Vienna, March 2017

Vienna, March 2017

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Graz, June 2016

Graz, June 2016

2016

17th June, Friday

On the Schlossberg in Graz: I’m having a beer before noon and catching up. When I pulled into Malahide on Wednesday evening the sun was shining and Fiction Factory came on the radio (Feels Like Heaven). In south Kilkenny I’d pulled over on the motorway and put on the hazard lights due to a bout of very heavy rain. Though the sun is shining here too, the wind is loud in the beer garden trees. I reckoned I’d spend half the day up here, given that I did the steps. Even then, the Glockenturm (bell tower) is another decent climb from the Uhrturm (clock tower).

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The airport in Bratislava was overcast after the cheap Ryanair flight from Dublin and I had to wait half an hour for a two-hour coach trip to Wien Hauptbahnhof. We passed through Hainburg and the sun was shining in Vienna. After a quick burger I was on a train to Graz for another two and a half hours. It emptied out at Wiener Neustadt. A nearby blonde who was standing until then took my fancy. Neck-length hair, rimless glasses, aged about thirty, she got up and passed to the toilet before journey’s end and it was then I saw she too was well built. This is Austria.

The Hotel Strasser is near the station, which will be handy for getting out of here, twice. Given that I’ve come so far, I will go to Klagenfurt too. At reception a young girl with glasses mentioned schlafen and Dusche after I described my long journey but I left sleeping for later. Even after a shower there was no spring in my step, though, heading into town. I had a drink and something to eat in Flann O’Brien’s; something of a barn of a place with multiple seating areas. Then I tried Molly Malone’s. It was long and dark but it didn’t do much for me either. Thankfully neither place was full of smoke.

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I headed back to the hotel before midnight. The room is small and the bed is narrow – it’s a box room – but I’m on the side away from the Gürtel. In Klagenfurt I’m going to visit the Robert Musil museum. Then I’ll get something for lunch. Then I’ll watch the Ireland match. Later I’ll come back to Graz.

6pm Molly Malone’s: once I got down from the Schlossberg I thought I should go into one or two churches but the cathedral was closed. I could hear organ music. I’d mistakenly gone into the Mausoleum beside it, first. A bored blonde on the desk sighed impatiently at my harmless error. This bitch was singularly lacking in Austrian charm.

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I did see the stained glass crucifixion containing Hitler and Mussolini in the Stadtpfarrkirche.  Then I ended up just walking around rather aimlessly e.g. failing to find a particular independent bookshop off Lendplatz but passing two Laufhäuser while doing so. For a sunny day my neck was cold. Maybe I shouldn’t have left the window open last night.

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I’m back in Molly’s with at least an hour. A retired couple sat down here at this table for a drink. Ines said the barman had told them I was Irish and had come from Bratislava. Ernst said his daughter had fallen in love with Icelandic horses in Clonmel. I explained the town was only half an hour away from where I lived. I think I’ll go back to the Dom to see if I can get in this time. Ernst wasn’t impressed by my intention to visit Klagenfurt. Ich gebe keinen Furz für Klagenfurt. That’s what I think he said.

19th June, Sunday

Sunday morning, Graz. I’ll be getting out of here soon. Yesterday morning two women came to the door and when I managed to open it a few inches I took the towels (“Tücher”) and they let me be. It had been four in the morning when I got back and I’d even stopped to take a couple of photos of dawn breaking over the Mur.

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There are no quays here, despite any such street names, as both banks of the river are thick with trees, in an unkempt way. There are no lamp posts either. The street lights hang from criss-crossing wires everywhere.

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After watching a folk dancing display on Hauptplatz, backed by an oompah band, I was the first into O’Carolan’s at seven. The barman was from Donegal. I introduced myself after a while. Though we shook hands, he merely gave his forename in return. Anyone who does that feels he has something to hide.

We talked about the recent Austrian presidential election, in which the cities and the people with degrees hadn’t voted for the fascist but the hammer and the sickle had. He said too many young locals thought Holocaust figures were exaggerated. The Croatian beer he recommended didn’t come in big bottles but I cleaned out the fridge. Many times that night I looked up at the clock but any thoughts of heading back to the hotel were just too boring. Hence I overdid it, majorly.

Yesterday afternoon I heard the first thunderous downpour at three. Later I forced myself downtown, down the long, sloping, unappealing Anner Strasse, in order to get something to eat and catch the second half of the Irish game. A 0-3 drubbing at the hands of the Belgians meant little. I was going back to the hotel, to bed. In the night I watched Austria and Portugal (0-0) in my room, only leaving it to get some food in the Spar in the train station before it closed.

I had a bad night. Between an air-lock pain in my upper chest and two sore arms and shoulders, I was persistently uncomfortable. Right now I’m on platform four. I’ll get out of Graz in three quarters of an hour. I’ve done Graz. I didn’t warm to it as much as the other places I’ve been, in this country. The plan to see Klagenfurt was abandoned after a couple of hours in the pub on Friday evening. Down there I would have gone to the Robert Musil museum. He was born there. His father was from Graz. If I can sleep on the train I may bounce back a little. My legs are sore too. That’s from all the climbing and walking on Friday. When I get home I’ll be in good nick again.

