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Sitting on the East hill of Schonbrunn Palace, I find myself cursing my own greed. I guzzled the last of my water already, and the hike up this incline should be used to train Navy Seals. The Palace is a flat, mighty thing — mustard yellow with endless windows and wings — it looks two dimensional from a distance. Up close, you can appreciate the size of it, all 1,400+ rooms. It has a courtyard thick with visitors, pointing in every direction and snapping pictures of what was surly a majestic place for greeting mighty men ages ago. I declined the interior tour of the palace, a 15 Euro walk through some of its more impressive rooms didn’t suit me at all.

I had no desire to see the old billiard room where emperors slapped balls and laughed about the petty commoners. I didn’t need to see the walnut room, either, whatever that is. The real jewel of this property, the former summer residence of monarchs past, is the Imperial Gardens, Here there are dozens of acres of land, so wide and winding no single photo can encompass it all, unless it is taken from space. A wide stone courtyard beckons me to the Neptune Fountain, where the big man himself holds a spear while nymphs worship at his feet. To the north: the Imperial Zoo, founded after someone realized that the emperor had enough exotic animals to literally fill a zoo. A hedge maze, closed until the season is warmer and the plants greener, runs the length of the park with walkways and hanging vines in every direction.

For a moment, I wonder how many homeless people must sleep here at night. The wall is relatively low and easy to scale, and the park so massive, so dauntingly wide in every direction, there is surely no way to secure it, to check every inch of it at closing time. Then I remember that I could count on one hand the number of homeless people I’d seen in Vienna and probably still have my thumb.

Behind Neptune, a sloping hill, maybe 3 acres across and 2 acres high, a 30 degree incline with zigzag paths will take anyone brave enough onto soft grass so lofty, you can see the whole of the city below you. I reach the crest of the hill panting like a dog and twice as giddy at the sight. I strip off my coat and let the breeze kiss my chest and back, where my shirt is clinging with sweat.

When the wind pauses and the air is quiet, the noon sun bathes me in that perfect warmth that invokes memories of a hot tub or a fine bath. From here, I can see most of the city, red rooftops like specks of desert clay and the high stone towers of old churches scattered about the landscape. To the northwest, the mountains begin. Cranes swing here and there over the city, like giants building new structures where the ancient ones had fallen.

This is the appex of tourism in Vienna. A group of French teenagers is below me on the hill, wheelbarrow racing down the steep incline and occasionally face-planting into the welcoming grass, to the rambunctious applause of their friends. You can see lots of Viennese homes here. Most of them are apartments in varying states of comfort and luxury. They all have long, breezy windows and most of them have pleasant little decks for smoking outside, 5 floors or more above the pavement. The nicer homes are like luxury hotel rooms. Their decks are not pitiful outcroppings of concrete, but glass-encased cubes protruding from the side of their sleek buildings.

They hang over the city, suspended over nothing like high-end watchtowers for the rich and famous. At first glance of one of these glass cubes, I felt a sudden powerful desire to fly down the hill and rent the finest room in the city immediately. They simply scream comfort — a place where a man could sit with his feet on a table and watch every inch of the city below him in serene meditation as he smokes and sips bitter Viennese coffee like a visiting conqueror.

The French teenagers are indicative of almost anyone in this place under the age of 25. They are rowdy and loud, almost oblivious to the unique singular poetry of this place. One of them, a tall, lanky shirtless fellow, cartwheels wildly for his friends, tackling pretty girls and rolling with them in the grass like a drunken jester. Only a few sit quietly, flat on their backs, sleeping in the sun.

I find myself wishing I had a high-quality slingshot and a bag of marbles — a device worth its weight in gold for both entertainment and practical purposes, as I learned years ago from my father. I’d like to petrify this little jester and his loud, restless band of idiots. They are part of the new generation of people pleased with nothing that isn’t interactive, noisy and shining like an LED light against a sleek black frame. If it doesn’t ring or shine or ask about their day, it isn’t worth noticing, a kind of self-imposed isolation that comes only with true narcissism.

