2016 is well underway and this is the fourth year I have had to try and come up with something original to say about Vienna in January (which I believe is still the number one city in spite of the comments of its police chief about women not going out alone after dark). Unfortunately, work has resumed (I am already in my third week) but for most of the Stadt, the start of the weekend following Epiphany (the arrival of the three wise men bearing gifts and fake asylum papers) is when matters more or less return to normality. By normality I mean more traffic on the streets, more emails in my inbox and more people clogging up the important arteries of public transport which I prize above all other things in Vienna (except a decent pint, the silence of the forest and the tantalising prospect of a traditional coffee house with real newspapers and no wifi).
January as we should know by now is when the ball season really gets going. Any attempt at a “Dry January” – an obsequious attempt by some poor fools in Great Britain to embark of a spot of attention seeking temperance – is futile. You may as well just stock up on the indigestion medication and continue the party till the Semesterferien (school holidays in two weeks) and then beyond to Lent. It is what God (the God) would have wanted. An extended period of revelry providing a much welcome boost to the post-Christmas Vienna economy.
Dominating the news, also in Vienna, continues to be the shifting attitudes towards the movement of people through the continent in light of the events on New Year’s Eve in various European cities. It is no exaggeration to speak of such events unnerving sections of the community, more so that even well-educated factions of both the left and right are quietly incensed. Not only that such events can happen in 21st Century Europe, but that national politicians and the EU still seem incapable in finding a policy to address this mass exodus of people and the inevitable social and cultural pressures that will ensue.
Almost all experts agree that any resolution requires international convergence. In a similar way to the help for Hungarian refugees in 1956 or the arrival of the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s. In other words, it might be a problem for one or two countries in Europe now, but a coordinated global response where people fleeing persecution, war or both can be distributed and assimilated throughout the richer nations of the world would be entirely feasible. Assuming the political will exists alongside a vision of the world that is not obsessed with the pursuit of national interests above all else. A vision that would require something in every sense inspirational. A vision that looks to a future where traditional political philosophies, economic ideology and religious codes of belief are demonstrably proved superfluous, and instead replaced by something ideologically revolutionary (like ensuring ex-mogul, one time Presidential candidate and reality TV stalwart Richard Lugner is never again seen on our television screens).
But as it stands, the EU is dithering dangerously. Closer integration is at the heart of the EU project (except in the UK), as is free movement of people within its borders in the guise of Schengen. Yet given the response of politicians throughout the region so far, we continue to stumble through a rhetorical quagmire of vacillation and ineptitude leading to inter-nation tensions that cock a thumb to the very spirit of a closer Europe which its people (well, some of them) recognise as essential.
Not one country will openly admit that border controls are being reinstated. Or let me out it another way. No country will admit that Schengen is falling apart. It is a sacred Khuh and would be as dangerous as openly calling for a return to national currencies in that it would engender angst and uncertainty, two words British nationals are familiar with when faced by a loud North American in a public space. But it is happening by stealth as the fences go up, border checks are introduced and everyone is looking at each other with increasing suspicion (but especially at the Germans).
In spite of the mediocre intellects of those designated with executing our collective will, the ineradicable whiff of moral panic and a world at odds with itself, I am, surprisingly, in fine fettle. Fate has intervened and I have made peace with my degenerate neighbour. Well, not exactly peace, more regained the moral ascendancy after I found him slumped against a bush on our street on New Year’s Eve close to midnight (he interrupted our reverie by ringing our doorbell). Quite clearly one did not require Sherlock Holmes to deduce that sobriety had taken the night off. The guy was, without resorting to hyperbole or exaggeration, banjaxed. Guiding him home, though, I was a beacon of restraint and understanding despite his cretinous ramblings. After all, which reader can honestly say they have never been gripped by the iniquitous effects of booze, and found themselves incapable of coherent speech, an inability to stop swaying and a fondness for roadside foliage?
And then there is education. My son is in his final year of primary education and we are currently deep in the throes of selecting a bilingual secondary school in the city for September. As such, after nearly four years of state sponsored indoctrination, I am now in the enviable position to pass comment on the state of primary education in Vienna. Based on my exclusive and exhaustive assessment of one child, one school and one teacher, brought to bear, of course, with all then intellectual rigour I can muster so early in the year.
When I mentioned this to a chap I teach, specifically our wish for a bilingual education, he asked about the international schools in Vienna. I scrutinised my counterpart carefully letting silence fill the room. As a professional I understand the effect of the pause. More so that I was able suppress my reaction to the impertinence of such a suggestion. Instead, carefully replacing my complimentary Melange back on its saucer, my response was measured and endowed with its usual habitual freshness: “Yes, but have you seen the fucking prices?”
In any case, I don’t believe in unjustifiably buying privilege although this depends on what I have been drinking and whether I am in a hurry. Also I went to an elite grammar school (free) in Britain which played a lot of sport against fee-paying private schools. So I know what can happen to young people when you imbue in them at an early age a sense of superiority and unabashed entitlement. And perhaps, more tellingly, what happens when you don’t.
But we shall leave my autobiography for another day. Instead, to keep us busy there are costumes to organise for the school Faschings Party (Carneval). As a parent, schooled in the strict disciplines of austerity, obedience and asceticism, I have one immutable rule when it comes to dressing up: never buy a costume. The reason for this is that it is worn only once, comes at a price (maybe six Asterix books which will last forever) and is always a bit crap. What the kids should expect is something put together with a bit of thought and last minute experimentation with cardboard (a glue gun helps). This can then be re-integrated back into your child’s wardrobe or burnt ceremoniously in the garden.
Unfortunately, many parents, in possession of that profane view of the world where everything can and should be bought – NOW – rush off to their local Hofer (Aldi) and snap up a soulless synthetic version of Spiderman or a supermarket buyer’s idea of a pirate. It is reeking testament to modern consumerism, a consumerism doused in unsustainably, pungent with greed and the contemptible capitulation to the demands of children reared on parental servitude.
With my good cheer evaporating with every wintery breath, there is hope, however. We have much to distract us and where better than a Presidential election? So in out next instalment, we take a look at the Austrian candidates for the notional top-job in the Alpine Republic which is up for grabs this year. I know and I understand. You haven’t experienced such excitement since the anticipated release of the Star Wars remake just before Christmas. So hold on to your hats. The year of the Monkey is upon us and with it shall we seek wit, intelligence and magnetism. Although I fear in a galaxy, far, far way. May Vienna be with you. And yes, the snow is back.
© RJ Barratt 2016