Sunday, 30 September 2012

...of Freud and Falco...(3 - People)

It's really not a good idea to generalise about the native population of an entire capital city, is it? (Apart from Paris, where I think you can confidently say you will find a higher concentration of startlingly snotty people than anywhere else in the world. That said I've also met some very nice Parisians. Three, I think.). So what can I possibly tell you about the Viennese? Well, 'they' (and I use the term to mean 'a conspicuous number') seem to be doing very nicely for themselves. Austria is one of the 12 richest countries in the world, fact fans, and it shows.

As in Munich, the signs of prosperity are everywhere in Vienna - plenty of very new, very expensive German cars on the roads, lots of healthy-looking, robust elderly people out socialising and spending their money (not cooped up indoors counting their coppers for the Care Home Fund, yellowed from lack of vitamin D and too many fags like in the UK), and - always a source of great amusement for me - the visible presence of comfortable-looking nuclear families in their late thirties/early forties, out for a Saturday stroll with their two small sons Moritz and Andreas, who are dressed as miniature copies of their father in cords, sweater and soft-collared shirts, their hair neatly parted and clipped in a faithful but terrifying twin facsimile. These kids look like they're off for a snifter at the golf club before a game of bridge despite being no more than six and eight years old, and there seem to be hundreds of them, trotting obediently and silently in their parents' wake while the adults select a suitably smart restaurant for a spot of lunch or fuss over the family Labrador (my god, do the Viennese love their dogs. Watch where your feet may end up.). I've only ever seen this strange child-ageing phenomenon in German cities and now in Vienna, and I don't understand it. Maybe a kind Viennese reader will stop by and explain?

As far as the natives I met went, everyone apart from the dreadful (but very funny) maitre d' at Glassis was helpful, friendly and pleasant - though you sometimes have to wait a while to get a smile (which I'm more than used to doing, living in a country where people actively often actively glorify in their negativity.). There was also a notable absence of darker skins, which for a capital city surprised me, and made me wonder how rare it must be to see black or Asian faces in the outlying districts if there are so conspicuously few in the capital itself. Tourists - like me - were abundant and predominantly American, with a fairly high number of Japanese wrestling tinily with the huge meaty gravy-drenched platters of food - as far away from delicate sashimi as you could get (though sushi and sashimi joints are everywhere if all that meat gets too overwhelming.). The streets are clean, well-lit and quiet, and it all feels very safe, even taking short cuts through the parks at night time.

My favourite encounter took place in Loos American Bar, a tiny, perfect, frozen-in-time landmark to Vienna's gloriously louche heyday as a European hub of sensual pleasure. Swinging by for an early evening cocktail we bagged the last free table, adjacent to an American man of about forty. He was sitting with his father who he resembled strongly in every way but demeanour, Son maintained a broad but slightly strained smile while Dad glowered angrily at his Sidecar as though he'd discovered a small scab floating in it. Seated on the other side of Dad was a smart woman in her sixties - a good fifteen years younger than him - who was obviously his wife, but equally obviously not Son's mother. They seemed frozen in an odd tableau, Son beaming mutely at the unengaged scowling Dad, with Wife sucking anxiously on her straw in the background while watching them both. I began to count silently to myself, knowing that Son would engage me in conversation well before I reached 'ten'. I got to seven.

"The Daquiris are remarkable here" said Son, taking my cocktail menu from me gently but firmly and turning to the appropriate page. "I can really recommend the Chocodaquiri."I thanked him and went back to flicking though the other pages, though - dammit - I'd been thinking of ordering a Daquiri anyway. "You from the Uk?" he continued. "I was in London a few weeks back. Business, not the Olympics, in case you were wondering. Have to say, it was a big surprise that you guys managed to pull it off. I mean, who'd ever have guessed? The transport was fine, the venue was fine, the crowds were, well fine - even your opening ceremony went fine! Who'd ever have guessed you could do it?" he mused, shaking his head incredulously and chewing thoughtfully on his olive. I wanted to ask him if he worked for Mitt Romney, but thought better of it, wondering as I did so why I was being so bloody polite.

