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Humans of Vienna

July 2012

The bus made a stop in Brno, Czech Republic, on its way to Vienna. I got off at the station to buy something to eat, spending the last of my Czech Koruna, which I'd kept aside as souvenirs. Back on the bus, a young man sat next to me in lieu of the older gentleman I had started the journey with. He read Memoirs of a Geisha in German, and watched a Harry Potter movie, and I suspect he may have been fun to talk to if he had taken his headphones off for a few seconds. I stared out the window and took shaky videos of the dazzling sunflower fields and gave him a life-story. Do you ever do that? Give strangers a story, imagine what their life must be like, where they've been, where they're going?



The hostel was in Hütteldorf, slightly far out from the city centre (the last stop on the U-Bahn) but a really lovely suburban area. I got lost, despite the clear directions, because that's what I do, but a kindly man helped me out. I huffed and puffed on the uphill(ish) climb, and wasn't disappointed; the room, to be shared with five others, was charming, and this hostel served the best, hugest breakfast spread as far as hostels go. My Russian roommate was easy to befriend once we started talking. She was in Vienna for an opera master class for two weeks. She braided her hair in a zillion braids as I watched from the corner of my eye, which turned into the most gorgeous curls the next morning. She told me I ate like a bird, and we talked about fellow travellers, careers and asthma.

My interaction with the other roommates was even more fleeting: a Chinese girl who was a student in Gent and let me borrow her laptop to copy my photos onto a disk, all the while chatting pleasantly; an American mother-daughter duo that didn't speak to me once till I gave away my bottle of (accidentally bought) sparkling water (the most pointless drink in the world?) to the mom, who then asked me about my trip and told me about theirs. And then we all went our separate ways. Maybe our paths will cross again - you never know with travellers.



Just a couple of U-Bahn stops from Hütteldorf is the Schönbrunn Palace, where I was due to attend a (kiddie version, because it's cheaper, of a) marionette theatre performance of Mozart's The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte). I was sleepy from the journey, had the worst seat imaginable - last row corner - and hungry (to quell this, I had taken the liberty of ordering a "waffle" at the cafe which turned out to be one of these forlorn things). A family of four sat in the vicinity, the dad and kids in the row in front of me and the very anxious-fidgety mother next to me. They were beautiful, and the parents spoke English to their kids, but they also (all) knew German perfectly, and I spent far too much time wondering how that worked. At one point the mum asked me something, and her daughter exclaimed "She speaks English!" in wonderment. I understood less of the performance than I'd thought, though it was stunning. I also dozed a little. Then I took a solitary walk through Schönbrunn's magnificent gardens.


Starvation is not fun. The fact that pretty much everything is closed on weekends, combined with my woeful (on that occasion) map-reading skills, meant that I couldn't find any food near the hostel. I was starting to think I'd have to take the train back towards the city centre when I saw two boys walking up the road, eating takeout noodles. I made a beeline for them. "HI, where'd you get THOSE?" "At the station!" The station? How had I missed food at the station? Back I went, passing a lady with a giant pizza slice on the way and sure enough, there it was. I started to order my noodles in German, but got caught out. "Are you Indian?" (sigh) "Yep." He was more chatty the next day when I returned for one of the huge pizza slices, speaking to me in Hindi (!), telling me he was from Afghanistan, but had learned Hindi from watching Bollywood movies and from Indian colleagues when he worked in Dubai. And now here he was, working in Vienna and speaking perfect German. Some people make you feel like you haven't lived at all.

On both evenings, I took my dinner to a nearby park, perched on the bench, and enjoyed the traquility, feeling almost free of the constraints of time itself. Almost.

The park bench and the pizza 

Then there was the boy who laughed.

It was raining on Sunday morning, and I was sitting on a couch in the hostel surrounded by a few strangers. He came up to us and said hi, and no one responded except me. He sat down and stared into the distance, and occasionally he would laugh. He didn't talk to anyone - or no one talked to him.

When it stopped raining, I walked to Hütteldorf station and saw him coming up the escalator while I waited for the U-Bahn. I didn't much feel like chatting, but he'd seen me and there was nowhere to go. So I replied to his smile with one of my own, and he tried to make conversation in broken English. He was from Slovakia, and he said he spoke better German than English.

"Ich kann Deutsch," I told him, thereby squashing a great excuse to stop talking. He seemed nice enough, and now conversed in broken German, but by this point the paranoid Delhi girl in me had taken over and the laughter scared me. I began to grow colder. When I got down, he didn't follow.

Later, I told my roommate about him. "I've spoken to him too," she said. "He's very peaceful."


At one of the U-Bahn stations was a woman busker who sat on the steps and sang. She looked young and beautiful. She had no instruments, only a hauntingly beautiful voice. I couldn't understand the words of the song, but that didn't stop them from moving me. I stared at her (and the policeman trying to get her to leave), transfixed as the train moved away.



Somewhere in the midst of checking out all the places where Before Sunrise was filmed, losing my precious notes near the Museums Quartier, desperately retracing my steps and finding the papers miraculously nestled beside a staircase, eating Frankfurters and Apfelstrudel and admiring the blue sky, I found myself staring at a golden statue in Neuer Markt. Beside it, a man created the most glorious music from his Glockenspiel (I think) and voice.

The golden statue had some sort of net over it, and as I searched for the best angle for my photo, a voice chimed in to advise me. It belonged to a Mumbaikar now living in Melbourne, and led to some pleasant chatting before we both went our ways.


On the U-Bahn to Friedensbrücke, I sat opposite an old hag. I don't normally use that word to describe people, nor any of the other words that I actually use for her in my head, but she was huge and spotted and looked a lot like an old Marge Dursley without any dogs, and she punched my head on her way out. I saw her humungous fist come at my temple from the corner of my eye, and she was gone before I could react. I spent the rest of my trip keeping a safe distance from old women.