A warm evening in Neubau. A friend and I bumped into a French street artist we had met a few days before while he was “tagging” along the canal. Just like that! Maybe Vienna is a village after all. He smiled broadly and turned to his mate to introduce us.
“Zhat iss zha king of Vienne,” he said, with a flourish, in his rough French accent. The “king” smiled back, raising his eyebrows and with it, his diamond tattoo. “Such a cliché,” I thought.
After a few beers and too many cigarettes at some bar in the 7th, we followed them through the city, randomly walking from “spot” to “spot,” leaving one tag after the other, the tipsiness of the Viennese night getting to us.
At dawn, we found ourselves in Hütteldorf, where, going down the tracks of the Schnellbahn, we found the police.
Two men jumped out of the car, came straight to us while shouting some words in German. “What are you doing there!?,” screamed one, his bald head shining in the sun. He was the oldest, and definitely the boss – the junior officer stayed quiet.
I explained myself in English, telling him we were taking some pictures of the view, using my camera as a witness. He laughed to my face and said: “Oh, I see, pictures, hm? Come with me, I’ll show you something.” We went away to a sort of rock on which he loudly put his boot. With his finger, the sheriff pointed toward the horizon: “See this hill? You go up to the top, and there you have a view of Vienna. There you take pictures. Not on the tracks! I could take you down to the station for that.”
I felt five years old, caught with my hand in the cookie jar. I blushed. “Yes, daddy,” I heard my child’s voice pleading. “I promise, I won’t do it again.” Well, anyway, that was what I wish I had said.
Back with the others, the boss handed our ID cards back. “I’ll forget about it this time, but it had better be the last,” he growled. Then, the junior officer, quiet until now, finally spoke up:
“But you’re all dirty! Why are you dirty? This is weird, you look suspicious,” and collected our IDs again.
We all took a deep breath, wondering when the joke would be over. Suddenly, the French tagger spoke up: “Look, I am dirty because I am a street artist. I have been paid by Wiener Linien to paint the huge wall behind you. See there: ‘Underground system will never die.’ Call them if you want, they’ll tell you.”
Mentioning the Wiener Linien did the trick. Finally, the two officers left us, just as simply as they had come.
I often hear stories like this around Vienna. The police stop you for some reason, give a lecture for half an hour, and then leave you as if nothing had happened. Or maybe with a fine now and then. It’s a paternalistic way of dealing with people. Like a father or an uncle.
“A typical Viennese experience!” an Austrian friend told me later – a respectful deference, because – who knows – it might be a courtier or consort from out of town. Each country’s police have their own way of dealing with people. It would be different in France, I think – but after all, we killed our king.
All in all, I was gaining a new understanding of the idea of a “nanny state.”