Where Christmas Trees Go to Die


(It means leave the tinsel at home.)

A few years ago there was an advert doing the rounds on television for a large furniture store selling meatballs and some other assorted knickknacks that you almost certainly don’t need, where Christmas trees were lobbed out of apartment windows on to the street narrowly missing a chap underneath as he walked by. In Vienna such a scene would be impossible. Why? Because before any tree had hit the ground, your neighbour would have phoned the authorities and your flat would be surrounded by a SWAT team.

To avoid such mishaps, the city provides a multitude of municipal collection points dotted around the city (there are 504 of them) where residents can perform their civic duty and responsibly dispose of their tree (without tinsel or you will be arrested). Such Christmas tree graveyards, sad and despondent to see, are a typical sight from just after Christmas until the middle of January, when the trees are collected and turned into “green” energy (or biomass). And this being the age of the hovering finger, there is also an App to help you locate your nearest embarkation point. Needless to say, it is a heart-rending farewell. A sentimental auf wiedesehen to one’s uncomplaining and incorruptible rapidly balding family friend. A touching denouement to end-of-year yuletide festivity and too many biscuits.

Now I know what you are thinking: is this indicative of the organisational potency of Vienna’s commitment to recycling, green living and municipal efficacy? It might be, it might not. Yet although I could never claim that such civic endeavours necessarily define a city, they are evidence of a conspicuous effort to reuse, conserve and tidy up. (The idea of tidying up is most appealing. Readers would understand this if they had met my mother.) And with few exceptions local residents take it seriously. Not that they have much choice; there is always that wily neighbour hand poised over the Batphone ready to make that call.

But aided in this herculean, yet somehow poignant task, are the heroic, highly-revered, supremely organised, visibly orange Magistratabteilung 48 – street cleaning, waste disposal and the ominous sounding ‘traffic management’ (which means they tow away your car). I say heroic because you would be pushed to find anyone Vienna who has a bad word to say about them (which is saying something in a city infamous for its complaining even when the temperature deviates one degree above or below the seasonal norm). This is in spite of the fact that they are famously well-paid, their salaries swelled by special working bonuses – wet weather, windy weather, any weather – and the fact that jobs on the converted dustcarts are passed from father to son during secretive, stripped to the waist midnight ceremonies in the crypt of St Stephens.

Part of this prodigious narrative is almost certainly stoked by the clean-up on the 1st of January each year in the city centre. In the very early hours as people are still trying to waltz and Italians still think it is comical to put fireworks in your shoes, the boys and girls of the MA 48, like an army of mice (because mice are well-known for their propensity to clean) set to work with a bit of intensive, unobtrusive scrubbing. By morning virtually all remnants of the organised carnage that ensued just a few hours before have been swept away and the city is returned to its serene best ready for another year of satisfied grumbling.

But before we drink that third glass of schnapps and get too carried away by the seductive infallibility of our own judgment, a moment’s reflection. Yes, yes I have a bit of soft-spot for the MA 48 given their tendency to use English in their marketing. This might annoy the locals (linguistic imperialism) but makes me chuckle, and my favourite seen very recently on the front of a huge snow-plough is: “Vienna Snowboard.” Moreover, it is difficult to imagine that the integrated system of rubbish collection, recycling and street cleaning would be easy to top given the limitations of budget and geographical milieu. But people see what they want to see (the mantra of the Viennese driver) and Singapore it ain’t. Move away from the 1st district and tourist attractions and things start to look a little less rosy. The dog shit is sometimes incredible (not the shit itself, the quantity) although it is my cautious contention that this has improved of late. And then there is, at times, the astonishing abundance of discarded cigarette butts, especially around bus or tram stops and outside shops. It saddens me that in such a palpably beautiful metropolitan space (apart from Florisdorf) that a minority of local people resist the urge to be noble and respectful to very place they live and work. The gits. But I cannot blame the MA 48 for the actions of a feckless and thoughtless minority. The 48ers are mere cogs in a bureaucratic machine, brush-pushing public servants doing their bit to enhance the experience of mutual city coexistence for all, and make Vienna a better place to live and breath.

It seems apposite to speak of the MA 48 this week with the return of the snow with a vigour that can only be described as, unmistakable. In truth, the city I call home has a capricious relationship with the white stuff. It is much like I imagine having obscure relatives to stay: the prospect quite excites but by the third day you wish they would bugger off home and leave you in peace to wander about in your unterhosen. Then again we should not forget that snow is never a certainty here, although we are only a mere yodel’s breath from parts of the Alps. But if it snows or not, the capital has had lots of undeniable practise in shovelling the stuff (I have seen the old films) and without wishing to sound like I have gone native and been corrupted by the Viennese spirit, it is supremely equipped to cope … well, most of the time.

Fortunately, we have the unimpeachable MA 48 to help, who are additionally charged with keeping the roads and some of the pavements accessible. It’s a great system: they clean the streets and they clear away the snow when they cannot clean the streets. Since the start of the week, the “Winter Service Team” have been on the case: 1400 people, 370 vehicles (including 76 large snow-ploughs), 2800 km of roads and paths which if you are doing the maths translates into 23 million square metres, all cleared and covered with those little stones that ruin your best shoes and make it impossible to navigate with a Quinny Zap.

I say “some” paths because individual householders or building owners are responsible for the piece of pavement directly outside their property and should keep it clear between  6am and 10pm (you will be rigorously sued if someone slips over). Most people will employ special companies to do this but our retired neighbour, who is a stubborn old gent and never seems to stop tinkering with things and making himself busy in his garden or garage insists on doing it himself. I stand and admire. Such commitment. Such technique. A pure professional. A true Wiener.

Street Model citizen

But the onset of snow enables me to indulge in one of my favourite winter pastimes. No not sledging, snowman building, or skiing but piling snow on to next door’s car before they can pile in onto yours. You see Vienna is well organised and people largely follow the rules (when it suits them) but people get a bit precious when it comes to personal space and where to park the car. They will defend their territory with the zeal and tenacity of an obstinate 3 year old who has missed their afternoon nap and they are intent on taking you down.

One year, shortly after I had bought our first car when our first child was born, I ventured outside one snowy morning only to find our car buried by neighbours, the kind of neighbours who greet you every morning and ask about your health. Bastards, I thought. That’s the last time I say, Gruss Gott. Which is why now, shovel in hand, I take no chances and can freely admit I am unabashed in the execution of my neighbourly snow relocation. I am like a smiling, icy assassin: ruthless, efficient and, most importantly, fast. Whether this shamelessness I have seemingly developed is attributable to the Vienna psyche is impossible to pinpoint. It might have something to do with some latent frustration that I am not a millionaire aristocrat. Perhaps after years of living here I have been emancipated from my buttoned-up British reserve and get (like a New Yorker) what I really want without feeling self-conscious. In any case, that Schnee has to go somewhere.


(C) 2013 RJ Barratt

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