It seems apt that as I sit down to write this last entry for 2016, I do so with a niggling hangover. I know what you are thinking; to much festive exuberance. You would be wrong. Just too much exuberance. Needless to say, many commentators have deemed it necessary to describe 2016 as a year to forget which in my case would be easy given the quantity of wine I drank last night (all Austrian). Of course, I might be foreigner class three after Brexit but I am buggered if I shall retaliate by deserting Burgenland for some uppity French or Italian chancer.
And so to the illustrious Barratt Vienna Awards. This year I have decided to write them in the style of “journaling”, a technique I picked up listening to the popular Tim Ferris podcast who as we know deconstructs world class performers and tries to distil their unique talents into useful snippets for achieving a productive, successful and happy life (like meditation, journaling and drinking the wine of the Neusiedlersee near Vienna).
The Robert Barratt Vienna 5 Minute Journal (2016)
I am grateful for …
- The Austrian education system – for teaching my son to read and write and do enough mathematics to get him into our local grammar school. You might think such educational progression is because I am white, middle class and have a lot of books on my shelves. Again, you would be wrong. I am white and a reconstructed cockney wideboy with a voracious rapacity for speaking and writing proper. I am grateful also as a sign of deliberate opposition to the flawed PISA regime which seeks to test numeracy and literacy in children and where once again Austria “could try harder”. To the best of my knowledge, PISA has no way of testing innovation, imagination and creativity which is why, like Nigel Farage, I largely ignore it. As should you, for the sake of your children.
- Koci – Koci is my local boozer. It is not the best Gasthaus/Beisl in Vienna in any sense. But I can walk there in less than ten minutes. The food makes a worthy attempt at being edible but I can walk there in less than ten minutes. The main and most appealing part of the pub is designated to drinking and smoking but I can walk there in less than ten minutes. They serve a decent pint of Gösser and I never feel I am sitting somewhere inauthentic, over-priced or without soul and I can walk there in ten minutes. And it is, for better or worse, my local.
- Alexander Van der Bellen – elected president of Austria after first round was annulled due to some apparent electoral chicanery (a watching world astonished to find out that Moscow had nothing to do with this). As far removed both intellectually and emotionally from those other two global imbeciles claiming the title of President: Putin and soon to be Trump.
What will / would make next year great?
- A challenge to Heinz Strache (leader of the far-right Freedom Party) – during the election campaign for president, FPÖ candidate Norbert Hofer became briefly human. So much so that there was, and perhaps might still be, talk of a challenge to the leadership of incumbent ex-dental nurse, Heinz Strache, given Hofer’s appeal. Critics warn that this could make the FPÖ more electable. Then again, an internal fight within the FPÖ perhaps splitting the party would be tremendous fun.
- Constipational relief – a significant element of dissatisfaction with current Austrian politics is a lack of movement. Big coalition (Socialists and Conservatives) essentially carving up power but then constantly disagreeing about anything which matters (education, tax, healthcare system). And thus the big changes and reforms that people demand are shunted back and forth with little real progress. This partly explains the rise in popularity of the far-right in that political constipation occasionally triggers some rather unsavoury reactions. But sometimes all you need is a political laxative, more commonly known as the reshuffle. Yet given the continued dominance of Vienna mayor Michael Haüpl in Vienna and provincial governor of Lower Austria Erwin Pröll, this is unlikely. Both represent the two parliamentary coalition partners and although not heads of parties, retain much of the power and keys to the medicine cabinet. As long as they remain little will change and people will go in search of more than political wet-wipes to replenish their sensitive political backsides.
- Mind the gap – the extension and opening of the underground line 1 in 2017 will be a triumph. Or it should be for the 600 million Euro investment. The new part, stretching from hip Reumannplatz in the tenth district (the old “Bronx” connection) will whisk you 4.6 kilometres to Oberlaa making it the only wine region in the world reachable by underground train (I think). The extension will include five new stations, direct access to Vienna’s sprawling spa complex and further opportunities to smell the Viennese sewers (they might fix that bit). When finished it will be at 19.2 kilometres, the longest underground line in Vienna.
Two amazing things that happened in the last 12 months.
- Rejection of populism – after the first round and the run-off between the two leading candidates in the Austrian presidential campaign, it seemed we had a new head of state, Alexander Van der Bellen. But after the thirty thousand vote lead was called into question by the losing FPÖ candidate, a second run-off was planned for October. Sadly, some problems with glue delayed the vote once more but on the 4th December in the “run-off-re-run”, coming on the back of Brexit and Trump, everyone expected populist Norbert Hofer to glide into the Hofbug. With the rest of Europe watching and Vladimir Putin eagerly checking the snow conditions for Kitzbühl, the result came through loud and clear. Van der Bellen was not only going to win, he was going to do so comfortably (he got ten times more votes than Hofer than the first round). A rejection of the far-right and a memo to the rest of Europe. For now.
