Fifteen years ago, British Airways delivered me to Vienna for the first time. Recently promotions by the UK flag carrier reminded me of that particular visit, my last flights before insane Koran perverting Islamists provoked the security theater air passengers now must endure.
Dovetailing nicely, it’s simply coincidence that Vienna is also the site where the West thwarted the Ottoman conquest of Europe. Any and all fretting about Western Civilization being swamped by Muslim hordes needs to brush up on his or her history.
If it was done then, it can surely be repeated if need be.
Certainly if the sultan’s janissaries could be repulsed at the walls of Old Vienna, then we, descendants of stalwarts who repelled “darkness and ignorance from below,” ought to have less trouble putting down a few rabid cave-dwellers. To borrow a word overused in the news lately, menace the West faces is nowhere as existential as theirs; our foe is ragtag and chaotically dispersed and disposed, unlike the phalanxes seeking to pierce the heart of long-ago Europe.
Growing up, Austria didn’t even register as a German-speaking country. Behind both West and East Germany, Switzerland, and Manhattan’s Yorkville, Austria sat so obscured the ear heard it as “Australia.”
Two aspects finally pushed Austria to my forefront. Neither have much to do with The Third Man, a movie, by the way, far superior to Graham Greene’s own novelization of his script. It hurts writing that because Greene’s works lend pleasure, A Gun for Sale, Brighton Rock, Power and the Glory among many. However, the augments director Carol Reed and actor Orson Welles lent to the script transformed Greene’s subpar issue into brilliance.
A TV series finally distinguished the Middle European country from the Pacific Ocean continent. Hello Austria-Hello Vienna. Broadcast on local cable stations, I imagine it only produced in order to raise the nation’s awareness among Americans as well as distance and define Austria from Germany. And, uh, Australia.
The topics were recognizable Chamber of Commerce boilerplate. Every interview consisted of soft-toss exchanges. The hosts, genial to a fault, gave off so much smarmy gemutlich they threatened infecting viewers with diabetes. So no broaching Oesterreich’s hip-deep complicity during the Second World War nor guests edgier than Falco.
The first leads directly to the second which got me boarding a 747 to Vienna via London from New York.
Hello Austria-Hello Vienna propagated a rediscovery of Egon Schiele, a major artist within the Secession Movement. No need to drown in details. Let if suffice that this breakaway style caused immense art world consternation as new directions will often foment among what passes as the then conventional and accepted manner.
For the longest no Hello Austria-Hello Vienna episode passed without some mention and exhibition of Schiele. After a while if viewers didn’t have Schiele on the brain, they were brainless.
Bombarded as fans were, or minds softened, our appetites whetted, it ought have come as no surprise that New York would be hosting a Schiele exhibition. Indeed, Museum of Modern Art galleries had been contracted to display his oeuvre. Having been so enticed how could one refuse?
Today as then, TV does no justice to art. One reaps immensely greater appreciation, if not understanding, through seeing art in person. Nose to canvases as it were. Portraiture on screens cheats the experience. Aside from the various devices conveniences we now enjoy, all remain insufficient substitutes for any actual in-person effort.
Through them one only gleans minimal amounts.
Again, this is no post which will mire itself in critique. To multitudes of American eyes a good piece of Schiele’s output may appear vulgar. Admittedly he bequeathed the art world a good many graphic works. Yet it’s always the makeups of the beholders which determine the products’ worthiness or lack thereof.
I’ve always noticed people most comfortable in their own skins may be shocked by unfettered observations or portrayals but seldom are they deterred or disgusted. Schiele’s art has the power to incite these responses. They did back in the early 20th century. They remain just as potent in the 21st.
Another topic the smiley Hello Austria-Hello Vienna hosts harped on was the gentrification of the Spittelberg neighborhood. Spittelberg abuts what had been the Imperial Palace. An area primarily given to troop barracks, horse stables, and a locale for the tacit traffic of whorehouses, Spittelberg had always lacked luster in the urban Viennese firmament.
Hello Austria-Hello Vienna hailed these blocks development with the same fervor it used for Schiele’s reemergence. Here’s where British Airways comes in.
Likeliest for fannies in the seats reasons, BA ran deals which offered even at the time ridiculously low air fares coupled with hot-sheet motel hotel rates. Not just to the British Isles but throughout Continental destinations.
Spying the Vienna offerings, I recognized one of the hostelries to have been one the show plumped. The k&k. A little further research explained the minimal rate: the hotel was just opening. It needed to start drawing traffic. What better way to prime the pump than through bargain hungry travelers?
And in December there I was.
The second, short leg of that journey was lux. While the first was a bus with wings, one jumbo-jet chockablock with Britons returning from abroad; the second, on a smaller aircraft, harkened back to elegant travel.
Only several of us flew on to Vienna from Heathrow that late afternoon. If memory serves, crew to passenger ratio sat at 1:3. London to Vienna is a puddle jumper but they swaddled us in attention until our descent through the clouds.
