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It’s about noon in the Naschtmarkt, and people are teeming in close-quarter crowds like Catholics waiting for the Pope’s blessing in Vatican Square. The Naschtmarkt — an open-air market that stretches nearly half a mile in the 3rd or 4th district of the city — is a bussling sea of life and commerce. One end is almost entirely made up of Café’s and restaurants, where diners sit mere inches from the throbbing masses, bumping and pulling each other around. Past the eaters are the markets themselves: endless aisles of shops with awnings to guard their trinkets, treasures and otherwise from the hard sun.

At first it is food — butcher storefronts with massive slabs of raw meat on display, waiting for some fat, hungry carnivore.

“I’ll take that side of beef, and make it snappy, I’ve got a small dragon to feed.”

Everywhere there are fruits and spices and booths for schnitzel or falafel. Pears, apples, dates, strawberries and peaches, a multi-color heaven of freshly grown produce is just part of the experience. Watermelons, oranges, grapefruits are everywhere. Fish markets with massive whole fish laying dead-eyed on cubed ice stink the air and people jam like crazy into narrower and narrower alleys of goods. The stores become so close that awnings from adjacent stores collide covering the entire thing in a faux shade and funneling people, hungry and wallets bursting, into packed crowds so harsh that turning in place is no longer an option.

After a few minutes of this crowd I’m about ready for alcohol or dangerous chemicals. Everything of value I have in this country is zipped in my backpack, which is being yanked and bumped with every step. This is the place one worries about pickpockets. Nobody wants to be robbed in a foreign country and a crowd like this must be ripe with half-wit crooks with light fingers.

I’m tempted to do something radical and give myself some breathing room — do something drastic at the next tug on my bag — just to show the crowd I’m not messing around. I’ll wait for some poor sap to push on my bag or jostle me from behind. Then, I’ll spin hard at the waist 90 degrees sending my elbow flying back behind me, high, aiming for the temple.

Crack some poor fellow right in the skull and send him crumpling to the ground with a whimper. Then, turn and become sincerely distraught by his injury.

So sorry, chap. Thought you were some no-good thieving little punk trying to lift my pocketbook. Boy, the sun and the crowd here must really have my nerves on edge. You know, a man can’t be too safe in a foreign country, with all the beggars about. Don’t worry my poor fellow, we can get that swelling down with a fine slab of meat.”

Yep. Send a violent, sudden message and get myself a nice wide berth for the rest of the afternoon. The two other  girls from St. Louis — Emma and Kim — who have accompanied me to the market for advice and consent purposes, are ahead of me. Having already helped me select a gift for my girlfriend, they’ve decided to move deeper into the market, on the western edge where the food stands end and low tents sell goodies, antiques and handmade knickknacks like Tijuana.

I spend a few minutes haggling with a South American woman over the price of a plain, ancient silver ring I have a powerful desire for. After a few moments of broken-English debate, we settle on the price and I slide the old thing onto my finger, enjoying the weight of it. Soon, we push on to another tent a few yards away were a stern-looking Arab sells sunglasses and jewelry. I examine a few pieces before moving on, only to be issued a sharp rebuke from the owner.

He looks down at his felt case and sees a ring missing. He sees the ring on my finger, which I am still toying with, and a look starts across his face that says he’s about to call me a thief, and maybe crack me in the skull with some wicked looking weapon he has stashed behind his table.

In a dark, ominous tone he points to my ring and says “You pay.”

“I already pay.” I respond, falling into that tragic habit of speaking incomplete English to someone who first address you that way, as if it will help his understanding. I point vigorously to the tent with the South American woman and explain that I already bought this damn thing and that maybe he should keep a closer eye on his merchandise.

He doesn’t seem to believe me and I’m becoming genuinely overcome with fear. Another Arab man — who I imagine is some kind of enforcer for greedy American punks trying to lift merchandise from the hardworking people of the market — appears and I suddenly imagine myself locked up by the local Polizei as I try in vain to explain that I didn’t steal, and that I detest such allegations. Emma and Kim materialize next to me and help ease the tension, insisting to the stern man that I didn’t take it.

