While I’m on the subject of stores, I want to talk a little about the grocery store. I had in mind that this would be a post on cultural differences that drive me nuts (what is up with the butting in line, Europe?? Seriously, knock it off), but this one actually merits a post all its own. Because if you plan to go to the grocery store here, you need to be prepared. And by “prepared” I mean, you should probably start working out. Like, now.
Viennese grocery stores (and elsewhere—the same is true in Italy) have a different procedure than is followed in the US. First of all, if you want bags you will need to buy them. They’re usually hanging in front of and under the counter. You will be paying around 30 cents for each one, so you won’t want too many. Ideally, you will bring your own shopping bag(s) with you. This is ecologically motivated, and it makes good sense. The problem is that it interacts with another feature of the European grocery, with devastating results.
That other feature is that there are no baggers. In the US, of course, your groceries are tidily packed in a bag, while you wait, by a person experienced in such things. In an earlier generation this was often a teenager. These days, with employment in the US being what it is, it could easily be the head of a family of 4. In Vienna, though, it’ll be nobody. Your groceries are going to come flying down the belt toward you with no one to help you stuff them in bags. Here’s where I return to the first issue I mentioned: this issue will be exacerbated by the fact that you tried to save money by getting too few bags, and by the fact that you have no idea what you’re doing. Your bi-weekly trip to the grocery store in no way replaces the years of experience of a professional bagger. You are going to crush the strawberries. You are going to squeeze the cheese.
Worse yet, you are going to do it with the next person in line standing right on top of you, and the checker watching you scramble around because you can’t bag and get out your money at the same time. Bad times. Here are three basic strategies for surviving:
1. Bags first. Most people lay their groceries on the belt, and only then realize they’ll need a bag and grab one from the rack. By “most people” I of course mean me. Don’t be that fool. Get your bag on the belt first, so that you have it rung up first and can immediately start stuffing it with purchases. Game on!
2. Hold your ground. Look again at the above photo. I see something here that you may not: this woman is making sure the person after her doesn’t crowd her by putting her cart behind her in line—otherwise an inexplicable choice. A major factor in grocery store success is controlling your own sense of pressure. You can’t let the person behind you stand on top of you. Do what it takes—put your elbows, your cart, hell, even your body odor in their way.
3. Take it in phases. The grocery store is not evil, merely misguided. They know that no one can manage in this kind of pressure cooker, and so they always, always provide a shelf or counter just across from the checkout stands where you can dump your stuff and regroup. Do that. Consider your pass through the line merely the first stage of your checkout journey, and take a moment here to repack your bags, salvaging anything that was maltreated in your first, frenzied effort. Your strawberries, your cheese and your sanity all thank you.
Around the corner from our house, in the Lasallestrasse near the Vorgartenstrasse U-Bahn station, one finds a little shop that is so very Vienna. What kind of shop? An umbrella shop, that’s what. A sign over the door says, “Umbrellas.”
What’s so special about an umbrella shop? Squint your eyes and examine the objects in the window. You will see that this little store doesn’t just sell umbrellas—indeed no. It also sells toys:
This is one of those esoteric little Viennese stores that have been around forever, and where the owner offers a selection of whatever the hell he wants for the occasional neighborhood client who stops in. In this case, the owner, who is very happy to chat, told us that he’s been selling umbrellas in this shop for over 50 years. (This was surely the family business.) He makes and repairs umbrellas of all colors and styles.
Once upon a time, he probably did a lively business. Vienna, with its wild weather, is deadly for umbrellas; the wind just flips them inside-out without warning. A previous generation was likely investing often in umbrella repair. I am guessing that with the advent of cheap umbrellas from China he turned to selling toys on the side. Of course, it is also possible that he just sells toys because he likes them. One supposes this because he is also selling honey.
Yes. He sells umbrellas. Toys. And honey.
The honey he produces himself, as he is also a beekeeper with some fields along the Danube somewhere. He has wildflower and sunflower and lavender honey.
