All entries for Monday 21 February 2011

February 21, 2011

At home in Vienna, with a ear to Hamburg

Italy celebrates its 150th birthday this year (among typical disagreement: should we celebrate? if yes, should we also spend money on it? if not, should we protest instead? and in any case, what about South Tirol?), and Rome has been the Italian capital for 140 years. But as a Milanese, even if as far from the Northern League as possible, ‘my’ previous capital is just as familiar: Vienna. Weather, architecture, music, cuisine, intellectuals and, some would add, efficiency and order: don’t we have more to share with Vienna than with Rome? After all, the Wienerschnitzel and the costoletta alla Milanese are only distinguished by a (mostly forgotten nowadays) piece of bone in the latter. For whatever reason, in Vienna I feel very much at home.

When I first visited Vienna in 1987 (on a school trip from which the main, not particularly good memory is Grinzling’s white wine), the city was Western Europe’s back yard, a cul-de-sac. It did have the remains of a multi-national empire, but in a very decadent setting. In two decades, during which I crossed the place at regular intervals, it has become the centre of Central Europe and the share of foreign population has doubled. In half an hour you can enter, at your choice, the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Hungary. Bratislava is round the corner; in a couple of hours you can get to Prague, Kraków, Budapest; just a little more effort and you arrive to Ljubljana, Zagreb, Munich or even Triest. Sister imperial capital Budapest may be bigger, more scenic and more imposingly metropolitan, but it is less connected and much less cosmopolitan. In Vienna, you hear on the street all possible Slavic languages, plus Turkish, although in the old town you mostly hear Italian tourists (I suspect more Milanese visit Vienna every year than Rome). It is not that the Viennese love their neighbours: in the opinion polls, the large majority is critical of the right to work for citizens of the new member states, which will come to force on the 1st of May, even if no invasion is expected (the Poles and Slovaks have already gone to the UK). But thanks to shared history and to the ‘downgrading’ of Austria as a nation, the Viennese take their neighbours much more seriously than the Germans do. Including the Italians: no silly jokes here. And including the Turks. If the problems of ‘integration’ are similar to the German ones, here, where the most ancient buildings still show the Turkish cannon balls from the two sieges, Turkey is more feared than despised. And fear involves respect: Oriental art is always in fashion in Vienna, and so are posh Turkish restaurants – in Berlin, there is no posh Turkish restaurant. Austria has been much less fussy than Germany at giving Turks (and other foreigners) citizenship.

And plenty to admire in Vienna, from the Sachertorte that I endlessly try to imitate in my modest kitchen, to the art exhibitions, to... public housing. From the Karl-Marx Hof and the other interwar Red Vienna buildings, similar to fortresses and strategically located for their military utility during insurrections, to the recent ones bearing utopian plaques such as “menschlich wohnen – glücklich leben” - I can’t imagine that for the English council estate I live in, Tile Hill. With such good-quality public housing subprime mortgages and housing-market induced crisis are unthinkable, not just impossible in Austria. Maybe the Irish, this week, if they find their own parties so hopeless, they should invite the Austrian (boring) Grand Coalition, or better, the new Viennese local Red-Green coalition, to rule them for a while - better than the IMF.

Vienna’s Red-Green coalition is in fact just an example of recent political experiments at the local city level all around Europe. Right now is the round of Hamburg, another city I am familiar with. Hamburg is actually used to political experiments. It had the Right-populist Ronald Schill ten years ago, then an aborted try at a ‘Black(CDU)-Green’ coalition, which collapsed after the middle classes resisted an attempt at making schools a little more ‘comprehensive’. On Sunday, the SPD, which at national level is in a state of disarray, won the absolute majority in the city-state elections, while Merkel’s CDU fell from 42% to 20%. Led by the pragmatic, moderate Olaf Scholz, Hamburg’s SPD benefits from a ‘Helmut Schmidt’ effect: the 93-year old former Mayor and Chancellor is as popular as ever in his city, especially after the recent funeral of his even-more popular wife. Its success will allow a local experiment but will not be imitated in the other German Länder, or anywhere else. Curiously, the proud Viennese, when extolling their own best-in-the-world cafés, they contrast them to Hamburg’s allegedly miserable ones.


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