Austria

“Have you ever realised that life itself is all just a memory except for the fleeting moment that is present” (Eric Kandel, Nobel Laureate) 

Once I stood in line for hours to get a new Medicare card and when I finally got to the desk, the woman at the counter told me that she was going to Vienna in Austria in a week’s time and she was so excited because she loves the Sound of Music. I asked her if Vienna was the only destination she was going to visit and she said yes. Then I had to tell her that the Sound of Music takes place in Salzburg, not Vienna. She was not happy. 

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Austria is world famous for an American film and then for very unfortunate people that lock their children in the basement for years. And for some other really bad people. And for classical music (think Mozart, Strauss, Schubert and Mahler). And for a bearded lady who won the Eurovision song contest. And for the Terminator. And for the creators of the Oedipus complex and penis envy theories. And for the father of genetics. And also partly for Eric Kandel and his work on memory (see below). 

Austrians also have a persistent reputation of being unfriendly. Recently, Austria ranked as the second least friendly country in the world. What a reputation for a country.  

Austria is a landlocked country in Europe and borders Germany, Hungary, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Italy and Liechtenstein. There are 9 million inhabitants and the main language is Austrian German. The hills are alive in Austria with the Alps dominating 75% of the country. The country has nine states, some with familiar names such as Tyrol and Salzburg

Photo: Geology.com

A Strange way to serve

There are a few options for Austrian food in Sydney. 

We are moving towards schnitzel and sacher torte territory, we assume. 

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I have an Austrian friend TM – a very friendly Austrian – in Sydney and she advises against the Austrian Club and instead suggests that we go to Una’s in Darlinghurst. I also have two local friends, AX and RX who lived a few years in Vienna and immersed themselves in the local culture. AX thinks Una’s might be the best Austrian option available even if still not authentic enough. 

On a windy and chilly winter Friday, once A (9) and I have played badminton and then collected L (15) from theatre, we head to the charming and bubbly Darlinghurst, full of people. JK and FK (13) are waiting for us at Una’s door. They have not been given a table and they have been asked to step out of the queue and wait outside until the kids and I arrive. Over the phone, I have been told that the restaurant does not take any bookings but when we arrive, we see reserved tables. JK, who also has lived in Austria, comments that this is just the way Austrian customer service works. Not the greatest start. 

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The restaurant is full. We get a corner table next to another table with very large people with very large plates. This is heavy cuisine and the portions are very big. 

Most of our party proceeds to get schnitzels – pork schnitzel to be precise – and weisswurst with mashed potatoes. I get a vegetable strudel with mashed potatoes that is ok but not outstanding. As we have observed, the portions are very large and look homemade, which is probably the intention. 

Una’s seems popular with all tables full and most people with very large beers. It reminds us what an Alpine Austrian restaurant would be like and you almost expect the waiters to wear lederhosen. But they don’t – even if most are young, tall and blond. 

The party agrees that the food is ok and quite heavy but not an outstanding culinary experience. 

For food, atmosphere and the (rude) service Una’s gets 6.5/10 from us. 

The hills are alive 

For an easily digestible and quick history of Austria, we turn again to Mr History on Youtube. Austria has been inhabited since Palaeolithic times. There was a Celtic Kingdom called Noricum around 400 BC, famous for its Noric steel – cool steel stuff that everyone wanted to have their swords made of. When Noricum peacefully became part of the Roman Empire, the Romans built cities including Vindobona which became Vienna. Later there were German invasions and other tribes dominating parts of the land. In 800 the land joined the Carolingian Empire as the ‘Eastern Kingdom’ – Österreich’. Several combinations followed until Rudolf 1 of Habsburg took over, which led to the Habsburg Dynasty that reigned for over 600 years (and included  marriages between close relatives that resulted in a somewhat problematic genetic inheritance). What followed was plenty of fighting including the Battle of Vienna in 1683 which marked the end of Ottoman Rule in Europe. The legend says the Croissant was invented to commemorate the victory by having Austrians devour the Turkish half moon. 

The Habsburg Dynasty was the most powerful house of Medieval and Renaissance Europe and ruled over a collection of lands from the 13th century to 1918. The inbred dynasty ruled over vast territories in Europe (and overseas) and extended their tentacles into most of the European royal houses. There were as many as 71 marriages among close relatives. I then read Danubia by Simon Winder (see below) where I learned even more of their strange ways. 

