Impeccable, Intangible

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Every time I stroll the streets of Vienna, I have the distinct impression that I’ve stepped into a tilt-shift photo. The stately architecture lords over pedestrians. Each building stands at attention, chest out and shoulders back. Not the slightest speck of dirt on the uniforms. Impeccable. Gaze forward, yet aware of the diminutive masses at their feet.  This is intimidating or comforting, depending on my mood.

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I’m starting to know Vienna. I still keep a map folded up in my purse, but I rarely have the need to consult it. I know which metro lines go from the Hauptbanhof train station to the Mariahilfer shopping area or the Naschmarkt.  Every time I go, I explore a new area. I’ve memorized the times of the trains back to Bratislava.

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It’s not uncommon to see men wearing suspenders and Tyrolean hats. Drindl dresses have made a comeback. The colors have been updated: bright blues and pinks and oranges. I considered buying one. I’m at the age where I don’t care if I look ridiculous. However, practicality won out in the end.

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I’ve unwittingly wandered into many of Vienna’s famous coffee houses. Landtmann, which is said to have been Freud’s favorite, has the best cakes, but the waiters are rude and the decor is banal compared to the others. Sperl is down-to-earth. Central’s food portions are so small that you need to order two desserts to have a full stomach. Demel is the most elegant. Chandeliers and gold leaf. Elderly waitresses in traditional black and white dresses. Whatever the cafe, a true connoisseur lingers for hours over a coffee and a newspaper.

I’ve recently learned that Vienna’s coffee house culture is on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. This fact is now in the various guide books. The most famous of the coffee houses are usually mobbed with tourists rather than locals. They peer into their trusty guides, look around, and nod. They are told what to look for. The obligatory newspaper racks, the old women in jewels and heavy makeup, the spoon balanced on the small glass of water that’s always served with the coffee.  I’m pleased to have discovered the subtleties of this practice by observation rather than from a list or a book.

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Vienna does not give up her secrets easily. My initial impression has not changed, except that now I have the feeling that I may never know what hides behind the impeccable façades. It is, after all, the city of Freud. Even the relative disobedience of Hundertwasser is civilized.

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The traces of Gustav Klimt are defiant, yet fiercely elegant. One false move and it would enter the realm of gaudiness.

Will I ever know what’s behind the opulent mask? That’s the enigma of the intangible.

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30 thoughts on “Impeccable, Intangible

  1. The tilt-shift on that first image is just perfect – Vienna eloquently explained. I had never heard of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list – very Orwellian. Not only would I like the job of maintaining it, I think I should be on it 🙂

    • That’s exactly what I thought about that list. I’m all for keeping subtle cultural practices alive, but that list is too control freaky. However, if you were in charge, sir, that would be okay with me. 🙂

  2. Too many tourists experience travel via a guide book and not actually by wandering/exploring and getting to experience the city. Glad you got to do it this way.
    I’ll have to look up that UNESCO list and make sure that’s not some kind of joke. 🙂

    • Sometimes I think guidebooks are like life preservers for tourists. They grip onto them for dear life. “Just let go,” I want to tell them. “You won’t drown.”

  3. Lovely, lovely images to go with your words-one of the things I so like about your writing, is that you are such a keen observer of the everyday and not-so-everyday-it really makes me feel like I am right there with you-

  4. I loved Vienna! And the best part about it for me was not actually knowing a lot about the coffee houses and then having local friends bring me to their favorite ones. It felt like I was stepping back in time.

    • It is totally like stepping back in time. There’s the clear sense that the locals are not going to let that culture fade away. Howwver, I’ve never seen any younger people squatting tables for hours. I hope it’s only because they’re working age and when they retire they’ll carry on the tradition, too.

  5. Love the post, you made me travel, I will never follow a travel guide again, I am just going to email you. 😉

    • You’re very welcome to email me. We’re all different kinds of travelers… I guess I shoudn’t be so hard on people who like to follow guide books. The maps inside can be very useful. 🙂

  6. I’ve been away from blogging for a few days – it is wonderful to see that you have a new post. I checked out the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. (I confess this is the first time I have ever heard of it.) There is was – Austria – “Viennese Coffee House Culture.” Year proclaimed and inscribed 2011. We were in the coffee shop that Sigmund Freud spent many quiet hours. I’m certain that they have been using his name to brand their establishment from the first day he stepped through the doors. $$$ I loved Vienna for its history, art, beauty, music – but mostly for its many stories.

    • Hi Rebecca – hope everything is okay with you. Nice to see you back. It’s clear that place is milking Freud’s name for all it’s worth. I wonder what he would say about that. 😉

      • I wonder indeed! It was an interesting experience – I tried to imagine where he would have sat. This is one of my favourite Freud quotes:

        “If youth knew; if age could.”
        Sigmund Freud

  7. I was in Vienna for 4 days last year, it was 39 degrees C. I had such a lovely time, mostly walking. After reading this I want to go back and stay longer. Fancy being able to just catch a regular train to Vienna.
    Keep us posted.

  8. I spent six weeks in Vienna in the eighties. If I could sum up my experience, it would be your marvelous tilt-shift. The vibrant greens shocked me (I grew up in a desert), but the building were glorious, crisp with infinite details.

    • Six weeks is definitely enough to get a real impression of Vienna. I’m sure all that ostentation must have been a huge shock coming from the desert.

  9. I loved Vienna, i’ll return back someday to visit better … I’ve been there for a week and I think it’s just great, but at first appearence really there is ostentation all around …

  10. Hi Julie, I have no few clues to Vienna, other than a brother who would spend time in the place like it were his backyard. The contrasts between the first and second photograph genuinely demonstrate both welcome and grandeur. The first seems almost model like, as I’ve watched a friend, a professional architectural model-maker work, models seem to invite one to enter in and absorb places, just as your photography does. I almost feel insect like on entering the second, as here the umbrella effect architecture sometimes seem to have is rare, but for the major cities, but not old like Vienna, more new and not really the same.

    Have you since bought a Dirndl dress in some of the new colours?

    High ceilings and pastel lit rooms; does it feel as dreamy and book inviting as your photograph narrates withing the moment. Here a momentary thought upon reading your comments about guide books and lists; a map and a red chinagraph pencil, how far can one go wrong to perhaps find places not caught inside of lists.

    In the fifth, I just want to sit and watch, waiting for the plants to climb across all the balconies and wall. A peculiar building the last, its artful thought. Cheers and have a good morning!

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