In Vienna, you follow the music.
What am I doing here? I’m thinking to myself at the end of an afternoon of walking aimlessly through the old center of Vienna. I’ve somehow made my way to the monastery at the Church of St. Mary of the Angels in the niew market area of the old city.
I am a professional consultant, sent on assignments of quality all around Europe; a business man of tact and tech; a supplier of success… – so why am I in the crypt of a most unremarkable church, staring lazily at old intricate coffins and making occasional soft whispers to freak out the other visitors to the site? It doesn’t make any sense.
Yet here I am, at the Kaisergruft, the imperial vaults near the heart of Vienna, Austria, where lie the earthly remains of most of what is tangibly left of the Hapsburg Dynasty, the hereditary Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire. That to see this collection of morbid decorum I’ve had to shell out four euros is twisting me up inside. Any Viennese cafe won’t charge you that much for a coffee with grappa (cafe coretto) and here I am, blowing cash on rigor mortis. Unbelievable. I am dumbfounded by this show of the dark, of the weird obsession that humans, and particularly Austrian humans have with death and the end and with preserving some kind of mark on the planet. Granted that, among the bodies lain here to rest amidst the hoards of tourists are Emperors and Empresses, dukes and archdukes, Ferdinands, Josefs, Leopolds, Marias, Maria Theresas, and a couple of Karls. Tens of dozens of aristocrats and the hearts and ashes of a few others also lay here, guarded by monks and friars that fiendishly shuffle by occasionally, carrying scrolls and bound for parts unknown. Suspicions of assassin orders and ninja monks fill my mind and make me sweat; it makes the cold newt sliming up my spine colder still; the place is surreal enough, bizarre as anything in Hollywood or on TV. The fascination that the Austrians have with death is vivid and comes alive in the architecture of the plazas, the faces and eyes of the sculptures and busts lining palace facades and in the intricately trestled weavings of fences and gates.
Maybe I should be more impressed, but it’s just too strange. To boot, the place is little more than a collection of memories that belong to someone else. But the arrangement, the decor, the sheer number of coffins lying in that crypt, seemingly without ceremony is eery in a cold political kind of way that makes me suspect that some people have never heard warm songs of Spanish rhythms plucked on the nylon strings of an acoustic guitar in the streets of Barcelona. It seems impossible to me that the two are not mutually exclusive.
…I just gave the matter a moment of thought and realized I have better things to do than surround myself with rusting pots of iron and copper containing rotted human flesh in the basement of an inornate church in a city as rich in culture as it is in hot Austrian women. Vienna is quite a town for both.
So I skedaddle up and out of there and go to see an opera/concert/ballet show I’ve already bought tickets for from a scalper on the street dressed like a pimp lord from 1685. On my way to the show I pass a violinist on the street and I think of how silly it would be to pay 50 Euros and put aside a whole evening of energy for opera and then not give this guy 2 euros and 15 minutes of my time to listen to his solo concerto.
He isn’t the most incredible master of the instrument, but the sound is rich and he puts a huge smile on my face and even shakes my hand for listening. He tells me he’s impressed that I even stopped, and obviously agrees with me concerning the aforementioned absurdity of other people who don’t do the same. He adds that it is ludicrous that Vienna allows people in who didn’t listen.
“Vienna is music!” he blurts. “In Paris, Antwerp (ughh) ok… but Vienna?” He plays another piece but when people walk by without even slowing down he stops playing and walks behind them for a few paces, imitating an ape. I find it a bit crass but he is a performer as well, to be sure. Abraham, if I remember right. From Hungary. I thank him, applaud him again (even though no one else does) and move on to the opera concerto to which I have tickets.
I am a bit concerned for the touristy nature that the show might have given the circumstances of the ticket purchase previously described. But it turns out that the Palais Auersperg is an elegant concert hall, as classy as its acoustics are tuned. As it happens, it is the first hall where Mozart played when he was 6 years old. How about that?
Shhhhhhh. The show is about to start.
What a show! Spectacular, moving, brilliant, and all the credit goes to the lead violinist. How artful is the true musician to whom it’s so second nature! The way you can tell he’s not thinking about the playing, that he’s thinking about the music… the way he smiles as he plays – and the violin is not an easy instrument to play while smiling – the way he tells jokes with his face since he’s having so much fun… it’s sickening how present he is in all dimensions.
