It was a warm Saturday evening in Klosterneuburg. The year, 1996. Rather than taking the ten-minute bus trip into the wild capitol with its many nightclubs, bars and promises of adventure, the then 15-year-old author of these lines decided to once again pursue his dreams of a wild Saturday night amidst the contemplative vineyards of his hometown.
Most weekends would kick off somewhat like this: We would walk into one of the countless Heurigen wine taverns and purchase a couple of bottles to go. One of the infamous Dopplers was then just 17 Schillings a piece (little more than €1) – and as the name suggests, they contained two liters of local wine made from this year’s grapes. Back then, we were all below the legal drinking age (16), but I don’t remember a single time that that caused a problem – as I recall it, we were not even aware that we were breaking the law.
Content with our purchase, we ventured on to a local park or somebody’s mansion (Klosterneuburg being, after all, one of the richest suburbs of Vienna) and drank what was a liquid so sour and distasteful that looking back, it was only consumable by teenage bellies that, in the endlessly, determined search for excitement, wouldn’t have refrained from drinking paint solvent had we had any. Which we by the way came pretty close to doing another time when trying out 80% pure vodka a friend smuggled in from Italy, which caused me to go blind for half an hour. Even as I am writing these lines I cannot help but generously smile at the good old days when boys just wanted to be boys.
Always 7pm somewhere
Fast forward 25 years: I am taking a stroll through Vienna’s Naschmarkt where life has returned to somewhat more normal reduced Covid state – and with the noon-time invasion of the socially deprived locals came their thirst for alcohol. It is a working day, mid-day, mid-week. But as I walk along the countless Gastgärten, I am hard put to spot a table with at single non-alcoholic beverage. A group of workers is just finishing their second “Krügel”, which, harmless as that Viennese Mundart makes it sound, means that they downed a liter of beer within a half hour lunch break, before enthusiastically returning to work.
I recall a remark by German comedian Dirk Stermann describing how he battled with the Viennese mentality and specifically, the local’s intimate relationship to alcohol. He soon learned the hard way: In Vienna beer and wine are simply not considered alcohol, and any condition in which one can still walk upright on two feet is dismissed as a Damenspitz (Viennese for someone who is a bit tipsy).
It took his outside perspective for me to even question the role alcohol plays in Vienna – which, objectively speaking, is absolutely everywhere. Want to meet up with a friend? Let’s go for drinks. You have a new girlfriend? Let’s celebrate and get wasted. You got rid of your old boyfriend? Similar script, same hangover. Whatever the occasion, alcohol is always a part of it – and the Viennese creativity in finding reasons is endless.
Says Tobias Frank, director of the Ottakringer Brewery in Vienna’s 16th district, “the year 2020 was a tough one for us as well. Our sales were down 20% due to the closed bars and restaurants.” Although they saw an increase in supermarket sales that would provide the fuel for Vienna’s youth: What had been happening behind closed doors squirted out like beer from a shaken bottle in the awakening of spring 2021. Young folks conquered the city’s public spaces, bringing an almost Southern European flair: The scenic squares and parks, that in Vienna always feel a little “do not touch”, suddenly turned into what they might have been built for in the first place: venues of social gathering and, yet again, drinking.
One of the new hotspots became the Donauinsel: Before Corona, this piece of heaven was a quiet swimming spot where people escaped the packed official baths elsewhere in the city. These days, when the weather is right, the whole population under 30 gravitates to the 21-kilometer-long island. An army of cell phone speakers provides the soundtrack of the “Generation Dosenbier” (Generation beer can), and next to the usual international hits you can also hear some old school local-hero Falco. Austria’s most famous pop music star died in a car crash with 1.5 Promille alcohol in his blood. But this didn’t put a scratch to his image – if anything, it made him an even bigger legend.
But then, he’s not the only Austrian celebrity who checked out that way: Jörg Haider was assessed at 1.8 Promille at the time he crashed his car into a wall in Köttmansdorf. To this day, the former far-right politician is an idol to many in this country – after all, getting behind the wheel after a drink too many is what in many Austrian towns would be considered a Kavaliersdelikt (a trivial offence, with the veneer of good breeding, like, say, sabers at sunrise) – yet again one of those charming bits of dialect that come with a gin-like bitter aftertaste.
Generation beer can
Both the Dominican Republic and Köttmansdorf (places of death of Falco and Haider) are far away from the heat-beaten grasses of the Donauinsel, trampled down by a stampede of erstwhile mosh pit hooligans – and they are equally well equipped: Almost every group has schlepped at least a couple of six packs , some even whole 24-beer can trays onto the island. The fact that these must be boiling under the summer heat doesn’t seem to bother anyone.
What is also remarkable is that beer pong and upside down keg consumption has found its way from American movies to Vienna’s 22nd district, putting a layer of gamification onto the serious harm you’re doing to your body. As if we needed any more reasons to drink.
