Destination: Austria: Vienna
I first traveled to Vienna to visit my sister (she had moved there for an Austrian boyfriend), and at first glance I found a city that not only lived up to all I had read about it but possessed an air of familiarity, thanks to its abundance of iconic imagery (what college student has not decorated a dorm room with Klimt’s The Kiss at some point?). The longer I stayed, however, the more enigmatic the city seemed to me, and somehow I sensed that the “real” Vienna lay behind those 19th-century façades, and that learning to navigate its streets would require a vocabulary that went beyond Sachertorte, Strauss and Schiele.
On my second visit, my sister was engaged in a fierce love-hate relationship with her adopted city, having experienced some of its most inimitable qualities firsthand. She described an old-world formality that informed her professional life, where proper etiquette and titles mattered immensely (it is not uncommon to hear a person’s name prefaced by a list of their academic degrees, which are also printed on business cards). She spoke about the famous Viennese moodiness—the local term for it is Grantler, disgruntled—that can transform into tremendous charm in the course of a conversation. She also knew all the gossip: why the Sacher hotel and patisserie Demel went to court (over who invented the cake’s recipe), why several of the cultural institutions that make up the MuseumsQuartier do not get along (some of them have state-appointed directors), and why locals no longer set foot in the Café Central (the owners renovated the venerable café). In short, she gave me a behind-the-scenes look that was more complete, and certainly more complex, than my initial impression.
At the time of my most recent trip, last December, my sister and her boyfriend had moved to New York, but her suggestions and advice were very much part of my journey. Most of all I took to heart her belief that no matter how long you live in Vienna or how many times you visit, the city—and its beauty, whether in the historic structures of the Hofburg, the stately halls of the Albertina or the cobblestone streets around the Stephansdom startling, overwhelming and completely unique.
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