They giggle and laugh and scream in funny tongues, shrieking and cackling away, not taking a single photo or pausing even for a moment. These children — and I use the word with the greatest emphasis — are physically incapable of sipping the sugary drink that is Schonbrunn. They prefer to shotgun the thing, spilling it on the ground and slurping it wildly and getting almost nothing of the taste or the texture of it. They jam it with a key, rather than savoring the simple elegance of it — and in 20 minutes, they’ll just be thirsty again.

I prefer to sip. So I linger, trying to get all of the tastes of Schonbrunn in one swig isn’t possible, so I don’t even try. I stay long after the French teenagers and their leader, the shirtless buffoon, wander off like skateboarding punks that have lingered too long in some abandoned parking garage.

They wander down the hill, the shirtless one suddenly crying out some foreign song after they pose for the archetypal group photo with funny faces. Two lines in, and the rest of the group joins in unison, singing some absurd tune I’m certain is French for “We Live to be Unloved.” The sudden upswell of music turns heads and startles probably a dozen crows out of a nearby tree.

The crows were chattering and begging, looking for scraps of bread and calling to visitors like doomsday alarms. But the song scares them and in a sudden “fif fif fif” of feathers, they are gone, along with the French singing chorus that won’t be missed.

Me? I prefer the crows.

If you spend enough time in Vienna, you begin to think the whole place is about café’s and Mozart and words that are hard to pronounce if you’ve been drinking. This is, of course, a key element to understand this place. It is, after all, a city with great history and many tales to tell. Tourists come for the air, the view of the mountains to the north, and the strange idea that maybe some brilliance will rub off on them.

Sure, I like history, and big, elaborate buildings can keep me occupied for some time. But you can’t really know a place if you only see the highlights. You can’t fly to France and rush right to the Eifel tower and go home a learned traveler. You’ve got to hang around for a while, meet a French whore and wake up naked in a vineyard somewhere warm and lush.

Wake up, pick some unripe grapes off the vines and be chased off the property, whore in tow, by an angry wino and his bellowing basset hound. That’s how you find the marrow of a place, by cracking right through the bone.

So I left my dorm with only one intention: to find the blemish of Vienna. I had seen the center of the city, the 1st district an all its ancient glory. The center of the city was the diamond, made from pressure and time. The outskirts, though, were the coalmines, the dry dark and strange places seen only by those that belong or become lost on their way to the Chopin House.

So I asked the desk attendant at my dorm to direct me to the poor neighborhoods of Vienna, the slums. He said there were two big patches of poverty in the city, and I was near one of them. The second, distant to the south, was the closest thing they had to “dangerous” around here.

I’ve seen more American slums than I care to remember. I’ve seen plenty of empty basketball courts, rusted fences and boarded windows. This is what I expected here, a line of broken homes, sullen families weary of outsiders and ferocious territoriality and violence like testosterone floats in the air.

But this is not the Vienna slum life. Vienna slums are hardly slums, just forgotten little patches of a city the world has chosen to ignore, since none of them are published or accomplished. No great masters of art or romance comes from these places, to they don’t make it on the sight-seeing tours. The population of Vienna is between 20 and 30 percent Turkish, depending on whom you ask. The Turks make up a large portion of the population for what passes for “slums” in this strange place.

The older ones, the family elders who clearly were the first to travel here from the home country — in what I imagine to be a tiny hut on some empty field, complete with dusty roads and stiff winds — they walk in silence, speaking in their native tongue, clearly different from the local German.

The oldest women often wear heavy scarves on their hair and long, shapeless dresses. They all seem to be pushing, or pulling or carrying something. Some great weight, the kind only known to people permanently displaced, rests always on their shoulders. They push their grandchildren in worn strollers; they carry heavy bags of groceries as they waddle, fat and resolute, right past the gawking tourists and their expensive cameras. They don’t make eye contact with the whites, no matter how hard you might try to non-verbally engage.

