Far into the future, chin stroking sociologists, anthropologists and historians, in an attempt to understand civic behaviour and public norms in Vienna in the 21st century, will only need to refer to one social activity: driving. Now I might be going out on a limb here so stop me if you are getting giddy, but it is my contention that car driving and the people that drive capture in an instant how a local population think and behave, and how they perceive their fellow burgher. Indeed, more than the whimsical attitude to queuing, the erratic nature of customer service or the expectation of better when things are quite clearly pretty good already, driving in Vienna can be, like the music of Eurovision, abominable.
And like the enduring popularity of Eurovision, it is a paradox for me that on city streets so well ordered and mostly well-maintained that the driving can be, at times, so joyless. I suppose I could be describing any bigger city but almost every time I get in the car, I am on the receiving end of shit or a gesture or a wave in front of your face to indicate I am a Drottel (an idiot). Even more so when other drivers (fifty-something men are the worst for this) make a mistake and then blame me for their incompetence and what Freud might call penis anxiety. In short, driving is aggressive, edgy and antagonistic. Generally, I don’t hate driving, but I mostly hate driving in and around Vienna.
Let me give you an example: there is a wonderful phrase here, “Grüner geht es nicht” (it doesn’t get any greener). It is used at traffic lights by impatient Wieners when the lights change from red to green and is usually accompanied by a honk on the horn and the obligatory hand gesture. One honk sets off all the others and soon it sounds like you have a gaggle of geese up your vehicular arse. Even if you hesitate for a millisecond, or a fraction of a millisecond, you will not escape the menace in the honk which means “get out of my way Wichse, I am coming through”. I once tried to counteract such behaviour by sticking my two fingers up at someone, but they just looked at me confusedly thinking, “Why is he indicating 2 to me?”
The problem of the driving isn’t only the belligerence, though, it is the unpredictability. I have driven in Palermo (described by Lonely Planet as the ONE place in Europe no outsider should ever drive) and the experience was, in car terms, exhausting (ho, ho). Cars, motorbikes and scooters come at you in all directions (sometimes also on the roads) and the mantra is, traffic rule, what traffic rule? Cars routinely bear down at you on the wrong side of streets and traffic lights don’t exist, at least not for traffic management. To put it midly it is a motorised, anarchic hell and you need the nerves of a Sicilian hitman just to make it out the other side.
Yet, compared to Vienna it is a doddle. The reason for this is that in Palermo, once you accept there are no rules, you start to drive like them and expect everything and nothing the mean streets can dish up. For this reason it becomes, crucially, routine which means you are not surprised when a family of 7 on a scooter comes hurtling straight at you instead of using the traditional method of going round rather than over a roundabout. And, therefore, you are attuned perfectly to the dangers and, more importantly, ready for them.
But in Vienna, where the place can maddeningly law abiding, it is easy to think that drivers will obey the rules mostly because so many other elements of life are strictly adhered to and regulated. In effect you let your guard down and your foreign brain is tricked into thinking that no-one would possibly jump a traffic light or not stop at a zebra crossing or not drive at high speed in the vicinity of a kindergarten. They wouldn’t you tell yourself, this is Vienna! The number one city in the world! They have tree police! But it is this on-road behaviour, and worse, arising as it does from the dankest depths of the human spirit that is the most dangerous. You never know what is going to come hurtling at you (metal or abuse) and you never know when someone is going to break the rules. It is anathema to the anticipatory skill of any sensible driver (like me). But, you ask, why do I drive if I hate it so much (like you care)? If I knew the answer to such a question, and questions like it, then you wouldn’t be reading this and I would be sitting on my Bond inspired Caribbean hideaway stroking a long-haired feline. Anyways…
I try whenever possible these days when driving to retain the air of a Zen master. I am above such trivialities I tell myself, my soul untouched by the imperfections of the inconsequentially small minded. That said, there are moments when my inner Begbe (see Trainspotting) – pool cue in hand, cigarette hanging from my lager and whisky battered lips – supersedes my Buddhist calm and I step from the car ready to unleash any latent Celtic rage.
Or would do if I wasn’t such a model of good citizenry with a determination not to be subsumed by the darkness. Instead, to get my own back on the accelerator happy, traffic light chasing mob, I deliberately drive at 49km/h in 50km/h zones (this drives people insane), always pull away from lights at the speed of the Vienna civil servant and when people tailgate I slam on my brakes to scare them. In this I am uncompromising (unabashed nod to my pastie brother across the way). It is my duty and my mission to engender a reordering of public space that the motor car has corrupted. And I shall prevail. Beep, beep!
© 2013 RJ Barratt