"And the Paralympics went brilliantly as well," I said, thinking that this might be news to him. It was. He shook his head. "I don't think so," he said. "Nobody ever watches the Paralympics." This was too much. "Actually every event was sold out, and they pulled in record TV figures, " I told him. "The events got full press coverage too. It was great, a real boost for the athletes." He looked like he really, really didn't believe me but had graciously decided to let it go.

"My father and stepmother were just in Paris," Son volunteered, gesturing over to the glaring parent and his timid spouse. "Yeah, and I'd have headed back home with the rest of the group six days ago, if I hadn't had to head over here instead and see him," boomed Dad. "His son gave a shriek of hyena-pitched laughter that sounded like a sob. Dad fixed him with his sub-zero stare, while his wife fished desperately in the bottom of her glass for a stray maraschino cherry. "When do you fly back to the States?" I asked Dad. "Tuesday," he said, injecting the word with no small amount of rapturous longing. "Must be great to have family living in such a beautiful city," I ventured. "Pah," replied Dad, at which point his wife stood up suddenly and announced her need for the bathroom.

"Anyway, where are you folks staying?" asked Son, breaking away from Dad's death-ray eyes. I named the hotel. "Oh yeah, I stayed there," said Son confidently. "That's a Best Western, right?" I told him politely that it's actually a small independent hotel. "AND it's a Best Western," he added, poking out his lower lip like a petulant four-year old.

What IS the etiquette in a situation like this, gentle reader? I know perfectly well that the hotel I'm staying in is a small independent hotel because I found it, booked it, checked into it and am staying in it, and so far the Best Western logo has been satisfyingly absent from all transactions. How far should I be prepared to go to state my case? In the end I did the classic British Fudge, mumbling that if it's a Best Western I certainly wasn't aware of it and am rather surprised to hear it. I could hear my accent getting more English with every word I uttered; by the end of the sentence I sounded like Joan Plowright. But no matter, things were moving on to my left.

"HEEEEEY, Dad, you're looking like you're ready for another!" exclaimed Son, watching Dad sulkily twist his empty glass. Son turned to me. "There's no telling where he'll end up if he has another on of these babies, but hey..."
 "I had enough," said Dad, darkly and loudly. "When Marilla gets back from the bathroom, I'm heading back to the hotel." The air seemed to drain out of Son, along with any remaining will to persuade his father to enjoy himself. "Sure, Dad," he agreed. Dad already had one arm in the sleeve of his jacket as Marilla rejoined the unhappy pair. They were out the door within a minute, Dad's parting shot to us over his shoulder as he followed his defeated son a loudly whispered "Well! Three more days.." We had another cocktail each, and talked about the trio.

Back out on the streets of Vienna a busking festival was in full swing. We slyly photographed a group of quizzical-looking policemen watching a enthusiastic crusty playing a plastic didgeridoo to a terrible backing track (give them their due, they lasted longer than we did), then passed a terrifying, silent clown who was traumatising a small child by trying to place a balloon animal around the kid's neck while the kid clung desperately to his mother's leg. The child's screams were clearly disturbing the clown, who looked almost as scared of the nipper as the nipper was of him, but he'd decided on a course of action to pacify him and he was damn well going to see it through. I felt like giving Mum one of my cards and advising her to send the kid to me in ten years, when the full phobia embedded by this trauma will emerge, but it's a bit of long way to send him and I hear there are already one or two therapists practicing in Vienna.

In the end we spent half an hour watching a jolly round American man juggle a couple of chainsaws while balancing on a twelve-foot high unicycle, in the beautiful grounds of St Stephen's Cathedral. There's nothing kids across the world love more than the spectacle of a fellow human being putting themselves in severe and unnecessary danger of a spectacularly gory accident, and there were quite a few five Euro notes in the jongleur's hat at the end of his performance, quite deservedly. The man thanked the applauding crowd in a blend of English and German so fractured it was positively pulverised, as we took a slow measured walk towards the Cathedral steps pretending to be Ultravox in the closing frames of the 'Vienna' video.