I love honey. I collect honey, jar upon jar, every possible flavor. Austria is honey heaven. I don’t know why, but there is just a lot of beekeeping going on in this country—you can get amazing honey in all the local markets. But honey and umbrellas and toys? That is unusual.
I love these crazy little Viennese stores that sell whatever they please with no regard for whether there’s a customer base. No market testing, no social media marketing, no special offers or landing pages or cross promotions or any of that shit. Just toys, handmade umbrellas, and homemade honey.
Needless to say, the owner of this charming but impractical business is going into Pension (retirement) in January. God knows what horror will take his place (cell phone shop?). Head to Lasallestrasse to get your umbrella fixed and your honey stockpiled while you still can.
On a couple of occasions in my long and diverse teaching career, I’ve been asked to teach a course on museum studies. A prominent feature of that course — and it’s a really fun course to teach, by the way — is a series of lectures on cabinets of curiosities. These are essentially the early modern precursor to the museum, ad hoc collections of all manner of materials strange, unusual, marvelous, and beautiful. The cabinet of curiosities is a concept with enormous range — with origins in Italian studioli (little studies) and royal treasuries, it takes a particularly elaborate form in the collections of the Austrian Habsburgs, who bought, stole, commissioned, or were given every imaginable kind of object.
I’ve written about some of the fruits of this collecting before—indeed, the newly reopened Kunstkammer in the KHM in Vienna has the very best objects from the Habsburg cabinet of curiosities (at its height called a Wunderkammer); these objects were, in the late 19th century, split off from the paintings and sculptures, and from the naturalia, that became the basis of the rest of the KHM and of the neighboring NHM (about which I’ve also written). But if you want to see the collections of rare and precious objects presented as they would have appeared in the 16th century—that is, at the height of European craftsmanship—you need to head to Innsbruck, and to Schloss Ambras. Here, the collections of Archduke Ferdinand II, ruler of Tyrol, can be seen still in their original setting, some of them in their original display chambers. It’s a rare and extraordinary window into Renaissance collecting—and also just some really cool shit.
The castle/palace complex is 16th century, with gardens set against a spectacular Alpine backdrop that you unfortunately can’t see while looking at the palace, rather from it (who gets the good view? The inhabitants, that’s who):
Inside, the first room you come to is a large hall of armor—some of it rather interesting. The armor has an incredible intricacy; this was, after all, the 16th century, and Habsburg gear. It was more likely to be used for parades than for riding into actual battle. Also, these people were seriously tiny.
There were also some pretty weird choices—like these helmets given the shape of Moors’ faces, to be worn by archdukes and their like.
“What were they thinking?” you ask. Good question. In further rooms you can see the cabinet of curiosities as it was originally displayed in the 16th century. This is a rare, indeed unique, opportunity, because most objects that were originally part of these collections are scattered, with their original settings destroyed, and only inventories give a sense of how they might have been assembled. At Schloss Ambras, you can see that the collection is organized according to a set of taxonomic principles that make little sense to modern minds. That is, by material, regardless of any other consideration (for example, art vs. nature).
Among the highly curious objects in the collection, a sort of carved coral diorama of the Crucifixion:
A carved wood dancing death:
And, in a corner that it shares with a tree trunk that has grown around a set of deer’s antlers, you will find a taxidermied forerunner to the early work of Damien Hirst:
Wait…let’s get a better look at those antlers, shall we?
