I actually dipped in and out of Austria three times: First, to go to Salzburg, before turning back to Berchtesgaden, second, to go on to Vienna, and third, on my way back from Hungary, to catch the night train to Florence. I have to go to Vienna for work sometimes, and I also borrowed a colleagues flat there for a week a while back, so I know it a bit already.
I’d never been to Salzburg, though. I arrived by train, after dark, and started to walk to a cheap hotel that was optimistically described as ten minutes from the train station. I went down various empty streets, clearly in the opposite direction from Salzburg town, past closed-up car showrooms and factories. There was NO-ONE around, except a women who kept disappearing and appearing in the distance, who I think may have been also equally bemused and looking for the same hotel. Now Austria is a very safe country but even I started feeling nervous, and eventually I saw a rather shabby, shuffly-looking man walking a small white dog, and appealed for help in my bad German. The dog seemed terrified of me, probably because of my rucksack and bags. The poor man was very kind and said he’d show me and I followed him round the block, onto the main road – the little dog was even more terrified by the cars going past, and he had to pick it up and cuddle it – and he said to me that the dog was his doctor because it made him go for a walk every day.
It turned out the hotel was only about 100 metres away but if I had relied on google I would have been wandering in a semi-built industrial estate for hours. Ladies, if you are travelling alone: remember, google maps is not your friend! It has no common sense to send you down the lighted road instead of the dark, isolated one. Or even the front of the building, instead of the fire exit. Grr.
Anyway the hotel was horrid but Salzburg was very pretty, and very calm, and had lovely food and lovely views and lovely buildings and lovely clean buses and streets. I was thinking about this next day, and how how I have on previous occasions found the Austrians to be very kind people, who sincerely want you to be well and happy when you are in their country, as if would rebound on them, and their honour, if you didn’t. And I wondered about the connection between these two things, and thought why shouldn’t they be kind, when they have security and safety and space to move and nice clean air to breathe? And how we think being kind is to do with the intrinsic qualities of a person, only I’m not so sure. And I noticed myself, a couple of times, while I was there, doing things that I wouldn’t have bothered to back home: picking up a sign that’d blown over over in the wind, moving my things so I didn’t inconvenience people. And I thought about how a while back, someone whose name I don’t recall, but who is an economist, said: ‘safety is a good that we don’t manufacture enough of’ which is very true, and I wondered how the Austrians had got the knack of manufacturing this intangible.
Austrians are good at manufacturing intangibles: ideas, art, design, social integrity, music. Salzburg is mostly famous for Mozart, but as I got the bus into town I thought, randomly, they’d named streets after mathematical concepts, but they hadn’t, they’d named them after Paracelsus and Doppler, who both also lived there. A real maths and music sort of town.
On the subject of music, I didn’t want to go back to the horrid hotel until late, and had seen a rather pretty theatre, so I walked in and asked what was on, which turned out to be The Sound of music, in German, subtitled in English, so I thought I’d give it a go. The Sound of Music is set in Salzburg, which is why it’s permanently on in a theatre there.
This was quite an odd experience. It was a perfectly good production, with a considerably-less annoying-than-Julie-Andrews Maria paired with a rather bulky and Austrian Captain Von Trapp (I figured this was realistic) in a very pretty theatre, and at half time I idly googled the history of the theatre to see how old it was. Apparently it was built in the 1890s, and then it was open until 1944, before reopening after the war. Now obviously Austria was part of the Third Reich at the time. And obviously the second half of the Sound of Music is about escaping from the Nazis, right? Anyway when it got to the bit in the production where they’re arguing about what to do, I thought a few of the audience shifted uncomfortably in their seats. And then there’s the bit where they’re performing Edelweiss in the competition, and as a backdrop they dropped a huge Swastika over the stage. Which surprised me, as in Germany that wouldn’t be legal, and also, I thought, if the theatre was functioning until 1944 – that can’t be the first time that there’s been a Swastika up there, surely?
Anyway apart from that in Salzburg I went to the Cathedral which had the best fluffy white clouds made out of plaster I’ve ever seen, and benches that were tilted back at an angle so you could admire the ceiling. I walked up round the back of the city, past the fort. I only really had a day and a half and there were some things in the vicinity that sounded cool that I didn’t have time to go to, like the salt mines and the museum of the Celts, which includes various items found in a bunch of Celtic grave sites from around 400BC.
