There is no escaping from the curse of a wandering, reflective mind. Refusing to be completely engrossed in any single activity, this kind of wayward mind will always stubbornly branch out into numerous ruminative thought-streams. Though clearly not a recipe for swift practicality (1), this affliction does bring precious moments of illumination. For instance, when two or more streams of consciousness suddenly meet and echo each other - then the whirling thought-threads momentarily seem to cohere in a tapestry that connects past and present, reality and imagination - and offers a glimpse of meaning (2) .
So when I sat there waiting for the plane to Vienna, I was not just preoccupied with the logistics of travelling, but also worrying about the next day’s meetings. And chewing on the past weekend’s events. And reminiscing about another Vienna-trip, so many years earlier (by night train! which had seemed a romantic idea at the time, but had me arriving exhausted and rattled).
But most of all, sitting in that waiting area, I was still immersed in the tragic suspense of the book that has been haunting me for the past weeks : Daniel Mendelsohn’s “The Lost” – a book in which he relates his meandering quest to find out more about the Polish branch of his Jewish family, in particular about a certain family of six, a mother and father and four daughters, who have all perished in the Holocaust.
His odyssey throughout the world, in search for witnesses, for memento’s, brings him also to Vienna. Vienna, which before the war used to be an intellectual centre of European Jewry, but now …, now... , as Mendelsohn wryly writes home on a postcard, : “Vienna is still beautiful, but no Jews – not even dead ones” (3).
And therefore, I am particularly moved, when amongst the waiting passengers I notice two Orthodox Jews and a man wearing a yarmulke.
When the plane lands it is already dark – with the neon lit airport buildings looking desolate and sinister. I wring myself into the airport shuttle bus, already cram-full with tall and heavy-set males, all speaking ominous, guttural languages (Polish? Czech? Russian?), all looking particularly ruthless & tough. When hailing a cab at the taxi-stand, I am relieved to see a female taxi driver pulling up. We drive on in silence, past eerily lit gleaming smokestack industries, and then through deserted suburbs with old and large apartment-buildings - which must have witnessed quite some spooky scenes ... in the thirties under streetfighters' & nazi-rule ... in 45, during the looting & plundering & free-for all "liberation" by the Russian Army... .
Only at the hotel the menacing air makes way for a more placid Viennese atmosphere – with its faded carpets, its once-elegant furniture, its prints of long forgotten famous men on the wall, the hotel room exudes a slightly decayed formality and feels oddly provincial. But then, what else is Vienna, but a provincial outpost still decorated as the capital of an empire?
The next morning I get up an hour too early by mistake (my mobile’s clock lives in its own time zone). I only realize this in the U-Bahn, on my way to The Important Business Meeting. At the fourth station with a clock stubbornly telling me it is only 8 and not 9 AM – I’m forced to admit that it may perhaps be my own time-keeping which is off (so that’s why I was alone at the breakfast table …). But oh, blessed be the cunning ways of my distractedness, offering my otherwise too dutiful self a clandestine hour of free roaming.
So I have time to look at the art deco gates of the city park, to wander off a grandiose street and even to sit down in a stylish Viennese Kaffee-haus with the most delicious coffee and cakes smells. It’s odd, I almost appreciate this hour of Viennese sights and smells more than I enjoyed the real Vienna tourist trip back when I was 28.
But then, perhaps Vienna is not a city for twenty year somethings … at any rate not for the doubting & searching 28 year old I was. Back then I experienced Vienna as either too cloyingly Biedermeier sweet, too Wiener Sanger Knaben, too Sound Of Music, or as too pompous & overbearing & grandiose. (4) Only now can I wistfully value its melancholy blend of frivolous fragments of past glories and of ominous reminders of Europe's great tragedies.
On the other hand, that first Vienna trip was not completely unfruitful ... – the visit, so long ago, to the vast Kunsthistorisches Museum, where I wandered about without any art historical clue, did plant the seed for my later love of Old Masters and for many an art inspired pilgrimage. And that somber, soul-searching Caravaggio painting with the young and victorious David looking wistfully at the slain head of the older Goliath… Yes that painting made me upon my return acquire a Caravaggio monography, the first of many art books to fill my book-shelves....
And so I sit reminiscing in the Kaffee-haus, soothed by the clatter of cutlery, by the sight of impeccably groomed waiters carrying off sumptuous pieces of cake to tables where patrons peruse the papers and sip their coffee. But then the hour of freedom is up and the day of role playing can no longer be delayed. ….
And now, I cannot help but wondering, what would that tormented 28-year old make of my current self? Of the years lived? The people loved? The books read? The paintings seen? The miles travelled? What would she make of the self, who later that day was sifting through business papers and data, tapping away on a laptop amongst a bunch of young, ambitious, clean shaven consultants, equally furiously tapping on keyboards. What would she make of the self who in the evening, avoiding any further business contacts, is having a pizza on her own, so as to be able to read on in the Mendelsohn book – to immerse myself again in his tragic stories.
But then again, why would I grant that 28-year old any particular rights to judge my current self? Much better to choose as a judge the boisterous & rebellious & wise 82 year old lady I will be!
No blogpost without footnotes , so here goes:
(1) people have been known to fall off their bikes while ruminating about some painting instead of watching their bike’s wheels go round
(2) no wonder I have always had this thing for polyphonic music – where independent musical lines each do their own thing, but do attain an overall harmony, sounding note-against-note (counterpoint)
(3) Upon seeing the conspicuously empty newly plotted Jewish section of the Viennse Central Cemetery, Mendelsohn muses that even “cemeteries can be bereft” . “The New Jewish Section [of the Zentralfriedhof] was largely empty because all of the Jews who, in the normal course of things, would have been buried there had, in fact, died in ways they hadn’t foreseen.”
(4) Vienna in Mendelsohn’s words: “its grandiose beauties, the epically scaled baroque and Beaux-Arts buildings whose always slightly outsized details, the inflated cornices and overwrought moldings, were once a symbol of excessive imperial self-confidence, and now can seem almost embarrassing, given that the empire for which these ornaments were designed has vanished [….] the tenacity with which it clings to discarded formalities of another era”