prost! austria, part 1: elegance and romance in vienna

autumn trees stand naked in vienna
autumn trees stand naked in vienna

our arrival into vienna was a dreary affair with rainclouds, which actually wasn’t all too unwelcome of a sight considering the luck i had been having on the trip so far.  everywhere i had been so far had produced sunny, cloudless weather with the extremely occasional afternoon shower.  so when a little rain settled overhead, i wasn’t too bothered by it, especially when it only lasted for a day.

again avoiding the hostel circuit, robert and i had opted for an airbnb apartment in a nice part of the city near all the

key areas downtown and in a safe location.  it was actually my first time to use airbnb and i must say, it is truly a brilliant concept.  it really takes the middle man out of hospitality, allowing property owners to rent out their properties to tourists for cheap, and providing a plethora of options to the traveler.  i really like this idea, and if i am traveling with others in the future, i will definitely be using airbnb again.

vienna would prove to be a tricky destination for me.   not because i didn’t like it, and not because i had any bad experiences there, but for reasons much simpler.  i just really didn’t connect with it.  vienna is a stunningly beautiful country, rich with tradition and culture and art and architecture to match even the finest destinations in the world.  but i think that may have been part of the problem for me, is that maybe it was just a little too rich for me.

i realize it sounds like i’m being a little diva-ish and unreasonable but stay with me here, the point i make here is not

st stephens cathedral vienna
st stephens cathedral vienna

one of criticism of the amazing city of vienna, but merely one of personal preference.  when i travel, i like to get a little dirt under my fingernails.  not too much dirt, mind you (lest you see me tromping around the streets of iraq), but enough to where i feel like i didn’t simply see all the museums and statues in the city and then move on.  i like to venture down backstreets and find old buildings that look like they’ve seen better days.  i like to find old and new faces standing around, that make you unsure if you can trust them, i like to find graffiti that isn’t “commissioned” but is still creative nonetheless.

these things weren’t always easy to find in vienna.  instead, vienna was incredibly well maintained, a beautiful marvel of perfect architecture, art, and living all fused together.  the streets were remarkably clean at all times, the citizens always well dressed and put together, as if they were all ready should a last minute business meeting be called.  the vienna sculpturesstreets were impeccably manicured, cobblestones carefully placed, graffiti usually painted over or removed, vienna is just a perfectly high class city, and unfortunately for me, i am just not in a high-class state of mind in my current place in life.

and to illustrate the difference with which someone can find within a destination, one could look at how both robert
and i thought of vienna after we left.  after 4 days, i was slightly bored and ready to leave, yet robert was in love with the city and wouldn’t have minded staying longer (in fact he would return later after we went separate ways later in the trip).  robert explored more of the city than i, and each day when we would meet back at the apartment, he would always have recommendations of great places i needed to check out that he had discovered.  sometimes i would check them out, and sometimes i wouldn’t.  it just wasn’t a place that had truly excited me at the time.  i’m sure someday i will return here and be completely blown away by everything my eyes were closed to at the time.

regardless, it was still a beautiful place to visit.  one of the recommendations i had gotten from robert was a royal palace a little outside the main area of town called schonbrunn palace.  i hopped on a train and entered the property. not really wanting to spend any money, i found that the gardens were not only free, but quite expansive.  i spent the afternoon just wandering around and snapping photos.  i suppose it would be a wonderfully romantic place to have a picnic with a significant other, but i enjoyed myself thoroughly as i walked the gardens and up the hill overlooking the estate and the rest of the city.  it really is a magnificent place.

Vienna, you are passively stunning. I will see you another time. #Austria #vienna #hyperlapse

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one night, i had been very keen on finding some sort of connection with the high classed fanciness of the city, so i had searched for some expensive cocktail lounges.  i settled on a place called “ebert’s” on gumpendorfer st.  i got as dressed up as i could (i only had 1 collared shirt packed on this trip, so i wasn’t exactly prepared for a city like vienna, nor was i really “dressed to impress”) and then trekked across town and located the establishment.

on a relatively uninteresting block with no other places open at that time of night, ebert’s stood out with large windows and curtains drawn back halfway, allowing you to glimpse inside and see the poshly decorated interior.  knowing i was still a little underdressed for the place with my nikes, jeans, and untucked black collared shirt, i straightened my collar, took a breath, and then entered confidently.

