Most of us have been tourists at some point, sometimes showing deference and respect to our temporary host culture and on some occasions less so. In February, I was lucky enough to travel three or more hours from Vienna to the Lungau, the southern part of the federal state of Salzburg, to slide down a terrifying hill as part of my version of skiing. The Lungau is undoubtedly beautiful – renowned as one of the coldest parts of Austria – and it is unlikely you will find a location in the Alps more stunning once you accept most terrain formed over millions of years by the movement of tectonic plates and the effects of glaciation looks pretty much the same (like Renaissance art, Greek ruins and the films of Peter Jackson). We had a splendid time although in retrospect booking an apartment on the top floor of a youth hostel may have been an oversight.
But for all intents and purposes I was a tourist. And while I was in the Lungau, not a particularly famous ski region but clearly dependent on the winter holiday dollar, we performed our assigned role of temporally immersing ourselves in a local community (trying to understand their accent) and spend money. And the small town and surrounding mountains – like much of the Austrian Alps I have seen – did a pretty good job of smiling at the temporary trespassers and submitting to our unreasonable urban whims.
But back in Vienna, where the city is forging ahead with the parliamentary enquiry into Austria’s biggest banking catastrophe and polls are showing that this year’s Vienna election could be tighter than the IMF purse strings to the over-inflated pension packets of Greek retired civil servants, tourism never sleeps. More or less.
But at what cost, especially the cost to the fragile local milieu? To answer this question I am in the very heart of the city. Fighting off the Mozart lookalikes, walking in front of people taking pictures (harder than you think when it is a selfie) and exercising caution anywhere near a guidebook. Of course, I have to accept that living here all this time could have weakened my critical resolve to the city I call home. Most likely I have gone native in a permanent state of urbanised Stockholm Syndrome, although I still find it difficult to call out to waiters with anything but a muffled squeak. Therefore, to attain some balance and to partly apprehend external perceptions of Vienna and tourism, I have reached out to the intellectual desert that is TripAdvisor. I cite Trip Advisor because I seek opinion from the commentariat. Moreover, it is, for an inquisitive mind, sociologically fascinating. More so in the things it reveals about human interpretations of surroundings which at times appear almost obtuse and absurd. However, in truth, I am no friend of the site or sites like it. There are three reasons for this:
Whenever anybody tells me anything with a voice of assured authority, my first and only thought is not to necessarily disagree but to challenge their wisdom (in medical circles this is known as “Argumentative Sod Syndrome” or ASS). Unfortunately, TripAdviosr is the essence of overbearing puffery and information overload. This creates insecurity. It is also a reminder how little we know. More damaging still is it takes the serendipity and risk out of travel lending itself to a form of crowd shouting monophobia (a fear of being individual) which clamours for a sanitised experience quashing the true texture of life and iconoclastic reflection. This means reviews rarely convey true insight except the skewed musings of what are just holidaymakers – some truly anal ones – and their experiences. And I ask myself why would I place any weight in a showcase of such insipid postcard journalism?
The conceit of the reviews themselves capturing, in a few badly written sentences, that much of life is seen through an individual prism of subjectivity executed with a swagger of assumed cultural authority. Such opinions are as relevant and intellectually meaningful to my existence as the life cycle of a boy-band. And, therefore, I have no interest in the views of other people unless I can be sure they are experts or highly trusted. And highly trusted is usually guaranteed through a lifetime of friendship and shared experiences which would embarrass if I ran for political office. Nevertheless, I concede there is an appetite for such guidance in a world beleaguered by an inability to think and outsource judgment to strangers. And remember popularity (either way) is no indication of quality. Otherwise this would explain the continuation of Eurovision.
Lastly, it is almost impossible not to have a peek at the bad reviews given the maschoistic desire amongst humanity to furnish itself with pain. These can be immensely revealing, although often driven it seems by a determination to find fault at all costs (I once had a girlfriend like this). Of course, positive reviews simply reinforce you have made or will make the right choice (or so you think). But no one wants to make the wrong choice hence the impossibility to avoid a peek at the negative although you know it will be no good for you. It’s the same sensation when someone whacks out the tequila bottle. But remember such behaviour is simply a form of holiday bet hedging. By reassuring yourself with good or bad you effectively seek consolation in the mediocrity of the mob. And your holiday must be perfect. Which it won’t be because, metaphorically speaking, some people like white and some people like pink and you will never understand why.
