Vienna – Last year, I decided to reward myself with a trip to Vienna. I’d been there many times before, crossing from Slovakia, where I was born, to catch transatlantic flights or to shop. This time I vow to experience the city differently. My brother, who studies and lives there, has offered to sleep on a couch while I crash on his Ikea bed. Off I go, to learn how the ordinary Viennese get around, eat and play.
Vienna’s reputation as green and convenient is confirmed right away. Carless at the Schwechat airport, I hop on a speed train and reach our designated meeting spot downtown before my brother, for only 10 euros.
As we ride the metro to his rented pad, I watch boats emerge from marinas along the lush banks of Donauinsel, an island in the Danube. The metro travels aboveground through some of its most scenic stretches, offering picturesque views of the leafy hills to the city’s north.
I envy the Viennese their daily commute, which is infinitely more uplifting than anything I see on the Toronto subway.
In the evenings, after touring the sights, I chill out with my brother, who looks gaunt and jittery from excess coffee and the all-nighters he’s pulled this week catching up on neglected courses before finals. I’m full of stupid questions like “When do people work?”
To the outsider, the people who pack Vienna’s sidewalk cafés seem without the slightest worry in the world. There’s not a laptop in sight, no unfortunate loners poring over stacks of files. (They wouldn’t fit on the diminutive tables anyway).
“Well, we work at work,” he says. “This isn’t North America.”
Is there a hint of condescension in his voice? He was never good at masking his feelings. Many Europeans do feel as he does, proud of the “work some, play some more” attitude that is becoming an important divider between the two sides of the pond.
I know reality is more complex, but walking on the Kärtnerstrasse – characteristically turned into a pedestrian zone – I only hear laughter and stories shared in the many languages of the former empire.
The easy accessibility of simple, healthy food make refuelling between museum and gallery visits a pleasure.
Forget about subpar meat patties on spongy buns and the hecto-litres of Coke needed to flush them through your system. Fast food à la viennois is served up by local bakery chains. During my daily strolls, I pick my 3-euro lunch from a smorgasbord of crunchy multigrain kornspitzen laden with different cheeses or meaty schinken invitingly displayed inside mirror-panelled cases.
Or I grab a crisp, full-flavoured apple at a fruit stand strategically located on a busy pedestrian boulevard. Even for the city-dwelling Viennese, the view of food remains partially informed by pride in the country’s agrarian roots, personified by images of the apple-cheeked peasant girls and ruddy-faced, good-natured farmers of yesteryear. Availability of wholesome food thus becomes a point of subtle national honour.
Back in the hubbub of Toronto, spat out of the subway in front of a Starbucks full of solitary patrons, I fondly recall Vienna. That city has demonstrated that it can prosper without subjecting its people to 10-hour workdays, dreary long-distance commutes and lunches hastily chowed down. Vienna’s sounds and movements remain fluid despite the pressure to spin ever more frantically.
Running to catch the streetcar, I think of afternoons by the Danube when sharing an ice cream with my brother was the most important thing in the world. How does Vienna, a metropolis with intertwined layers of history and a head count to match, keep its small-town soul in the iPod age?