In comparison to last year when the Viennese winter would not accede to spring and retained the stubbornness of a British member of parliament refusing to resign over some rather iffy expenses claims, 2014 so far has been anything but Frisch. For the first time since I became a father (my memory on early parenthood, like Damien Hirst’s recollection of the 90s, might be hazy on this one so bear with me) I was not obligated to rescue a snow-encased car, squeeze myself into tights or endure a Siberian wind cutting through me with the speed and menacing intent of the Russian army seeking to annexe a former Soviet satellite state. No, aside from a few days here and there, it has been veritably mild.
Sometimes in Vienna it feels as if any measured incursion of spring is reserved for another world. You go to bed one day cursing the enduring tenacity of snow and the austerity of sub-zero temperatures, only to wake up the next morning to a metamorphosed landscape where people are all dressed in t-shirts and flip-flops – Dirndl and lush alpine meadows if you want to emulate Heidi – eating generous tubs of ice-cream which might make a North American squint with interest. All of a sudden the place is transformed and shouty, bursting with the energy of a million or more plants, flowers, shrubs and the omnipresent Vienna tree enveloping the capital in a blanket of zealous green.
But this year, spring has shown more proprietary emerging with uncharacteristic patience as the temperatures have instigated a laid back push towards the twenties (centigrade) and the gradual yet inevitable sight of bodies not created, in practical as well as aesthetic terms, for summer. It is almost as if the season has wintered in Jamaica only to return with a new outlook on life with instructions to chill, slow down and drink a rum punch (or G’spritzer). Needless to say, the onset of spring in the number 1 city and the ecclesiastical clamour towards Ostern denoted by the appearance of biblical levels of chocolate rabbits which not even Russell Crowe in a smock could save, brings with it some instantly recognisable, chirpy bird indications:
1. Water – Somewhere, someplace, somebody will grumble about tap water. Namely the perennial debate as to whether it is acceptable for some restaurants and bars to charge for it now that temperatures are rising and the city is filling up with even more with visitors and their ready-to-be-fleeced tourists Euros.
As you know, Vienna has pristine tap water pumped straight from Alps (or so they tell us) and it is the envy of the world (or so they tell us). Admittedly, fresh, clean, safe and affordable drinking water (unless you get an unnoticed leak for three months and your insurance company suddenly acquire the expertise of a professor of semantics finding arcane interpretations of meaning which even scholars of the great classical texts would be pushed to explain) is nothing to be sniffed at. Nevertheless, the last few years has seen an increasing trend to charge for das Leitungswasser when on the town claiming “service and cleaning costs” of vessels and personnel used to convey and disseminate water (the personnel carry it and the vessels are cleaned).
Outrageous, you splutter, charging for God’s own water (shipped by pipe from the Alps), and rightly vexed you may feel. More so when one thinks of the Viennese coffee house tradition – cited in every guide book on the capital ever written, in a tone that implies nobody else has ever noticed it before – of a free glass of tap-water with every cup of coffee (on a previously unreported sliver tray). Indeed, as the urban myth depicts, the price of a coffee, often described as “just the “entrance fee”, is such that a visitor can be seated all day and order one cup of coffee and repeated glasses of water. Attempt that one in Café Landtmann at lunchtime is all I can say. In any case, putting aside the moral arguments for now, how does this explain the persistent demand for overpriced, environmentally questionable mineral water, if the free tap water in the city is superior in every metric (to paraphrase the idiolect of the “Business Sheißer des Stier)?
2. Beer gardens (and other gardens) – Indicatory sign number two is the Schanigarten. Great cities would not be great cities in spring and summer without access to the great outdoors, specifically when eating and drinking (and in Vienna, smoking). What this means is that a bar, restaurant or café in the capital of Austria may as well close in the summer months if it does not have some sort of access to open skies. And this liebe Freunde is the Schanigarten and why I like the classical cafes so much in the hot months of July and August as most people will seek sustenance and rest outside leaving the interior free from flappy city maps and Instagramed, selfie obsessed patrons.
Seemingly, in the past, a gastronomic entity more or less got lucky. They had a ready-made garden, courtyard or off-street location ideal for the warmer days and indolent European style quaffing. Certainly the more famous ones might include Schweizerhaus in Prater, which (un)officially marks the opening of the Schanigarten season in March with a race amongst puffy faced regulars to drink the first half-litre, and two minutes later a second. Or any of the places at Museumsquartier, especially Glacis Beisl, or the Zattl garden in the first district Schottenkloster just off Freyung, or the newly re-opened Kunsthalle café at Karlsplatz, or the beautiful baroque Franziskänerplatz square home to the Kleines Café and the outdoor tables of Gasthaus Pöschl. In fact, Naschmarkt in spring and summer is essentially one big Schanigarten which is why it is so popular (amongst drinkers, big sunglasses and pocket thieves).
