Vienna is perhaps best summed up by the words of one of my favorite authors, John Irving, who writes in The World According to Garp, "It was Garp's experience to live in a city that made him feel peculiar to be eighteen years old...this must have contributed to his increasing sense that Vienna was more of 'a museum housing a dead city'...than it was a city that was still alive." Irving should know, as he studied at the very same Institute for European Studies where I spent the fall of 2001.
Vienna does, indeed, make one feel odd to be young. The city is incredibly well preserved - almost obsessively so, to the point where one feels modernity has slipped away. This peculiar "pickled" quality about Vienna is enchanting at times, but maddening at others (try to find a place to buy groceries on a Sunday - there is exactly one store open, in the train station). Even the population, if you look around, seems to be rather, well, old.
As I said, there are times when this lends the city an air of authenticity and majesty not often to be found in the other imperial cities (London, for example). There was one day that sticks out in my mind... it was just before I left, a week or two before Christmas. I was at the Christmas market at the Rathaus - a big open-air market with stalls and booths of vendors from all over the city hawking food, gifts, crafts, and art. My friends and I got there just around dusk. The Rathaus was lit up from within, Christmas decorations everywhere, and the people at the market were all friendly, happy. There was a fresh layer of snow on the ground from the night before and that day, and the overwhelming sense of...I guess CONTENTMENT...was incredible. You really felt like there wasn't a modern care or worry in the world. The city looked tremendous.
But there are other times when it can make you want to tear your hair out. The Viennese have absolutely no patience, none whatsoever, for foreigners. Unless your German is perfect, don't bother - they'll either snap at you in German or just switch and snap in English. Old ladies will, I kid you not, beat you out of the way to get to something before you in a grocery store. People will yell at you for crossing a completely empty, ghostly street if the crossing sign isn't lit. It has been said that the worst thing about Vienna is the Viennese. And I'd have to agree!
Even the city itself can have an almost unapproachably icy, imperial air about it. On a clear day, the architecture is magnificent, striking, but on a rainy day, when the stone turns from white to drab grey, the cobblestones become a safety hazard, and the city is dark and shadowy - the entire thing just becomes depressing and gloomy.
For all that, Vienna simply cannot be bested for glory and beauty, at least not by any locale I've yet visited. The culture in the city is staggering - the best music and the best art the world can offer in one place. The Vienna Opera House is up the street from the Kunsthistorisches (art history) Museum, down the street from the Belvederes, across the street from the square where the students of the Vienna Conservatory practice their string quartets for the edification...and monetary appreciation...of the passers-by. It's daunting, really, and ensures that a visit to Vienna will never lack for cultural substance.
Vienna, for all its quirks, for all its faults, nevertheless captured my heart over a semester there. I will always remember it as the place that cradled me and my fellow American students as we weathered September 11, feeling oddly ashamed of ourselves for not being home when it happened. Vienna made it bearable, and for that if nothing else, I will always love the City of Music.