A few years back, in the process of drinking 40 Euro glasses of schnapps garnered from those alluring green bottles on the shelves behind the bar in Zum Schwarzen Kameel in Vienna’s first district, my companion, a retiring, gentle soul remarked that Vienna might be the only place left in western Europe where you could still smoke a cigar indoors. I like the Black Camel because it is one of the few truly Viennese establishments reminiscent of the bustle and flurry of a busy British pub. It is a wonderful place for a drink, a nibble (the sandwiches are legendary) and, most importantly, observing in close quarters the Viennese at play. And, yes, you can still smoke.
Of course, for any resident this is not wholly unsurprising. Remember, this is a city where hospitals have tobacco shops. But any visitor to Vienna might be initially shocked by this throwback stance to public health in some public spaces. Smoking in communal buildings is virtually banned like in many parts of the world and generally in workplaces (although some retain special smoker rooms or special smoking boxes). But it is allowed in some bars and restaurants and is governed by a law which was seemingly conceived after a night in the Black Camel after a couple of glasses of that schnapps they serve in those alluring green bottles. In short, the legislation is plagued by the fugg of indecision.
But I mention it in relation to the Freibad because smoker or not you had better get used to it. People do it a lot (although I have never seen anyone smoke in the pool … yet). There are ashtrays generously located all over and I have even seen the lifeguard have a crafty Chesterfield whilst sitting in his tennis umpire chair. In my mind, the sight of heavily tanned people (almost orange – like Oompa-Loompas) incessantly dragging away on tobacco products, skin wrinkled by a mixture of external radiation and internal chemical insufflation, is equally abhorrent and sad. Like the wearing of Lederhosen, Volkmusik or the typical voter for the despicable FPÖ (The Freedom Party). All the same, develop a thick skin you must and at least it distracts you from the sight of exceedingly brown, be-jewelled men in very tiny swimming trunks sporting bellies borne from a lifetime of big beers.
The thing that irritates me more, though, are the butts (not the kind framed by the dreaded “string tanga”). Little piles of the bastards huddling touchingly together in the grass, thoughtlessly discarded by the kinds of cultural psychopaths that let dogs defecate outside a Kindergarten or denounce idle, sponging foreigners only to sit on their own capacious backsides all day whilst living off the state. It’s enough to make me want to start again.
Really, you thought I was going to write something about fashion?
In almost every Viennese driveway, garage or dropped kerb leading to an inner courtyard hidden behind doors bigger enough to conceal a revolutionary tank, you will find a sign proclaiming “Einfart Freihalten”. Scholars of Deutsch will know that this means “keep clear” and although it is not always made explicit, if you park there your car will be swiftly hoisted and spirited to a part of Vienna that is not marked on any maps and only reachable by taxi every second Friday (if you can persuade one to drive there).
For the record, our driveway has no such warning, just a talking, life-size cut-out of a policeman strategically hidden behind a bush to startle children and other local miscreants (my German neighbours). But signs are an essential part of life in any high-end society, especially in such cities as Vienna obsessed by the minutiae of civic order and a tendency to societal sophistry. And in being essential they are also valuable sources of information, acting as many and varied visual symbols providing instant insight into the inner workings of the Viennese mind (which is mostly human). They are, in every sense, cultural markers seeking to demarcate, to cajole or, my favourite, to scare. And you cannot escape them even when relaxing at the pool with a shrivelled prune blowing smoke in your face.
This means “no diving” / Randsprigen verboten (very sensible), “no water bombs” / Das werfen von Wasserbomben ist untergesagt (very reasonable), ballgames forbidden / Keine Ballspielen (both sensible and reasonable) or my personal favourite, although I am not sure who it is aimed at, “swimming costume compulsory” / Badehosenpflicht. It goes on like this but do not be intimidated. They are mostly just gentle reminders written in capital letters to assure your personal safety and collective communal being, although peculiarly there are no RAUCHEN VERBOTEN signs. In any case, ignore them and what is the worst that can happen? Oh hang on, the Bademeister.
The Bademeister (Lifeguard cum Bouncer)
It is three o’clock on a weekend afternoon, the temperature is a punishing 35 degrees, you are squeezed into a pool with all of your district, children are screeching from an overdose of refined sugar and heatstroke, over-sized water pistols stalk your every movement and the queue to the buffet is like the worst kind of melee: Viennese, impatient and hot.
Above the racket, a mix of shrieking, parental stress and the thump of water as yet another man with the physique of a Honey Monster launches himself from the diving board into the “sport’s pool”, the only sound you can discern is the constant peep of a whistle signalling another aquatic transgression usually instigated by teenage boys in search of erroneous infamy amongst their sycophantic peers. And when you hear the peep repeatedly, it is time to pack your many towels and head for the hills.
The sound you are hearing is the unmistakable shrill of the Bademeister’s whistle. It is a tool to signify contextual authority whilst announcing a very public transgression, contempt if you like for the conventions and rules of the glorious spectacle that is the Freibad in Hochsummer. In a word, if the Freibad was a sovereign nation, then between the 2nd May and the 30th September every year, the Bademeister would be its undisputed king.
You can identify the Badermeister owing to their pristine white outfits, tans worthy of the Copacabana and physiques not immediately recognisable from Baywatch. As far as I can ascertain, aside from the very rare and serious job of extinguishing their cigarette to save lives, such work consists of three rudiments:
- To sit in the shade with a creased face looking perpetually displeased.
- To blow a whistle with varying intensity depending on pool misdemeanour.
- Chat to the regulars and have the occasional fag.
What’s not to like? you might think. On the surface, a surface shimmering with a cocktail of perspiration, suntan lotion and residual bodily grime, the occupation of Bademeister looks pretty cushy. But I bet they put in a punishing and long day often in oppressive heat and still they have to grapple with many people who cannot quite grasp basic notions of public behavioural norms and simple instructions to reduce the risks that people near water entail (especially after a beer for breakfast).
But this next point is crucial to our understanding in that the position of Badermeister is one of those jobs which has taken on an almost mythological existence in Vienna. The type of job where television documentaries are made and books written (like the rubbish collectors or waiters at Schweizerhaus). It is a position which confers status or standing (mostly sitting) which if you think about it is rather gratifying in an age when many public sector workers are continuously maligned and (young) people mostly are castigated for a deficiency of respect. It is not perfect by any means and might be construed as officious but this reverence for the “pipe” (a reference to the German / English “false friend” Pfeiffer – whistle – and not to an opium den) that both fascinates and reassures me. Indeed, put one on every street, public park, council estate, housing cooperative, shopping centre, The Gaza Strip, my garden, in fact everywhere where humans congregate, and the world will be a more peaceful and harmonious place. Apart from the peeping.
Freibad – three great things:
- Value for money – kids till 6 free, then €1,90 till 14, Adults €5,50
- Facilities –well-maintained, clean and comprehensive.
- Accessibility – a fantastic summer resource for any city.
Freibad – three not so great things:
- Smoking – even for me it is intrusive. Needs smoking zones away from kids especially.
- Guns – the preponderance of the bastard offspring of the water pistol. Need banning.
- Sun-lounger politics – the worst of human nature in a nutshell.
© RJ Barratt 2014