Build Back Besser

Sometimes living in another country is a perfect pretext to avoid making awkward decisions. Speaking to my one of oldest friends recently, I learned about a planned school reunion next month in the town we both went to secondary school (its forty years since the start of our first year in 1981).

For various reasons , family complications, cashflow, a son who didn’t understand the concept of patience, I have avoided travelling back to the UK for several years now. But since the philosophical amputation of the Brexit result in 2016, a return home has seemed even more unpalatable. That said, and as my friend pointed out, there are many people who continue to despise Brexit and the charlatans who made it possible (even in north-east Kent). And one shouldn’t forgo the chance to meet them just because a part of your identity has been seemoingly poleaxed.

Still, everything notwithstanding, even if I could muster up enough enthusiasm to meet and speak to people I haven’t seen or heard about for more than three decades or more (I admit, I am a little bit curious), it would seem faintly ridiculous to do so in a town where 6 in 10 people backed withdrawal from the EU, Nigel Farage once tried to become the local member of parliament, and all the while doing it sitting in a pub run by Brexit backer, Tim “Wetherspoons” Martin.

I say this because there is the danger, certainly in my mind, that some of those people in that reunion would still be deluded by the half-truths and fantasies of Brexit and never admit that it was a mistake. Claiming all along they voted for shortages, higher costs for everything and nothing to put in their shit-mobiles. And this is partly my concern. An inability just to overlook it. Especially after a few pints.

Fortunately, fortune favours the migrant worker with a ten-year residence permit, and my excuse is oven-ready: I am not in the country this decade. Still, we should show compassion given the current situation in the UK and be thankful that there is not a word in the German language which perfectly captures the feelings of all those Brits in the number one city who were suddenly subject to the machinations of the immigration office and beyond (the public relations nightmare that is the Magistratabteilung 35). Resulting from, what was it again? Oh yes, zee taking back of zee controls.

Talking of meaningless rhetorical banalities, over in Vienna’s 23rd district, work is on-going to repair the damage (and nerves) induced by the great Liesing deluge of July 2021. Although the flood damage in our cellar was reported on a Sunday afternoon, the “emergency contact” for the insurance company defied all known conventions of expeditiousness and told us to phone back in the morning. However, before they went back to reading Sunday’s pilfered copy of Kronen Zeitung, they did give us permission to remove laminated floors, (ruined) and furniture (mostly unscathed) in an attempt to mitigate any further loss. Although with the warning that we had to take many photographs otherwise our claim would be invalidated and my Brexit credentials revoked.

This ancillary hotline service “Rasche Hilfe” is designed to allow you speedy assistance in times of calamity, and it came as part of the package when we upgraded our home insurance some years ago after the previous incumbent rejected what we thought was a legitimate claim for some water damage brought about by leaky pipe. (We learned that if the pipe is inside your house, it’s big beers and schnapps chasers all round, but if it is outside then it’s time to dig out the Deppensteuer (idiot tax) t-shirt and post photographs on social media.)  

Now, you may find this hard to believe, but even in the number one woodpecker city (don’t roll your eyes, it was in the papers), dealing with insurance is much a game of roulette as anywhere else which believes in the logics of capitalism. So much so and vexed to the point of maximum vexation at haggling with shitheads on the telephone about the semantic doublespeak of insurance policies, when we switched to Wiener Städtische (our insurers) we made it very clear that we wanted the full coverage for such eventualities, even it meant paying a little bit more for the premium. No problem, we were soothingly reassured, Vienna Insurance Group “wants your worries” and with this policy you also got access to emergency plumbers, electricians and a psychiatrist when you finally read the small print (and this being the number one city, the small print is world beating). And inevitably you are seduced by the promises of professionalism and urgency from the well attired gentlemen sitting in your kitchen, because you believe historian Rutger Bregman’s claim that deep down, most people are pretty decent (it’s a contentious view).

