It’s hot. Vienna hot. Not even the garment merchants down Naschmarkt can take this kind of heat. It is the kind of heat, like the breath of Satan, that triggers hushed afternoon streets as an unrelenting, punishing sun sends residents either scurrying inside or to city pools to seek respite in a big bath with a thousand other people.
Unless you are cosseted by the faint hum of air-conditioning, such heat demands little or no work. Either that or you become self-employed like me, and re-arrange the months of July and August around your fluctuating desire to prostrate yourself at the feet of the repressive ideology of wage slavery. Having said that, this summer I am, much like Tamiflu in winter, more in demand than usual. So much so my chances of winning this year’s Best Brit at the annual Vienna Summer Tanning Awards are diminishing faster than the chances of a pig at a Spanferkerl (think hog roast).
As a temporary antidote to the climatic rigors of July, I have taken refuge at the Wasserspielplatz located at the top end of Triesterstrasse, on the road leading to the northern Adriatic some five hours away by car, three hours if you drive like a Romanian, two weeks if you are Dutch towing a caravan.
The water playground is located in the foreground of a 19th century Wasserturm (water tower). In the words of Duncan J. D. smith on page 174 in his excellent book Only in Vienna, the 67 meter tower is:
‘Wonderfully grand for a building with such a mundane purpose. It’s yellow and red brick walls have stone corbels and leaded lights incorporated into them, all topped off with a roof of polychrome tiles and a church like onion dome. Over its huge wooden doors are the words “Wasserwerk der Stadt Wien” inscribed in gold.’
In other words, the 19th century civic water planners liked a bit of bling and this was not untypical of a Vienna at the pinnacle of its imperialistic might and with a bit of cash to impress its bitches (in imperial terms, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Bohemia, Croatia, northern Italy and all the others). And no, I don’t know what a corbel is.
The Wasserspielplatz is, in many ways, the 21st century legacy of this former pumping station and it is just like a playground but with a more modern slant on the urban paddling pool. It has a waterfall, sand and Austria’s smallest rope ferry. It is open everyday from 9 till dusk, except Friday for servicing. The water, drink quality unless one is averse to the unabashed excretions of small children, has the temperature and freshness to make even the most resilient of genitals disappear, and feels like it has been pumped straight from an alpine stream, which it has. They have space age toilets that will confuse and infuriate the most able of parents and you can reach it by travelling on tram number 1 from the city. There is an ice-cream man (clearly a student experiencing the true meaning of work) and next to him a hut run by Kinderfreunde Wien whose job is to entertain children with toys and games and loan you a sun umbrella if you need one. And If this wasn’t enough, aside from the refreshments, it costs nothing to use.
I ponder such elements as we sit under a palm tree taking temporary respite from the sun, coffee for the parents and ice-lollies for the kids (you didn’t think I came alone did you?) and I begin to realise I am enjoying myself. More so it makes me wonder about the Vienna I know. Say what you will about what constitutes a great civic project, it is the small things which repeatedly, often unseen at first, reaffirm notions of great, mediocre or Linz. In this case Vienna is no different. It is easy to be over-whelmed by the architecture, glorious statuary, the green spaces, public transport, social housing and understated urban chic (except in Simmering) but to really assess a city and any claim to notional greatness one must understand the relationship it exerts over its citizens and what it provides for the people who live and toil there (in Simmering it is mostly toil and rightly so given their enthusiastic support for the FPÖ – the Austrian Freedom Party).
Put another way, if someone was bored enough to ask me what was the one facet that encapsulated the social, political and economic ethos of Vienna it would be easy: free kindergartens. At first glance you might think, well, what is there not to like? But where there is socialist progression, not far behind is the cheek-clenching protestations of the once-a-year, church-going political right. “Somebody has to pay for it!” they would bleat (yes, you, I thought) citing increases in taxes or cuts in services elsewhere. But although the cost of such “socialist” inspired initiatives might mean higher taxes, think about the potential saving to society and the wallets of hard-press English trainers, I countered. And remember, such assertions from the right are often accompanied, often without any sense of irony, with the lobbying of the very same super-structure of the state for tax relief on savings, trust funds, second homes and other trappings of symbolic wealth. The hypocritical weasles.
But, more disturbingly, the more extreme criticism is a covert attack on the emancipation of women. What I mean by this, and it is astonishing to think that such views exist outside of Texas, is that women should really be at home caring for their children and pampering their hard-working husbands. Hence, they do not need a childcare place, free or not. And thus it is a socialist plot to break up the traditional dynamic of the family, attack the moral fabric of society and encourage everyone to shag (I made that last bit up).
But like the free water playground, free kindergartens are the emblematical embodiment of inclusivity, social equality and mutual support for families of all shapes, sizes and noise levels. It is about integration of Viennese and non-Viennese alike, education, social engineering (in a good way) and a bold statement of future generational investment. If Vienna had a town crier he / she would be standing outside the Rathaus, bell in hand extolling the linguistic genre of urban studies shouting, “Hear ye! Hear ye! Vienna actually gives a toss! Hear ye! Hear ye!”
In any case, it saves my family 500 hundred Euros a month, allowing me to spread my “wealth” to other parts of the Viennese economy. And that comrade is why Vienna might just be the most communist place on earth.
© R. J. Barratt 2013.