The shops are cheaper, worn and less cared for, but hardly the kind of dangerous looking places you’d seen in any American city. The grocery stores have dirty tile floors and bad ventilation, in contrast with the perfect shimmering white of the shops only 5 blocks to the north. Fruit sits on stands out in the sun and old, sorry beggars shill cheap magazines to passers by, trying to ignore the hallow look of hopelessness in his eyes.

I spent some time working deeper and deeper into the neighborhood, trying to note the differences between Vienna poverty and American poverty.  The buildings are nicer. Multi-colored and tightly knit, they could be the projects of Chicago with a fresh coat of paint and less drug traffic.

Instead of basketball courts, children kick tiny soccer balls in the street, or on the occasional cheap green asphalt court lined with fences warning others to keep out. The young Turks, men in their late 20’s or early 30’s, are nothing like their elder counterparts. The American gangster image, cultivated by a culture that needed to find status symbols and self-confidence, permeates the air around these men more harshly then their cheap cologne.

But instead of black and Latino men driving elevated Cadillac’s, bumping inaudible rhymes and staring daggers at frightened whites, these Turks drive flashy BMW convertibles and don perfect, shimmering leather coats. These leather coats have the reflective shine of a night-club style man, not the dull worn feeling of a coat worn for years, but the crisp, insulting feel of a garment purchased purely to incur envy.

They all wear them, I swear. Every damn Turk wearing identical shining jackets so similar you’d swear their entire nation had purchased them in bulk. Their hair, jet black as their BMW’s, is a glistening mass of gel and hairspray, unmoving and unwavering, literally reflecting the sun and winking at nervous American girls trying to keep their distance from these roving gangs of self-confident dullards.

The streets aren’t filthy, the windows aren’t cracked and there are no bars on the windows in the slums here. But the people are broken, beaten and disconnected. They have no interest or desire in the city around them and their obvious disdain for the never-ending flow of tourists manifests itself in a kind of casual neglect.

They don’t smile as passersby in Vienna slums; they don’t avoid bumping into you on the crowded sidewalks, which, unlike the finer parts of the city, has no bike path or significant crosswalks. They don’t sit on their front steps like the lost souls of the American slum, but they don’t radiate the kind of excited, engaged glow you feel in other parts of the city. Poverty in Vienna is less about economics and more about emotions and attitudes. It deals less with significant differences in income and more with the cultural disconnect of being a person living in a place that hasn’t fully accepted or even acknowledged you.

The young Turks drive flashy cars and jeer wildly at the women because, if they didn’t, you get the impression they’d be forgotten all together. The city could cease to build their houses and approve their loans; they’d simply fall off into the Danube River or drift east into France.

You’ll see few tourists in these parts, because this isn’t the Vienna they came to see. “Tourist” is an absurd title for these people anyway. They should be called “insulated optimists” or “hopelessly romantic buffoons.” They don’t need to see these people or understand their lives; they just need a desktop background of the Cathedral of St. Stephen and a trinket from the local shops, a Mozart coffee cup and a cheap T-shirt.

The locals — rich or poor or Turkish or not, —despise these types of tourists, the ones that come for only the bare-minimum, surface view of their home. They snap a photo or two from an air-conditioned bus, stare thoughtfully at the river for a moment and try to remember if the Lacrimosa was Bach or Mozart so they can add something seemingly insightful in their recollections with their friends back home.

The loathing the locals have for these empty-shells is plainly obvious on their faces, sneering or snickering when some bumbling American like me tried to order a schnitzel in the native tongue, or gets lost on the U-Bahn. They point at stare at blonde girls or rich-looking American men, if they acknowledge you at all.

Their homes are small apartments with balconies with laundry hanging over the side and fresh plants blooming on the windowsill. Dogs, leashed and well trained nearly anywhere else in this city; trot casually and completely unbound next to their owners.

