With spring comes the return of the Flohmarkt, or flea market, a famous feature of the Viennese landscape. To be honest, it’s possible they were here all year, but the weather was so bloody awful that who would have known? So, a couple of weekends ago I hit the Flohmarkt Trifecta: three flea markets in 2 days. Curious what there is to buy—and what single purchase I finally selected from among the tens of thousands of objects on offer? You will never guess.
The first flea market (which was also the smallest) gave me an unfortunate false sense of what to expect from the others. This consisted of a few stands in the neighborhood of the Freyung (last seen on this blog here). It was there that I saw a table of totally scary paraphernalia from both World Wars as well as associated other military campaigns, liberally mixed with crucifixes, dolls, and other items familiar from horror films.
This photo is incapable of conveying the terror instilled by this display — but I couldn’t take better pictures because the totally scary guy manning the stand was looking at me and probably putting a curse on me.
So naturally after that I was curious about what to expect from the semi-annual Neubaugasse Flohmarkt, held in the 7th district. This is a gigantic flea market running up both sides of a long street and consisting of dozens of stands and a bewildering collection of objects. Allow me to set the scene:
At Neubaugasse you could find an incredible range of objects, from a turtle etched with images of the first American presidents and a giant bald eagle, to a pair of airplane seats, to cameras of every possible variety.
Overwhelmed by this display, we headed downhill and into the 6th district, and thus into the rear portion of the Naschmarkt. The Naschmarkt is best known as Vienna’s largest outdoor food market, but it also has a flea market at its far end. This flea market is only on Saturdays, but takes place year round.
I can now unreservedly say that this is where you want to go if you are in search of Tracht.
That’s right. Tracht.
What is Tracht, you ask? Tracht is traditional regional clothing—your dirndls, your lederhosen, your little green felt cavalry jackets with brass buttons that probably have a name but I don’t know what it is. Also, Tyrolean hats (not pictured here).
By now you are wondering what purchase I made—what single object I selected from this glory to bring into my home and represent my identity. Was it a dirndl? Was it a dead animal? Well, it was at Neubaugasse that a certain book among the thousands upon thousands displayed there caught my eye:
It’s a commemorative picture book from the first season of Kommissar Rex, a television program about a crime-fighting German Shepherd. It is my favorite TV show, it is teaching me German, and it was a flea market, damn it! A flea market is a temple to misguided purchases.
Until June 30th the Albertina has a show of prints and drawings, “Bosch Bruegel Rubens Rembrandt.” I’ve been to see it a couple of times and found it overall mixed, with a couple of high points. First, I’ll give you a quick overview of what to expect; and then I’d like to show you a couple of things in the show that are very much worth seeing.
The exhibition has as little to hold it together as its title suggests; Bosch, Bruegel, Rubens and Rembrandt were all fascinating (though quite distinct) painters who executed less-famous though superb graphic works; their careers span a timeframe of about 175 years. Bruegel was profoundly influenced by the work of Bosch, at that moment a popular artist; Rembrandt drew from a couple of Rubens’ works, and may have had a more extensive interest in the artist who was the most famous of their shared moment. But Bosch and Rubens or Bruegel and Rembrandt have little enough to do with each other. Presumably to give a sense of connection, a couple of additional categorical divisions are thrown into the mix—Haarlem mannerists, for instance, as well as landscape. It’s exactly as arbitrary as it sounds.
Structure is imposed by the layout of the gallery itself, with the Bosches (including the famous Tree-Man drawing) and Bruegels (the prints of the Seven Deadly Sins) off in the split-level side room (frequent Albertina visitors will know the space well). The remainder of the works sprawl through the remaining gallery space broken into loose subcategories, sort of. The effect is of a kind of intellectual disorder punctuated briefly by extraordinary experiences. I suggest we just take a look at the latter.
For example, among the Bruegels, and far more interesting than the engravings of the Seven Deadly Sins, one finds his pen and brush drawing of Big Fish Eat Little Fish:
The father in the boat gestures toward the fishy mayhem and says, according to the inscription present in print versions, “Look, son, I have long known that the big fish eat the small.” The truth of this maxim is being demonstrated in every direction — not only by the whale in the background, disgorging fish from mouth and gut, but within the boat itself, where another man cuts open a large catch to reveal a small one.