Upon arrival, a jetway didn’t attach itself to the plane. Instead as in old movies we exited onto the tarmac and walked into the terminal. Also as in old movies, a shower had preceded our appearance, its remnants smearing cold, early evening shimmer wherever sight was cast.
The k&k filled an address on a Gasse whose dimensions seemed unchanged since imperial rule. Just it and a trattoria down the way emitted light. Every other establishment sat shuttered for the night.
Small as the lobby was, lack of inhabitants enlarged it into acres of well-lighted emptiness. Both the desk clerk and the barman attending his desolate post perked up immediately at my footfalls. Reservation aside, I don’t believe either had really expected anybody to appear that night.
Either the clerk was still learning his craft or I intimidated him. Then, I chose the former. Years later returning to the k&k he behaved the same towards me. So I guess it was the latter.
As usual, the barman spoke better English than the desk clerk. Which helped because despite being able to read it my spoken German sounds Greek. Still does. (Sorry Frau North.) Unlike the Spanish in America, there are fewer German speakers with whom we natives can casually converse.
The barman, an immigrant from somewhere the Hapsburgs once ruled, from whom his people gained independence, himself a fellow who returned to the center of the former empire to then earn shillings, gave me the local lowdown.
Street-level knowledge is an essential travel component regardless of the language.
That first night in Vienna has been enough to compel my return twice. Given the slightest chance I will dare another in an instant. Only Brussels, Buenos Aires, and Montevideo give me similar impulses to drop everything, rev it up, and go.
After an evening of being a tourist – stopping in the middle of crowded sidewalks in order to gape at stuff longtime residents no longer notice, mangling the native vernacular while asking questions, enjoying myself too heartily for the regulars’ delight – I walked from city center back to Spittelberg. Funny thing was Vienna then had stinted severely on street lighting. Dim is one thing. Whole blocks along this stroll were pitch black. The kind of darkness where one’s own raised palm couldn’t be seen.
Almost as a wormwood apparition, a green and white blur detached itself from the surrounding formlessness. Strange as it was, I should remember the establishment’s name but I think I’ve confused it with a wholly dissimilar one in Amsterdam. Bim.
“Brazil” stamped the Dutch bar every way North Americans may envision the country’s images and sounds and attitudes. Lacking a loud, happy, crowd thronging the bar, Vienna’s Bim was monochrome, not colorful. No percussive music, just soothing late-night orchestrations. Until I entered there was only a bartender, and he occupied himself cleaning glasses.
A Viennese Nighthawks, I suppose.
Primarily green and white, shouldn’t it have been a Brazilian elbow-bender? Or someplace referencing the tropics? No. Rather, it filled the local jenever niche. Of course now such specialty shops profligate as hipster platforms. But back in 2000 that a business solely existed to slake tastes for jenever, the basis behind gin, seemed uncommon. Extraordinary. European.
Besides, then I never drank gin. I still had years to go before acquiring tastes for Martinis and G&T’s. Perhaps sampling Bim’s distillations, the bartender’s backfilling history for a curious patron, started me down the other clear spirit’s wavy road.
Sleep deprived as I was, restless excitement kept me awake inside the k&k. So I wandered around the building. Who else would there to have been to encounter? At that hour of morning only minimal at most staff should’ve been employed. Since the hotel had recently opened its doors even those numbers ought have been all the more miniscule.
Roaming chilly hallways and narrow stairwells, I inspected the public spaces. The other lodgers, assuming there were others at the k&k that night, either slept the sleep of drunken babies beneath their Eiderdowns or hadn’t stumbled back yet.
Through the last door the unexpected greeted me. Behind it a porn shoot commenced. Sang-froid ruled all around; coolness by me at my entrance, shoulder shrugging composure from the crew. I gather the two performers were too involved to notice such an insignificant intrusion as mine.
The featured pair emoted carnally on a sectional couch jammed in the room’s corner. Lights, camera, attention bored on them until I slid in. Seizing the gist, watching them writhe, froze my steps. Only when “halt” or the onset of exhaustion did the room thaw and inquisitiveness begin.
This pair untwined themselves and gravitated to their respective comfort zones. A meager crew, a woman serving as a production assistant-slash-wardrobe mistress handed the actress a robe. She hurriedly covered her pale coltish nakedness. The same functionary handed her a cigarette. After lighting it, these two entered a harsh, hushed conversation.
The actor, far more languid than his partner, eschewed immediate concealment. Instead, he swanned over the director and they likely discussed an aspect of the just completed scene. Though I waltzed in at the climax, the action’s demands seemed pretty straight-forward to me.
Frankly I marveled at how the director, a young woman bearing the severe mien of a film school grad student ignored his substantial nakedness. Skinny on the way to bony, if he weighed 110 pounds, 10 of them dangled between his thin legs.
Even at my stage of decreasing inebriation and rising fatigue, both performers appeared strangely familiar. Notables they weren’t. However, they did remind me of living, breathing models Schiele might’ve employed.