The Schlossberg is a genuine attraction in Graz and I’m glad I checked the city out but there is something in the tone of the passage in the Rough Guide, just before the reference to the UNESCO status of the centre, which itself is almost dutiful, that suggests the writer wasn’t impressed either.

20th June, Monday

I got home after seven, by which time my shoulders were rigid. Some deep heat and a pill did the trick. I started sweating. I got caught in a window draught the first night in Graz. Before bed I bought Musil’s diaries (in English, the only feasible option – the German version consists of 1,500 pages, with a separate large volume of footnotes). Thirteen euro did the trick on German Amazon.

21st June, Tuesday

That was the worst hangover I’ve had in years but the window draught that first night didn’t help either, not least when blowing onto a hard, narrow bed with a single pillow.

Vienna, New Year’s Eve, 2015

Vienna, New Year’s Eve, 2015

The Westbahn train from Linz was crowded but I easily found the hotel after getting the U-Bahn to Alser Strasse. Three young Italians were taking a long time to check in but, when these other guests around reception cleared off, I ended up talking to the man behind the counter, comparing the death tolls of the Irish and Ukrainian famines. He didn’t want to pin the latter on Stalin, just “die Moskau Regierung” (the Moscow government), and I wasn’t going to argue with him about the 1930s. Not on New Year’s Eve. He must have asked me something about Ireland for us to jump on to that topic but in fairness he was curious about Irish dancing as well. He imitated the arms held down by the dancers’ sides, a style I explained was ordained by our puritanical priesthood. Das war ein Befehl von den Priestern. Sonst, zu sexy.

Anyway, I dropped the bag in the room and set off to find Berggasse and Freud’s apartment, even though I presumed it would be closed. It wasn’t. It was packed. A mixed French group pushed the street door ahead of me. Upstairs a stubbly Frenchman with a woolly cap didn’t bother going in. His wife turned to him. Tu restes au café en face? He chuckled and nodded. Il y a un sex shop en face.

A little video of a couple of Freud’s hats in a glass case and the preserved waiting room beside them was a good memento to come away with but, before leaving Berggasse, I also took a photo from the street of the lit windows on the first floor. The people jumping the ‘queue’ to swarm around the entrance desk had been more of an illustration of Alinsky’s key psychological principle – that people only push to get on a bus which they think has limited seating – than anything Freudian. Schlange means both queue and snake in German but there, one couldn’t dream of either.

The temperature had dropped below zero and my legs froze as I kept walking, having passed a locked-up Irish pub I’d looked up, on Landesgerichtstrasse. Ending up in the Museumsquartier, I said I’d keep going and get something to eat in Flanagan’s. A hot whiskey prepared by the manager thawed me out and I didn’t ask him about food, having already stopped for a final Bosner. Though the single sausage had looked more like a Käsekrainer, it was just as well I’d had it, as there was no sign of anyone eating in the pub. After a beer to follow the whiskey, I slipped away. A place like that is too much like home and only alright for one or two at most, if you want to keep it country. Another country.

The hotel room window, even if it had been double glazed, which it wasn’t, couldn’t compete with the fireworks and bangers. I got back around ten, having wandered through the crowds in the lit-up Innere Stadt. They were enjoying the amenities (food, drink, music). Before turning into the hotel I strolled to the far end of Theresiengasse just for a look and to kill more time. Ganz Wien was blaring from some open third-floor windows on Kreuzgasse, as I passed that junction. A Falco moment. Once more my legs were feeling the cold so I called it a night.

Talking again to the man at the desk, I found out he was from Kiev. My impression that he missed the USSR was reinforced. He was proud of Nikita Khruschev and Ukrainian generals and a nearby monument to the soldiers of the First Ukrainian Front. I’d have guessed he didn’t care much for Jews either, though all he did was express sympathy for the Palestinians. Woher kamen diese Juden? (‘Where did those Jews come from?’) He told me his two sons were soccer players but I didn’t want to peer too hard at his name tag to get the surname. Something ending in -ov, I thought. It was raining firework debris on the roofs and the racket was quite intense. There were sirens too, now and then. The curtains were closed. He didn’t look at all Slavonic. He was swarthy and reminded me of some actor, such as Lee J. Cobb (smile, voice, moustache) or Pernell Roberts or a combination of both. A group he said were from Odessa then emerged from the lift and when one of them came over to talk to him I said goodnight.

Though he’d claimed Rokossovsky was Ukrainian, that invited a later check. The Marshal was of Polish origin and spent almost three years as a prisoner of the state from 1937 until his release without explanation in 1940, during which time he somehow never signed any false statement. He later told his daughter that he always carried a revolver so they would not take him alive if they ever came for him again.