Like most of Bruegel’s works that are often posited to present a “moral message,” the meaning of the work is profoundly unclear. That we are supposed to learn something important is indicated by the gesture of the man in the boat to the boy; the boy, like the viewer, is in the role of “student.” But what is the lesson taught by this marine mass slaughter? Presumably we humans are the biggest fish of all—this would be the logic of the Great Chain of Being, after all—and at first glance this would appear to be the case both within the boat, in the actions of the fisherman, and in the world more broadly, where a pair of men—who, though not the largest figures in the composition, are wielding the largest knives—are stabbing and gutting the massive whale.
But wait. Look up in the sky. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…a flying fish?
The lesson, such as it is, seems to be that everyone thinks he’s the big fish—until he isn’t. Indeed, there is only one true Big Fish, and we are not he. For he is God. And he is coming after us (using nature as his tool?), in the same way we are slashing our way through his creatures. The play is on the idea of Christ as a fisherman/a fisher of men, and on the idea that man is too quick to think of himself as in the position of the fisherman, rather than as part of the catch. That the world can turn on you in a moment—that the big fish can, in fact, become the small—is amusingly indicated by the oysters and mussels clapping hold of the occasional fish, and by the creature off to the right that has sprung a pair of human legs and is walking off with a smaller fish in its mouth.
How do you feel now, little fish?
Need some cheering up? How about a nice, jolly Bosch drawing of…something:
Of course, not for nothing was Bosch a source for Bruegel, since this print, like most of Bosch’s paintings, seems to be about the idea that the result of our human inability to take control of our bodies (as a metaphor for the dominance of spirit over matter, itself a polite way of saying stop sinning, you fool!) means that we will eventually become instruments ourselves—rather dramatically rendered by the figure having a bird driven into his rectum by a lute-wielding man. Go ahead, laugh and play, live it up in your joyful, pleasurable body; chase a few birds. But then prepare to be cracked like a wishbone, played like a lute, or, as in the case of the Garden of Earthly Delights in the Prado, strung on a harp. Because God is not your friend, and he didn’t make this world for you to have fun in. In fact, he made it to trap you.
That was fun and all, but the real highlight of the exhibition for me were the two side-by-side impressions of Rembrandt’s drypoint of TheThree Crosses in States III and IV. For those new to printmaking, a state refers to all of the impressions drawn from a plate without any alterations to the surface of the plate itself. If the artist recuts the plate, whether for artistic reasons or because it has worn down, and then pulls more impressions, this constitutes a new state of the print. TheThree Crosses exists in four states, and clearly between the third and fourth states something radical has happened. Here is state III:
Obviously, it’s a play on light. Christ on the central cross rises into a Close Encounters-styled cone of light that dissolves the figures at the base of the cross even as it defines him as a collection of sharp lines, pushed toward the viewer. The trappings of his material life—the nobles on their horses, the observers behind the cross, Virgin and Marys and other followers, all are treated to an equalizing force of radiance that, in erasing line (print’s only formal tool), eradicates form. The figure of the “good thief” who has accepted Christ (unusually on Christ’s left, though of course on the plate and in preparatory drawings he would have been in the mirror image position, on Christ’s right) has given himself over to the light. His physical collapse paradoxically rises upward, arcing over the top of his cross. The “bad thief” who denies Christ, in contrast, slides inexorably downward, weighed down by ink and line. The lit area lightly touches the edges of the crowd, and at its edges the figures take on definition as they come nearer to the world of the viewer.
In contrast, take a look at what has happened in State IV of The Three Crosses:
The world has gone dark. Christ still rises in the center of the composition, he is still clearly modelled, but his isolation is complete. Dense, heavily cut lines—a near wash of black, a heavy sleet of ink—has swamped the good thief on the right; the holy family likewise, with the exception of the lone figure desperately clutching the base of the cross. The rider who was leaving the composition on the left in State III has turned and is riding inward, an ominous hint of cruelties to come. The groom who had been holding his horse’s head is now behind him, and is now grabbing the head of a panicked, rearing, riderless horse, converted from a previously tame figure of a mounted rider. The new figure is a kind of specter of fear, dimly glimpsed. The work on the plate here is remarkable—take a look at the heavy lines that make up that horse, and think about how Rembrandt has gouged at the plate:
The mood here is obviously grim, and ominous. The consolations of light offered by State III have been completely reversed to produce a dark world of specters:
The viewer’s role here is not to interpret, as in the third state, but to experience. State IV is not just a different image—it posits a different role for artist and viewer. The work we do in front of the image is fundamentally different than that demanded by Bosch and Bruegel—it is not allegorical.
