The Ghost of Christmas Present

Christmas in Wien

When you are self-employed, even in the number one city, there is no point in worrying in December. If you haven’t earned your money for the year by now, then there is very little that is going to suddenly swell your Christmas fund and elevate your tax-bracket (unless you own one of those Advent market stands in Salzburg where, according to paper Der Standard, you can clear a hundred thousand Euro profit in one season).

The arrival of December also heralds the deadline for your fourth quarterly payment to the social insurance protection racket, which will pretty much deplete your piggy bank and, in the words of Harvard Business School, balls up your cashflow. The reason for this is timing, as social insurance contributions, aside from the first year of “work”, are generally paid in advance. Not only from the work itself but also any payment from your clients.

An example: I engage in wage slavery in January, invoice start of February and receive the money beginning of March. February work is paid in April, March in May. But by the end of February I have to pay the full amount for the first quarter although a) I am just getting paid for January b) I haven’t done all the work yet for the quarter and c) I am not completely sure I will do the work. So you end up paying “tax” up front for work you might do and then cross your fingers (this business strategy is essentially the bedrock of all investment banking). In any case, you better have a “reserve” to pay it, and pay it you must.

Now my version of English training is not badly compensated (compared to the linguistic sweatshop of the Language Institute) but it requires an iron discipline to juggle finances from one quarter to the next, especially to set aside a chunk of change for projected income weeks down the line. Of course, you are probably thinking, “Just invoice in advance!” to which I will chuckle ruefully to myself and then give you a slap.

And so December is here and with it the usual sights, smells and symbols of the Vienna December invasion. The lights are up, the Punsch is steaming and the city is amok with multi-lingual intruders seeking sanctuary from the ills of the world (problems in the Middle East, the migrant crisis and all Christmas songs). The planet might be unnerved by the crude criminal goons of terrorism in its many guises (those lovely chaps down in Raqqua and the charming family from Germany who masquerade as our neighbours) but Vienna is going about its Christmas business with gay abandon (as it should).

The attenuation of the year also brings with it shorter days. In the middle of December in Vienna the sun rises at 7.30 and sets at 4 pm. This is as dark as it gets (although trying to find a parking space at Shopping City this time of year is equally a place of foreboding and evil). But this year in particular I have found myself becoming more smitten by these slow encroaching mornings and their bedfellows of the swift afternoon descent into dusk. Allowing as they do breathing space for the day. Reducing not only the pressure to leap out of bed and embrace every moment, but somehow condoning an inevitable retreat indoors and the possibility of a pint. It’s almost as if the dawn, when it comes, is urging constructive inertia. To slow down. To reflect and infuse the natural rhythms that winter demands. And then, as the day passes, often with a tinge that has yet to make it onto Instagram, closure to the day approaches and with it a deceleration of the senses (especially if you have had the seminal Turbo-Punsch).

And so as we approach the end of 2015, what were the big stories in Vienna over the past year? Pointedly, it was a twelve months that brought us Eurovision and the return of bearded wonder Conchita (where also the Austrian entry on home soil got a rather embarrassing haul of no points – or Null Komma Josef as they say here). Or then there was the Vienna election resulting in another red-green coalition in spite of the predictions of an October “revolution” by the Freedom Party (by the Freedom Party). Then again, we are now in the awkward position that the Freedom Party are the second largest political force in Vienna which gives them the automatic right to have a vice-mayor although technically they are not in government. Not to mention playing havoc with the place settings at the Vienna City Parliament Christmas Party and who gets to sit at the top table.

And then there was the migrant emergency with Vienna playing temporary host at railway stations to thousands of desperate people fleeing conflict, danger and oppression. Strategically placed for the Viennese to get rid of all they unwanted clothes whilst officials maintained order by pointing west and shouting “Germany, this way!” Since then the numbers have dwindled as countries further along the chain have toughened up border crossings and built fences (Austria is constructing its own at Spielfeld, the main entry point from Slovenia). And in the background the EU is working frantically on a diplomatic solution (bribing Turkey and Greece). But no one really thinks the problem is going to go away until stability reigns in the desert and beyond. Which is about as likely as a German admitting there are wrong.

In other news, we should not forget the peace talks about Syria and the treaty with the west over Iran. Cementing Vienna’s position as a capital of international mediation and top quality hotels. As a place for tough diplomatic talks and a good selection of nibbles from Manner. A city where deals are made and reputations quietly pensioned off if you visit the wrong part of the Gürtel at night.

But the big story in the Alpine Republic, the story that has sent shockwaves through the top echelons of world football and beyond (no, not that one involving FIFA) is the qualification of Austria for next year’s European Football Championship, the first time they have done so (In 2008 it was by virtue of co-hosting the tournament). And not just qualifying but storming their group and with the second best record from all the participating teams (England were slightly better). And so now we live with the forgettable phrase “Frankreich, wir kommen!” and there is guarded optimism (rare in Austria for anything) that the team under Swiss coach Marcel Koller can do something special and not lose too badly. And if they do the country will be narrisch.

(The expression “Ich wer narrisch” is associated with football commentator Edi Finger after Austria beat Germany 3-2 in the 1978 World Cup. Every Austrian of a certain age will know the phrase. A bit like in England with, “They think it is all over. It is now!” after the defeat of, oh yes, Germany in the 1966 World Cup Final. In a word it means: “I am going mental!” and the Germans, although better than Austria ever since, have never forgotten it. Or at least they never like to admit it. But I know the emotional scars run deep. As it just and true).

And what of the 2015 Robert Barratt Awards? Here is a slimmed down version for your delectation, musing, opinion and comment:

Pub/Beisl – Zum Alten Beisl, 10th district.

Café – Café Eiles in the 8th district after its modest revamp.

Project – The Seestat, affordable social housing across the Danube, the pet project of Vienna socialist housing minister Ludwig. Only for the residents to repay him by voting for the Freedom party in October’s city election.

Daytrip – Castle Forchtenstein in Burgenland. Top restaurant/café as well.

Political tremor – The rise of the FPÖ (right wing Freedom Party) to second biggest party in Vienna.

Overdraft – The five billion hole in the Vienna finances.

Bar Bill – The one after those marathon talks in Palais Coburg to thrash out the Iran nuclear deal.

Team – Wiener Linien, second place in the European Tram Drivers’ Championship.

Museum – The Imperial Armoury in the Hoffburg (mostly because you can get to see the balcony where Hitler did his rock star act after annexing Austria in 1938).

Restaurant – Kristian’s Monastiri in the 7th (also one of the best summer Schanigartens in Vienna).

Best New Word (in course of work) – “Share room” (sounds like something from a swingers club but I am sure it can’t be).

Merry Christmas one and all. See you in 2016.

© RJ Barratt 2015