Friday, 17 February 2023

"Freezing breath on a window pane"

WARNING: Long and detailed.

So the title is a line from Ultravox's "Vienna", Benedict Ambrose's favourite song of 1980. Sadly, B.A. did not come with me to Vienna last week, for he needed to work on his studies. Thus, I navigated the train route from Vienna International Airport to the Café Tirolerhof all by myself. Happily I did not buy the wrong tickets or choose the wrong train or get lost or even panic when my ticket didn't fit in the validation machine. (It wasn't supposed to.) When I popped out of the wrong side of Wien Mittel station, I admired the cathedral (Stephansdom) before me and then turned around to find the route I had carefully memorized on the train. 


That was Thursday late afternoon, hours before Polish Pretend Son and family were supposed to arrive or Vienna Host was to leave his workplace. Vienna was indeed very cold (as in the song), but it was a dry, refreshing cold. The buildings around all seemed to be beautiful and every corner charming and full of promise. The Café Tirolerhof, with its uniformed waiters, well-dressed elderly ladies, white-washed walls, woodwork, banquettes and newspapers on sticks, was very much like the Vienna cafes B.A. and I had seen on YouTube.

I should mention here that, being deficient in knowledge about Vienna, Austria, and the Hapsburg Empire, I watched a fair amount of improving television shows and YouTube episodes before arriving. I am glad I did because I was in town for the St. Boniface Institute's Catholic Resistance conference and was thus around people who talked a lot about all the above. Also, I knew I could sit as long as I liked in the café and was not even nonplussed when the waiter shouted "Bitte, bitte" at me while slamming down my apple strudel, for I had been warned that the Viennese can be rude. And the waiter soon ceased to be rude, perhaps because I was joined by my Austrian colleague and then by my Viennese Host, who was not Alexander Tschugguel, in case you are wondering, but impressive all the same.  

But of course I did see Alexander Tschugguel at the evening's reception, which was about a half-hour's walk away from Café T in the meeting rooms of some pious or scholarly club. I had toddled along with my colleague and my friend after paying for my coffee and strudel, and duly noted the golden back of the statue of Strauss in the Stadtpark when it was pointed out to me. I admired alone the marvellous baroque buildings lining the streets, my companions remarking that they had got used to them. 

The clubrooms were at the top of some stairs in an amazingly old building and full of young men in Austrian jackets and of young women in skirts. There was also tobacco smoke and glasses of wine and A.T. saying "I know exactly who you are!" I was introduced to two of the conference speakers, one of whom had wanted to meet me and the other happy to chat about U.S. politics, and eventually Polish Pretend Son turned up with his wife and my god-daughter, who also knew exactly who I was. PPS sniffed the air and rushed back down to his car to get his smoking gear. I fetched a Polish storybook from my suitcase because there was very little in the adult (if rather young), German-and-English-speaking party of interest to my god-daughter. Poor tired Polish Pretend Daughter-in-law began to read it to her.


The evening ended after midnight at my Viennese Host's beautiful flat in the northwest of the city. I was given a little white minimalist bedroom that was very restful and conducive to sleep. The PPS family got the principal bedroom, and Godling got a mattress her parents had brought all the way from Poland in the car. We all went to bed very late, and it was noon before we got to the conference and discovered it was now lunchtime. (How happy I am this was not a work trip and that the duty of being on time fell to my colleague instead.) As it was Friday and we couldn't find fish nearby, we all went to the Café Tirolerhof, which at least had non-meat options, and cluttered it up with a stroller. 

The PPS family is extremely anti-carb, so as people familiar with Austrian cooking can imagine, there was quite a fuss, and the appearance of noodles with scrambled eggs caused much dismay. For my part I had creamed spinach with a fried egg and rosti potatoes, and the lesson I took from this is that it takes some planning to eat out in Vienna on Fridays.

After a visit to an eyewateringly expensive men's tailor shop, where Godling could not be dissuaded from playing with the umbrellas, we all went back to the conference. Gabrielle Kuby gave one lecture, Charles Coulombe gave another, and a repentant doctor the last. And then, if I remember correctly, it was time for dinner, so we went to the Naschmarkt, where there was another grand fuss although noodles were avoided. Back in the elegant flat, where Mr. Coulombe had been given a sofa-bed in a small but book-lined office with a parlour palm, cocktails were made and cigars came out, and I anticipated another late start on Saturday morning. 

(I am suddenly reminded that I am to tell a local priest that Mr. Coulombe sends his regards.)


