Thursday, 18 March 2010

Homeward bound

Our last night in Vienna we met up with a friend who is running a modelling agency - our rendezvous was the famous Sacher Hotel, home of the famous Sacher Torte, though we did not indulge, but I must say the place was ultra-luxurious. They make you take your coats etc to the cloakroom before you are allowed into the coffee shop. Once again you get splendid chandeliers and marble and carvings everywhere, and the waitresses wear black frocks and frilly white aprons, and little lace caps. Agatha Christie would have approved. I wonder if she ever went there, I wouldn't be surprised.

We took a shuttle-bus to the airport, and then found our flight was delayed by 3 hours because our pilot had been taken ill and a replacement had to be flown out from England.

We waited in a side lounge and found ourselves in company with a group of what I can only admiringly describe as prosperous peasants: very wrinkled faces, dark eyes, caps or headscarves, boots, the men with truly huge moustaches and eyebrows, the women ditto but making lace as they sat. One of these women started to chat with me - I could not understand a word she said, which she knew, but that didn't stop her. We passed the time together very companionable, mentioning this and that, without any real connection apart from this feeling of companionship. I tried to find out where they were from but that was no good. I said we were English, and even showed her my passport - but to no avail. She just looked blank. I said 'England' 'Queen Elizabeth' 'David Beckham' and even 'Princess Diana!' she didn't understand a single thing.

This delay was the only glitch in an otherwise excellent trip, and as you see it had its compensations. The gulasch on sale in the cafe was very nice too, spicy and strong. I feel I have made steady progress against my money-wasting addiction: I had no desire whatsoever to buy any of the glamorous trash on sale. As we all know, it comes to look less and less attractive - sunglasses or handbags for hundreds of pounds, real leather luggage (so heavy!), etc.

My other joy was to finish reading the James Cameron book I mentioned earlier: Point of Departure. The man could write. I was howling with laughter some of the time, and ready to weep at others. Andrew finished Catcher in the Rye too.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Out of vienna

Sunday – Andrew and I meet at the Westbahnhof just missing a train by three minutes but that gives us achance to have a coffee and strudel while wait for the next Salzburg departure. We have a spacious compartment to ourselves, three seats to a side like a first class compartment in England, with pullout tables and movable headrests. At the last moment we are joined by a very friendly young language teacher who has had a weekend in Vienna – she calls it her cultural petrol station. We talk about why smoking is still allowed in cafes etc – this is due to the Austrian belief in compromise, she says. The idea is that the smoke will stay in its proper half of the room, and she compares this to a swimming pool where you can pee – but only in one end.... She is a linguist and has visited England many times, and we agree that Worthing is a dull place compared to Brighton. Our train is moving through an undramatic countryside, where farming retains what hold it can on tracts of land where new roads and warehouses spread out beside the train. She has a son who is 3 and a partner who works with addicts, and we get on fine, swapping contact details. She promises to show us round Steyr next time we come.

We eat our picnic – by this time a tall young man in army uniform has joined us. We offer chocolate biscuits. He declines because he says he is a strict Catholic and has given up sweets and alcohol for Lent. However she and he both take some orange – always difficult to resist because of the smell. St Peter will allow fruit, it seems.

At Attnang-Puchheim we are given an ecstatic welcome by Edith and Michi, and they drive us to see some of the local lakes. The car (Lancia Phedra)has self-opening side doors which impress me, and it also has a built-in satnav and phone system with full colour console. However it is the swift change of landscape which is really remarkable. We go to Gmunden, a medieval town on a fabulously beautiful lake called Traunsee, very deep cold water, salt mines in the mountains, and rich architecture reflecting centuries of wealth.... Special gingerbread is on sale for Lovers' Day and they buy us one as a souvenir. It says Hello Liebling! The town has a famous ceramics works, and the town bells are ceramic but they are not rung in winter. The mountain by the lake is Traunstein, now covered with brown forests and swathes of snow.

Then on to Ebensee (calm water) with a magnetite mine beside it, and past beautiful little dwellings and fabulous rocky precipices to yet another lakeside town, Bad Ischel – where Emperors whiled away the time, and Sisi from Schonbrunn in particular liked to come. There we feasted on more coffee and cakes at Zauner, a glorious old-world establishments where you choose your cake on entry and are handed a tiny red ticket, which the waitress sweeps up from your hand once you are seated at your table. This way there can be no mistakes about exactly which chunk of chocolate or almonds or strawberries or cream you selected. The coffee and chocolate is delicious of course, the chandeliers very pretty, the loos very select with solid oak doors and wonderful expensive fixtures.

