I am in Vienna for the weekend because I have been listless too long and burned out too badly and too often shiftless to do anything except rewatch my favorite episodes of Breaking Bad on Netflix. I am also in Vienna because it is here where my good friend Theresa now lives and she has invited me to visit, with promises that she would host me and that I would not have to spend a single dime for the entire trip.
There is another reason why I am here for the weekend: I am here because Vienna has always struck me as an infinitely romantic city, and I imagined it would be great to visit the places where Jesse and Céline have been and pretend that I too am young and in love.
I was actually recovering from the flu in the days leading up to the trip, and I tried to speed up my recovery with plenty of bedrest and a concoction of warm lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, and honey. I’m not sure it worked because on the morning I was to fly out, my body felt as though it had been struck by a mack truck. I made it to my gate three minutes before it closed.
When the plane descends into Flughafen Wien, the sky is overcast and heavy with rain. I message Theresa saying that I have landed, but she forgets that I am flying in today (she thought that I am arriving the following day) so she rushes out of the office to meet me in Wien-Mitte. She, too, is getting over a cold, and our mutual sniffles put me at ease; I am loath to make other people (see: healthy) uncomfortable by my being sick. Theresa goes back to work once I am settled in her flat. I plant my butt on the sectional and take a nap. That night we stuff our faces with nachos and fries and chicken wings at a place called Beaver Brewing Company and catch up.
We have not seen each other in nearly two years, and although we have never been the most intimate of friends, she is one of the few people in my life with whom I can always talk about the heavy stuff of life and on whom I can always count to give me good advice. We met during a time in our lives when we were both at a crossroads, meeting only briefly, temporarily before going our disparate ways, but in that time we managed to understand each other on a meaningful level. She is generous and brave and possessed of an inner strength that I’ve never had; I suppose one of the many reasons I have always been drawn to her was because I want to be like her.
It is Friday, my second day in Vienna, and I am feeling better. Theresa is working, so while she is busy trying to make the world a better place I decide to explore the city by foot. A quick breakfast of eggs on toast and I head out. I realize quickly the flaw in my plan: It is raining and I don’t have an umbrella. I continue on anyway.
Even to the untrained eye, Vienna is a beautiful city. The romance of the gothic and Neo-gothic, the grandeur of baroque monuments, the playfulness of Otto Wagner’s works, and even the more recent experimental expressions of Klimt and Schiele and Moser do not fail to impress.
It takes me a while to reach Zollamtssteg Bridge on foot, but I have no trouble finding it. I stay awhile and picture in my head how many young couples have been on this bridge, accidental or otherwise, and true enough a young couple who looks not unlike Jesse and Celine (she is bright-faced and blond, and he brunette with a smattering of a mustache and a beard) saunter onto the bridge. They proceed to take turns capturing each other’s photograph. I watch them silently from the corner of my eyes. They must have been there for the same reason that I am because I feel this inexplicable kinship toward them. Some minutes pass, and when they notice that I do not seem to be in any real hurry they ask me politely to take their photo. I take two and they thank me profusely. As they eventually head back the way they came and disappear from view, I choose to ignore the dull pang in my chest and wish them instead all the love in the world.
As I stroll along the length of the Donaukanal, patches of low-hanging clouds start to clear and give way to the late afternoon sun. I sit on the steps beside the river and soak in the warmth until the sun sets.
That night MT and I attend a buffet dinner her workplace is holding, and afterward get some dessert with a friend of hers—a half-Thai, half-Austrian girl named Andrea, who is really pretty. For the most part I let them do the talking, as I often do in unfamiliar company.
We get an early start on Saturday and head toward Kleines Café for brunch. True to its name, the cafe is small. It is narrow and low-ceilinged, and the cigarette smoke makes it seem dimmer and more claustrophobic than it actually is, but the Schinken omelette is delicious and the ambience cozy and the staff exceedingly affable even after a butchered attempt to place my order in Deutsch, so I don’t really mind. I do not see a palm reader willing to predict my future, but we see a father and his small son having breakfast at a table opposite to ours in relative silence. The elder is reading the morning paper with a glass of dark beer and a cigarette, the son a massive hardcover book bigger than his face.
At Maria am Gestande, MT decides she wants to get married in it, and this is coming from someone who has never subscribed to the idea of marriage and who by principle dislikes any and all form of organized religion. I too no longer believe in organized religion, but because I grew up in a Christian household and my earliest memories are filled with grand tales about Jesus and the stories of the bible, inside the cathedral I am moved into silence and in this silence I bask in its grandeur.
The flurries bear down on us outside. It is not quite as heavy to be considered a snowfall, so it is wet and we freeze strolling through Maria Theresien Platz. I see the art school that had rejected Hitler and perhaps given birth to the most devastating World War the world has ever experienced.
Properly frozen we take shelter at Café Sperl, where we have to wait ten minutes for a table. Just inside its doors, a sign reads: “Bitte kein Handy” (no phones please). I find the sign amusing, because on the same glass panel on which it is hung, there is a sticker advertising the cafe’s free wifi. We have a Sachtorte, a Mohnschnitte, an earl grey tea for MT, and a coffee with brandy and whipped cream for me. For some reason, the conversation at our table centers on dreams and positivity and why we should be wary of blind optimism. MT tells me optimism is useful only if you are grounded in reality. I tell MT that our physical experience is a reflection of our inner condition—hence my belief that blind optimism is a necessity. It is a pleasant conversation primarily because she listens to what I say without being dismissive of it.