I watched one, a collie maybe, follow his owner, a Turkish looking boy of maybe 12, down two blocks and across a park without once breaking from his side. The boy, tiny with black hair and an obviously-secondhand polo with a hole in the back, didn’t once look down to check on the faithful mutt until he finally seated himself in a patch of grass outside a small church called (for reasons escaping understanding) Mexican Plaza.

The boy sat, soccer ball tucked under one arm that looked like it had been fished from the river, and the dog sat with him. He patted the animal several times before rolling the ball lazily away and watching the mutt follow with the diligence of a drug-sniffing dog.

The collie returned to the boy, the entire soccer ball in his mouth, and dropped it flatly in front of him. They repeated the routine 3 or 4 times before I finished my cigarette and left. I could feel myself lingering, scribbling notes and snapping photos in one place for two long wasn’t dangerous, but it certainly makes one conspicuous. The empty-shells don’t come this far, and any man with a camera and a notebook starts to get uncomfortable attention from the locals if he lingers in any one place, rather than constantly striding along with his backpack like a drifter in a Stienbeck novel.

There is a strange, eclectic feel to the Viennese population and this is reflected hauntingly well in the student body at Webster Univeristy. Our new student orientation was comprised mostly of foreign nationals; two Iranians, an Englishmen and a host of Eastern-Europeans from nations that were once part of the Soviet Union. Everything is either a “slav” or a “stan” and almost nobody is accent-free.

The only thing we have in common in our confusion, or rather, our lack of information about how Webster overseas really works. There were some, like the two Korean girls who kept repeating registration questions, who had never attended Webster before, and needed extra preparation. For the few of us already enrolled either at St. Louis or another campus, the day was a slow drag of mostly repeat information.

There seemed a deliberate plan to only focus on that which I did not need, and blow right through that which is most important. I’m still unclear on the public transit system here. Going from student housing in Donafeld to the campus involves a tram, an underground train and a bus. One wrong stop, you might end up in Salzburg.

Others, though, seemed eager to be finished with the day. Difficult to pronounce names and painfully thick Russian accents made some of the lunch-time small talk less than easy. But some of European students, particularly those that were American-educated, spoke easy, carefree German.

Jergun, a Dutch-born German-speaking International Relations major, probably had a better vocabulary than I do. Jergun was an easy fellow, and we shared a U.S. Foreign Policy class together. Jergun had an odd look about him. He wore thick, perfectly round horn-rimmed glasses of orange and black, like something out of the 1940’s. His hair, plentiful, was heavily parted over one side, as though he were really an old man covering a bald spot. The drastic comb over look made him look somewhat dashing in an old-fashioned, dignified way you’d expect from a learned professor or a weathered airline pilot: hair falling in his eyes, permanent 5’oclock shadow.

But it also gave him an hysterical look. He was like a mad-scientist from an old silent film. Cool, collected and frighteningly calculating, until one day some tragedy befalls, and the formerly well-groomed German now lets the wild mane of a comb over blow recklessly in the wind, revealing its true chaos, and the chaos within. One could almost imagine him switching gears effortlessly from soft English to terrifying, Hitler-esque style German, all consonants and hard syllables.

After orientation, a few of us ventured into Vienna’s 1st district, and its oldest. It houses the Cathedral of St. Stephen, who’s memory is etched in a mighty, complex steeple jutting out of the church on the East side like a beautiful tumor. The district is electric with people, cramming and moving in tight-knit crowds like Time Square, babbling in languages I’m certain aren’t even real. The buildings are old, high and uncomfortably close; a relic of a time when a fine steed was the only vehicle to be had by a man on the move. They’re so close, I wander if I could leap from one to the other, Batman style, if so inclined. The streets they form lack the comfortable symmetry of American cities, with their fine right-angles and perfect corners.

