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It’s an Easter holiday in Vienna and the streets are, if you’ll permit the cliché, silent as the grave. The Vienna Universities are on a two-week extended break for the Easter Holiday. Without the climate and absent a fine, warm beach, the Viennese lack the traditional American Spring Break festivities, which elevates them in some respect over the pure Sodom and Gomorrah horror show typical of our spring sabbatical. No break in March, just lots of grey days and a spot of sunshine before April, and then 14 days of school-free euphoria that empties the dormitories by the first Saturday. Of course, Webster is a good-old fashioned patriotic school, and our students linger behind, along with the stragglers from the local institutions, too poor or too far from home (or both) to bother heading back. So the halls are particularly silent and the shops are closed for a few extra days and half the population seems to vanish overnight. Maybe they just bunker down for a fortnight and drink heavy German beer and eat until they fall asleep, only to wake in the morning and gorge again.

Maybe they do it with their whole families, camped for two weeks in a single gathering like an old-fashioned European shindig without enough provisions for a ground war in Asia and sleeping bags right off the dining room. I have no idea, these are just the speculations, as I’ve not yet consumed enough beer to go randomly barging into the homes of the locals and inquire about cultural nuisances. But the stores are all closed so you figure they must have saved the food to prepare for whatever efficient, sulky German festivities are taking place in those spacious apartments they all live in.

So you meander outside for a smoke and imagine where everybody is that you normally see in this neighborhood. Like a proper low-income area, there is no official silence on the streets at any point. There’s always some strange local with a scowl meandering one way or the other down the sidewalk, a car zipping by with comforting regularity, and the tram gliding around the bend silently with a cross-section of late night weirdos and strangely dressed teenagers. But on Easter, everybody evaporates, and on today — the Monday after, a state holiday — the city kind of groans down into 2nd gear, showing its age and heaving from the normal pace of the populace. Much less stimulus on these days, and you start to look around more than normal, because you can suddenly see the little details.

You notice all the graffiti in any part of town, and you notice the pigeons, which surly must outnumber the Austrians 2-1, if my study is accurate. You notice how the air is thin and cold and has that familiar wet pinch of any breeze that blows near a large body of freshwater.

You notice that there are lots of trees and shrubs and bushes, but few patches of grass save for the obligatory sidings around the churches. Sure, the parks are all grass but the city itself, where the population lives and breathes, is a veritable cocoon of concrete, marble, glass, steel, asphalt, lime, granite and brick. Everything is hard surfaces and reflections. Other than the afternoon hours, this creates spots of shade during the morning or evening hours. You’ll be walking for a mile in the sun with a cool breeze on your chest before rounding a turn where the sun is blocked out and the alley narrows and funnels that breeze into a hellish wind that numbs your face and pushes you into your own chest. Turn a corner and the entire climate can shift; an unpredictable problem in this kind of place.


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