Return to Vienna

After a long international career, a chance remark brings a diplomat back to the Austrian capital he had known in his youth.

I was looking forward to retirement. After 23 years in eight countries as an American diplomat, I would return to my U.S. home in Anchorage, Alaska, where I had worked as a TV reporter and where I had (and still have) a house.  

But as the Austrians say, “something came in between.” On a visit to my wife’s home in Sydney, Australia, I told her neighbor, Mary Lenart, about my plan. A 1956 refugee from Hungary, she was shocked that I would even consider returning to Alaska. 

“You’ve lived in Bucharest, Warsaw, Leipzig, you know Central Europe…,” she stared at me. “You will not be happy in Alaska!”  

Then where? Her answer: “Vienna”.  And I remembered my own history with this great city.  

As a university senior at Notre Dame in 1974, I made a new friend, Jim Niessen, in a class called  “The Government and Politics of Communist East Central Europe.”  The professor, an elderly Croatian named Theo Ivanus, regaled us with tales of his youth on the Dalmatian coast, and was fond of exclaiming that “when (former Yugoslav leader) Tito goes, the Balkans will fall apart.”  Only much later did we learn how right he was. Then, the Iron Curtain seemed just in the nature of things:  brutal, divisive and permanent. But also fascinating.

So in 1976 when Jim came to Vienna for a study year, he invited me to come traveling with him in the “East”.  He was living with two Poles who could arrange low cost eastern bloc rail tickets, so it was an easy decision.  

Border to the Unknown

Vienna in 1976 was the “dead end” of the West. From there, you needed serious visas in multiple copies to visit Czechoslovakia or Hungary, Yugoslavia was a bit easier, but still complicated.  Using Vienna as our base, we first ventured into Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia. Jim had to go to Bulgaria alone, as at the time the Bulgarians were insisting that any American who came directly from the US needed a plague vaccine, as there had been one obscure case in the U.S. state of Montana.  The only such vaccine available was in the Bulgarian Embassy, so I took a pass.  Later, we did a northern swing through Prague, East Berlin and Warsaw.    

Jim had an apartment in Müllnergasse in the 9th District, not far from where I live now.  We could take the D tram home from the center or the then Stadtbahn, the boxy red trains that ran along sections of the current U4 and U6 lines.  In those days, only the historic Otto Wagner station at Rossauer Lände existed – not the shiny second exit at Seegasse.  We would wait for the old red train clacking along, clutching our pink tickets.  I loved taking that old train.  

Poster showing am Hof and the Urbanikeller / (C) Writer’s Collection

Now Jim had a few interesting friends.  There was Tom, an artist from California who had a wonderful flat Am Hof, next to the current Generali building and right above a wonderful old Lokal called the “Urbanikeller,” three layers below ground, a fantasy of heavily-carved balustrades and paneled woodwork.  Apartments were cheap in those days, which was lucky, as Tom had little money and always travelled “schwarz” (black, i.e. without paying) on public transport, Whenever the controllers entered the train or tram – easy to spot in black leather jackets – he tried to escape out the back door or claimed that he couldn’t speak German.  But the controllers would just yell at him: “Speak German! We know you speak German!” He would just shrug.  

Another friend was Gerhard, a young Austrian and a perennial grad student in business and economics. His mother was a milliner – a hat maker – with a shop on the Wiedner Hauptstrasse.  I vividly recall the day she had a bathtub installed right in the middle of her kitchen!  I witnessed the entire installation, which was quite an operation. Frau H. lived in one of those old Zinnshäuser apartment buildings that looked like a monastery, whose apartments opened onto a corridor sharing a toilet and public water basin. Where had she bathed before that? Who knows, but she was overjoyed to have that new bathtub!  

Finally, Jim’s two Polish roommates, from the city of Szczecin, were joined by a German student named Christa. She and her friends would play scrabble (in German) with Jim, and he would regularly win!  They should be ashamed, letting an American beat them in their own language, I teased. But Jim’s German was pretty good, I had to admit, and I, at the time, had none. What did I know?  

