Why Vienna tops the rankings of the world’s most livable cities is about attitude as much as anything
For the mild-mannered “Zettlpoet” Helmut Seethaler, The Good Life entails pasting tiny poems on Vienna’s trees and subway stations, defending his right to do so in the Austrian Supreme Court, and raising three children. He has earned little via his poetry hotline, and received thousands in fines. He drew poems on courthouse steps, earning an additional fine. His biggest successes to date are a Supreme Court verdict upholding his typed work as a protected form of art, and finally, this autumn, a published book of his poetry, entitled Texte für Denkende + gegen das Denk-Ende (Texts for Those Who Think + Against the End of Thinking,Hochroth, Wien 2017), a collection of works challenging “artificial and harmful thinking”, and decrying “the capitalist motor that renders unused democracy useless.” Glue is included.
For most people, The Good Life doesn’t require provoking the law, or publicizing their thoughts on Gott und die Welt (Austrian shorthand for “a bit of everything”) in real space. For artists like Seethaler, it’s the only way. And he’s not alone in Vienna, which since the end of WWII, has supported an alternative culture that survives in easy coexistence alongside the nine-to-fivers and suburbanites – like the shock-art performances of the Aktionists and Drahdiwaberl, or bordellos open to all. Overturning a narrow-minded past that led to the destruction of the city, a society and a culture required alternative ways of thinking and living, fueled by a taste for provocative humor.
The city’s air is flavored as much by Strauss’s champagne-soaked Die Fledermaus (“King Fizz the First – that often makes a nation forget an altercation”) as by the local rapper Skero’s more beer-fueled pleasures: “Die anen foahn noch Ibiza, die aundren noch Udine. Wir bleiben im Parkbad mochn Party in Kabine” (“Some go on holiday in Ibiza, some in Udine. We stay in the public bath and party in the changing room.”).
Artists like Seethaler use our shared public space to express themselves as they see fit, whether it’s to change society or to simply scream “I leave my mark on walls, therefore I exist.” Seethaler’s pasted scraps are not all that poetic, more exhortations on how to live better: “Nichtmitmachen, obwohl fast alle mitmachen, schafft Chancen, dass auch andere nicht mitmachen, und diese noch weitere vorm mitmachen bewahren” (“Not going along, even though almost everybody goes along, creates the chances that others also won’t go along, and those will keep others too from going along”). How one judges his use of public space, or his work itself, depends very much on your personal definition of The Good Life.
The pursuit of happiness
The Good Life (#TGL), or ”a” good life, are concepts about as easy to define as Love or Justice. Usually measured by degrees of happiness, what The Good Life means for one person might in fact be Hell for someone else. Self-reliance-obsessed libertarians can’t understand the life choices of altruistic charity workers. Wealthy conservatives look in horror at the lives of doped-up artists, when not collecting their work for peanuts and pocket change. My “right” to an all-night rave is your right to call the Police.
The pursuit of The Good Life may be make-it-up-as-you-go-along or as planned as a military campaign, ephemeral as the butterflies in the Schmetterlinghaus or stately as the 19th century Palmenhaus that houses them. A German Zuckerbäcker in her thirties, juggling a toddler and a responsible job at one of Vienna’s top patisseries views The Good Life very differently from the twenty-something Russian I know who works for an Oligarch’s hedge fund. The single mother would love a better work-life balance, with just enough money to be worry-free. First on the young banker’s list is more magic (and probably pricey) moments, second is freedom. Vienna’s laissez-faire attitude and respect for privacy and personal space offers a sense of this, reflected in the city’s organic hodgepodge of aesthetic influences – a grand Palais abutting post-war council housing, with a modernist topping of glass and steel – that are more human-scaled than the far heavier master plans of megacities where history is regularly rewritten with the swing of a crane.
Every age and culture has idealized some form of The Good Life, and what it comprises has varied wildly dependent on time, place and personal circumstances. Humans are constantly redefining what it means to live la dolce vita, inspired by new technologies and ways of thinking. For the earliest Trobriand Islanders, avoiding misery was only possible as long as they maintained the Spirits’ natural order. The reward was a guaranteed place in Tuma, the hardship and pain-free island heaven on earth. For the Greeks, humans had individual souls with reason and more responsibility over their actions, and thus more options of how to live well, but those came with equally fixed sets of principles and restrictions. Dependent on which philosopher one followed – Aristotle, Epictetus, Socrates, or Aristippus – Eudaimonia might be ethical, virtuous, rational or hedonistic.