So there you have it. User-generated content deconstructed in 400 hundred words and the end of the Internet as we know it. But what does it say about the filthy, boring, conservative capital of kitsch? Type in Vienna and we get nearly two hundred thousand “results”. In the “locations” section alone we have over 700 hundred entries. Quite evidently there is a staggering breadth and curation of subjects. But to get an idea how some people view Vienna from the outside and with an eye on brevity let us concentrate on the “historic centre”, “the Ringstrasse” and the universally derided “Ring-tram”.
In each we find overwhelmingly positive reviews (not the Ring Tram). This is not unexpected. I live here. But look down the ratings at “terrible” or “poor” and things get cartoonishly interesting. For historic centre we get comments about “not much history”, “too commercial” and “Disneyish”. Conversely, another comment bemoans lack of signs in English (which would surely make it more Disneyesque), poor maps listing all the tourist sites, unfriendly people and my favourite, in describing the centre:
“Worth seeing of course but too many tourists in summertime. The weekend we went all public squares were filled with tents and tables for some public holiday festivities, spoiling the views.”
Yes there can be too many people (usually all those dimwits writing reviews on TripAdvisor) but give people something authentic – “public squares filled with tents for some public holidays” – and this, tragically and inexplicably, spoils the vista. And this is why TripAdvisor is an irrational arse and corrupts our cultural heritage. You can read in the same breath that a city is not very historical and then a complaint about the medieval attitude to customer service (authentic). Signs and maps and other tourist paraphernalia are not sufficiently English but then it is accused of being like something out the mind of big Walt. In any case, doesn’t everybody have a smartphone these days with this information readily accessible? Yet when you offer a real experience – shops shut on Sundays, curtness, smoking – all authentic incidentally, you can tell all the historical “experts” really want is Las Vegas, generic food and a synthetic smile.
But what about the Ringstrasse, Vienna’s grandest of boulevards? One review I read complained that the street was just a “racetrack” and that it was a mass of post-war concrete buildings. Really? Right now, where I am sitting, I can picture (working clockwise from Urania to Schwedenplatz) the huge War ministry, the Otto Wagner Postsparkasse, the Museum of Applied Arts, the Kursalon, Schwarzenburgplatz, the Imperial Hotel, the State Opera, the huge Hofburg Palace complex, the museums of Art and Natural History, the Parliament, Heldenplatz, Burgarten, the Rathuas, the Volkstheater, the University of Vienna, the massive Palais(s) at Schottenring, the old Stock Exchange, not to mention the other numerous five-star hotels of past and recent years true palaces in every sense (some were). All architectural jewels to steal the local word. Admittedly, it mostly gets ugly around the corner of the Ringturm back towards our starting point but that was because the Russians destroyed most of it shooting their way into the city in 1945. But nowhere is perfect. Just ask my dentist.
If nothing else, though, it proves some people are determined to traduce Vienna (and anywhere else) irrespective of the evidence. Even when that evidence is spanking them about the cheeks with the force of a cold schnitzel flapping in a hurricane. Naturally, I want it confirmed in my mind that my choice of home is universally loved or at least dispassionately criticised by people that really know what they are talking about. I need expertise or insider knowledge not the musings of a semi-inebriated two-day impostor with a cakehole ripe for stuffing, and an embroidered sense of self-importance.
In spite of my prejudicial goggles, however, I am not unaffected by the signs of commercialism and decay (I am not talking about the vegetable section in Austrian supermarkets). But reading such reviews about Vienna is a reminder of three things. Firstly, there is always a high chance that someone will write something which bears no resemblance to the city I know, either now, in 1997 or anytime between. Secondly, perception can be highly emaciated. Thirdly, some people are weird (but especially members of the right wing FPÖ).
Which brings us to the much loved tourist treasure that is the Ring Tram. At the time of writing, there are just over one hundred reviews. A quarter are scathing or somewhere between contemptuous and disdainful. In the words of the TripAdvisor collective:
“Waste of time and money”, “Vienna fiasco”, “Vienna RIPOFF tram”, “A total rip-off”.
And these were some of the better ones. And I understand why. The Ring Tram is a symptom of a touristic malaise, all yellow and shiny with a grumpy conductor. It is the only evidence you will ever need of a service (a common word used by tourism specialists is “experience”) that has been initiated for pure exploitation of the ignorance of visitors for some unspecified motive (perhaps profit, perhaps pomposity on the part of the city chiefs). And this is in a city that already has one of the biggest and most wonderful tram networks in the world where the need for a distinctive tourist Strassenbahn is about as necessary as an office for the leader of the opposition in Russia.
In one final installment, then, we reveal Robert Barratt’s big Funf. Five signs, like the sadly inadequate Ring Tram, that Vienna is showing tourist over-reach and that elastic is about to snap. That or my insubstantial patience.
© 2015 RJ Barratt