Perchten, Politics and Punsch

A typical morning scene on Vienna’s underground network

You might think that given Vienna’s reputation for liveability and friendliness, the passing of time would be reminiscent of a continual state of relaxed conviviality. An ease of existence punctuated by lengthy stops at the Kaffeehaus, gentle strolls through the many green spaces and long conversations about the great philosophical questions of the age. Where unhurried mornings fuse into the serious business of lunch (this begins about eleven) and where afternoons can sometimes seem to have the urgency of a house cat contemplating another hour on the sofa or perhaps a light nibble to keep them going till the sun goes down.

However, the problem of living in a city beset by the many characteristics which notionally underpin Vienna’s unassailable billing as the number one on the planet (just affordable housing, a robust social and health system, a functioning state, low crime rates, a rich cultural life and relentless innovation in the interpretation of Christmas Punsch), is that when life is so evidently agreeable – and as Einstein knew – the passing of time takes on a different pace.

It seems like only last week that we were bracing ourselves for the arrival of Halloween, but in a couple of days, on the 6th December, Vienna, and the other parts of Austria, will usher in the next sugary shindig with the annual visit of the original Candy Man, St Nicholas (or Nikolo). In truth I like this tradition (because it is a tradition) where dutiful children receive a small, red paper bag, which I swear gets bigger every year, filled with some long-established, seasonal goodies: satsumas, nuts, a chocolate figure of the saintly gatecrasher and, if you are the kind of parent willingly seduced by the twin evils of consumerism and the need to give your children everything, even just before Christmas, a voucher for an online retail behemoth.

At around the same time there is of course the Krampus (the Voldemort to Saint Nick’s Dumbledore) who is unleashed on the more undeserving child which in Vienna is all of them. In truth, the tradition of the Krampus or Perchten is more of a fixation in the countryside where locals dress up in elaborate shaggy pelts, bells, horns and handcrafted wooden masks used to scare the bajesus out of anyone below five feet. They also carry big sticks to whack cheeky onlookers and hopefully some tourists, but this is mostly unknown in Vienna where the use of big sticks to control children (and tourists) is only usually used from the middle of December to the end of November.

The Krampus/Perchten parades are used to scare off evil spirits (are you listening Halloween?) and in the words of the Salzburg tourist board “When Krampus and Perchten run down the street growling, half dancing, half stamping, every single spectator is left just a little unsettled.”

Strange, but I get the same sensation when I usually travel on Vienna’s underground line 6. In any case, in Britain we don’t have such folklore although if you are after wild jangling of bells, pagan costumes, sticks and terrifying faces then I suggest you seek out the Morris dancer.

But one thing is clear: the masks, when truly authentic and carved from a single piece of wood, are pricey works of art (one website I have seen quotes up to 900 Euro, especially if you use real horns). In the town of Matrei in Osttirol, there is even a small museum and workshop where they still produce them, dedicated to the craftsman’s art in the old bakery (the Klaubauf Museum). I visited a couple of summers ago whilst moseying around in the craft shop up-front, but pass through the back and you enter a wonderful, eerie room packed with an incredible range of masks from the past two centuries. (And keep this to yourself but they even had a Hitler one.)

Anyway, speaking of the grotesque, back in the capital the headlines of late have been generally dominated by politics. The Socialist Party are in a importunate state of crisis mostly driven by the poor showing in the last general election in October and the lack of faith in current leader Pamela Rendi Wagner. Inevitably, there is talk of a putsch (no doubt followed by a Punsch) and it seems a shake up is due. Besides there is also the big hole in their party finances which means that all they can apparently manage for their Christmas party this year is a can of Ottakringer and a quick Kaiserkrainer at the sausage stand.

Then there is the on-going meltdown and schism of the far right Freedom party (FPÖ): the now infamous Ibiza video, in-fighting and a steady drip of alleged expenses irregularities from what I can gather mostly centred on former leader Heinz “Zack-Zack” Strache. Nothing too earth-shattering, only the re-channelling of party money for his rent, company car, bodyguards, school fees and a salary for his wife who seemingly became the party spokesman for furry animals. Which of course became a problem once people realised that Strache was not only a political liability but also rather an expensive political liability.

That said, in spite of everything, a report in the free newspaper Heute this week claimed that almost one in two FPÖ voters want a return of the dental technician Strache. Worse, there are rumours that he might make a come back in the city government. It’s at moments like these that I really begin to wonder about the educational health of the average Freedom Party voter. If offering to sell off parts of the Austrian state to the Russians or engaging in a bit of pecuniary trickery were not bad enough, then what has this guy got to do to convince people that he might be a bad choice? Make everyone in Vienna work on a Friday afternoon? Cancel Christmas? Or worse, and I risk deportation just raising this issue, abolish the hallowed Fenstertage (those bridge days which fall between a public holiday and a weekend)?

If this wasn’t enough, hogging the headlines was also the “Sidlo Affair” where, yep, an FPÖ politician from Vienna’s 9th district (Peter Sidlo) was parachuted into the board of the part state-owned Casinos Austria on a whopping salary. Before anyone could remember the German for quid pro quo, there were rumours of political promises of string-pulling, mostly to do with the morally uplifting enterprise of betting and licensing law reform which the FPÖ could favourably effect given their role in the coalition (hence the job for Sidlo). As is the way of things, if the national government hadn’t imploded, none of this would have probably come to light. But now that the FPÖ are out of power, the protectors are gone and Sidlo’s appointment is the source of much speculation. Or was. As I write it seems the other shareholders have taken the prudent decision to cancel his instatement because of the “reputational risk” (and in those two words the Vienna Homer Simpson moment for 2019).

Yet this tells you a lot about how the political system in Vienna and Austria partly works. There is a constant relationship with politics and certain jobs. Indeed, several people have already intimated to me that what the Freedom Party were doing in seeking influential positions in quasi state organisations was something the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and Conservatives (ÖVP) had been doing for years. In other words, that was the system. Not exactly corrupt but an implicit agreement that the big jobs would be carved up amongst the big political parties in a kind of implicit political balancing act. But such jobs need political power and to some extent if you are affiliated with a party of any colour, once your power base has gone you are essentially a dead duck (admittedly a well paid dead duck with a near unbreakable contract and the prospect of a pension inconceivable to the average citizen).

The second revealing thing is that it tells you a lot about the fickle nature of the Austrian voter and how readily they will engage in a bit of ideological flip-flapping when they don’t rely on Facebook. This is most obvious in the last election in October with the quite sudden nationwide retreat of the FPÖ (in the most recent election a ten percent drop). And so a renewal of the previous government – Conservatives (ÖVP) and the FPÖ – was unlikely because the latter were too much of a risk (as predicted and as they have repeatedly shown).

Yet also, given the weakness and identity crisis of the Social Democrats, a new grand coalition was also never on the cards. The appeal of the SPÖ is currently stagnant and their message confused (and they have no money). Which means we are now faced with something quite extraordinary in Austrian political life: a potential coalition of the ascendant Conservatives (led by our old friend the replicant Sebastian Kurz) and the newly invigorated climate champions, the Green Party.

All going well this should kick in before the end of the year. But, in spite of what we know, this being Austria and Vienna, one cannot exclude the possibility of temporal temperance. Because the Christmas industry is in full swing, with its shiny traditions, earthly charm and the comforting aroma of hot booze. And conviviality, civic warmth and a serious commitment to slowing-down are the true spirits of the Vienna Advent. And what better way to cerebrally disrupt the reality of time and space than a mug of something mind-bending. I speaketh of course of a terrifying concoction known as Punsch; hemp-Punsch.

© 2019 RJ Barratt