Der Elephant in Raum


It is January, 2019. It is Vienna, the number one city in the known world. Outside, it is cold, windy and overcast. The capital has settled into the first days of the year. The schools are already in their second week. Work has resumed with something approaching intensity (sluggish apathy). And as each morning and evening returns, the light tentatively pushes back against the invasive Viennese winter darkness.

In less than a month it will be the school Semesterferien (essentially half-term) where once more the parents of the number one city and beyond have to interrupt their career aspirations to ensure children of a certain age are supervised, fed and, in some cases, entertained. Anyone without kids or excluded from the perennial rhythms of education will find nothing untoward about this, but the holiday in the first week of February essentially marks the halfway point in the academic year. School reports will be issued, grandparents press-ganged into child-minding or, if you are fortunate – a highly contentious word given what follows – you will be allowed to join the annual exodus to the mountainous regions of Austria with hundreds of other families, to dress in garish, wind-proofed clothing, shuffle about and try not to get knocked over by a numbskull on a snowboard.

This first week in February also acts as a psychological demarcation point. Almost as if the notion of real work, or any thought of a return to real work can only begin with the resumption of the academic year. For people like myself, caught between the shadowy worlds of self-employment and the nagging, never-ending sensation that one should be working a bit more, things do not really get going until well into February. I have often thought what I could do to offset this incessant weakness in my business model, but so far I have only come up with three alternatives:

Option 1: to work more in December to mitigate the shortfall in the New Year. But December is also a three week month – at best – as most business people are on holiday from the 24th December till the 6th January boozing it up and exhausting the far reaches of the biscuit tin. So, no.

Option 2: get a job shovelling snow for Vienna Transport. And, indeed, what’s not to like? Fresh air, an unrivalled sense of camaraderie and instant job satisfaction. Sadly, snow in Vienna these days is rarer than an affordable flat within the districts 1 to 23, and even this year with record snowfalls in some parts of Austria (by record I mean once in 50 years levels of Schnee), we have only experienced a few moderate flurries. So, nein.

Option 3: set up one of those little stalls you find just before New Year’s selling all manner of pink pig (plastic and cuddly) and various configuration of chimney sweep (both lucky charms in Austria). Unfortunately, I am an avowed enemy of any more tat in the world and since the announcement of the British withdrawal from Europe and subsequent chaos, its citizens on the continent have come to represent the twenty-first reincarnation of the biblical prophet, Jonah. So, niet, comrades.

And thus I am resigned to minor crisis of cash flow until the middle of next month, which is manageable. Or it would be if only it didn’t also coincide with the arrival of the first quarterly monetary demand from the social insurance people seeking taxes before I have actually earned any money. The bastards.

Harbingers of ill fortune aside, over in the first district, home of five-star accommodation, e-scooters and plagues of vermin enticed by the life quality offered to animals with twitchy noses and long tails, the seat of Austrian national political power are congratulating themselves at a lucky escape. The reason for this is that the turn of the year saw the six month presidency of the European Union move safely on to Rumania. Normally this event would pass without significant comment; perhaps a few words of praise for Austrian chancellor, Sebastian “Mr Potato Head Ears” Kurz, or some mutterings from the Commission thanking Austria for hosting some top summits and maybe an intervention or two from everyone’s favourite smoker and President of Austria, Alexander Van der Bellen. But it now means Bucharest has the unpleasant task of dealing with the final stages of “it-which-cannot-be-named”, assuming, of course, “it” is not delayed by political instability (medium risk), a need to extend article 50 (high risk) or perhaps the weather (catastrophic risk).

“It”, in case you are wondering, is the “elephant in the room”, a phrase which has finally cemented itself in the linguistic consciousness of non-native English speakers in the political and regulatory orifices of Europe. If I have anything to do with it, in my role as roving ambassador in the number city charged with spreading malicious falsehoods about the English language, it will be soon joined by: “kicking the can down the road”, “the clock is ticking”, “have the cake and eat it” and, for the advanced anglophiles, “I say, old-fruit, this withdrawal deal is just not cricket!”

Meanwhile, immigratory relief, if I can call it relief, came this very week with various announcements from the heart of the political establishment about the status of Brits trapped in Austria (although I can’t help feeling the statements would have had more impact if delivered from the top deck of a London bus). Up first was the foreign minister Karin Kneissl (she of Putin wedding notoriety fame) promising everything will be fine, although as one eagle-eyed fellow expat has already pointed out, the statement came for the foreign ministry and not the interior ministry who will make a final decision about immigration status for the alpine Windrush. But just so you know, the interior ministry is in the hands of the Freedom Party as part of the ruling coalition. All I want to say is, guys, guys, I was only joking about calling you snakes back in 2016. Anyway, this is what Kneissl said:

“An orderly #Brexit is essential. But whatever the outcome may be, British citizens in Austria can rest assured that they will still be welcome and their rights will be protected. You are a valuable addition to our country and we want you to stay!”

At first glance this all looks splendid, but through my sources deep in the foreign ministry, I have managed to acquire the original translated draft from the original German, which I have painstakingly pieced back together. The full text should have read:

“An orderly Brexit is essential for all Austrians, their east European cleaners and their pets. But whatever the outcome may be, British citizens in Austria can be rest assured they will still be welcome – for a bit – and their rights as foreigner class three will be protected, although contingent on a deep knowledge of the back catalogue of DJ Ötzi, using the phrase “same procedure as every year”* once a week and an ability to say, “Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän”. You are – sometimes – a valuable addition to our country and we want you to stay … quiet.”

This was then followed by the soothing words of Gerhard Blümel, Minister for the EU in Austria, and chairman of the Viennese Conservatives who more or less said the same thing. And all I can say is, we salute you Herr Blümel! But I am still not going to vote for your party in the local or European elections unless you fix the speeding traffic on my street upon which I will prostrate myself at your feet and kiss your pinkies. And then, on the morning after the historic defeat in London, Kapitän Kurz himself appeared on Twitter, with his cape flapping in the wind, and reassured me personally that he will do everything in his power to stop a no-deal Brexit (clearly he is worried about the price of something: Marmite perhaps, or most likely, Branston’s pickle).

So what now? To insulate myself from the iniquitous twattery that passes for the implementation of the will of the people (you voted for it chaps; time to suck it up) I initially decided to forgo the media (papers, Twitter, television news) in 2019. But this lasted about two days and I was quickly sucked back in, although I self-censure around anything mentioning Trump or Boris Johnson. And in any case, people keep asking me if I have applied to become an Austrian citizen already, so this acts as a constant reminder. I have also considered emigrating to east Tirol which seems to offer the best chance in Austria (where I am ensnared for now) of cutting myself off from the modern world and any reminders of “it”. But I am not sure how I would be welcomed. And no doubt, once they learn I am a Brexit-Brit fleeing persecution, torment and a general degree of Weltschmerz in the number one city, crops will fail, the glaciers will melt and Lienz will suffer a plague of locusts (not to be confused with the thousands of two legged pests that visit Vienna every year in search of a selfie and a chance, for some inexplicable reason, to queue for cake at the Sacher). But for now, the only option is to tough it out and hide in the cellar until 2021, by which time all of this will hopefully be forgotten.

Until then, Kopfhoch and remember, no eating on the U-bahn!

* This phrase comes from a short television sketch from 1963 which was originally produced for the German speaking region. The sketch – called Dinner For One – was never broadcast in the UK (until very recently) but it is shown in Germany and Austria (and probably Switzerland) on the 31st December every year. Hence, everyone of a certain age in Austria understands the reference … and finds it terribly amusing.

© 2019 RJ Barratt