It may have escaped your notice but there are city and district elections coming to the number one forest city. The last ones were in 2015 when no one had heard much of Brexit, Boris or the urban blight of modern mankind, e-scooters. Normally the elections present a fine opportunity to assess the messages and prospects of the main candidates. An examination of the slogans, the posters and the barely concealed attempts by the far right to manufacture another culture war. More so this year because, after that fateful night last year in an Ibizan holiday let, it includes the attempted comeback of former Austrian vice-chancellor, Heinz Strache, as an independent (independent from reality).

But equally it is the first political test for current city press-flesher-in-chief, Michael Ludwig, who was eased into the job following the retirement of mayoral legend Michael Häüpl in 2018. Will he retain his job? Well, nothing is certain in Vienna (apart from discarded cigarette butts, criticism of the Green coalition by anyone with a driving licence, and somebody tutting at you if you walk on the wrong side of a shared cycle/footpath) but yes, he will retain his job.

That said, in spite of the last six months, when I have had a tantalizing glimpse into what it might mean to be a pensioner, as the elections approach I know my heart is just not in it this time round. This may come as relief to regular and irregular readers alike. Viennese politics doesn’t change much and when you are the number one city for life quality year after year, it doesn’t have to. A radical re-writing of the political playbook is too much of a risk and thus much of what is expected is continuity. Even the FPÖ, embarrassed and diminished after the Ibiza scandal (and still rumbling through parts of the media and courts eighteen months on) have reverted to adolescent form by banging on about fairness and bashing foreigners.

But more than anything else, my heart is not in it because I am excluded from the democratic process. Sitting on the sidelines lobbing critical grenades and the odd word of commentary only seems like a sensible use of my time if I can still cast a ballot. So I could allow myself a few opinions about the expenditure of the urban pop-up pool in August of this year, the suburbanization of parts of Vienna or those devils behind that new e-bikes company (“Wheels”). If, only notionally, I could have a “say” in how these policies were conceived and executed. But now? I am foreigner class 3, demoted to the minor leagues of political irrelevance. Muted. Stunted. Silenced by the ideological aberration, lies and malfeasance of the impending UK withdrawal from the European Union.

It is strange to think now that a couple of years ago I joined the Social Democratic Party and even met our district chief – Gerhard Bischof – about traffic issues (see here). The engagement proved fruitless but at least I could continue to burn effigies of him in the knowledge that he knew I could vote. Now any attempt to voice concerns about local issues just seems pointless: “Yes, Mr Barratt, thank you for your email, sod off! Yours, Gerhard Bischof’s Second Assistant.” All I can do henceforth is continue to pay my taxes and dump shit Austrian tea into the Liesing stream.  

I have had a lot of time to think about all these things these last six weeks. Returning from holiday at the end of July, I decided to spend the rest of the summer in acute pain due to a prolapsed disc in my neck. If the last half a year was a prelude into what it might be like to be retired, most of August was a depressing insight into what it might be like to be infirm. For the first two weeks of my enforced staycation on the sofa and bed, lying mostly on my side and occasionally on my back when the painkillers, injections and infusions hit the sweet spot, I couldn’t do much except look at television (sideways). Indeed, even the simplest things induced such a degree of discomfort, that it was preferable to watch repeats of Bargain Hunt on BBC Entertainment.

But by week three I was tentatively moving about, pain killers doing their job, which was fortunate because there were the many instances in which to put the Austrian health system through its paces: the visit to the hospital in the first week in mild agony (quick x-ray, examination, followed by a prescription and directions to the exit marked “STOP WASTING OUR TIME”), my GP (just an inflamed nerve she reassured me), an orthopedic doctor (like all orthopedic doctors, built like a Yeti), a rather traumatic MRI in a mask, multiple trips to the chemist, several trips to sit in a room and get hooked up to a drip (I enjoyed this) and just to cap it off, a consultation with a neurologist who poked, prodded and pulled me around to make sure I wasn’t going to need and operation (I don’t).