Up at half past eight on New Year’s Day, I opened the curtains. That revealed some snow on the windowsill. It was still snowing at the airport. The plane needed de-icing. Before leaving the hotel I’d asked a different chap at reception if the Christian name of the man from Kiev was what I’d thought it was. He found it amusing when I added that we’d had a long conversation, like it was nothing new.

Innsbruck, August 2016

Innsbruck, August 2016

10th August, Wednesday

On the three-and-a-half-hour train journey to Innsbruck from Verona, a north German family of three shared our compartment most of the way. They had just spent ten days hiking south over the Alps. The wife was a pigtail blonde, a bit literal but kind and young in spirit. Early forties, I imagined. The son was about ten.

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The husband mentioned seeing the Cliffs of Moher on the Irish west coast last year and then the only other occupant – an Italian woman – suddenly produced a picture of the cliffs on her phone. I hadn’t the heart to mention that they had become a notorious suicide spot.

The card worked without the pin here. The lady at the Schwarzer Bär took the matter in hand and processed the payment. [The pin of my credit card had somehow been locked during a transaction at a hotel in Verona and I couldn’t change the code until I got back to Ireland.] Nonetheless I need to compile a few choice phrases for my review inspired by the Verona incident and the charmless reaction at the desk this morning.

My mother and I had an OK meal in the Altstadt this evening but by the time we emerged the odd drop from the grey sky and foggy Nordkette had turned to rain. In short sleeves, I hadn’t even brought the blue mac.

Tonight I was sent back out for some liquid supplies. This time the rain had stopped and the mac was a bit warm. Passing two dark, empty Spars and no Billa, I thought the station might have something open the latest. The supermarket lights were on there and I could see a girl tidying up inside but it too was out of bounds. The Würstelstand back on Maria Theresien Strasse gave me water and a couple of cans of beer.

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11th August, Thursday

In the morning at a post office over the bridge I got the €500 sent by my brother via Western Union. It rained again in the late morning after we went over to the Altstadt.

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Nevertheless it surprisingly then cleared up to make a sunny day. Seeing the last of the cloud lift off the Nordkette meant we went up to Hungerburg on the funicular in the afternoon. I made a panoramic short video of the view but stuck my own head into it and later discovered something black had stuck between two of my front teeth during lunch so it only looked like a visit to the dentist was on the cards.

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My mother later did some shopping and I bought Joseph Roth’s Radetzkymarsch in the Tyrolia bookshop. I do like Innsbruck.

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I didn’t care for Graz, a couple of months ago. I can’t speak about Klagenfurt but from what I’ve seen, Graz is the charmless sister of Austrian cities. My mother is really impressed by the river here.

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A lot of Italian can be heard and a surprisingly large number of Spaniards are in town too. A few too many dogs. Canines. I don’t think they’re all local. Why do people travel with dogs? We had a nice lunch on Maria Theresien Strasse and indeed we had a nice dinner in the Goldenes Adler across the bridge quite late this evening but my arms got cold.

12th August, Friday

Raining again this morning. We won’t be visiting anything else before we leave Innsbruck. Killing an hour now before checking out. The flight from Munich is not until 20.20 tonight.

We had trouble finding seats on the train but eventually got into a compartment with two young blondes unknown to each other. When a middle-aged English couple with too much luggage later boarded our carriage and couldn’t find seats, it led to talk in our compartment. These two Brits caused the good-looking girl at the window to roll her eyes at me as she retook her seat after a quick smoke on the platform.

Ja, ich habe gehört,” I said, in reference to hearing the woman loudly laughing and then swearing, down the carriage (“Farking hell… This is farking ridiculous” etc).

Die sind Englander. Wir kommen aus Irland.”

The girl was interested and happy to hear that, as was the gorgeous student with the pigtail and the anatomy book near the door on my mother’s side. She beamed as she closed the book, took off her black-framed reading glasses and asked in German if I’d liked Innsbruck. Having explained that I’d been there before on my own too, I went on to outline the Verona hassle to both of them. They were very sweet and also curious. The one beside me had lovely varnish on her toenails – somewhere between pink and orange – and expensive sandals. The girls were open-mouthed again when I explained that we lived on the south coast and so I’d have to drive 200 km after Dublin Airport.

The girl with the anatomy book got off at Kufstein and sweetly said Auf Wiedersehen not just to us but also to the one beside me, who softly replied with Tschüss. There was a fella in boots on my left who never said anything except a whispered “Fuck” at his phone but he didn’t look like another Englander. He even smiled once or twice, for example when I had to stick my head through the compartment doorway to call back my mother who had walked past after a toilet break.

We got off at Munich Ost and the girl at the window bade me farewell twice as I stood in the corridor with our bags. All the hours in Munich’s maze of an airport weren’t as bad as the endless corridors in Dublin before the passport check. The drive was OK but by the very end of it I was tired and starting to see things. Home at one in the morning.

