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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:

“Anyone who didn’t know France before Mitterrand the First doesn’t know the good life.” And now, out of nowhere, suddenly here she was, smiling and cool as ever. Without even the slightest acknowledgement or a vague inkling of recognition, she stared at me until we arrived at her floor, the seventh. She had apparently lost her insatiable curiosity, for if as I suspected she had at once put a name to my face, she kept that knowledge to herself. Before heading off down the hallway, however, she nonchalantly asked the man accompanying her if he thought they would make it on time for the Handel recital at St. Peter’s Church. She glanced back at me with brilliant eyes – and an almost imperceptible hint of a smile.

I got the message, and so didn’t dawdle in my room. Too bad, because it was magnificent, white from carpet to ceiling, bathed in sunlight, air-conditioned, cool… The enormous bed was awaiting only me. There was even a “pillow menu”: choices like softness, contact, dreamy, excellence… This is a fatal attraction for people like me, who, incapable of doing nothing, are more than willing to lie down for a nap. The picture windows overlooked the old city, where somewhere St. Peter’s Church was calling me. I took off my tie, slipped on a sweater and was off.
From above, Vienna deserved its reputation: The panorama was marvelous. Nonetheless, the truth should not be looked at too closely. Nothing should, for that matter. On the ground, things were more complex.
The city is splendid. There are pedestrian zones replete with baroque buildings and cliffs of sculpted freestone, a haven of bourgeois comfort and “gemütlich” prosperity. The Imperial Palace and its vast esplanades offer an extravagant feast for the eyes.
The Ring, the boulevard that circles the city, is flush with green.
Overall, everything seems perfect. And yet what it lacks is grace.
The imperial buildings are too heavy and along the Ring, everything is beautiful, except everything. A barracks resembles an armored Florentine palace, the Parliament looks like a garish copy of the Parthenon, the Opera is majestic but imitates the Italian Renaissance, three centuries late. When it was inaugurated, the Viennese called it an urban “Sadowa” and, devastated, the architect committed suicide. With each province of the Hapsburg empire evoked, the whole seems majestic but disparate and, ultimately, a bit kitsch, like an enormous operetta stage set. But after a two-hour walk through the city, St. Peter’s Church was magical. It was like a mini cathedral, hardly bigger
than the little church on the Ile-au-Moines in Brittany, but loaded with treasures.

It had been a church since Roman times. After 1500 years of tithes, collections and investments to secure a spot in heaven, it had now become a safe. The Virgin Mary, whether immaculate, crowned, ascending for the Assumption, crying or praying, was everywhere. The ostentatious relics, dome and frescos were a far cry from the spare beginnings of the adventure in Bethlehem but were a perfect match for Handel’s grandiloquent and harmonious chords. I immediately spotted Sylvie, who was clearly in heaven – which is of course what the place was designed for. And, miraculously, the joy opened her eyes. Not only did she see me, but she rose and headed in my direction. She, too, had recognized me at first glance, it turned out. Quietly, so as not to disturb the performers, she asked if I would join them for dinner at the hotel. Like the Virgin Mary, I left on cloud nine.

The hotel’s panoramic restaurant is called the “Loft.” It’s on the 18th floor, with enormous picture windows and a vast, reddish-orange ceiling, luminous and electric. Seen from the street, where I went to smoke a cigarette, the restaurant resembles a huge flying saucer looming over the city. Equally as spectacular is the impression from inside, as if you were hovering above Vienna in an immobile Zeppelin. It was brighter than a Christmas tree, with bulbs, bells, domes, colonnades and obelisks gleaming in the darkness as far as the eye could see, like a star-filled sky spread at our feet. It wasn’t architecture so much as glittering acrobatics. We had been delighted with the concert,
Sylvie, me and the other guy, Eric, who, perched atop the pedestal of marriage, rose like the Alps between her and me.
While I admit that I’m perhaps not objective, this guy was a caricature of a right-wing conservative, full of himself and grouchy.
We disliked each other from the start, once he realized that I was opposed to nuclear power in all its forms. With the smugness of an adult amused by a child’s silly dreams, he said that my view was perhaps all well and good, but that he was absolutely opposed to costly energy sources. Obviously.

 

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.”

Later, with a smile that would have delighted even a man in hell, she asked me to take her back to the hotel. Where she then advised me to stop believing in fairy tales. Life might look like a sunny summer day with a few little decorative clouds, but those clouds move. As for her, she was no longer in the picture.