I have a new book: 111 Places in Vienna That You Shouldn’t Miss, by Peter Eickhoff. The book is written in a kind of stodgy translated English that would make purists of my mother tongue grind their teeth and repeatedly bang their head on a desk. It has all the hallmarks of German: long, winding sentences, with, as is not untypical, particularly in more refined examples of German prose, and certainly in ones aspiring to be so, lots of commas and clauses. Also there are numerous examples of mangled word order where the language feels hammered into sentences that are devoid of fluidity and sense of poetry.
In the foreword, we are told that even in Vienna the usual sights are worth seeing. I am glad they cleared that up. However, the capital is “writing new stories and hardly recognizes itself”. It is a Vienna of “new realities which are colorful, sometimes flamboyant, polyglot and multi-lingual, with a much faster rhythm than dreamy old waltzes”. Beautiful words. Reminiscent of middle-aged men on tequila and Red Bull.
It might just be me, as I sit here on a nondescript, backstreet Vienna bus, which would never feature in any guide to Vienna, that there is a rampant obsession at the moment with shoehorning experiences into collections ending with “1”. Almost as if my life is in danger of forever being empty and meaningless unless I systematically and obediently work my way through the never ending parade of must-see/do stuff. “1001 places to see before I die”,”501 must-die-for restaurants”,”101 cocktails to drink before I get liver failure (and die)”.
Of course, I won’t prostitute myself to such lists because of time, money and I don’t like being told what to do. However, I risk being diminished for eternity and will never shake the feeling that I am missing out on something (although I know I am not but, as I was born a Catholic, I have a tendency to worry.) But I reconcile my insecurity in the knowledge that more people die in attempts to see the 1001 places to see before they die, than sitting on a beer-stool smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. And I know which I’d rather do.
What this means, though, is that each subsequent list tries to top a previous list, and most likely a rival list, and we get a kind of “must see-experience” inflation. This leads to an obsession with uncovering details about a place or cultural genre which aspires still more to authenticity, the obscure or something which is simply wackier than any other publication on the same theme. It is reminiscent of much of academic writing, where each paper (often a recycled idea) is bloated with arcane and increasingly technical language (that nobody will admit to understanding) in a doomed attempt to out-intellectualise everyone else. And before we know it becomes so contextually abstract and conceptually exhausting that we are compelled to scream for a return to simplicity (and lager) and a relinquishment of billy bollocks.
111 Places in Vienna etc … is actually not that bad. The language might be turgid but there are some interesting and eclectic snippets for the TRUE Vienna fan. This doesn’t always mean off the beaten track, but there is a lot which only a devoted aficionado (or anorak) could ever possibly desire. Such yearning to differentiate can only lead to one conclusion, though: insanity. Where suggestions for things to do or places to see become so inconsequential and foolish (in an attempt to push the boundaries of orthodoxy) that they start to become desirable (and ultimately legitimate). So we might see “101 places in Vienna to buy underpants” (I’d buy that one!), or “101 examples of post-war architecture in Vienna that not even Banksy can improve”, or “Vienna: a tale of 101 kebab shops”. If one persists with the strange and culturally eccentric, then theoretically everything and anything is admissible.
With this spirit in mind, I would like to submit my nomination for inclusion in future books about sides of Vienna you wouldn’t normally see. My choice is the Südosttangente (specifically underneath it). Naturally, it would be easy to downplay a stretch of tarmac and I am no fan of mythologizing of roads. But all cities will have a famous stretch of highway, perhaps notorious, perhaps romantic, and this is Vienna’s.
It is not a road through beautiful mountains, or along a spectacular coast, or through silent deserts. In fact it looks like it has been imported from an American freeway system, all concrete and sweeping curves. But this piece of public engineering is a geographical icon in Vienna cutting through the capital, effectively linking Central Europe with Italy. And like a bunch of expat Brits on a stag night in Bratislava, it is ugly and noisy. Yet I choose this piece of iconic, civil engineering because between Inzsersdorf and the Hanson Curve to the south, linking 23rd district to 10th, it is crumbling.
Actually it is the concrete supports, carrying the road high above giving its Californian feel (you are going to have to roll with me on this one) that are decaying. And they can’t be repaired. Personally I’d knock it down tomorrow but this would upset people. But their plan, if there is a plan, is to support parts of the highway with earth (and maybe a body or two) and replace most of the decaying columns with attractive spanking new ones. To do so they have cleared a not insignificant tract of land in the once slightly more beautiful DraschePark (named after the eponymous Baron Drasche) uprooting many trees in the process. Given Vienna’s obsession with preserving foliage, such measures make me chuckle ruefully and I vow to chop down a bush in our garden just to spite the tree police.
On a beautiful, clear, and unseasonably warm afternoon I stand under the arterial intersections above me, traffic thundering overhead. It is surprisingly tranquil. Just to my right is the trickle of the river Liesing accompanied in its progress by joggers, walkers and cyclists making use of the last of the autumn sun. Over to the left many trees lie sawn or uprooted ready to make way for the march of modern earth moving. It is a sorrowful and poignant sight and a reminder that we are slaves to the combustion engine.
I slap myself round the face realizing I am paying tribute to a piece of road. No time for sentimentality, I have a book to write. “101 Lists That You Should Ignore For Your Well-being”. Or shall I just retire to that bar-stool and dream about faraway places? Yes, much more gratifying. But not too faraway.
© RJ Barratt 2013