It was after midnight by the time we headed back to our hotel through the Palace Park at Schonbrunn. The park was quiet though there were plenty of people around; teenagers snuggling up on the benches, groups of clubbers heading out for the night in their finery, well-dressed diners emerging from the Palm House Restaurant. On on of the lawns, picked out by the moonlight, an elderly couple were waltzing silently to a tune only they could hear, guiding one another lightly and gently through the turns and twists of the dance, like they looked to have been doing for fifty years or more. Late summer in Vienna.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

...of waltzes and Waldheim...(2 - Culture)

There are things you simply have to do when you visit Vienna, and I didn't do any of them. You must take a ride around the city in a horse and trap (there are hundreds to choose from, most of them driven by unhappy-looking men in bowler hats, and pulled by poor nags that stamp neurotically and repetitively at the cobbles beneath their hooves, while waiting for their next heavy load of strudel-stuffed customers. No thanks.). You must go to the opera (shrieking reminders of the ghastly three years when the house next door was occupied by a professional soprano who practiced her scales for up to six hours a day just might provoke a Manchurian Candidate response in me, so not worth the risk, or the money.). You must go to the Spanish Riding School (not comfortable with training animals to pose and trot unnaturally for entertainment, thanks, though I did get great fun from putting a wig on my dog years ago.). Oh, and you must eat cake at least once an hour (as mentioned in the previous post, my sweet tooth departed long since, but hey don't let me stop you. Tuck in.).

Instead, I did what I always do when I visit a new city; I walked the length and breadth of it by day and night, stopping to try new food whenever possible, I watched people like a hawk and came to unjustified and unprovable conclusions about them and their internal lives, and I went to as many galleries as I could bear. Vienna is relatively small as cities go, but is packed with such variety and riches that I left with a third of it barely explored, and a further third of it not seen at all. You can't rush a place like this. There are a hundred museums alone,  and not all of them in the Museum Quarter though this area makes a good place to start. First on my list and highly recommended as a building alone is Mumok, the Museum of Modern Art, which houses all the off-the-wall art wackiness you could possibly need, stuffed to the rafters with the likes of Klee, Rauschenberg, Warhol, Picasso, Duchamp, and (inevitably) a huge helping of shocking and confrontational/juvenile and childish (depending on your own personality) masterpieces by the Viennese Actionists, who seemed to be rebelling against most elements of Austria's past using anything they could lay their hands on (including each other's bodily fluids, genitals, leftovers from supper etc - you probably get the idea.). I spent almost three hours wandering around enjoying myself, and cast sly glances at the home-grown visitors sporting sharp geometric black outfits and expensively treated geometric hair as they peered coolly at the artwork. So many looked like extras from a European language film about the highly-repressed collective neuroses of the over-cultured affluent Mittel-european intelligentsia. So don't go there if you hate this sort of thing, that's my advice. I had a great time though.

The main feature at several of the other large museums at the moment (and for the rest of 2012) is the work of Gustav Klimt, those dreamlike, erotic, pagan, neo-Byzantine images of ecstatic women cradling severed heads, or lovers embracing awkwardly under a golden cloak (just me I imagine, but I always thought the Kiss looks like he's got her in a head lock. Don't read too much into my interpretation.). The main exhibition is sited at the beautiful Belvedere palace, which is worth a visit in its own right, a stunning baroque iced cake of a mansion built specifically as an proud statement of obscene wealth by Prince Eugene in the early 1700s. It was busy on the day I went, but not packed and there was plenty of time and space to get a long look at the paintings, which pack far more of a punch in real life than I was expecting. I'd always been a bit dismissive of Klimt as an 'early 20s artist', which is my snotty way of saying I saw his work as the sort of thing you send postcards of to friends when you're about 23 and keen to demonstrate that you are now mature enough to admit to a taste for beauty and romantic pan-European imagery (but you're way above all that heavy, over-literal Pre-Rapaelite nonsense like 'Flaming June' with her great big thighs and coarse hair.). Seen in real life, the canvasses are stunning, mesmerising things that you want to take time over and appreciate slowly, to notice every tiny curlicue and detail and fleck of light. I took the Belvedere exhibition very slowly, and later on lingered in the beautiful Secession building over the crazy Beethoven Frieze, noting how much the redhead who is supposed to portray 'lasciviousness' reminds me of Farah Fawcett in the famous 'red swimsuit with nipples' pinup from the Seventies. Someone had obviously been taking notes about the enduring power of certain depictions of female pulchritude.