The collection does not distinguish, as I said, between works of art and nature, and so it includes a series of paintings of the extraordinary hirsute family of Pedro Gonzalez, a Spanish man who was part of the court of Margaret of Parma, the governor of the Netherlands:
No doubt such hirsutism caused the family distress. But surely it was better than a sharp stick in your eye. Not sure? Consider the trials and tribulations of one Gregor Baci, unsuccessful jouster:
Gregor’s portrait is just one of the dozens upon dozens in Ambras’ extensive and quite quality portrait collection; you can also see many of the original rooms (including an incredible bathroom with a deep pool meant to be kept warm with heated stones). In contemplating what picture to give you in closing, I choose this incredible example, which I think captures the curiosity’s concept of limitlessness. Why live in a world with a concept of the impossible, when you could instead live with this guy:
Not long ago, I had the opportunity to go to a giant flea market, where I saw a set of airline seats for sale, presumably to decorate some lucky person’s home. As I recall, I snarked about the fact that nothing says “living room” like the experience of flying coach, and a sharp-eyed commenter pointed out that these were, in fact, seats from first class. I think that only marginally improves things, but ok.
But in case you were wondering who would actually buy a set of used transit seats and put them in their home, look no farther. Last week our downstairs neighbors moved out, and temporarily placed a row of blue seats in the building’s entryway. I can’t tell if they’re van or bus? They still have seatbelts attached. I ran to get a camera. Here they are:
You’d think they were here prior to being thrown out, but no. A pair of large men came with a van and took away these seats along with a giant pile of boxes. The seats were moving on to a new apartment as well, it seems.
Jewish Vienna is a constant balance of absence and presence. The history of Jews here is sitting in the open, and it is hidden everywhere. This may be why I resonate with it so strongly. I am entirely Ashkenazi Jewish on my mother’s side; my grandmother’s mother was born in Lithuania, my grandfather’s parents in Poland. All of them were in the US long before the second world war—they arrived closer to the Civil War. I know literally nothing about them beyond this. They are specters, along with all the family they left behind in Europe.
And yet, the Holocaust is a kind of proxy for knowledge; it gives a false sense that one can understand something of the ancestral experience vicariously via the six million. People who would be my distant cousins — who would be “me,” had my ancestors not struck out for foreign lands — went through a sequence of experiences that it’s possible via historical narrative to imagine (again, falsely) that one could know. And at the same time, the past is past, and shall remain as such. These things are irreconcilable. Yet they coexist. I am deeply drawn to that conflict; and since it can’t be resolved, I try to live within it.
Vienna is constantly, uncomfortably exposing the seams between various pasts and the present. In Vienna, the story of Europe’s Jews, and their near eradication, is laid out spatially across the city’s geography. The messages these sites send are complicated, troubling. They refuse to nurture that desire that the past be contained and narratable, owned by the present—and rightly so. Here, for example, is a sculpture along the Ringstrasse (the main road encircling the city center, built on the eradicated foundations of the medieval city walls):
That is Karl Lueger, surveying the Platz that bears his name. In fact, there used to be an entire section of the Ring named for him; it’s now called the Universitätsring in an effort to address increasingly loud complaints about Lueger’s name all over Vienna’s most important street. Karl Lueger is bit by bit losing his eponymous locations. Lueger was mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910, though he’d been elected earlier — his opponents, including the emperor, temporarily kept him from office. He was the founder of the Christian Social Party, which succeeded largely by channeling the religious, social and economic frustrations of German-speaking Austrians and petit-bourgeois business people. He was populist, but anti-capitalist and anti-socialist, both systems he attributed to Jews. He was vocally anti-semitic, blaming Jews for the financial struggles of Austrian workers and shopkeepers.
Typical apologies for Lueger’s attitudes involve a sense that his anti-semitism was merely political (as if that makes it better); that he had friends who were Jews (leading to his famous statement, “I decide who is a Jew”); that he didn’t actually try to murder any Jews (though he did limit their participation in government and education); and that he modernized Vienna by regularizing the water and gas systems and integrating the outlying districts (the old “Mussolini made the trains run on time” line).
