The tracks under the metro car hummed along the Gürtel as I headed toward U6 Gumpendorfer Straße. Winter had ended and the heat of spring had permeated the rooftops, settling leadenly onto the streets. Those brave conquistadors of summer, already in shorts, were waiting for the return of the City of Gold that Vienna becomes in June.
I’d been invited over for tea at a friend of a friend’s apartment; whether romantic or not, I didn’t yet know, but I enjoyed the opportunity to see more of the city. At the entrance to the U-Bahn, the drunk and homeless were gathered round. Some sat slouched or lay sleeping on the steps with the familiar yellow Ottakringer can in hand, as others got into arguments with security guards, who were asking them to leave.
After getting a bit lost, I arrived at her flat. Climbing the stairs, I couldn’t help being charmed by the architecture of the old building, by the fine details of the stairs and hallways. I rang the bell; we greeted and sat down for tea. Out the window, the sprawl of the U6 branched off under the dome of the church Maria vom Siege, flexing proudly in the sunlight. The conversation was harmless, as we spoke of past trips and holidays. As she was telling me of trips to Mexico and Peru, my eyes scanned the room for the next conversation piece – perhaps the furniture, spread out, leaving a large empty space in the middle of the room …
As she was describing the trials of the Inca Trail, I fixated on the punching bag hanging from the ceiling in the corner. Does she use this? After a brief attempt to learn kickboxing (and thus engage in a little physical contact) I ended up on the floor with my arm behind my back. “This is going well,” I thought, face pressed to the ground.
By now the sun was at its highest point, spreading light across the room like a pianist splaying his fingers across the keys before beginning his performance. Noticing the plants in the window, I thought about the care and detail given to every Viennese apartment: Small plants for the windows, creeping vines for the walls and larger potted plants placed on top of a wardrobe or shelf to fill up the high ceilings of these old rooms. If friends go away for a week or more, I’ve often agreed to water these plants. If they are moving to a new apartment, I’ve helped carry each one carefully to the car. “What’s the square footage of your place?” she asks, cutting my reflections short. “Um…well. I’m not really sure.” I reply.
I silently cursed the UK for adopting a halfway-house policy of teaching a mixture of metric and imperial measures. Although perhaps I should save my curses for the Austrian/ German obsession with size. And my languages? “I only speak English. Maybe a little French from school.”
“My grandfather spoke French, actually.” “Oh?” I raised my eyebrows.
“During the war, he ran a factory, and most of his workers were French, so he used it a lot with them.” She smiled.
But I was nervous about the turn the conversation was about to take. Should I comment? Bring up memories of the war with an Austrian? Must be careful, I thought. The British education system teaches you that “we won,” but little else. Nothing to prepare you for an ethical discussion of the complexities of people’s lives. Out of curiosity, and stretching for a new conversation topic, I took a shot. “Might these French men…have been…” I paused, “…forced labor?”
In the quiet that lasted a few seconds, the image of her grandfather had perhaps been tainted forever in her eyes. Or perhaps she would defend him? I wasn’t sure which was worse.
Either way, I knew that the meeting was no longer romantic.