The landscape is spectacular, not unlike the Black Hills of Dakota, actually, which I wrote about in an earlier blog as you may know... but sharper and rockier, and very beautiful in its snowy aspects, with the darkness of evening bringing a wonderful bluey-grey tone to everything. Edith bemoans the wintry cold and says we must come back in summer when it's possible to swim in the lakes, and the skies are blue but actually there is a powerful monochrome reality to what we see.

We skirt Attersee, driving through the Weisenbachtal and thence to their amazing house back in Attnang-Puchheim. This was originally Michi's dad's house, which they have extended and altered, which once made him angry though he likes it now. Office downstairs, warm woodlined rooms upstairs, and their three pretty daughters + two boyfriends to welcome us. The meal is Wiener Schnitzel, the most festive, and we eat in the Wintergarden, or conservatory.... with candles and pretty glassware.

Eating with us is Gus, a strange relic of the house's past – a man whose brain has been shot away by booze and whatever else, who lived in the cellar before they came here... They put his affairs in order for him, found him a flat, feed him once a day, and in return he does odd jobs for them.

We have a look through Edith's photo album from her time with us in London and Kent from 1987 and 1988 – wonderful pictures from a happy time in our lives, with our little children and all their tiny friends from the street, and Edith and her friend Hanni revelling in London and in these pictures looking just as I remembered them... Edith says, while she was in London her Michi wrote her 100 letters from Austria, demanding her return. A wonderful evening and I am cross at the end that I did not take photos – the girls slide off to bed or friends' houses and we may not see them again now, unless they come to stay with us in England. Anja would like to do that.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Vienna 3

Written on Saturday night, so a bit of a jump since the last missive. We spent Friday morning walking round the freezing city on a private sightseeing tour. One immaculate older gentleman stopped to ask if we needed help as we stood in the Graben looking at the buildings.

We peeped into St Peter's church, a violent mass of baroque decoration, absolutely amazing to anyone used to sober northern protestant church interiors.

We went to see a little museum called the Neidhart Frescoes – about 20 years ago, someone was doing up a flat and found these amazing medieval wallpaintings which turned out to be the decorations for a merchant's hall. The whole building had been subsequently altered with floors, stairs, chimneys etc inserted and these treasures quite unsuspected. The scenes are ribald and humorous – a snowball fight, violent pranks, a maiden being deflowered... all done in clear colours, and lively. Beneath these scenes and all around the painter showed a kind of tapestry hanging up, so even though the whole art work is now fragmented and the floor levels are all wrong, you can still imagine yourself in this old hall, with the delighted owner showing off his brilliant murals to his guests, an antidote to the piety and strict order required no doubt by the church and the city burghers.

We walked round the Hoher Markt, where the Romans had had their base and with Marcus Aurelius still celebrated in the street name. We looked with wonder at the fantastic Jungend Stil clock forming an arch between two buildings. We wandered further and called into the tiny narrow and beautiful church of St Mary on the Bank, just as mass was about to start, so we had an introit on the organ, and watched the half dozen or so parishioners gathering themselves for the devotions to come. We tried to get into the oldest church in the city, St Ruprecht's, but as we had been warned, it was closed. A policeman eyed us dourly as we tried and failed to open the door. The empty piece of land immediately below this Romanesque marvel was the site of the headquarters of the Gestapo and in the street on the other side, the old Jewish quarter, where the synagogue today still has huge security devices inside the front door.

We found an internet cafe back at the Hoher Markt, where in fact we loaded up the last bulletin, and drank coffees known here as Melosch... very like cappucinos in fact. Eventually we had lunch in a kind of self-service cafeteria, where the plates were weighed before being priced. Coffee and cakes followed in a super little cafe along the street, where the chandeliers were decorated with extra coffee cups, or with goldplated spoons, forks and knives.

My conference was – is – one of those events which only an insider would truly appreciate. There are nearly 4000 delegates of which only 11 are from the UK. It's all very hightech and smooth and rather fun, We have had excellent speakers and lots of enthusiasm. The whole ethos of looking at the science and making a rational choice is absolutely accepted. The big announcements have been the launch of the world's first live online TV programme supported by one company (breathtaking, actually, see Juice Plus TV, but it's mostly in German of course), and the announcement of a whole new raft of research papers: about gum health, quality of life for cancer survivors, pregnancy outcomes, and more.
Andrew spent the time in the Prater, and today at the Technical Museum and tonight we took our kindly host family out for a meal at an Italian restaurant where the auslander (foreign, ie Arabic) waiter called me 'senorita' all night, which was international if not authentic.

