La Traviata is nearing its climax, and Violetta is singing her final aria. No, she isn’t a fat lady at all, in fact she’s kind of hot, and I don’t want her to die, even though it’s taken her the best part of an hour to do it. In fact, I am so deeply moved that she’s brung a tear to my eye.
Well, that’s part of the reason. The other part is Elise. I didn’t know Elise before tonight, and my first impression wasn’t good. I had entered Vienna’s extravagant Neo-Renaissance Opera House through the wrong door, and, not being fluent in German, or any other language besides English, I was unable to figure out that the best way to buy tickets was NOT to stand in line with every teenager and “cultured-but-poor” opera fan in a five country radius to buy a 3 Euro ($3.60) ticket, but rather to go to the correct ticket counter where good seats might have been available. And that is how I wound up standing behind Elise, on this, my first trip to the opera. Any opera.
Now, any serious opera-goer will probably tell you that if you’re going to see this kind of entertainment, you can’t do much better than this venue, and I’m not here to argue with them. That said, those serious aficianados didn’t buy the cheap seats. Actually, I didn’t either. Buy a cheap seat, that is. No, for less than $5, you have to stand. For almost three hours! Next to (and here is where the horror music kicks in) dun-dun-dun-DUUUNNN…Elise!
Yes, Elise the komissar of der opera! The woman who I stood behind and watched as she shook her finger at errant kids making too much noise during the performance by—moving their feet. Yep. That little bit of noise when the wood creaked underfoot got them scolded more than once verbally as well.
In fact, she directed her wrath at me about 30 minutes in. I was stupid enough to think that if the opera house sold tickets there was room for everyone to see the show. Wrong answer, heathen-breath! No, apparently, they just keep selling tickets until there are no more people waiting in line, a fact I didn’t know as I casually sauntered around the building oohing and awing at the magnificent chandeliers, moldings, and ceiling frescoes, champagne glass firmly in hand, while Elise and about 300 other very Austrian, very serious theatergoers were elbowing there way to the prime standing spots (that’s right!) at the bar near the back of the top level, from which they could only see part of the show themselves. By the time I got around to finding all this out, I could only sidle up very tight behind Elise and her friend so that I could see a tiny sliver of the stage between their two heads while I leaned out over their shoulders. In fact, I was so close she may have thought I had a banana in my pocket when she backed into me once, and that is what earned the glare.
Eventually, her threats against the kids escalated until she warned them about expulsion. Again, remember, these kids had not uttered a word! No cell phones ringing, no talking. Just shuffling feet.
At the end of Act One, I was talking to a Swiss girl next to me during the intermission and naturally the subject of that woman came up. Her opinion was the same as mine. She didn’t say it in so many words, but I’m pretty sure “bitch” has a counterpart in at least one of the 4 or 5 languages that the Swiss usually know.
Nevertheless, I have a conversation with Elise in English in which I apologize for crowding her space. I explain it’s because I can’t see anything without doing that. I’m pretty sure she knows I’m American now.
At the halfway mark of act 2, I’m fading fast. I can barely see anything, and the tiny teleprompter-style monitor on the rail that does the English translation is invisible from where I am standing.
That’s when Elise surprised me. First, she moved aside a little so that one of the kids could come in next to her on the rail. Then she motioned me to the rail in front of her and moved herself away to a small jump seat designed for people that get too tired to stand. From that seat, there is no view at all. At first, I just think she really is resting and will come back, but after 30 minutes she’s still there.
I quietly creep back to her and ask if she’s OK, wondering if she wants her place back. She says, “No, you go back. I’ve seen it before.”
It didn’t really sink in for a few moments what she did for me, a complete stranger, who up until a few moments before had some pretty unkind things to say about her. She’d given up her spot on the rail for me. Not because she had to. But because she is a nice person, about as far from a bitch as you can get. I’m not sure what that makes me, but judgmental comes to mind right away.
I thanked her after the first curtain call, and that’s when she introduced herself. I don’t know if Elise had come a long way to see the opera or not, but I suspect she did, because people who can afford to live in the middle of town don’t buy the “el cheapo” tickets. Given her age (around 60) it was probably a big event for her and her friend to come and see the opera, and it was obvious from whispered slivers I overheard that they were both knowledgeable and enjoyed the performance. So it makes it all the more impressive that she gave a good bit of it, the best part actually, to me, a stranger.
