January just changed into February, and this being 2014 means that I have now lived in Vienna for exactly three years. In the last week of January 2011 I took a train across the Brenner Pass and through the long landmass of Austria towards the city that I was ready to settle in and call my home for the foreseeable future. Before then, I had spent the previous year and a half in Northern Italy. Before that (interspersed with periods at home in Ireland) I had lived for half a year in Barcelona, 18 months in The Netherlands, 9 months in Taiwan, and over a year in London. When I was in my early 20s I had made a challenge to myself to live in as many different countries as possible, to always keep moving onto the next new experience. Yet by the age of 27, I was worn out with all the moving, tired of not being able to consider anywhere a home, and ready to dedicate a considerable amount of time to really get to know a city, rather than just passing through.
When I saw an advert for the chance to complete a PhD in Vienna, I didn’t really have to think much about it. I had been to Vienna twice before, once in 1998 on a school trip, and once again InterRailing in 2005. On that trip in 2005, I had promised myself that at some point in my life, I would come back and live here. I had learned German in school so the language barrier was not an issue, it was a medium size city so would not be very stressful, and crucially for anyone on an academic scholarship: the price level was reasonable. So I applied for the position, got it immediately, and moved here in the last week of January 2011. That I have been here for three years means that it is as close to a home as I have had in my adult life, and many of you who have hit the three year mark in a relationship will know that it is a very good time to take a step back and evaluate the whole goddamn thing.
I think it’s fair to say, uncontroversially, that Vienna is beautiful. Vienna is beautiful, and clean. Vienna is so beautiful and clean that when I go to another city, I always think it’s dirty and ugly. I went to Berlin last year and couldn’t get over how dirty the city was. Same with Palermo, and Dublin, and Frankfurt, and (I would mention Sofia here, but I would get into trouble). Vienna ruins you for other cities, as the city centre is just immaculate: The buildings so grandiose, the scale so imposing. Vienna is not an important city, yet what the city centre screams at us is that, by god, once it was the centre of an empire that thought it could rule the world. It’s impossible to live here without learning the history of wherever you are. Vienna in the early 20th Century was a world city, seat of the Hapsburg Empire and home to the scientists, philosophers, psychiatrists and political deviants that would go on to create the world in which we now live. In the city centre, every cafe has an association with famous figures, and more is learnt throughout a stay in the city. Only last week I learnt that the modern shape of football teams was devised through ongoing post-match post-mortems in the various Kaffeehausen around town. History and mystery seep through the entire city, from the fin-de-siecle Golden Age, to the Cold War spy-rings and even the present day international incidents that occur as a result of Vienna being one of the major headquarters for the United Nations.
As mentioned above, Vienna is also clean, very clean. This is just a facet of the exemplary public infrastructure that exists in this city. After three years here, if I have to wait seven minutes for an U-Bahn, I am enraged about the delay. Vienna Works: it should be their slogan. The Viennese authorities know how to organise things. The local Viennese complain all the time about the city government, yet anyone who has lived anywhere else knows that as far as city service goes, this is heaven on earth. The entire city is served by dedicated bike lanes, and the city will even tune up your bike for free at the beginning of spring. There are free CityBikes available if you don’t have one. They also organise countless free concerts and festivals throughout the year (they are all shite but even a cynic must admire the attempt). As well as that, the pursuit of individual freedom is actively encouraged. On the Danube river, there is an entire island of reclaimed land dedicated to the pursuit of leisure, the Donauinsel. It is mostly populated by fat naked men, but if they didn’t have that then they would be wandering around the centre of town, disrupting the tourist trade. Better out of town, than in. On the Danube Canal (within the city centre), graffiti artists are actively encouraged to redecorate the empty spaces on a regular basis. If you have a dog, you can bring it with you into a restaurant and have it sneeze on other peoples food. You are actively encouraged to smoke wherever you are: non-smokers are the downtrodden majority. Compared to other European countries, there is hardly any tax on alcohol, meaning it is very cheap to drink yourself to an early grave. Early on in my time here, the image of the suited businessman on his way to work at 8.30am drinking a can of beer on the metro while reading the financial news struck me as a icon of Vienna’s commitment to the freedom of the individual. Vienna’s strengths in my opinion, are its history, its public services, and its commitment to allowing you the freedom to kill yourself in whatever way you wish.
The main negative thing that I could say about all this is that it’s very boring. Expecting things to work and observing that they work perfectly fine, time after time, does not bring much excitement. If a train is late in Ireland or Italy there is a story to tell for at least a week, leading to curses against the government and bitter recollection of the incident come election time. The unpredictability of life has been thrown out the window, leaving dulled senses and a yearning for disappointment, just to feel something. This dull monotony of Viennese life is punctuated by the authoritarian opening hours maintained by shops around town. If you need something from the supermarket after 19:30, you are in trouble. You are in trouble because you obviously do not have a valid structure to your life in that you do not have all your possible business transactions completed before dinnertime. Your life is a mess, and you are greeted by doors that do not open, to an empty shop with the lights turned off, which is of course a metaphor for your whole disorganised existence. The only actual excitement in Vienna comes from the weather, which varies more than any other place I have lived. In February 2012, the temperature dipped to -20 degrees, while the following August we endured 40 degrees. This is a 60 degree swing, which I find ridiculous since I come from a country that fluctuates from 0-20 degrees throughout the year. The unpredictability however is tempered by the fact that we know there will be a week in February where the cold swing occurs, and the heatwave will be in August. Both of these weeks are horrible, and make every resident of Vienna question their life choices to that point.
There are many other things I could say about Vienna’s faults, failings and overarching triumphs, but such a rant was not conducive to the limits of a single blog entry of less than 1500 words. The structure of this post was that the main strengths of Vienna as a home were also responsible for its weaknesses. The simple truth is that Vienna is a very easy city to live in, but it is a city that nobody loves. There will never be a Wien, Ich Liebe Dich where a variety of famous residents tell their stories about what they love about Vienna, in the style of Paris, Je T’aime and New York, I Love You or even the forthcoming Rio, I Love You. Vienna just is not that type of city. It is a place where people live and go about their business, largely ignoring those around them. Apart from the City itself, which is obligated to provide every public service imaginable, at an impeccable standard. The fundamental point would be that Vienna is a very easy place to live, and therefore would be a very difficult place to leave.