Big School


One thing never mentioned in the cities index from The Economic Intelligence Unit, is that the resumption of the school year in the number one city is an act of organisational madness. After several years trying to understand how everything works and avoiding other parents, you would think I would be used to it by now. But each September I am reminded that where there is simplicity, there is also the first week of the Viennese education system.

This year I told myself things should be straightforward. Both our children have finally been reunited in one educational institution, forgoing the need to deal with two different schools and two different systems (differences in start and end times, differences in after-school supervision and differences in the need to ensure they experience the hit-and-miss delights of school dinners). Yet even with the eagerly anticipated synergies of dealing with a single school, the first Schulwoche required the strategic intellect of a chess grandmaster and the mental resilience of a Navy Seal.

First up was the first day which lasted for an extraordinary two hours. Admittedly, this was an improvement on the primary school (one hour) which was just about enough time for me to scamper home and have a third cup of tea of the morning. But still. Over the years I have never understood this arrangement. All the build up and expectation, only to be booted out again before the clock has chimed nine, and then a resumption the following morning as if the first day hadn’t really happened. For a child, this phoney inauguration simply prolongs the anguish. Worse, for the parents, or parent, it means you have to take an unplanned holiday on the very day of the year you are glad to get back to the serious business of wage slavery.

Anyhow, this year there was an added dimension: the weather. The summer was once again exceptional, if your idea of exceptional seems to confirm the oracular words-of-warning that something peculiar is happening to the climate (and with it an opportune moment to plant some olive trees). Once more, 2019 was one of the hottest on record although to be fair, it only really lasted from June to August unlike in previous years when it seemed to begin around the end of January. But then, almost as if someone had pre-programmed the metropolitan thermostat to “It’s school time, suckers”, the temperature fell from a peak of nearly thirty-five degrees on the Sunday before, to something approaching normality. And with it rain, lots of rain.

On that first day, the 2nd September, I found myself waiting outside the school buildings with a crowd of other people, umbrellas held aloft, and dressed in outfits last seen in a First Communion catalogue. In Vienna, parents are permitted to accompany their child to their form class on this initial day and this is what they (we) were waiting for. Of course, this is intuitively at odds with my experience of starting secondary school where I seem to remember you were simply waved off at the gate only to re-appear eight hours later with muddied shoes and tales of how the third year were going to put your head down a toilet. But no, this is Vienna, complication is essential. Which means you are destined to wait in an excited / terrified throng whilst trying to make (avoid) small talk with people you might know, will never know or most likely don’t want to know.

As the rain fell that morning and with tension filling the pavements, the school caretaker took the executive decision to open the doors. My take on this was that it was a misguided attempt to ingratiate himself with the sixth-formers and be crowned a “legend”. I say misguided because clearly he hadn’t given much thought in that moment as to what a few hundred pairs of wet shoes would do to his floor. A floor that he had been polishing all summer.

Fortunately, the sight of a few hundred people squeezing through a single doorway only to be penned in the lobby with steam rising from their sodden clothing was more than reward, especially if you were in the middle of it. But best of all, we had to wait. In a breathless, increasingly hot and crowded bundle as time took on the familiar tempo of a double lesson of maths. All I wanted to do on that damp Monday in September was drop off my child and escape the rabble and humidity. Instead we were made to stare at the clock.

In such harried moments, I yearn for simplicity, and as I stood there for fifteen long minutes trying not to listen to my chimp, I gave serious thought about retuning to the UK and to an educational world I could understand. But then I remembered Boris Johnson was the Prime Minister. As luck would have it, the bell rang moments later and with it the cue for the crowd to surge forward with the animalistic fervour of bargain hunters on Black Friday.

Form rooms duly found, I assumed it would be a quick farewell to the little ones and then a swift exit. Wrong again. Most of the other adults took up positions at the back and sides of the classroom seemingly waiting for something. And so I hesitated unsure if I had missed an essential part of the summer briefing for the newbies and their parents.