Apart for the MRI which I paid for privately due to the six week wait, all my visits were via the nation’s national health service and I can confidently report that the system is in rude shape. Which is just as well because that second Covid wave is sniffing at the gates. More importantly, however, my ecard, and access point to the Austrian healthcare system, was about to expire. In fact, it had, at the end of May.

Despite my inherent organisational repute, this essential piece of information had somehow eluded me. Luckily, in the middle of my holiday, I had to seek out the services of a local doctor due a problem with my ear, brought upon it was deemed by too much swimming. (Although I am still convinced it was the result of listening to the singer in the hotel bar on the first night. I don’t want to use the word terrible, but it is my duty to warn others, especially if their ecard is about to expire.) In any case, it was only then, as I struggled with a previously undocumented Austrian dialect at the GP’s reception, that I discovered I might have a minor clerical challenge concerning my access to healthcare. Which was fortunate, because things were about to get unpleasant. 

Since the start of 2020, the ecard has needed a photo. If I had been an Austrian citizen (don’t scoff, some of my best friends are Austrian citizens), then a replacement would have been sent automatically because a relevant picture would exist in the system by due of an Austrian passport. Alternatively, I could have been covered by virtue of having a newer version of the Austrian driving licence (I only have the old paper one issued in 2001). So instead of just emailing a picture to the ecard people, or my social insurance provider with a scan of my passport, it meant a trip to a specially designated police station, in a mask, to present my rapidly diminishing credentials.

In normal circumstances, once the card had expired, this would have triggered a three-month grace period. Failure to renew would have meant demotion to foreigner class five (at this stage a purely hypothetical classification but seemingly reserved for the British in Austria from January 2021 depending on how far the current UK government breaks international law in the coming months). However, one of the dividends of Corona in Vienna this year is that deadlines have been extended (ecard upgrade extended to six months) and you now need an appointment for everything. Incidentally, the other dividends include: no Wiener Wiesen (incorrigible Oktoberfest rip-off), no embarrassing hugs or kisses with Austrian friends (number one on the British Abroad Social Anxiety Index) and no Christmas parties.

According to the ecard provider there are (were) around twenty thousand non-Austrians without a selfie who would have to update their card. This seemed like a relatively modest number, although after trying for a couple of mornings to get one of the designated city police stations to pick up a phone, I got the feeling that all about fourteen of them lived in Vienna.

In the end I managed to speak to someone at a police station in the 15th district, just round the corner from where serial killer Jack Unterwegger picked up some of his victims, who could squeeze me in at the end of August. Excellent, I thought. All I needed was a newish photo, my current passport and a cocktail of painkillers to survive the underground U6 in high summer.

Dealing with the authorities in Vienna and processing various reams of paperwork has been a largely virtual experience in Vienna for years now and I have few complaints about its reliability and technological efficacy. Of course, once upon a time, in the late nineties when I arrived, none of this was possible without a visit to the Amt (public office) and the issuing of a stamp, sometimes quite literally. Which made it all the more atypical and faintly odd to show up somewhere in person in the summer of 2020 to complete a simple administrative process which could be easily achieved with a few clicks. That said, although I found myself in a building which looked like it had last been decorated around the time of the last Emperor, my new card arrived less than a week later, adorned with a picture of a what looks like a killer on death row.

Such a fast turnaround bodes well for the next administrative assault course next year: yes, just when you thought it was safe to step back outside and remove your mask (the one concealing your status as a Brit in exile) we have the second Brexit wave to deal with. And remember when it comes to Brexit, no Brit is immune, you are part of the herd, you cannot self-isolate, the authorities will track and trace, screening will be exhaustive, and quarantine may be inevitable (desirable). I thought a prolapsed disc was painful but compared to the current herniated state of Britain? Ouch.

© 2020 RJ Barratt