Read the Papers, Read the Papers

Back in the day, before the mass roll out of the internet and mobile devices, minimising your access to English language news in the capital of the cancelled Christmas market was relatively easy. Although newspapers were widely available, often a day later than published, it almost always meant a trip to a newsagent at one of the larger train stations, a large bookshop like Morawa, which continues to this day to sell a vast array of international papers and magazines, or a traditional café.  

Of course, the decision to expose yourself to the sins of the daily news cycle also meant you needed an appreciation of the exchange rate. In 1997, when I sneaked into the country in the back of an Airbus, the UK cover price of The Guardian was, I think, forty-five pence. In the days before the Euro this would have worked out at about seven Austrian Schillings (and yes, how I marvelled in those early days when I first got my hands on a ONE THOUSAND Schilling note).

Now I can’t remember the exact figure, but for the privilege of reading the British news in the number one city – a state of existence which hadn’t been invented then as the secretive planning for world domination in a hitherto classified bunker beneath the town hall was still at the committee stage – you had to fork out something between three to four times that amount. Given my relative affluence at that time, stationed somewhere between precarious and perilous, this was a serious undertaking. But it did mean that acquiring a copy was a rare(ish) treat although quite easy to justify given my chosen career as English language super-spreader and the ease at which I could adapt articles to give the impression to my “students” they were learning English (a practice still employed twenty years later by some of the more roguish chancers in the English teaching business in Vienna).

So, if you didn’t fancy a trip to the brutal surrounds of the typical post-modern Viennese railway station, or the price of a UK newspaper caused unmistakable eye-brow elevation in your local branch of Bank Austria, then one could live in peaceful detachment from the curses of English language news. Of course, there were plenty of homespun sources to raise your anxiety stakes: state broadcaster ORF (including English speaking Blue Danube Radio); other German language news courtesy of cable television; and various newspapers, although my favourite trailblazing tabloid – known here as the yellow press – that was Täglich Alles and its sensational fakery, sadly ceased printing in 2000. But finding a reason to tune out was easy in those days, especially as I had enough to do researching every bar, Gasthaus and Beisl from here to the Rennweg. As for Queen’s English, the only local publication I can remember was Austria Today which I seem to recall lasted about as long as a girlfriend of ageing shopping centre mogul Richard Lugner – Austria’s Donald Trump but with more charm and just one bankruptcy.  

But then everything changed around the turn of the millennium with the arrival of domestic broadband and just like that every morning I could read the papers without leaving my flat. This seemed like a splendid arrangement but unlike the cherished physical copy which I read from cover to cover, news on the Internet meant I could be more selective (because it was free). And it was this convenient proximity which allowed quite early on a more discerning choice of story, and, ironically, I suppose, the conscious decision to only read the things I wanted to read. And over the years this process has consolidated itself to the point where unless there is something rather important going on (oh, I don’t know, something like a country leaving the EU or an election I can’t vote in) my exposure to “print” media is limited to about twenty minutes each morning. Unless I am in the coffee house where it is mandatory to consume at least two papers in those much-photographed wooden holders as you sup your Melange, more so if you are British because it might enhance your newly acquired foreigner ranking in the eyes of Austrian officials lurking in the next banquette.

Still, I would give up newspapers and the news completely if I could. Unfortunately, in my line of work it pays to be up to speed with events because you need something to talk about, even if it is Megxit (many highly informed people in Vienna) the Ibiza scandal or the latest Austrian banking collapse. That said, these days  I am just as likely to watch the local Vienna news (Wien Heute), as tap and scroll through the Guardian to get my daily diet of doom. And local news is just marvellous.

However, at some point, someone in my house decided it was a prudent idea to continue to subscribe to two Austrian left-leaning dailies: Kurier – renewal of the Abo (admittedly, a couple of years ago) came with a free laptop which subsequently proved invaluable during the first home-schooling session; and Der Standard which Mrs Barratt likes to subject to the Wiener Allgemeines Papier und Packmaterial Leeren Akt (commonly known as WAPPLA):

Step 1: store copies on kitchen window sill for a minimum of seven days.

Step 2: transfer and store under the kitchen sink for a further two weeks.

Step 3: instruct foreigner class 3 (European – non-EU) to find one of those red paper recycling bins which is not over-flowing with cardboard boxes (unflattened) from Amazon and Zalando, and dispose.  