- The refurbishment of Café Eiles in the Josefstadt (eighth district) – managed the feat of taking on a classic café and improving it. Better food. Better coffee. Better service (friendly but firm, fast and multilingual). Bonus points for flying in the face of every other café refit in the history of the number one city in that they didn’t suddenly whack up the prices to pay for the new upholstery, lamps and cake cabinet. Arguably the best near-first-district café (just behind the Rathaus) in Vienna.
Ps – the closure of the Starbucks on the Kärtnerstraße shows there is still some wisdom left in the world.
How could the last twelve months have been better?
- The Austrian football team – darker than the darkest horse darkened by a lifetime of darkness, Austria were touted as a real contender for the European Football Championship in 2016 on the back of a superb qualifying campaign (second best after those other perennial flops, England). Reality took hold after just one game with a defeat to Hungary. A draw against Portugal (eventual winners) proved only a temporary respite. Crashed out after losing to Iceland. Finished bottom of the group, the nation in mourning but excitedly anticipating the skiing.
- Brexit – the direct impact of Brexit on Austria is impossible to gauge although the uncertainty after the vote might have been responsible for a change of heart in the FPÖ plans for a similar referendum if they gained parliamentary power. It may also have played a part in the final presidential election with Van der Bellen campaigning with a clear no to “Öxit” (the Austrian Brexit). Put another way, there is a lot of anti-EU feeling in Austria, they have some funny cultural customs but they are not bonkers. Yet. Also Nigel Farage’s much reported meddlesome comments about how Hofer would call on a similar Brexit referendum should he win were met with exasperation by Hofer and his party. So in a sense, trebles all round. But I won’t miss people asking me why it happened and depending on what will happen, I might have to review my status as a Brit. This is a vexatious as it sounds.
- More snow – I want a real winter. A luxuriant, peaceful and lasting retreat from the overbearing Vienna summer. One that lasts from October till April. Six months of premature darkness, frost and cosy temptations to spend time indoors (Austria have been practising Gemütlichkeit long before this year’s uppity challenger from Denmark – Hygge.) In Vienna in 2016 there was one day of snow, a quite remarkable few hours when everything seemed to stop. But the rapid onset of spring was rudely premature. Back in the garden the neighbours screeched and the furry pests barked showing contempt as usual. And with snow brings silence. And then the world is perfect.
Challenge for 2017?
- Vienna’s five billion Euro debt – I take a lot of comfort in the notion of wasting money to improve your life. And so I am not unduly worried about Vienna maxing out its credit card and forging ahead with its infrastructure investments, housing projects, and social provision … to improve my life. The city financial wallahs assure me that the overdraft is serviceable and the need to invest is all about maintaining life quality, social cohesion and a “smart” city for the 21st century. On a psychological level, spending money you don’t really have is counter to the Austrian mentality of saving and caution. This means, just to be reassured, a level of judiciousness in all things monetary would be welcome. And then we can all retire to the Beisl and gorge on the expectations of tomorrow.
- The Austrian coalition – time to prove to the people that we need some fresh wind (see entry on political constipation above). The Socialists have more or less signalled their intent with the arrival of ex-businessman Christian Kern as Chancellor. What we need now is the elevation of Conservative Sebastian Kurz, the millennial Foreign Minister and scourge of Stinkekäse Erdogan. Widely praised for his modernist leanings and ability to effortless communicate with world leaders at intentional summits, who cannot believe he is not there to coordinate social media updates and make the tea, he would make a useful partner to Kern and hopefully neutralise the on-going FPÖ freakshow. More importantly it would offer us a ruling coalition with an updated interpretation of the famous Austrian “K & K” (Kern & Kurz).
Note: “K & K” originally refers to the imperial moniker “kaiserlich und könglich” and became synonymous with Habsburg pen-pushing after 1867.
- On a personal level – to up the photographic documentation of the cheerless sight that is the discarded Red Bull can. Finally go and see Klimt’s Beethoven frieze housed in the Secession. Improve my social capital by greeting people before they greet me. Build a fence. Ride my Vespa more. Perhaps travel to the UK – it is time. Attend a Vienna Expats event. Perhaps a few moments of solemnity as I reflect and recover from the wine of Burgenland. And, finally, drink more of Europe’s best beer – Ottakringer, from Vienna’s 16th district.
And that, as they say, is where we are. Happy New Year, I wish you all.
Robert J. Barratt, Vienna, December 2016
© 2016 RJ Barratt