It is with gusto that I return, full of the joys of winter. I have been luxuriating in the near zero temperatures, the short days and candle-lit convivial evenings bringing calm, cogitation and the perfect ambience to drink a beer. Having said that, I have already seen signs that the evil twin of winter – spring – is showing a heavy-eyed desire to gate-crash my reverie. First, there was the advertising supplement last week from Metro (Austria’s leading wholesale mega market) with its alluring offers to buy some essentials ready for the Frühlingsputz (spring cleaning). Second, it might still be cold but like a disaffected teenager too young for the Beisl, the light is hanging around longer each day looking for trouble (gardening, bike riding and trips to the ice-cream parlour). And lastly, shoots of green are emerging everywhere, from the garden, the parks and the cigarette festooned verges announcing it might soon be time to boogie.
The longer days also signal a partial re-emergence of our screaming neighbours who, although able to always find a way to penetrate the wintery gloom and chill with their unique brand of Balkanista inspired commotion, have mostly stayed inside since November. But as sure as spring follows winter, they are beginning to egress once more, ready to compete with their pack of adorable roaming pooches, (best of breed in scuttling around their heavily fenced, faux-chic hovel, ejaculating whoops of low frequency woofing and yelping) to see who can emit the most noise. It is a form of auditory torture the likes of which we have not seen since the American military broke the will of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega in 1989 by playing Guns and Roses at full volume whilst he hid in the Vatican embassy. Although to be fair to Noriega, he only had a direct line to the Pope whilst all I have is a fibre optic one-way ticket to the darker recesses of the human condition and a laser guided crossbow (not for the animals; it’s not their fault).
But it is not all bad news (mostly fake) in greater Wien. The Austrian coalition government is up and running and there is already talk – mostly from the new junior partners of the FPÖ – to re-colour institutions of state (mentioned so far have been state railways, the state broadcaster, perhaps the financial regulators) with an executive shake up. To achieve this feat of stupendous reorganisation, they will replace appointed social democrat sympathisers with their own blue-backed loyal cohorts. We have been here before, of course, (they call it Proporz in Austria) so I shall expect the same to happen again in reverse when the FPÖ are booted out in four or five years. By which time I will have risen up the ranks of the SPÖ and, to the astonishment of the incumbent elites, political commentators, but most of all my capacious other German neighbour, be anointed as the Governor of the Austrian National Bank.
First on the agenda, will be a bit of monetary policy, quick peek at the gold and then a long lunch. This will be followed by extensive discussions with the remunerations department about my grace-of-favour flat, chauffeur and triple-locked, platinum pension. And then, once my furniture has been ordered and delivered and I am sitting on the expansive terrace smoking a Cohiba, I shall task the bank’s extensive legal team to acquire the rented house of said German neighbour, evict him and his grown up children, a sorry pair, boasting the mental finesse and social legerdemain of toe fungus (no offense to Trichophyton rubrum), demolish the property and erect in its place, a replica of Hans Krankl, hero of Cordoba (see Austria’s defeat of Germany in the 1978 World Cup ad infinitum).
Talking of monuments, 981 delegates of the Viennese Social Democratic Party voted last month to elect Michael Ludwig as the successor to current mayor of Vienna, Michael Haupl. We shall be looking at the legacy of Herr Burgermeister in a forthcoming instalment when Ludwig will take of the levers of power in the Rathaus sometime on May the 23rd. I had assumed it would be the 1st of May to coincide with Labour Day (rock-star crowds, an adoring party and more red flags than Russian military parade) but seemingly nothing should detract from Häupl’s last big swansong before he toddles off to select the public square in Vienna that will be inevitably named after him in the next few years.
And so, in spite of the occasional sunshine and emerging light tentatively enticing me to go out into the garden to have a bit of a poke around and a tidy up, things are going swimmingly well in the number one city. The woodpecker is back, the suspension of the smoking ban has cemented in the minds of all other nations that Austria is the ashtray of Europe, and Austria has won the indoor hockey World Championship. And then, just when I thought I could finally give up alcohol, we had the accident.
Twice last year I wrote to our local police to complain about speeding traffic on our street, a non-descript part of the suburban wastes where the limit is set at perfectly reasonable 30 km/h (about 20 mp/h). Apparent to anyone with a scant knowledge of traffic safety, there is also a certain intersection which is clearly a danger to pedestrians, especially the small people who often pass through on their way to our local school. This is due to the layout, the positioning of cars either side, and the tendency of some drivers to take the corner at speeds not designed for suburbia, ostensibly in the belief they are at the Nürbugring.
I also raised the issue at my local SPO “section” meeting before Christmas because this is what I was told it was for. The section barman, sorry, Chairman, promised a call from someone involved in the district responsible for traffic, yet two months later I am still waiting. Although, to be fair, the weather has taken a turn for the worse so perhaps their telephones and email are snowed in.
The second time, in December, when I mailed the police, the reply I received while sympathetic, more or less dismissed it as a tendency on my part to over-estimate the speed of oncoming traffic. Nevertheless, the chief inspector promised they would increase their patrols and do some speed checks. Which they did one crisp morning before Christmas, standing in the middle of the road clearly visible to anyone in a car, the colony of bats that live in the nearby church and the three blind mice who had moved to Vienna after the Brexit vote (the so-called Mexit).
