As we settled into our alcove on the terrace of the bustling Café Landtmann, former Mayor Michael Häupl placed his order: “’An weißen spritzer bitte” (“a white wine spritzer please”). It was 12:30 noon, and I ordered the same. When in Vienna…
Here, sipping a spritzer with lunch is accepted as part of a lifestyle that makes Vienna the deliciously Dionysian and unapologetically laid-back city that it is. And no man lives this identity more completely than the iconic Michi Häupl.
Shining a Light on Vienna
Despite his continuing celebrity, Häupl has retained a certain humility. “I was born in Lower Austria. I played soccer in Krems and also went to school there,” he chuckled. “I said it in that order on purpose.” Later he studied biology and zoology at the University of Vienna.
In 1969 when the 20-year-old Häupl arrived in Vienna, it was “not a place where a young person would want to stay.” There was nothing going on. Only two nightclubs for young people.” One was “loud and ugly” and the other too expensive for anyone but the kids “born with a golden spoon in their mouths.”
The city as a dark place, “not just physically dark, but psychologically dark.” And looking at the city now, he’s says, it’s unbelievable to see how it has evolved. Back then, if they wanted to go out, he and his friends would take the train to Munich.
“Now people come from Munich to Vienna to Party.”
Vienna has a totally different flair now. “It’s become more international, much more beautiful and brighter in every way, with a lot of cultural diversity.” Häupl has always been direct about the city he oversaw for 24 years. A quote oft repeated: “I don’t want Vienna to be confused with the Zentralfriedhof (Vienna’s Central Cemetery).” Today he says, “We’ve definitely achieved that.”
Häupl’s first job was at Vienna’s Museum of Natural History, where he worked as a research assistant. To this day, he underlines Vienna’s role in cutting edge science: “It’s a city full of science. We have real beacons in the life sciences and quantum physics.” For eight years he “was a scientific civil servant – that’s something that only exists in Austria – just like other scientists, except that they don’t have to worry about their funding.”
When he joined the city council, he decided he couldn’t be a serious scientist and a serious politician. “I know serious isn’t a precise term, but that’s wurscht.” A distinction without a difference. He had to make a choice, and in 1988, he chose politics and joined the city council. In 1994, he was elected mayor on the social democratic ticket (SPÖ).
The metamorphosis of the old grey town had begun before he took office. “It all started with the Mayor Leopold Gratz, who brought the internationality – he was excellent in foreign policy – and also initiated key infrastructure projects like the Donauinsel. After that, it was Helmut Zilk who really brought the light into the city,” Häupl said, who served as Mayor Zilk’s City Councilor for the Environment.
“It’s not for nothing that we’ve ranked number one for quality of life for 10 years. It has a lot to do with environmental factors but also other things” – like working closely with the police and the Austrian army on the Wiener K-Kreis (Disaster Management). And while many cities see safety as a problem, there are few that attack it head on with systemic approaches.
“We really have made a lot of progress,” he said. “Vienna has become more beautiful, more culturally rich, brighter and safer.”
Mayors Rule the World
Häupl remembers the year he graduated from high school and began military service. It was 1968 and across, Europe there was a progressive push for change. “In Austria, things went down a little differently than in the Quartier Latin in Paris or in Germany. It was more peaceful. There was a book called The Revolutionary Five Minutes – it’s funny, but also underlines how different the movement was in Austria.”
Bruno Kreisky really understood how to motivate the students of the time – and Häupl was 18, inspired along with the rest of them.
“It was a great time for social democracy,” he recalls. When the Iron Curtain fell all along Austria’s borders, he was already in the City Council. Vienna had a strong cooperation with the European Economic Community (EEC), the predecessor to the EU, but the city was hailed particularly for partnerships in southern and eastern Europe.
“Vienna was a bright star in the far-off sky for these cities, and for some it still is. We were welcomed warmly wherever we went: Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, Ljubljana, Zagreb.” And not just a theoretical partnership, they had concrete cooperation contracts.
He was invited to Bratislava to discuss their plans for a subway system. Later, he found out that he had been the only one who was honest with them about the possibilities. “I said, ‘My friends, if you want to build a subway system that’s up to western standards that will cost a billion euros.’” He suggested they ramp up the existing tramline infrastructure – a project they could get EU funding for, that was doable and realistic.
Much of Häupl’s work as Mayor was colored by his no-nonsense approach to policy decisions paired with a healthy sense of humor about most everything else.
Humanity & Order
In 2015, the Mayor was not only confronted with the largest wave of refugees to enter Vienna since the Hungarians in 1956, it was also an election year and his opponent was the nearly diametrically opposed Heinz Christian Strache of the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ).