The Habsburgs linked Austria with a large portion of European history from Spain to France to England to The Netherlands to Germany to Hungary to Romania, and so on. It is an unnerving history of endless wards and absolute power in the hands of incompetent people. It all came to an end in 1918. The 20th century saw the decline of the Habsburg Dynasty and its demise, the atrocities of World War I, the experimentation of the First Republic (1919 to 1934), the annexation by Germany under Hitler, the occupation of the Allies after defeat (1945 to 1955) and then the birth of the new Austria in 1955 by the signing of the Austrian State Duty. This was the same year Austria joined the United Nations. Chancellor Bruno Kreisky dominated the political arena for more than a decade in the 1970s and former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim was elected president in 1986. Later it was discovered that Waldheim had lied about his military past as an officer of the German Army, deployed in the Balkans during the Second World War. 

In recent decades –  the last 30 year or so – Austria joined the European Union in 1995 and saw the rise and fall of a flamboyant ultraconservative and very controversial politician, Jörg Heider, up to his death in a high speed drink-driving accident. There was also the heartbreaking case of J.Fritz who imprisoned his daughter in a cellar for 24 years and had numerous children with her. 

The Habsburg Dynasty strikes again 

I plan to read the Man without qualities that dominates “the Best Austrian books” lists and seemingly does not have a well defined plot. But when I found out that it is over 1000 pages, I decide otherwise. 

I turn to TM, my Austrian friend in Sydney, for advice about literature but she is indecisive, which is completely understandable. I then ask AX and RX, the wonderful couple who lived years in Vienna and are well acquitted with literature. RX recommends ‘Danubia’ by Simon Winder. Even if written by an English author, it deals with the Habsburg Dynasty in a fairly entertaining way.  

In Danubia, Winder has done extensive research on these strange and rich monarchs that ruled large tracts of land in Central Europe for centuries. Simon has a true passion for what he is writing about, incorporating personal anecdotes of himself in the text. I learn that he prefers to holiday in the north rather than in the south and, if forced to be in a sun-drenched country, he prefers to stay indoors in a hotel and read. But I also learn about the enormous procession of kings, queens and emperors of the House of Habsburg. There are many Ferdinands and Marias – monarchs with enormous jaws due to intensive inbreeding. 

I learn that Maximilian I (King of the Romans 1459 -1519) was a geek interested in the latest developments in military technology (utilised in many of his unsuccessful battles) but also had a PR team to pour out propaganda about how great he was. He was an inconsistent figure, in the habit of initiating and then dropping projects. He also loved his first wife, Mary of Burgundy, very much, treated her as his equal and was crushed when she died in 1482. Their son, Philip the Handsome, (his good looks seemed to be his primary asset) became the King of Castile and married Juana of Spain (Juana la Loca). She had the reputation of being mentally ill, which may or may not be true. Their son, Charles/Carlos, ruled from east to west, a territory that included Habsburg Austria and its territories, Spain, the Netherlands and southern Italy. But he abdicated in later years to leave Spain to his son Philip and Austria to his brother Ferdinand (who had been born and raised entirely in Spain). He was also not very fond of Protestants –  particularly Martin Luther – and kept himself busy fighting them. 

I also learn that some of the castles had bear moat (yes, bears in them). The Habsburgs fought long and hard for centuries against the Ottomans. Ferdinand’s grandson, Rudolf II, (Holy Roman Emperor 1576 – 1612) was a hoarder who collected exotic animals and other rarities, was partly a recluse interested in the occult and religiously tolerant (or indifferent). He is widely considered pretty ineffectual as an Emperor as the Long Turkish War (1503 -1606) shows. Poor Rudolf just wanted to study and collect ‘stuff’ and was not suited to military action, as was necessary in those times. He died childless and his ambitious brother Matthias, ultimately proved to be a weak Emperor. Matthias was also childless and desperately tried to marry a much younger woman in the hope of producing an offspring and heir, but the poor girl died soon after. The disastrous political movements of both Rudolf and Matthias led to the Thirty Year War (1618 -1648) that has been described as one of the most destructive conflicts in Europe, resulting in the loss of between five and eight million soldiers and civilians. 

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The Habsburg continued to intermarry close relatives. One of the daughters of Matthias’ successor Ferdinand II, Cecilia Renata, married her first cousin who was the King of Poland (Wladyslaw IV). Another married her uncle, Maximilian I of Bavaria. Ferdinand’s son (Ferdinand III) married two of his first cousins. Ferdinand II’s granddaughter, Maria Anna, at the tender age of 14 married her maternal uncle, the King of Spain. Then Ferdinand III’s only surviving child (of several children from three different wives), Leopold I, married his Spanish niece and first cousin Margarita Teresa (Maria Anna’s daughter), most of whose siblings had also died. Margarita Teresa is, in fact, the 5-year old child in the very famous painting of Velazquez Las Meninas.

