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Week-end in Vienna

By Gilles MANTIN-CHAUFFIER Sofitel Vienne Stephansdom

On Austrian Airlines, the flight attendants are not exactly youthful and they dress in the red and white colors of the Austrian flag. But
on Singapore Airlines, I had an altogether different experience a week ago, feeling like I had Gong Li and Bruce Lee at my service.
Here on the Airbus bound for Vienna, the message was immediately clear: destination Old Europe. In case you didn’t understand, it was broadcast softly, Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube” floating throughout the cabin. And why not? It’s certainly more reassuring than the welcome message on Saudi planes, a calligraphic “May God bless you” in Arabic and English written over the entrance. I usually never give him a thought, and so I hate to be reminded of the world champion of miracles and catastrophes – especially when I’m about to fly. That said, here on Austrian Airlines there was no time for fear. Because Germanic rigor reigns, the plane took off exactly at the appointed time of departure. I didn’t think such precision still existed. I was wrong.
My seatmates were Italians and they didn’t stop talking throughout the flight. Among their topics of conversation was, naturally, Silvio
Berlusconi. One of them concluded his evaluation with a prediction: “This guy is a squirrel. He casts a shadow with his tail. His career is behind him. He’ll end up being a writer.”

An hour and a half later, we arrived in Vienna, and the airport didn’t have a name. I had been expecting a more Viennese welcome. Amadeus, perhaps, or Strauss, Mahler, Sissi, Marie-Antoinette, whatever. In Venice, the airport is called Leonardo de Vinci. In Warsaw, it’s Chopin. Here, there was nothing of the sort. I was surprised at the Tourist Office. Austrians are reputedly better than anyone in the world at promoting their charms. After all, they managed to convince the entire planet that Hitler was German and Beethoven was Austrian. But it didn’t really matter; we always just passing through places like this. Ten minutes after landing, I was already in the hotel limousine. Such is the Schengen miracle. What an atrocious name. Particularly for a security accord: As you pronounce the syllables, you can hear the
key in the lock. It would have better to sign the accord in Baden-Baden or Monte-Carlo. Why don’t technocrats think of these things? It’s a mystery.

The driver had barely shifted into third gear when a sign indicated the road to Prague and Bratislava. Only 300 meters further, another exit led in the direction of Budapest. Any doubts I may have had about the existence of the legendary Mitteleuropa had been put to rest. But my imagination was running wild. All that was missing was Mayerling and Austerlitz and my happiness would have been complete. Instead, there was a gigantic refinery right next to the airport. Bin Laden would have loved it. Next, there followed barely five minutes of countryside. And then suddenly, without a decompression zone, we entered a bourgeois street lined with Haussmann-style buildings. This was Vienna, a capital without suburbs. In fact, it is really just a big provincial town. For three days, this would suit me perfectly. In no time, we were in the heart of the city. Whereas at Roissy Airport in Paris I would still be waiting for my bags, in Vienna here I was already at the hotel. But forget Franz-Josef, petticoats and Brandenburg uniforms. This hotel architect’s name is Jean Nouvel. Living up to the meaning of his name – new – he had decisively turned his back on the old. For him, the past carries little weight when it meets the future.


The hotel was grandiose. The words Ritz or Carlton had no meaning here; this was Spielberg territory. Everything was black, gray, minimalist, vast and luxurious. It looked like a weekend getaway for stock traders with a passion for operettas. As sprawling as a ballroom at Schönnbrun Palace, the main lobby had only three or four couches and two desks, one for the concierge, the other for the reception. There, a golden beauty as blond as a beer awaited me. In little more than 10 seconds, she managed to put at least 10 years of training at the Lausanne hotel school between us. It would have been easier to open an oyster without a knife than to see her betray even a hint of impatience.
She was all smiles, every syllable and word of her greeting articulated one by one, evenly, in no hurry. Her velvety voice would have melted stones. I received her words like a baby welcomes his mother’s breast. Her message could not have been simpler: “Be nice, go quickly up to your room on the 11th floor and bye-bye.” Before I could obey, someone tapped me gently on the shoulder. It was a young man. Dressed in black from head to toe, he was what I would call a bald man with long hair: His head was shaved at the temples but he had long bangs covering his forehead. A Gothic look, although not flamboyant. He had been sent by the television channel that had invited me, and he seemed to be embarrassed. I had been scheduled to speak the following evening about Fukushima and Japan, where I had been living for five years. The leading Austrian talk show was inviting me to give a spiel that I had already given 15 times in Paris. Or rather they had invited me, as the young punk informed me: I had been canceled! Two teenagers had set a homeless man on fire so they could film it with their mobile phones. On top of that, one of them was the son of the country’s opposition leader. In terms of wrenching the heart and ranting about the failed public security system, Austria now had a far better case in point than an earthquake and a tsunami. Maybe
another show would invite me? There was no guarantee. In any case, the station wanted me to remain their guest for the three days in Vienna as originally planned. How gracious of them! A bit disappointed, I headed upstairs with my bag.
A post-modern detail: To keep out unauthorized visitors, the room key-card had to be swiped in front of the elevator buttons before a floor could be selected on the panel. This detail would never have occurred to me. But as luck would have it, a couple arrived just as I was about to punch the deck of buttons. Instead, it was me who got punched, right in the heart. The woman was Sylvie P., a former student at Janson-de-Sailly in Paris, where she had been the heartthrob of my first year of studies. Running into her in Vienna seemed appropriate, considering that we had called her Inquisitor Sissi because she asked so many questions in class. I instantly recognized her pale skin, red curls, the freckles on her cheeks, her delicate shape. She showed no trace of the passage of 30 years. In the old days, she and I had never
advanced beyond endless, exquisite yet frustrating kisses.
Mademoiselle would invite me to her parents’ house, we would have lunch with them and then she would return to her books; at the last minute, Kant’s pure reason always triumphed over the examination of Nietzsche’s superman. I now laugh about it, but at the time it drove me to tears. Today, it was all just poetic memories. I had been 18, it was the ‘70s, wealth remained understated, poverty discreet, we flirted at concerts and our dreams were as wild as dandelions. As my father used to say:

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