Austria #6 – Vienna & Salzburg between Budapest & Munich – August 2015

Austria #6 – Vienna & Salzburg between Budapest & Munich – August 2015

Dr. John Flynn

At Keleti station in Budapest, in an August heatwave in 2015, the machines wouldn’t give international tickets and the office was slow chaos, with backpackers getting the most awkward tickets possible and people farther back in the queue having to hold open the heavy door that led into the tight space with the hatches. With the low chairs at those hatches, it was like a small dole office. A fair-haired North American chap with dreadlocks eventually came away from one of them to relay the news to his two female dreadlocked companions – also white – that they would have to make five changes, wherever the f*ck they were going. The set-up might have done with a few of the goose-stepping Hungarian soldiers we’d seen up on the Vár the day before.

A guy in front of me watching them wore a t-shirt advertising Iron Maiden and The Trooper. He must have…

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Austria #5 – Salzburg, Innsbruck, the Munich triangle

Austria #5 – Salzburg, Innsbruck, the Munich triangle

Dr. John Flynn


The easiest way to get from Ireland to western Austria is via Munich but at Dublin airport in February 2015 the flight was overbooked until three people took an Aer Lingus bribe to stay behind: €250 plus a free hotel night. I didn’t try to sleep on the plane because I had to eat something i.e. two sandwiches. The Munich airport train seemed to take an age before reaching Marienplatz. The Neues Rathaus looked great in the fog but there was a hint of snow too. It was the most Gothic-looking thing I’d seen.

At the Stachus hotel the room was fine, it had a heated floor. I had a shower and went down to the Augustinerbräu for a couple of steins and a bowl of soup. From there I sought out the Hofbräuhaus but at midnight it was closing. The odd fleck of snow landed on my lips…

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Vienna, October 2013, Austria #3

Vienna, October 2013, Austria #3

Dr. John Flynn

Vienna Riesenrad Oct 2013

In October 2013, once aboard the plane to Vienna, I would have fallen asleep right away but for having to stay awake to order the breakfast. Awake all night with an upset stomach and then a long drive to the airport, I got less than an hour after that. At the Schweizerhof I had a shower and then slept for another three. Then it was time to head off, a bit like a zombie. That changed at Harry Lime’s doorway, by the smooth, sloping cobbles of Schreyvogelgasse. There was still daylight but lights shone from scattered windows. They reflected in others. Evening traffic hummed and rumbled on the nearby Ringstrasse, beyond which the university rose in the dusk.

Under the pale, yellowy pillars and ceiling arches, the Café Central was a temple for reflection on some of the characters – Freud, Hitler, Lenin, Trotsky, Tito – who had taken a…

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Austria, a notebook #1

Austria, a notebook #1

Dr. John Flynn

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…

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Robert Musil’s Diaries

Robert Musil (1880-1942) is best known for Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (‘The Man Without Qualities’), an unending, unfinished novel, of which the first volume appeared in 1930. I tried to read it once but found it too essayistic – Musil’s diaries concede that – and boring and thus gave up. The first funny thing I came across in the diaries was the farcical account of the seduction of a seventeen-year-old pal of his. I named the story The Cougar of Brno. Musil’s early years were strange, to put it mildly. The sleeping rule (hands outside the covers), the presence of ‘Uncle’ Heinrich in the house and Musil’s deal with Herma Dietz are just three of the oddities.


Musil was small but combative and from early on he exhibited the small-man syndrome. Herma was a servant girl who looked after Musil’s grandmother but was let go after the old woman died. Musil, then a student in Berlin, offered her a place to live on condition she became his ‘mistress’. His flat description of her reaction (“She doesn’t say yes nor no nor thank you”) seems repulsive to modern eyes. He later gave her syphilis, she had a miscarriage and she died in 1907. Soon afterwards he married a widow (Martha) seven years his senior and they stayed together until his death from a stroke in Switzerland in 1942.

Reading Musil’s account of his ill friend Alice’s crazy adventure (1910) that ended with her being locked up in Venice, I made a note at the end. This is mental, in more ways than one. It appears in a context where he expresses an interest in sodomy and incest. Raised an only child, he was long obsessed with a sister who had died before he was born. Musil was a bit of a perv (prurient) and only occasional passages are worth reading until the seventh notebook (1913). The translator says Musil was “at the height of his receptive powers” then but he probably means most observant, with less navel-gazing.

