Memories of Vienna

Vienna

Vienna

To avoid getting in trouble by using copyrighted material, let me point out that the above photo came from Virtourist.com. The exact web address for this photo is: http://www.virtourist.com/europe/vienna/02.htm.

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In the late 1980s I was working for IBM E/ME/A, that is, Europe/Middle East/Africa. I was still reporting to an office in Atlanta, but representing those other parts of the world. My basic duties were to take training materials created in the U.S. and see that they were translated for the other countries. Since I am not fluent in any language besides English, my main responsibility in translation was to remove American cliches and examples.

When I signed on to this two to three year assignment, I had high hopes of traveling extensively at IBM’s expense. My trip to Vienna for a three day meeting was the sum total of the extensive travel. As luck would have it, my good friend in London was still working for IBM, so I was able to add a couple of days to the trip to visit England while conferring with my friend. As I recall, much of our conferring took place in pubs.

Being an adventurous person, when I arrived at the airport in Vienna I decided to travel as the locals would; rather than taking a limo to my hotel – at IBM’s expense – I asked the person at the currency exchange booth for the least expensive way to get to my hotel.

The instructions I was given included a bus ride into town, a subway ride across town, and a short walk. I didn’t have a lot of luggage – one medium sized suitcase and a briefcase – so I didn’t see any problem whatsoever in taking the proposed route.

The bus ride was the easiest part. I’d instructed the driver where I needed to get off as I boarded the bus. He was very accommodating and gave me plenty of warning. From that point on, things got rather interesting. I walked for several blocks looking for something resembling a subway station. Finally, I stopped in a small cafe and asked for directions. Fortunately, everyone I had encountered up to that point spoke very good English and I was soon on my way in search of a sign with a large “U”.

Who would have guessed the Austrians call their subway the U-Bahn, which is short for Untergrundbahn? That’s a German word meaning Underground Rapid Transit. I soon learned that German is the official language of Austria.

Once I found a U-Bahn station, I encountered a new set of problems. There was no one in a booth selling tickets. Instead, I found myself staring at a vending machine.

While I knew the address of my hotel, there was nothing about the machine to help me decide which train to take and how far to go on it. All instructions were in German, which made it impossible for me to decipher. (Or, as my German coworker back in the states would say, “It’s UN-possible!”) Furthermore, the machine only took coins and all I had was paper currency.

I considered going back up to the street and hailing a cab. That’s when a gentleman came up and offered to help me. I hadn’t realized I looked that desperate! I explained where I was trying to go and he told me which buttons to press and how much money to insert. When I told him I had nothing by paper money, he took a bill from me and led me to a bakery counter several feet away.

Soon a heated discussion took place. Since it was all in German, I had no idea of the problem. Finally, the man holding my money gave it to the shop keeper and received change. As he handed the money to me, my friend said, “They wanted to charge you ten percent for the exchange, but I wouldn’t allow it!” That’s the first reason I refer to the man as my friend.

We returned to the machine, purchased my ticket, and walked down to the platform. He then directed me to the tracks on my right, told me to take any train going in that direction and to get off at the third stop. I set down my luggage and turned to thank him, but he was gone. I saw him as he reached the top of the stairs and was hurrying on to whatever he was doing prior to stopping to help me. And that, my friends, is the second reason I called him my friend. Obviously, the man went far out of his way to help a stranger.

It took a while for the train to arrive and my curiosity led me to pick up my luggage and begin to wander around to see whatever there might be to see. Suddenly there was an elderly woman taking me by the arm and leading me back to where my friend had left me. I couldn’t understand a word she said, but I definitely understood her meaning. She had observed my arrival and determined that I obviously didn’t know where I was going. She was going to make sure I didn’t get lost!

I gave a lot of thought to those two people at the U-Bahn station and have concluded that they had been victims of Hitler’s Nazis. All those years later, they remembered the people who liberated them and they were more than willing to go a bit out of their way to return the favor.

When I arrived at my station and got back up to the street level, I saw a trolley car similar to the one in the photo running along a cobblestone street. I was surrounded by small shops and the aroma of bakeries and coffee. When I looked down a street and saw the Danube River, I was immediately transformed back to my childhood visits to downtown Pittsburgh. As I child in Pittsburgh, I’d ridden trolleys that looked almost exactly the same as the ones I saw in Vienna. And many streets in Pittsburgh at still made of cobblestone.  To me, Vienna was Pittsburgh stuck in a time warp. As for the aromas, I guess they’re basically the same in any reasonably sized city.

The next three days were a whirlwind of meetings. I wasn’t able to do much sightseeing, but I did find time to eat many foods I’d never seen before. I also discovered that almost every restaurant made its own beer.

Usually in a situation like that, I’ll try as many different local dishes as I can. However, I found that after having Tafelspitz for the first time, I had to order it again. Had I spent another day in Vienna, I’m sure I would’ve ordered it a third time.

For those who have no idea what Tafelspitz is, my initial explanation will leave you wondering how it could possibly taste good. Tafelspitz is boiled beef. They start with plain old water and add a wide assortment of things including chicken feet. Then they boil the meat for hours. Finally, they serve it with a mixture of applesauce and horseradish. It’s tender and delicious. Makes me want to go back to Vienna right now!

Besides the great food and beer, the thing I remember most about Vienna is the warmth of the people. Someday I’ll return and take in the sights. I understand they have at least four opera houses and numerous palaces. If I’m not mistaken, Vienna is also the home of the Spanish Riding School that features the Lipazzan stallions.

I realize three days is not a long enough time to get a true feel for a city, but, based on my experience, I’d say it’s a place worth visiting.

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