Regular readers will know that my last posting of the year is traditionally a set of “awards”. Awards for the best of this or that, the faces, the places and most importantly, a round up of the worst status seeking, aspirational wastrels in the number one city. But the constraints and challenges of 2020 demanded a different kind of reflection, especially as I have been too busy trying to work out what to do with all the free time on my hands, on account of having more free time of my hands (even by my standards an aberration) as part of the useless class. In other words, I have let Vienna slide.
However, back in 2016, I concluded the year in the style of a gratitude journal and given the year we have had, 2020 seemed a perfect time to revisit the format albeit with a few modifications. Such an undertaking mostly focuses on the good stuff but normally there is a section about things which “could have been better”. I have decided to exclude this part because most of the “could have been better” events seem trivial in relation to national lockdowns and global pandemics. So sadly this means I won’t be recalling the excruciating conversation I had on the doorstep with a wine maker from Lower Austria, who I had mixed up with another wine maker from Lower Austria (he had the same surname). Or the claustrophobic delight that was a masked MRI scan whilst trying to remain completely still in spite of the sobering pains in my neck and back. Or that time just this week where I had to pick up a poor bloke from the middle of the road after he crashed off his moped.
No, this year it’s all about six words which generally capture my mood: joy, positivity, optimism, enthusiasm, jocundity and affability (and not the customary “always on the verge of vexation”).
The Robert Barratt Slightly Longer Than Five Minute 2020 Vienna Journal:
I am grateful for:
- My small network of Austrian-based British compatriots on Twitter, most who I have never met but who have kept me company (and often amused). Special mention to the people at “British in Austria” who have been relentless in their pursuit and dissemination of information relating to residence and questions arising from the Brexit shitshow.
- The Vienna Chamber of Commerce for keeping me financially viable through 2020 given the 70% drop in business turnover. As I am often reminded, it is not their money, but the rapidly instigated scheme to distribute bread, schnapps and, most crucially, financial assistance in the form of “hardship funds”, enabled me to keep my Kopf above water with a bit left over for some goodies.
- The banks and paths adjacent to the Liesing stream in the 23rd and 10th districts of Vienna. I wrote much about this unassuming trickle of water long before anyone had heard of bat soup, but in 2020 its social purpose as a place of exercise and escape reached new heights of attachment and comfort.
- Gugumuck – I am no expert but my pick for the coolest open-air bar in Vienna in 2020. Found on the Gugumuck farm (of snail fame) on the southern rim in the 10th quadrant, it has everything you need for a relaxing couple of hours away from the menace that is Vienna in summer. Best bet for those not driving, bus 16A from Alaudagasse (10 mins).
Some “great” things which happened in the last 12 months:
- Truly little beats the demise of far-right politician, Heinz Christian Strache (Quick recap): after years on the fringes of power, became Austrian Vice-Chancellor at end of 2017 as part of a coalition government with the Austrian Peoples Party (ÖVP). Legendary Ibiza video hit our screens in May 2019 and government quickly collapsed with new elections promised. Far-right split as Strache suddenly seen as a liability. Interim emergency government installed to run things until new vote brings a surprise Conservative-Green coalition (inaugurated in January 2020). Strache under investigation at this point for misappropriation of funds and career seemingly over. With the sounds of the Dancing Stars house orchestra tuning up, Strache attempts a comeback in the Vienna city elections (his spiritual home) with the inspirationally named, “Team Stache”. Receives slightly smaller share of votes than the Bierpartei (Beer Party). Kicked out of his party, kicked out by his wife – apparently – and now seemingly kicked out of politics, Heinz has been noticeably quiet since October. The jungle awaits.
- More politics: Vienna Mayor Michael Ludwig – back on top after sidefooting everyone with his new red-pink coalition (the so-called Punschkrapferl) at the expense of the Green party (partners since 2010). His calm and measured performances in the television debates and interviews reminded everybody that although he has the charisma of a supermarket assistant manager, he is a polished performer and a steady hand with the experience and knowhow to run a city. Keen observations that a Punschkrapferl (it’s a pink and red bun) is usually made from all the unwanted odds and sods from the cake making cabinet have been brushed aside. More so because his victory consolidated the SPÖ position in Vienna after many of the FPÖ supporters stayed at home. His new partners, the NEOS, are untested in the corridors of power but I argued back in 2017 that their central tenet of trying to mix “freedom with responsibility” with a fixation of marring different ideologies in the hope that “something would stick”, would be their undoing. Let’s see. At least they have ditched the pink balloons.
- Linguistic imperialism is alive and well, evidenced by the rapid spread of words associated with global respiratory pandemic: social distancing, home-schooling, home working, home office, lockdown, superspreader. But the one pissing off every non-native English speaker over the age of 40 in Austria – “tracing” system.