Musil is quite morbid too. A brief passage about dying consumptives in Rome exemplifies how morbid, while his description of a tour of a mental asylum there reads like a thriller. In that light, Musil’s wartime notebooks are also well worth reading. He was an officer on the Italian front before his transfer to a desk job in propaganda. There are touches of everything from The Good Soldier Švejk to Apocalypse Now. In the Thirties he’s again very interesting, this time on the Nazi takeover, which happened while he lived in Berlin. Usually, otherwise, these are not really diaries at all, more often just notebook ráiméis, to use the Irish language word for rambling nonsense. There’s not a huge amount of comedy and not much observation outside of key historical and personal moments.

Der Herr Karl

Der Herr Karl

On 15 November 1961 Austrian television broadcast an hour-long dramatic monologue set in the basement store room of a Viennese delicatessen. Therein a middle-aged character called Karl talked to an unseen younger colleague while intermittently replying to the voice of his female boss upstairs and helping himself to samples of the stock. The public response to the play was uproar but the hour had made the performer – Helmut Qualtinger – immortal.

Der Herr Karl was no invention from scratch. Another actor, Nikolaus Haenel, had worked in such a deli and with such a character just after the war. The establishment stood on the corner of Führichgasse and Tegetthofstrasse and the chap was called Max, though Haenel forgot his surname. Nevertheless he later drew a picture of a bespectacled and rather thin-faced figure, aged about fifty, with a moustache a little wider than Hitler’s. While going through the motions at work, stocking shelves and mopping the floor, this Man of the Crowd had told Haenel his life story.

Years later, Haenel became aware that Qualtinger was in search of a character with a Nazi past so he approached him with the idea of Max. Though Qualtinger was still in his early thirties and much heavier than the original, he was intrigued and the pair met in a restaurant over three or four days, wherein Haenel told him all he remembered and Qualtinger took copious notes, which he later turned into a script with his writing partner, Carl Merz.

Married three times, their Herr Karl seems amiable at first but bit by bit, in a mixture of Viennese dialect (what he really thinks) and imperfect standard German (for what he thinks his audience wants to hear), he reveals himself to be a Mitläufer (a camp follower) and opportunist who rode each wave as it came.

Until 1934 he was a socialist but it didn’t pay. He demonstrated for rent-a-crowd right-wing groups because there was a bit of money going (fünf Schilling). Karl then vividly describes the arrival of Hitler in Vienna, the rapture of the multitude on the Ring and Heldenplatz and the police all wearing swastika armbands. To Karl the intoxicating atmosphere felt like the buzz of a wine tavern. Qualtinger’s impression of the blue-eyed Führer passing close to where Karl stood and simply grunting Jaja! at him is blackly comic. Da hab i alles g’wusst, wir haben uns verstanden (‘Then I knew everything, we understood each other’).

A Jewish neighbour in his apartment block – sonst a netter Mensch (‘otherwise a nice guy’) is forced to wash the pavements. Karl describes the block’s Hausmeister laughing at this, though, as a Nazi party member, it is Karl himself who supervises the cleaning. When the neighbour (somehow) returns after the war, Karl raises his hat and greets him in a simpering fashion but the neighbour won’t even look at him. This hurts Karl’s feelings. He argues that someone had to clean the pavement. I war ein Opfer. Andere san reich worden, i war a Idealist (‘I was a victim. Others got rich, I was an idealist’).

When the Russians came, people rushed to throw their Hitler portraits on the nearest dung heap but Karl kept his on the wall and deliberately encouraged some Russian soldiers into his apartment. They tore down the picture excitedly and trampled on it but then, satisfied with this gesture, they left him alone. Karl subsequently got the chance to suck up to the Americans, whom, he notes, had good food. Wangling a job as a civilian guard, he had ample opportunity to chase away hungry compatriots now that he was a self-styled defender of the West.

An excellent introduction to Qualtinger and Der Herr Karl is available in Georg Markus’ Wenn man trotzdem lacht – Geschichten und Geschichte des österreichischen Humors (2012), which has Quasi, as he was known, as the main figure on the cover.


