Neither Fish, nor Meat

View from my office in the 10th district.

The next person who speaks of “enjoying the last days of summer” is going to be sent on a diplomatic mission to Turkey on a one-way ticket. The school holidays are hardly over and already people are falling over themselves (a result of the darker evenings) to remind me of the passing of time with this most unnecessary of laments. It may not be intended but every time I hear it I sense people want me to share in their belief that the period between September and May is a time for remission. To be borne with a grim face and shutdown of the senses, only to resume with the first chirps of spring and the arrival of some bozo in a sleeveless t-shirt. It is almost as if meaningful life can only operate in warm weather, sitting outside under a stuffy parasol, with mosquitoes nipping at your ankles.

I ask myself why people do it. What is it that motivates people to be willing to leap on any period of time associated with “leisure” (here I refer mostly to being free from work or compulsory education) only to remind you that it is about to end? Break it down into a smaller unit – a week – and much the same thing happens. Every week. As Monday morning approaches with downbeat announcements that the weekend is finished (Sunday lunchtime) we are urged to hold out till next Friday as if the intervening five days are pointless and real life is suspended. All that matters is survival till the weekend (or through the winter) and the rest of the time you may as well just give up.

But it is such a deferment of the present for some unspecified better future which vexes me. It vexes me because it epitomises a lack of focus on the now, signifying fulfilment and the true heights of happiness are in hibernation somewhere else (smartphones, take note, although that new Samsung certainly keeps you in the moment as it explodes). Better times are just around the corner. We just need sun, flip-flops or the promise of Saturday morning shopping. Now is the time to pack up your hamper, shut the door and close the curtains. A period of ascetic reflection awaits cloaked in a mist of doom and gloom (like reading the New York Times’ pull out section in every Monday’s Der Standard newspaper).

This is not to say that reward should always be instant and uninterrupted. A degree of cognitive control, the mechanism which allows humans to regulate their emotions and defer gratification is, in some cases, desirable (mostly in all teenagers). Indeed, the famous marshmallow experiment – a series of tests on children carried out by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel – showed us that the ability to defer pleasure was a critical factor in determining success later in adulthood (the children were tracked through their lives and demonstrated generally better scores in a range of life measures: higher SAT scores, less likelihood of obesity, better social skills and a resistance to Pokémon Go).

However, and I think this is critical, there has to be balance between freakish abstinence and reward now, and this includes messages, intended or otherwise, which imply “sunnier times” are coming to an end and you better make the most of them. Simply shutting down half the week or communicating with a sigh of resignation that summer is over (or nearly over) should be framed not as a cessation or an exercise in deferment, rather as the next step to be relished also. Where pleasure in life is not necessarily denied but possible and allowable at any time, on any day, in any season. And this message should be reinforced, although I admit living in Vienna this could prove difficult given local people are Olympic bronze medallists in the dissemination of perdition and how tough they have it.

And so when anybody feels moved to comment that my holidays are over I tell them they started being over when I graduated from university in 1992. Or that summer is coming to an end I remind then that I have had 47 summers already – many in the number one city – so I am used to them ending and I love autumn and winter and welcome them. Or if they tell me they only have another 18 years till they retire, then I am moved. No really, I move, shuffling surreptitiously towards the exit with my hand raised as I reach the street ready to flag down a taxi with orders to take me to the nearest Krugerl (big beer).

And so the schools have restarted, shoes have been polished and parents once again do not have to fret about the nine weeks of holidays generously provided to Austrian teachers, sorry, Austrian schoolchildren. As is tradition, the first day of school is not really a “day” in any sense. Yes, parents and children rise early and off they trot but an hour later the first day is mysteriously over. After several years of primary school in Vienna, I have yet to meet anyone, parent, teacher or other interfering big mouth who must have any opinion on education, usually critical, who can explain the exact point of this. Tradition, I am told. I see. But I had to take the morning off work again to pick up my child and shuffle about outside trying not to make conversation with other parents, I murmur.

Which is another thing. I have written previously how the city seems to divest itself almost completely of children as soon as the school holidays begin (one reason why Vienna is high in the life quality rankings but rarely mentioned). But more so the parents. Our street is relatively busy in the mornings as people traverse it on their way from home to school running the gauntlet of the usual Viennese driver who cannot comprehend the difference between the numbers 30 and 100 in the context of speed limits (drivers failed, no doubt, by an evil education system and its little pedagogic demons).

But for the two months of summer they disappear. I no longer see them walking anywhere. We never meet in the shops or newsagent, I don’t witness them driving or at the playground (a blessing). It is like they simply de-camp to another city or, judging by the many accents, another country. I know they can’t all be teachers. Surely some of them have to carry on normal lives and work. But first day of school, they are back, the street magically transmuted as families descend for the daily ritual of the school-run, skipping over cigarettes and crushed Red Bull cans discarded by the socially unvirtuous.

With this image distracting us from the moment, it is time to report on the progress in the campaign for president. Only another four weeks to go, you cheer vibrantly. Or would be if there wasn’t that rather embarrassing episode with some malfunctioning adhesive and postal polling cards. Yes, the presidential election has been postponed again. Come unstuck, if you will, cementing in the minds of many observers, both home and abroad, that Austria couldn’t organise a …

… now at this point I wanted to write the German equivalent of the English idiom “couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery”. But after extensive research, I have discovered that such a response and thus phrase doesn’t exist. This should come as no surprise. German peoples do not understand the concept of disorganisation.

Anyway, back to epoxy scandal. The FPÖ are sticking to their usual message of whinging and conspiracy whilst the Independent / Green camp are urging everyone to stick together (in fact, this is their central message dodgy glue or not). In any case, what is clear is that the bonds of the Austrian electoral system have experienced yet another awkward un-peeling. So you better enjoy those last days of summer. No really. It’s going to rain this weekend. Hopefully until December the 4th when Gluegate will have been fixed and the good citizens of Austria will finally decide who will be their next president. Unless they are Christmas shopping …


© RJ Barratt 2016