Austrians tend to make their lives easier, so first of all they are very polite and second they don’t mean it… The difference between Austrians and Germans is very much like Irish and English.
– Christoph Waltz
In Michael Frayn’s Travels with a Typewriter, a collection of articles from the 1960s and 1970s, the penultimate piece finds him in Vienna in 1975. His acquaintance there with a mathematics student from Berlin “outraged by all this charm” makes him consider “these two German worlds” but the effort to reconcile them in his head proves disconcerting. Frayn is, after all, English, and the irony of Austria can be rather more spiritually familiar to an Irish person. That’s if it even bears thinking about.
On the subject of the unwillingness of the Irish to step beyond the English-speaking world, economically or culturally, it is true that most of them would rather go to the end of the world, say to some wasteland in Australia, even though Paris, for example, is just an hour from Cork. Then again, most cannot even be bothered with their own language.
On another, related matter, Frayn also discusses the word Schlamperei (‘messiness’), which he often overheard in Vienna but which, in Austria, he observes, could only be in its infancy in comparison with Britain. Well, that’s something the English and Irish can and do share. Austria is clean.
In June 2008, Vienna meant, as it still does, a very early flight from Dublin and those with pretensions about travel may sneer at Irish pubs abroad but these are more often than not the places where the locals like to go, where there is life. As it happens, at this place, which tends to attract a few too many ex-pats, I had to listen to an irritating female voice from Cork at another table. Once she got on the phone, she claimed she was leaving. She had been competing with the waa-waa of an English guy at the table between us but he’d gone and now she was crystal clear at a high frequency. My shoulders were tired and sore at half past four, sitting outside Flanagan’s on a corner on Schwarzenbergstrasse. I’d taken the first sip of a bottle of Edelweiss dunkel while waiting for some food.
Despite two hours in bed at the hotel, the Schweizerhof, where toilet-wise you wouldn’t want to be an XL tourist, wedged in the jacks, I still wondered would I stay there, go inside and watch the first game, between Germany and Croatia. Austria and Poland were playing later. I’ll go in. There’s no sign of this Cork one going away.
I felt a bit better after I went inside and sat at the bar counter. There I got talking to two Austrian chaps after their team snatched a draw with a very late penalty. Austria had been like Brazil in the first half but just couldn’t put the ball in the Polish net. They asked if I spoke any German. It was rusty then. I know the words to Rock Me Amadeus. They said Falco was a hero, in death. He’d undergone a posthumous resurgence in popularity at home, as the things he’d said had come to make more sense.
We exchanged email addresses but it didn’t mean anything. After twenty-four hours I was leaving a cold, windy Vienna for a hot, dusty Budapest. The train was packed when it got in from Munich but passengers were sparse now. I’d be fine only for two guys chattering across the aisle. I think they’re Turks. But now one, the real talker, has produced a laptop so that should quieten him. There were no animals to be seen in the Austrian countryside. I’d first noticed that when the plane made its descent over countless villages in close proximity to each other. There were very few isolated homesteads. I knew most of the country was hills and mountains but all I passed through on the train was flat.
By then I’d known very few Austrians. There was an ex-work colleague from Linz and an Irish friend had an Austrian mother unfortunate enough to have been in the Russian zone in Vienna. Her brother in the Wehrmacht, aged fourteen, was part of a mass surrender when surrounded in Czechoslovakia. The sister eventually got out, to Ireland, the brother to Cuba, which he left just ahead of Castro. He resumed his mysterious business activities in Ecuador. A man in a white suit.
Then there were the Mitterers, whom I’d met in East Cork a few times at Ballinterry House, once the home of American actor Hurd Hatfield (1917-98), who remains best-known for The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945).
The old house in the trees had been up for sale, along with its contents, the year before. He had left the lot to Maggie Williams, whose advancing years told her to cash in and go back to Connecticut. Anna Mitterer arrived at the house with her writer father, Felix, the dropping of whose name would later make an impression on the two chaps in Flanagan’s. “You know Felix Mitterer?” “I met him in Ireland.” Anyhow, the Mitterers wanted to take photos of the interior at Ballinterry, some of which dated from 1725, and Anna hoped to bid for a picture of the actor’s mother at the impending auction. The Mitterers had lived in nearby Castlelyons since 1995.
There was a torrent of talk out of Anna on the arts, once that proved the domain of the conversation, but first they told me that aristocratic titles had been banned in Austria since 1918, so Austrians compensated for this deprivation with excessive use of academic ones. Some people even used a different calling card (e.g. one that used “von” in the name) when dealing with Germany, where such elaboration remained legal. Nonetheless the Austrian republic remained very bureaucratic, as in the imperial times.
Later in the conversation she was only interrupted when her father gently said he had to go and write. “It’s great that you know Švejk” were her last words to me. The Eighties TV Švejk, Fritz Muliar, then eighty-seven, was still collaborating with her father. I’d managed to ask Felix about a few writers from their neck of the woods but, when Maggie asked her about the view of Bush over there, Anna mentioned Israel attracting hostility, like it was a bad thing. Her boyfriend had spoken the same way, the first time I’d met her there, three years earlier.
Is it the competitive air of an auction that makes people seem cold and unhelpful? A bad morning meant I didn’t get there until noon. I sat near Maggie at the front in the marquee. A money spider kept landing on me but I was only near money. There were 512 lots and after 150 of them the value of the bids had passed €80,000, at which point I went out to a van to get tea and sandwiches. She must have made a quarter of a million by the finish, after seven hours of gavel-banging. With a hundred lots to go I went into the house to get her cases together and load them into her car. Anna helped with a few boxes. She’d bought a few things and she also told me “Piefke” – the Austrian nickname for Germans – was originally a Prussian bandmaster who arrived in Vienna around 1900. She was rather sweet, rather bright. I wouldn’t have guessed that when she’d been tight-lipped on our first meeting.
While Maggie was pulling out things for packing, I saw her holding some powdery substance on a sheet of paper and asked what it was. Her voice dropped as she explained (“It’s some of Hurd’s ashes that got spilt in the closet”) before she poured it into a bin in the corner. She said it had been a hard day watching the stuff go. The tent and the food van might have implied all the fun of the fair but the muck after the rain made it like the ploughing championship outside. A major evacuation of furniture was under way, even before dark. The Russians were coming.