I’d just say that, in the face of such a radically different kind of representation, there might have been a more meaningful way of understanding the relationship between these artists than via the category “Landscape.”
In the U.S., May 1st is the first day of May—and that’s all it is. In fact, if you polled Americans, I would bet that a very small minority would have any idea what May 1st means in the rest of the world. Labor Day in the U.S. is safely quarantined in September, where it can in no way join with labor movements elsewhere to create any kind of actual advocacy, and is associated primarily with barbecues (family over solidarity) and end-of-season-sales (everybody in service industries works on Labor Day).
Vienna, however, is a socialist city in a country with a long history of socialism (as well as fascism, of course, which only makes the resonance of socialism stronger) on a continent with an endemic tradition of socialist activism. If you think anyone expects to go shopping here on May Day, otherwise known as International Workers’ Day, otherwise known as the true Labor Day, you can think again. Everything is closed, everything is red for the day, and the public presence of the SPÖ, otherwise known as the Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs, otherwise known as the Austrian Social Democratic Party, is ascendant.
Invited by friends who are party members and functionaries, I successfully infiltrated the annual massive May Day parade and waved a flag, carried a balloon, and shared a cheese-filled sausage, all in the name of international labor rights. Below is my photojournal.
The first thing to know is that Vienna is structured by its districts — 23 of them. On May Day, all of the districts gather and march, loosely organized under sectional banners, toward the Ringstrasse, which circles the city center and along which one finds the major structures of government. Eventually the parade passes by the Parliament (not to mention the former Habsburg court and even the Opera) on its way to its final destination, the Rathaus, or town hall, where the Mayor and other government functionaries await on a viewing stand.
Here, our particular troop is under way as representatives of the 5th district, called Margareten (full disclosure: none of us actually lives in the 5th, but one of our party is a High Ranking Official in the SPÖ for the 5th, so in the name of Solidarity, we were all Margaretens for a day).
Our route led through the crowded streets of the 5th, eventually passing by the Naschmarkt, or giant food market.
Allow me to present my comrades, who include professional employees of the SPÖ, as well as folks who have been out all night partying (I name no names).
In general, as we headed toward the Wienzeile (nice scenic route we had), there was a celebratory air, fueled in part by the first “pause,” a stop at a little bar that, in solidarity, fortified the marchers with a spread of free bread, meats, sweets, and, of course, the worker’s elixir, vodka.
Speaking of solidarity, along the way one sees its signs (literally):
Eventually, we arrive at the Ring, and hang a left at the historic Opera.
As we march along, we pass other districts waiting to make the turn onto the Ring:
Each group has its own drummers and musicians, and cultivates a distinct identity:
I got a huge kick out of this unconventional juxtaposition:
As we go, we pass many of Vienna’s public landmarks, including the Parliament:
Eventually — so very eventually — we arrive at the Rathaus simultaneous with the districts coming in the opposite direction (the Ring is a circle, after all). We alternate turning into the Rathausplatz, where a giant crowd cheers from behind barricades, and the mayor awaits on a viewing stand:
The view from behind our banner:
I have to say, I love this picture. Thanks to whoever handed me a flag just in time:
After passing through the Rathausplatz we were disgorged back onto the Ring, where we had the opportunity to view a few of the districts still waiting to make their way in. Like these guys:
Or my favorites, these guys:
Directly behind them, this contingent:
Yikes. And it wouldn’t be Vienna if wine did not make a significant appearance:
After you leave the Rathausplatz, directly across the Ring is the “Red Market,” that is, a pop-up outdoor cafe for drinking giant quantities of beer and wine — and liberally populated by firefighters, who are a prominent presence at May Day festivities:
Later in the day, the festivities move over to the Prater, Vienna’s giant public park, where there is music, food, more drinks, and balloons for the kids:
Last weekend, we went to visit my parents, who are spending the month in Paris. I hadn’t been to Paris in nearly 20 years, but was surprised by how recognizable it was — which I suppose should not be a surprise in a city that is thousands of years old, but one does often have the sense that there’s a kind of sameness that’s beginning to make itself felt across the European capitals. Go anywhere and it feels a little like everywhere else.
