Archive | November, 2019

Vienna–then and now

2 Nov


The photo above was in an article in the most recent Sunday edition of Vienna’s Die Presse titled “Wien wird jünger und jünger”–Vienna is getting younger and younger, a fact that comes as a surprise to many who still remember the image of the city as filled with old people and old culture. I first lived in Vienna exactly 50 years ago, from September 1969 to August 1970;  I was 20 when I arrived and celebrated my 21st birthday there. At that time, there were still visible remnants of the war, both among the buildings and the people:  a few structures were in disrepair if not outright rubble and Otto Wagner’s Secessionsgebäuden and other architectural monuments were often a bit shabby,  having not yet been completely restored. And oh, those poor old unhappy war widows! Old ladies on the bus would scream at us young ones in mini-skirts, hitting us with their umbrellas and calling us whores, because we shaved our legs. Old men still kissed your hand and called you “gnädige Frau” (or even “gnädiges Fräulein”!), and they still referred to Slavic cities by their old Austro-Hungarian German names–Ljubljana was Laibach, Lviv/Lvov was Lemberg, Bratislava was Pressburg. The traditional greeting was “Servus!”, and some people still remembered old Jewish humorists speaking in their distinct Yiddish-Viennese dialect. Streetcars stopped running at about 10, which often meant, if the Opera had a long performance, you had no choice but to take a taxi home. There was little night life to speak of, except in Ball Season. International phone calls required going to the post office, where one waited in an old wooden cabinet until the call was put through.  Life still followed a rather ritualized pattern:  promenading walks on Sunday on the Kahlenberg,  formal balls during Fasching (with goulasch eaten at 3 a.m.), winter ski trips, visits to the Wienerwald in the spring to pick Bärlauch (a wild garlic, see, and excursions around the Danube and out to Grinzing’s Heurigen for new wine and Liptauerbrot in summer.  For a girl of the Golden West, this was all fascinating and romantic and new, but it did reek of another era, and old people wearing cloth coats and Lodenjacke did pervade the urban landscape. Hippiedom had not made it to Vienna, and never really did. Some demonstrations against the Vietnam War did happen at the university, and we all marched with the Communists and Socialists wearing red on May Day.


Despite the grayness of the weather and dreary Post-War apartment buildings, as well as a bit of sadness overlying the city, we were young and we loved every minute of this new Old World experience. We all got boyfriends and had our first serious romances, we went to a gillion balls in our white gowns (and, in a sign of some youthful flair, some of us even attended an Oben/Ohne Ball–a topless event at the Secession building!). We avoided any association with Americans, spoke only German on the streets, and began to eat like Europeans. Enchanted by all that music and art and Baroque architecture, we were exposed to culture, and to a kind of romance that we had never known existed in our suburban lives back home. I also now learn that it was indeed the case that we experienced in 1969-70 “a Hundred-Year Winter”, one of the coldest and snowiest of the century. No wonder we were all so cold in our little short skirts! But as a California Girl, I even found the weather a novel experience. There was, however, no escaping the fact that Vienna was not a hotspot for the youth of the 60s and 70s, and that the city’s innate conservatism was still a bit restrictive.

By the time I returned in the 1980s–then with a husband and doing research for my dissertation on an Austrian artist–Vienna was beginning to change. Signs of prosperity appeared everywhere: no more women in cloth coats but furs, most of the landmark buildings had been spruced up, and tourism was going gangbusters. Kärntnerstrasse, Vienna’s main shopping street, had become a pedestrian zone, the subways were beginning to run, and people were beginning to have cars and buy apartments. Still, the old trope of Alt Wien–meaning both Old World charm and old people–still applied. Bruno Kreisky, however, Austria’s great Socialist Chancellor from 1970 to 1983, transformed the country, initiating tremendous social reform and, as Wikipedia states, “parlayed a small country’s neutrality into a major moral and political role on the world stage.” ( Because of his reforms, Viennese seemed to be less anxious, more secure, in the 1980s. After years of some deprivation and sacrifice, citizens of Austria were beginning to reap the benefits economically.  Some of the old cafes still served Milchrahmstrudel and Nusstaschen, but franchises were popping up, too.  Supermarkets–big outlet shops on the edge of town or in industrial zones–were taking over from the old inner-city butchers and bakers, although those were still operating. For progress achieved since then, see my blog entries here for the months of October-December 2015.

Now, in 2019, I have just returned from a brief Viennese sojourn, perhaps my last one. I stayed at an apartment, part of a home exchange program, near Yppenplatz, a traditionally Turkish part of town, known for its open-air market, that has now become Hipster Central. The landlords of the apartment are a lovely young couple with two little children–a demographic that seems to be the norm now in this part of the city. Everywhere I looked were young families, with strollers and babies strapped to their chests. Skateboarders, edgy street art, and hip new cafes dominated the area around the marketplace. Everything seems much more open, less connected to that Viennese myth of Empire, and everything is wired. Young people are more likely to be using Germanisms, to the point that when I asked my young landlady why they said “Tschuss” instead of “Servus”, she looked at me skeptically and said that “Servus” was from Bavaria! (It’s not, but the Latinate form sounds stilted to them.) Their accents are not the old-fashioned lilting Wienerisch ones, although their idioms may reflect Austrian origins. These are young Viennese who I can’t see going to Fasching-season balls or even regularly out to Grinzing Heurige. They are, however, still tied closely to their families, they are keenly outdoorsy and athletic, love to travel to distant places like Indonesia, and are quite responsibly into “Bio” foods, organic products, limited plastic, and all things non-GMO. Good Europeans, they still abjure clothes dryers, microwaves, and excessive consumption.

The city itself reflects this youthful freshness, a livelier atmosphere. As the article in Die Presse would have it, the Vienna of Sisi (Kaiser Franz Joseph’s wife Elisabeth) and Klimt is old hat, and the city now ranks among the top 25 of hot places for young folks to go.  This status, along with its ranking as “the world’s most liveable city” by The Economist and Forbes Magazine, demonstrates that its old image as “Wien, du tote Stadt” is long gone. Still, one can find beloved Mozartkugeln, phenomenal pastries, and a very splashy, neon-infused Christkindlmarkt starting in November. The Bruegels are still there, in all their fascinating glory in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. It does seem to me a bit ironic that the Vienna that has been in my heart as the most special place for 50 years, has now, when I am a senior citizen, become a mecca for young people! I am so happy to know that the city I have loved for so long will continue to grow and change with the times, and that, having seen it in the last stages of its sad 20th-century distress, I was able at last to see it as so secure and so prosperous–so liveable.