On loving and leaving a city
I’m in the middle of relocating to another city. In two weeks, I will trade my apartment in Vienna, for another one in San Francisco. It’s not my first move nor the first one across countries, and it’s exhilarating to start a new life, if temporarily, in a different city.
Traveling to a new place is “like having a new lover”, writes New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy. “Even the parts you aren’t crazy about have the crackling fascination of the unfamiliar.”
But even though I am looking forward to a life in the Bay Area for the next five months, I will miss Vienna.
Vienna has been rated the most liveable city on earth for 8 (!) times in a row and yet, if you ask the Viennese, how they like their city, they shrug their shoulders and say: “It’s okay.”
I have been in love with this okay-ish city for 8 years now, with its grand and charming old buildings, with the Neubaugassen night flea markets, and endless boozy summer nights at the Museumsquartier. With long Saturday walks in the Prater, and equally long hours in coffeehouses, bars, and hole-in-the-wall restaurants.
For me, Vienna is my home, my most favorite city, my rebound from New York. It’s the place where you can light-heartedly smoke an entire package of cigarettes in a health restaurant; where you get approached by strangers in the cooler aisle at Billa, who want to talk about their sciatica, while you are busy fishing the last package of frozen salmon out of the shelf. Vienna is the city where you can meet the love of your life at a Würstelstand and a one-night stand at the opera.
And how can you not be entirely smitten by the Viennese coffee house tradition, their morbid jokes, and their passionate complaints when a public holiday falls on a weekend? (“May first? A Saturday!?!?”)
Cities have what we all want: everything
Compared to the countryside, cities have the abilities to be different things to different people. They are big enough to have it all: grand villas in the 19th district and drug dealers at Thalia Straße. Posh design stores at the Graben and second-hand-flea markets at Burgring 24. Mozart and the Flex, the Third Man and Schnitzel-to-go, Sissi and Gumpendorfer Straße, grumpy waiters and the opera, sugary Sachertorte and oily vegan Käsekrainer.
Like all cities of a certain size, Vienna has it all. It is both hip and old-fashioned, conservative and progressive, free-spirited and narrow-minded. It’s a place where weed-loving hippies and right-wing fraternities meet (not always lovingly) and where cobblestone streets and graffitis have brunch with each other.
Many things in my life I planned down to the excruciating detail: going to college, getting a Ph.D., moving to New York, getting married. Living in Vienna permanently, however, was never part of the plan. In fact, I was planning to spent just three months in the Austrian capital until my visa for New York was approved. I had heard that Vienna was an “okay-ish” city to live in and figured it would be the perfect place to pass some time.
My story is a cliché, but here it goes: in the three months I was here, I not only fell in love with the Viennese cuisine but even more recklessly with my boyfriend, who is now my husband. I still went to New York for a year, and then another one, but in the end, I returned to stay with him, Elfriede Jelinek, Gustav Klimt, Wanda, the Café Hawelka and everything else that is Vienna.
Vienna was the place, where my entire adult life took place (New York was something else, a playground, a fantasy, a fling). Vienna, if so much slower and languidly, was where it all happened: graduate school, marriage, and my progression from early academic to entrepreneur.
As I was slowly turning into the person I am today, Vienna was growing up alongside me. From 1.6 million people in 2008 to 1.85 in 2017. And from 400.000 expats in 2008 to over 500.000 today. To these numbers, you can add the 3 million dead people who are resting on such fancy places as the Zentralfriedhof and probably just as many dogs, who are always in danger of being stepped on or loved to death by their owners.
No one here is eating low-carb and how can you?
When kids leave for college and gain a few pounds in their first year it is being referred to as the “First Year Five”. The same thing happens when you move to Vienna. The “Vienna Five” is caused by the delicious Mehlspeisen, Knödel, Schnitzel, and everything in between breakfast and dinner. Melanges are pimped with liquor, Krapfen are filled with generous portions of jam, and I’m not even counting the oil-dripping Schnitzel and Backhendl salads.
No one here is eating low-carb and how can you?
“If you eat just the crust of a bread it makes you less fat”, a woman from San Francisco once explained to me. “When it’s baked, the gluten breaks down differently, and the bread is not going to expand in your stomach.”
“Uhum”, I replied munching with pleasure on the soft inside of the bread. The part with the bad gluten.
It was delicious.
You are not living, if you’re not smoking
While the world, in general, has come to the conclusion that smoking is bad for you, in Vienna it is still considered to be incredibly sexy.
The motto goes: You are not living if you’re not smoking.
While you can’t smoke in cinemas or the opera, you still can enjoy a nicotine fix in many restaurants or cafés. People smoke while waiting for the Bim or train, while drinking their melange, while studying, dancing, driving, walking, riding a bike, talking on the phone. One time I saw a guy smoking while peeing in a dark corner of the street.
I say this is a non-smoker, who has always like the idea of smoking: Smoking is so much more than just a nicotine fix. It’s a three-minute break from being a functioning member of our society. Even though you are well aware that smoking causes all kinds of bad stuff, you are doing it, because you alone have the authority over your body. The government can print as many stickers and warnings on their cigarette boxes as they want: no one can tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. At least not in these three minutes of smoking.
So long, Vienna
Vienna in the summer is something else: it’s hot and miserable, cheery, intense and full of life. My favorite place in the summer is the Danube Canal, where you can stretch out on red deck chairs with a glass of Hugo or Aperol Spritzer and let the sun do the rest. Sometimes a small boat goes by, sometimes there is a food festival on the other side of the Canal. The most interesting thing, however, is always the people.
You see women in over-sized sunglasses, dads with toddlers, people on bikes and roller skates, old ladies pushing 80 and their walking frames. With the sun out everyone looks like they are living the life they want.
But even though Vienna is so charming and wonderful, leaving Vienna, seems like the wildest trip of all. Like the beginning of another story, tightly woven into and yet separate from the one that I have been living out in Vienna. Moving to San Francisco feels like cheating on a long-time spouse with a sexy West Coast lover. “Will it last?”, I wonder. And “Will we still love each other, when I come back?”
I imagine Vienna and me as an old married couple, holding onto each other forever and tightly, as we age. I can see myself, at 80, walking along Neubaugasse in search of the best brew of the day, or whatever the kids in 2064 will be drinking.
Even though I have spent almost a decade living in Vienna, I’m still mistaken for a German tourist from time to time. When strangers notice my accent, they ask:
“So, how long are you here on vacation?”
I look at them and smile.
“Forever”, I reply, entirely smitten by my union with my favorite city.
Not even the West Coast can change what we have.