No, I’m not high – it’s true.
The instrument, it’s just a coincidence – the music is what’s happening. He feels it and it inspires him. But while you’re listening, he’s not just playing; he’s exuding. And he took the show; he took it right out from everyone’s expectations.
Being alone at an opera, there was little I could do during the intermission but write: but about what?, I thought. About how it was that I had come to be there? Had I touched on that yet? Probably. But it’s not like I wasn’t still wondering it all the same. It seemed impossible, yet there I was: thousands of miles from where I could’ve been had I been less precise in my calculations a few months ago when the critical decision to move to Europe had been made. I’d chased after it and endured all kinds of politics and hidden agendas, suffered fools I would not suffer again, and opted to leave all that was known and comfortable for a life of lonely travel and grandiose dreams. Hmmmmf.
Nothing is impossible, it seems.
But I digress. It was only a 5 minute intermission and I even stopped for a glass of champagne because, you know – why the hell not?
It was a casual opera so I had to check my tuxedo at the door, but opera people are still opera people. Their noses are mostly in the air instead of having their ears to the rails. And while opera, ballet, Mozart, Bach, Strauss and Schubert performed in the Auersperg is something else and entirely classy and impressive, the people – they’re just not my scene – too much zazz and not enough jazz, if that makes any sense.
In any case, it was time to head through the Maria Theresa Platz to the Hapsburg Congress, the ancient royal palace and a major site for any visit to Vienna. Today, it houses the national library and while I stand in the square in front of it and take it in, I enjoy a tent-cooked bratwurst – an inbred cousin of the original hot dog. It’s a far cry from where I had just been, surrounded by suede, cashmere and champagne but let’s face it readers – I’m a street dog kinda guy. It sits well with me; makes the moment last.
As I stand in the middle of the parking lot between the Hapsburg and the Volksgarden my thoughts drift to the size of things. In America, things have a tendency towards the excessive… everything is big, and everyone knows that. From distances to sandwiches and from Texas to Alaska, their laughs, lives, drinks and jives are large. Recently, since, say, the 2000 presidential swearing in ceremony, the scope of these things has widened to include disappointments, which is part of why I left. But who cares? The architecture of Vienna suggests something else is afoot, something more deeply rooted and less superficial; something old and not artificial. By the size of the imperial palace at the Hapsburg you’d think an entire army of giants is housed behind its 4 meter doors. Looking at their gates you’d think Austrian horses are 3 meters tall and proportionally as wide. Being called “a horse’s ass” in Austria must carry so much more weight as an insult.
But the thought I’m having is that the scale of things is different. It’s not just that “things are large” – no. Things are opulently huge, but it’s so pervasive that no one facet of anything draws attention to itself. Much of the grandeur easily blends into the scenery of the cityscape and goes unnoticed: nothing here is a roadside attraction.
Still – that was still one massive hot dog I had to myself.
In the square at the Hapsburg there are tents set up for a festival of sorts so, impulsively, I purchase a ticket. Every museum in town is going to be open, they tell me, until one in the morning and the transportation is be free – “Lange Nacht der Museem”, they call it. At the moment, no one is more thankful about this than my feet, who are jonesing for a stop.
Easy fellas, I say to myself, you’ll get your rest. I plan, however, on lying to them and walking throughout the night, which I proceed to do. I don’t owe my feet any special favors.
I first go into the Museum of War and Armory in the Hapsburg, that previously mentioned overly ornate and inordinately beastly monster that, by the shape of its concave facade seems to swallow every visitor that enters. That is a different crowd, let me tell you. They have a DJ playing in the central focus of the building where, amongst a flourish of freaks examining knight-armor, you can order beer or some blue cocktails to the beat of German house techno. Blades and bumps, chain mail and alcohol, electronically synthesized beats and the shine and gloom of hundreds of stationary Austrian Knights almost push me over the edge. What a trip. But I make it out of there without any great catastrophe, thanks mostly to a very toned-down and rather dull Egyptian and Roman exhibition on the long and large stairs, far enough away from the German House beats that the pull exerted on drunk, blue-cocktail drinking fiends is weak enough to grant them escape.