The buildings, while ancient, lack the quaint antiquity of an ancient city. In the first, where Mozart ran wild and society hubub focused some few hundred years ago, the buildings have been converted by the bastard pigs of wanton capitalism. Each first level has been converted into a bright, terrifying high-end retail shop. Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Tiffany & Co., to name only a few, wink at travelers with florescent lights that will make the night-goers squint as they walk, wallets bursting, into the store.

This is clearly a place for the rich and happy and bored, mostly. Locals with wealth or foreigners too bored to see real people and too rich to know how to behave normally in a crowd love this center of town. They mingle in hand-made coats and fashionable scarves, carrying bags more expensive than the useless rags inside them.

The occasional spattering of cheap-tourist gift shops is the only justification for the spotty crowds of young, rambunctious locals and obviously un-wealthy outsiders. The high buildings, with their granite broadsides and breezy windows, draw the artistic and introverted to ponder the meaning of ancient art and old men of greatness long since perished from the Earth.
Those with the stomach to brave through the sea of sorry consumers might stumble upon something with a little more greatness. Hofburg Palace, a mighty concave structure clearly designed by an Emperor with someone to impress, walls the West side of the district and directs foot traffic toward Museum Quarter. The Hofburg itself is a grand, intimidating thing. Hundreds of broad columns where none are needed, endless engravings of vines and angels and saints of all kinds line the fine crevasses. Roman gods, carved in pure marble, slink and sulk, arms draped around one another, like the metrosexual Abercrombie and Fitch models of antiquity, pouting faces and all.

The current home of the Austrian president, Hofburg housed some of the finest the Austrian Empire had to offer, and reminds the tourist that, in this place, powerful men once ruled the world. Across from the palace, 50 feet tall, is a statue of a fine Austrian emperor on horseback, flag grasped tightly in one hand. It faces the palace in a ready stance, the battle cry of old just beyond the riders open lips.

Its painted in an ugly green, the telltale sign of bronze-gone-bad, like Lady Liberty herself. At night, when the lights from below illuminate the rider, the green gives him a frightening glow, a figure twisted and morphed from its original shape — no longer comforting and mighty, but dark, mysterious and looming, a madhouse version of history. It is what a writer expects from an old dead empire, greatness lost to time.

Finally, I have arrived in Vienna, city of….well whatever I determine it to be, I guess. Traveling has come to an end for me on this day, and it only involved 4 cities on 2 continents. The STL flight to Chicago-O’Hare was mercifully short. The child in the aisle across from me, screaming from ears popping and general fear of massive, loud machines, couldn’t be silenced without a Pixar movie on his iPad. When that happened, I was a few minutes away from brutalizing the poor boy and being escorted from the plane.

After landing in O’Hare, there was a crucial choice to make. I abhor the non-smoking policy at O’Hare, but was forced to feed my cravings. So after two fast smokes and 30 minutes working back through security, I was at my gate in the K section, the International concourse. Out of K19, a massive Airbus 340-600 would take us across the Atlantic. When the beast of a machine pulled up, the size of the thing astounded me. Seating more than 350 with 4 turbine engines big enough to swallow whole cows without blinking, this thing is a sight for the ages.

At the end of the K terminal, the dead-end portion of the international concourse, there is more peace than the general population of O’Hare. I sat with my back to the typical floor-to-cieling windows displaying the runway. I could see everyone approaching our seating area for a flight. As a professional people-watcher, I found this quiet pleasant.

A whole collection of travelers accumulates. Some speak rapid-fire Spanish while rifling through papers and luggage. Others, like the family across from me, are speaking some kind of garbled easter dialect I can’t place. Arabic, Russian or something else entirely. I pick up a few heavy German accents and spot plenty of trendy European men heading home — they wear styling gel and pressed shirts, name brand luggage and fashionable shoes. I am not these men.

There were improbably old women tending to children much to young to be directly produced by them, I thought. American tourists, mostly parents, stuffing food or electronics in front of their faces to keep them sane, makes me wonder how any of these people walk and talk at the same time.

