The week before Christmas might be my favourite time in the number one city. There is nearly fifteen hours of darkness every day, my work is virtually finished (this brings a sense of satisfaction that is very similar to being fired from a job you are to scared to quit) and everyone appears in good spirits. And so they should be. In spite of the frequent festive interrogation of “are you in Christmas stress?” – which I meet with the Viennese version of the Paddington stare – most of the office-based people I work with are looking forward to a holiday until the 7th of January (starting on Friday 20th). Although, just to make sure, most took this Friday off as well. The Viennese, and the guest-workers from the other federal states of Austria, are nothing if not prepared. And has been mentioned here before and in other incarnations of the Vienna experience, annual and public holidays are nurtured, cherished and administered with more care and attention than most citizens of the number one city show towards their immediate family.
This darkness, the empty streets, the remission of paid labour and the pursuit of leisure time (with or without family is optional because in Vienna you can leave them at special day centres over Christmas) is symptomatic of the Vienna experience. And so if you have children, there is talk of “going skating”, maybe a few days at the Semmering or Stuhleck or perhaps a visit to an indoor play area which will leave any parent with a need to seek out Doctor Freud.
But whatever you do, there is a sense of stillness. Even on my street, which as regular readers will know is inhabited by a family of screeching Serbs (better of late although the colder weather always temporarily brings a hiatus to their unconscionable talent for speaking as if they are addressing a packed beer hall), and that delightful and educationally-advanced family from Germany (with their two, well-behaved, highly-trained, scraggy bastards, the dogs, not their children), things are more hushed and peaceful than usual.
Or they would be had a certain badly-timed election in Britain not gate-crashed the festive reverie. It is with no overstatement that the next morning after that election (Friday the 13th) I have seldom felt so despondent in my time in the number one city, although having to organise a five euro Engel-Bengel (secrect Santa) present for junior Barratt at his school this year comes a close second. The nature of my job means there is a lot of talking and when your client is gifted in spoken English the conversation is rich and varied. But that morning I was in no mood for politics although my gloom was enhanced later in the day by being taken for lunch and a first course of Ouzo.
This is in itself was an exceptional occurrence. Back in the day, right at the start of my working life in Vienna, I was part of a language school which offered one-to-one intensive training which included lunch with the client. As the English language was our theme, I decided to go to an Irish pub in the centre expecting a quickish plate of fish and chips and a small beer. Four pints later we re-emerged (the guy liked the pub) and then the “lessons” continued in the afternoon. It wasn’t exactly total immersion but we came close as I slurred my way through explanations of grammar I didn’t understand and praying for the day to end.
Since then I have never drunk on the job aside from those two overnight stays during seminars where there might have been some carousing in the bar and ill-advised glasses of schnapps. But on that lunchtime, Friday the 13th 2019, that small glass of Ouzo just might have saved what was left of my optimism and anticipation for a better future (even in the number one city).
Assessing the mood here in Vienna about the election and the Brexit process, however you see it, is difficult when your main source is mostly social media. Although a couple of interactions with fellow Brits since then have given me a sense of the prevailing disposition, there is still the obvious anger. But equally there is still a general sense of “what the fuck?” and in some cases real unease amongst people outside the Austrian system who are not working (I mean in terms of future healthcare and pension arrangements).
Ever since the referendum, although more in 2019 when each Brexit deadline approached, people, Austrian people mostly, would ask if I was affected. Given what we now know with the preparations by the Austrian government for a no-deal (the no deal withdrawal deal) it would seem from a material and organisational perspective not that much actually (five years of continued residence, two decades in the system, marriage, children and a framed picture of Nikki Lauda). And although I am not looking forward to the hassle of returning to the immigration office to re-present my status, but this time with proof of savings (my kids post-office books which are in my name) and proof that I have a permanent place to live, from a purely legal and official sense, and suited to my personal circumstances, it is not that precarious. At least that is the impression I got this morning when Mrs Barratt let me out of the cellar and handed my weekly ration of Sodexo food vouchers.
In any case, with the election in Britain, the withdrawal agreement is set to pass parliament which, if my understanding is accurate, protects reciprocal rights of EU citizens in the UK and the three million UK voices on the continent (as long as they satisfy the five year residency rule). So why did I continue to feel so dejected that Friday morning even when you accept that the election result is essentially immaterial if you live in Austria, have no plans to move back to Britain and won’t have to endure another five years of whatever Johnson’s idea of one-nation Conservatism proves to be.
To try and answer this and make sense of the despondency question, it is necessary to resort to context. And in doing so, attempt to understand the motivations and expectations which made re-settling somewhere else in the European Union equally possible, natural and, well, just normal. When British people came to Austria before 2016 (I take this date because after the referendum everything changed) they did so in the belief and understanding that as an EU member country they had certain rights and opportunities (I’d say more opportunities). But part of this, and this is my thesis, was the buying into the fictional narrative of – at the same time – being a citizen of Britain, a “citizen” of Austria (or elsewhere) and a “citizen” of Europe. I am not saying these were interchangeable because they mean different things to different people. But more that they are/were intrinsically and, for some people based on their personal situation, irrevocably entwined (me included). This in part might also explain why the idea of jettisoning your UK citizenship in favour of an Austrian passport is such an awkward notion for many people, in spite of the direction of the UK. Arguably because for the people who made the move, such an idea when they made the move was inconceivable (and will have played a huge part in their decision to relocate within the EU in any case).
But in the same way as divesting yourself of British citizenship, the referendum result and the eventual cessation of Britain as part of the EU is a question of identity. And it has felt for these last three years that part of this identity has been psychologically dismembered. Being a Brit and an EU member was critical. It was normal. It was how it worked. More importantly, it was the embodiment of the self. And yet now it has removed. Terminated (or soon will be). And as a consequence, it feels part of you has died.
This is why Brexit feels like death. And with death comes a sense of profound loss, followed by the denial (it won’t be too bad, maybe it’s reversed), the anger (how dare they!) the bargaining (on a personal level the negotiation of what is now expected – should I stay, should I become Austrian?), the depression (helplessness, vulnerability and anxiety) and finally of course as the withdrawal process takes place fuelled by the election of 2019, the acceptance (and the inescapable despondency).
When you reach this stage, that inexorable journey towards ideological acquiescence and with your grief exhausted, there is only one solution: have a night out, drink some very average beer, eat some uninspiring food and then go and see some British actors try their best with one of the dullest plays I have ever seen sitting in an uncomfortable chair with minimal legroom: The Mousetrap. It may well be the longest running show in London’s theatre land but if there is any of that Brexit dividend you here people talking so much about, then hopefully Vienna will never again have to be subjected to such interminable tedium.
Instead it is now time to get Christmas done. And we will: Get. Christmas. Done! And that is what I intend to do, ditch or no ditch, respecting the mandate of the house I find myself, to unleash the potential for all things festive. I have already concluded my Christmas shopping (this part of the agreement will – categorically – not be re-opened or renegotiated), the non-chlorinated turkey has been ordered, the lights are up and with less than a week to go, I have managed to mostly avoid, thus far, the Christmas market industry in Vienna (which these days is seemingly run on steroids). And then we can take this great tradition forward and, in the number one city, get Christmas done. Oven ready, just pop it in the microwave, everything on the table, ready to unshackle the potential of 2020.
© 2019 RJ Barratt
Ps – assuming Christmas gets ratified, I shall return for the 2019 Barratt Awards. Where, in the spirit of getting Christmas done, I promise to be nice.