However, every Monday Der Standard has a little secret. Because lurking inside their pinkish-orange pages are four sides of news – in English – from the New York Times (International Weekly). Now, I am not exactly an irrepressible bundle of enthusiasm on most Mondays (in fact Monday to Friday, most of Saturday and large parts of Sunday) but any trace of optimism about the world and my place in it is quickly extinguished even if I allow myself just the briefest of peeks. The reason for this is that those four pages, week in, week out, scream calamity. (Typical examples from this last week include: “Italy’s Scarred Survivors”, “After Storms, Worry of a Refugee Crisis”, “Propaganda Obscures Virus’s Origins”, or the worryingly specific, “French Literary Elite Shrug at Cronyism, and Pedophilia”.) In short, regular exposure to such stories is clearly not good for the soul. And if you are prone to certain forms of anxiety or a general sense of despair (exacerbated by Corona or just simply because you live next door to human incarnation of Roald Dahl’s The Twits) then it is probably best to avoid it. And by avoid it, I mean as much news in general.

Of course, psychologists have several reasons why people might be prone to binge on media which is clearly not good for them. One theory is that individuals keep coming back because they either want reassurance or an assurance that something is going to get better. Indeed, I have a Glaswegian friend back in London (clever, witty, could sell jars of melancholy to the Viennese) who consistently espouses the need to read everything in search of balance, to understand the other side, to reach a more informed decision about something. Yet I am not sure. How is being more informed going to boost my sunny disposition? In any case, if you are prone to depression or an elevated sense of angst in the number one city, it is first necessary to check your music collection for any traces of Schlager and then eradicate it.  

But then, a miracle and a story on page one of this week’s NYT pull-out which made me sit up and take note. “How 2020 Became The Year Of Blur”, posing the simple question: “Are we able to remember this awful year, or simply unwilling?” (The article talks about how psychologists explain the effects of lockdown and quarantines where “sheer monotony has the ability to warp time and tangle our memories”, a phenomenon first identified some years ago amongst people waiting at the Vienna immigration office in the 12th district.)

It caught my attention because I remember the first lockdown, the sense of impending “liberty”, the normality of life in suspension, the notion we were about to live through a once in a lifetime temporary social experiment. And nobody expected back in March that it would be anything more. But with the onset of the second lockdown things felt quite different. It felt weird, yes, very weird. More so because at this time of year in the number one city we should be visiting the Christmas markets (not me obviously), drinking Punsch (street price set to outperform Bitcoin this season), meeting friends in Flanagans for the yearly Christmas piss up, bracing ourselves for much anticipated shutdown of normal existence and the long-awaited annual retreat into the warmth and safety of home, away from the work. But this has been the reality since, well, Halloween. And it is what it is: weird.   

Fortunately, some traditions in Vienna seem implacably unaffected by the global pandemic. The chimney sweep will visit next week for his pre-Christmas inspection and his “free” gift of a crappy calendar. All I would say is that until I moved to Vienna, I had never seen a chimney sweep and after more than twenty years I am still not entirely sure what is the protocol around seasonal gratuity giving (the reason for his call). Some in Vienna say yes and some say no but for Brits, a social nightmare like all tipping, so hide in the cellar if you have one.

Then there is my neighbour’s Punsch party, advertised every year as a simple (and thus easy to extricate yourself) affair – a humble mug of homemade Glühwein, some Lebkucken (gingerbread) perhaps some roasted chestnuts – but invariably turns into a demonstration of all the home winter-party gadgets invented since the arrival of online shopping and therefore impossible just to drop in for twenty minutes. Fortunately, Corona restrictions and talk of bubbles might mean I have to forgo my place (too many families mixing) which is … regrettable.

And finally, there is the perennial debate about who brings the presents. Proud Austrians will assert the primacy of the Christkind and berate anyone who claims any affiliation to Father Christmas or Santa. However, according to heart-warming news in this week’s Kurier newspaper, both have a long tradition in Austria. And it was not until after the end of Austria’s flirtation with the far-right (Adolf, not Heinz Christian) that the Christkind unseated a certain brown-tinged Weihnachtsmann. Ye gads! It means what you think it means; between 1933 and 1945, Father Christmas was a gift-giving national socialist!

And with that thought, I wish you all a Frohe Weihnachten!

© 2020 RJ Barratt