Tomorrow I shall go to the last part of the conference, then we catch a train out west to see Edith, and where I hope we can put this bulletin up onto the blog. Here in our stable we barely have radio and certainly no internet connection but we are very happy as it is a sweet little studio in a lovely district, and we are having a nice time. Andrew is reading The Catcher in the Rye, and I am reading the autobiography of James Cameron, the late lamented of the funniest and best books I've read for a long time though shot through with powerful tristesse and insights. We are warm, and it is really very very cold outside, with snow falling in tiny occasional spatterings, as if to remind us who's boss.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Getting to know Vienna

I did not mention the the great number of mistletoe plants to be seen adorning the trees everywhere throughout the city. It reminds me of rural France, for we rarely see so much mistletoe in the south east of England.

Today we had a rich breakfast at Moni's and then headed off to Schonbrunn – a palace of such glamour and luxury it made me feel stifled. Here Marie-Antoinette grew up, and there was such a succession of Emperors and other Hapsburgs it is difficult to keep track of them. One, a lad fathered by Napoleon, was reared in isolation in the court and died aged 21 of a lung disease. He had been allowed to practice 'work' as a gardener, and had a pet lark which is preserved now in a glass case as a tiny brown dusty little relic. His death mask is to be seen, and a portrait... a sad and awful destiny he faced, as the 'Great European Powers' deemed him too dangerous to be allowed into the world. Even his mother had to abandon him, and went off to live in Italy.

The public rooms are magnificently furnished, and form a succession of public spaces in which the various princes and princesses were reared, and audiences were held, and balls and banquets. Inside one doorway, a lavatory working on the English principle was installed behind the panelling. Further along, a whole bathroom was fitted inside a wall.

The truly amazing thing about every building we have been into is the array of chandeliers. They are extraordinary, huge, beautiful, flamboyant, various, brilliant, daring, terrifying, stylish, etc etc etc. Even here in our little stable studio we have a lovely glass one, and the monsters we have been seeing in the concert halls and hotels are incredible. Last night at the Musikverein great cylinders of sparkling light hung down the length of the long auditorium. Tonight, we were at the Konzerthaus where the chandeliers are just massive, colossal, with swathes and drapes of glass set in golden frames and the whole ceiling above them divided into fields and swags of gold. It's the only time I've seen 'bare' lightbulbs looking nice, hundreds and hundreds of them dotted around and shining like diamonds. You see them in homes, shops, cafes, staircases, everywhere. You almost expect to see them in the trains and buses.

Last night at the Musikverein we were listening to the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester from Berlin playing Beethoven and Stravinsky, and tonight it was the Moscow Tchaikovsky Symphony playing Tchaik and Rachmanninov. Both composers wrote works called Francesca da Rimini, and that was what we were able to compare – no contest by the way. The Rach was stupendous.

In both halls, just about every seat was taken, the audience predictably mostly older and mostly very prosperous looking. We estimate at least 10,000 people a night go to a classical concert in Vienna, which is a huge number given that the city is only about 1.8m people.

Another noticeable thing is that so far this week, with three big concerts under our belt, by far and away the top prize for patent leather shoes worn by the players goes to the Bavarian Radio Syphony Orchestra who we heard at the Festival Hall in London last Saturday. Brilliant playing of course but also brilliant feet. Their footwear sparkled. In comparison the Deutsches and the Moscow orchestral players were poorly shod. However the timpanist from Moscow (playing only in the first half) put on a smashing show all by himself tonight, with immense flourishes, flicks of the wrist, stern anticipatory movements, wild finishes for the left hand only, and an almost matronly silencing of the skins each time he wanted to quieten them down at the end of a riff. He deserved applause in his own right for the great display he put on, more like a blacksmith than a musician, and producing magnificent sounds. In the second half he was replaced by another player who attempted some of the same remarkable moves, but maybe he is just a student of the first man.