Dark and Dying 

Construction of the U-Bahn on Stephansplatz, February 1974. (C) WStLA, Presse- und Informationsdienst, FA1: 7433/5

Vienna was dark in those days.  Most of the buildings were still black with soot, as was the Pestsäule (Plague Column) on the Graben. You could smell the sulfur from burning coal, typical for all of the cities in the region.  Although much had been rebuilt, the city still looked a lot as it had in The Third Man. The work on the U-Bahn was just beginning, and Stephansplatz and Karlsplatz were enormous construction sites, gaping holes in the ground that you crossed on plank bridges.  Road signs to neighboring countries didn’t say “Bratislava” or “Praha”, but “Pressburg” and “Prag,” their Austrian names.  On the radio, all stories started with the dateline: “Paris” or “Berlin” and then the story.  Just like newsreels.  All the stations were then government owned, as the national broadcaster ORF still is today. If you needed to make an international call, you went to the main post office on Postgasse, took a “Kabine” and waited to be connected to your overseas party.  

Food shopping was also an adventure.  All supermarkets closed at 12 noon sharp on Saturdays, as many smaller places still do today. Julius Meinl supermarkets were everywhere, just normal shops not high gourmet, with their ubiquitous yellow shopping bags with the red handles, ultimately bought out by Spar, still operating at the same locations on the Josefstaedter Strasse near the Theater Hotel and much closer to us on Porzellangasse.    

Vienna was in some ways a dying city in the mid 70s, full of old people trundling along the sidewalks. There was nowhere “beyond” here to go for these people who had always been there. And there were just fewer and fewer of them. Down from a high of 2.2 million in 1918, the city’s population had fallen steadily, plateauing in the post-WWII years at about 1.62 million through 1970, then falling further to 1.49 by 1990.

A postcard showing Graben in the 1970s. /(C)Private Collection.png

What began to bring Vienna back to life was the opening of the UNO City, which was being built when I was there in the mid 70s and opened in 1979, attracting other international institutions in the years that followed. Suddenly, there were thousands of diplomats and foreign staffers, who began the transformation from a provincial capital to a major European metropolis. 

But perhaps even more important was the opening of Eastern Europe in 1989; as the old communist Warsaw Pact regimes crumbled, Austria was well placed to take advantage of the old relationships with countries it knew so well. Unlike other national carriers, for example, Austrian Airlines had continued to serve its eastern neighbors, with overt promotions like, “Good Morning, We fly East!” followed by a listing of their weekly flights to the communist capitals. 

Return to Vienna

So as I thought it over, I realized I would not be going to Anchorage, with its ice-grey harbor and snow capped mountains. I would return to Vienna, the city on the border to the East that had fascinated me so long ago, that was now in the heart of Europe – urban life on a human scale, world-class culture in a city of neighborhoods. 

And where I wouldn’t have to drive, struggling to park, or dodging speeders and truckers on the Autobahn. I much prefer public transport and have no regrets for my car-tortured years in L.A.

So it wasn’t such a difficult decision to come back here in retirement. Of course we were lucky: My wife Kjarstin is Swedish and an EU citizen, which made it easier.  But I would have found a way.  I even looked up our old friend Gerhard.  We did find him, but alas, he didn’t want to meet; he had recently been laid off from a high-level international job, and I had the sense that he feared meeting old friends would only remind him of an unfulfilled career in the shadow of their success. We wouldn’t have cared. 

So now, when I’m back in Sydney, I make a point of thanking Mrs. Lenart, the 1956 Hungarian refugee, who always regretted leaving Vienna, where she and her husband George had spent two wonderful years. But her relatives back in Hungary only saw the promise of escape, and had threatened to “turn on the gas jets” if she and George didn’t join the family members who were already settled in Sydney. 

They felt they had to leave, but she was right about Vienna.        

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Mark Wenig
Mark L. Wenig is a retired Foreign Service Officer with the United States Dept. of State, having served most recently as Cultural Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo from 2014 to 2017. Previous assignments, all in Public Diplomacy included tours in Warsaw, Poland; Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Wellington, New Zealand; Leipzig, Germany; Bucharest, Romania; Port Louis, Mauritius; and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as well as in Washington, D.C.. Wenig and his wife now live in Vienna.

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