It is the year 2014, Europe, Vienna. The smell of fat carp, stale gingerbread and the hypocritical stink of the annual church visit epitomised by the traditional Austrian Christmas are in cultural shutdown for another year. Many decorations remain for Fasching but most of the tinsel has been packed away or left lazily flapping gently in the wind on the numerous discarded Christmas trees at the city collection points. The firework perils and impromptu waltzing of New Year holidays are now a distant reminiscence yet the party continues as the ball season hits town and people who should know better suddenly entertain the idea of dancing and drinking all night and then eating goulash at six in the morning. And the three wise men, or clowns as my son calls them, have packed off the camels to the circus and returned to their day jobs, no doubt working a five hour shift in a smoky office dreaming of their retirement at 55 on a salary likely to make a nation go begging to Germany to pay off its debts.
Here in the number one city, winter life has resumed its moderate, restrained pace, easing itself slowly into another twelve months of creating wealth, happiness and well-being for all citizens except economic migrants and English trainers. The weather is fresh – a word favoured by locals to describe weather in winter – yet unusually clement, so much so that several bushes in my garden have already started blossoming and the birds are singing an optimistic note of spring. But mention spring in Vienna at this time of year and you are asking for trouble. It is outlawed. It is the season that should not be named (before Easter). You will be met with an unsympathetic, fatalistic face, gentle head-shaking and reminded, in flat, even tones of Schadenfreude that tomorrow it will be minus 20. (And then you will suddenly be audited by the tax office.)
Fortunately any notion of bunkering down under the duvet and seeing out the winter in an ascetic nod to abstinence is about as likely this year as me performing a triple-salko* (I had to look up the spelling). Pseudo-dieting, neo-fasting, sobriety or temperance are words which will have you denounced by your colleagues or neighbours, anonymously of course, but only if you believe Private Eye this month, and the capital of culture in January is no place for the lily-livered, weak-kneed, god-fearing teetotaller.
*(A triple-salko is a jump with three twists. This is similar to the complex effort involved in trying to engage with Viennese insurance companies although this also includes several hoops, a resignation to life’s many positive offerings and an escalating desire to maim.)
And so what should we expect in 2014? In Europe to the north, south, east and west, from where I am sitting, the issues are manifold. Will the commemorations for the “Great War” bring the continent closer together and reaffirm the need for greater political and economic cooperation? This is a poignant and serious question primarily because it will elude the average Wiener even though the city still displays the clothes worn by Archduke Ferdinand, blood stains and all, after his assassination in Sarajevo which effectively triggered the war (but be careful which history book or politician intent on scoring political points you subscribe to).
Or how about this one: will the Scottish vote for dissolution with one union only to sign up for another, if they let them in? Or better still: will the sexy sounding Single Supervisory Mechanism (SSM), an attempt to bring greater integration to Europe wide banking supervision, and stability of banks, bring fear or cheer? No wait, here we go: will national governments get a collective spook during the European elections as the far right seeks to capitalise on an undercurrent of resentment at the on-going orchestration of the EU?
I mention this because only today (Wednesday 15th January) I read in the Guardian an “open” letter from a group of European politicians (mostly failed, no doubt) as a prelude to a conference in London. In the words of this illustrious, inclusive assemblage:
“We want to replace the emotional point-scoring with a policy-based discussion about how to achieve a Europe that works better for both democracy and growth.”
Of course you do. But their choice of words and sentiment is simply cloaked in the language of democracy to validate reform of the EU for anything but the interests of national electorates. And when they speak of “democratic accountability”, they really speak of accountability to business. Nothing else matters. Business will save us. Unless they are trans-national banks which very nearly killed us all. And there at the bottom of the signatories is Austria’s very own marathon man, Reinhold Lopatka, spokesperson for foreign and European affairs, from the Austrian People’s party (OeVP). The little, wee cherub.
The jolly, sorry, serious meeting of minds, policy makers, movers, shakers, flesh-mongers and the venomous, is organised by thinktank Open Europe and somebody called the Fresh Start project whose mandate, backed by beautiful blue skies, green grass and crap union jack logos, is: ”Securing the right deal for the UK – equipping the EU for a globalised world”. Makes me proud to be British is all I can say.
But what is really playing on the minds of my adopted and familial brethren at this time of the year is will Austria win any medals at the Winter Olympics in Sochi next month? Indeed, the winter games are the only time Austria can claim centre stage in any world sporting event and we should not begrudge them their place in the floodlights of outlandish winter fashion, bobble hats to make you weep and some of the world’s most dangerous (and faintly ridiculous) sports. It is also the only time they can confidently expect to beat Germany at something competitive (apart from the humour, hard-working and being self-deprecating). So this must be encouraged at all cost to humanity and EU harmony.
And so, for the early part of this year’s entries I will be devoting my thoughts, body and reputation to winter sports. This will encompass three “specials”:
- The majestic, underrated, bonkers discipline of ice-skating and all its poseristic fantasies.
- Skiing with its inherent bad manners, pushy Euro-trash – and their repulsive off-spring – and prices and quality of refreshments that will make your balls freeze quicker than a knock at the door of the Viennese tax office.
- Oh, and ski-jumping.
But before I do that, I need to address a certain article in a certain magazine which has disturbed my very existence and obviously underlined my diminishing lack of humour as I get older (or the longer I live abroad or the longer I am a father). And to do so I need to consult a man who knows more about this then me.
© RJ Barratt 2014