Less endearing but equally interesting was the vast collection of Klimt's pencil drawings and sketches in the Vien Museum at Karlsplatz (not to mention his actual death mask and post-mortem sketches by his enfant terrible chum Egon Schiele.). One huge wall is given to a spread - in all senses of the word - of 'intimate studies' of his female models, a sort of pen and paper equivalent of a giant 'see everything' jazz mag.  When you read more, and discover that sex with Herr Klimt was one of the 'privileges' of getting to model for him ( and he was known for being fairly forceful in his conquests, which were legion), and consider the fact that several of his subjects were young girls of fifteen or so, a whole other raft of questions emerges about his attitude towards women. Of course the art eclipses it all... doesn't it? I'm not so sure. But in any case his work deserves to be viewed thoughtfully, and not just through the dazzling veil of his delicately applied gold leaf. There are far darker layers beneath. And take it from me, you won't want to see The Kiss again for a while once you leave Vienna as it is emblazoned absolutely everywhere in the city, from umbrellas to teacups to duvet covers. You can overdose on anything, but there's far more to this commemorative Klimt beanfeast than that one canvas so if you're passing through you'd be daft to ignore the show.

Outside of the official galleries Vienna is one great show in itself, a city whose eighteenth-century redevelopment was born of a blatant effort to rival and beat Haussman's 'new' Paris. It's hard to judge who won overall. The best I can offer is that Paris, through it's pale stone and open, light boulevards, retained a femininity in its aesthetic whereas the centre of Vienna is indubitably, robustly, stockily, masculine. This led to a well-documented 'action and reaction' sequence in the progress of its architecture, with the beautiful, delicate Art Nouveau blocks which emerged by the Nachtsmarkt in the late nineteenth centrury, in turn succeeded in turn by the clean lines of the  Secessionists, Deco and Modernism after that. This all means that just walking around the city and looking up every so often (or down, as I did at one point to see a small brass tribute inlaid in the pavement, to several residents of the district I was in who were taken off to the camps by the Nazis.) is an education in itself. There are nooks and crannies everywhere that will lure you off your chosen route - just let yourself be lured.

If it's shopping you're after, too, the place is teeming with small, independent retailers offering to reset your avarice levels to 'critical'. Freihaus and Spittelberg are the best to explore on foot; take your time and restrain yourself if you can. My big regret was that there was no time to get to the railway arches along the Gurtel, which is apparently the cosmic centre of Euopean electronica, and packed with live venues, clubs and bars. But there's got to be something to go back for, has there not?

Anyway, I've gone on far too long as usual. No wonder I couldn't get on with Twitter. After this, Vienna Part 3 - The People. May or may not contain Midge Ure.

Monday, 24 September 2012

City of Schnitzel and Schicklgruber (part 1 - grub.)

So, Vienna. I feel very serious and grown-up heading to this hub of European culture and catastrophe, anticipating the strains of sedate waltzes from every window, grand statuary on every corner, and nicotine-yellowed cafes where the only sound is the rustle of an occasional page as another volume of Freud is lovingly thumbed by some bearded intellectual or other. And that's not so far from the reality, except modern Vienna just about manages to push through the cracks in the city's potentially suffocating historical past. For all the weight of antiquity that could condemn it to becoming a living museum, this city has a vibrancy and quirkiness that's already calling me back. I barely scratched it's gracious, granite surface in the time I was there. So let me give you a suitably potted version of Kolley Kibber's Best Bits of Vienna (so far).

