Vienna’s Inferiority Complex
In the book Café Europa, Slavenka Drakulic claims that, wherever you go in eastern Europe, you see places naming themselves Europe, Paris, London, New York. They do this, she says, because they have want to show that they are striving for something, they want to emphasize their European identity. And in doing so, they show their insecurity.
But over a decade after the book was written, I thought for sure that the situation had changed. Then I got to Vienna.
Café Europa. Hotel Europe. Europe Hotel. Again, again, again, ostentatious displays of European identity, in all parts of the city old and new.
Vienna is in a precarious geographic position. It has long sought to be Western European, but it is East of Prague. It is on the outermost edge of its language, of its country, and of its region.
It has always felt that it is a bit behind on the times, because it is. The Ringstrasse, the three-mile walkway that surrounds the old city, is where the wall stood until the 1800s. By the time the wall was torn down, no other Western European city had maintained its siege defenses.
The city is filled with huge buildings screaming their grandeur to the skies. Classical motifs abound, and every stature and fountain and building has a Michealangelean nude watching passersby.
Over a century later, one of the most noticeable things I found while visiting was not the city’s decoration: it was the street blockages caused by renovations. Everywhere within the Rigstrasse, the buildings are covered with decorative motifs, are painted whites and creams and covered in statues and frescos.
According to the tour guide, the city government performs these renovations, constantly, on every street. Every building is refurbished every few years, kept looking shiny and new. Kept looking European.
Vienna has something to prove to outsiders. But it also has something to prove to itself. This is the city that nurtured the last true Hapsburg Crown Prince to his suicidal grave. The city that welcomed Adolf Hitler, banished its Jewish inhabitants, and stands still in the shadow of that sin. A city that experimented with socialism while standing at the gateway to the Eastern bloc during the Cold War.
Any outsider can tell based on the ridiculous prices the Viennese classify as “sales” that the city is firmly in the developed world. The place is as European as London, as Paris, and more even than Prague. But in the end, the opinion of the outsiders does not matter. Vienna cannot geographically fix itself in the Western half of Europe, and it can never mentally secure itself in its status as a Western city. If you don’t believe me, try counting the number of Café Europas.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Krakow, Poland. First built in the 1220s. Destroyed. Rebuilt in Gothic style, 1320s. Windows added 1350s. Vaulting added, early 1400s. Chapels added, mid 1400s. 1700s, interior gutted and redone in Baroque.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, Austria. Construction began in 1137 in the Romanesque style, on top of a cemetery. 1258, fire destroys most of building. Building began again in Romanesque in 1260s. Early 1300s, construction shifts to Gothic style. Completion date: never. Renovation and addition: continuous.
St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague, Czech Republic
Construction begins: Romanesque style, 900s. Enlargement, 1000s. Mid 1300s, contruction and renovation shifts to Gothic style. Post-Renaissance, construction shifts to Baroque style (for centuries, this cathedral had a wooden roof). Mid 1800s, “neo” Gothic contruction and renovation begin. Renovation: ongoing.
These are the three big, grand, gorgeous churches that I have seen thus far on my travels in central Europe. They have been torn down, burned down, razed by invading Turks and Swedes, elevated by bishops and demoted by cardinals.
None of them are uniform. Their construction periods are so long that they outlived themselves.
These cathedrals were old and outdated before they were even new.
And they are, all of them, gloriously beautiful. To walk into any one of these spectacular structures is to forget to breathe. I have literally wandered around with my head thrown back until I bumped into confused Chinese tourists.
The cathedral is one of the emblematic symbols of Europe. We have our monuments in America, Asia has its temples, Australia its wildlife, Africa its epics, and Europe has its castles and its cathedrals.
Each cathedral was irrevocably altered by the events surrounding it. These churches have seen empires rise and crumble, philosophies and religions die. The powerful have added their own touches, have made their own decisions about the content and image of the cathedrals across more than a millennia.
Conquered and “liberated,” freed but altered: sound familiar?
These cathedrals are Central Europe. A place of tradegdy and beauty, where everything changes but people cling to their dreams, their language, and their names with remarkable force.
All of Europe feels old, aged and sometimes decrepit, but it’s actually a young place, filled with youth and progress. Everything just feels old, feels ancient, feels as worn and tired as the cathedrals who waited centuries to be built a roof.