Both a history and compendium of Austrian humour, this book begins with a chapter on Wiener Schmäh, which Markus links to Vienna’s ethnic mix and then defines as including melancholy, sarcasm and a little malice. Nevertheless, in the very first paragraph the author makes a rather dubious claim. Das Lachen ist hierzulande von geradezu existenzieller Bedeutung und die Heiterkeit mit der anderer Völker nicht vergleichbar (‘Laughter is, in this sense, of an almost existential importance and the amusement is not comparable with that of other peoples’).

The Begrudger’s Guide to Irish Politics (1986) is a book by Breandán Ó hEithir (1930-90) that traces the political evolution – even thirty years on from publication, development may still be too strong a word – of the Irish state and its adjoining northern statelet over sixty years, from the early 1920s to the mid-1980s. The writer defines the begrudger of the title as the most common type of Irish character. Such a person is usually cynical, snide and hungry for the next unflattering story about an official role model or public event that won’t bore anyone else in the retelling.

Image Ref. No. 0161/085

Ó hEithir describes most Irish people as really time-serving sycophants but, to be fair, the begrudger is often justifiably cynical, as the author also points out. One may easily be short of a job, a house, regular sex, drink (rarely) or food in Ireland: one is rarely short of a bitter belly laugh.

The book begins with an anecdote from the morning after the signing of the Treaty (1921) that partitioned the island and created the Irish Free State. A passing priest asks a blacksmith why he looks so glum.

It was the gentry that kept me going and what’s left of them will leave the country now. I’m ruined.

The priest assures him that freedom will mean the Irish will have their own gentry but this only causes the blacksmith to mutter darkly in his wake.

Our own gentry!? We will in our arse have our own gentry.

The blacksmith was right. Instead, we got opportunists, the post-colonial class whose innermost vocation Frantz Fanon saw as remaining part of the racket. The success of the Irish in America magnifies the awareness – learnt from the Brits – that electoral politics is the safest form of organised crime, where privileged access to the trough of opportunity is tolerated thanks to successful patronage. Incidentally, charity-sector fiddling has emerged in recent years as a type of scam at which the Irish in-crowd have proved themselves world-class.

In a nation of embezzlers, though, this phenomenon of camp-following and opportunism isn’t just restricted to politics and those with political connections. To give a simple example, there was a party for the elderly in one rural parish at Christmas in 1999, the year the Irish prime minister had issued a national apology in the wake of the States of Fear TV series, which had documented our children’s gulag. Just imagine, the number of children in institutional ‘care’ in the Irish state between the 1930s and 1970s had been, in absolute terms, greater than that in Britain, while our population had been little more than 5% of that across the water.

Of course it became fashionable and convenient to blame the Church alone for such horrors but what of the society that gave the Church such power? In 2017 the latest such scandal is that of the mother-and-baby homes, those institutions where unwed mothers were put and where their babies – if they didn’t die and get thrown into unmarked graves – were often secretly sold for adoption. These places were never secret, the people knew the score, that’s how things were done. 2017 is also the year that Brunhilde Pomsel died. She was Goebbels’ secretary and lived to be 106.

‘The people who today say they would have done more for those poor, persecuted Jews… I really believe that they sincerely mean it,’ she said in interviews for A German Life. ‘But they wouldn’t have done it either.’

On a lighter note, the Christmas party committee had asked a relative of mine to help out at the event. The members had already gathered a lot of good food and drink in the form of donations. At the party in the parish hall, a retired nurse advised that some hot whiskey punch would be the best drink for the old people in the winter but that suggestion was shot down. Instead, the committee gave them sherry. They had plenty of sherry. Soon there was a crash. An old lady had keeled over. After that the guests only got tea and sandwiches. The wine, the chocolates, the brandy and whiskey bottles and the beautiful cakes remained untouched. Soon the old people were packed off on a bus.

What happened to the goodies? The cars reversed in, loaded up and drove away. “Never again,” said my relative. What happened to Max? According to Markus, all is known is that he got fired from the delicatessen after he was caught trying to take home some bottles of vermouth in a small case.

quasi 1

Vienna, March 2017 (Austria #13)

Vienna, March 2017 (Austria #13)

4th March, Saturday

It was a rainy night on the way to Dublin in JP’s van. We met PT at the airport. In Vienna the sun was shining, though the wind and dust picked up as the day went on. After the Museumsquartier courtyard offered nothing of interest, we couldn’t get seats inside or outside the packed Palmenhaus so we dined instead at the Führich behind the Albertina. The Zwiebelrostbraten I had was a good lunch choice, in keeping with the waiter’s initial comment. Gute Wahl. Then the walking tour began.