1. The Beisl. You can get your hands on pretty much anything you want to eat in Vienna - it has a surprisingly cosmopolitan take on grub, despite its landlocked Mittel-European situation and reputation. But though there must be a hundred sushi joints around town, and as many varieties of pasta from over the mountains in Italy, what you come to Vienna for is Austrian food. Meaty, beefy big and bouncy Austrian food, such as may have helped the young Arnold Schwartzenegger to develop into the superb human being he remains to this day. So get yourself along to a Beisl. These are the most traditional restaurants the country has to offer, and are beloved to an almost fetishistic degree by the native Viennese. If you're vegetarian, you may struggle a little with the aggressively carnivorous head-to-toe-eating on offer in these little wood-pannelled, darkened palaces, but you'll almost always be able to fill up on apple and potato dumplings (one should do it) or a thick potato soup (Carb Warning!).

We started off here at Glacis on our first night, and ran straight into our most pronounced taste of variable Viennese standards of hospitality right on entry. The maitre d', a small, beetroot-faced man driven almost cross-eyed from thirty years of glaring at his customers, made it agonisingly obvious to us that we were there on sufferance, making a huge, theatrical show of scanning the two-thirds empty restaurant furiously before reluctantly conceding one of the spare tables to us with a look of such pure hatred that it would have curdled the cream cheese in your strudel. By contrast, though, the waiter he sent to kill us/take our order couldn't have been nicer, a laughing, friendly young dude who offered advice and recommendations which turned out just fine, and who made us feel more than welcome and more than gluttonous within moments. The freshest, richest blood sausage, deep crimson gulash (better than the Hungarian goulash in my book) and, er, dumplings, all vanished from our plates with a good glass of Gruner veltliner and not much talking. When we left we made a point of saying goodnight to the maitre d', who stared back at us and completely ignored us. So don't be put off by him, but do give the place a go, especially if you're around and about the Museum Quarter anyway, which you are bound to be at some point.

Others we tried and loved were Figlmuller (booking advised at weekends, especially if you want to eat at the small one in the alleyway which has a little conservatory area; much nicer) for the plate-defying (pork) schnitzels and potato salad (carb warning!), and the oldest inn in Vienna, the Griechenbeisl, where previous patrons included Beethoven, Motzart and Mark Twain (though not all at the same time - their autographs are on one of the walls.). Staffed by some serious older men who look like they mean business but who on approach turned out to be friendly and funny (and the free schnapps was a welcome if unwise gesture), we had a fine time here on our last night, listening to the zither player in the next room and wondering if Harry Lime was going to materialise from the darkened doorway opposite (he didn't. Poor Harry.). Anyway, there are loads more of these and I intend to go to most of them before I turn up my boots.

2. Sturm, with an umlaut. Only available for a few weeks from early September each year, this is partly-fermented grape juice with a mild kick and a strongly moreish quality. You drink it by the tumbler, though I could have drunk it by the gallon. Delicious. Vienna, all you geography spods out there, is the only capital city in Europe to have productive vineyards situated within its city limits. And if we'd been out there this coming weekend, we'd have hit the annual Wine Hike, when normally closed-off private routes around the wine areas are opened up to the public, with tasting stops along the way. A reason to go back, perhaps?

3. The Nachtsmarkt. Another one of these brilliant Northern European outdoor markets, packed to the gills with everything a glutton could need. Eat your plunder right there at one of the hundreds of food stalls, or take it home if you can wait. If you only buy one thing to bring back, make it a jar of Austrian horseradish; it will clear your sinuses in seconds and enhance your steak like nothing else.

4. Cake. So they tell me. I lost my sweet tooth years ago, so apart from one custard croissant (very good) I didn't eat any. And I don't much care for coffee, so that was lost on me too. But the Viennese scarf away the strudel like it's going out of fashion, and are freakier about their coffee than even New Yorkers, so I assume it's all good if you like it.

5. Beer, wine and spirits. Austrian wine used to be famous for it's high anti-freeze content. But now it's rather respectable. You can get a good glass of Riesling, Gruner Veltliner or Weiss Burgunder almost anywhere. All the beer is crisp, dry and flavourful. And a little schnapps can be fun.

That's the stomach taken care of. Next, I will turn to matters of culture. Back later.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Everybody ought to go careful in a city like this....