Leopold and Margarita Teresa were not beauties as they both had inherited distinctive features of intensive inbreeding. Our author Simon bluntly states that it does not surprise modern biologists that so many children died. For them, other people just were not good enough so the best was to marry close family. Ugh. 

Margarita Teresa died in childbirth at the age of 21 and only one of her six children (that she had with her ‘uncle’, as she rightfully called her husband) lived past infancy. The author, Wilder says: “A book could be written which told the Habsburg story just from the point of view of the disregarded queen mothers, the terrified wives, the daughters used as trans-national pawns, the widows and daughters who vanish from history as they are put in convents or into little-frequented palace wings, all those moments of bored irritation when the child being born proved to be merely female and the grant witnessed of the mother’s agonizing labour hurriedly dispersed.” And then there is the story of dead children – only between Ferdinand III and Leopold I there were eleven dead children. 

Habsburg possession in Europe circa 1700 Source: Wikipedia

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The burials of the Habsburgs were curious as their bodies were often buried in a different place than their hearts for religious reasons. Leopold I lived quite a long life and most of it was battling Ottomans and having a rivalry with his first cousin Louis XIV, the Sun King and long-lived King of France. Leopold I fought three wars against France and several other wars so he was quite busy on that front during his nearly 47-year rule. He was married three times with two of his wives dying in childbirth. The third one (Eleanora) did not want to marry him, preferring to become a nun, but could not say no to her parents. She brought that religious joy to her court, which was described as quite gloomy and strict. She also gave birth to ten children and did finally manage to live as a nun after her husband’s death.  

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A couple of Holy Emperors (as they were termed) followed. Leopold’s eldest son, Joseph I, was Holy Emperor for a mere six years and died of smallpox (after giving his wife a STD that made her sterile). Our author Simon describes Joseph as “startling and inspiring – hard-drinking, reckless, adoring warfare, sexually chaotic hard to imagine a less Habsburg Habsburg”. Joseph’s only surviving children were girls and therefore his younger brother Charles VI made it to the throne. Charles then loved a man called Michael Joseph and procreated out of duty. He also only had girls but then decided to challenge the traditional male-line succession and became obsessed with issuing the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713 (it took him 29 years). This was designed to ensure the Habsburg lands could be inherited by a daughter (he also made clear that his girls were favoured over Joseph’s girls), but also led to multiple wars over the issue of succession in different territories. This made his unprepared daughter, Maria Theresa, (that Charles hardly ever talked to) the ruler, but not without wars and conflicts, and division of territories and hardly anyone recognising her right to rule. She was the last direct Habsburg heir, ruled for 40 years and had 16 children, many of whom died young. Her youngest daughter was a famous woman called Marie Antoinette

Maria Theresa’s son, Joseph II, believed in absolute monarchy (enlightened despotism / absolutism) and was described as “over-enthusiastic, announcing so many reforms that had so little support that revolts broke out and his regime became a comedy of errors”. He was followed by his brother Leopold II who, according to our boy Simon (and other historians) was an exceptionally capable ruler – for a Habsburg. Simon says of his 2-year rule that it was “capable, flexible and thoughtful rule without precedent within the family” and that his death basically marked the downfall of the family. “His completely pointless death (ushered in by doctors messing around with him in an unknowingly dirty and infective way) marked him out too as the last ever genuinely shrewd and resourceful (but not disturbing) Hapsburg ruler. His successors were a narrow dullard, a simpleton, a narrow dullard and a non-entity and those four get us to 1918.”  

Leopold II was the first ruler in modern history to oppose capital punishment (which was abolished in Tuscany in 1786 during his rule). He was a supporter of the arts and science, and campaigned for better treatment of the mentally ill. He had 16 children, one of whom burned to death when playing with fireworks. His successor, son Franz II, fought Napoleon, losing almost every time and had to give his attractive 15-year-old teenage daughter, Marie Louise, as a wife to Napoleon (fearing of course the same destiny as his aunt Marie Antoinette.) When asked for her consent, she replied: “I wish only what my duty commands me to wish.” She had a son with Napoleon, outlived her husband, married twice more and died at the age of 56 in Parma. 

