A Trip to Vienna Shows Its Complicated History

By Scott Vogel
The Washington Post

VIENNA, Austria ~ Just across Prinz Eugen-Strasse from the green copper domes and baroque overachievement of Vienna’s Belvedere Palace sits a terrifically tacky little Greek restaurant (vinyl checkered tablecloths, plastic bunches of grapes hanging from the walls). It’s a good place to go drinking with your mother, methinks (the waiter flirts with her), at least until the conversation enters perilous territory, by which I mean Whatever-Happened-to-the-Good-Old-Days territory. Once that happens, all anyone has to do is mention those sailor hats worn by the Vienna Boys’ Choir and the floodgates will open.

“I mean, when you kids were little – you’ve seen the pictures,” says Mom, motioning for a third glass of wine as the red D tram squeaks by on the street. “The way I dressed you kids up. The little bow ties, the Easter dresses. You were just precious. I mean, what has happened to all of that?”

You’d like to tell her just how well you remember that choking bow tie, how 40 years later you can still feel its lacerations under your chin. But hey, you’re on vacation (in Vienna, for God’s sake!), and you didn’t just fly 4,000 miles only to waste precious time sorting through complicated feelings about the past.

Ha – the joke’s on you, buddy. This city is about nothing but sorting through complicated feelings about the past. If it’s a traveler’s amnesia you’re after, hit Vegas, not Vienna.

Needless to say, all the Viennas of the past demand your nostalgia – the bewigged Vienna of Mozart, Strauss’s three-quarter-time Vienna, even the bleak “Third Man” Vienna of the postwar era – but it’s 1908 Vienna that’s the hardest to shake. You become acutely aware, almost from the moment of arrival, that for one brief moment everything important in the world was happening there, 1908 Vienna glowing all the more brightly against a backdrop of the dark decades to come. It’s the Vienna of the Hapsburg twilight, of Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, Adolf Loos and Otto Wagner.

It’s also the Vienna of 19-year-old Adolf Hitler, then an art student, just another kid from the provinces with a dream but no talent, a penchant for bohemianism but too broke even for that. There are park benches in town that Hitler once slept on, street corners where the future conqueror of Austria once begged for coins, homeless shelters in which he took refuge. Meanwhile, another artist in another part of the city, the utterly successful Klimt, was unveiling what would become his masterpiece, The Kiss. The Klimt gallery crowds were small in those days, but today they’re huge, almost Mona Lisa-esque in the Belvedere museum where the painting now hangs.

The Kiss depicts, as you’ll remember from your art history, a pair of lovers locked in an ethereal embrace, their garments adorned with arresting gold leaf. (Klimt’s father was a goldsmith.) Surrounding the couple are flowers and geometric shapes and then darkness and oblivion. And surrounding the painting this day is abundant evidence of Austrian bohemia circa 2008: mussy-haired, bespectacled young couples holding hands, their funky glasses clinking when The Kiss works its magic. It’s a painting that simply must be seen in person.

*    *    *    *    *

“You always think things are more complicated than they are,” Mom says with a smile, spying another piece of 1908 Vienna just south of the Ringstrasse. In an instant we’re there, comfortably ensconced at the Cafe Museum, Mom eyeing her tiny cup of foamy “melange” (like a cappuccino) with a mixture of gameness and skepticism about the caffeine content. But otherwise, it’s just what a traveler hopes/expects for in Vienna: a crowded coffeehouse on a warm October morning, the Thonet chairs just as they were when Schiele and Klimt haunted the place. Then:

“Everyone is talking about Haider,” says our cafe companion, British writer Diane Naar, who lives in Vienna. The Haider in question: Joerg Haider. A few days before our arrival in Vienna, Haider had been killed after his black Volkswagen Phaeton veered off a road and overturned. At the time he was 58 and “heavily intoxicated,” according to autopsy reports, and also the charismatic leader of a right-wing political party on the rise, the Alliance for Austria’s Future. Oh, and he was infamous for his own brand of nostalgia, a neo-Nazi sort of nostalgia, the kind that likes to refer to World War II concentration camps as “punishment camps.”

But now Haider is dead, and speculation in the Viennese coffeehouses, Naar explains, is quickly turning from talk of his anti-immigration, xenophobic talking points to whether, at Haider’s funeral, skinheads will stand shoulder to shoulder with Heinz Fischer, Austria’s president. This last prospect is particularly troubling to Naar.

“This is a man who praised the work of Hitler,” she says, shaking her head.

“I need another cup of coffee,” Mom says by way of diversion. “This one isn’t getting it.”

*    *    *    *    *

“Freud identified the Oedipus complex as an important stage of development.”

We are on the edge of the inner city at Cafe Landtmann, once Freud’s favorite, skimming an essay by writer Christa Veigl. “Simplified and referring to cultural processes, it is also an expression of the need felt by artists to question the works of previous generations.”