And who is not awed by the survival of Eastern and Central Europe, the ability of the people to weather any storm, to deal with the ceaseless rise and fall of empires and yet survive, mostly intact?
The grand cathedrals; old before they are young, standing through invasions by the Swedes and Turks and Nazis. The Czechs, the Austrians, the Slovaks and the Poles; alive, speaking their own languages, irrevocably sundered by the divisions of generations-old wars and yet alive and moving forward into the future.
It’s a glorious day to explore in Oshweitheim (phonetic name). The sun is shining on the squat Polish houses, the inhabitants of this small town are wandering around with their lunches and children in tow, and everywhere flowers are turning their faces to the sun.
An hour of free time, and I’m off to see this beautiful place. About ten minutes into my walk, I come to a field in the middle of the houses and flats. Seeing a path well trodden in the dirt, and a few men and a dog across the field tending a backyard (Rural Poles are obsessed with gardening), I make my way down the track.
Halfway across, I’m approaching the men’s dog, a beautiful puppy whose ears would brush my knee. Dogs in Poland and the Czech Republic have been immaculately trained thus far. They don’t bark, they don’t even look at me, and I’ve missed it. So when the dog starts staring at me and wagging its tail, I’m rather pleased. I make non-language friendly noises and extend my closed fingers, to allow the dog to sniff without giving it an opening to bite.
Immediately, she starts barking like mad. I rear back, saying “Okay, Okay, I get it,” and seeing her triumph, she continues as I quickly turn and continue on the path. For obvious reasons, I’m now going fast and thinking about how dumb this random girl looks to the Poles, and when I turn around the dog is following me, still barking, and this is a threatening, full body bark. On a smaller dog, the whole body shakes with this kind of bark. This is a bark to freaking run from.
But she stops at the boundary of her territory, and I continue on unmolested. And then, ten minutes later, an enourmous German Shepard hears me passing and tries to jump the fence. Unsuccessfully, thank God, but the Polish “beware of dog” sign is thouroughly redundant, and I’m debating running for my life.
This got me thinking about the ubiquitous dogs of Eastern Europe. Prague is stuffed with dogs, packed with beautifully manicured coats—the street cleaners are mostly there to clean up after the dogs. Krakow too, had many dogs, but on reflection I started to see something different. In Prague, the norm is for dogs to go without leashes, just walking sedately along (unless there’s a bitch in heat nearby, but that’s a whole other thing). But in Krakow, I never saw a dog off a leash.
This could be a simple legal difference, but not so the other dissimilarities. Prague dogs were almost exclusively purebred, the telltale deformities of too-short legs and impractical hair clearly marking their breed, along with their perfectly evenly colored coats. And they are small dogs, rarely larger than a cocker spaniel.
Krakow dogs were more likely to be mutts, and despite the flat living in that city, they were bigger. I saw only one or two drop-kick dogs. The rare Prague sight of a larger breed was far more common there. And in the country, the dogs were furious at a sign of intrusion.
So the obvious question is, why? A fashion trend in one of the cities? A cultural difference? But Americans have big, friendly dogs on leashes—why that difference?
I think it comes down to the difference between developed and developing nations. This difference is what I saw most clearly when we traveled from Prague to Krakow. The bus in Poland passed many well-manicured lawns and gardens, but public areas were chaotic. Street venders were in every town, and a flea market sat in every main city square. Facades were faded, pavement more worn. Bicycles were everywhere, the mark of those who cannot afford a car.
A dog is a luxury in Prague, and in the United States. We can breed for certain useless characteristics, and think about nothing but convienience when deciding what size we want a dog to be.
But in a country in which, only twenty years ago, pizza was a scarcity and jeans a luxury item, dogs fulfill their ancient function. They are not just man’s best friend: they are man’s protector. The Pole who goes looking for a dog is, consciously or not, evaluating how much security their buddy will provide.
And I think that is the fundamental difference in culture between the developing world and the developed, between the proverbial “East” and “West,” at least in Europe. There is a sense of comfort in a fully developed “1st world” nation, one that other countries lack. There is a security on the streets of Prague, a level of comfort that allows Czech women to walk alone at 11 at night, that is lacking in Krakow. There is a nervousness buried in the bedrock.