- Discovering a new part of Austria this summer and autumn. As most of Austria holidayed at home filling up the more popular regions and forsaking the culturally regimented delights of the Adriatic Italian coast or the islands of Croatia, it was the perfect time to seek new corners of the alpine republic. This led us to the largely ignored south-eastern corner of the federal state of Styria (about 90 minutes from Vienna) and the towns of Bad Blumau, Feldbach and Riegersburg. The Sudsteiemerk (Southern Styria) is famous in the German speaking world for its wine culture and landscape reminiscent of Tuscany (no, seriously). But travel further east and north and you hit an almost identical Landschaft with wine and food to match and without the inconvenience and crowds of its brasher, often over-run sister across the rolling hills.
- Just one interaction with my fathead German neighbour (I simply smiled and ignored him).
What will make 2021 better?
- An easy process to acquire the necessary (I can’t believe I am writing this) visa down at the immigration office as a result of British extraction from the EU. We are promised Austrian expedience at its finest especially if you have the now legendary “Dauer”, a piece of paper relating to the notion of permanency but with more gravitas than the Ring of Power. In practice this will be exchanged for a credit card style replacement on presentation of said Dauer (or other residence document), a new photo and your passport. However, things might still get a teensy-weensy bit complicated depending on how long you have made Austria your home (in the sense providing the requisite paperwork to indicate income, family status and evidence of possession of Lederhosen for men, Dirndls for the ladies). All the talk from the Austrian side at the reach out events in 2019 was about a simple transfer of status but the reality is here: Britain will be a third nation country in a few days and Marmite will be only available from a man with an aversion to cuckoo clocks.
- On the other hand, apart from the need to update the paperwork, with the “Trade and Partnership Agreement” (a deal so thin it has been compared to the contents of Oliver Twist’s dinner) there is no longer the need to fret about Brexit, at least if you live here. Of course, people will accuse me of failing in my duty to get behind this historic accord but the paucity of the deal notwithstanding, remember none of it would have been possible without the withdrawal deal of 2019. …anyone? Anyone? … Was only achieved because Johnson sacrificed Northern Ireland and broke the Conservative promise (inconceivable, unthinkable, impossible) to treat regions of the UK separately. Of course, the devil is in the detail and it will ultimately lead to the break up of the UK. But not to worry. Quoted this week, the ERG’S (the hard Brexit group amongst the British Conservatives) legal advisory committee argued that the level playing field clauses “do not prevent the UK from changing its laws as it sees fit at a risk of tariff countermeasures, and it those were unacceptable the agreement could be terminated on 12 months’ notice”. Kept that one quiet, they did.
- Admittedly, it has not always been a barrel of laughs, and I would cautiously opine that some teachers and subjects seemed to get more of a grip (that phrase again) with the challenges of homeschooling than others (setting of tasks, homework, mastering the technology and eventually settling on one communication channel rather than email, Teams and smoke signals). But for the sake of humanity and our electricity bill, the kids need to get back to some kind of incumbent educational normalcy.
Challenges for 2021:
The challenges in Vienna and Austria are broadly the same as everywhere else: to get life back to 2016 before the Brexit referendum. No, no, wait, that debate is apparently over; the argument has been won; it is time to look forward, not backwards; to the future; to a better world for our children, our neighbours (no not him), and our venture capitalist friends in the rest of Europe and the world.
In Östarrichi, it’s all a board for the coalition conga. Back in January, Austria got a new government (remember?) a ground-breaking coalition of the Conservatives and Greens. This means it will be the job of the K und K (Kurz and Kogler) partnership in 2021 to remind everyone they exist outside of plexiglass and get on with a roll out of vaccines if only to save the Carneval industry from extinction. Given the circumstances over the past nine months, with the emphasis on national consensus, the government is still essentially in the experimental phase, meaning their mutual understanding of a political vison, or lack of, has yet to be tested. The daily newspaper Der Standard describes the task ahead as “Das Minenfeld der türkis-grünen Koalition”, with issues such as migratory politics, security, political Islam and a Red Bull tax. Sorry, I drifted off there, I meant plastic tax. Clearly, there is much to discuss, not least the new elephant in the room, a rather sizeable overdraft. But rest assured I shall bring more news on the printing of money when my work resumes in 2021.
Closer to home, I shall continue my mission to eliminate guilt-based aspiration and any lingering notions of consumerist attachment (although I do have my eye on a secondhand Austrian identity card from 1987 and some bootleg jars of Branston’s Pickle). I am not sure that setting personal challenges is that productive, however. Of the eight I discussed back in the original incarnation of this journal, four years on, half remain: I still haven’t seen the Beethoven frieze in the Secession, I haven’t ridden my Vespa more because I sold it two years ago, I haven’t travelled to the UK and I suppose, most disappointingly, not attended a Vienna Expats event.
But we all need a purpose. So, if nothing more I shall seek a vaccine, get that visa, take better care of my neck, become a regular at Gugumuck when they reopen in spring and given that everyone has a podcast these days, establish myself as a 21st Century Lord Haw-Haw, broadcasting EU propaganda from the centre of Europe in my best affected upper class hybrid accent. “Europe calling, Europe calling,” shall be by rousing cry, “send us your Marmite!”
Have a great slide everybody. My sincere thanks to everyone for reading this far. See you in the sunlit uplands of 2021 …
© 2020 RJ Barratt