All Quiet on the Eastern Front

Much like the sources of scorn and opprobrium (gits) who send work-related emails late on Friday afternoons in a dubious impression of bringing closure to their week of work, and in turn pushing any ensuing psychological strain on their now stewing and festering recipient until Monday morning, there seems to be an insatiable obsession at this time of year to finish everything “just in time for Christmas”. Almost as if the act of “completion” somehow heralds an end to proceedings and we can brush our hands free from the perils of responsibility and all go to the pub. In fact, projection by email is much the same self-deluding, cognitive tactic used by the weekend drinker: couple of pints, a quick deal with the forces of darkness, and away you go, oblivious to the castigating, crushing reality awaiting you the next day when your problems tap you on up your throbbing forehead.

Picture from The Guardian
Picture from The Guardian

But simply pushing need onto someone else, or scaring me with an official looking document at the end of a week, or month or year changes very little and displays a disconcerting lack of providence. Because come Monday morning or the 2nd January I am, like Kaiser Soze in The Usual Suspects, coming after you bastards. And that problem – sorry, issue – ain’t going nowhere, and it is my avowed aim, only in the pursuit of fairness and justice, to ruin your start to the week or month or year. (I can forgive but I crave retribution.)

I mention this because Christmas has come to the rescue again. As promised we have a new government in Austria and given that not much has changed, we can not only put our fears and tribulations in cold storage until next January, but continue our quest for traditional conceptions of the good life (which as you know is much easier in the number one city in the world). But there is one big story: Austria now has the youngest foreign minister in Europe, rising star Sebastian Kurz (aged 27 and a half). A fellow blogger has already compared him to Blackadder’s Pitt the Younger “(hot crumpets burning his cheeks with shame”) or more tenuously with William Hague of Britain and Benghazi fame, in his precocious appearance at the UK Conservative party conference in 1977. These both might be true. But what is clear is that Europe has its first What’s App politician and I doubt you will find any, male of female, with more luxurious hair. The fact that the position of foreign minister is largely extraneous to Austrian affairs, is neither here nor there.

So we approach, with undisguised exhaustion, the end of the year. Nothing to complain about here as one thing I like about Vienna (and I suppose the rest of Austria) is that the nation takes its freetime seriously. By freetime I mean away from work and the special days which remain special, bereft of the modern social narcosis and tyranny of retail and consumption for consumption’s sake.  So Sundays are blissfully shopping free and I am released to pursue activities devoted to body, mind and spirit. Normally this would have been the pub and televised sport but now I am a responsible adult with children in tow who for reasons unknown to me believe my fundamental role in their pre-adult life is to be their full-time entertainer and chaperone. Then again we also have the Feiertag (public holidays). These are many and sacred (literally). Again no vacuous consumerist pressures, just downtime, leisure and piles of ironing.

Even Friday afternoons are a challenge to the rosy vision of rapacious capitalism, a trend I witnessed in my first weeks in Austria. If you remember one of my first teaching jobs was out of town, a train ride or two from Meidling station in the 12th district. Strange as it seems now, the course began on Friday afternoons at one o’clock. As we settled down to our first lesson, overlooking the entrance and exit gate of this huge, valley-hugging, factory complex – almost certainly a relic from the production of something much more nefarious – I noticed a long line of traffic waiting patiently to leave (Austrians have an innate sense of queuing but only when sitting in an automobile). I casually asked the group where they were all going (knowing the answer already: home for lunch) only to be told they were going home, their week was finished. But it is only one o’clock, I spluttered. Is it the early shift? (Early shift? -that threw them.) No, Fridays they always go home just after lunch. I clapped my hands together and rubbed them vigorously. Ooh, I thought, I am gonna enjoy Austria before I realised this didn’t included English trainers, especially rookies like me who were destined for the metaphorically shite bus routes.

And then there are the Christmas holidays, a two week feast Fest, which begin on the 24th December and finish on the 6th January when Mary finally takes a selfie of her and child and posts it on Facebook, whilst Joseph traipses down the post office to pick up a parcels from three kings sent by the increasingly insidious spiritual kingdom of Amazon.

It means that in commercial terms Vienna effectively shuts down just after two o’clock on Christmas Eve. This would have pleased Freud. ”The progress of wealth requires the repression of the instincts”, he quipped (I know which instincts he was talking about, the old devil). But this means you can relax, your work is done. It is psychologically speaking the end of the year and a chance for reflection and a readjustment to the natural rhythms of life – and wealth creation can bugger off for a few days. Unless, of course, you work in finance or payroll where you are faced with something equally reprehensible – the dreaded “end of year close”. Poor devils.

For a committed idler like myself (or would be if I had the moral courage of a Zen master to relinquish all material temptations) this time of year is thus heaven sent. It might just be the combination of long, winter nights, the cold and the intensity of work in between September to December (my version of intensity) but I like nothing more than truly seizing the moments Christmas has to offer and retreating into my folk utopia.

But remember, if you find yourself in Vienna for Weihnachten, here are a few crucial pointers:

  1. Christmas cards are not usual. If you send any you will be placed under house arrest.
  2. Do not attempt to sing carols (see above).
  3. The big day is the 24th (if presents are your thing). And no they are not delivered by a fat man squeezing down the chimney onto your wood burning stove. It is the Christkind, an angel like figure who nobody has ever seen, who sneaks in to your front room through a window and rings a little bell to signal the start of carnage (if you have children).
  4. Traditionally you eat fish on the 24th. Turkey is an intruder and seen as an Anglo-American import.
  5. The 25th – recovery day.
  6. 26th or Stefanitag (St Stephen’s) – under no circumstances think about post-Christmas sales. It is impossible. Nothing is open. Twenty-four more hours to stultify your wanton need to shop. Seize the day. Enjoy the moment. Open another bottle of something. Anything.
  7. The Wieners like kissing (friends and family) but under no circumstances whack out the mistletoe and pucker your lips. You will feel the full extent of rejection.
  8. There is no Queen’s speech. But teddy bear president Heinz Fischer will make a televised appearance sometime over the holiday.
  9. Television is banned until the 27th December.
  10. In Vienna we do not speak of the “goose getting fat” we speak of mayor, Michael Häupl.

That is my Dialectic. Now be quiet.

© RJ Barratt 2013

Ps – Merry Christmas beautiful readers (from 64 nations).

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