How Vienna changed my life, and why I probably shan't be living there again.
Since returning to the UK I have found the most frequent, and in many ways most annoying, response to my waxing so lyrical about the time I spent in Vienna to be words to the effect of ‘oh never fear, you can always move back there!’.
While this is ostensibly true, and I could always go back, the reality is I have no real desire to do so. I will, of course, visit as often as I can, but there is something about living there again which I find somehow troubling.
My time in that Habsburgian dreamland, with its swirling facades and gold-leafed EVERYTHING, was probably, aside from the years I spent as a toddler drool-machine, the most formative period of my life.
I had, like many before me, headed to Vienna with a pretty set idea of what to expect. I had fully expected to find myself, by sometime around mid-April, sat in Café Central drinking a Verlängeter (an Americano if you aren’t viennese) and hoiking slabs of Sachertorte down my gullet. I’d sit and write my novella undisturbed, nestled in a plush leather booth surrounded by walls and pillars of gleaming marble as ‘Obers’ in dinner jackets flew about the room serving drinks. I would feel as though I had joined some intellectual elite which still inexplicably existed, despite having had its heyday during the pre-war Austro-Hungarian empire. I would walk the streets listening to Strauss as horse-drawn carriages rattled across cobble steps.
How naïve I was...
I soon came to understand that this is not Viennese culture, or rather, it is Vienna to foreigners. You only have to hear the locals (the real ones, anyway) talk, and you soon realise your mistakes. Wienerisch is rough, harsh, guttural, and yet somehow also smooth and lilting. It is full to bursting with a kind of semi-condescending, though very endearing, sarcasm. There isn’t a hint of refinement, but instead a gritty sense of the ultimate reality of things. The longer I lived there, the more of this dialect I came to adopt and through this, the intellectual wall which my preconceptions had built around the heart of the city slowly came down again. Freud, Polgar, Zweig, Rilke and Kafka; these great writers, whose works endure because of their author’s capacity to face up and untangle the universal human experience, all probably spoke in this, uncomplicated, only ever semi-serious, dialect for ‘the everyday, ordinary person’.
Being in Vienna and speaking Wienerisch taught me that aiming to be an ‘intellectual’ is pointless. I had for so long seen these great literary and philosophical minds as somehow almost divine, but it became increasingly clear that they were pretty much just ordinary Wieners. Their great intellectual insights were but the result of an utter straightforwardness, in a city whose architecture, dessert recipes, and traditional coffee menus are anything but. I realised that their works are so able to get to the heart of the human condition because that’s what they were. Plain old humans.
Having come to see the essential straightforwardness of Viennese culture, I started to notice it in the way the locals interacted with me too. I say that I learned so much about myself in Vienna because I really feel it was the first place which allowed me to be my most unadulterated self. It was through their straightforward language that my straightforward local friends saw me. I was, for the first time, able to shed the pretences with which my English ‘self’ had always felt the need to lead. It was as if I could be myself as I really was, and meeting and getting to know my real self in this way was a revelation. The time I spent with my lovely Austrian friends showed me that life is generally fuller when you get rid of the extraneous chaff.
I went out there with this idea of who I was to become, and in some roundabout way I feel I sort of have done. I wanted to live this fantasy of a mythical, caricatured version of a Vienna now lost to time. It was only when I shed this pretence that I came to realise just why that place produced so many utterly devastating geniuses. It’s because none of them ever sought to be so. They just looked at their lives, and the lives of those around them, and then started writing. Maybe, therefore, by ignoring those old coffee houses stuck in the past, and seeking to adopt a more Viennese sensibility, I ultimately did a far better job of walking in the footsteps of those up to whom I look.
So why won't I go back?
Well I suppose it is for the same reason that I have absolutely no interest in being a toddler drool-machine again. Of course, one has a fondness for one’s memories of early childhood, and often wishes to feel the comfort of their mother’s hands or the familiarity of the home in which one grew up. But as lovely as this is to revisit mentally, those formative childhood years are always best left in the past. And so it is with me and Vienna. I felt, as I flew home to the UK, that I had been in some odd way reborn as a truer version of myself. My time in Vienna had functioned, in many ways, as my second childhood. It was a place in which the way I saw my own existence was altered, expanded, and matured, and by leaving I had, in effect, flown the nest.
It was in Vienna that I grew up, and so to live there again would be to regress, and this is why I shan’t ever permanently return.