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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