Weird Vienna (A Book)


Weird would not be my first choice word to describe Vienna, my neighbour and their dynamic son-in-law, yes, but this is the title of the book I am currently reading about the Danube Metropolis. Although I should be careful as this in itself is an undeserved label, according to the author, when other cities along this great river could equally make a similar or even more credible claim (like Bratislava).

In any case, the book, written by local boy Harald Havas, promises a “hilarious look at Vienna” – an audacious claim – describing the city as “world famous for music, art, history, pastries, wine and a certain old-world charm”. Nothing to disagree with there, but Havas is not finished. It is also a place of “weird things, weirdos and morbidity” all steeped in what he calls Vienna’s sarcastic sense of “sugar-coated” humour.

I bought the book because I have a morbid fascination in Vienna and its little secrets. Seemingly, I am not alone in this obsession, given the number of publications out there on obscure aspects of the number one city ready to satiate the culturally inquisitive vampire in us all.

But another reason was material for teaching (and it is tax deductible). I have had much fun (yes, fun) over the years talking about Vienna with groups of language improvers, and one thing that has consistently struck me is how little local people know about their city. This means I can get to test and impress people with my wacky facts whilst avoiding the need to explain the present perfect or conditional sentence patterns. Which can be tedious if you have been doing it for nearly twenty years. Or, come to think of it, twenty minutes.

(Note to language trainers: teaching grammar is a risk. Never attempt anything complicated and if you get caught out by an especially tricky question which you know you have no answer to, then it is your fault for thinking you are grammarian and you deserve everything you get. Especially if you think teaching is working your way through English Grammar in Use by Murphy and its gap-fill fixation.)

Grammatical pitfalls and the pedantic little bastards that try and trip you up aside, I like the book in spite of the translation and constant promise of hilarity. Here are five of the best things I have learned and I give due credit to Harald and his humour:

1. Falco – Hans Hölzel might have been the only singer to claim a number one single in America singing in German, but he is not the first Austrian to have topped the US Billboard charts. In fact, he is not even the first Viennese (hilarious). It was Anton Karas in 1950 with the theme tune to The Third Man (11 weeks at the top). And just in case you are not sure, Falco wasn’t even the second Austrian. But you will have to buy the book to find out who.

2. Schönbrunn – Ask anyone today what was the original colour of the former summer palace and the answer will always be yellow (Schönbrunner Gelb or Kaisergelb). Now you would think that by asking someone what the original colour was when the palace is now yellow, would inspire an answer that didn’t include yellow. But no. The original colour of the palace was pink. Empress Pink to be precise.

3. Kaisergelb – It’s a bit of a long story but the Schönbrunner yellow is also preserved in the flag of Brazil. The daughter of Emperor Francis 1, Maria Leopoldina, married the crown prince of Portugal (the fabulously named Don Pedro) and then went on to become Empress of the South American nation, no doubt one of the many options on the table during careers advice at school. “Poldl” did much for Brazilian independence and according to Havas is still revered as the “Mother of Brazil”. And this must be why their football team also play in yellow. Or it is what I now tell people.

4. Horses – They are many iconic images of Vienna: the Ferris wheel, St Stephens Cathedral, the huge Hofburg, a painting by Klimt or even a Fiaker. All can be found somewhere although most often in the sort of souvenir shop I would fire-bomb if I had any inclination towards terrorism and the desire to spend the rest of my life in a windowless cell accompanied by the existential bedfellow of damnation. But Vienna would not be Vienna without its white Lipizzan horses. Which are black when they are born and originally come from Slovenian village of Sezana and the stud farm of Lipica. (You’ll be telling me next the Wiener Schnitzel isn’t Viennese.)

5. Size isn’t everything – Vienna might be the only major city in the world that had more inhabitants in 1900 than in 2016. At the turn of the century, the city had two million people which as Harald Havas reminds us, back then “this really meant something”. Urban depopulation is traditionally perceived as a sign of decay (depends who leaves). Yet the numbers are rising again and the biggest culprit in Vienna is our friends the Germans. Coming over here, stealing our university places, working in our restaurants and generally making the place look untidy. That is not to say that the Viennese do not welcome this invasion, sorry, intrusion. They take it with much grace, forbearance and good humour. Sugar-coated. But as Havas warns:

“Like many things in the Viennese dialect, this can be misleading: things can sound friendly, nice, even child-like, but are able to subtly transport a second, mostly sharp and cynical meaning at the same time.”

Learn the art of the above and you will not just feel like a local, but anything but weird.

(PS – one last snippet for the quiz teams: the longest officially recognised word in German is Volksgruppenzugehörigkeitserklärung. But, and to quote Harald’s most over-used phrase in the book, “That’s another story”.)

© RJ Barratt 2016