Highway To Heimwerker Hell

When silent, never a certainty in my snippet of Vienna as winter cedes to spring and summer, gardening can provide me with a profound sense of purpose and accomplishment. It is an activity where I can happily wile away several hours planting, cutting and sometimes digging, although generally my favorite is just pottering about, clearing up, cleaning or mending something. I have never bought into the idea of “low maintenance” gardening, but equally I see no sense in investing huge amounts of time and effort as simply a means to an uncertain end. A principle I apply to almost everything else. Ticking over is my approach. A tinker here, a tinker there. And just enough to justify a bottle of Stiegl at the end of the day.

But from time to time, “garden work”, as my son calls it, requires something slightly more extensive. Some years ago, I constructed a little house for my kids, like a mini shed but raised about a metre above the floor. Over the seasons, as my children grew, the little house became nothing more than a place for the cat to sleep and for me to go and hide whenever anybody rang the doorbell. And so at the start of 2021, I decided it had to go, mostly because the paintwork needed refreshing and the vacated space was a prime location for expanding self-sufficiency and keeping me out of the pub.

In my mind, like all projects which involve a toolbox, a cordless drill and a sense that I am useful, I envisage a couple of hours of relatively easy-going Arbeit. More so because having assembled the house back in 2012, I had a pretty fair idea of how to dismantle it without resorting to complication. And so it proved, although my For-Fucks-Sake radar flagged up a few early problems when it became clear that several of the many screwheads, through exposure to the weather and not because I have all the luck of someone who has missed out on the property boom, Bitcoin and the first dotcom bubble, had lost any meaningful profile to offer easy extraction. However, with a selective use of a hammer and a few cries of bastard!! filling the suburbs, the house came down and off it went for recycling at the MA48 (the waste and recycling people in Viennaville).

Left in the ground, of course, were the four metal supports which I knew were individually encased in concrete. Easy, I dreamed. All I had to do was dig around the metal exposing the concrete base, loosen it enough to give it a little wiggle and then somehow hoist it out. Unfortunately, concrete, even if it is only the size of a beachball, is, as I found out, incredibly heavy and it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t a job for a fifty-something British expat still recovering from prolapsed ego and an over-active gloom-gland.  

Still, it was important to get the leg supports out of the ground because as a friend of mine pointed out, what if someone fell from a plane and was impaled? Moreover, I needed the space to enact my Stalinist inspired five-year agricultural revolution. And so the moment called for contingency. One idea was to call in the professionals, but experience has taught me that trying to find a builder for these little jobs is rarely worth the effort and expense. “Yeah, I’ll dig you a hole,” they tell you, “That’ll be 2000 Euro which includes a promise not to piss on your hydrangeas.”

Another possibility was to hire a jackhammer from a tool hire company (the go to guys in this part of Austria are ZGONC and, yes, it is impossible to pronounce correctly for any English speaker). However, it would still mean disposing of the remnants and although I am progressive in many ways as a parent, given the condition of my neck, it didn’t seem scrupulous to expect my children to join a Vienna version of a Sam Cooke song.  

Although my original plan was to simply use the part of the garden beneath the old house to plant vegetables, in the end, the solution resided in the construction of two new raised beds (the top of the metal supports only protruded about six inches out of the ground and I could essentially build around and cover them). I admit, this might cause some head scratching amongst future archaeology students, “Herr Professor, we seem to have found the remains of Homo Twatus … and some metal spikes!” but I wanted to avoid this because of the cost and the need to source the materials to fill them (it is always much more than you think). For example, if you buy a basic model with specific dimensions to fit your garden from Hochbett specialist “Schweitzer” (2m x 1M x 70cm) the price comes in near 600 Euros (once you include the handrail, the plastic lining, the snail defences, and delivery).

Of course, at this price you are not really investing in “cheaper” food as you may tell yourself (unless your time frame corresponds with the validity of my new Brexit visa) but rather in the twin notions of sustainability and bragging rights to your friends. However, after a little bit of research, I found out that I could build something virtually similar, same wood (larch), same size, but without the handrails (mostly for visually appeal and perfect for snails to hide under because they will breach your palisades) for a fifth of the cost. Although it meant I would have to waste precious minutes of my life staring at the screw section in the local hardware store wondering why there are so many types in the 21st century and what is really the difference between the silver and the gold ones. 

