I have taken myself to the doctor (May is my month for medication). The doctor is the kind of doctor who you wait three hours to see only to have your name called and then be out within three minutes. This compares to the other four people in front of you who are seemingly very sick, very talkative or very desperate to get their monies’ worth from the state health system. I have never understood this and no matter how early I turn up, sometimes queuing outside the surgery, elbowing my way past stick-bearing cripples, other parents with sickly children or old ladies with tiny steps, I am always stuck behind someone who is a walking ailment, prone to idle chatter or boasting all the symptomatic hallmarks of a mind-set obsessed with an enduring and unfailing promise of state-sponsored paternalism.
Such waiting times are not infrequent and I should not grumble. But this is my seventeenth year in the number one city and the temptation to whinge grows exponentially. Disastrously, I am early for my appointment and am told so by the receptionist, a caustic lady who seems to relish informing potential patients on the telephone that the earliest possibility for an appointment is after they die. She gives patient/practitioner relations a bad name although beneath her austere exterior I am sure there is a warm-hearted human being that once laughed.
I am only twenty minutes early, I plead foolishly. Silence, as she scans my Austrian E-card checking to see if I am a health immigrant in a suit or part of the system. A system which obliges me to hand over twenty-five per cent of my income to the gangsters at the SVA (Sozialversicherungsanstalt der gewerblichen Wirtschaft) my state health insurance company. In any case, normally I have to wait two sodding hours looking at “Küchen Magazin” (better than it sounds) just to drop my pants for a couple of forgettable minutes, so it is my time I am wasting I say to her silently in my head.
I am handed back my credentials and ordered to the waiting room. Alternatively, I can bugger off for an hour, have a coffee, do some shopping, perhaps enjoy a light nibble and come back later. Hang on. Come back later? Ah, the old Vienna queuing for a doctor technique, designed explicitly to mess with the Kopf of every Anglo-Brit ever born should they find themselves waiting for a physician in the capital of horse-drawn carriages (and their Dung). Let me explain.
In essence, on arrival (at the Doctor not in Vienna) some receptionists will, if asked, estimate your waiting time giving you the option to do something else rather than look at Küchen Magazin. Only to return later refreshed and smug, with your place reserved even if you technically miss your turn and all the other Wappla have waited in aggrieved silence. Normally, if I put in the waiting time, stoic, silent and patient to the end, then I should be rewarded. If people flounce off, swanning about the district like a deluded Hapsburg in the last days of the monarchy, and in turn breaking all the social interpersonal conventions of queuing – written and codified like most activities in the world by the British – then my sympathy is at best meagre and back of the queue you go you bastard.
Once I had a family doctor who had a perfect system, or so I believed. The practice opened at different times during the week but it was possible for people to turn up an hour or so before the doctor arrived to bag a place. In this particular surgery, the assistant handed out numbers – flawless, simple and, most importantly, fair, I thought. Once I arrived one minute after the doors had opened and received number eighteen. Confused a little I was relieved to discover that the only other people in the waiting room had numbers sixteen and seventeen. Not bad, I thought, and settled down for a short wait. But then the other numbers started drifting back during the next hour (number fifteen was clearly very ill or very chatty) and then it dawned on me. They were going to reclaim their position and I was seemingly powerless to act. Worst of all the other patients seemed privy to such an arrangement and sat there smirking cruelly at the lily-livered Brit in the corner who being British didn’t have the fortitude to complain.
“Professor Barratt!” (I have a rotation of titles which I roll out when my self-esteem is challenged.) My turn already? What about my two hour wait? I have only had time to read an old copy of “News” and just started “Auto Revue”, which, incidentally, has nothing to do with strip clubs if you have ever been to Soho in London. Curse the efficiency of the Viennese health system. I am ushered in and swiftly checked by a doctor with more IT in his examination room (one of two) than the NSA. One hundred and eighty seconds later I am back out the door beaming with the kind of relief that one can only feel when a medical check up reveals nothing more than regret for wearing a particular pair of pants.
I skip gaily out of the building and head down the hill to the Wiedner Hauptstrasse. I pass Tutsch one of my favourite shops in Vienna and the home of darts and darts accessories. Across the street is Rudi’s Beisl, rated as one of the best in the capital, and just down from there, coincidence slapping me about the face and pilfering the last vestiges of the recent resurgence in my well-being, is the home of my state health insurance company. Outside its offices sit fat men in Armani. These guys move for nobody, playing cards and smoking, passing messages to minions who scuttle back and forth, occasionally bringing drinks and sandwiches.
I bow deeply as I pass and head off in search of a tram into the first district to meet a friend for a beer. Our destination is Flanagans on Schwarzenbergstrasse. Flanangans has been in Vienna as long as me, and like me, it has seen better days. It is a little known fact that I once worked there. This was not long after I had arrived in Wien, just one night only, the original pop-up barman. After eight hours on my feet I had earned about enough for the taxi home and decided it would be more sensible to concentrate on the riches provided by working for a language school. One hundred and eighty Schillings per hour (about nine pounds back then) was mostly better than per night.
In 2004, Flanagan’s was voted best Irish pub in Europe by Expedia and since then they have – aside from a basement bar – seemingly contrived to keep it exactly the way it was a decade ago. I have had many great afternoons and evenings in its sweeping bar over the years but it is now looking tired and desperately in need of a paint job. It might also at one time have been the best Irish pub in Vienna – the beer selection is great, location, televised expat sport – but it is and always was maddeningly hard to get a drink in spite of its size and the food has been perfunctory for years.
Yet in spite of the lingering stink of complacency, I can see the intellectual and commercial appeal of such an approach. It confers a worn and battle scarred experience, both reassuring and cheering, offering salvation and deliverance from the corrupt institutions of contemporary life and hour-long waits to speak to a person expert in matters of the body. This is the essence of a superior boozer and is why I probably come back again and again.
I pull up a stool, settle down to wait for my friend and order a big Stiegl (two of my favourite words). I look around and admire the interior decoration and general neglect which I know from experience can only be diminished by dimming the lights and plying people with more alcohol. My food arrives and pleasingly for once it is warm enough to eat. I manage to raise a rare smile out of one of the staff, a exceptional event in itself although perversely fitting for Vienna if you believe the rumors.
Yet I understand such looks. It is the visage of abject resignation, world-weariness and contempt. Of a face deprived of the twin beauties of life and passion. It is a reflection of the flawed reality of modern life, if you let it, although mirrored no doubt in a million faces and a thousand cities before it. It is the countenance of a Brit in a Viennese waiting room, expectant and ready only to be suddenly informed there are seven more people before him who have been enjoying the surrounds of a nearby café for the last two hours. To paraphrase local wit Karl Kraus, the Viennese waiting room is the disease of what it pretends to cure. And to think he was only talking about psychoanalysis.
© RJ Barratt 2014