I'm taking my insomnia on a short Rest Cure. Where? Can you guess? Would you like a clue? No, it's not Covent Garden.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Where lies sleep

I was always a champion sleeper. Put me on a rock-hard camp bed or a hammocky relic in a cheap B&B, and I'd be sparked out in seconds, no matter how inadequate the pillow or musty the blanket. I slept right through the famous Hurricane of 1987, which doubled my amazement on rising to an unrestricted view across a devastated garden which had previously held a dozen leafy trees. I once fell asleep at an REM gig, which may be easier to understand given the soporific qualities of Michael Stipe's whiny voice. I've slept soundly on sea-tossed cross Channel ferries, while all around me heaved into sick bags.

A couple of years ago, though, and completely without my conscious bidding, I became strangely reluctant to tumble so easily into the arms of Morpheus. It started gently enough; I continued to to wake up at 'work time' (6.30 am) over the weekend, when for decades I had given myself permission to snooze through till 9.00 - so I was downstairs with the newspapers, tea, and the early morning weather forecast while Himself, untroubled by my new wakefulness, snored on without me. It was irksome, but caused little enough damage. Sometimes I even used the time constructively.

However with the unstoppable force of an incoming tide, my sleep time has continued to be swept away in waves of sudden unbidden nocturnal alertness. These days it's an automatic 4am reveille every day of the week, month, year, regardless of what time I got to bed the night before, what I ate or drank, and where I happened to lay my head. Not a panicky, frantic, worried jolt into a stream of anxious thought or gripping rumination, just a simple, total, irresistible physical awakening as though the internal alarm has gone off and commanded my body to get on with the day. Very occasionally, if I lie still enough and completely empty my head, I will fall back into a very heavy, dream-laden sleep after about an hour, which ends an hour after that when the alarm goes off and leaves me disorientated and exhausted for the entire day. That's my worst kind of day. The best I get is the kind I'm having now, where I can register the residual ache behind my eyes and vague physical groan of my unrested muscles if I stop and scan myself, and where I'm typing slowly because I'm making lots of mistakes (six in that sentence alone, I've just corrected them. Seven...). My motor skills are constantly affected, and where I've always had a fantastic memory for detail without trying, I'm having to concentrate on concentrating with my patients - though fortunately I haven't made any big mistakes there (yet. The fear persists, and keeps me nervously on my toes.). It may not be a surprise that I haven't felt much like blogging for a while.

I tried various 'natural remedies' - melatonin worked for a while but made me feel miserable, Valerian worked for a while but then needed upping and combining with 5HTP, which also worked for a while but is now failing me too unless I take three of each, which will get me some sleep but leaves me thick-headed all the next day. Over-the-counter antihistamine based meds bought me a few hours, but made my eyes so puffy that the chorus of "ooh you do look tired are you ok" from friends and patients became embarrassing. My GP prescribed me a respite dose of fourteen Zopiclone pills which bought me a fortnight's medicated sleep; great while it lasted but strictly unrepeatable due to the addictive nature of Zopiclone (I personally felt it was the sleep and not the medication I was more addicted to, but hey, she's not giving me any more.). I've changed my pillow, my bedding, I've opened windows and doors, catnapped, resisted catnapping, cut out coffee, cut back carbohydrate, done everything but turn my bed to face east (someone I know swears by it but that's just too far up the Barmy Old New Age Cack road for me.). It seems I am stuck with wakefulness. And I am half mad with lack of sleep.

I continue to get to the gym three or four times a week, even when I feel I could spark out and start snoring on the cross-trainer, in the hope that physical tiredness of the good kind will prompt an eventual  joining-in from the bit of my brain that won't turn off, but so far my 4am automatic call persists, as regular and reliable as the Shipping Forecast. I imagine I'm now part of the Great Insomniac Community, and I must admit to drawing a tiny amount of comfort from knowing I'm not the only one lying there at 4.14...15...16 with stinging eyes and a heavy heart, that there are probably one or two other souls within a hundred yards of me who are doing just the same, separated by walls and united in desperate desire for sleep. It's a club I never expected to be part of, and one I don't seem able to resign from.