So I was reassured by how much Paris still felt like Paris. As a gift to my parents (who so generously hosted us for the weekend — ohmygoodnessthefood!) we brought a Sachertorte, Vienna’s famous delicacy. The Sachertorte, for those who don’t know, is a chocolate multi-tiered cake with chocolate ganache on the outside, served by the Hotel Sacher, which is directly behind the Vienna Opera. The recipe is proprietary, and so while there are many tortes in Vienna sold as “Sacher Art” (Sacher-style), only one is the “original.” It is therefore sold by the Sacher at multiple locations in special wooden boxes and costs an ungodly fortune.
Once our Vienna Sachertorte got to Paris it turned out that it, like my spouse, had never actually seen the city before. So we took it on a little tour, starting at the Institut du Monde Arabe:
From the Institut, we made our way toward the Seine, where we sighted an important landmark in the distance, and made it our goal:
Though it was Sunday, a few booksellers were already opening, and we looked for a book for the plane:
Further delays thanks to a compelling menu and abundant spring sunshine:
And then suddenly, there we were:
We waited until the torte was safely in the possession of my parents to buy chocolates to take back to Vienna. We didn’t want to hurt its feelings.
In the 14th district of Vienna (Penzing to its friends) one finds two villas, side-by-side, constructed by the great Jugendstil architect Otto Wagner to be his personal residences. I visited them last weekend, and to be honest, I’ve gone a little blog silent while I struggled with how to talk about what you’ll see if you make your way up there. Because what you think of the Wagner Villas (Villas I and II as they’re known) will really depend on your relationship to Wagner himself.
In that regard, I will go ahead and say that I’m a big fan of Otto Wagner. He was a remarkable figure. An architecture professor at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, he bucked tradition and the likely goodwill of his colleagues in 1897 when he became one of the founding members of the Secession, the exhibition arm of Jugendstil, or Viennese Art Nouveau. He was at the time also in the midst of a massive urban planning effort aimed at restructuring Vienna’s transit and water systems from their medieval conditions into the infrastructure of a modern city. We can and will talk about these designs another time — but in short, if you ever ride the U4 or U6 U-Bahn lines; ride the tram around the Ringstrasse; walk along the Danube Canal; cross the Gürtel; or in a variety of other ways make use of Vienna’s public structures, you are interacting with Wagner’s designs. More than anyone else of his milieu (far moreso than, to my mind, his friend and fellow-Secessionist Gustav Klimt, for instance) his late career fully embraced a forward-looking modernity predicated on an essentialized application of classical principles; his Postsparkasse along the Ringstrasse is an exquisite manifesto of modernist regularity and restraint. He was intellectual and self-editing, his style an embodiment of the notions of utility, functionality, and balance.
Unfortunately, that’s not what you’re likely to see if you visit the villas.
Villa I is the first and larger of the two structures, built beginning in 1886, before the Secession was founded. It reflects Wagner’s classical, academic training even as it signals the kind of linearity and modular thinking that are features of his later work. The villa is essentially a Palladian structure, consisting of a square building with a central loggia above a double staircase. The two pergolas to the sides were filled in to become additional interior spaces not long after the initial construction; they extend the building into a long rectangle.
Still, the central block dominates. Note its modular regularity: the four ionic columns (so balanced! So neutral!) paired by four pilasters behind and two niches to the sides, the cornice broken into yet smaller rectangles, even as a decorative play unites these elements.
It’s difficult to establish from historical photographs whether the color is original, but those historical photos do reveal a key difference in the facade from its original appearance.
Here is the Villa as seen in 1888 (note the open pergolas to the sides). And to the left is that facade seen close-up today.
You’ll notice that the rather awful sculpture of a nude woman is not present in historical images. That’s because it wasn’t there. It also used to be painted black, and isn’t any longer, thank goodness, but its off-putting presence will put a viewer immediately in mind of a basic truth of Wagner Villa I. Namely: It’s not Wagner’s Villa anymore.