Mauthausen concentration camp

Mauthausen concentration camp

Austria, 28 December 2015

The train from Linz to Mauthausen took only about twenty minutes. There were no taxis at the station and I did the 5k winding hike uphill to the camp. “This is some hike, man,” I said to myself before I realized that the phrase rhymed with Eichmann. When I got high enough away from the wet Danube fog, the sun lightened the soup but I still could see f*ck all except some of the road in front. I was even wondering was it just the murk or was it the effort of the climb too. I started wiping (steam?) off my glasses.

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Higher again, the sun was just beginning to burn off some of the fog in the afternoon. The Lager loomed, finally, as a long stone fort of no great height on top of the hill. A woman at the visitors’ centre – a concrete maze – told me it was closed and she unlocked a door to get me a brochure – so I wasn’t going to see the gas chamber – but she added I could walk around the exterior.

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Past the monuments, now the highest fog had cleared, there was a piece or two of metal building site fencing across the top of the path down to the Todesstiege (death stairs) and the quarry but it was possible to get around that with no trouble. This was the place I most wanted to see.

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I was the only one down there, where the fog was brightly waxing and waning. At the time it didn’t feel eerie. Oddly peaceful and even beautiful, by the black pond below the cliff, the site showed the birds did sing. I even heard a distant cock crowing but the suffering that was inflicted there was and is just unimaginable.

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Forty nationalities were consigned to hell in that place. It was like the UN of concentration camps. There is even a monument to the Albanians. Of the 23,000 Spaniards who had fled to France in 1939 to escape from Franco only to end up at Mauthausen or one of its satellite camps, 16,000 were killed. All the first consignment of Dutch Jews sent here in 1942 were thrown off the quarry cliff that the SS nicknamed die Fallschirmspringer Wand, the Parachutists’ Wall. Many other prisoners saved the SS the trouble and just jumped.

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On the way back up the leafy Todesstiege I counted the 186 steps, stopping to straighten my legs on nos. 75, 100 & 130, though I wasn’t carrying any granite block and the steps are a lot neater now than they were back in the day. I took a look then around the back of the camp. Though the entrance is on the left-hand side, where I got a photo of the gravelly yard via the gap under the wooden gates of the entrance arch, the front is really the long side wall facing the road. Anyway, around the back there was no wall but a fence topped with barbed wire. The remaining huts could be seen across a wide open space drenched in sunshine. From there a short-cut made for a steeper descent into the fog that gloomily took me back to Mauthausen village. There I bought a shirt and some t-shirts in a C&A, thinking I hadn’t brought enough on the trip.

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Thomas Bernhard, Holzfällen (‘Woodcutting’)

Thomas Bernhard, Holzfällen (‘Woodcutting’)

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Only if you’re really independent can you write really well…. I always lived from my own initiative, never was subsidised, no one gave a damn about me, to this day. I am against all subsidies, all patronage…”

– Thomas Bernhard

This is less hypocrisy than an outright lie. In the opinion of the East German playwright Heiner Müller, Bernhard wrote as if he had been hired by the Austrian government to write against Austria. As Tim Parks has pointed out, Austria’s best known post-war writer not only accepted many awards and generous patronage but also had a sugar mammy.

Twice widowed, the wealthy heiress of a famous brand of chocolates, thirty-six years older than Bernhard, Frau Stavianicek became the writer’s protectress, mentor, substitute mother… She believed in his genius, was prepared to finance him when necessary, and was able and willing to introduce him to influential figures in Viennese society.

In 1984 Hede Stavianicek died. At least he was there at the end to care for her, to his great credit, but, in Bernhard, Austria really had a version of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, in which the first word in the play’s title starts as a verb but ends as a sinister adjective describing the central character’s fate.

Though no one would envy him his chronic illness or the cruelty of his family background, it so happened that Bernhard also had a gift for complaining, like another post-war English writer, John Osborne. Past the half-way mark in his Eighties novel Holzfällen, which means woodcutting and which is set on a day that involves both a funeral and a dinner party, I knew I’d have to return to the house in which I’d met the Mitterers (see Austria, a notebook #1).

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It meant reliving a dinner party they did not attend, in order to make a point about the universality of awful social gatherings, beyond events such as the ‘artistic dinner’ that is the main setting of Bernhard’s book.

Nightmare in Ballinterry: at five I drove up to Maggie’s. I hadn’t believed there would be quite so many Steiner types, musicians, homeopaths and general hippies there. I hadn’t guessed they’d all be coming to dinner. When I arrived at six, two Germans were busy in the kitchen. N’s off to NZ – the real reason for the party. M. (the maker of the lasagne) insisted she’s in Ireland for the climate (!?). Then Maggie asked me upstairs to look at some paperwork. Back downstairs, what felt like a horde arrived in stages. I was looking at some strange ham on the table and confessing ignorance as to its identity when some homeopathic twat called E. said, “It’s Parma. It’s a delicacy.” That was before the woman who’d brought the ham revealed that actually it was French and from a bull. In fact, several of the women were individually friendly but I couldn’t drink, with the car outside, and I suppose my tension rose in the long wait for the food. Both Maggie and I tucked into the nachos as an English guy called R. began strumming and picking across the table. He didn’t play anything. I was glad when some late arrival kicked his guitar over by accident as we all stood with pinkies entwined for the saying of hippie grace. In the finish I interrupted another homeopathic lecture in the corner to tell Maggie I just had to go. As for the fount of all this pinkie-linking– the caretaker – he’s got shifty little eyes, that’s for sure.