But there is something to be said for this kind of insecurity, because what it brings with it is energy. There is a spark to the streets of Krakow, a feeling of urgency and drive that has faded with the stonework in Western Europe. There is a fire in those determined to develop, to catch up with the rest of the world. In the heavily developed West, the dogs never bark, but in the East, they bark up a storm.
There’s a Spider on My Bed: Life with the Window Open
Take One: a cricket in a dorm shower.
AHHH!! Shit, shit, shit, shoes, need a shoe, STOMP.
Take Two: A month in at the Czech Republic, a spider on the bed.
A bare-handed kill, that second one.
A lot of people know that there’s much less air conditioning in Europe. I like this, as I usually prefer clean air to recycled.
What I never thought about before I got here is that, because fresh air needs to keep circulating, the windows are kept open. All the time.
And in Prague, there are no screens on the windows. There are instead two layers of glass, to keep the cold out in the winter.
Now, no screen means a lot of good things. Sitting on a windowsill is lovely, there’s no struggle with weird hooks or locks. But it also means that there’s nothing to keep the bugs out.
And so, the kitchen always has a few fruit flies around. Housefly corpses litter every windowsill. And spiders make themselves right at home.
So, you either get over being afraid or have a heart attack and die. I’ve lost count of the number of bugs I’ve killed with my palm by now: I’ve even learned how to kill them without getting them smeared on my skin. There’s a trick to it.
And not only did I get used to killing bugs, but more importantly I got used to live bugs. There are two or three spiders in my room at the moment. I know where they are, and I know how to kill them. But they’re just little things, and letting them live means I don’t have to swat so many flies.
I’m not saying its better: I can bet my arachnophobic little brother would never develop this attitude. But I know I find it comforting to have one less thing to be afraid of.
The Nazi SS had its work cut out for it in Prague, chasing down resistance members. Hundreds of people and their families were tortured to death in the dreaded subterranean chambers of the SS headquarters. Men, women, and children, dismembered and displayed to their family members, all in the name of the Reich.
Today, the same building is the Ministry of Agriculture. It stands two blocks from the building in which I take classes. I had passed it just the day before learning of the SS’s atrocities.
World War Two, a distant memory in America, lives in every city here. There are fewer than two thousand Jews in the Czech Republic, but every bookstore without fail has a section on Jewish history and the Holocaust. Speaking of bookstores, it seems that every book I pick up is a gripping story of a girl in the midst of the Nazi invasion, of a man remembering his life in the SS, of a woman tracing her family back through the war.
In the heart of the city, plaques grace corners and cobblestones, memorials to the dead. No one has to go out of the way here to see a “historical site”: they pass them on the way to work.
The blood was spilled on these streets, and it soaked into this soil. The entire continent is still reeling, trying desperately to understand a trauma generations old.
We don’t have that back home. Wars are distant, remote things, seen on our television, their cost counted in coffins delivered via plane. We howl with outrage at attacks on our soil, and spend years trying to recover from them.
But when I tried to make a simple dichotomy, US=history remote, Europe=history present, something stopped me. I wondered when the last land war occurred in America.
We call it the Civil War. Or the War Between the States. The War For Southern Independence. And in certain places, it’s just “The War.”
A few decades for the Europeans? We’ve been keeping a fascination with the Civil War alive for a century and a half!
For some reason, when blood is spilled at home it gains an almost supernatural hold over us. Until a new war wipes it out, a piece of our psyche is just locked in that moment. The dead seem to be reaching out, and entire countries hold their breath to listen.
We’re lucky it’s only the South that the Civil War was fought in, because I think it frees the rest of us to look towards the future.
America is often called a country without a history, where one hundred years is reckoned a ludicrous period. And this is true, as is so often decried by Europhiles and educated people.
But maybe that’s not as bad as we think. We have our sins and our prides, but we get to live without them either dragging us down or lifting us up. Whether its morally good or not, most Americans do not feel the weight of the dead around their necks every day. In Europe, everyone remembers. No one can forget.
The shopping center swarms with activity. People go back and forth from store to store, eat in the elaborate open-plan restaurants that here pass as a food court, then head out to another European or American brand-name store, or go to see a subtitled American movie.
When they leave the buildings completely, they congregate right where I and my grou pare standing—at the public transport. Everyone ehre takes the buses and trams, because none of us want the hassle of a car.