Thin gruel—though all of these excuses, such as they are, are true. Including that he was vocally anti-semitic, aware of the benefit this attitude was to his political ambitions, and that he abetted a thread of Austrian anti-semitism so virulent it even surprised the Germans upon their, um, arrival. Despite constant complaints about Karl Lueger Platz and the sculpture upon it, it remains in place. Most tourists have no idea who he was; most Viennese give the whole thing a shrug. I am conflicted, having gone from being scandalized, to thinking that whitewashing history by erasing its shameful elements doesn’t do anyone any favors. I don’t like Lueger; I also don’t like whitewash. I would prefer that Karl Lueger Platz provided some context not only for who Lueger was and the moment in which he lived, but also for why a previous generation had such an unconflicted attitude to him. Of course, that is not what monuments like this do.
From Karl Lueger Platz, head north and west and cross the Canal into the second district, and you will find a rather different sort of landmark. Here, you are in the historical Jewish district of Vienna, the Leopoldstadt (ironically, it is named for the emperor who expelled the Jews from Vienna in 1670). This was never a ghetto. But the Nazis did force Jews to relocate to this district, and eventually deported them from it. 130,000 or so Jews emigrated from Vienna as a result of Nazi efforts; some 65,000 were deported from Austria and murdered. The 2nd district was besieged over a seven-year period beginning with the Kristallnacht, and the traces are present—if you know where to look for them. Here in the Grosse Schiffgasse, for instance, is what looks at first glance like any other empty lot:
I’m going to give you a piece of advice: In this part of Europe, always suspect the empty lot near the urban center. In this case, the lot in question was the site of a 19th century synagogue. There were a couple dozen of these in Vienna in the 1930s; only one survived the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938. It wasn’t this one.
There may be a plaque in the area to commemorate the loss, as there are on other former synagogue sites (I’ll show you some another time); if so, I couldn’t find it. The building next door was a part of the original complex, and now hosts a couple of Jewish institutions, invisible from the street. But the original site of the Schiffschul (named for the street) still stands empty, with no decision as to what it will be, and therefore what it will mean.
The entire second district near the canal needs to be looked at in terms of these kinds of losses, and the way that the city has, like thickly poured oil, both filled and exposed them. Only a few obsessives like me know what this empty lot was, or means. But would it be more “true” to the history of the place if there were a monument there, something modern, apologetic, and inspiring?
What do you say to this ground floor room, in a building near the Karmelitermarkt, which a history of the Jewish establishments in the 2nd district tells me was once a prayer room, now an architecture office:
Should it be emptied out? Returned to someone (to whom? How?)? Is it sufficient, or excessive, or unnecessary, or fortuitous, or essential, or intrusive, that I, an American half-Jew, showed up here and looked up its address and told its current occupants that, before 1938, it was a place for Jewish prayer (not a synagogue — something much less formal)? The occupants were surprised and pleased to know of its long history. I was happy to discover and share that history.
The Augarten is Vienna’s oldest Baroque park, opened in 1775 by Emperor Joseph II on the grounds of an earlier Habsburg hunting ground and later mansion. Now it is the setting for a porcelain factory and the Vienna Boys’ Choir, as well as various other institutions. It’s a true Baroque garden, with carefully laid geometric flower beds, tree-lined avenues, and an anti-aircraft tower.
Ok, so that last isn’t so Baroque. Most people love the Augarten for its idyllic vegetation and flat lawns, but I love it because of its typically Viennese split personality. Because set in the midst of its shady lanes and bright flowers are two Nazi-built Flaktürme, or Flak towers. The more massive of the two is the G-tower, which rises ominously over the park:
A second and smaller tower, the L-tower, is further north.
The L-tower was a bunker, but the G-tower was a platform for massive anti-aircraft guns; it’s now the backdrop to some serious June sunbathing and football-playing:
What I love about the Augarten is the juxtaposition of the Flakturm and the violence in our midst with the elegant lanes of trees, perfect for a civilized stroll:
The other great thing about the Augarten is the bakery situated on its southwest side:
I’ll write about Flaktürme another time — there are others in Vienna, and they’re extraordinary. Some have been repurposed in surprising ways.