Welcome to Wien-er-nee-ner-nee-ner

Shortly after writing my last column, I took a 12-hour overnight train to Vienna, where I am now enrolled as a student at the University thereof (the oldest in the German-speaking world!).

This has not been a positive development on several fronts. Let´s start with my German. Whenever I explained to German speakers what I would be doing this semester, they shook their heads in regret for my soon-to-vanish consonants. One member of the Swarthmore ITS staff explained that “In Wien, sprechen sie wie so: maah-naah-maaah-nah-meeee-mahhhh.

(Which my boyfriend found hilarious, and proceeded to repeat whenever anyone spoke to me in German for the next six months.)

So my German does me no good in this city. The worst thing they do, to my ear, is pronounce “ei” as “ee”, so for example “drei,” which should be dry, is “dree“, which sounds like dray.

Completely disgraceful, right? So they have a well-deserved inferiority complex. Take the matter of the polar bears (Eisbaeren, literally ice-bears). Berlin currently has a polar bear cub named Knut. After his mother abandoned him and his brother, who died of an infection three days later, Knut was hand-raised by a zookeeper, who turned him into the first surviving polar bear in Berlin in thirty years.

This is a BIG DEAL in Berlin. There are songs about Knut. There are TV series. There are little gummy Knuts you can eat. Knut was on the cover of Vanity Fair.

About a year after Knut was born, Flocken was born at the Nuerenberg Zoo. (Nuerenberg: home of the Nazi War Criminal Trials and a REALLY CUTE ICE BEAR!) Flocken is pretty unremarkable compared to Knut, but his well-being is still frequently a subject for the tabloids. (On which topic, my favorite headline ever: “Knut ist nicht wie Britney. Knut ist normal,” a quote from a zookeeper responding to claims that Knut would go crazy because of his human rearing.)

Then Vienna had twin polar bears which it was very proud of. Finally, it could compete with its neighbor to the north! The first week I was here the bears were in the news every day. There were pictures every day of the two playing together. There were quotes from the record crowds. There were breathless headlines about how one had stepped out for a pee. The bears hadn´t even been named yet, so there was a contest for what names the readers wanted. (Max and Moritz is my favorite suggestion.)

One day there was a full two-page spread about which bear of the three cities was the cutest, complete with quotes from Wieners about why their bears won. (“Oh mein gott! Sie sind soooooo suess!” –Heidi Plaumann, 7 and “Eigentlich weil wir zwei haben!” –Katarina Schlick, 78) The conclusion was that Knut was no longer cute.

And I was amazed! Because I had never heard about these bears in Berlin! Not once! Not about their pees, that one might expect, but not even that they existed! While Knut and Flocken were regular headliners! So we know which city is the Haverford in this relationship, huh?

But if that isn´t reason enough to be depressed in Vienna, here´s one: this city is dead. I´m serious. The last question on my “Berlin und Wien” final exam last semester, an exam I took progressively drunker each question, was “Is Berlin a Construction Site of History, a Monster on the Spree? Is Vienna a Slaughterhouse of History, a Museum of History? Agree or disagree. Provide examples.”

I agreed, using an essay about Viennese architecture and The Night Porter. But now that I´m here, I see that I didn´t agree quite fervently enough. (Can I have another crack at that exam, Sunka? I´m not drunk this time, only depressed.)

Vienna is a city built for a world which no longer exists and which has not existed since 1914. Inertia has left it essentially unchanged since then–a signifier, so to speak, utterly without signified. A black hole of history (have you seen their Holocaust Memorial? It´s a “we don´t feel like thinking about this anymore” disgrace shoved in a back corner, and I hate it, and the other one is actually a memorial for victims of the war against fascism, which they think that they are, and they are, sure, but they were entirely complicit in that war as well and I am angry about this, this is what about I am angry) and a place where the present, which is here, which is now, is struggling very hard to find form but which is failing, frozen by the stultifying weight of centuries of Hapsburgs, completely lost under layers and layers of stone-dead tradition and uncomfortably buried forgetfulness.

(I am buried under layers of Austrian bureaucracy and a university that is far too large for comfort. But that´s different.)

It´s a good thing they got psychoanalysis before 1914, is what I´m trying to say, because boy oh boy do they need it now. Talking about shrinks in Vienna sounds like the setup for a joke but I haven´t thought of the punchline yet. Again, I blame it on the air.

I live in what might be considered the city´s most vibrant district, the 10th, where the Turks live (I will talk about the Turks next column at length), and where 40% of Vienna´s crime occurs despite having only 10% of the population. (Admittedly this is probably still less crime than happened last week in Philly.)

One might think that this would be good for my sense of empty symbolism and gloom, and it is, a bit, although it would be more if the Turks were doing something new and exciting. It occurred to me last week that this is what the controversy over the Cologne Cathedral and the Cologne Mosque is all about–the power of dying symbols. Have you heard about that?

The Muslims in Cologne want to build a mosque, and there are some loud people in Cologne who don´t want them to. Cologne has an identity as a very Christian city–it features the Cologne Cathedral, one of the tallest in the world and with the largest facade–and certain of its residents are upset that the new mosque would be located two miles away from this cathedral and that it will be a whole one-third of its size. They say it would change the skyline and give the Muslims a symbol around which to focus their pride, and that this is a problem!

And I can see that. You know, if I were one of the (what is it now? 30 percent?) dwindling number of true believers in Europe, and some other religion was all “Hey, you know how our numbers are increasing relative to yours? We want a building!” I might be sort of upset too.

But c´mon, Cologne. Is becoming the Slaughterhouse of History really what you want? The city should reflect its people, not its past. So let the people have their mosque, and let its towers be the size of the cathedral if that´s what they want.

Besides, religious buildings are totally out of fashion as city symbols now. You know what´s in as well as I do–an Eisbaer! A Christian one! You can call it Jesus, and baptize it yourselves. It´ll be so big, even Berlin will report on it.

(And Vienna will be jealous. I promise.)

Kicking and screaming,

Lauren Stokes


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