Austrian or Australian?

One of the best things about this new life in the UK is the ability to travel easily and cheaply to previously ‘exotic’ locations (for Australians exotic is pretty much anywhere outside of New Zealand, Thailand, Bali and the UK). The other great thing about life in the UK is the abundance of bank holidays. Combine the two and you have my new favourite past-time – the continental mini-break.

My latest continental mini-break was spent enjoying the delights of Vienna with some long lost Australian friends.

So where are five Australians in Austria going to head for drink and a catch-up?

How about a pub called “Kanguru”. It’s meant to be ironic. People apparently confuse Austria with Australia (no!), so Austrians think it’s funny to name their pubs after cute Antipodean marsupials and don  T-shirts with “no kangaroos in Austria” logos. Get it?

No Kangaroos in Austria T-shirt

The next day we set out on foot at a leisurely pace along one of Viennas main shopping streets the Mariahilfer Strasse, headed for the heart of the old walled city. After 2km of shops (or 4km if you count both sides of the street), 2 beverage stops and 2 hours we found ourselves within the palace gates surrounded by the Hofburg Palace, a series of massive grandiose buildings that date back to the 14th century.

We were immediately accosted by a bunch of Viennese men dressed in period costume complete with wigs hawking tickets for the evenings’ performance of authentic orchestral music. Music is obviously big business in Vienna; it was after all the birthplace of Strauss (both Sr and Jr), the adopted home of Mozart and Haydn, and a frequent haunt of Schubert, Mahler and Beethoven (and stacks of others famous composers). Our hawker of classical melodies, Niki (“come see me, I’ll get you the best seat in the house”), had an easy sell, because just then it started to rain. We decided that this was the perfect city and the perfect evening for an operatic feast of Strauss polkas and Mozart arias, in no less than the Palace ballroom, where Strauss himself played (don’t quote me on that last part).

Vienna Palaca Mozart Park

With the rain now falling harder we decided to retreat indoors to Vienna’s Leopold Museum to see the exhibitions by Klimt, Egon Schiele and Otto Muehl. Gustav Klimt I would happily hang on my walls. The others I’m afraid are very disturbed men who painted very disturbed art. But, it seems that there’s nothing like disturbed art to make one hungry. And in an attempt to set the pre-opera Viennese mood, it was a goulash feast that was calling…mmm delicious with those salty pretzels. So good. Once everyone was fed and rested we jumped on the U-Bahn for our evening’s entertainment. The palace ballroom was appropriately grand and opulent, with miles of red carpet and a generous collection of enormous crystal chandeliers. And the orchestra and the soloists sounded amazing, even if they did ham it up a little for the audience. It made me wish just for a brief second that I could have been part of Viennese society in the 19th century, arriving at the palace in my horse-drawn carriage, all dressed up in my corset and bustle and weird white wig, waltzing around in beautiful buildings drinking schnapps and the like. But just for a brief second…

Viennese orchestra

More drizzle the next day meant we all decided to escape the elements again in a museum. We headed to the Kunsthalle Wien which was showing an exhibition of street art by the likes of Keith Haring, Basquiat, Blek le Rat and Banksy. Now I’m not your biggest fan of spray can art and tagging really irks me, but this exhibition was absolutely amazing. Not because the art was so incredibly amazing, though some of it was. Rather, because it was just so interesting and the mediums were so different: everything from sculpture, to paint, to video, to installation pieces, and yes even some impressive spray-can art. My favourite piece of remarkable original street art was by blublu.

For some reason museums always make me hungry, and after three hours at this one I was ravenous. Thankfully, my posse were too. Now as is always the case when you travel with more than one other person, deciding where to eat is a lengthy process. So by the time our noses led us in to the fabulous little Viennese restaurant we were well and truly famished and it was pretty much dinner time. Thankfully our noses were right on the money, and the food was delicious: schnitzels, kartoffel salad, dumplings, lentil soups and apple strudels. Re-energised it was then time to find a beverage time which led us to the Bermuda triangle of Vienna, so-called because this area is so full of little winding streets that you can easily get lost and never come out. It’s also full of bars and shisha houses (I think the more likely reason that people get lost). And so with evening upon us we relaxed with the first of several rounds our cocktails and shisha’d it up with the locals.

The next morning sunshine streamed in through the window (yay) and we headed out early to join the throngs of tourists at Schonbrunn palace, the imperial home of the Hapsburg’s from 16th century until pretty much the First World War. We avoided the line-up and the fee to go into the palace itself and instead spent the time soaking up some sun in the incredible gardens for free. As the day was simply getting better and better (i.e. hotter and hotter), us sun-deprived Aussies abroad (SDAA’s – I’m sure there must be a help group out there for us) simply chose a bit of grass and sat ourselves down to soak it up.

Vienna Schonbrunn

Eventually though, our bellies were rumbling again (funny how food entirely dictates your travel plans, or is that just me?). So it was back in to town to find the Naschmarket, one of the oldest continuous food and spice markets in the world (apparently, though I’m pretty sure some in Jerusalem are centuries older). We spent a good few hours strolling through the market, each of us buying delicious things to eat, stuffed olives, wasabi nuts, figs, dried fruits and meats. Then with dinner upon us and cravings for schnapps and more substantial fare we settled ourselves down for yet more food and drink (are we sensing a theme here yet?) at one of the lively outdoor bars that seem to be the place to be seen amongst the young and beautiful in Vienna.

As day broke the next day it was finally my time to leave lovely Vienna, but there was still time for one final poignant and personal excursion. With the sun warming my shoulders I ventured out of the hostel and into the back streets of Vienna, in search of my grandmother’s childhood home.

My mother had given me the address along with an excerpt from my grandmother’s memoirs explaining what the apartment had looked like when she had lived there, pre-Nazi occupation. After a little searching and some confusion about the Viennese house numbering system, I finally found it. Apart from the security camera installed above the front door, it appeared astonishingly similar to her descriptions.

My grandmother's house in Vienna

As I stood outside the house and took some photos I started thinking about the sliding doors of life; my life, my grandmother’s life, indeed my whole family’s lives. What would our lives have been like if Hitler and the war had never have happened.

Would I be Austrian? And not Australian (I smile at the irony of this).

Would I have a thousand cousins? It would have been nice to have known them.

Would I even exist?

Such questions filled my head. But they have no answer. Life just goes on, and no minute gone comes ever back again. At least by visiting, I felt I gained a deeper insight about who my grandmother was, the place that she’d called home and the city that had helped shape her.

So with too many existential musings filling my head, there was only possible way to brighten my mood and pay my tributes to the family I never knew. A final delicious Viennese schnitzel (though, my grandmother’s version were definitely better!).

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