Vienna: Intro and Day 1

I like to keep a travel journal whenever I go anywhere far from home — it’s a habit I was assigned on a college winter-term trip to Turkey eleven years ago, but one I’ve enjoyed keeping since then — and so I kept one last week while Jennifer and I jaunted around Vienna. But I’ve always viewed my travel journals as something of a hybrid between true, in-the-moment journaling and quieter, more reflective personal essays, so I decided not to post my entries during vacation. Besides, we were supposed to be getting away for some time together, just the two of us, and if I’d started posting daily updates then, I’d have felt beholden to a larger world, which sort of defeated the point of the vacation. So, here I am now, retroactively posting the entries I made each night.

For fun, I’ve decided to post one entry each day, as though I were on vacation this week instead of last. Makes for easier and slightly more authentic reading, and gives me a chance to polish the entries as I go. I do believe in the honesty of a journal, though, so I promise not to revise my entries — I’m just editing them for typos and for clarity, so what you’re about to read is true to the day I wrote it.

I realize, by the way, that many of these comments have little to do with writing or teaching, so they seem out of place in a blog like this. But they’re also a record of what a writer and a teacher does on vacation — I am obsessively academic about my vacations, meaning I spend most of my time before, during, and after my holiday reading, researching and writing about the place and the people and the experiences — so we’ll call that my excuse to post these here. Just go with it, okay?

Day 1

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Jennifer and I are getting used to travelling, yet somehow we never seem to feel used to it. This is a mixed blessing, I think — we are generally familiar with airports regulations and know our way through security screenings and long lines and foul-smelling fellow passengers, but for some reason we’re still aghast when a passenger makes an ass of himself or an airline employee chooses to assert her bullyish authority simply for the sake of doing so; we know each other’s habits and routines yet can’t help but let our travel fatigue occasionally turn us into taciturn ogres (yep, that’s me); and for all our careful planning we wind up winging half our trip, yet for all our joy at exploring a city ad hoc, we usually wish we’d planned better. We’re full of contradictions, which is part of the fun, I think.

Today we flew to Vienna, using the opportunity of a week-long holiday back home in the UAE to travel north and revisit some cool fall weather. We picked Vienna because…. Well, I’m not entirely sure why, and that’s part of what makes this trip unique. In the past we’ve always had specific reasons for visiting a place — Prince Edward Island for the LM Montgomery/Anne of Green Gables history, Scotland for my family, Chicago because it’s Chicago. We even drove from our previous home in southwest Wisconsin out to Dyersville, Iowa, just to visit the filming location of the farm in Field of Dreams — in fact, we went twice, and we loved it. But this time, we knew only that we wanted to head north, that we wanted fall and old-world European charm, and that we wanted a city for its size but not all the hassle and crowding of a major metropolis. We thought about a number of places we’ve casually mentioned over the years, including various parts of Italy as well as Amsterdam and Prague. And then there was Vienna which, I admit, we’d first added to the list primarily (and for us, not surprisingly) because we love the film Before Sunrise. But the more we looked at Vienna outside the context of the movie, the more we fell in love with its bizarre history, its compact pedestrian-friendly size, its culture and charm, and, most thrillingly, its joyous obsession with Christmas, which is manifest in the dozens of outdoor Christmas markets dotting the city. So Vienna it was, and here we are.

Before we left Abu Dhabi, we rewatched Before Sunrise and Jennifer — the consummate librarian — found online a fun though abbreviated guide to some of the film’s featured locations. We bought a few guidebooks, started practicing a bit of German, and became enchanted by the strange and sometimes hilarious history of the Viennese, who seem somehow simultaneously extraordinarily blessed and doomed with bad luck, and whose morbid fascination with death has become so intertwined with the culture that one can hardly mention a major historical figure without also describing his untimely and sometimes bizarre demise or her lavishly elaborate funeral. Still, it was the film that first drew us to Vienna, so it seemed fitting when we arrived that we should visit one of the first featured locations, the Zollamtssteg Bridge over the River Wien, a walled channel containing the former tributary to the Danube. We’d spent an hour wandering the alley-sized streets of our little Renaissance neighborhood, which includes a charming if disorganized Christmas market scattered over several streets in the Spittelberg area, before settling into a terrific lunch of veggie pizza at a pleasant little Italian restaurant with a sweet and (for a Viennese) attentive waiter. Then, once we’d checked into our hotel, we set out for the bridge. The early sunset here surprised us (it was nearly dark at only 4:30 pm), so by the time we found our way to the bridge it was already twilight, and there was some repair construction going on on one side of the bridge, but the sight was still fantastic, perhaps more so under the amethyst dusk with the first of the city’s multitudinous Christmas lights winking on to reflect in the shallow runnel of the Wien’s canal.

Afterward we rode the tram around the Ringstrasse to the Neues Rathaus, the towering Neo-Gothic city hall lit up against the night sky and overseeing a vast Christmas market that from the outside seemed magical, with its huge central Christmas tree and the platz’s many other trees bedecked in inventive light displays (including a tree full of illuminated Santa-angel-bears); we ventured into the market, however, to discover it a madhouse of swarming tourists and shoppers, people sipping hot cocoa or mulled wine literally shoulder-to-shoulder and rocking in a mass undulation, like an ocean, complete with a riptide of scurrying children tearing underfoot. We drifted out and walked back toward our hotel near the MuseumsQuartier, marveling at the looming statuary of the Parliament building and the squat façade of the Volkstheater. We were looking for a quiet café to enjoy a cup of famous Viennese coffee and a bit of torte or strudel, but strangely, we managed to wander down all the wrong streets and could find only hip, modernist bars or expensive restaurants. We finally ducked into what looked like a cozy corner spot with cakes in the window, but when we entered, the place hushed in surprise, and though we stuck it out through a cup of coffee, we quickly realized we’d wandered into a local café so quiet and so comfortable it was meant only for the neighborhood regulars, and we interlopers had just interrupted their routine evening.

We finished what was actually good coffee and then, content to leave them their café, we headed back to the hotel and here I sit. It’s only 9:30 here, but my body tells me it’s after midnight and I, like Jennifer, am tired, so I’m off to join my wife and rest up for a new adventure tomorrow.

9:39 pm Austrian time

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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