“The election was a decision that had so many layers. There’s the level of, humanity, then the level order and thirdly there were city council elections.”
The mayor got support from other European cities, but also then Chancellor Werner Faymann, whose good relations with the German chancellor Merkel were able to keep the borders to Germany open. “If they had closed the borders – if we had had to deal with 1 million refugees – that would have exceeded our capacity.”
It wasn’t that Vienna was unprepared. “We have plenty of experience with refugees, but the mood has changed,” Häupl said. “Back when the Hungarians were fleeing the communist regime [in 1956], the Austrians were extremely helpful. Of course, they still had the memory of [their own] liberation a decade earlier. Not just from the Nazis but also liberation from the liberators.”
When he thinks back to 2015, he remembers concentrating on the authenticity of the message. “Humanity and Order” was the motto during that time. “I remember there were demonstrations in Vienna against taking in unaccompanied minors. At the time, we could have been opportunistic, but I think that would have been a defeat for social democracy.”
Man bringe den Spritzwein
A certain understanding of the city’s unwritten laws – socially accepted and expected behavior – is crucial to truly understanding a city. In Vienna, the akademische Viertelstunde (academic quarter of an hour) is perceived as an acceptable amount of time to be delayed. “Sure, there’s the akademische Viertelstunde, but there aren’t even enough academics in Vienna for the number of times that excuse is used…” Häupl chuckled and added that these sorts of rules are in place in every culture.
“It makes up a good part of the framework of our way of life – that’s just a fact.” In Italy for instance, if you show up 30 minutes after the arranged time, people already look at you funny. “And God forbid you show up on time,” he laughed. “That’s a total catastrophe!”
And certainly, he admits, the spritzer was just a thing that became part of his image. He never really cared what people thought of this. “It’s pretty straight forward. A Vienna Mayor that doesn’t drink at all is a fader Zipf (a boring square); that’s not ok. And a Mayor who gets really drunk is even less ok. That’s why a weißer Spritzer is the perfect beverage, with a little wine and lots of mineral water.”
And it’s more than just the Spritzer. “The culinary trinity of Vienna – the Viennese Beisl, the Viennese Coffeehouse and the Viennese Heuriger – are a substantial part of the soul of this city. It’s almost a psychiatric institution.”
Over the years, Häupl’s Vienna became more diverse, more colorful. Where the Opera Ball used to be the biggest social event of the year, Vienna now hosts Europe’s largest free music festival, the Donauinselfest, and the legendarily outrageous Life Ball. “The Life Ball is an event that shows the other side of Vienna. I keep talking about the diversity of culture. When Gery Kessler approached us, I didn’t even have to think about it.”
The Life Ball was held for 20 years. “I think that was brilliant and it had a great run, longer than most events of that caliber.” Häupl smiled. And now that it has come to an end, “We just have to come up with something new,” he said with a sigh.
“But that’s something my successors can take care of.”
Michael Häupl’s recommendations for Fall
“Joseph Penninger, is a world-famous molecular biologist who built up IMBA in Vienna and now also a good friends. I was visiting him at the Biocenter Marx and asked him what he needed, what we could do for the scientists. He answered, ‘a Kaffeehaus.’ And I think that’s the best thing he could have said.” Häupl believes that scientists need a place for more than just exchanging information, but a place to talk and think together and fuel scientific creativity. “Go to the coffee house on your own campus. That’s where you’ll meet the people you’ll want to meet .”
Häupl and Penninger are both soccer fans, “but sadly he’s a Rapidler” and since Häupl is an Austrianer, the rival’s fan base, that makes it hard to hang out at the soccer pitch. “But it’s ok.”
Families with kids
“With older kids who are active, I’d say the Donauinsel (Danube Island) with all the restaurants and cafes there. If the kids are younger, the Alte Donau (Old Danube) is great. There are also great places to eat and drink but also the infrastructure of boats, places to swim and playgrounds that just make it great for young kids.” Even if it’s too chilly to swim, an excursion on the waterfront has plenty of kid-friendly distractions.
“Wandering through the Naschmarkt is perhaps a less obvious choice, but it not only has flair but also a certain tangible reality.” He admits that it’s no longer a well-kept secret, with over 60 locations to eat and drink, but he feels that the market has evolved over the years and makes for a great romantic stroll. “Of course,” the white wine connoisseur adds, “a cozy Heuriger is always a good choice.”
For new arrivals in Vienna finding your first favorite Lokal is crucial. “If you come from countries in the South or the East, I’d recommend frequenting the Brunnenmarkt in Ottakring, where integration is truly lived. And if they come from countries in the West, the Wienzeilen and streets surrounding the Nachmarkt – that’s a great place to get to know Vienna. But if you really want to get to know