I am out of my depth.
Unlike Oxford, I came to Vienna to become verloren, to become lost. But I didn’t realize exactly how unmoored I would feel. Language barriers–normally never much trouble for me–suddenly seem insurmountable. I am passable in Spanish (once fluent, but now no longer), can get by in French, and can read Italian and Portuguese, but German is overwhelming. It is overwhelming because it is unfamiliar, and my paltry practiced phrases dry up in the face of actual speakers. It also doesn’t help I’m the sort of person whose travels are dictated by whim and impulse, and this includes ignoring and leaving behind my guidebook in search of spontaneous adventure. However, my guidebook also contained a useful glossary of German words and phrases, but I can say Servus, ich heisse JJ, und ich bin Amerikanerin and Sprechen Sie Englisch? all I like, but it won’t make a difference, for I cannot escape what I am: a gauche tourist.
I am gauche and awkward and lost. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this way. The last time I felt thus was when I was a child, entering preschool for the first time with only five words of English: Mum, home, bathroom, water, food. It’s been so long I can no longer remember the small details of confusion, but moreover, of acceptance of that confusion. Now, in Vienna, the vividness of that confusion is brought home to me, but with none of my childlike acceptance. The world is large and unknown and confusing when you’re a kid. I must be as a kid again, to let my mind make the intuitive leaps between sound and sight once more, to prevent my long-suppressed shyness from overwhelming and silencing me. I must not be afraid to make mistakes.
I make an innocuous faux-paus at a cafe, where I spill my sugar all around my coffee instead of in it. I lick my finger and pick it up, in a way I haven’t done in forever. Zucker. Kaffeehaus. I have nouns, but no way to string them together in a sentence. That was always the hardest part of learning a new language. I have so many German words in my vocabulary, and no way to use them.
I sit in a room in the Leopold Museum, Klimt’s Life and Death to my right, a photograph/collage representation of his faculty paintings on my left. Despite the colour of the former, it is the latter which captivates me. A mere facsimile of what the original used to be, before it was lost in the war.
Artists leave but impressions of their souls behind. I remember being a callow and fearless youth, dreaming of the day my literary work would be studied in classes, much as I am contemplating this shadowy remnant of Klimt. So few of us with artistic aspirations will ever achieve the sort of immortality afforded to the likes of Klimt, Mozart, or Austen–the sort of immortality that makes the rest of us look for works that have been lost, or even incomplete. It is the incomplete works of the greats which intrigue me most, because the potential is so seductive. But then I’ve always loved seeing the shape of others’ half-formed thoughts. I even love my own, perhaps more than the work I’ve ever finished or polished. The process reveals so much more than the product, and I find much more kinship in the unfinished, unpolished works of the greats than I ever do in the ones hanging in galleries around the world.
A cartoon of a woman in a headdress, holding a bowl and a snake like some Celtic goddess, drawn in blue ballpoint pen. She feels like me, a woman three-quarters developed, with all her flaws marked out in indelible ink–unable to be erased, merely compensated for. I wonder if I will prefer this version of me when all is said and done.
What I can’t seem to be rid of is that American desire to “go, go, go”. Europe moves at a much slower pace than New York and I try my hardest to comply. I have time here, time to relax, time to enjoy, time to see everything Vienna has to offer. But there is a watch ticking at the back of my mind, and there is an incessant compulsion to move on, to see the next thing, to witness and be gone, rather than savour and stay. The afternoon is young yet and I have no plans, but why this impulse to “go, go, go”? Who am I without somewhere to go and someplace to be?
The Brunnenmarkt is where I feel the happiest. Turkish immigrants, fruit markets, textile goods stores, this is where the cheap and bohemian-wannabe be in me feels the most comfortable and the most amongst my own kind, like Camden Town or the East End of London, or the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in Queens, NYC. Although, if I want to be more correct, I am the flâneur here–the gentleman stroller–observing, watching, documenting, lingering, enjoying what I perceive to be the truest corners of a city.
An ominous wind blows in from the mountains, clearing away with increasing ferocity the slightly oppressive heat that has blanketed Vienna all day. I walk down the Brunnenmarkt and buy a carton of raspberries for €1.99 before the stormclouds make good on their threat and it begins to rain. Suddenly I am caught in a rainstorm in Vienna, and this, this is magical and exactly the romantic sort of situation I came here to find. I hop awnings and jump over puddles, laughter bubbling forth from me, as I make my way back to the nearest tram station.
The raspberries are the most delicious things I have ever eaten.
You can find more of my Vienna photographs here.