As far as first impressions go, my first ones of Vienna – shaped as they were by images seen from my window seat as my flight in from London drew to a close – were largely pleasant ones; green fields and the Danube snaking away into the distance being evocative of chilled weekends and evenings filled with coffee and cheese cake, not hard work. I suppose those who have to live and work out here must necessarily see the city differently, their perspectives being rightly more functional and less head-in-the-sand romantic than mine. Over the course of the weekend, I would gain a more nuanced view of the city, the good significantly outweighing the bad and the ugly to such an extent that if a role worth which was worth my while came up, I wouldn’t think twice about upping sticks and moving permanently.
Coming in, my biggest worry related to how I would manage to communicate given my nonexistent German, this being the first time I would be traveling alone into the non-English speaking world. I needn’t have worried so much, as between gestures and the passable English of a lot of the people I had to deal with in shops and elsewhere, I managed to do just fine. It did put my lack of language literacy in context, and has left no doubt in my mind that one needs the ability to engage in meaningful conversation – at least at a basic level – in a language other than English. Being in Europe at the moment, French and German spring to mind as two which would be of most use to me. The Chinese are poised to take over the world, but given my limited interactions with financial heavyweights and the low likelihood of my upping sticks to move to China anytime soon, I suspect Mandarin will remain low on my priority list. My experience did also raise a question in my mind about how the typical Aberdonian coffee shop barista or MacDonald’s employee might fare if they had to deal with non English speaking folk. London is a different matter although given that said employee is as likely to be French, German or Polish as English.
The sense I got of Vienna was one of a well organised city – bar the small matter of a trying to get through passport control at the airport. The long walk from where we disembarked and where we had passports checked made me wonder if there wasn’t a more efficient way to do this. In the end, in an overheard conversation, it transpired that several flights had arrived at the same time which complicated procedures at passport control. Before leaving the airport I made to sure to grab a Vienna card which offered free transport across the public transport network within the city as well as discounts on a number of attractions I was keen to visit.
A surprising number of ambulances and police vehicles blasting their sirens managed to insert themselves into my consciousness over the cause of the weekend. I am not entirely sure if this was typical, or if they were more obvious to me because I was coming from Aberdeen which is comparatively smaller, and sleepier.
Two open bus tours and plenty of walking later – I walked 9 and 16 kilometres on Saturday and Sunday according to my Fitbit – I got the added sense of a city actively looking to own its (checkered?) past, building a modern, egalitarian narrative around it. For what it is worth, counting Hitler, Stalin, Freud and a host of world renowned composers including Beethoven, Strauss, Vivaldi amongst other equally noteworthy ones amongst people who have lived and worked in the city at various times is a burden of heritage to live up to.
As to my actual itinerary, Friday was about settling in and getting to know the layout of the part of town I holed up in (the area around Mariahilfer Straße), Saturday was about the bus tours and exploring the museum quarter. Sunday surprised me with how many shops and places in the shopping district were closed, at least by the time I passed through in the afternoon, a stark contrast to Oxford Street to which it was often compared in the various commentaries on the bus tours. Early on Sunday morning, I did manage to make it across town to the Vienna Christian Centre’s International (English Language) Service. The message was an interesting one, the most memorable section being an interesting analogy for melding faith and works as part of one’s spiritual practice – a bicycle with two pedals.
Amidst the grand buildings and sense of history, it was a bit of a shock to come across people sleeping in the rough, one particular gentleman popping up a few times on a bench next to the hotel I was staying at; a regular?
I consider myself a world citizen of sorts, comfortably engaging with different cultures, races and peoples. What surprised me as I reflected on my Vienna experience was the feeling of self-consciousness that seethed beneath the surface for most of my stay here. I suspect this has to do with having spent my formative years in Nigeria, and then most of the last ten years in the UK with occasional visits to the US (read Houston, Chicago and Tulsa), places in which one has a fairly significant chance of running into other black people without actively seeking them out. This was not the case in Vienna, which perhaps speaks more to my need to travel more often and more widely than I have in the past as opposed to anything akin to Teju Cole’s experiences in writing Black Body (To be a stranger is to be looked at, but to be black is to be looked at especially). In a rare occurrence, whilst loading up on chicken at a KFC on Mariahilfer Straße, I overheard a conversation in Pidgin English, the tonality and vocabulary of the version being spoken meaning that the people in question could only have been from the Warri area in Nigeria. We did share a nod as they walked out, perhaps a recognition of a shared heritage of sorts.
Overall, I came away with a feeling that I needed to return here in the near to medium future. I suspect the next trip will be planned around a week in early spring or late autumn to avoid the nearly tropical temperatures I experienced this time. Not since my Newcastle days has a city impressed me enough to make me want to come back in fairly quick order. Two things are certain; I will be back soon, and for longer than a weekend.