He seems to believe them, or maybe he simply has a policy against disagreeing with young, pretty women who are potential customers. He waves distractedly, allowing me to sulk away to the next booth.

Deeper into the market the goods become less impressive. We’ve reached the outer edge, having long-since passed the point of no return. There are no tents now, just cheap plastic tables with bizarre collections of goods, some of which surely must be stolen.

A man with one leg and a face like the side of the Grand Canyon shows off his wide array of electronics. Cell phones of every kind, car batteries, clock radios and music boxes are just a few. I see fine speakers, a car stereo and what I am certain is some kind of toaster oven. I consider briefly accusing this man of thievery. I could really freak him out, wander over and demand he return my property.

“My car stereo!” I would screech like a banshee. “You hop-along little twerp, you didn’t think I’d come looking for you because of your sorry state, eh? Well I know that’s my damn radio, and I’ll have it back before you shill it to some passing tourist for 10 Euro. Hand it over before I have the Polizei come down here and break your fingers!”

But no. Such pranks are irresponsible in a foreign country no matter how certain I am that this bizarre, obviously pilfered collection is less than admirably gained I must admit with some reluctance the balls that it takes to sell it in the open street.

I see knives, too. One, a big, silver, gleaming thing with a CCCP engraving makes me want to gut one of those massive fish in the booths far behind us, just to test the quality of the blade. It is a brilliantly clean piece of metal in a high-quality, tan, leather holster.

“Russian” the woman who owns the knife says to me. “Russian. You like?”

“No, I no like Russians,” I say, forgetting that she probably doesn’t really get sarcasm coming from an English speaker.

I find an Iron Cross, dated 1939 and I nearly buy it, but I can’t quiet reconcile the strange look she gives me when I handle the thing as I consider it. I inspect it in the sunlight, admiring the age and history of the trinket, but I can feel eyes on me and suddenly I imagine airport security rifling through may bags upon seeing the little guy winking at them on the XRay Machine.

“Search this Nazi fuckers bag,” they say, in stern, foreign voices. “Filthy racist swine, coming into our country just to bring memories of Adolf and his little war back to the U.S. to sully our fine name. Cavity search the owner of this bag, make him suffer.”

I don’t buy it. I set it back down on the table, next to some chipped tea pots and an ancient looking China set. I try to ignore the other little trinkets daring me to whip out my money. Among them: a blade engraved to an “M.H. Peloe. In Service to the Royal Navy, 1902.” There’s a long, steel cane with a handle made from animal bone and another with a broken compass on the grip.

I spot a typewriter and nearly demolish several people making a beeline for it. A fine piece of essential equipment, I think to myself. It looks like it could handle being dropped out of an airplane — hulking out of a massive black box. I touch the keys gently, mentally calculating the weight of it, and wandering if I have the moxy to buy it can carry the brute all the way home. Then I notice that it is a German typewriter, and I light a cigarette and curse at no one in particular.

The girls are rifling through piles of clothes in a thick crowd of women like shoppers on Black Friday. Two Arab women pile four or five tables with random clothes like an outdoor Goodwill. They are cheap rags but relatively clean. Passers dig through the pile of cloth, occasionally holding something up to the light or pressing it against their figures to determine proper size.

I stand and watch them for several minutes as one of them refuses to pay more than 4 Euro for a black tank top with frills. Money is exchanged and they meet my eyes, jerking their heads to the side indicating I should step to the side of the street with them and out of this mad crowd and the hot sun.

We cross the street, leaving the crowded market behind and work our way into an antique bookstore where I contemplate for several minutes inquiring about an old copy of Mien Kampf.

Then, I remember that the man who owns this bookstore probably won’t enjoy my fascination with that part of his history, and the image of airport security explodes into my head again.

No historical paraphernalia. Not today.


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.