After that it was off to Vienna, where I previously rented a room in an apartment stuffed full of art books and extravagant chandeliers. In one room there is a crest of arms and a sort of plaster crown – of the same vintage as the apartment – over the bed. You have to collect the key around the corner from a flat which is marked as ‘Mazarakini Martinelli’, neither of which is the landlord’s name. However, if I ever need a name for a magician in a novel, I am definitely calling them that. On a previous trip the landlord told me that he was a viscount. He also told me he was a professor of gothic art (retired). I googled the last one: it was true. On this one, he also showed me a photo of his sister, who was a nun, (who looked very mother superior, I must say) and that several of his family were bona fide saints. As to the rest of it, I have absolutely no idea, or indeed whether the renaissance painting I shared the room with was real, or a copy. The several thousand art books were indubitably not fake.
Outside the apartment, the weather was foul. Vienna has a cutting cold wind that sweeps in off the mountains and gets right in your bones, until you think you’re coming down with a fever, and dying, until you get inside again, and realise you’re fine. I sort of like it. It sends you a bit insane, but in quite creative ways, and is I suspect is one of the reasons Vienna has generated a lot of ideas. Also there is a lot of sky, which sometimes looks like those boiling grey skies you see in 17th Century paintings, and think the artist made up. Because of the weather I holed up in a cafe for a couple of days, ate Kaiserschmarren and wrote. This is basically what I’d do all the time, sitting in a cafe in Vienna, writing, and eating pastries, if I didn’t have to earn a living.
Pastries are one of the things that Austrians like to take quite seriously. Other things include books, ideas, small dogs you can shove in your handbag, and hats. One day on the metro there was a very garbled announcement, and the young woman next to me asked what it’d said. I said I was English and had even less idea than she did, and then, for something to say, said that I liked her hat. We then proceeded to spend the next six tube stations having a serious discussion about hats: types of; quality; appropriate pricing; where best to obtain; various other matters pertaining to; hats.
Austria is pretty much the only country in Europe where they still do national dress and take it quite seriously: the city is stocked with stores selling dirndl and lederhosen, of very good quality, and certainly intended for regular use. A good quality outfit can set you back a thousand Euros. If you have liberal, politically correct Austrian friends they will shudder at this habit, but I don’t think it’s going away. If you got on the tram and saw a bunch of people going out for the evening, done up in this, it’d be easy to think you’d arrived in some place nostalgic for a conservative, rosy, slightly fascistic past. But all that’ll happen is that a few stops later, some gay couple will get on and start snogging, and no-one will bat an eyelid. In short, in Austria, you’d better just concede that your ideas of what is and isn’t to be expected, probably don’t add up.
I slightly suspect that this is because Austrians enjoy ambiguity. I suspect that if you tell an Austrian there is something you feel ambiguous about, they will top up the coffee, draw their chair closer to the table, and say, with enthusiasm, aha, what’s that? Whereas if you tell a German that there is something you feel ambiguous about, they will immediately start searching around for the set of instructions that will straighten out this unpleasantness. The Austrians drink too much coffee, go insane in the wind, and go: wait, how about we invent modernity? Or psychology or fascism? They may look a bit bulky and sleepy-eyed, but don’t be fooled: they are charmingly dangerous and dangerously charming. If an Austrian tries to sell you an idea, you should turn it down flat. If an Austrian tries to sell you a pastry or a hat, I’d advise you to accept it.
Austria is generally one of my favourite places, and one of the most humane countries I’ve been to. But whenever I think what a kind, calm, sorted sort of place it is, I remember that within living memory, 10% of the population was murdered, and I wonder about the cold wind down my back. On my last night there, I walked back to the apartment, and somebody, or the wind, had left the main door of the apartment block opposite open. This had triggered some alarm system: a yellow light flashed on and off, slowly, over the empty pavement. Inside, it’s counterpart flashed, in the alternating pulse of darkness, in the empty vaulted hallway, large enough to drive a carriage in through. The door creaked slightly in the wind. I stared at this for about half a minute, waiting to see if someone was there, but they weren’t. I thought that the socially responsible thing to do might be to close it, but instead I turned tail and fled.
Vienna is a beautiful city, not least because it is evidence that humans can become kinder. But it is also, dreadfully full of ghosts.