Modern philosophy, acknowledging humans as complex creatures capable of rational decisions but often controlled by teenage-level hormones, offers two basic options: Either live by the exacting moral restrictions of Kant (select the most clearly good act, even against one’s own better interests) or pursue the more ambiguous and pleasure maximizing utilitarian school, judging each moment according to a cost/benefit analysis. How much happiness can I get for myself, while avoiding as much pain as possible?
Cities, by offering seemingly endless options, have become for many both the starting point and the end station to reach the nirvana of an eternal Good Life. The streets may not literally be “paved with gold,” and the slums not so peaceful or hygienic as the countryside, but cities offer the greater opportunities and stimulus of open mindedness, technological innovation, global cultures, and tolerance. An essential element is choice, and there is certainly plenty to choose from in Vienna, including the choice to be conventional, which the city also magically manages to protect.
“Lifers” in NYC or London are surprised that a smaller, more provincial city like Vienna repeatedly ranks at the top of international surveys on living standards. Vienna has an undeniable global importance, with its many NGOs, and regular hosting of internationally critical nuclear containment talks, but it also lives on to this day in the shadow of its grand empire lost, of the days long gone when it ruled vast swathes of Europe, made and broke popes, and provoked world wars. The city is neutral now, rather like a spectator asked to occasionally referee a boxing match between two insane uncles – which is actually a good thing for anyone valuing a life that is easier, if not necessarily good.
The answer to what makes Vienna so especially good at being neutral lies in part in the words of the Austrian novelist and Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek: “The smaller a group, the easier it is for more people to argue and enter into discussions. The U.S. is vast. It’s too large. The intellectuals hide out in enclaves, in big cities or universities, like a bunch of chickens hiding from the fox.”
Vienna’s smaller size and less polarized social structures (there are more political options here than simply red or blue) work together to provide a balance, an alternative to chasing an impossible dream of life as an endless good time at the expense of others. The annual Mayday Communist Party Picnic, with Latin American barbecues, amusement park rides, and Kurdish revolutionary musicians, celebrates the city’s post-war socialist roots. Things are more group-oriented here, much more than naked individualism.
The perfect recipe
Winston Churchill understood this: “We make a living by what we get,” he said. “We make a life by what we give.” At Das Atelier in the 10th District, a group of free art studios in a repurposed factory space, the German Director Florian Reese gives artists with disabilities like Autism and Down Syndrome a chance to create work that might be taken seriously by gallerists and collectors. Magda’s Hotel, a cool boutique space in the 2nd, provides work for refugees. These places provide a sense of The Good Life to all three stakeholders in the social contract: Those providing the help to others, those benefiting from it, and those of us lucky enough to enjoy these spaces. It’s not selfish to enjoy giving. It’s a necessary soul-warming reward that lasts a lot longer than a new shirt.
In Vienna, it’s okay to live modestly while pursuing a deeper path toward a good life – something ideal for the financially unstable life of an artist. You can pass an open-air cinema by the Turkish market in Yppenplatz, or dancers practicing the tango on the polished stones behind the National Library, and join in for free, as casually as dropping in at a local cafe. As the electronic composer and DJ Peter Kruder put it, waving his hand like a fish swimming upstream, “In those larger cities you are always chasing the Next Big Thing. Here in Vienna, you can go inside yourself to see what is really there.”
Vienna’s polyglot, multicultural and diverse social classes, drawn to this post-Iron Curtain border town by successive waves of migration from the East and West, offer each other the keys for making life good. Kruder’s compositions are spiced with the Turkish music from taxis passing his 16th district window. Romanian students stay to work for Austrian startups. Streets artists from all over the world collaborate on murals. A Spanish man legally partners with a Viennese barman. A new world develops, that offers the next generation even more models for a good life than before.
The ghosts of the past are ever present too – Sigmund and Anna Freud, Bertha von Suttner, Gustrav Klimt and Emilie Flöge, Bruno Kreisky, Gustav Mahler, W.A. Mozart, Alfred and Claire Beck Loos, Bertha Pappenheim, Karl Popper, Max Reinhardt, Egon Schiele, Max Steiner, Arthur Schnitzler, Maria von Ebner Eschenbach, Billy Wilder, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Trude Fleischmann, Stefan Zweig. They shape the quick of the present, provoking us, through the art hanging on the walls of the Leopold, or the plays on the stage of the Burgtheater, to color our actions with wisdom and compassion. And they remind us not to take the seductively calm present for granted. There is no hurricane now, but there was once, when the violinist Victor Robitsek and a dozen colleagues were fired from the Vienna Philharmonic in 1938. None of them ever saw Vienna again.
