There are many blogs about food and Vienna. Restaurant and bar reviews accompanied by photos which make bad food look appetising and excellent food look flaccid. The blogs are useful because they chronicle a regular supply of places to seek sustenance and a snifter in the number one city. More so, they are a helpful snapshot of what is new in town (or “reinvented”) and how culinary tastes are changing. And I like to be informed although I secretly know that as a parent of small children, where childless free time is scarcer than a shop open on Sunday in Vienna, I know I will probably never visit most of them.
They are also practical because they serve to reinforce that most writing about food is plated up with an unavoidable aroma of subjectivity, often garnished with a side-dish of notional expertise when almost always no such special knowledge exists. The mistake is substituting an experience for expertise, or an experience based on taste which is largely impossible to transfer.
As such, food and the gastronomic industry in Vienna are subjects I rarely allude to in any detail here – although I am an unclaimed expert on the pub, the serving of Stiegl and proper chips – fries to the uninitiated – which are hard to come by even when your life quality is top. In fact, the only place in the world that can make real chips (and if anyone mentions Belgium you will be sent there) is the British chippy. All this professionalisation of the chip or “three-fried” twaddle is an underhand attempt to overcharge for something which is just a fried vegetable. Still, this is nothing compared to the unexplained trend for “wedges”. A perfect companion to battered fish or a burger? It is heretical. It is heinous. It is fundamentally immoral.
No, I don’t want to enter into the literary realms of food and the places that serve it I would rather write and about peace, social criticism and that wanker who let their dog crap outside our house. But fate has danced its merry, er, dance and I cannot pass up the opportunity for a Vienna food-blogging first. Namely, the stuff they serve up in hospital. Which, let’s face it, sounds much more enticing than endless critiques about Motto am Fluß (outstanding, incidentally) or the best Punsch (all overpriced sticky slop).
So where were we? If you remember we last met under a tree sporting a hundred symbols of the anti-Christ. Moments before I had been dropped at the hospital gates by the Sebastian Vettel of Vienna’s taxi drivers and now I was about to find out my home for the next thirty-six hours from the reception in the “Ambulanz”. Paperwork presented I am then sent to my ward – the crows have gone – and shown into a room with one other guest eating Coco-Pops.
This is not my first time in hospital for an operation. When I was fourteen I had my appendix removed after spending a particularly unpleasant night in some pain on a cheap sofa which had been clawed to destruction by cats. Fourteen is a difficult age for a boy with or without the need for emergency surgery, but given my pubescent state (too old for the children’s ward) I was placed with the adults. This meant six nights of constant coughing, snoring and wheezing from other patients all of whom seemed to wake up at five o’clock in the morning, rustle newspapers and need a toilet.
This was bad enough. But prior to my operation somebody set about me with a razor, in a place which wasn’t my face, and had clothed me in a backless robe. Needless to say, the mortification I endured as this was revealed to a group of medical students later that day was … conspicuous. Of course, I have learned the lessons of history and am mindful of this incident thirty years later as I grapple with my hospital gown like a crap Houdini, contorting myself as I reach for two flimsy tie-ups whilst trying not to expose my bum.
Then, throughout the morning as I sit on my bed waiting for my operation, I am asked a series of questions by a troupe of medical professionals. Worryingly, I had already filled out two nearly identical sets of forms in the last seven days in the preparation for the operation (contained in my file balancing on the end of my bed). But this being Vienna, i know form filling is a serious business and so I lie there impassively (scared) and answer politely with a squeaky voice. I crack just one joke in this time when asked if I sleep well. “Not really. I have small children.” The Doctor, young and not used to the facile flip of a British mind so early on a Wednesday, remains unmoved.
One thing about medical interventions, however, is that you have to get your answers about your lifestyle straight. But the question about alcohol intake is more complicated than I expect.
“How much do you drink?” I am asked by the pre-op examining doctor who might be German.