At the Museum of Natural History, which is an overly ornate but beautiful twin building, at the St. Theresa Platz, I meander – albeit quickly – trying to see as much as I can amidst rooms full of meteorites. You are allowed to touch the extraterrestrials rocks and I give my eyes in to the pleasures of the iron crystal latices; patterns like circuits etched in silicon as it flew in the dead cold of space; fantastic, yet silly, it seems, that the tactile sense makes things more real. But I don’t dwell on that.
I continue meandering and end up wandering into the prehistoric section of the museum and… magic. To see the fossils of so many different species of beasts, majestic giants that once ruled this planet in a way we’ll never be in touch with is something truly…
Oh who am I kidding? I still love dinosaurs and I gawk at them whilst standing next to kids a quarter of my age.
There. I said it. I probably looked like a tool but who cares? I enjoyed myself.
When I leave there I move on to the Albertina, which is a Viennese Musee D’Orsay of sorts, and sit amidst the temperate crowd. It is (the crowd, that is), at least for tonight, artistically inclined. My talus bones ache as if the next step I take will cause them to shoot out the back of my ankles like stones from a 11 year-old’s sling shot.
Note: Chuck Taylor All Stars do not good walking shoes make. Not exactly great cobblestone trotters, you know? Better on the able feet of basketball stars of the 70′s then on a traveler’s treading soles.
In the cubic sketches wing, beautiful Austrian women walk by. I usually find it to be stuffy in art galleries and the Albertina is no exception on a night as packed as the Lange Nacht. But the seat is a reprieve from the walking so I keep to it. An early Picasso cubic sketch hangs easily in front of my face – about 2 meters to be precise. It’s relaxing how it lets the eyes wander separately and I like it. But more than the sketches of Picasso or the dabbles of Mattise, I am eying the people. They are, to me, the real works of art in this place. The elderly peer closer; the young fidget. Some are sassy with the heat; others impatient. In the gallery, they block the paintings from my view as I sit on my bench facing the early Picasso sketch. They offer me blinks here and there through the gaps as a cartoon wheel moving before my eyes, only the images don’t move.
“The Picasso’s are over here, dude!” I hear an Asian guy wearing Greek letters on his sweatshirt call out to another one of the same description. Someone has told them to be here, I’m sure, but he is having his own kind of good time, I guess. A check list is better than no list at all.
“I don’t get it,” sings the other one, who has caught up. With them, a red head of mild looks and an annoying voice misses her chance to be quiet:
“Why are they so weird-looking and trippy?”
… another one a few minutes later: “Duuuude; this is that guy that [sic] cut his ear off, man! … Right?”
Oh man. Too much. What a show these clowns put on. I see a balding man in the corner within ear-shot with wire-rimmed glasses, a thin beard, a black shirt and a black suit grasp his forehead in his left hand while clutching his left elbow with this right hand. Apparently I’m not the only one paying attention to the crowd.
The people – lining up to see paintings they wouldn’t turn their heads to look at on any other day- they amuse me, much like the people in the streets who don’t stop and listen to the musician on the street. Yet these same people pay 50 euros to watch an opera when they can’t tell the difference between the guy on the street and the bard in the show. Weird.
Afterwards, I head to the Urania Observatory by the Danube River and stand in line for what must be days, not really knowing why. I convince myself it’s fine because I just can’t walk anymore anyways. So I wait and wait for some unknown attraction that the crowd apparently had some interest in.
Ooh, wait, I’m going in…
Well. Turns out it was Mars. That’s what they’d been looking at for hours now, following it down to the horizon: Mars. A spec of red I’ve seen a hundred times in a hundred other telescopes. Dammit. What had I expected from an observatory in the middle of a city as bright as Vienna?
“Foolish,” I said in front of all the people still standing in line. “Bahhh…” I moved on, though at that moment, I wasn’t sure how to get back to my temporary abode. I faltered, and made the weak mistake of asking directions from the first person that I heard speaking English.
Travel advice: this is a mistake. If you’re going to ask someone for directions, make sure it’s not just because they speak English unless you’re foolishly desperate.
She was a traveler too, which was the first problem, but she wasn’t exactly my type. Shy and uncertain, disoriented and nervous, she gave me a bad itch that I couldn’t scratch without being a dick. Now I had her as a problem; unwanted company on a night like this, and she didn’t even know where she was going.
