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Letter from Vienna (2004): Turn your head left and right - or was it the other way round?
England fascinates me. Each time I fly over to meet my Englishman, my heart beats fast, not only because of the promising anticipation of seeing him soon, but at the same time, I just love to be back in England. So many memories since I came for the first time when I was twelve! Even with blindfolded eyes and my ears plugged with wax like Odysseus, I would recognize immediately where I am. As soon as my nostrils take in a deep breath of the London Tube’s special scent – thanks to iron particles in the air - or of the ambiance which envelopes me when entering a butcher’s shop, this very different from the olfactorial sensations at an Austrian butcher’s.
Dreamily I would lumber out into the street without looking right or left and would be run over at once. But even when I’m street-smart enough to turn my head, I never get the direction right. I try to memorize: traffic runs left-handed which means that the cars will come from my right side, which means that I should turn my head first to the right and then to the left. For this analysis I need about 30 seconds in front of every road to cross, especially when suffering from the leaden effect of overfatigue, tremendous joy, boiling excitement or mundane talking. More than once, only a quick grab of my coattail by a merciful fellow human has saved my life. A clever bloke (no, Honey, this time I’m not mentioning you!) has told me the reason for England’s left-hand traffic: most people’s right eye’s sight is better than their left. Sounds smashing indeed! But difficult to understand that Great Britain shares this special nature with Lesotho, Brunei, Cyprus and Fiji – to mention just a few – while Scottish, French, Italian, Norwegian, German and even Austrian eyes seem to work quite conversely. Okay, okay, I should no longer insist on this sensitive topic.
Without such help it’s recommended to proceed to a pedestrian signal. Especially in England, it pays to do so, since the lights change almost immediately after your pressing the button. Surprisingly, in Austria, you have to wait much longer. In fact, people tend to ignore the signal after having stood there ineffectually for about 45 seconds. Fifty per cent of pedestrians who were interviewed after crossing the street against the rules explained that they didn’t want to wait any longer. The speedy reaction of traffic lights in England is less due to cultural differences, as English patriots might expect, but rather due to a different philosophy towards delays to motorists.
Yours truly is a very impatient person who does not want to spend time waiting anywhere until I’m allowed to cross. However, there is one occasion when it’s absolutely worth waiting on the street; when a Viennese "Fiaker" passes by. These horse-drawn black or white carriages are loved by the Viennese and very popular with tourists. The first use them as a romantic wedding-vehicle, the second as a leisurely way of sightseeing. Both the coaches and their coachmen are called, “Fiaker” – a name adopted from the Church of St. Fiacre in Paris, where these coaches originally lined up waiting for customers.
Since my partner is especially interested in technical constructions, he often hunts Fiakers to get a glance at their individual model of green or black pooh-bags. Though there are no more than approximately 100 Fiakers left, the horses’ droppings have been a great annoyance to Vienna’s authorities. So much so that the city introduced regulations that force the horses to wear nappies or so-called “pooh bags.” Although the drivers were furious, they eventually had to give in after long lasting and fierce rows with the pencil pushers. Drivers who refuse to comply with the regulations could face a fine of up to 3,500 Euros.
“It’s degrading for such a noble animal,” was the coachmen’s argument. They are, of course, enormously proud of their horses and even have their own song (so called, “Wiener Fiakerlied”) which became Vienna’s secret hymn. There are very few Austrian ex-pats who do not get teary-eyed when this tune is in the air. In fact, it was written around 100 years ago by a Jewish immigrant, but became transformed and ennobled by some popular Viennese actors. Colourfully, it describes the coachman’s life with his horses, imitates their hoofbeat, includes the tongue’s clicks to command the animals and closes – as every old Viennese song does – with some bittersweet reference to the hour of death.
After a romantic weekend in Vienna, another tearful parting is due. Fortunately, the airport (Wien-Schwechat) is very close to the center of the city – only 20 minutes by bus or train at a low fare. There is a second airport appropriate for flights into and out of Vienna – Bratislava Airport, in nearby Slovakia. It is a bit further away, but at 1.5 hours’ distance, it is still less than the range my Englishman has to cover from Heathrow or Stansted to his semi-detached castle north of London. Blessedly, for a long-distance-relationship, our shuttle buses are so reliable that none of us has to consider taking out (British) insurance on Viennese public-transport-caused missing air flights.
Writing these lines, I realise that I have never asked “me-boy” which way he turns his head when he is physically back on his island, but his mind has still to follow.
P.S. If you are not in a hurry you can even hire a Fiaker to deliver you to Vienna airport, but this extravaganza would cost you two hours and more than 500 Euros.