i looked around and noted first that the place looked even nicer once you were inside, and then noted that there was nobody there, save for a bartender and a barback.  i took another look around the room and decided that rather than sit in the corner by myself and make them wait on me, i would sit front and center at the bar and have a little conversation with them if they were willing.

i was greeted cordially by mo, a well dressed man with darker skin and thick-rimmed glasses and bulging muscles from his toned physique.  i joked to myself about how the place must save money on employing bouncers because mo can easily double as one while also tending the bar.  mo had a thick french accent but spoke very good english as well as german (a couple other austrian patrons trickled in and out for a drink during the time i was there and i overheard the interactions) and was a very good bar conversationalist.  at first, the idle talk was simply surface level, but as it became apparent to mo that i wasn’t going anywhere for awhile and i wasn’t meeting anyone there, he decided to drop whatever other prepwork he was doing behind the bar and focus on me.

knowing that this was a proper cocktail bar when I had selected it, and upon seeing their expansive liquor and whiskey & bourbon collection, I had quietly tested mo with my normal litmus test with the whiskey old fashioned.  i’ve been using this test for about 6 years now to determine if a bartender is worthy of my time, cash, and trust.  the reason for this is because drinks with bitters in them are fairly easy to screw up, and if a bartender can serve you a drink with bitters and not take away too much of the bourbon taste, you probably have someone on your hands who understands the balance of taste in a cocktail.  so all that to say that mo passed with flying colors.  once i appreciatively thanked him for the wonderful drink, we started talking whiskeys and bourbons and after a few minutes mo took a step back, looked at me wryly out of the side of his glasses and said in his thick french accent “you know, i love when americans come in here because they understand whiskey properly.”  it’s probably the best compliment a barkeep has ever given me.

we continued to chat about whiskey topics both old and new (like the new “whisky stick” that you can buy and put in a bottle of cheap whiskey and within 48 hours it will make your whiskey taste like a finely aged spirit.  I’m not linking to it, because it’s an appalling idea and it’s totally a hoax, but idiots out there are still buying it), but eventually the conversation wandered to other topics like mo’s background.  mo was born in africa but moved with his family to paris where he grew up.  he then moved to hamburg, germany when he became an adult and studied and eventually became a bartender.  he had only moved to vienna 6 months earlier at the request of an old colleague of his who was managing this bar and needed help with a proper “A+ level” barman who could help raise the bar, so to speak (heh.  heheh.  i love obvious jokes).

schonbrunn wall ivyafter a couple hours of good conversation and tastebud tantalizing temptations made by mo, i encouraged him to dream up his own concept bar and open it somewhere outside of vienna.  a guy like him belongs in a different style of city with a little bit of a rougher edge around it and he deserves to have his own place.  he lit up when i said that, and then started to share with me some of his ideas.  we excitedly went back and forth, and i could tell that it was something he needed to hear.  he struck me as the kind of guy who had really only moved to do a favor for a friend, and while things were going well at the bar, it might not have been as fulfilling as what he had hoped for. perhaps he was struggling with building a network or support group of people around him that helped push him forward or provided positive reinforcement.  i think it may be possible that hearing someone like me intuitively pick up on that and then communicate it to him without a hint or a prompt may have been meaningful to him.  i hope it was.

leaves falling on vienna benches
leaves falling on vienna benches

at a certain point in the night after mo and i had covered a lot of conversational ground, a couple had slipped in and quietly made their way to the rear corner of the room.  they had kept to themselves for awhile, but at a certain point they had joined the conversation.  mo and i were glad to have a few good souls along to help give the night a little life, and james and slavka were more than happy to make some friends.  before long, i think mo knew he had more than just a few casual drunks in the establishment that night, because the conversation was so rich and in-depth, and everyone was really enjoying each others’ company.  every person in the room was my kind of people.  they were “in tune.”

mo, feeling the atmosphere and positive vibe, started making up drinks off the menu.  he was getting creative, and his drinks were getting better.  eventually mo’s wife actually came in and hung out for a bit.  it was closing time before we knew it, but mo told us that he was going to make one more drink for each of us and lock the door, allowing us to take our time and finish our drinks while he cleaned up and closed down before we all left.