I should also say that today, after touring the palace of Schonbrunn and having a fine steaming lunch in a cafe in the city centre, we cried off our rendezvous with a bespoke city guide, arranged for us by Willi, because we were just too tired. We spent the afternoon back in our little studio having a sleep, thank goodness. We were tired when we arrived and yesterday was a long day. Tomorrow we are meeting an American opera singer called Sulie Girardo, to deliver to her a parcel of designer stamps she needs, from a friend in Faversham. Later in the day my conference starts, so I shall be up by the United Nations building for the afternoon while Andrew goes to the tram museum.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Vienna in an unseasonably cold March. Moni met us at the airport, and whisked us through the traffic on a circular tour round the rings of the city. Here were the medieval walls, here a strip of land which no-one could build on (so convenient for a modern road), here a palace, here an underground river, here a museum, etc etc.
a whirl.
Near her house in a quiet leafy sidestreet behind Schonbrunn, we see the huge back garden of her mother's house – the remains of a vineyard. Moni is a psychotherapist, and lives and works in one of the many late 19th century buildings which clustered round Viennna as it spread out from the centre. Her apartment has only in the last week taken in three large rooms from a neighbour who moved out. Her daughters will have bedrooms of their own now. She cooks a huge pile of Wiener Schnitzel for us, with potatoes and salad. Her 7 year old daughter joins us, and her mother. In the garden a pair of ravens stalk the play-equipment.
We are sleeping in a charming studio flat, converted by Moni and her husband to provide guest space – a chandelier, a brick cabin in the corner with the bathroom below and a second sleeping space above, a mirror-fronted wardrobe. We are diverted from buying our own provisions, as Moni will supply us with breakfast.
Her mother Willi is brisk and tall, and invites us to her apartment round the corner, an extensive and beautifully furnished flat with fantastic chandeliers, Biedermeyer furniture in the dining room, Austrian silver ornaments which she says she has collected over the years but prefers 'plain English silver'), fabulous inlaid and curved cabinets, and a maid polishing shoes.
Willi then drives us down into the city, giving us 45 minutes to see Freud's apartment... How marvellous a place. Still with a scent of the man if you will... He walked up this stone staircase, this was his front door... Here is his hallway, left more or less as it was in 1938 when he fled with his family, his books, his collections, that famous couch, and his mighty intelligence. Here is his consulting room, bare now but with photos of how it used to look set up around the lower part of the display cases along the walls. Here is his study with a mirror hanging on the window catch as he used to have it – sent back by Anna Freud in 1971 when this little shrine was being set up.

We escape from our minder to wander round a Billa supermarket, go into a charity shop where she fails to recognise us, and and then meet up officially.
She takes us to an art show – still life gone mad. Paintings and installations from every era explore the whole concept of Vanitas, the sacred and profane, our relationship with food, sex, life and death. The show is wonderful, especially two early VvG's which shine across the room with their power even before you have read the label. The only English language interpretation is a set of panels, one for each room, with portentous translations from German, in the kind of language which used to keep in awe of intellectualism when I was younger.
Then, coffee, cakes, a stroll round the square, a dip into the huge dark St Stephens Dom where they are getting ready for mass. It's very like going into St Patrick's in Manhattan, all bustle and fun. Most people cross themselves on coming into the church, and quite a large proportion dip in a devout curtsey too. The bells are ringing, and then the organ starts and a tiny gaggle of choristers are marshalled up and out of sight towards the chancel,
We have more coffee, and then make our way to the Musikverein for a concert of Beethoven and Stravinsky – all gold and glamour, hundreds of naked caryatids and lolling will have seen it from New Year's Day on tv. Marvellous music, rapt audience including lots of Japanese people. Willi seemed to know half the well-heeled audience. She told them we are English and going to visit some friends in Attnang-Puchheim on Sunday. Every time, they guffawed with amused laughter. But, they said, it´s just a railway junction.
Finally, we go for supper at an hotel where the concert ticket allows you a glass of champagne and a salad buffet for 14 euros. Willi who seemed to know everyone at the concert, drives us home and we collapse into our stable studio. Now, on our first full morning, it is snowing outside. We venture out, for breakfasst up the road.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Packing to go

I've never been to Vienna before. We're leaving early in the morning. I should have watched 'The Third Man' again but didn't fit that in (just think of that tune, dang-de-dang-de-dang, de da-n-ng....).

We'll be staying in an apartment belonging to a friend of a friend, it sounds lovely. I can get to my conference by metro in about 40 minutes. We'll also go by train to Attnang Puchheim to see our friend Edith who used to be our au pair. Attnang Puchheim has a webcam in the town square. Not much going on. Snow on the ground. Edith said on the phone yesterday: we're so OLD now. It was a long time ago. She has three lovely daughters, and so does the lady who owns the Vienna apartment, so we're taking lots of bits of bling for these six girls. And some marmalade for the grown-ups. It's hard to know what to choose in shops, to take something typically British or English as a present. Marmite? Tea? Shortbread?

So Vienna! Sache torte, Freud, Klimt, Spanish horses, Mozart, waltzes, Hapsburgs, etc etc. That's all ok.

I must say I feel slightly uneasy doing my own check-in from home, hours or days before we go.... I know it's the modern way, but surely it's meant to say we've put ourselves into their system AT THE AIRPORT? A kind friend is being our taxi. I am enjoying being an international businesswoman, I must say. Now I am going to pack. I hope to keep this updated throughout the week. Please sign on as a follower.