The teacher duly arrived, on time, ten minutes late. And, of course, this being the age of “everything must be documented”, out came the tiny pocket televisions. This is despite the fact every parent in that room knew smartphones in our particular school are banned for any pupil on the premises unless you in the sixth form. They say that children are a product of their parents but I am increasingly beginning to believe that parents are sometimes a product of their kids, evidenced by their inability to put away their screens. I have enduring respect for teachers but sometimes I wish they would lay the law down a bit. It’s why I think cricket should be introduced into Viennese schools. I am not really bothered if the kids show any interest but at least the bats could be carried by teachers and used to as a corporal deterrent against any self-absorbed mum or dad.

Anyway, this was Monday. By Tuesday things had improved. We had some semblance of a timetable although as it turned out this was only for the first week and so after three lessons the kids were back home again ready for lunch. Unlike the British system where the times are pretty much fixed, formal secondary school is over at about two thirty (I think, it seems to change from one year to the next). But then one has the option to arrange “Tagesbetreuung” (after school supervision although it is not really after-school in my mind). This can be booked on certain days but it depends on the timetable and how it falls. And sometimes the official school can finish at say 12.00 but lessons will continue perhaps two hours later. So you are in the situation that your child has to attend the “daily supervision” to fill in the time. And of course, in that first week, these things are not available, including lunch.

If this wasn’t enough to think about, Wednesday began at nine o’clock. “Are you working?” Mrs Barratt asked (the implication being I would have to be at home). “Well, I might be,” I replied, “But shouldn’t they be at school? Didn’t we just have nine weeks of this trying to juggle this shit?”

Fortunately, Thursday passed much the same and Friday was another midday finish. Whilst all this was going on, along came the “materials list”. We had received the main one in June so had managed to buy most of the things in summer, spending the equivalent of the Brexit contingency budget in the process. But then came news of another list detailing specialist stuff for technical drawing which was needed by the Friday. As my work is more “flexible” (code for no holiday or sick pay) it was left to me to hunt down the necessary items. But even then, the only possibility was late afternoon in the middle of the week. Unfortunately this meant a trip to the Favoritenstrasse, the closest and easiest place we could reach without driving. (The alternative was Shopping City which, as I have often cited, is a place for the desperate, deluded and the deranged.)

Our destination was chain store Müller, all purpose stationers, toys, computer games, and other stuff to make you smell nice. The place was heaving. It was like the last day of the apocalypse where your only chance of survival was to buy coloured pencils.

My own personal survival plan was to stand to one side, but quickly I was surrounded by small children of indeterminate school age (and their bored siblings) whilst parents scrambled about examining scraps of paper bearing all the hallmarks of the “list”.

I had a sense that things were not going well when we couldn’t find the first three items on my son’s inventory. Call it an intervention but as I mouthed to my son the words “get me out of here”, a small child in a buggy next to me excreted his own dirty protest, and I knew we had to leave.

“Let’s try Libro,” my son suggested (words which no parent should ever have to endure on a Wednesday in the 10th district during the first school week in Vienna). Call me fearless, romantic, insane, I agreed, and off we trotted only to re-emerge two minutes later scarred by the hoards of people shuffling about in narrow corridors stacked high with products from Jolly and UHU (since when did small children need so much glue?).

Emerging into the daylight, I realised we needed a more specialist retail experience. So I promised my son I knew of a place in town which sold art and stationary supplies and all going well I could pick up the stuff before work. So the next morning I landed at INTU on Wiednerhaupstrasse located in the main Technical University.

It was quiet and the sun was shining. There was only one other patron and no sign of any toddler leaning precariously out of its buggy screaming blau Mörder. Walking in I was immediately accosted by a sales assistant who asked these simple, comforting words: “Kann ich Ihnen helfen?” I knew in that second there was a reason why I still had some faith in the number one city.

Within four minutes I was out with my list completed. I still had an hour until my meeting so I nipped round the Ring to Café Eiles. And then something truly remarkable happened. For the first time in my twenty or so years of living in Vienna, I was served a Melange without the need to order it. In that moment, I knew I had arrived. I had finally arrived.

© 2019 RJ Barratt