I let her tag along, trying the whole way to think of a scheme to rid myself of this problem. I considered some obscure options. Others too, that were practical however shameful, and some downright wrong. I even had some moments of insight when a brilliant idea came to mind but it involved too many mirrors for that time of night and there was no way I could train a parrot that quickly. As lame as it sounds, ultimately I settle on just making up a good excuse for walking in a different direction. My feet were punishing me, appropriately; Lord knows I deserved it after my treachery. But basically, I just kept walking and putting up with her until I got my bearings. At one point we turned a corner and ran right into a huge Mont Blanc watch commercial with nothing on it but Nicholas Cage’s face.
“Aaahh!” I started, honestly surprised by the image. Sorry, but 8 feet of Nic Cage’s face at that horrible hour is not what anyone needs. But it distracted her and while she examined the face, I made a break for it and managed to fit into one of the narrow passageways by the domed church lined with cobblestones that soften the footsteps. There were better ways, I’m sure, but they would’ve involved an investment in time and effort, not to mention caring, and I didn’t have any of those things at the time. The plan I ended up executing worked well enough and I lost myself in the narrow streets of the old Viennese quarter of the Austrian city.
Still headed back to my hostel, I saw him: Abraham from Hungary, by the St. Stephan’s cathedral in a tailcoat and sunglasses. His face was painted white and he had a top-hat to boot on his ridiculous face. He was playing human music box on the street, an act in which he plays the violin for 8-12 seconds and then sort of stutters to a standstill and finally a real-life kind of freeze-frame. He remains motionless until somebody feeds some coins into his box and then he starts up again.
He had more financial success with the act than with just the music and it’s funny how people weren’t listening to the music, even when they did take a moment to notice the show, which is what they wanted. It made sense; they wanted to see the monkey dance; they wanted the clown’s performance for the eyes more than they wanted Mozart to unclog their ears, free them from the burdens and the sorrows of normal existence.
[Sigh]. Some things change between the places I visit. But by and large, people unfortunately don’t. They remain the same dolts everywhere I go. And so be it.
I thought about what Abraham had said to me not all that many hours before. Something about, “Vienna is music!” and that whole rant. He’d sounded so sincerely disappointed about the lack of applause then, so excited to hear mine, even after I had put in my couple of Euros for his show. So there in the square, now, I started clapping in the hopes that recognition and the attention he deserved for playing so well were worth it for him to accept as payment to continue playing – the spiritual equivalent of at least a couple of coins clinking in his box; enough to “wind the music box,” so to speak.
I started clapping, alone and at an immobile man in a tailcoat and a top hat, his face painted white and wearing sunglasses. I started clapping alone at this clown in the crowded mid-day Stephanplatz, the most populated place on a weekend in Vienna. I started clapping alone, hoping he would move, hoping he’d turn on his music box, hoping he had meant what he’d said about people who listen.
I can be so naive.
He stood motionless, an unwound toy, a puppet to the sound of Euros. He was in the game for his own reasons, it turned out. A moment passed and my applause faded; I fell silent. It was a shattering silence, at least for me, since the rest of the people in Stephanplatz carried on with their business of shopping and eating stuff. A small child trotted over to the music box man – Abraham from Hungary – and dropped a couple of coins into the box. Clink-clink.
… and the music played on. Dammit. Never trust street people.
– V –
In my travels I see many cathedrals. The Catholic Church, you know, it permeates society in a way that is best seen through how many churches are in how many cities across how many strangely different countries all over the globe. In my travels I often step into these sometimes beautiful cathedrals; I hear bits and pieces of choirs or sermons… “mass” I guess it is called. I don’t know… the Catholic Church is just shrouded in mysteries to me.
The question I am most puzzled with, I guess, is “why do I do I do this? Why do I stop and listen to this rubbish?” Better yet, “Why do I walk into to random churches in my aimless wanderings and just sit and listen to preachy speeches I fathom to be made entirely of greed and bullshit?” It’s not like I need to hear someone tell me to treat my fellow man with respect and all that sort of thing. Unfortunately in Catholicism, this adage goes hand in hand with “force the word of Jesus, pray on the uneducated and collect as much money and resources for the church as you can in your short lives.”
I may have embellished on that last point, but it’s basically true and I’m mostly right.