Each was lean, nearing emaciation. Sharp angles formed both faces.
She was sullen. Her partner wavered between disinterest and distraction. Fever splotches daubing the cheeks broke their consumptive pallor. Piles of dark unkempt hair weighted their heads and coarse, black thickets carpeted the pubes of each.
Exertion had left their nipples, his considerable member and the outer folds of her purse scarlet. Or so I thought. Later I learned makeup had enhanced the couple’s engorgement and excitement. Oddly no tint painted either’s lips. In better light I bet their eyes were dull.
Once the artistic matter was resolved and after the actor reluctantly draped himself with a proffered robe, the director (in this case maybe “directrix”) sidled my way. Fear more than curiosity moved her. Was I with the k&k? Security of some sort?
My having been an inadvertent gawker calmed her considerably. She wondered whether I was a guard, a guest or some homeless person who saw an open door as an opportunity to escape the cold for a while. Although Spittelberg was on an upswing, certainly rough edges of its unseemly past still persisted.
Assuring her of the second did two things. First, it relieved her worries – of authority or having to deal with a derelict. Second, hearing my accent let her break into English. A maneuver she introduced by stating, “Ah, you are American.”
Never fails. Abroad, upon hearing me speak Germans and Austrians will generally respond in English. A blessing and a curse because while initially it eases my way, I lose out when my verbal skills aren’t tasked.
Moreover, proficiency in multiple tongues improves intellect.
The director didn’t bother insulting us both by swearing me to secrecy or finding out whether I needed bribing to keep this between us. Given the k&k’s state, I merely assumed hers represented some kind of guerilla film-making.
It helped being astute. Her having attended the NYU film school further narrowed our gap. While her crew struck the “set,” we gabbed a few minutes about Downtown Manhattan and what a douche Giuliani was.
Pleasantries conducted and dismissed, I asked about her project. More for amusement than edification.
Her onscreen talent missed the looks department criteria. Unlike the ideal-into-exaggerated masculine and feminine figures expected in sexually charged films, she’d recruited a pair who’d struggled reaching average appeal. A conscious decision, the director needed body types and faces which wouldn’t overwhelm the theme. Hers an interesting and extreme theory. Less attractive actors equal more honest portrayals and deeper viewer reception.
Following in the deep imprints of many film aficionados who’d gained their life knowledge from movies rather than among real live people, her project complicated the already convoluted man-woman conundrum. Boiling it down to essentials, the issue to be resolved, if such entwinements can ever be simply resolved, was Missionary or Cowboy? Position as determinant for a thriving relationship.
Leave it to Europeans or feminists to make sliding hot dogs into donut holes difficult. But she was earnest. She had years yet before starting to see clearly. I almost envied her blinkered seriousness. I certainly envied her ability to film her manifesto.
She then asked me a favor. She’d just re-envisioned an earlier scene, one which had occurred in one of the lover’s apartments. Since I seemed so accommodating maybe I saw myself lending my room for a re-shoot.
Hmmm. A little voyeurism for posterity didn’t bother me. What I found troublesome was the actor’s splooging on the sheets. If there were going to be any traces of male lust for housekeeping to remove, they surely would be mine.
Ah. But here was a woman directing porn. European porn at that. Conventional male notions would not suffice. A woman’s demands propelled this script. Her satisfaction was paramount. It would not be buried and lost under the usual male prerogative. Women manifest their gratification internally. As I was unnecessarily informed, images of male ejaculation only satisfied men.
Besides, she made her actor wrap his rascal in Latex. Not that it mattered. There’d already been a number of intimate scenes and he hadn’t yet, um, spumed. I assessed it this way: “Sort of like insurance. Have it and never need it. Go along without it and …”
Laughing, the director praised my apt analogy. Then she insisted about my lodging, whether I could avail those walls to her project.
Assure me as she had, of course I agreed to lend my room to “promiscuous art.”
Leading a small, more morose than merry band, we made slight effort towards sneaking. In fact had our progress upstairs been any less stealthy we’d have detoured through the lobby.
Wouldn’t we have appeared the conspicuous parade? Me chatting with the director, her two robed and barefoot performers following, a short train of techs and assistants in tow lugging all sorts of awkward equipment.
Alone I crowded my shoebox room. Filling it with the whole crew might’ve reprised the shipboard cabin sequence from the Marx Brothers’ Night at the Opera. Therefore, only essential persons packed Room 515. The performers. Their director. Her camerawoman. And peering in from the bathroom, me. Not so much peeping while others did “the dirty,” but as precaution in case something inside went awry.
Should there have been an incident somebody needed to have answers.
A bit of instruction, or I guess at this juncture, some reminders, and the retake went off without a hitch. The sex seen had greater resemblance to fulfilling an obligation than any passion. Afterwards two other crew members entered just long enough to hand the talent bags holding their clothing and footwear.
Truthfully? Watching those two getting dressed was hotter than seeing them cavort naked.