Let me try to tell you about my strange Saturday night.
Since I arrived, I noticed that there’s something consistently off about Vienna. The city is beautiful. Don’t get me wrong. The dirty streets are beautiful. The flowering windowsill gardens next to the dusty dog-parks are beautiful. The woman leaning out her window to feed the pigeons is beautiful. The historic buildings and gardens – the Prater, the Stadtoper, the Belvedere – are beautiful. The naughty graffiti that spills from the side-streets and the canals onto every slightly-shadowed wall is beautiful. But there’s something so contradictory in it, just slightly out of place.
I’ve been trying to place my finger on it since I took my first step out of the airport. There’s this constant mixing, it seems, between the old and the new. Things that have existed since before America was born and things that have been built since sit side by side, in what at-first can be called harmony. The more time I spend looking up as I wander to school every morning, the more I notice it. These things go together because they have to, but not because they actually do.
An example street in Vienna. I had a hard time choosing a picture
that exemplifies the odd-ness of the arcetecture. It's there. Look
close enough, and it's everywhere.
The resulting mood can be occasionally disorienting. You walk down the non-tourist streets, past the mundane locations where people actually work and live and it becomes so clear. The history of this city is vast, and I’m not certain that it’s possible to completely reconcile it. I mean, the country itself is almost a living museum, forced into a permanent neutral status following World War II. Vienna spends more money on the arts than on anything else because it has to.
This mood of cultivating culture and preserving history allows for the gaps in time between one building and the next to be erased. In fact, many buildings were built purposely in a style other than in the time they were built. Often times as I traverse the Ringstraβe I marvel at buildings that I can’t be certain by how they look to know when they were built. And if they are ‘original’, I can’t be certain that they’re replicas of something destroyed during the World Wars or if it’s authentic.
This crane has been outside my window since I moved in.
Last night, it was pointing directly at the moon.
This mood doesn’t just seem to exist in the architecture. It is within the people themselves. This is how I come to explain the strange events of Saturday evening.
Lauren and I had heard word that there was “something going on at the Rathaus”. Nobody knew what that something was, but it was something, and having not gone out on Friday night, I felt it was time to catch up a bit. We travel by foot into the center of the city and get dinner at an Italian restaurant. Nothing too strange there. We followed dinner up with gelato, and started walking in the general direction of the Rathaus.
At some point we come to a street blocked off from traffic by the police. Foot traffic is still open, so we continue across the walk and into an empty lane. The next block is stopped entirely. We would have turned around and tried another way had we not heard the clanging of a church bell from the small church on the left side of the street. We stop momentarily, and people begin pouring out from a service, illuminated by torches. We stop entirely.
The bell continues chiming. A dark-brown clang. I look at Lauren, she looks at me. And then looking back up at the church, whose steps are now completely filled with standing people lit-up red by firelight, some pallbearers begin to descend with a casket as a symphony by Gustav Mahler begins to play. I look back at Lauren. “Is this real? Shit, is this a funeral? Who died? You’re seeing this too, right?” Whisper, whisper, whisper.
The pallbearers, crossing the street, carry the casket into a fire lit public park, and stand on a small hill, while the crowd begins to surround them. A man behind them lights a structure, which slowly spells out MAHLER in the dark sky behind them. I begin to notice that most of the crowd is not wearing regular funeral attire, and that some are taking pictures. A carriage drives up, and the casket is loaded in. People holding torches follow the casket as it circles the square and then off, the horses at a slow trot.
All the letters in MAHLER except for the E remain burning after the people filter back into the church. My best guess is that it was some reenactment ceremony, although Mahler died in May. However, Lauren and I had no idea how to react. It was the strangest thing I’ve seen yet in this city, and that’s saying quite a lot. Either way, it was a planned event, and we walked on.
This is the Rathhaus that night. Most nights there is a
summer film festival going on this screen, with chairs
laid out and dinner around so that you can have an
evening. For this night, it was a little bit different.
Arriving at the Rathaus (I should explain now that the Rathaus is the city hall, and is certainly one of those ‘built in the style of…’ buildings) was a completely different experience. It’s the end of the Austrian summer break, and there was house music pumping from speakers behind a DJ booth. Shenanigans were about to start from the intake of alcohol, and a crowd of people pulsed, hands waving in the air to the beat.
There was no average age from one person to the next. Many were young, but a large portion was twice, if not three times my age. The massive projection screen threw bright neon across the faces of the crowd. Yelling resounded from all sides, barely audible above the one-two beat. Beer cans were littered across the ground. A drunken Austrian offered Lauren and me cocaine and we quickly left.
As we strolled away, the sound of the heavy bass bounced between the old buildings, sounding on and off through the alleyways like a deep church bell.