The flurries do not stop, and hound us to a vintage clothing store in which I try on different biker jackets in an attempt to channel Danielle Haim. I manage to find a few gorgeous jackets, but I buy none of them.
Tonight MT is invited to dinner (and, by extension, so am I) by her long-time friends—a gay couple who lives in a cozy apartment that reeks domesticity and warmth and a life well lived. Ivan is a thirty-one-year-old Hungarian based in Vienna and he is currently working on his second Masters’ degree—an MA in game philosophy. His partner Asaf is from Israel and he is not at all thirty, and all I know about the work that he does is that he manages malls and travels a lot and that he makes more money in a year than I will ever have in my entire life. I like Asaf because when I mention that I am apprehensive of being turned away at Berghain, he tells me casually: “Look at you—who wouldn’t let you in?” Ivan and Asaf have been together six years and argue about the most trifling of things in great length and detail (tonight the point of contention seems to be a Nestea flavor Asaf loves and is going out of production, and neither seems to be able to come to a solution as to how they can keep drinking it once the last batches are sold), they each have a way of finding his hand on some part or another of the other’s body, and they call each other “baby” without any trace of irony, and by the end of the night I desperately want to be called “baby” too. We stay until way past midnight, and by the time we decide to call it a night we are properly drunk and have broken a glass of wine.
It is my last full day in Vienna, and after our brunch in front of the Donaukanal I find myself 60, 70 meters above ground in one of the carriages of the Wiener Riesenrad, staring at the sprawling city before me in every which direction. High places scare me, so I try not to look down so much. Nevertheless it is a grand time and I enjoy the ten minutes that I am suspended in the cold Viennese air.
The temperature seems to drop at Schloss Schönbrunn later that day, but it is only because the field is open and there are hardly any shelter from the wind. We walk around the palace awhile, soaking in its majesty. The gardens have about them this stately beauty, even though most of the foliage are still bare from winter. I wonder out loud how easy the monarchy must have had it the old days, having this much wealth all to themselves. But then again perhaps they did not have it easy at all and I am just jealous.
With dripping noses and numb extremities, we proceed to climb a 200-feet, snow sprinkled hill toward the Café Gloriette, an imperial pavilion looking down on the palace from a distance. There I experience for the first time a traditional Viennese dish called Kaiserschmarm—a plate of “softly browned omelette with stewed plums.”
I do not know if it is because I am subconsciously thinking it, or the universe is mocking me, or if perhaps it is because of the romantic aura of the city itself, but it becomes increasingly difficult not to notice all the couples around me all the time. They are everywhere—on the tram, on the street, in the cafes and museums and WCs. So on the hike down from the Gloriette, with gravel crunching beneath our boots and the moody overcast sky watching down on us with great indifference, MT and I start talking about boys and sex, monogamy and marriage, and the many lost loves in our lives and the special spaces they’ve left for new ones to fill. The central questions of that whole conversation seem to be these: how do you pull yourself out, time and again, from the flotsam of heartbreak without being destroyed by the pain of it all? How do you keep your heart full and not turn into an embittered fool after every successful recovery? How do you convince yourself that there is always a point in trying despite not having any guarantee that you won’t get hurt again? After all, the willingness to endure pain is part of that peculiar package.
Like many good questions, I do not have their answers.
Back in the city center, we head to Stephansdom because I have not yet seen up close its tiled mosaic roof. Inside, a Sunday mass is about to commence. I light a candle for 0,95€ and offer whoever is listening a silent prayer.
Outside the sky is getting dark, the temperature is dropping, and as a final request I ask MT to come with me to Albertina and take my photo on the balcony, with the Sacher Hotel on the left and the Wiener Staatsoper right next to it as my backdrop—an attempt to replicate a famous shot in the Before Sunrise. I have been to the museum two days before, but it was bright out and snowing, not the right conditions for the shot I wanted.
There are hardly anyone in the balcony now, and the sky continues to dim. Behind me the Staatsoper’s windows glow gold and bright. I hop onto the parapet and allow myself to be photographed. When we finally get the shot, I am overcome with a rush either of accomplishment or melancholia, probably both. I don’t know.
I came to Vienna without really having any fixed expectation, except to see in the flesh the places I had before seen only on the screen, and imagine what Jesse or Celine must have felt seeing them. My trip, I know now, is more than taking photographs for private keeping, a greater endeavor than to have proof that I have been somewhere: in many ways this journey is a pilgrimage to young love. The reason why I adore Before Sunrise is because I know what young love feels like, its sheer magnitude, the transformative intensity of it that changes a you for better or worse, all the promises it holds, and I am lucky enough to have experienced that kind of love for myself, some years ago. And after having seen and touched and committed these places to memory, I am reminded anew what that love is like, and that is the reason why I’m writing this now so that I don’t forget.
The most striking thing about Vienna is, at least for me, its air of romance, lending a certain sheen to everything seen and heard and touched so that simply being in it seems a hallucinatory experience. It is easy to fall in love in Vienna, even if that means you’re falling in love on your own, even if that love has no object and nowhere to go. It may perhaps be just a fool’s delusion that makes me feel this way, but it does not really bother me.
It is time to go. MT sees me off at Wien-Mitte, and we make promises to see each other again, perhaps in Lisbon in June. This time I make it to the airport with plenty of time to spare, but it doesn’t matter because my flight is delayed. When my plane does arrive, I sleep the whole hour back home, to Berlin, a place that I love more than anywhere in the world but where I am reminded every minute of every day that I am not as young as I used to be.