On Saturday morning, though, I decided I was the captain of my ship and mistress of my fate and rushed off into the cold, sunny morning to get to the conference by myself. It took two trams and a short walk, and I got lost for only 5 minutes, and there were jugs of coffee outside the lecture room. The repentant doctor told the story of her conversion, which was very moving, and then Alexander T. gave a lecture on the Cardinal Virtues, which was very edifying. Then we milled about before we were driven out into the street to be given a short tour encompassing a few churches (e.g. the Franciscan, the Jesuit, the Teutonic Knights [?]) and then led down into a restaurant's ancient cellar where 35 of us or so, including now  Viennese Host and the PPS family, waited and were never served.

This was a new level of Viennese waiter rudeness. In fact, when a waiter did turn up and take my party's drinks orders (after an hour or more), another waiter came and shouted at him. Our waiter said something in protest, gesturing to our table, and the shouty waiter shouted "DU MUSST!" So that was the last we saw of our waiter for some time. When he came back with a laden tray, he noted that half the company had left, exclaimed something later translated for me as "I can't do everything," and went back upstairs with his tray. At that moment, PPS lost his temper, Godling, putting salt in her eyes, began to scream, and chaos reigned.

In the end, poor Viennese Host, the PPS family and I ended up in the Café Englander, where we were greeted at once, given drinks within a few minutes, and served Weiner schnitzel with lemon and other delicious things.  

The St. Boniface Institute hosted a ball this evening, and now I fear I will disappoint my readers by confessing that I did not go to this classic Viennese delight but instead stayed in the elegant flat to baby-sit Godling. The men of the temporary household decked themselves out in white tie and tails. Polish Pretend Daughter-in-Law arranged her hair and put on a beautiful dark blue ballgown. Then off they all went, leaving the poor Polish child in the hands of Perfidious Albion. Naturally, Godling was more than a match for me; somehow I found myself reading four stories instead of the agreed-upon two, and giving her a glass of water because I couldn't remember what her mother had said about this. 


I was punished for my lapse of memory at about 1:30 AM when I was awoken by heart-rending screeching. "Ciociu! Ciociu!" wailed a voice outside my bedroom door. Outside it I found Godling in an absolute state of grief and remorse, and it wasn't until she led me back (still shrieking) to the master bedroom and handed me a dry diaper that I realized what had happened. 

So I attached the dry diaper and dispensed with the wet one and read the poor child another story and lay down on her mother's side of the bed to wait for her to fall asleep.

"I want water," said the precious monster in her native tongue.

"No," I said in that language.

"Yes. I want water."

"If I give you water," I said very slowly because remembering how to form the Polish conditional after being woken up from a deep sleep at 1:30 AM is taxing, "you will make siusiu again."

Godling seemed to admit this was so, for she said no more about it.

On Sunday I made another break for morning freedom by going to the local bakery, where I discovered that the lady behind the counter knows no English, that she doesn't take debit cards, and that all the bakery German I learned 17 years ago has disappeared. However, she did take my 100 euro note, so I arrived triumphantly back at the flat with the best danish I have ever eaten in my life.

Then there was an hour of packing the PPS automobile, including with me, and some fuss about who was taking a cab to Mass and who was going in the car. Amazingly, the PPS family, its stuff, Viennese Host and I all fit. On our way to the Oratorians, we passed the world's most beautiful trash incinerator (Spittelau), which has a golden ball on the top. And when we got to the Oratorians there was another fuss about parking, so Viennese Host told me sottovoce to make a break for it. Thus I found myself clambering into an ornate wooden pew in the back of yet another glorious baroque church just after the Kyrie.

This is where I would remark that one wonderful thing about Mass is that it is "the same all over the world" if that were really true. At any rate, for us it was the good old TLM with the Epistle and Gospel read over again in the Vernacular, which I also did not understand, followed by what was probably a very sound homily in the Vernacular, during which I prayed two decades of the Rosary. 

After Mass there was a lot of greeting and farewell and photo-taking amongst the participants in the Conference, and then Viennese Host, the PPS family, Mr. Coloumbe and I found an Austrian restaurant and ate goulash, schnitzel and such other meaty stuff. After paying up, the PPS family and I said goodbye to Viennese Host and Mr C, and we went to the airport, where PPS dropped me off. 

So that is my lightning account of my 72 hours in Vienna, and the only other thing I can think of to say is that I worried beforehand that I would reflexively respond to waiters et al in Polish instead of English, and I was right. 

No comments:

Post a Comment