Vienna might be the number one city in the world but you still have to pay 3.50 Euros for a half litre bottle of Spitfire Ale (from one of the UK’s oldest breweries – Shepherd Neame). I know this because recently I was in the British and American supermarket, Bobby’s’ on Schleifmühlgasse in the 4th district stocking up on some decent crisps and assorted novelties which are largely impossible to get anywhere else Vienna. Bobby’s is what Bill Bryson would describe as “agreeable”. A small, local business almost reminiscent of a lost age of retailing. The reason for this, I have concluded, is that it only sells brands and nothing generic and therefore is as far removed from your modern supermarket as the UK independent party (UKIP) is to tackle out nakedness in a federally integrated, Euro style sauna.
The thing about Bobby’s is that it is expensive and unless you have been drinking in the nearby Naschmarkt and are suddenly transformed into a caricature of reprobation and decadence, it’s not the sort of shop you do your weekly shopping. Which is why desperate Brits and Americans can tolerate the prices now and again. It is a shop of treats. Comforting, nostalgic triggering treats. Treats which transport you back to an undefined moment of childhood or that increasingly vague day when, in my case, I swapped Pret a Manger for Leberkäse (Austrian fast food – traditionally and topically, horse).
Yet equally it is a reminder of something more subconscious. In the same way that expats will seek out the Irish pub, or subscribe to SKY or the BBC iPlayer, play sports associated with home, or crave “real” bacon, these materialistic or symbolic connections are inevitable and largely impossible to ignore. Indeed, such links with childhood and beyond, encapsulating the interactive narrative of the individual and social milieu, are what French sociologist Bordieu would call embodied, institutionalized or objectified “cultural capital”, although I am not entirely sure he meant Creme eggs, Fruit Pastilles or Monster Munch. However, as a Brit abroad with children it is my duty to educate them about proper crisps, exotic gelatin based sweets, which are not advertised by Thomas Gottschalk, or Pot Noodles, and in the process share my meme. If only for their cultural development and an excuse, from my side, to steal the swag.
Social relations and systems of exchange aside, any successful trip to Vienna’s UK /US retail champ, then, should be based on one simple rule of self-regulation: never buy anything which could be replicated on any Austrian supermarket shelf. You can but you will be ridiculed with a passion normally reserved for yodeling and then be forced to sit through endless recordings of Musikantenstadl (see below – if you dare). Instead, stock up on the goodies or the unique, the unusual or the special. But if you buy sausages or tea-bags then expect scorn and damnation. Cultural capital or not.
Then again, such an globally embracing attitude does not explain why my attention was drawn to the usually overlooked booze selection to the right as you enter the shop. It is of course perverse to buy British ale in a country blessed with such good beer (apart from several micro-breweries, Vienna beer is generally rubbish). But often when out with the children I have a tendency not to think straight which is not the same non-linear thinking when not with the children and I have been drinking. Needless to say I picked up the bottle, examined the label and my mind started wandering to a certain French sociologist and his sexy conceptual habitus. Maybe he was right, the rascal. But resisting the urge and exercising individual agency (stop me if am getting too technical) I put it back. No beer in the world, even in the most agreeable little shop packed with memories of a life I had left behind, in the number 1 city, in the middle of Lent, with the snow threatening again, with mad Frankie Stronach storming the opinion polls, with a impending referendum threatening to confuse an already bemused electorate still further, is worth more than a Pukka Pie. Prost!
(c) 2013 RJ Barratt