We had to queue with the nations of the earth to get into the Café Central but the pit stop was met with approval before we found we couldn’t get up the steps below Ruprechtskirche. It’s a Baustelle, as the side of a building is being torn down. An empty, silent digger showed that work had been abandoned for the day. I just snapped PT zipping up after leaking in a nook therein. He got the idea from an Arab who seemed to appear out of nowhere or out of a brick wall. Thereafter we got to Ruprechtskirche via Rabensteig before heading down Fleischmarkt and cutting back to the cathedral via the large Jesuit church on Seipel Platz. Back at the Hotel Admiral, JP and I needed some sleep so it was two hours later before all three of us went to Charlie P’s on Währingerstrasse.


PT left by half past eleven but JP and I didn’t get back to the hotel until three in the morning, after a stop at a Würstelstand. The only nuisance had been a drunk young local lad tapping me with his elbow for an extended period in the pub. He was reeling at the counter so I only complained once. Bitte, bitte, Ellenbogen. Bitte!

5th March, Sunday

JP and I didn’t leave the hotel until two this afternoon. I’d made it down to breakfast after nine – in boots with no socks – just so I’d sleep on better with something in my stomach. I even brought a Semmel with ham and cheese back to the room and ate that at noon to enhance the effect.

PT was gone early and I put my phone on silent to minimise the impact of any texts. I’d already denied his request to come a-knocking, all for the cause of sleep. He probably got the same answer from JP. We caught up with him in Café Griensteidl where we had lunch (Fiakergulasch – I’ve eaten well). Then I brought them past the 1516 bar on the way out to the Oberes Belvedere.



The gallery has a “selfie copy” of Klimt’s The Kiss. It stands in a room overlooking the bare garden that slopes away, all the way back down to the lower palace. The original hangs in comparative darkness in the next room.


PT and I went in. JP went back down the hill to 1516, where we rejoined him after five. My favourite painting had been the sunny Der Naschmarkt in Wien (1894) by Carl Moll.

naschmarkt moll

JP was “happy out” in the pub. I left them there around six. I had to get some money and freshen up at the hotel. A young Arab woman in a headscarf got some from an ATM on Kärtner Strasse and then just stood there yakking on her phone while the screen showed ads in anticipation of the next customer. Rolling my eyes at the gentleman behind me, I had to issue another Bitte or two, over her shoulder, before she moved away without even turning her head.

Back in 1516 by nine. PT didn’t stay out too long tonight either. Not for the first time JP mentioned that the early morning flight is just a bit too much. Oh we’ve managed well but it is a physical test, basically losing a night’s sleep to get here from Dublin. There were at least two Hungarian girls among the waitresses. JP was absent for the moment the dark little one smiled and did a vertical high kick at the nearby service end of the counter (“So fast nobody saw it,” she giggled). When I asked her in Hungarian if she was bored, she got back to work. The tall, curvy one had simply said Igen when confirming where she was from. Hungarians don’t expect foreigners to have a clue about their language. The barman was Irish, from Galway. There six years, he’s about to get married.

We ended up in Flanagan’s (a stone’s throw away) because JP was looking for a charger for his phone. He liked that place too. It was quiet, unsurprisingly, on a Sunday night. A lad with his back to me had a black and white baseball cap and for a minute or two I thought he was a Jew. The top of the cap was white and the black blended in with his dark hair. The optical illusion of a skull cap struck JP too, when I told him to take a look. We talked a bit to a barman from Coolock, in Dublin. He’s been in Vienna twelve years. Married a Croat.

My two companions seem to have been very impressed here – “a real melting pot” (JP) – but, as I said to them, I’m not doing the 07.10 again. Certainly not just after driving 200 km from the south coast. JP likened the effect to jet lag. From past experience I know I won’t know the impact of this trip until the aftermath but I did all I could in a couple of days. I’ll know how good it was when I recover from it.