Strangely, on a day before a public holiday creating a fortuitous three day weekend where traditionally a lot of Vienna traffic buggers off anyway and after the school rush had subsided, they didn’t apprehend anyone. Only to pack up a few minutes later undoubtedly reporting back to their superiors that it was a waste of time and the resident Brit clearly needed more sex. (As I will tell the police when we meet, you won’t catch a bank robber by putting a policeman outside a bank. You will stop a bank robbery, yes, but you are unlikely to nab a masked man – banned anyway in Austria – with a bag of swag.)
Anyway, that was then. Several weeks on, my soon-to-be eighty year old mother-in-law was hit by a car at this intersection just up the road from our house, as she walked to collect my son from school. She did this most days, enjoying the exercise, the chance to get out and the opportunity to have a natter down at the school. Even so, like many of her generation, she is fiercely independent, very active and a devotee of freedom to travel all over the city (fortified by Spritzer) to indulge in all manner of cultural and social activities with her mates.
What followed was unsettling yet surreal (I know what I am talking about; I live next door to a bellicose moron). More so with the imminent arrival of the flying doctors, landing their helicopter somewhere behind our house in our tightly packed residential hellhole (I have no idea how they managed it). There was my mother-in-law propped on the kerb, injuries to her head and face, apologising for the trouble and worrying about her broken glasses. The police arrived shortly afterwards, then another paramedic and ambulance which eventually whisked the patient off to the Accident and Emergency hospital in Meidling. Meanwhile, traffic was backing up in both directions and then, oblivious to what he was about to observe, came my other son ambling up the road swinging his school bag, wondering why his dad was in the middle of the street fiddling with his smartphone.
In that short, slightly unnerving twenty minutes, I instantly forgot about the incorrigible neighbours (the steptious Serbs, the Hounds of the Piefkeville), what the FPÖ will do to bugger up Austria, Haupl’s legacy, Brexit, Trump and my VAT return for December. Such jolts to the normal balance of life (relative, I admit) bring about accelerated focus, although mostly it is shock and denial with the anger, depression and perhaps acceptance coming later. Key was to ensure my mother-in-law was comfortable (she was). Then dispatch my son home (he wasn’t). Then call the other school to say there was a bit of a delay. And then to my wife – you need to come home, I told her. And all the while, as the pantomime unfolded, the driver of the car running around telling anyone that would listen, including the police, “I didn’t see her, I didn’t see her!”
But afterwards, it did have the effect of allowing me to take an ideological step back for a moment, although not before I had checked there was no traffic coming. When I started writing about Vienna, it was always intended to try to understand what it meant to live in a city with the highest (notional) life quality, year on year. I am not sure if I am half-way there yet. But it was never an exercise in cataloguing my life in Vienna, although we sometimes go there, a repetitive list of restaurants or shops, a review of the classic sights or a guide for tourists. No, it was, as I wrote back in 2013:
“An attempt to get under the skin of the city, to see what makes it tick, to peek under its ball gown and to find out whether it really deserves the accolade as number 1.”
Well, five years later, in late January, on a sunny day, I found it. What I witnessed some weeks ago, especially the response of the people involved, gave me an insight to a Vienna which I hope, in truth, I never have to see again. Passing strangers stopping to help a battered old lady prostrate on the road. The guy in a van who wacked out the first aid kit. The astonishing efficiency of the emergency services. The professionalism of the medics in the chopper. The calm response of the police both at the time and afterwards. The exceptional haste and expertise of the staff at the hospital, especially the A & E doctor who, for my money, is the reincarnation of Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws (he even has the same beard). The staff at the hospital as my mother-in-law recovered from her operation to fix her broken knee and stitch her face. The guys who transported her home. The response of neighbours.
Such a reaction is certainly nothing unique to Vienna, but I hope it tells anyone reading a great deal about the potential and day-to-day reality of humanity in times of relative misfortune. Moreover, it simply confirms my contention that to appreciate a city and its relationship in the city ranking debate, one has to look to the small things happening on a local level which really define and shape the life quality of residents every day, not necessarily the bombastic projects of politicians, reports of record numbers of tourists, modernist art, the state of public transport and regeneration. Aside from a few existential national threats, politics and people’s relationship to politics is predominately driven by local needs and concerns. These will inevitably include good schools, safe streets, clean streets and whether or not it is a neglected shithole, to quote sociology.
So, well done Red Vienna! Life quality is your mantra. But don’t get smug and never forget to sweat the small stuff. In other words, the quality of life, however you measure it, begins right outside your front door. So tackle the cancer of speeding and aggressive driving. Do something about the cigarette obsession and its visible remnants. Speak to Red Bull and those other energy drink corporate bastards about a deposit scheme. Continue to expand and invest in a smart city. Strive to make the public transport even more remarkable. Build more of that social housing. Invest in schools and kindergartens like you do anyway. But ignore the small things at your peril. Because if you do, there are three votes in this house that now, more than ever, are looking increasingly anything but red.
© 2018 RJ Barratt