Choosing a favourite amongst any of these or the multitude of other locations is largely impossible, however (a personal favourite is Schützhaus on the Schmelz because I used to live there). But what it means is that in recent times as competition for the stomachs of locals and visitors alike has intensified, bagging access to outdoor tables has become operationally indispensable, with the consequence that Vienna has witnessed an epidemic not only in the artificial Schanigarten and it’s bastard offspring, but an exponential growth, it seems, of existing ones (Café Museum at Karlsplatz and the cafes of Graben are a good example of this appropriation of pavement space).
This trend is the warmer weather counterpart in Vienna to the pernicious spread of the Christmas market. Take a viable or sustainable concept, adulterate the ethos and idea for the mass market and then it is a race to the bottom of cultural endowment and any sense of elusive civic uniqueness. The desperation is such that some Schanigartens are often built on the street, or literally in the middle of the street, jostling with traffic and buses which graze your beer mat and leave you with the equivalent of a twenty-a-day smoking habit. Usually constructed of wooden planks, they are surrounded by glass or pot plants – to suggest a scintilla of relaxed calm – and the floor is covered by a green carpet, to give the impression of grass, but simply looks like a grass being impersonated by green carpet. They have about as much humanising and enriching value as television talent and singing shows and the worst examples should be exorcised from the streets today. Or will be when I become mayor.
3. Trimmed bushes and weed-free beds
But where there is artificial grass and cultural malaise, not far over the fence is the need to acquire grubby fingernails and an activity which captures perfectly the invidious and malodorous marketing of modern life: gardening.
Since we moved eighteen months or so ago, we have slowly been restoring our garden to something resembling a garden, or what 19th century do-gooders might describe as a return to a “refined and natural order”. During the renovation project of our home, much of the surrounding vegetation was inconvenienced. In horticultural terms this meant crushed plants and grass, trees used as stand-up urinals and cigarette butts scattered decoratively like shell cases on a battlefield. As my father pointed out many years ago, a compost heap is a wonderful thing, but the remnants of industrialised tobacco production do nothing for your melons and prize marrows. And so, with children in attendance, we had to act.
2014, then, is the year I venture up the garden path and rediscover the joys of tillage, husbandry and general working class tidying up. Not only will this give society another reason for me to stay out of the pub, but provide a perfect hoe-in to signifier number three: the pandemic that is the rush to the garden centre before Easter. Although Vienna is a city of 1.7 million people (for one million the glass is half-full and the other 700 hundred thousand have no glass) any serious discussion about gardening in the capital of trees is a quick reminder of how it can sometimes feel quite provincial. We were reminded of this very recently by our local Chinese restaurant owner (a London fan, incidentally) who told my kids he came from a modest city in China of six million.
Therefore, if you live in the west or south of Vienna and you are serious (a little) about soil seeds and sowing, then you either head to Starkl in Vösendorf or Bellaflora in, er, Vösendorf, just south of the city limits. You could head to the garden centres out near Tulln to the west (also Stärkl or Praskac) but this means driving with many people with the number plate abbreviation “TU” which signifies: my brain has been removed, please don’t judge me to harshly when I try to fuck you up on rural roads by driving like an insufferable, maladjusted, soul-sapping maniac.
And so we have bought various plants, garden equipment (some of it is actually an improvement since the 17th century) and some grass, laid last year just as the heat wave hit Vienna. Included in this is the aim to cultivate some vegetables which sounds easy but has been rendered more complicated by the acquisition of books on the subject and the Internet. Why? Because when I was a kid, growing something in the garden was a proud necessity it seemed, probably driven by several generations growing up in an environment of post war scarcity. Yet these generations did so with apparent ease, no fuss, year after year, bedding earth, revelling in the hard labour of crop growing, tempering their political interests and distracting them from the barricades. And knowledge was preserved and passed on.
But it occurred to me. In the past people had large families to work and provide sustenance in anyway possible. I have children and have longed sought for an undeniable reason to justify the burden of parenthood that is not driven by pure egotism. It would appear my saviour rests in the toil of the land by my offspring and a return to small scale, individual household production with me as Lord of the Manor, cracking the whip. But first a rum punch. No rush.
Ps – this week, the weather has been unspeakable.
© RJ Barratt 2014