I don’t know. I guess I feel a strong connection with the past in such places and history can be a rush if looked at with the right mindset. I find it thrilling to be in a place that is hundreds of years old that is still performing the same pointless rituals from the era. It excites me to hear words that ancient kings from the lore I read have heard, to occupy the same structures they occupied and try to get a sense of what their perspective was like. It’s surreal, at times, what with all the figures of a dead Jesus, and the other not so obvious symbols of an idea gone weird. It’s strange to me how people search for light in places so dark, so musty, so covered in symbols of death and the macabre. It is, in fact, eery as fuck, and you know I like me some eery-ass shit.
But that’s just part of the fun. When I travel, I hear masses in many languages like Latin, Spanish, Italian, French. But Austrian-German? Hearing that in a city as ornate as Vienna is otherworldly screwy and strange in a way that’s just on this side of twisted. I might have been able to handle the priest dressed in all things shiny and pointy, not to mention flawlessly ironed, surrounded by aged must and dark statues faintly lit by candles and the occasional LED. But to hear him shout on in a language I can’t understand, and one as angry-sounding as Austrian-German can be – dude, it’s a bit much to bear on a Saturday afternoon after a perfectly good nap.
As I’m leaving the church I stand by the door and watch people go by. They drop pounds and pounds of Euros into the church collection box just outside the door yet they ignore the beggar crouching by the holy water. I pause and just stare, wondering what to think, and not having the slightest clue what to say or how to react.
Really, people? Really? Just like that? Wow.
I mean, rationalize that all you want, but just don’t try to justify it; it would blow my mind to hear the BS that people spout with regard to that hypocritical mess, and I kind of want to keep my mind where it is for the time being. It would make it all too weird to even try to write about in a place as deathly as this church.
Back in Vienna…
Incidentally, there were two flautists competing with Abraham for the ears of Stephanplatz, though they both had mine. Because, think of that: 2 flautists – are you feeling me on that one? The boys in the audience should know what I’m talking about, if that’s a hint. I mean – Wow. There’s a concept I could get behind… wouldn’t THAT be something! Think of the lips! Sure, one was a bit of a band geek but the other was marvelous in her calm khakis and the sexy black blouse with oh-so-many buttons undone, the sleeves rolled up to her elbows, her auburn hair glowing as if the sun’s very radiation was being taken neutron for neutron and infused into the strands; her grey-blue eyes, silty and stirred, turbid on that brisk fall morning like glacial water from the underside of the Alps.
But it was cold by the stones in the shadow of the church and I got walking, my own music blasting from headphones, and I was lost in it. Then I come up on a stunning image and I gladly take my earphones out of my ears when I see a beautiful young woman playing a violin and dressed in brown, contrasting perfectly with the overcast sky. She plays it classically and with the precise touch and sensual breathing of butterflies making love on a spider web. Mozart & Bach, Strauss and scores of others… she plays with a kind smile – shy but reassuring, like the world isn’t as cold as it seems sometimes. Or as cold as it is right now, for that matter. Maybe the warmth comes from the violin, maybe it comes from her soul, fueled by the notes or whatever. Or maybe it’s the skirt she wears: it’s long and thick, resembling a fall blanket that my grandmother once owned. Her posture is immaculate; the flinch of her wrist, perfect as she guides the bow of her instrument over the tension of the strings with the precision of a skipper holding the main sheet steady from a jibe as he runs with the wind at his stern. The strings vibrate obediently under her lightest inclinations, her softest intentions – her most abstract impulses.
The children, of course, love it. They, at least, don’t behave like stampeding buffalo as they pass the musicians on the streets; they are the civilized and we are not. They clap happily; they wave goodbye as if to a favorite celebrity while their parents wheel them off with longing in their hearts or at least in their faces (who knows of their hearts?). Often it seems they know something we’ve forgotten. Sucks for us.
I applaud the whole thing and then cross my arms again in the brisk evening. I fidget and eventually just sit at the steps of the fountain behind her, freezing my ass off but hoping for a chat when she pauses. There are things about this girl I want to know, but I get more than I had bargained for.
As she’s putting her instrument away, crouching down on the cold stone with her knees together like a proper lady, she looks at me and smiles shyly, though her eyes tell me something else entirely. Without thinking if she speaks English at all, I ask her if I can buy her a cup of tea before she goes.