Which leads me to the world of the Heimwerker. Heimwerker is a curious German word in that it is not that easy to translate directly into English. There is the clumsily cited “do-it-yourselfer” which I have seen or “handyman”. But for me, a handyman/person is more akin to “Handwerker” (masculine – don’t blame me, blame Duden) which describes a professional tradesperson or craftsman. Indeed, when I think about how to describe the art of doing certain jobs around the house it would almost certainly by phrased as something like, “I am useless at DIY” rather than turn the art of doing DIY into a specific job (as in “I am a useless do-it-yourselfer”).

In any case, DIY is an interesting because it is one of those words or phrases in English which no Austrian ever seems to know whatever their English level or experience. Instinctively, I might want to build a sentence like “I am off to the DIY store this weekend to be bamboozled by the choice of nails” but I know people generally don’t know what I am talking about (a phenomenon not confined to DIY). But another example is “appraisal” or “annual performance review” (in Austria it is usually just know as an MAG – Mitarbeitergespräch). I have never met any Austrian who knows the English for MAG although come to think of it, I have never met anyone who can explain to me what is the point of an appraisal.

That aside, it is a curious thing to me that often one’s choice of DIY store (Baumarkt) seems to instigate an unwavering sense of loyalty. I suspect this is not wholly confined to Austria but whenever the subject comes up amongst anyone unfortunate enough to talk to me about DIY, people will generally assert their affinity with one particular outlet. Then again, the DIY store is almost certainly as brand sensitive as the car you drive, the phone you use when driving your car, and the pants you soil as you rear-end the car in front whilst using your phone when driving. It’s just that I don’t why anyone could be so attached to a retail experience which seemingly offers exactly the same range of products as their competitors. That said, if you are to live in the number one city or thereabouts and you need a shovel, some plastic sheeting and the raw materials to bury a body (lay a patio, lay a patio!) then you have three main options:

1. The Main Player – OBI: going since 1970, German based OBI is billed as “Europe’s number one DIY retailer”. A bold claim – one which the Union Jack waving Brexit chancers in England will use as more evidence of the right decision to leave the EU – it has been in Austria since 1995, just two years before I turned up demanding to know where I could find a B & Q. There are ten branches in and around Vienna and they do a decent line in home branded products amongst the other stuff, some of which is useful. In recent years they have rolled out their Fachleute (specialists on hand to guide you through your project, now a feature everywhere) which gives us such luminaries as Gartenplaner, Kuchenplaner and Badplaner. They promise “Alles machbar” (everything possible) although this doesn’t apply to finding any of the “Planer” on a busy weekend if you dare visit.   

2. Aesthetics meets function – BAUHAUS: named after the British gothic rock band, Bauhaus was the first DIY store in Germany (1960, before DIY had been invented) but only came to Austria in 1972. They sell pretty much the same stuff as OBI but try to differentiate themselves with their “Drive-in Arena”, “Bäderwelt”, “Nautic” (yes, you can buy sailing stuff in the 10th district of Vienna) and something ominous called “Profi Depot”. They are my DIY store of choice for the simple reason I can walk there in 15 minutes. However, it was not always so, due to a tiny mix up with some wood we ordered a few years ago for the garden (we expected 4m planks, they sent 3m planks. The planks). By the time the delivery guys had scarpered it was too late, so I had to vexatiously load up the family car – a feat of engineering worthy of NASA – drive up the road and then dump them at the customer service desk demanding a refund and the number of a psychiatrist. Caution is thus advised.

3. The Outsider – HORNBACH: There is one in the 22nd district but one might as well drive to Bratislava. This means for those of you who live in the west and south of Vienna, your best bet is Brunn Am Gerbirge across the Triesterstrasse from retail carbuncle Shopping City. A Germany company once again, it arrived in Austria in 1996 and in recent years it has cemented itself as DIY’s wackiest advertiser (which all the other brands have tried to emulate one way or another). Beyond this, amongst people I know who seem to have more expertise about DIY, this appears to be the favoured destination. I have never fully worked out why, but fun fact, until 2014, 21% of Hornbach was owned by British company Kingfisher PLC. Owners of, yes you guessed it, Farage, B & Q!

© 2021 RJ Barratt