play the exact some songs everyday. I think this is not a great way to be a musician.
But I can look past that. I am sure the same is true elsewhere. There are other aspects of Vienna that seem stuck in the past.
Lets start with a mental exercise. If I say “Empire” or “Dynasty”, what do you think of. Take a minute for this exercise. I’ll wait.
Here is what I come up with:
Do you think “Austro-Hungarian”? Does the name “Habsburgs” mean anything to you?
These people ruled for 645 years (1273-1918). That is almost 3 times longer than our nation has existed. Heck, they ruled for longer than the Europeans have known about the existence of our continent.
They stood up to Germanic Barbarians, Ottomans and other invaders. OK, they did bow to Napoleon for a brief period, but that is still a pretty impressive record. If you will recall, the Habsburg were one of the groups that dominated the Hungarians. Sure, that does not put them in exclusive company, but they were a true force nonetheless.
In 1900, this city had 2.2 million people and was the 5th largest in the world (New York, London, Paris, and Berlin). Now, it has 1.7 million. What other city has shrunk 23% in 110 years? Budapest, Prague, Copenhagen, Berlin all seemed to be growing and bursting.
Vienna is lovely and picturesque and education and – well – not much else. Its day has past. It was certainly a spectacular day, but it has past nonetheless.
As I post this, we are packing for our trip to Salzburg (think “Sound of Music”). I am a little nervous – we have no reservation for tonight, no internet to find a place and no real plan. This could be interesting.