“I don’t know,” she says with a struggle for the English words under a heavy eastern accent. “… my train, it will leave soon…”
“There are other trains, aren’t there?” I implore, suggestively. She pauses for a moment.
“Just a cup of tea?” she teases.
“Why don’t we just start with that?” I spout, my confidence suddenly brimming. Cool and calm on the outside, I think to myself that for a bumbling idiot, I sometimes do quite well under pressure. And the cold that had been building up, and my having sat still on a flat surface of stone while she played her set with my anxiety mounting certainly counted as pressure.
In any case, her train to Bratislava in Slovakia already gone, she has no choice but to wait another hour. Good. Besides, it’s not like it takes that long to get there. That’s one thing that having lived and worked in the San Francisco Bay Area has given me, is a perspective of the distances of surrounding cities. Hell, I used to commute 2 hours each way from the East Bay to Silicon Valley, or from the South Bay to San Francisco, 5 days a week for months sometimes. I mean, shit, Between Cal Train and MUNI it takes 1.5 hours to get from Mountain View to Embarcadero. Granted, it stops anytime it spots a biker or a ground squirrel (both common enough animals on the San Francisco peninsula). But when you’re studying languages and emergency medicine on the train, the difference is the same. So you can imagine that when I learn that Bratislava is an hour away from Vienna by direct train, it’s hard not to think of it as a suburb of the fair city and not have all that much empathy for commuters.
But there, at the Cafe Europa on the Stephanplatz in Vienna we have our tea and coffee and discuss her violin, which she’s been studying in Bratislava for the last 16 years. Sure, we comment on the difficulty of the violin, and the complexity of the pieces she chooses to include in her repertoire, but it’s refreshing to know that she also understands very plainly what a complete tool John Mayer is, for example. I guess I should’ve expected that from a girl who pays an extra tax just so that she can play Mozart, Bach and Strauss on the cold streets of Vienna for tourists.
She explains to me how, in Vienna, not just anyone can play music on the street. You have to report your earnings and pay taxes on that as well. You have to pay for a license and be registered with the city or you might be fined, or even jailed. Jailed! Imagine that! It sounds overly harsh and unrelenting. I imagine a city with so few problems that their police force can afford to track down musicians that are playing on the street without a license. Must be nice.
Naturally, I’m astounded. I guess it explains where they’re always so well-dressed on the street – they are, after all, professionals at work. But it bothers me, and I tell her this - that it make me nervous that the city feels it must tax music on the street. She doesn’t follow, and counters with the arguments she’s been given, which is that it’s a good way to keep the vagrants off the street and class up the joint. Not necessarily, I start to argue, making points about the externalities of the system and how those most affected might not be the ones that are most in a position to do something about it and so on. I notice I’ve lost her somewhere along the way, but no matter. It was nice to almost have an engaging conversation with someone.
Soon she would thank me for the tea and leave for her train with the cliche style and elegance of a 19th century British person, like something out of a Charles Dickens novel. I will stay there at the table for a short while longer, pondering the descriptions I had just heard of the life of this musician and how her fate (or her chosen path, rather) was already inextricably woven into this city that would soon start to fall under the shadow of night outside. I will sit there pondering all this, not realizing that that I had anywhere else to be and I will ask for some whiskey for my coffee. I will sip it slowly and look around.
Eventually it will hit me.
Just as I burst into the domed cathedral by the Stephansplatz in Vienna, the organs are quieting down, exhaling their last breath in a set of songs. It makes me wonder what I’ve missed while I was out getting drunk, reflecting on my earlier conversation with Patricia, the violinist from Bratislava who I’d let go instead of pursuing.
I’d made the right choice. Initially I’d misread her musical aptitude and ability to play notes with the fervor and passion that drives a good kisser to make out. I had somehow mistaken it for a fiery personality that could’ve made the night fun. And while she’d let me buy the fruit tea she ordered and made pleasant enough conversation, she’d sat with her hands on her lap, knees together and her gaze fixed on my shoulders, avoiding my eyes at all costs. It felt like she thought she was about to be taken home for sex and couldn’t really do anything about it, but didn’t really want to either. I felt like a pervert, sitting there without her gaze, trying to talk to this girl about music while I drank my triple espresso.
It’s not like she wasn’t pretty, and what I said about her before was true; she DID have a kind warm smile, and she DID have amazing posture, and she DID play a mean violin… but that does not a fun person make.
