It’s no secret that Austria values its privacy. We spoke to several people for whom the defense of privacy has become a way of life. And luckily for us, they were willing to talk about it – through their examples, illustrating the various ways in which this city’s culture of discretion affects our everyday lives.
“Most people think girls like me are torn between being good and bad, but actually, no, it’s just me, and I’m enjoying this.”
Meeting 23-year-old private escort Sofia Ivanova at a fine restaurant in the 1st district, she patiently waited until I approached her – a policy she maintains with her clients as well. “I never try to contact my clients. I keep their messages, but only so I can remember them if they get in touch again – out of politeness.”
Like many private escorts, Ivanova uses a pseudonym. “I never use my real name, nor do I ever talk about where I’m from.” But she stresses that she is still being herself on the job. “It’s me, it’s not an invented character.” One of the more unusual requests she received, however, was accompanying a client to a business meeting with his partners, where she acted as a “kind of secretary – for appearances.”
Ivanova put a lot of thought into choosing Vienna as her home base. “I asked around and read a lot about it before I decided to come here. I feel safe here. I would never go to London, for example, it’s too big, too many people. Vienna is nice, quiet, homey somehow.”
Most of Ivanova’s clients, however, are from out of town, and “so normal,” a fact that she attributes to charging higher rates. “Most of them are very well-educated, they just want to go have a nice dinner and relax, like going out with a friend. I’m paid for my time – sex is not an obligation. I’m free to go at any time.” Her profession is legal in Austria, something that Ivanova appreciates highly. “The fact that I’m protected by the law gives me control.”
“What matters most in life is decency, integrity, being fair, and not being a bastard (kein schwein zu sein).”
Walter Penk-Lipovsky is wary of romanticizing his profession. “My job is ordinary like any other.” But the veteran Viennese private detective is being modest. Among his many legendary gigs, he has acted as a personal bodyguard to an impressive roster of clients: Jorg Haider, Leonard Bernstein, Falco.
In the past, this position was reserved for licensed private detectives, and he refers to it fondly as his favorite type of work. “It was a great job, I would be picked up by a limousine with a chauffeur, and then I would accompany my client on a stroll through the Prater, where we would have very interesting chats. These were highly intelligent people.”
Times have changed for the worse since the financial crisis: Penk-Lipovsky’s staff has gone from 23 employees down to a mere six. Security work is now often outsourced to companies that offer cheaper rates, a fact that alarms a seasoned professional like Penk-Lipovsky. “Not just anybody can do this type of work. It requires a certain kind of talent and skill.” The type of people who make inquiries has also gone down in quality. “I get a lot of calls, but many are from, well, not-all-there or dumb people.”
The exchange of information has also gotten harder since his day. Simply obtaining an unlisted phone number now costs about €650 as opposed to the €22 Penk-Lipovsky used to pay, and cooperation between the police and private detectives is no longer a given. In a 2013 interview in Datum, Penk-Lipovsky addressed the rising difficulty of obtaining data:
“The basic information that we truly need in this profession is no longer accessible… No one can afford it.”
Media Editor and Author
“Every person has the right to keep some secrets – this is something that Austrians understand better than Americans.”
At the beginning of her journalistic career, Ingrid Brodnig attracted the attention of her editor at Falter when she spoke up against cutting a media news brief on the EU Microsoft antitrust case. Impressed by her interest in such issues – as no one else on the staff was at the time – the editor gave her free rein to start covering them. At that editorial meeting, she was the youngest person in the room. A self-professed geek who has always been “into computers” and the internet, Brodnig quickly realized she could “act as a bridge between the political and technology communities.”
Over time, her two areas of focus became how technology influences society and the issue of privacy, i.e. “what companies and governments know about us”.
The energetic 31-year-old is now the media editor at the Austrian weekly Profil and authored a 2014 book on anonymity on the internet. When asked if she thought Max Schrems’ Austrian background had anything to do with his successful court case against Facebook defending Europeans’ right to privacy, Brodnig admitted, culture could certainly be a factor.
“In the German-speaking countries, the idea that you might have something to hide is more accepted. It could be attributed to the historical legacy of the Nazi regime, but also in Austria, we often say, ‘We don’t need to talk about that.’” She acknowledged that this could have negative aspects, for example, the unwillingness to reveal one’s salary can hamper debate over income inequality.
However, she is quick to point out that Schrems’ success is not just about Austrians’ appreciation of privacy. “He’s simply a guy who gets things done,” she said. “He’s not interested in bureaucracy. He’s not -necessarily the typical Austrian.”
It’s safe to say that Brodnig isn’t either.
Head Bartender at Loos American Bar
“It’s like Vegas—what happens in Loos Bar stays in Loos Bar.”
Although the 108-year-old Loos American Bar is the most famous bar in Vienna, it has also remained one of its most discreet. A tiny, 28-square-meter space, the dimensions somehow keep the behavior of its guests in check as well, simply through the proximity – a kind of self-regulating private club without the door policy. Somehow it’s a microcosm of Vienna itself, where one’s circle of -acquaintances can become intimate very easily, but which necessitates the maintenance of a certain degree of civility that is unheard of in larger cities.
That’s not to say that its staff doesn’t play an important part in keeping up the Loos Bar’s standards. Head bartender Milen Milkov, a gregarious Bulgarian who has worked there for nine years, is a charismatic spokesman who can sum up the magic of the bar. “In this small place, we have created a small world with unlimited space, so to say. One feels one can do whatever one wants, because there’s simply too much going on at once.”
The house rules discourage the taking of photographs in the bar. “Well-known figures and celebrities don’t feel the need to come here with their bodyguards. They feel like they can remain undisturbed here, because the bar offers this quality of being hidden” – a sheen that rubs off on the ‘normal’ patrons.
Milkov has perks as the bar’s overseer. His vigilant and skillful supervision of the seamless discretion he maintains for his guests has afforded him some interesting friendships. “Let’s just say, I’ve acquired a nice collection of private phone numbers over the years from certain prominent people, whom I can call up anytime – for example, when I’m visiting the U.S..”