Walking past, I notice the Viennese typical unwillingness to mingle with strangers finds a perfect cover in the social distancing rulings, as everyone stays within their small group isolated from each other. The only strangers who are allowed to break these circles are the infamous (and unofficial) beer vendors that sell (feebly) cooled beer cans. I watch as one walks casually along the pathway, announcing his selection (beer or Radler, keep it simple). “Is it for free?” a cheeky young man yells back, and, to my surprise, the vendor reaches for his bag and tosses him a freebie. When I ask him how business is going he confirms that it is riding high this summer:
“On a hot day like this people are very appreciative of my services,” he says modestly. “Especially here on the island, where there are so few bars – and of course my stuff is a lot cheaper as well” He won’t tell me how much he makes in one day, but given that he doesn’t pay taxes and can afford the occasional freebie to a wise guy, it cannot be too bad.
Vienna, we have a problem
While all these anecdotes might be dismissed as subjective perceptions, there are numbers to back up Vienna’s, and Austria’s, potentially serious alcohol problem. According to Statista, Austrians on average consume 11.6 liters of pure alcohol each year, which puts us 13th in the worldwide ranking (see also Stats on p. 27). When it comes to beer, only the Czechs consume more per capita. And with 311 breweries across Austria, we will always be able to satisfy our needs even if the borders close again, cutting us off from the world.
In 2018, for example, 8,419 men were released from a hospital diagnosed with an alcohol addiction; for women the number was less than half, but they’re catching up as I would soon find out.
Hermann Hofstetter has for 12 years headed up the Blaues Kreuz, an institution for the treatment of alcohol abuse. A former alcoholic himself, dry now for 15 years, Hofstetter corrects me when I ask about his past addiction.
“I AM an alcoholic. There is no past tense for this,” he insists. “It is something that stays with you for life.” The retired city official speaks about his struggle with the strong voice that shows that he did beat the bottle after all.
“Before I became an alcoholic, my consumption level was normal – at least what is considered “normal” around here. Because actually the amount of booze we consume in this country is anything but that.”
His life took some bad turns and he found in alcohol an easily accessible and cheap medicine to treat the pain. Every day, he needed just a little more to feel better… Until he started to feel terrible. It took only 2½ years to bring his consumption levels to the top and his mental and physical condition to an absolute bottom. He reached out for help and, after out-patient therapy brought no results, applied for a residency.
“Back in 2005 I got a place right away,” he reported. “Today people have to wait four to eight months for a free spot.” After eight weeks he was released and, like many recovering alcoholics, thought that he is in control and could from now on enjoy the occasional drink.
Then, on a business trip to Paris, he downed a bottle of wine before the flight home and bought three more right after touchdown. “I drank two of them, poured the third one in the sink and called the clinic saying that I had a relapse. I needed to come in again right away.”
This time it worked; he realized that he would have to be completely off alcohol for the rest of his life. And that he would never be able to leave alcohol behind him. Only, this time he would be helping others fight the curse. After moderating the occasional support group, he became chairman of the Viennese division of the Blaues Kreuz, a Swiss organization offering a low-threshold service: You don’t need an ecard, or citizenship or even any money. You just call or email and schedule an appointment with a care worker.
In the initial session, you decide what happens next. Many come in for a weekly group session, where people talk about their battle with the bottle. “It is not like in the movies however, where you stand up and say, “Hi, my name is Peter and I am an alcoholic” – as they do in Alcoholics Anonymous – “and then go into a monologue about your life.
“We prefer to encourage people to talk to each other about the substance that dominates their lives – under the supervision of a coach or therapist.” The association is almost completely funded by donations (the city of Vienna contributes €1,600 a year) and the coaches work there on a volunteer basis.
And New Challenges
Gabriele Szerencsics is one of these helpers: Next to her job as a coach, she spends 10 to 15 more hours supporting alcoholics at the Blaues Kreuz, She never runs out of clients.
“During Corona, we saw a new phenomenon develop: Home Office drinking,” she related. “All of a sudden, people were sitting alone at home in their joggers. With a lack of structure and social contacts, many turned to the bottle.” They started offering Zoom calls. They were shocked to find more women than men in the online groups. “Alcoholism used to be a predominantly male phenomenon,” she said. “But [the women], are quickly catching up, and in our offline sessions as well.”
After our interview, the two of them take me through the premises, which really consists of two only small rooms. On these few square meters, slightly below ground level – and therefore affordable – people have come in as alcoholics and left with a first ray of hope that they are not alone.
After finishing this article I stop by at 1070, a hip café in Wien-Neubau. While the inhabitants of the bourgeois inner districts seem to be worlds away from the people of Simmering or Meidling, they all find a common ground in their love for booze. In Vienna, as in most places, alcohol makes no distinctions in class; it is consumed by workers, students, intellectuals, leftists and right-wingers alike. I ask the waiter what his earliest drink order ever was.
“It was at 8:30 in the morning. Just a regular guy enjoying a Krügerl. You don’t really question these things In Vienna, it is not much more unusual than ordering a [morning] coffee.”