Saturday, July 15, 2017

Wandering with the Ghosts in Vienna

Images from our days in Wein - an Olympics poster and sayings by Hundertwasser, Perostoika, fieldwork and an old book
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I was last here in August of 1991.  The Soviets had detained Gorbachev in a failed coup to stop his reforms.  They were, of course, right.  The Soviet Union was imploding.  But one could not blame Perostroika and Glasnost - as much as economics and geopolitics. The whole city convulsed. Few cities changed me like Vienna did.  I felt history here, with every step.
You feel it everywhere here, these lingering sentiments – a fallen world, empires ruins, slender everywhere, spectacular beauty in the streets, and darkness below the surface.  “Thunder at twilight,” was the title of Frederic Morton’s study of the feeling a century prior when war about to break-out here; his story concerns: …the events, ideas, unpredictabilities and inevitabilities surrounding the death of the crown prince, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The bullet that tore into his jugular sounded the initial shot in the most devastating slaughter mankind had known so far. It set off the dynamics leading to World War I. In other words, it galvanized a zeitgeist whose consequences live today in the international news, on the street corner.”  
In 1991, I was here after a summer in Florence, on break, before the next term in Sienna, Italy.  I didn’t want to go to Ibiza where my friends were.  I wanted to travel north.  So I took my time, spending a week exploring the exquisite wreckage of this city, its architecture, arts, and streets.
Over a quarter century later, the feeling of those days still lingers.  My life really divides between before and after that summer when I traveled on my own.  This time, I was with wife and two spectacular kids, one eleven and another 14, probably a little early for the Grand Tour, but still worth the education. Its no longer vacation.  Its education, we tried to explain to them to unending ridicule.

We arrived late, tired and excited, a little nervous and cranky.  And went out for schnitzel. 
“Try to tell your story better Dad,” they laughed when I told them about my days here.
“You are forgetting the details.  It needs details,” explained Caroline.
The streets were pulsing with a beauty and a feeling of danger that is hard to explain.
We woke early and walked, trying to get accustomed to the place, found our way onto the train and out into the beautiful street where we got a lovely café latte.
“Almost as good as Italy,” noted Caroline.
I offered the girls a taste of the foam.
“You see everything here is very, very high quality.  They are used to that here. They expect it.”
We wandered over to Hundertwasser House.  The artist, named for hundred waters, was a huge influence for me. His humanist, anti-technology sensibility, immediately struck a chord when I saw his eco-friendly home as a work of art all those years ago.
“The straight line leads to the downfall of humanity,” he explained.  There are no straight lines in nature, he pointed out, leaving the floors in his home to curve, so we feel them.
When we dream alone it is only a dream, but when we dream together it is the beginning of a new reality,” he pointed out, noting that it is up to us to create a livable city together.  He dreamed it, drew pictures, imagined; ideas grew to plans, etc. He started planning buildings, remaking the city incinerator plant in an eco-friendly way, etc.
His point was that trees offer roots for all of us, connecting our stories.  Without these roots we forget who we are.  His story, like many, was one of suffering.  69 of his relatives were killed by the Nazis, including his aunt who he lived with.
He spend the rest of his days searching for something better, embracing water as a source of life, tears, and transformation.  He expanded on ideas about sustainability, rejecting technology in favor or action, beauty, and care.
Finishing the show, we walked out into the street, took some snapshots, and grabbed some lunch.
The kids were as moved as we were.
And we kept on moving, grabbing the train across town to buy tickets for Budapest on Sunday, and make our way to the Freud museum.  Unlike Berlin, there are few signs or monuments to what happed in 1938 when the Nazis took over. It took them just a few months to adjust to the Nazi plans.
Walking into Freud’s house, I looked up the stairs.  In the Interpretation of Dreams, he talked about these stairs, where he made his way, between private and public worlds, hopes and shame. Inside, he met Jung, organized his Wednesday meetings of the psychoanalytic society, brought up his kids, treated his patients, and watched his daughter interviewed and his home confiscated by the Nazis in 1938. Had to pay $200,000 to leave in 1938, brought his kids, his doctor and maid with him to live in London, leaving his sister behind to perish. I had not realized how jarring that must have been for him.  He later mourned his lost home, during his London exile.
The house was full of relics from his years here, including photos of his stash of cocaine and theories about the medicinal uses of material. The man lived a life of inquiry. I introduced him to the kids as a philosopher, as much as a psychanalyst. He was very much alive here.
Over coffee afterward, we talked about the assassination of Franz Joseph Ferdinand that ushered in WWI.  The first attempt failed in Sarajevo.  Yet, many bystanders were killed.  He turned to go back to town after the assassination attempt, wanting to see the people killed, and one of the would be assassins was having a sandwich.  He turned around and there he was, right in front of him. So the anarchist shot him, setting off a series of steps, movements among allies, between the Germans and English and French and Serbians, ushering what was supposed to be a short little war.  But it turned out to be an example of generational suicide. And darkness fell after that.
And it started here, as the old world crumbled, ushering in something new.
Sitting talking, Caroline recalled her Mom’s moms days here, her friends here, so much history. But so much of it feels invisible here, with roots cut off. Its hard to look around and not see ghosts at every corner.  We talked and talked, wandered home, ate and I kept on walking and walking for hours.  

First stop Belgium. 

Scenes from a day in Wein. 

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