As we stand waiting for the bus, the tour guide spots something. He bends a bit close to us and surreiptiously mutters “Gypsies” as a group of laughing young brown boys passes us.
It’s not the fact that he said at all this which strikes me as odd. We are on an “Off the Beaten Path” tour, and we had just been asking him what the Roma look like, of which none of us were sure.
What’s odd about this moment is the tone of voice, the tilt of the head, those unspoken and not-quite describable pieces of human behavior. Out tour guide, whose tour was sold as taking us to a “Roma” neighborhood, finds these kids distasteful. And everyone around us avoids them.
It’s a rare moment of seeing a class in action. I’ve been taking a seminar about contemporary Czech society, designed to help some of us volunteer with Czech organizations. And we had just finished a session a few days before, which has involved modern prejudice against gypsies.
The Gypsies have been in Bohemia for over a thousand years, but not these gypsies. The dark brown men, women, and children in the streets of Prague are overwhelmingly recent immigrants, who have come within the last two generations.
The Gypsies position as the “other” inherently twisted, inhuman race in the Holocaust is often overlooked, but that does not make their experience less horrific. Of the several hundred thousand Roma living in Bohemia in 1938, some 800 survived the Holocaust.
Thus, Roma are both an ancient and a very modern “problem” in Czech society. Dark-skinned men and women find that jobs they apply for have “just been filled,” are targeted by insults on the streets, are isolated from society.
A difficult situation, and one that to an American of my particular type seems utterly alien. Two or three generations are enough to make someone unquestionably American. A hundred years are usually enough to flawlessly integrate a group into society. And though we have our own issues, and many race-based problems of our own, they have been proved by group after group to be surmountable.
So when I heard about community service taking Roma children to the zoo, I jumped at the chance. My bleeding heart syndrome flared up, and I went with a few other students to meet the kids.
And what walked up to us were not the underclass, discriminated against, displaced people I had expected. Instead, a bunch of girls and a few boys, linked arm-in-arm and chattering at the top of their lungs, practically ran up to us. None of them looked particularly dark, and any of them would have blended into America in a heartbeat.
None of them were wearing dirty clothing, none of them looked undernourished or abused or any of the stereotypes floating around about Roma.
But more importantly, they had the same combination of obnoxiousness and gregariousness that I’ve seen in most kids of their age I’ve ever met. They were here to have fun, and we were strictly optional.
When we got to the zoo, we were paired with one kid each. I ended up with a chubby nine-year-old named Natalka. Through an interpreter who soon wandered off, I managed to find out that she had never been to the zoo before.
I have never seen a child as un-awed by cool animals as this little girl. You see, upon realizing that I had no idea how to speak Czech (and therefore that I was rather dense) she appointed herself my teacher and became the bossiest mother hen I have ever met. I was directed to remember different words for animals, nature, and adjectives. I was led around pointedly, as Natalka wandered across playground equipment and gestured me to follow her on the structures designed for ten-year-olds (I will never admit how many times I bumped my head). I was to follow her words and her steps, and nothing else.
Eventually, the lessons ended and the kids had to get home. Some of the girls and boys hugged their partners, some extended hands to be shaken. I gave the somewhat reluctant Natalka a quick hug and thanked her for her help.
There is nothing for shattering stereotypes like spending some time with people, but there are also dangers in making assumptions about other people. I discovered a few days later, while reading a book about Eastern European Roma, that traditional gypsies have strict laws about contact with gadje, outsiders. I have no idea if that was why some of the kids, including Natalka, were reluctant to make physical contact with us. I still feel bad when I realize it probably was, and that some of us failed to respect that, applying American ideas of casual childhood affection. Especially myself.
White guilt is the facetious way white American refer to their fear of accidental racism, or of being considered racist for things beyond their control. In some ways, this is a good thing, as it makes us aware of our behavior in a way that is probably for the better. But issues of race and ethnicity are a lot more complicated than rather simplistic phenomena like white guilt trick us into believing. They don’t apply to everyone.
In Europe, many gypsies don’t want help. They don’t want outside interference, because they remember all the times that interference has devastated their community. Outsiders are not to be trusted. And a couple of naïve Americans taking kids, kids whose lives are both universally similar and, perhaps, intensely different, out on a trip to the zoo? Maybe it’s good, but it’s probably just making us feel good.