Franz’s son, Ferdinand I, (the numbering beginning again) was the next ruler and the result of more awful inbreeding between Franz and his double first cousin. Ferdinand was physically and mentally incapable of ruling, despite being the king for 13 years.  He was followed by Franz Joseph – nowadays probably most well known as Sisi’s devoted husband. Franz Joseph was not a great emperor and not a lucky man. He resisted the growing nationalism of his nearly 70 years of rule, his (highly fictionalised in movies and tv series) wife was assassinated, his brother Maximillian executed, his son Rudolf committed suicide with a young lover and his nephew (that he strongly disliked), Archduke Franz Ferdinand was also famously assassinated. This assassination, of course, was the catalyst for a dreadful and tragic event called World War I. Franz Joseph gave Hungary greater autonomy, created the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary and died in 1916 – two years before the end of the Hapsburgs and the with world around him in war. The Habsburgs saga came to an end in 1918 under the rule of Franz Joseph’s grandnephew.

I learned all that from Simon’s massive (+500 pages) book (and from further reading). The book is well researched, very detailed, covers a lot of wars, has a critical and sometimes amusing take on things and talks a lot to the ‘reader’. It is a huge effort which is at times extremely interesting and at times tedious. It is not linear enough to be completely clear, but then very detailed and slow in parts. Nevertheless, it offers a huge amount of information that I was only superficially aware of and for that reason it is worth a read. 

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By then I had had quite enough of silly royals and the whole weird system that a monarchy is. Before Virtual Nomad moves on, there is time and space for one more book. Eric R Kandel is an Austrian-born Nobel Laureate in Medicine who was awarded the prestigious prize for his ground-breaking work on memory and neurobiology. Kandel has had a complicated relationship with being born in Vienna (and for a long time identified as Austrian-American rather than Austrian) but has since reconciled with his past. I decide to ‘read’ his book In Search for Memorythe emergency of a new science of mind as an audio book. It is a fascinating blend of autobiography, neuroscience and neurobiology. I learn about Eric’s childhood in Vienna, his parents’ toy store and them fleeing from Nazi Vienna. I learn that bourgeoisie Viennese families used to choose their maids with their teenage boys’ sexual needs in mind. I learn that Eric was an excellent student, a dedicated researcher and an absent father and husband (his wife sacrificed her own scientific interest and career in favour of his). I learn about psychoanalysis, neuroscience, molecules and proteins, brain cells and the origins of mental disorders, genetically modified mice, long-term memory and learning, where thoughts come from and how genetics affect the ways how we memorise and remember things. Eric presents the history of brain science and psychology, the sensory processes and the experiments he and other researchers have done. He laments the greed of many researchers who are not driven by the advancement of knowledge but competition and rivalry. He explains how our conscious actions are affected by the unconscious. Above all, it is about his love for science and his fascination with the brain, with how memories are created and fed. It is a fascinating book that is better read than listened to due to the complexity of concepts, scientific developments and names of researchers. My brain has changed after reading it, as he predicted, and I also understand now why women and men give directions in a different way. 

Ok then. One more book. Some Austrian contemporary literature so that I can at least claim I have really read something from an Austrian author. I end up choosing ‘Viennaby Eva Menasse. It is a tale of a family at the heart of a changing world with its members spread around countries. The story jumps back and forth in time, and several people travel through the pages to the point that it is difficult to keep track of who is who. Its feel the intention is to build a plentiful narrative as in the 100 years of solitude, but this book is a far cry from the magical tale of Macondo.  It is slightly confusing and a bit boring, and the story or the writing style never truly gets off the ground. The people and their motivations are mostly pointless and almost irrelevant, and I struggle to finish the book. The Austrian entry of the Virtual Nomad takes more time than expected for the sole reason that I force myself very slowly through the dense narrative of the nearly 400 pages, and I am relieved when I put the book down. 

Old age, silent cruelty, shallow empress, deep connection and hopeless existence

Michael Haneke is an Austrian filmmaker whose films are often dark and unsettling, and sometimes controversial. I have seen several of his movies that are uncomfortable but fascinating, especially the highly awarded The Piano Teacher and Cache. I have had two other movies on my watchlist for a long time but have postponed them, consciously or unconsciously. With Virtual Nomad now stopping in Austria it is time to face them. 

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First, I watch Amour, which to my surprise is an understated and quiet movie about old age, love, commitment and ‘managing the suffering of someone you love’, as the director says himself. Set in France (and in French), it is slow and beautiful and sad at the same time. It is a story of an older couple – the husband becomes the carer of the wife after her stroke, and then she gradually declines. It is a movie about riding not so graciously into the sunset – the path that inevitably we all will take. The actors (Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) are magnificent. The director had the idea in his mind for a long time and it is loosely based on something that happened in his own family. 