André Malraux defined an intellectual as anyone who tries to live by the use of reason but experience relentlessly demonstrates the surrealism of life and most of the writers I admire have an underlying, unwritten thread in common. I cannot believe this is really happening. It is a mix of horror and amusement that enables some detachment in the face of the fact that everything is, as Mario Puzo pointed out, personal.

Another time, long ago, an uncle of mine was in an amateur play, after which a celebration dinner was held in a farmer’s house, where, before they all sat down, the seating arrangement began to look a bit tight. It was then that he noticed that a subtle attempt was being made to usher one cast member, a woman who was from a mere cottage, down to the kitchen to eat, on her own, with the excuse that there wasn’t enough room to sit at the table in the parlour. He protested, indicating that he’d leave if that happened. It didn’t happen, that night, but the pathetic provincial snobberies and the insolent slights they inspire will never stop providing inspiration for writing and folklore.

Past two hundred pages in Holzfällen, there was a third of it left to read. Mostly reported dialogue by then, it had turned into a rather good play since the Actor appeared, more than thirty pages earlier, to ramble on and on about Ekdal in The Wild Duck, even while slogging through his soup. Suicide was a theme – the funeral earlier in the day was for a woman who’d hung herself, in some detail – but it had turned blackly humorous, as in when the host Auersberger asked the Actor if working at Vienna’s Burgtheater wouldn’t give someone every reason to do that. Still, the reference to Austria having the highest suicide rate at the time (1980s) asked to be checked, not least after one character (Billroth) claimed that it was most common in the the loveliest places, such as Salzburg. Nowadays, as it happens, it’s practically no different from that of Ireland or Sweden.

With ninety pages to go, Bernhard had returned to the funeral and elaborated on its grotesque theatre by giving us more of the writer character Jeannie Billroth’s antics, such as collecting money from the other mourners, unbidden, in a cigar box, which she up-ended on the table before the horrified chief mourner in the Gasthof to which they had all retreated. Nevertheless twenty pages later Bernhard had lost his way again, mired in shit about Billroth and her female sidekick whom he suddenly decided to name and introduce. Who cares if they were on the state’s payroll? These cultural apparatchiks are everywhere.

Bernhard briefly returns to the grotesquerie when the drunken dinner party host waves his false teeth in the Actor’s face but, having introduced some more of the peripheral characters, the narrator is then guilty of the patronising twaddle of a grumpy old twat when writing of younger attendees who evidently fail to take it all so seriously. Their chief offence seems to be be not to have published anything.

Having rubbished the opinions of the young, the narrator then writes off the wisdom of age as elderly narrow-mindedness that just gets on his nerves. He thinks the way the Actor enunciates the words Wald, Hochwald, Holzfällen is hellsichtig (far-seeing) but this just reflects Bernhard’s mundane ambition to be a country gentleman. His lengthy explanation of why the Actor’s outburst – at best a how-f*cking-dare-you, human protest at Billroth’s cheek – has impressed him is just tiresome. Holzfällen simply peters out. The dinner table row isn’t a patch on the one about Parnell in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where a country’s soul is at stake.

Linz, Mauthausen, Steyr & Vienna (Austria, December 2015)

Linz, Mauthausen, Steyr & Vienna (Austria, December 2015)

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Two days after Christmas the sun was shining. Having not looked up where Hotel Kolping was for quite some time, I had to ask three pretty young ladies for help on Bürgerstrasse in Linz. Two were surely sisters and maybe even twins – the same black-rimmed glasses and stylish highlights. Late teens. I was on the wrong side of Landstrasse but at least on the right north-south echelon of it. The Hotel Kolping lies behind the casino. After checking in, paying and having a shower, I stopped for a hot dog at the twin of the Bosner Eck stand before heading to the river.

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Past Hauptplatz the Danube bridge crosses to the Urfahr end. The car lights shone through the murk as an icy mist blew up from the water.

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Back on Hauptplatz I found the Old Dubliner pub down a long tunnel. The pretty young blonde behind the counter didn’t know what a hot whiskey was so I had a bottle of Weizenbier instead. I had five of them, though my eyes at times were stinging with the smoke, long banned in Ireland, as the place filled up. It was small and dark but there was a lot of people then and it was quite amazing how the girl handled it all alone. She was an engineering student. Some people were coming to the counter, some were ordering from tables, some were paying up front, some were running a tab.