I think that Elise loves the opera. She loves it so much she wants to share it with others, especially neophytes, and she loves it too much to let anyone ruin it by making too much noise. She is both unselfish and firm. A lady, we used to say. It’s a high standard to meet. I have a long way to go to be a gentleman.
Thanks, Elise. You made my night at the opera!
Now, about switchblades. I have this friend, Tony. Tony is a classic New York Guinea, and he wouldn’t mind me calling him that anymore than I’d mind him calling me a Mick.
Anyway, Tony knows I’m going to Vienna and he wants me to get him a switchblade, “about as long as his hand”. I’m not surprised by his request, since he has told me he’s “always packin’ heat, y’know what I mean?” No, I’m not making this up. I have eclectic friends.
So I go to the first store, Demel (upon recommendation of my concierge), which is off a quiet side street near the Opera House. I walk in the ground floor, and think I must be in the wrong place, because all I see is women. The reason for that is that the ground floor is all Lady’s fashions. If you want a Holland and Holland shotgun for $70,000 (used!), you go upstairs. Only in Vienna.
So I head upstairs and am enveloped in a rich aromatic leather bouquet that simply enshrines the place. I’m surrounded by the most sumptuous and expensive-looking safari equipment I’ve ever seen, I mean quality hand-made stuff, and I am just admiring it. A big, jovial salesman approaches me and lets me know that no, he does not have switchblades. We have a short conversation about the availability of guns in Austria (surprisingly about the same as the USA but far more expensive), but he does recommend another store, one that deals ONLY in knives. So off I go.
I find this guy on a slightly more obscure side street and walk in. He does have switchblades, 3 different kinds, but only one which might approach the size Tony requires. I play with 2 of them, and they have a nice feel, good balance, and the switch mechanism seems to work better than the couple of others I’ve ever held.
So I ask the price, ready for anything. Except what the owner tells me. 570 Euro he says. I can’t believe it. Tony had budgeted $50-75 at most. I had thought that was low, but never in my dreams did I think it would be over $200.
So I gave up. But there’s more to the story. How come I can go into an Austrian store to buy a USA-made knife? That’s right, made right here, but I can’t buy it here. I thought American manufacturing was hurting, but I guess whoever is in charge of switchblades (FTC?) doesn’t think so, because they’ve made it illegal to sell them in the USA, but, in a bizarre and Orwellian twist that only a bureaucrat could explain, I can own one here as long as I bought it elsewhere. Go figure.
BTW, it’s not the only unusual USA-made product I see here. I’m walking down the street and I hear a ton of commotion, laughing and shouting and commotion. Partying, basically. It’s coming from a stretch limo, and it’s a Lincoln. I guess that’s the preferred Partymobile of choice for prom goers the world over.
They say that the best chocolate in the world is made here, and I believe it, because when I bite into the dark gooey torte I just purchased from the world-famous Sacher Hotel’s confectionary, I am in heaven. It is so dense and rich that it really is extraordinary, possibly sinful.
I came here after failing to buy a switchblade. I think this is the better use of money, and I’m pretty sure the girlfriend will agree, since I have bought her some candies for the next time I see her.
So that’s how I spent my day, really. Oh, except for a trip out to see the palace of the Habsburg Emperors, Shonbrunn, a mansion of magnificent opulence situated on hectare after hectare of manicured grounds. I don’t stay long, because it’s raining. Again.
I eat at the Café’ Mozart, which is conveniently located directly across the street from the opera house. I order up a traditional Viennese dish, goulash, which is a meaty stew, and it’s mighty good. A nice portion served quickly and hot. Recommended.
And of course, I can’t resist buying a double ice cream from Heiner on the way home. Ice cream is a favorite dessert (more like an obsession, really) of Austrians, and the shops where you can buy it are really more like large café’s that offer a wide variety, open as late as the bars. I have my favorite, the pistachio, and it doesn’t disappoint, offering up a creamy richness that is hard to find anywhere else. Bravo!
Follow that up with a nice stroll down Kartner Strasse, and you have a perfect night. This is a shopping, dining, drinking, partying, and people-watching paradise, but I think what people love the most about it besides its gorgeous Neo-Classical facades is the variety and quality of goods available in such a small place. Yes, the aforementioned switchblades are available very close by, as are hand-made shotguns that I would hate to actually use, but so are chocolates, pastry shops, fishmongers, fashionable clothing stores, and much more. There’s a store devoted to custom Teddy Bears, and one that will make a perfect fragrance or soap just for you. There’s something for everyone.
Tomorrow, I go biking. Auf Weidersehen!