Wagner Villa I is owned by Ernst Fuchs, an Austrian artist who practices a style called Fantastic Realism (click here to see a sample). To the right is his portrait bust, which he placed on the facade in the center niche of the staircase. He purchased the villa several decades ago and paid for its restoration—it was evidently in quite bad shape. In the process he turned the villa into his personal museum, in addition to making substantial alterations to the interior (and, as we’ve seen, the exterior). On the one hand, he keeps the villa open to the public, unlike the neighboring, privately-owned Wagner Villa II. On the other hand, he charges 11 euros to enter, and has his own idea of what a visitor is there to see. If your interest is in the collected works of Fuchs himself, this is probably money well-spent (he’s had a long career, and it’s a sizable collection). If your interest is in Otto Wagner, or Viennese modernism, you’re going to have a rough time.
Take, for example, the sun room/living room on the far side of the villa. It was originally an open pergola, filled in in 1895 and then finished with stained glass windows (by Adolf Böhm) and a tile floor. Here’s how it looks:
I shouldn’t need to point out the clash between the art and furniture (both by Fuchs) and Wagner’s aesthetic. My personal approach was to try to tune out the more, um, recent additions, and try to visualize the villa’s origins. You can see here a typically 1890s love of floral ornament in the windows; indeed, this room, more than the facade, reflects a Secessionist style. The graphic linearity of some of the details—the ornamental smoke climbing to allude to columns and harmonizing with the repetitive play of bending and straight lines that modularize the ceiling, as well as the snake design in the floor (line becomes life)—are elegantly Wagnerian. I love the way he restricts his formal vocabulary and then digs structure and meaning out of it:
In the main salon, one has a similarly clashing experience, where Fuchs’ massive painting and equally massive couch/bed dominate the otherwise cool, rectilinear space:
The decor is pretty awful, really. The fact is, Wagner’s style is about an elegant play between utility and ornament. He does not, like Adolf Loos, for instance, reject the notion of ornament; but it plays out within a sense of the use and overall coherence of the space.
Fuchs seems to be governed by an entirely different idea — there’s a kind of gratuitous opulence and excess to the aesthetic of both the art and the furniture added to the villa. And if that’s your style, that’s fine, but it’s hard to make a case that it gels very well with Wagner’s ideas.
Of course, Wagner’s is essentially a classical vocabulary, as the grotesque (in the classical sense) ceiling decorations in the main salon make clear:
In places, Fuchs’ alterations are hard to excuse. The hideous figure from the front staircase makes a reappearance as a self-designed wallpaper in the dining room. Again, you might like this sort of thing (though you shouldn’t), but there’s no real case to be made that this self-exploration of a narcissistic libido is a good fit with Wagner’s cooly restrained, geometric aesthetic:
Let’s leave aside what’s been done to the upper floor, where a rather beautiful original mosaic is surrounded by a sloppily-executed sponge-painting of the walls in livid shades. Overall, the experience of the villa was unsavory and in fact kind of creepy (Fuchs keeps a toothbrush under the Wagner-designed mosaic sink upstairs, a detail that merges unpleasantly with the louche, self-designed daybed and the endless images of fetishistically distorted nudes).
The second villa, Wagner Villa II, is directly next door. Wagner sold Villa I and shortly thereafter in 1912 designed Villa II to be a new residence for himself and his wife. He sold it again in 1918. Villa II is a much more assertive statement of Wagner’s modernism — a spare block of a building, its only projection a coffered cornice, its facade a steady rhythm of unarticulated windows.
This flat score—one can almost hear it as music—is uninterrupted all the way across until the door, where the basic linear forms of the rest of the facade concentrate to signal movement through. Rather than a centrally-placed door of a Palladian villa, Wagner emphasises the linear regularity of the facade, the relentlessness of its geometric progress. In its plainness, in its sense of the facade as a weightless sheet, in its use of ornament only to clarify structure (note the way the entire facade is framed by a reduced bead-and-reel device), in its modern materials (a foundation of steel and concrete, aluminum rivets of the same sort used at the Postsparkasse), Villa II signals a radical step forward from Villa I. It is no longer Secession, nor Jugendstil.
Should you go to the Wagner villas? Sure, if you’re in the neighborhood. Just be clear with yourself about what you want to get from the experience, and how much you’re willing to pay for it. And if you only have time for one intensive Wagner excursion, I would much more strongly recommend the Kirche am Steinhof.