The MUMOK, Vienna’s premier modern art museum, is part of an exciting complex of buildings in an area known as the MuseumsQuartier, yet another new center of culture for a city already jampacked with them. Once Emperor Franz Joseph’s imperial court stables, the MQ emerged in the 1990s as the home of the exquisite Leopold Museum (itself home to the largest Schiele collection in the world), a lively children’s museum and more. Cheap and wonderful cafes abound, as do large, bulwark-type structures called enzis, where the Viennese sit and sun on pleasant days and tourists dream of lives of dissipation.

“Did you hear? Haider was gay,” says our waiter at the Landtmann. “His successor, the young man, the assistant, was his lover for years.”

The assistant, 27-year-old Stefan Petzner, had just made his tearful confession on Austrian radio, calling Haider “the man of my life.” Although Petzner denied that their relationship was sexual, conventional wisdom held that Haider had lived a double life for years: by day a married father of two and champion of ultraconservative values, by night a guy who enjoyed the company of booze and younger men.

“Where is Freud when you need him?” Mom says.

The waiter laughs and starts flirting with her.

*    *    *    *    *

Suddenly feeling a need for a break from pre-World War I Vienna, I whisk Mom off to Stadtpark, a vast greenspace on the east side of the city. It’s here, among the seesaws and playgrounds, I’ve heard, that Austrian cuisine is experiencing a cautious rebirth. And sure enough, what from a distance resembles a strange white pavilion on the Vienna River turns out to be Steirereck, the hottest restaurant in the country. Sorry, Mom, we won’t be going there; but don’t worry, there’s a well-regarded companion cafe underneath, Meierei.

White walls, white tablecloths, white furniture: Meierei means “dairy” in German, and in fact there was once a busy one on the grounds. Now it’s a chic eatery serving what must be the lightest, most satisfying Wiener schnitzel in town. The golden fillet hangs heavily over the white dinner plate, and yet you’d eat two of them if they’d let you.

“It’s because they use lard,” Mom confides, clearly in gastronomic heaven. “No one uses lard anymore.” And just like that, lard joins the Whatever-Happened-to-the-Good-Old-Days pantheon, except there’s a problem: Meierei has a strict policy of only serving its warm strudel promptly at 2pm each day, and we didn’t get to dessert until 2:30. Mom rolls her eyes, reluctantly settling for a kaiserschmarrn, a sort of eggy pancake that was in its own way delicious.

*    *    *    *    *

“Tickets, please.”

It’s the last day in Vienna, and our verdict on the past is mixed. For her part, Mom pronounces herself ready to pack it all up and relocate, there being no shortage of waiters in this town willing to welcome her into the European Union with open arms. I wasn’t so sure. All I could think of was the xenophobic Nazi sympathizer with the grieving wife and the secret sex life. I mean, cognitive dissonance like that I could get back home.

Several times on Karntnerstrasse, Mom and I had passed a place called Sky Bar, a nondescript lounge that sits six floors above the street, just a stone’s throw from iconic St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Even from the ground you could hear the rap music and see the cheap, hotel-type bar stools, the dozens of young Austrians too young to be hindered by history, the total lack of Hapsburg anything. Suddenly, for reasons hard to describe, no place in Vienna seemed more appealing to me.

“OK, but first I want my strudel,” Mom says.

Deal. We slowly make our way through and around the ancient buildings of the inner city to Demel, home of fine chocolates and pastries for more than 200 years. Rooms and rooms of candies greet you, some on display near a giant chocolate horse, others covered in gaily painted paper and wrapped in ribbon. There are no fewer than five versions of strudel for sale by the piece at any one time. (“Get regular,” Mom says.)

The Demel clerk carefully wraps our prize in parchment paper, gives us two wooden forks, and we leave the store in search of a good place for people-watching. Sure enough, there’s a spot at the base of a statue in the Heldenplatz. The delicate strudel barely survives the unwrapping, its thin layer of pastry barely containing the apples and nuts. Mom is transported somewhere far away for a few moments.

“Wow. And not so sickly sweet like everything else these days,” she finally says.

It’s an epiphany built out of the panorama of an austerely clean Heldenplatz, the quiet clopping of horses on cobblestones, a shimmering gold weather vane against a moody sky and the baroque splendor of the Neue Burg palace.

“Great place for a wedding,” Mom says, savoring one last bite of strudel. “Look at that balcony.”

Part of the role of the adult child, it seems to me, is to protect your parents from the past; that is, you protect them from the past with the same fervor that they once protected you from the future. But they don’t always appreciate such courtesies, just as you didn’t.

“That’s where Hitler declared the Anschluss, Mom. That’s where they hung those big Nazi flags, remember?”

“Why didn’t you tell me that before?” she says, sounding genuinely perturbed. She gets up and starts walking in no particular direction.

“Does this Sky Bar have American drinks?” Mom says, already a few feet ahead. “I’ve been craving a margarita since I got here.”

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