The guy next to me at the counter had come in with someone with short hair and glasses. I thought it was a young lad at first but it turned out to be his wife. The chap himself wouldn’t have looked out of place among the crew of U-96 (Das Boot), down with all the scraggy beards and hunted eyes. He said the informal people of Upper Austria hadn’t much use for Sie, except with Polizei und Richter (police and judges). He ordered something that looked like a grilled slice of a large brown loaf, with some pizza toppings. He told me what it was called (Holzknecht) and then I had it too. According to him, it had been a traditional meal for poor people working im Wald (in the forest).

I also got to know the barmaid’s name – Laura – and kissed her extended hand. That kind of thing didn’t please a lad – her boyfriend, I presumed – at a crowded table where she took a break in a lull around ten. I spotted her looking around at me as he started to complain but, whatever she said in response, she cooled his boots. I was old enough to be her father. Anyway, I was about to leave. I didn’t want to be wrecked in the morning. I wanted to get to Mauthausen.

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Sitting on the toilet lid in the morning just before a shower at nine brought a life first. It shattered and my arse plunged south. I’d often seen people sit on toilet lids for one reason or another in films but I’d never seen that happen there either. On the way to the breakfast room I confessed at reception. The lady said there was no need to pay for it. In other words I hadn’t blown up the mini-bar or anything like that. It was only a piece of plastic.

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The train to Mauthausen took only about twenty minutes. There were no taxis at the station and I did the 5k winding hike uphill to the camp. “This is some hike, man,” I said to myself before I realised that the phrase rhymed with Eichmann. When I got high enough away from the wet Danube fog, the sun lightened the soup but I still could see f*ck all except some of the road in front. I was even wondering was it just the murk or was it the effort of the climb too. I started wiping (steam?) off my glasses. Higher again, the sun was just beginning to burn off some of the fog in the afternoon. The Lager loomed, finally, as a long stone fort of no great height on top of the hill. A woman at the visitors’ centre – a concrete maze – told me it was closed and she unlocked a door to get me a brochure – so I wasn’t going to see the gas chamber – but she added I could walk around the exterior. Past the monuments, now the highest fog had cleared, there was a piece or two of metal building site fencing across the top of the path down to the Todesstiege (death stairs) and the quarry but it was possible to get around that with no trouble. This was the place I most wanted to see. I was the only one down there, where the fog was brightly waxing and waning. At the time it didn’t feel eerie. Oddly peaceful and even beautiful, by the black pond below the cliff, the site of course proved the birds did sing. I even heard a distant cock crowing but the suffering that was inflicted there was and is just unimaginable.

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Forty nationalities were consigned to hell in that place. It was like the UN of concentration camps. There is even a monument to the Albanians. Of 23,000 Spaniards who had fled to France in 1939 to escape from Franco only to end up at Mauthausen or one of its satellite camps, 16,000 were killed. All the first consignment of Dutch Jews sent here in 1942 were thrown off the quarry cliff that the SS nicknamed die Fallschirmspringer Wand, the Parachutists’ Wall. Many other prisoners saved the SS the trouble and just jumped.

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On the way back up the leafy Todesstiege I counted the 186 steps, stopping to straighten my legs on nos. 75, 100 & 130, though I wasn’t carrying any granite and the steps are neater than they were back in the day. I took a look then around the back of the camp. Though the entrance is on the left-hand side, where I got a photo of the gravelly yard via the gap under the wooden gates of the entrance arch, the front is really the long side wall facing the road. Anyway, around the back there was no wall but a fence topped with barbed wire. The remaining huts could be seen across a wide open space drenched in sunshine.

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From there a short-cut led to a steeper descent into the fog that gloomily took me back to Mauthausen village where I bought a shirt and some t-shirts in a C&A, thinking I hadn’t brought enough.

Before the pub that night I got a tasty Bosner groß from the Bosner Eck. Then I walked up to the Schloss and took more photos on the way. There was a different girl working in the Old Dubliner, a slim girl with some Italian features (e.g. black hair, a higher nose bridge) but with rather Germanic green eyes. Note: a couple of years had to pass before I learned that the possessor of those striking eyes wasn’t Germanic or Italian at all.

Though the place was busy again, she wasn’t under as much pressure, as the orders weren’t flying in like the night before. Letting her keep the change out of a €20 note surprised her (“Eh, danke schön”), unsurprisingly, over there, where they don’t expect much of a tip, but letting Laura keep change had already been a pleasure. I’d had four drinks, during which time I got talking to a bespectacled young darts fan called Jakob, with a shaved head and a goatee, who was only into the darts on TV because some Austrian had qualified for the last whatever of the world championship. He wasn’t the only person during this trip to ask, Warum Österreich? I quoted Christoph Waltz making a parallel between the Austrian-German difference and the Irish-English one. Jakob interpreted it as wie ein kleiner Bruder. On the way back I had another Bosner, this time from the other of the twin stands. This one was OK but it wasn’t as good as the first. I hadn’t wanted the Bosner Eck lady to think she couldn’t keep those dogs fired out to me.