“Well, how do you measure it?” I reply.
I am met with a small shrug and gesture of the hands which suggests just tell me how much you drink, you schmuck. Unless a friend is visiting from out of town (about once every year) then I drink six beers per week I tell the doctor. He seems impressed by my precision.
“And some wine.”
“A few bottles.” (Look of very mild vexation)
“Okay, in total about 20 to 30 units a week.” (Perplexity followed by mild vexation.)
I settle on three bottles a week knowing more likely it is four (unless a friend is in town and then I am Richard Harris).
After some more examinations I am informed by one very junior looking member of staff that “Jetzt gehts los”, essentially Austrian for “It’s showtime, sucker!” I am given a pill to relax which I make a mental note to ask for next time I am at the GP. About twenty minutes later I am picked up by a chirpy hospital porter (all hospital porters are chirpy) who sounds like a cross between Orson Welles and Joe Cocker. We descend two floors in the lift and he leaves me in an ante-room off the operating theatre with a parting “Alles Gute!” aurally embracing the room like a blanket of human warmth.
As I recline there, my less than rosy view of life increasingly diluted by feelings of serenity, fluffy-bunnies and all-round loveliness, a poorly disguised UPS delivery man comes in through the doors with some parcels. I brace myself. Is it my turn today to get whacked by some underground king-pins? Disappointedly he delivers some parcels and wishes me a nice day. “Yeah, mate, I will. Me and the rest of this gorgeous world.” Then a nurse appears and asks me some simple questions which I am sure I have answered five minutes before as I skipped through sunlit meadows with a giant cat.
“Do you take any drugs?”
“You better believe it, sister!”
“No, I mean prescription drugs.”
The last thing I remember is having my arms taped up and attached to various tubes. Lying on my back I briefly see my surgeon and then its all Dennis Hopper as the oxygen mask is placed over my nose.
After being woken up at five o’clock the next morning to have my blood pressure taken by the night shift before they clock off and hit that great Beisl across the road from the hospital entrance, I decide to get out of bed before the pain of lying there leaves me seeking the medical malpractice literature. Disastrously, the wifi connection I had piggy-backed the night before now no longer seems to work and so all I am left with is a day-old Heute.
Breakfast would be along in two hours and although my Frnak is aching, I know I am going home soon with some powerful painkillers and a bag of cola bottles. After my dressing is changed and a quick once over from the surgeon I am given the all-clear with strict orders to pursue leisure, sit on my backside and watch movies. Like the true meaning of Frnak, the sense of relief I feel as I leave the building is immense. Although I am not sure if that is because my whistle-stop tour of the Viennese public / private health system is coming to a satisfactory conclusion, or just simply I know that wage-slavery is on hold for ten days.
It is a beautiful day when I leave and for once it is not a cliché.
The Food Bit
And you thought I had forgotten. So, after I regain consciousness in the post-op area, I am brought back to my room in the middle of the afternoon. Three words consume my thoughts as the enormity of my situation heaves into focus: relief, repose, and more relief. I am also starving which is only marginally assuaged by some fruit tea. Normally, I hate fruit tea but I am a grateful and greedy beneficiary. Indeed, if they had offered me a plate of the culinary malodorous Leberkase, a dish I never knowingly touch, they would have found a willing and hungry mouth.
Dinner is Leberkase – fried – with mashed potatoes and cooked beetroot served up on a plastic plate protected by a tin lid. Penance for being dismissive of food writing. I haven’t had a hospital dinner in more than thirty years and I am sure it was mashed potato and cooked beetroot then. Leberkase is basically spam but, like a lot of cuts of meat for dinner in Vienna, it is chunky rather than delicately sliced. In any case, this is just not spam, it is spam in a batter. It is a substantial portion of frittered spam. It is a monument to breaded “meat” and hot oil. And I devour it all (except the beetroot – I might be in pain but by crikey, there is nothing wrong with my head).
© RJ Barratt 2014