From time to time, I post writing from another member of my family. My sister, who travels a great deal for work, sent this letter about her recent trip that took her to Munich and Vienna. It cracked me up. I wish I’d been there. She begins….
There is a problem with trendy hotels. They tend to hire pretty young things to match the décor, and while the pyt’s will answer questions, they will not answer them correctly. I have stayed in four hotels in the last six weeks, 3 of them trendy and 3 for 3 I have been given bad information.
There is a second problem with trendy hotels. Why do each of them need to reinvent the shower? I am not at my problem solving best when I get up in the morning in a strange time zone.
Today’s pyt conversation:
Me: I understand that the Christmas markets don’t really open officially til next week, but do you know if any are open now?
PYT: (brightly) Oh yes, I saw in the paper this morning that there are some open. (Gets paper, thumbs through it forward, then backward, then forward). Here we are….there is one open here (circles spot on map) and another here (circles second spot).
It was circling the second one that made me doubtful….they don’t officially open til next week and now there are two?…but I set off.
I was right. An hour later I had seen two Christmas markets in the process of being set up, but that wasn’t much use to me. And I was now at the Opera House. The same Opera House that is a seven minute walk from the hotel directly, but oh well.
I decided to see if I could retrieve my errant umbrella. (left behind the previous night) Most doors locked, except the stage door. I go in, there is a security guard, I start with my usual, “I’m sorry I don’t speak German”, I then launch into a long explanation about the umbrella, he says “umbrella”, then opens the security door, says “Upstairs” and waves to the right. Off I go, upstairs, to the right, and I am now on the stage of the Vienna State Opera.
(I’m behind the scrim, but still….). There is the set for tonight’s performance of Boheme, I examine the fake French snow, I turn to acknowledge my cheering, adoring audience, I cross the stage to the other side, and there is nothing to suggest I am near my umbrella. I start to wander. I find the props area, the costumes area, the room where all the musical scores are held, a rehearsal hall… I am having a whale of a time. I say to myself, “Umbrella, even if I can’t bring you home safely you have done me one last marvelous favour”. I should add that there are people everywhere, in costume, in uniform, talking, lounging, rehearsing. No one notices me. I have inherited my mother’s gift of invisibility. I look for a ladies’ room (remember I left the hotel over an hour ago…). I see four “herren”, nein “damen”.
After many stairs and many hallways I see a door with a sign that looks like it might be a German word for “Security”. I stick my head in the door, and start with “I’m sorry, I don’t speak German..” and a large man with an earring says, “Gut Gott!!” I continue to speak, he gets up, points at a chair and says “Sit”.
I sit. He gives me the international hand signal for “Stay”. I stay. He leaves. I note as I sit that his computer screen is open. I reflect that perhaps the folks at the Vienna State Opera House don’t quite grasp the concept of Security. Earring man returns with another man, points at me and says “Englischer”. I start in….umbrella….blahblahblah…stage door….blahblahblah. New man says, “Come with me”. Which I do.
We end up in another room, he pulls out a binder full of handwritten entries…thumbs forward, thumbs backward, thumbs forward, mutters. He then gets up and starts to open and slam cupboards. Continues to mutter.
He asks: “Your umbrella what colour it is?” “Black and white”, I say.
He reaches into a cupboard, hands me my umbrella. He then picks up a random piece of paper, and says “Write your name”. Which I do. Who knows why.
He asks, “Do you know your way out? “ (Hell, no, I think). “Ah, not really, no.” I am escorted via hallways and stairways to the door. I think about asking for a ladies’ room but decide not to push my luck.
END OF ACT ONE
Next stop, Jewish Museum. I still need a bathroom so I stop in a department store where I see a gaggle of eight Orthodox priests, in full gown and cute hats, buying a decade’s worth each of socks, underpants and navy pullovers. I imagine they shop in those outfits because they have no other clothes.
There are many ball gowns in the shop windows because there are many balls in Vienna. If I lived in Vienna I would need a closet for the ball gowns.
The Jewish Museum is known for a nice lunch, and it doesn’t disappoint…carrot soup, salmon and couscous, lemon square. The museum itself is quite modest. Prior to WW II there were about 200,000 Jews in Vienna, about a tenth of the population. Now, 70 years after the end of the war, there are 5,000. The Final Solution was really quite final here. The exhibits are very moving, very personal.
I have been to Jewish Museums in Paris and Washington (I was in the Washington one hours before someone decided to go in and start shooting) and both of those have security like airports. No such thing here. The front desk is staffed by one little pasty academic-looking man in a jaunty scarf. Again, the Austrians seem to have a certain tralala quality on the subject of security.
Travel tip: If you find yourself with an hour between activities, you don’t want to drink another beverage and it’s too far to go back to your hotel, look for a large luxury hotel, preferably an international chain, nod at the doorman on your way in, find a luxuriously comfy chair in the lobby, look around expectantly, then pull out your book which you carry for these occasions. Leave yourself ten minutes to go to the banquet floor to use the marble ladies’ room, where you will also enjoy cloth towels and herbal scented hand lotion. In this case there was also an automatic shoe polisher. Then, refreshed, with gleaming shoes, continue to next activity.
Which in this case was a walking tour themed around the famous movie, “The Third Man”. This was fascinating. For two hours, we went under bridges to see where the sewer scenes were shot, we looked down alleys to see how certain shots were framed, we looked up at people’s windows from where characters called out. We learned that the Sacher Hotel was the HQ of the OSS (precursor to MI6) in divided post-war Vienna. Regular folk couldn’t stay there, but Graham Greene could, because he was a spook for the OSS. He checked in, hung out for a while, listened to people on the streets, wrote his novel (The Third Man) whilst doing his spying day job. And, his station chief was none other than notorious double agent Kim Philby, who had been recruited by the Soviets in Vienna in the 30’s. We finished the tour in a café where a woman played excerpts from the famous score on the zither.
Our tour guide was a nice young Austrian man whose mother has written the definitive book on “The Third Man” (I have no reason to doubt him). He says he and his family have watched it over 60 times. He has it memorized. He is a marvel. He also knows a lot about Viennese history, although his all-time favourite tv show: Due South (yes, the one with Paul Gross). His all-time favourite songwriter: Stan Rogers. He and his dad did a three-week camping trip around Lake Superior and every morning they would start the day and sing, with their Austrian accents, I presume, all of the verses of “The Northwest Passage”. It seems all of Austria could fit in Lake Superior. My only non-work related conversation of the week (not counting functional things like ordering food and finding umbrellas) and I find a man who was thrilled to buy snowshoes in Hudson’s Bay Store. It was rather comforting.
Throughout the movie the Viennese fire department used their hoses to make the streets wet in order to sharpen shadows and capture light. For this they were allowed to eat at the craft services table, a great perk in post-war Vienna where people ate cats and rats and were still recycling fat until the 70’s. Tonight, however, for the first time all week, when I came out of the hotel to meet the tour, it was pouring rain, so we didn’t have to simulate that effect as it got dark.
I didn’t mind. I have an umbrella.