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Over there, despite the lights, I could forget it was Christmas. I was by then missing the sixth Irish storm of the season (“Frank”) too, though it hadn’t stopped raining back home in the meantime. In the morning I went to the Lentos Kunstmuseum where I bought a lot of postcards, including three of Kokoschka’s Die Freunde, which up close looks like it was painted with his fingers.

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After a short stop at the Neuer Dom it was time to head to Steyr. On the train a Pakistani paterfamilias – who smelled slightly of shit, the smell of poverty – wanted to know where they should get off (St. Valentin) and change for Grein. One of his hijab-ed teenage girls told me, “Speak English” but, when I asked her if she could, she indicated with her fingers that it was only a little bit she knew. I didn’t know if any of them understood anything but at least they got off at the correct stop.

The train got to Steyr before dusk, having followed a bend like the Waterford Blackwater’s on the Enns that here meets the river that gives the town its name. This place was like a fairy tale town. I had to enter another tunnel, on Stadtplatz, and head upstairs to find the reception area of the Stadthotel Styria. The guy at the desk looked like Tom Petty. The room was quite luxurious. The two nights there were dearer than Linz. I had an hour’s kip and then a bath. There was even an armchair with a round coffee table beside it.

I had to go out and find something to eat. Wandering around, I saw the streets were practically empty. Here and there I could smell something nice but the only outdoor menu I checked, on Enns Kai, had indecipherable handwriting. It was more hurried than Gothic. Finally I read the one outside the Hotel Mader, which was almost next door to mine. The girl at the first counter directed me down the back, through another tunnel, and I saw three more dining rooms, plus a bar. There was life alright but the Upper Austrian love of tunnels kept it off the streets.

A club sandwich plus wedges did the trick, despite a nearby table of yakking Germans, and then I wandered over to Steyrdorf again. Back in the hotel by ten, I didn’t even want to go to a pub that night. Crossing back over the Steyr river, I’d climbed to the Schloss. A bird was hooting in the wood of the Schloss park behind it but sounded a bit high-pitched for an owl. Empty dark alleys around there were less spooky than dreamlike.

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After no drink, bar a single dunkel in the Mader the night before, while eating, I still didn’t sleep very well. A pair of cleaning women had the window thrown open when I got back from breakfast around ten. I went over to the spot at the end of the Enns bridge outside the Hotel Minichmayr to film the meeting of the waters. There were seagulls here, in a landlocked country. The wind off the rivers was icy. On the way there I sneaked a few snaps of a cute little female postie with glasses. She wore a woolly cap and a black and yellow jacket. She was young. She had a matching little black and yellow van. That time I didn’t stay out long. The morning was cold so I returned to the hotel for my jumper. Shirt and heavy jacket weren’t enough. Then I knew I had to get some more sleep.

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Out again in the afternoon, I wandered around to the churches. I must have got the habit. The sun was half-out. Then in the Christmas market on the Stadtplatz I ate another Bosner. I counted three elderly German-speaking tourist groups passing by. The dog was followed by two mugs of Glühwein, from two different huts. Next stop was the Café Werndl for a Fiaker (basically a rum shot that just smells of coffee) and what proved to be a small block of Sachertorte, with Schlagobers.

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Further wandering over in Steyrdorf ended at nightfall. In the murky interior of the Michaelerkirche I suddenly heard organ music but it was only the ringtone of a guy who appeared out of nowhere and who hadn’t even taken off his cap off. The wind near water felt like being out at sea. That evening again someone was setting off fireworks somewhere across the Enns. Travel is a mixture of slogging from A to B and onward but also spending a lot of time thrown in bed relaxing and even writing. That was my experience. In this country, as in Italy, or even France, there always seemed to be a lot of steps to be climbed too.

At an English pub in Steyrdorf, by the name of Sir Patrick, one also had to press a buzzer to be let in. There, an inquisitive but very inebriated Opel agent of about sixty was unimpressed by any mention of Ireland. Sepp later gave up insisting I was an Englishman, also in the motor trade (“Du bist Agent?”) for the suggestion I was from Norway. A taxi finally took him away but not before he also enquired if I was looking for a fight (“Willst du kämpfen?”), though not necessarily with him.

The place wasn’t busy and I left after three drinks. At least it wasn’t full of smoke. I tried the noisy Treff Café on Enns Kai then but (1) I couldn’t find the toilets and (2) if I wanted alcoholic Weizenbier I had to go/do somewhere/something a nice young girl behind the counter said but I didn’t catch. At a normal bar counter I shouldn’t have had to understand so I gave up and didn’t even ask her to repeat it. I was back in the hotel room by eleven. The mini-bar was going to get a little hit.

