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You know, I had to do it once. I had to involve myself in at least one or two strange political diatribes with some bizarre foreigners and document the whole thing so as to chew it around and taste it.

I had to.

The whole thing started with a map of the US, and my Indian-born, African raised, English-accented roommate asked me which parts of the ‘States had the fewest “natch-rul disasters.”

To be fair, we had been discussing Tornados and Hurricanes, so I guess that’s the premise for a question that implies some great fear of our bizarre landscape.

So I pulled up Google Earth and started showing him how the really safe spots were right in the middle, north of Tornado alley and west of the New Madrid fault line. You know, Montana, the Dakota’s, Iowa, Minnesota and so forth. The boring shit.

He asked about the Rockies and the various other geographic hotspots. We zipped over to Africa, where he showed me Malawi, his home for most of his life. He’d been born in India, but the native tongue of former British colonial Malawi was English, British-flavored, which accounted for this bizarre mixture.

We spoke of geopolitical issues at the moment and the conversation landed somewhere familiar, Iran. Iran is a subject that arises almost instantly with any foreign student as an American taking various courses on government and politics. It is, for the Russian, German, Austrian, Indian, British, Serbian, Czech, Turkish, Pakistani and Spanish students, THE issue to prod any nearby American with.

When issues of the current Presidential election, or America as a foreign existence arises, they always ask some version of the same question:

“Is President Obama going to bomb Iran, and if so, what the hell, man?”
Usually it’s more broken, with heavier accents and the one atypical word that gives away their grasp of the language. And usually they say it with light in their eyes and with a little fire in their lungs, like they’re addressing a crowd of fervent supporters.

An Austrian economics student down the hall asked me the same thing, —in his own way — while we chain-smoked in the rain under our little concrete outcropping. He spoke of it like a certainty.

“And what is happening when you fight Iran? What is going to be consequence of that?”

“A complete fucking nightmare,” I said. “But don’t worry, Obama won’t do it, he isn’t completely incapable of reason.”

He laughed and turned, nudging me with his elbow and only half kidding as he says, “Ahhh, come on. You guys always fighting someone, and someone will need that oil, right? Valuable resources always will start war.”

I took a drag and laughed. He knew the oil argument was silly, he’d said so, himself twenty minutes before. He was a serious student of world economics, and he knew that most American oil came from Canada, and that Iran had to sell the stuff as much as anyone needed to buy it, and that it was going to hurt them not to sell it more than us not to buy it.

But he was serious in his tone about war, and I understood why. It hit me in a real way that Iran wasn’t exactly scary to me. St. Louis is 6,700 miles from Tehran, and the Iranians can’t hit me with an Intercontinental Ballistic Anything at that distance. Their technology hasn’t evolved to the level of global strikes.

But Vienna is barely 2,000 miles from Iran, the geopolitical equivalent of “across that pond and behind the tree.” Iran could do all kinds of damage in this part of the world by sheer proximity to its madness. Wounded animals, rabies-infested wild things, do plenty of damage just flailing about — it doesn’t have to be trying to hurt you in order to do it.

And that’s why everybody talked about it, like they’d be able to hear the gunfire down the street if we started a fight in their proverbial backyard.

I appreciated, for a moment, the wonderful comforting feeling of the two very large oceans separating me from the majority of violent organized enemy militaries. We have an incredible fortune, as Americans. With no major economic or military threat in North or South America to contend with, the United States effectively exists on an island, the most defensible natural position in the world.

Combined with our unsettling global-nuclear-strike capability, we essentially have established the safest sovereign nation in the history of mankind. A friend, just returning home from a 3-year stint stationed in South Korea, once told me about the sheer scale of our nuclear power.

“We literally have enough active nuclear subs in the water to level every major city on the planet a few times over,” she said this, laughing over a beer and a half-eaten roll. She looked up at the sky for a minute, like someone fighting the urge to laugh instead of throw themselves in front of t a bus. “It’s comforting, you know? I mean, it’s comforting as long as you don’t think about how many subs the Chinese, or the Russians or the Israeli’s must have, swimming around down there.”

“It’s amazing they don’t bump into each other,” I said gloomily.

“They will, eventually. That’s when it’ll stop being comforting.” She finished her beer and smiled. It was a hollow smile.

And yet, despite our world-wide-web of nuclear payloads, we still spend half our days acting like strung-out, coke-sniffing mosh-pit types leaving some raving underground punk concert at dawn, drunk on paranoia and sniffing around for a scuffle.

I never got worried about the nightmare scenario, because it doesn’t really exist anymore. Sure, Russia could nuke us back into oblivion, but we’d kill them with a massive, dying swipe of our nuclear paw before tumbling into the blackness. We’d wreck the whole place, nuclear winter and savage nightmares of a globe without any future.

But that scenario is gone. Russia doesn’t want to obliterate mankind because of some argument over Karl Marx that everybody would just rather forget about. Sure, they don’t like us, but we don’t like them either, and it’s all kind of about avoiding the kid at the party that we don’t enjoy.

With Kim Jong Il dead and his regime crumbling, his missiles with them, we can’t get all freaked out over the most dangerous peninsula in the world anymore.

The only real fear is some freaked-out religious radical with a big suitcase filled with awful stuff smuggled out of the old Soviet Union twenty years ago and rigged up by some East German car maker with glue and shipped to the highest bidder.

And we’re back to Iran. Iran, getting nuclear, and the people who live on their street have a bigger problem, because Iran doesn’t HAVE to get nuclear to mess with their worlds.

American Accidentalism, I like to call it: the unintended consequences of completely benign and occasionally benevolent actions. Totally separate from our tangible, obvious failures and crimes, this is the stuff we’ll never really notice unless we try.

It’s the difference between understanding why Japan might not be totally peachy-keen with us (hint: it starts with lots of burning American ships and ends with a mushroom cloud) and understanding why the 22-year-old Austrian economics student thinks America should reign in its “spread of military bases near the Black Sea.”

He doesn’t find America suspicious or potentially dangerous because he thinks we might wander into his country, plant a flag and pick a fight. He worries about us because he thinks we’ll blunder into the house across the street, accidentally set it on fire and then flee the scene of the crime in sheer terror, hoping his house doesn’t burn down too.

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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.

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.