james and slavka were completing a storybook romance honeymoon in Vienna, and 5 days later they were to return to england as husband and wife.  they had met 6 years earlier in london on a bus when james had sat down next to slavka and struck up a conversation.  james was actually living in cambridge, about 60 miles away so after the initial sparks had flown, they settled into the long distance thing for a couple years.  when they finally tied the knot, they chose to have the special day in kosice, slovakia, slavka’s hometown.  james’ family and friends all flew down for a traditional slovakian wedding celebration that lasted 4 days.  after the celebration, james and slavka made their escape to vienna, where i met them, before returning home and starting their new life together.

as james retold the story to me, i found myself getting simultaneously sentimental and hopeful.  i listened intently, allowing myself to get caught up in the magic and let the story come alive.  it was nice to be the listener instead of the storyteller for a change, especially when the content was so enthralling.  too often in my former life, the person i had grown to be was a very cynical person who would not allow myself to be too impressed or surprised by anything, so when i might hear a great story like james and slavka’s, i would still actively and politely listen, but i might reserve emotion or expression in order to preserve the image or character that i was portraying forward.  or worse, the greater cynic in me might mentally dismiss it as another “story” and not even allow myself to entertain such fantasies of love and magic and emotion.

vienna sidewalks
lonely vienna sidewalks

as i’ve gotten further along in this journey of mine, i’ve tried to identify when the bad habits i’ve picked up along the way in my life have crept back up.  particularly with my own romantic connections which have been marked by a string of failed relationships and unrequited love, i had become increasingly jaded and this skepticism had taken a strong root in my life, like weeds choking out a rose garden.  and so i’ve tried to find the things about my personality which stop me from experiencing emotion and joy and i’ve tried to deactivate them.  these mechanisms of cynicism and sarcasm which normally serve as a wall of protection from being taken advantage of or being the “sucker” do serve their purposes but there is always a consequence, and for me that consequence is that some of the more elemental and basic joys of being a human get blocked.  they become forgotten about, and my world had become grayer because of it.

so when i was enthusiastically talking with this wonderful pair, i caught my instinct to “play it cool” and i quickly shut it down.  i listened, i got excited, i expressed my enthusiasm, i asked for elaboration.  it was fun, and they were a fun couple.  james’ witty british humor made the retelling of the story easy to want to join in on the ride, and slavka’s periodic additions or corrections helped provide balance and accuracy to the story, as shared stories between brits and americans are wont to stretch a bit when there is whiskey involved. it was fun to watch them interact with each other, and i could tell that they were a great pair, one that would definitely last.  they appreciated each other, and more importantly, it was obviously that they truly did enjoy hanging out.  there was chemistry there, but there was also that “partner in crime” element that i don’t always see in couples.  especially after traveling together with no other normal distractions to occupy them.  often times in those couples i see something different:  exhaustion.

at around 3:30am, mo had finished all his closing duties and made the fateful announcement that it was time to headvienna palace gardens home.  james, slavka, and i all profusely thanked mo for the perfect night.  we all exchanged information, finished our drinks, and ducked out into the night, going our separate ways and vowing to stay in touch.  i smiled to myself as i walked home under the evening streetlamps, thankful for having met james and slavka.  couples like that always give me so much hope and optimism, that i might one day be able to find that perfect balance of attraction, friendship, partnership, and fun.  i promised myself that, despite the whiskey drinks and the hazy head, i would remember that evening i spent with james and slavka in the hopes that i might one day more easily recognize that “thing” that they had if i were to one day find it with someone else.

—————————

today’s jam is one reflective of my thoughts about james and slavka’s story.  it’s a song full of hope, energy, romance, and as the title reflects, “magic.”  featuring disco guitar legend nile rodgers, whom had re-emerged onto the pop music scene after being featured on last year’s daft punk rise from the dead (notably on the mega hit “get lucky”), and brandy, another pop artist who has been absent from the scene for years, this new track by luis dubuc’s electronic pop act “mystery skulls” is one that just gets into your veins and starts pumping blood without the need of a heart.  but when you listen to the lyrics, your heart can’t help but join in.

“magic” is good clean fun, but if you can stomach a few bad words, i highly recommend you check out the full album from mystery skulls, which just came out about a month ago.  it is just good fun from start to finish, with incendiary synth tracks and catchy melodies.  enjoy…

and of course, if you’re following along on spotify, here’s my “we philistines selections” playlist, with all the songs i’ve featured on this blog.

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