There was an ancient minibus doing the rounds outside in daylight, more magnolia than pale yellow, with “Christkindl” painted on its side, and every time it turned up in the Stadtplatz it blared the same two pairs of notes, like a ship’s horn. The first pair rose, the second pair fell. It did this again before it departed. The nearer you were to it, the more annoying it got.

In the crisp sunshine of New Year’s Eve I was heading back to Linz because it was cheaper and simpler to get to back to Vienna that way. It was gone noon. I didn’t fancy drinking that night either. Maybe I’d go to Stephansplatz later. My man from Das Boot had recommended that. When the whole Christmas season was over – it is literally a season now in terms of how long it feels – I’d be thinking back to moments like this. The sun was shining and I was travelling comfortably on a quiet train. A little bit tired (no hangovers), I got a boost from a Semmel I’d filled again at breakfast time. It was a good day to travel.

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The Westbahn train from Linz was crowded but I easily found the hotel after getting the U-Bahn to Alser Strasse. Three young Italians were taking a long time to check in but, when these other guests around reception cleared off, I ended up talking to the man behind the counter, comparing the death tolls of the Irish and Ukrainian famines. He didn’t want to pin the latter on Stalin, just “die Moskau Regierung” (the Moscow government), and I wasn’t going to argue with him about the 1930s. Not on New Year’s Eve. He must have asked me something about Ireland for us to jump on to that topic but in fairness he was curious about Irish dancing as well. He imitated the arms held down by the dancers’ sides, a style I explained was ordained by the puritanical priesthood. Das war ein Befehl von den Priestern. Sonst, zu sexy.

Anyway, I dropped the bag in the room and set off to find Berggasse and Freud’s apartment, even though I presumed it would be closed. It wasn’t. It was packed. A mixed French group pushed the street door ahead of me. Upstairs a stubbly Frenchman with a woolly cap didn’t bother going in. His wife turned to him. Tu restes au café en face? He chuckled and nodded. Il y a un sex shop en face.

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A little video of a couple of Freud’s hats in a glass case and the preserved waiting room beside them was a good memento to come away with but, before leaving Berggasse, I also took a photo from the street of the lit windows on the first floor. The people jumping the ‘queue’ to swarm around the entrance desk had been more of an illustration of Alinsky’s key psychological principle – that people only push to get on a bus which they think has limited seating – than anything Freudian. Schlange means both queue and snake in German but there, one couldn’t dream of either.

 

 

The temperature had dropped below zero and my legs froze as I kept walking, having passed a locked-up Irish pub I’d looked up, on Landesgerichtstrasse. Ending up in the Museumsquartier, I said I’d keep going and get something to eat in Flanagan’s. A hot whiskey prepared by the manager thawed me out and I didn’t ask him about food, having already stopped for a final Bosner. Though the single sausage had looked more like a Käsekrainer, it was just as well I’d had it, as there was no sign of anyone eating in the pub. After a beer to follow the whiskey, I slipped away. A place like that is too much like home and only alright for one or two at most, if you want to keep it country. Another country.

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The hotel room window, even if it had been double glazed, which it wasn’t, couldn’t compete with the fireworks and bangers. I got back around ten, having wandered through the crowds in the lit-up Innere Stadt. They were enjoying the amenities (food, drink, music). Before turning into the hotel I strolled to the far end of Theresiengasse just for a look and to kill more time. Ganz Wien was blaring from some open third-floor windows on Kreuzgasse, as I passed that junction. A Falco moment. Once more my legs were feeling the cold so I called it a night.

Talking again to the man at the desk, I found out he was from Kiev. My impression that he missed the USSR was reinforced. He was proud of Nikita Khruschev and Ukrainian generals and a nearby monument to the soldiers of the First Ukrainian Front. I’d have guessed he didn’t care much for Jews either, though all he did was express sympathy for the Palestinians. Woher kamen diese Juden? (‘Where did those Jews come from?’) He told me his two sons were soccer players but I didn’t want to peer too hard at his name tag to get the surname. Something ending in -ov, I thought. It was raining firework debris on the roofs and the racket was quite intense. There were sirens too, now and then. The curtains were closed. He didn’t look at all Slavonic. He was swarthy and reminded me of some actor, such as Lee J. Cobb (smile, voice, moustache) or Pernell Roberts or a combination of both. A group he said were from Odessa then emerged from the lift and when one of them came over to talk to him I said goodnight.

Though he’d claimed Rokossovsky was Ukrainian, that invited a later check. The Marshal was of Polish origin and spent almost three years as a prisoner of the state from 1937 until his release without explanation in 1940, during which time he somehow never signed any false statement. He later told his daughter that he always carried a revolver so they would not take him alive if they ever came for him again.

Up at half past eight on New Year’s Day, I opened the curtains. That revealed some snow on the windowsill. It was still snowing at the airport. The plane needed de-icing. Before leaving the hotel I’d asked a different chap at reception if the Christian name of the man from Kiev was what I’d thought it was. He found it amusing when I added that we’d had a long conversation, like it was nothing new.