But we board the plane and load in, carefully arranging ourselves as lukewarm in-flight meals and even more lukewarm in-flight entertainment (this time is what the comedic genius of “Tower Heist”) put me to sleep easily, along with the Xanax in my system. Nearly 9 hours and a little turbulence later, I’m arriving at Madrid airport, with little time to spare.

I’ve landed at the auxiliary wing, a concourse connected to the main terminal via underground train. In less than 30 minutes, I must locate and board this train, arrive at the main terminal, pass through security and find my gate. 10 minutes off the plane, and my fellow Webster traveler that I located on the flight are sprinting through Madrid airport, jamming like crazy down escalators and shoving locals aside as we storm towards security.

One of the guards, unaware of our need for haste, tried to stop me. At this point, my limited Spanish came into play. I leapt over the ropeline for security, cutting right to the front with my fellow student in tow. The security guard stepped forward, probably frightened that this young, sweaty and apparently very disturbed American was about to attack people.

“Senor, Debe esperar” (You must wait)
“Wait? Are you fucking kidding me? Mi vuelo es ahora!” (My flight is right now) “No, no esperar. Ahora vuelo.”

I held my boarding pass up, tapping it repeatedly with my finger and gesturing like someone who’d arrived in a foreign nation drunk. He pulled it out and examined it, but moved me to the front of the line anyway.

“La Nina,” I said, pointing at the Webster girl flying to Vienna as well. He seemed to understand, yanking her through security and rushing our equipment through the Xray. The guard seemed even more worried than me, and I didn’t understand why, until we got past him. Our gate was four floors up, elevators loaded. We’d have to sprint up the stairs.

It wasn’t until I was at the top, nearly to my gate, that I’d realized the security guard, the foul punk, still had my boarding pass that I’d waved like a gun in his face. A brief 5 seconds of horrific cursing and I let go, moving fast toward the gate and breathlessly explaining what’d happened in broken spanish, before the attendant interrupted me in English, providing me with a new boarding pass and a newfound belief that good luck does exist.

There, of course, are more details. Like Serjan (pronounced, Seer John) our driver, who brought us to the dorms from the airport like he was being paid to do it dangerously. He was astonishingly calm, making normal small talk as he whipped through traffic twice as fast as the others.

But I’m exhausted, half-starved and mad from jet lag. My window is open and I can hear the ravens (apparently, popular in these parts) outside squawking nevermore. To bed. And then, tomorrow.

In one week, I’ll be leaving for Vienna, Austria. The Sudentenland, as it were, the ethnic home of the Germans (along with Germany, I’m told, but we’re waiting for confirmation on that) and some mad fever of warmth and Seattle-like weather.

This blog is hardly a decent read on its best day, and it warrants few views. But for the purposes of my travels, I am re-adopting it, not to bloviate on the weakness of some political thingamajig, but to chronicle my travels for my 8-week journey into a new place.

So this’ll be the start, the first reference and opening chapter. I’ll update on  layovers and downtime and hopefully have a photo or two to bring into the mix. I’m not going to seek out the finest party, the perfect molly-infested dance-trap hellhole, so don’t look to me for tips on clubs with particularly compelling beats. I’m not a foodie or a wino and if culture were a pigment, I’d be an albino. But, I do have some skill with words when I’m particularly jacked in, and because of my inflated sense of self-worth thanks to the internet, nobody can tell me otherwise.

I know people and I specialize in words and arguments. I have a taste for government, though my understanding of Austrian parliamentary code is infantile. But I know vibes, I can sense Fear and Sex and Joy in the air, and I know what drives us. So I’ll do my best to present a snapshot of the city that brought Mozart to the masses and made Freud into a dangerous coke-monster. But if two mad, mutated minds converge in the same city, you have to wonder if something is in the water.

So I’ll drink the water and let you know how it tastes. One week and I’ll let Europe dazzle my fickle American tastes.