So after she left with a strange and confused look of meek gratitude on her face like I’d just pardoned her for a crime she never committed, she went home to Slovakia, like she does every week. Home to her grandparents and 78 year-old violin master and, according to her, their family goat. No idea why she’d brought that up. I had stayed at the cafe and ordered another triple espresso, this time with Irish Whisky or bourbon; I don’t remember which. They sometimes fill up a deep hole in my chest but that day they were just burning right through layers of sinewy material somewhere between my esophagus and my duodenum.
After a couple more of those and a hundred serious thoughts through my mind I had heard deep gongs in the distance; church bells going mad, followed by the deep hum of an organ being prepped for song. I had looked down at my watch and remembered the pipe organ concert in the church down the street that I didn’t want to miss. I love pipe organs.
I had walked in to this domed church earlier that day but the choir that was singing then had creeped me out and I had wanted to let the feeling pass, which is when I’d gone to wander the streets and listen to sexy flautists and cold violinists. Do you know what a trip it is to walk into a cathedral in Austria with a huge dome, full of dying Christs, baby angels, gold trimmings and swords everywhere only to hear a crowd of foreigners singing “This Land is Your Land” and “When the Saints go Marching in“? In English? Complete with a tambourine and everything as if they were smack dab int he middle of Birmingham, Alabama? Smack Dab. How would that make you feel? How would you react after 3 coffees and just as much whiskey, or whatever kinds of grappa they put in those things in these parts? How should one react?
Me? I’d stepped out in the bitterness of the chilly afternoon that makes you clench your fists and bury your fingertips into the creases of skin of your crossed arms. That was when I’d met Patricia, playing beautifully on the street.
But now I had come back to the church to give it another go since it was on to the pipe organs. These puppies I can handle, especially at loud volumes and on this much coffee and bourbon. But like I said, when I walk in I feel as if I’ve missed something. I am a bit self-conscious when I walk into what should be a booming organ concert but am met instead with dead silence and catholic minions staring ahead blankly at something I certainly can’t see from where I’m standing. It feels like a being a freshman and showing up stag to a sophomore prom. Without pants.
“Music!” I say into that silence, casually, but not softly, and my indiscretion echoes freely and resonantly under that finely tuned acoustic chamber filled with images of dying Christs. I repeat it, looking straight at the people looking back at me from the front pew. I say it with more determination and a bit of a subjunctive tone on my voice: “We must have music!”
People turn to look; they seem to think me harmless but insane. They do nothing, make no move to flee or attack, but they do make sure their children are close and their bags are at hand. Could they be right? Am I the crazy one here? After all, they are the ones not clapping for street musicians who work to delight us, basically for free. They are the ones not giving a standing ovation to the sounds of a free organ concert. They are the ones sitting and staring blankly at the top of an ornate church with an empty hole somewhere inside them that even this worthy mixture of powerful sounds and reverberating hums can’t seem to fill. The sounds of that organ, while lacking in beat still makes the chest cavity resonate like the acoustic womb of a guitar. “And I’m crazy?” I say in the center isle, continuing my line of thought out loud. I recognize now that I might have done better to keep my actual comments to myself because admittedly, from an outsider’s perspective, I must’ve been behaving like a drunk degenerate. But dammit, I was right!
Just then, the next piece starts from behind me with a BOOM! that makes me inhale fast and nearly jump out of my socks. I had forgotten that pipe organs are usually plopped at the back of the church where their satanic appearance is less visible and where the acoustic focus works better, given the layout of most cathedrals. The organist does the audience the favor of playing Davy Jones’ theme from Pirates of the Caribbean, which is a fantastic piece full of anger and ravenous sentiment, written for the movie and originally performed by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. I am ensnared, still standing in the aisle in between the pews. Of the few people that remained, none are staring at me any longer, and I spread out my arms, taking every tone, every pitch as a shock to the cerebrum. With every change of note I shiver; with every deep touch of the base I twitch. The organist works on me for the next hour, filling me with such deep prongs of music that it dispels all my concerns that people don’t enjoy it enough in a city like Vienna. At least now if they don’t enjoy it, I have so much in me that I can enjoy it for them.
I had asked for music, and music it was that I was given.
Cafe Europa — Vienna, Austria