If Easter is not your thing—you don’t love a window display full of bunnies, you don’t want decorated eggs all over your house, you don’t enjoy a delicious chocolate rabbit—then Vienna may not be your place, since for the last several weeks pretty much every shop window has had a certain look:
But you don’t have to be an Easter person to love Vienna’s Easter markets, full as they are of delicious treats (all manner of breads, sweets, and hot, alcohol-laden beverages) and bright colors. Here, for instance, is a rather standard example, the market at Am Hof in the first district:
The jolliest of these markets, though, are the ones with Easter egg displays, like the one at Freyung (also my favorite Christmas market) in the first:
The major feature here is a decorated egg display of epic proportions. All of the eggs are emptied of their contents, decorated with an often extraordinary degree of detail and variety of materials, and for sale. I never buy any of the eggs, but I do love to go look. It’s hard to exaggerate just what a grey winter it’s been around here, and the Easter markets, with their colorful eggs, are the first sign that color might ever return to the world:
I have been told that the best eggs are not found at the Easter markets, but are sold at the Tschechisches Zentrum (the Czech Center) in the Herrengasse. I heard this too late to confirm it, however, so I’ll have to update on that next year. I’ve seen the eggs, though, and they’re gorgeous (wax-covered and painted). Even so, the Freyung is nothing to sneeze at. Who has a heart so hard that it would not be moved by endless variations on a pink egg:
Please note: there are no such signs of color—nor yet life—in the natural landscape, where it’s actually snowing right now.
The Prater is Vienna’s version of Central Park—a massive, path-laced green zone that lies, depending on your perspective, either frustratingly outside the tourist part of town (i.e., the first district) or conveniently near the city center, in the highly-accessible second district (where I live, FYI). (The second district is the best of all the districts, but we can talk about that some other time.) Put another way, the Prater is located between the canal (previously an arm of the Danube) and the Danube itself (which actually is a redirected/reshaped arm of the river) (and yes, we can talk about that some other time, too)…..
Well. I seem not to be making much progress here. So, in short, the Prater is a giant park, with a straight pedestrian road—the Hauptallee—up its center, where carriages and joggers and cyclists and flaneurs and all manner of folk go up and down. There are restaurants and a giant ferris wheel (the Riesenrad) and a miniature train and an amusement park. Some amount of this last consists of relics from the 1873 World’s Fair (more about that some other time too—coinciding with a stock market crash and a cholera epidemic, it was a colossal failure). A lot of it is recent additions and new constructions. It changes often, and also remains very much the same. In the summer it’s a key attraction, and when warm weather (finally, finally!) comes, I’ll be going there in the evenings fairly often (miniature golf! beer garden!) and will write about it again.
But in the meantime, I wanted to share some pictures of how the amusement park looked a few weeks ago, under heavy snow. Part of the motivation here is that the (please, God) last snow of the year fell over the last three days and is just now starting to melt. Let me use these pictures as a farewell to Vienna’s atmospheric, austere, beautiful winter, and a greeting to spring.
Spring! Where the hell are you??
This pig bankomat is a beautiful metaphor for capitalism, as is the wastebasket beside him.
Over the last few weeks, I ‘ve seen a number of people in Vienna using cell phones in what strike me as very funny conditions. Everyone loves their cell phone (“Handy” auf Deutsch), but here they are a way of life—I get the (unsubstantiated) impression that there are fewer smart phones but a whole lot of actual talking and old-school, press-the-buttons texting going on.
Anyway, a few weeks ago I was walking through the Mexikoplatz and saw this little girl, dressed head to toe in pink and bundled up against the cold, strolling down the sidewalk by herself looking extraordinarily self-possessed. Five or so years old, and not an adult to be seen—I looked up and down the street, surprised. She paused, pulled a cell phone out of her pocket, and, in the most casual of ways, made a call. She then wandered back and forth a bit in a relaxed pacing pattern as she did whatever the hell business a five-year-old has to conduct by cell phone in the middle of a busy city.
It was simultaneously adorable and terribly alienating. Here, see for yourself:
The relative hugeness of her pink backpack is a clue to how little she was.
The following week, snow struck. Vienna was covered—in fact, it was angezuckert (read more about that here). I was very proud of myself, the intrepid American, for going jogging in the midst of the storm in the Prater, Vienna’s equivalent of Central Park, despite the difficult conditions and the falling darkness. “Nicely done, ” I said to myself. “That’s the American spirit right there—never give up!” And in general the Prater was as quiet and empty as you would expect a park to be at 5 PM on a snowy early-evening. In Austria. In February.
