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Week-end in Vienna

By Gilles MANTIN-CHAUFFIER Sofitel Vienne Stephansdom

Everyone is. Like everyone is opposed to rain in August. But the costs of dismantling and maintaining reactors, of stocking waste, of the inevitable accidents that were likely to happen someday in France, none of it seemed to cross his mind. Whenever he spoke, he acted like he was revealing the secret of the universe. He could have pontificated on the recipe for spaghetti sauce. He considered France and the modern era uncultured, irresponsible, decadent — like all the eras before it, I thought, wisely keeping this observation to myself. I held my tongue, so happy was I to see Sylvie, who didn’t take her eyes off me and paid no attention whatsoever to what the other guy was saying. He was only a wallet for her, and by all appearances it was a full one: He ordered an oyster tartare and black truffle caviar from Perigord!

They had come to Vienna to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary the following evening. Where? At the Opera ball, which I had seen announced on posters throughout the city and in the hotel magazines. They had reserved their places more than a year ago. With the tone of a prince addressing a pauper, Eric suggested magnanimously that I could ride to the entrance with them in their carriage. This might in fact have been the case had not divine justice, the Virgin Mary, St. Peter, Sissi, whoever, decided to punish the boor. That night, upon returning to their room, a bit tipsy from the two bottles of white Austrian wine that he had practically drunk all by himself, Monsieur banged his toe on the base of the hassock. In fact, the toe was broken. It was now out of the question for him to slip on his patent leather shoes and go gliding across Mahler’s shiny parquet.
Around noon the next day, when I met him on crutches in the corridor, he said it was a catastrophe. I reassured him: We were in Austria, and that word didn’t exist here. In 1918, a German communiqué had described the military situation to the headquarters with these words: “Here, situation serious but not catastrophic.” The Austrian field marshal replied, “Here, situation catastrophic but not serious.” Eric could meditate on this wisdom.We could discuss it at some point if he wanted to. But not now.
For the moment, I was running out to rent a tux. Sylvie had asked me to accompany her to the ball. He, meanwhile, would spend his
evening alone at the Sofitel. I slapped him on the back like an old friend who feels sorry for his buddy. If he thought I was making fun of him, he was right. I almost burst out laughing when he lamented the waltz lessons that he had submitted himself to a month before the trip. Me, I would do just fine without such lessons: In Tokyo, weddings with Versailles or Schönnbrun themes are all the rage, so I had had plenty of practice. My insouciance further depressed him. He suggested that I accompany him and Sylvie to Demel, a famous café full of
mahogany and whipped cream that serves legendary pastries to old Viennese ladies who never get their fill of the sweet delicacies.
I pretended that I had been invited for a radio interview. I would savor his wife without him, later, to the music of Mozart and Schubert.

And so it was. A carriage came for us at the hotel, we mounted the great staircase at the Opera, we drank Champagne, we admired the Art Nouveau décor, we walked arm in arm, or with an arm around the other’s shoulder or waist, we danced cheek to cheek, we joked about guests who were trussed up like chickens and others who were as stiff as a pencil, and the night seemed magical. Until I admitted to Sylvie that I had never forgotten her. With a cheeky little smile, she warned me to back off. Right away. It was like a slap from a white-gloved hand. It doesn’t make a sound or leave a trace, but the effect is assured.
Especially when it is explained to you thus:
“Don’t be upset, but I don’t find brains sexy. The carriage driver made me fantasize a thousand times more than you do. You’re a perfect escort, but if I cheat on Eric, and sometimes I do, it’s with utter strangers who have nothing in their heads.’’

Quietly, in a flight attendant’s voice, she asked if I was hurt by her frankness. In this setting, in this city, in Beethoven’s home, I was not about to admit that after five years in Japan, I was about as prepared for such banter as a deaf person is for music. On the contrary, I adopted her tone of voice and congratulated her on her liberated sexuality. And then we danced and danced. After all, that’s what Vienna does best. We went for midnight a snack in an old brasserie. Sylvie could see that I was still enthralled with her and so she went easy on me:

“Honey, please, stop looking at me as if I were a goddess. Believe me: It’s better to see heaven from a distance.”

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