But like a lot of insurance promises, it is not what it first seems. Last year, one of our electrical circuits shorted in the house. As an individual who could rewire a plug (a British plug) I knew it was time to step up and with a confidence last seen as I tried to connect a wireless printer to the computer, off I strode to find the fuse box. Seconds later, the circuit shorted again. Momentarily, deflated, a lightbulb suddenly appeared above my head as I remembered we had access to the Vienna insurance equivalent of the B.A. Baracus, Hannibal, Face and Murdoch, so, we phoned the hotline enquiring about an electrician. Yes, they could do it, they told us, but don’t forget that the insurance contribution is capped at 75 Euro. Wie, bitte? (Check policy.) Ah yes, there it was, buried in page eight of the terms and conditions: “call out fee for tradesperson – maximum, when you take everything into account, and this being a weekend, Null Komma Nix” (German for “sweet Fanny Adams”).

I say that because, even on a good day, the call out for most of the professions in Greater Vienna is about 100 Euros (they euphemistically call it “Wegzeit” – meaning literally “travelling time”. In any case, this being the weekend we knew it would probably have been double. Which meant running the risk of allowing a smirking professional to cross our threshold, have a bit of a fiddle, (we knew five minutes at most because we would be already wearing our Idiot Tax baseball caps) only to present us with a bill, minus the 75 from the insurance, not dissimilar to the price of a meal for two at Vienna’s most internationally lauded restaurant, Steirereck (currently number 12 in the World’s best restaurants).   

Anyhow, defying all known precedence, four days after contacting the insurance company, we were, as promised, visited by the insurance appointed Sachverständiger (more or less a loss adjuster). And after numerous photos and several measurements with a machine which I am sure I had seen in the kitchen of Heston Blumentahl, we were reassured to learn that the insurance would be liable. Excellent, we thought. All that was left to do was to find a company to do the repairs so we asked the insurers if they could recommend anyone (it turns out, insurers are willing to cough up the money but don’t want the extra hassle of soliciting offers and organizing contractors. No, they want your worries, but not most of them).

Now, these recommended companies were not some bloke offering his services through the noticeboard of Spar, they were serious players in the water and fire damage business here in middle earth. Indeed, although we had had no need to seek out the services of any of them until now, I had frequently seen their ubiquitous vans zooming around the streets near where we live and, jumping red lights and narrowly missing parents and prams on zebra crossings, as is the Viennese way. Still, my selection criteria was simple: which company had the best logo. And with this important decision taken, three were invited to our cellar to tut, shake heads and moan about how busy they were.

The first company (we shall call them Company Sunlit-Uplands) gave us the impression that all that was needed was a lick of paint and new floor and quoted about half of what we eventually received from the insurers. However, given what the assessor had told us, we were a little bit suspicious and indeed the second company (we shall call them Company Project Fear) confirmed this with news that all the walls would have to be dried with special machines, everything ripped out and completely renewed.

“How much did you get from the insurers,” Project Fear Rep asked, “4000?”

“Er, a bit more.”


“Er, yes, how did you know?”

“Everybody knows. If you have any flood protection, it is usually capped at four or eight thousand in Vienna. But you knew that because you checked your policy, right?”

(Reaches for Idiot Tax badge)

The third company (Company Northern Ireland Protocol) were somewhere in the middle. There was a chance the damage was more cosmetic but the only way to find out was to strip everything back (the walls and floors would still need to be dried) but it was our choice.  

All of this took a couple of weeks by which time the first company started to get a bit agitated (pushy) asking if we were going to accept their offer or not (they even gave us a deadline for the next day). Meanwhile, after receiving the offer from the second company (three times higher than the first) I emailed back to question a few of the “positions” and never heard from them again (see headline picture above). Although the representative from company three was clearly competent, it took ages to get a quote so as another week passed, we decided one Friday morning to accept the offer of company one with a few additions (more work but more outlay). Despite hassling me only the day before, they emailed back shortly afterwards to say that it was now too much work and they would have to withdraw their services, the poor things. My reply, short and to the point and internationally recognized, simply stated, “Eh?”

Luckily, we hadn’t been able to reach company three beforehand that morning to cancel them (the guy was on another call) otherwise we really would have been up zee Leisingbach. But then the deal was done and now we are on the road to building back better. And best of all, for the past two weeks, drying out the walls and floors, we have had two machines reminiscent of the drones (Huey, Dewey and Louie) from the classic post-apocalyptic film, Silent Running.

As Freeman Lowell, the main character beautifully observed, “You know what else there is no more of, my friends? There is no more beauty, no more imagination, and there no frontiers left to conquer, and do you know why? Nobody cares.”

Except perhaps Vienna Insurance Group. A bit.

© 2021 RJ Barratt