Except for this woman, easily in her late 60s, sitting casually on a bench along the Hauptallee, sending a text message:
Now, that is the spirit of not giving up! American independence has nothing on Alpine stoicism, it seems.
Of course, I hate the phone and prefer to send emails rather than text messages. This makes it nearly impossible to get anything done here. But more on that another time.
Passing through the Ringstrassengalerie (that’s like a miniature mall in the first district in Vienna), I paused to ponder a rather high-end shoe store’s window display:
Now, I realize the photo is both blurry and poorly lined up, for which I apologize. It was taken on the fly, with my iPhone, as all the women working in the shop stared out at me. I’m a bit tired of getting yelled at in Vienna (that’s, like, a thing here—people yell at one far more than the average American is accustomed to), so I didn’t want to linger there lining up my shot. But I think the photo is distinct enough for you to see that this is a display of a variety of styles of shoes, all adorned with spiked brass studs. In fact, spiked shoes like these are all over the place in Viennese shops.
I would like to go on the record as saying that this is a Very Bad Thing.
I get that the craze originates with Christian Louboutin and Sam Edelman. And I’ll confess to at one point having been intrigued by a couple of pairs with studs (not so much spikes) just spattering up the heel. That has (or had—I’m over it now) a whiff of intrigue and a bit of play. But I feel that a pair of, for instance, ballet flats (already what I would deem a Bad Thing) crusted like a couple of fetal stegosauruses is a bridge too far.
One of my basic rules for shoes is that while they can be ridiculously high-heeled and come in a wide range of unmatchable colors, they do actually have to be wearable. One is not an orchid, to sit upon a shelf. All I see when I look at these shoes is what it would be like to try to cross one’s legs in the tight space underneath a restaurant table. I hear the cries of pain and irritation as I impale my neighbors and shred my own hosiery. I imagine the crash of dishes as I get hung up in the table cloth, and I can practically feel the hem of my coat ripping as it catches on my heel. And how sad will these shoes look look when one or two of the spikes fall off? That’s all leaving aside the unpleasantly fetishy impression they give off.
For the last few weeks, I’ve had this thing where I’m constantly clearing my throat. I had a sore throat and a cold in Italy in January, and it left in its wake this aggravating sensation of an irritation in my throat. I came back to Austria and went to the doctor. He said, “It’s probably a virus, give it a week.” In that week, I came down with a horrendous cold, which buried the throat clearing under a tidal wave of snot. That lasted two weeks, and when I resurfaced, the throat clearing was back with a vengeance. “Damn,” I said, and headed off to another doctor, one rumored to be an excellent diagnostician.
This doctor gave me a couple of prescriptions. One is for my stomach, because acid reflux can cause this. The other is for God-only-knows-what. Snot, presumably, because the other thing that causes this condition is the slow drip of mucus down the throat, sliming the vocal cords to the point where one has to “clean” them. Thus the constant, noisy, and embarrassing throat-clearing. By the way, I use the word “slime” advisedly, because the German word for mucus is Schleim.
Anyway, I went to get the prescription, and an amusing and informative ritual ensued. By way of comparison, let’s look at an American prescription bottle (discretely turned to protect the innocent, i.e., me):
Notice just how much text is involved, and how many instructions (this is not including the page of printed instructions that came with the bottle). All kinds of info about when and where it was dispensed, how to take it, how not to take it, how much alcohol not to ever, ever drink with it, why not to operate heavy machinery while under its influence, how pregnant not to be while taking it, etc., etc.
Now, let’s take a look at what I got from the Apotheke in Vienna:
When you pick up your pills, a nice lady in a white coat takes out a felt-tipped pen, just like the one your grandma used to use to write the birthday card she sent with your yearly $10. She then writes, by hand, the complete instructions for taking the medicine. 1-1-1 means one pill morning, noon and night, and the rest of the text says, “for three days, then as needed.” My name is nowhere on the package, nor are there dire warnings about possible risks to myself, my automobile, and my unborn child. If I have a medicine cabinet in a multi-person household—and I do—then I’d better remember which meds are mine, because the package won’t tell me. And if I have questions about what this stuff is (and I’m not totally sure what it is), I’m out of luck, because nowhere does it say from which pharmacy I actually got it.
In addition to being charming and funny, I think this says a great deal about cultural differences in the concept of liability.