For the renowned gypsy musician Harri Stojka, The Good Life doesn’t require words. His lightning fingers send a message of love and thoughts of a tolerant future drifting from his guitar through his kitchen window. For fans of the equally quick-fingered electronic keyboardist Dorian Concept, to simply survive life’s crazy rollercoaster, sometimes it’s necessary to be deliriously lost in a trippy ambient musical haze.
Ceci n’est pas une vie
The painter René Magritte’s The Human Condition shows a landscape obscured by an exact replica of the landscape. We can choose to accept the painter’s perception or try to see the “real” view behind it. Perhaps that view leads to a similar trompe l’oeil, an endless succession of layers-upon-layers of reality.
Magritte doesn’t provide any answers, merely presenting the conundrum that frustrates us all – Life, at its core, is a mystery, perplexing and enigmatic. Certainly not made any clearer by lighting a candle at the Augustinerkirche. I might be having a martini-sodden blast at the Loos Bar, while somewhere else in the world a child is blown to smithereens. I share a social media post against child labor, but buy a €1 high-street T-shirt on Mariahilfer Strasse. If we are all connected, how is it possible for my Good Life to not be entangled with those of everyone around me?
Our connectedness makes The Good Life frustratingly unreliable and unstable, like love, capable of swinging wildly from ecstatic happiness to soul-crushing despair. We work hard to achieve la vie en rose, and risk a lot, but the rewards never come with a money-back guarantee. Beautiful moments, like the fashion shows that launch eager new designers each year at Vienna Fashion Week in the Museumsquartier, can be as ephemeral as a butterfly’s life span. Even when we reach our goal, we may discover there is no such thing as paradise. Lazing by a 19th District villa pool includes mosquito bites. A beautiful love affair that started over a candle-lit Schnitzel at the Villa Aurora ends with two hearts irreparably damaged on the rain-soaked platform of a Strassenbahn.
The Good Life comes with a health warning: Be careful what you wish for. Parents yearn for carefree single days, enjoying the all-night dive bars around the Naschmarkt. In lonely single moments, Tinder swipers wish for the life of that cute family cycling through the Prater.
Through the looking glass
It’s always easier to ask others the big questions of life. Despite the boxes they seem to fill – banker, aristocrat, hedonist, mother, conservative, liberal, startup guru or journalist – deep down the wide variety of people who call Vienna home share some very common human desires.
For the aristocratic Austrian property developer and art lover, The Good Life means “privacy, not having to use a mobile phone or be reachable all the time”, as well as fresh air and water. For the Swiss performance artist and spoken word poet, The Good Life means “an orgasmic experience at least once a day, triggered by something you smell, taste, see, touch, hear, remember, discover, or any chaotic sensory cross-wiring” of all of the above. It should also involve “abandoning any sense concept of the binary and move us towards greater complexity.”
For the American journalist and farm owner, the good life is simply “purpose, love and beauty”, echoed in part by the Austrian-Polish startup developer and writer, whose goals are “love, health and peace”, with an understanding that more superficial possessions can bring more unhappiness. For the Belgian Embassy intern, The Good Life is only possible with “a happy and joyful self, an inspiring mind, compassion, integrity and love.” The Russian event organizer, mother and Ayahuasca experimenter would agree. For her, The Good Life is more about “working on yourself. Only then can you be a force that creates good in the world around you.” The Austrian musician and father sums up The Good Life as “hoping that a day you like repeats itself, that thankfulness is riding your waves; being still and contemplating existence; having a good relationship to your past and positive thoughts to your future.”
The Good Life is most evident in the things we share more than the things that separate us. The highs of celebrations and parties, the protests supporting humanism, and the art openings that inspire us to notice more and experience more fully. On the wall of a black, temporary office building behind the Hofburg, an inspired city official added a single line in white-letters wrapping around it:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Like Seethaler’s homemade poetry, these signs and images fill our cityscapes, some mere forgetful scribbles, others, like the UN Charter of Human Rights above, a continual deep dialogue we can only pretend to ignore.
A child clambering care-free over the statue of the great German poet Friedrich Schiller in front of the Academy of Fine Art is responding to the city by absorbing its details, open to every stimulation, examining life fully.
“Keep true to the dreams of your youth,” wrote Schiller, perhaps the best advice of all. Whatever the details, how we perceive life is what matters. Sunrises and sunsets are free. My Azerbaijani It-Girl hopes for “nice people, plenty of sun, chilling out, and good canned tuna.”
Sunrises and sunsets are free. In the end, The Good Life is a state of mind.