Next on my list is the White Ribbon. Again, not set in Austria but in Germany. I know that this movie is a masterpiece and I have postponed watching it because I also expect that it will be unsettling. I decide to watch it with JK and I am happy we do. It is a mesmerizing movie – much less unsettling than haunting, set in the years before the First World War and about the generation that grew up to be Nazis. In fact, the director has stated that the movie is not only about fascism but also about radicalisation in general. The movie has the subtitle of ‘A German-children’s story” (Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte) but it is only for German audiences that can understand the “roots of Nazism”, whereas the theme itself is universal.

The White Ribbon - Wikipedia

The movie is in black and white, which is effective in its stillness. The viewer is left defenceless with the understanding of where the incidents of cruelty and malice come from. The director states that although the town is fictional, the story is based on real incidents that took place in Austria and Germany in the 1920s-1940s.  

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AX and RX, the wonderful couple that lived in Vienna and who I happily call my friends, recommend watching The Empress, a German Netflix series about Sisi, the Austrian empress. The series is interesting and intriguing enough and I watch the six episodes in a week. Everyone in the Austrian court seem to be really pretty and dominated by their desires more than political motives, which makes the series reflect human experience. There are many links to the true story even if it is strongly romantised. 

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But what about something in Austria? I make JK watch Before Sunrise, the first part of my all time favourite movie trilogy, set in Vienna. It is not an Austrian movie but an American one with beautiful and mesmerising young Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke as leads – two young people who meet on the train and decide to spend one day and night together walking around the streets of Vienna. Vienna is the third main character in this movie and is generously portrayed in this wonderful small movie about connection by Richard Linklater. I have seen the movie several times and again it does not disappoint. 

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After two films by an Austrian filmmaker but set elsewhere and an American film set in Austria, I decide to watch an Austrian movie set in Austria and preferably in Austrian German. I decide to go for Import/Export by Ulrich Seidl whose film Dog Days depicting brutality and humiliation in the Viennese suburbs won the Gran Prix at the Venice film festival. Seidl is known for his harsh and unsettling movies of spiralling lives that depict a cruel and colourless reality of the less fortunate. Import/Export is no exception. It is a dark tale of people trying to find a better life; a Ukrainian nurse involved in low paying sex work and an Austrian security guard at the other end of that sex traffic. One of them heads towards the West and one of the them heads towards the East, each for a better life. Not much light or laughter in this movie, and not much hope of a better future for the exploited and humiliated. 

Ulrich Seidl is also famous for his Paradise trilogy, with the second part winning the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. An interesting fact is that Ulrich Seidl is married to Veronika Franz, a horror movie maker. Their breakfast conversations must be a cradle of joy. 

The sounds of music 

Vienna has been described as the Music Capital of the World, which is probably well deserved when it comes to classical music. Austria was the cradle of great classical maestros; Mozart, Haydn, Mahler, Strauss, Schubert, Schoenberg, Bruckner and several others. Austria has several classical and folk music festivals around the country and highly regarded classical music conservatories. 

When it comes to contemporary music, Falco, an unmistakably 80s-beat musician remains Austria’s most prominent and famous musician. His biggest hits include Rock Me Amadeus (1986) and Der Kommissar (1981, an early non-English rap song). Described as an eccentric, controversial and complex person, Falco died in a car accident in 1998. When his mother was pregnant with him, she was expecting triplets and miscarried the identical twins. While Falco survived, he would later describe how he felt the presence of his deceased siblings.

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For other musicians, DJ Parov Stelar is known for his fusion of electric swing. All night is inviting whereas The Sun featuring Graham Candy is his biggest hit, together with Booty Swing. The Virtual Nomad playlist also welcomes the Princess, Soul Fever Blues and Black Bird. 

As for other musicians, Wanda is a popular band in Austria but for Virtual Nomads their music is not engaging enough. Experimental art project Soap&Skin is interesting but inconsistent. There also seems to be quite an appetite for metal music, judged by the Austrian music website that lists musicians and their number of monthly listeners. 

While navigating the musical waters of Spotify, Virtual Nomads seem to take a bit of a liking of the sound of some of the songs of an Austrian Indie band Leyya (eg. the song Superego). The conclusion was that they offer a varied musical landscape with some clever and quite nice songs, but nothing extraordinary. 

The Kiss by Klimt 

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Virtual Nomad farewells Austria with a painting of Austria’s most famous painter, symbolist Gustav Klimt. The painting is ‘the Kiss’ (1908) – one of the most visited paintings in the world and thought to represent the artist himself with his lover Emilie Flöge. The painting was considered ‘pornographic’ but enthusiastically received by the public and the Austrian government that purchased the painting. It can be visited at the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere.

Next stop: Azerbaijan 

Thank you JK for your editing of the very long Virtual Nomad stop in Austria.