I am leaving Austria today, and, not for the first time, wish I were living here. I visit Vienna every year, but this Autumn has been special because I was also able to see Salzburg again. Both cities are jewels. Both are near to my heart. What makes them so special? Glad you asked…
The Water-is better out of the tap than Evian. Just pure mountain ice melt. ‘Nuff said.
The Food-OK, honestly, what I really mean is not so much the restaurant fare as beer and bratwurst, served on a paper plate and enjoyed (preferably on a park bench) with some mustard and kraut. Or Sacher Torte, so dark and rich and moist that every bite is a celebration for the senses. But a beer hall is the best way to enjoy Austrian food. Just sit down at a huge table full of locals and make some new friends. Pretty soon you’ll be yodeling!
The Trains-Of course they’re spotless, but you can also set your Swiss watch by them. And the food and drink isn’t bad on board either. If you’re in first class, they’ll even serve it at your seat table. It’s a great way to travel, really-relaxing in a lounge as a train whisks you to the very center of a city. Who needs cars, when public transportation is this good?
The People-I’m lying on the sidewalk face-up in front of Vienna’s Statsopera. No, I’m not drunk. My arm is burning because I broke my fall with my elbow, and the wind is knocked out of me. At once, a crowd of 5 people surrounds me, asking me first in German, then in very acceptable English when they realize I’m American, if I’m OK. “Come, here we go”, say two big guys as they help me to my feet effortlessly, despite the fact that I’m 230 pounds and am unable to assist them much at this point. A woman asks if I can move my arm, which I do. Finally, I am the one who says I’m OK, but even as I leave, one of the guys is telling me that he’ll call an ambulance for me if I need it. Now, this was a Monday morning, and I’m pretty sure most of them needed to be somewhere, but they took the time to help a stranger. Thanks, Vienna!
A good rule of thumb for hospitality is what I call the “map test”. In this “exam”, you stand on a busy street corner with a map in your hands to count how many people ask if you need directions. The best score in this regard goes to Savannah. No surprise there; Southerners are famous for their hospitality. In fact, Londoners, and even New Yorkers, are also actually quite good. But Austrians will ask you almost before you’ve got your map unfolded. However, don’t try this in Zurich-you could stand there until winter freezes your feet to the ground and no one will care.
The Dress-Walk down any street in Salzburg, and it won’t be long before you see a guy in a cool-looking jacket and maybe a hat that looks like part of a “Hansel and Gretel” style costume. Sometimes, you’ll even see them in their lederhosen, or the women in their dirndl dresses. At first, you may think this is a costume put on just for tourists, and sometimes that’s true-but just as often, you’ll see it’s worn as you or I might wear a suit for a special occasion. In fact, I saw it so often, especially on the men, that I think it’s just part of who they are as a people-part of their identity, as much a part of them as the mountains they call home. This is reinforced when I ask a local about it. He explains that yes, it’s part of their culture, but it’s also a political statement, as the people who wear it are typically conservative Catholics from the countryside, rather than city-dwellers. They wear the traditional clothing to show that they don’t want Austria to change. Hey, I’m all for that-I don’t want it to change, either.
The Music-I’m at the St Peter Church in Vienna, and the organ pipes have just kicked in. It’s a deep, chest-drumming sound that surrounds you with a veritable ocean of music. When it’s time for “Ave Maria”, a hauntingly beautiful voice nearly brings me to tears. This is a fantastic concert, and the best part of it is that it’s free. So is enjoying an evening of world-class opera outdoors. And ditto for Sunday morning mass at the Augustiner Church, in spite of the fact that the service includes a selection of music from local talent like Haydn, Mozart, and Strauss, and is performed by a full orchestra, organist, and fine virtuoso vocalists. The fact is, if you want to enjoy classical music, there is no better city in the world to do it-there is something extraordinary being played somewhere in the city nearly every day of the week. Sure, you have to pay for most venues, but even that can be a great value-I once had standing room tickets to see “La Traviata” for only 5 Euro…less than you’d have to fork out for a pay-per-view movie! Not bad to watch a live classic performance in a legendary opera house.
History-OK, where to begin? How about empire? Check!…Holy Roman Empire. In fact, make that 3 empires, counting the Austrian and the Austro-Hungarian Empires. Great turning points? The Muslim invasion of Europe was finally halted at the Gates of Vienna in 1683 (that’s right, Europe wasn’t free from Islam until one year after William Penn founded the province of Rhode Island). Not enough? A veritable who’s who of the world’s greatest composers called Vienna home, but I’ll just drop these names-Hayden, Liszt, Mahler, Mozart, Schubert, Strauss…there’s a lot more, so many that Wiki has to alphabetize them.
Architecture-One word: Schonbrunn Palace. OK, that’s two words, but to my way of thinking, it’s more impressive than either Versailles or Madrid’s royal palace. But Vienna isn’t a one-trick pony…it’s not even a one-trick palace: you can always take in Belvedere if you want to see something grand within the ring. In the old town, there simply isn’t a “bad look”: whatever alley you wander down, you’ll be greeted by beautifully restored neoclassical buildings. And it’s hard to miss the imposing Gothic masterpiece of St, Stephen’s cathedral or the over-the-top Rococo exuberance of Karlskirche. Vienna is the very definition of architectural eye candy.
Politics-Sebastian Kurz, the chancellor of Austria, is the world’s youngest political leader, and he’s a nationalist who seeks to distance his country from the unrestricted immigration insanity that has gripped much of the rest of Europe. Judging from just how well Muslims and Africans are currently assimilating in the rest of Europe, that’s a very good thing.
Cleanliness-Germans are famously squeaky clean, but I think Austrians must put on their scrubs before they venture outdoors. I looked around Salzburg’s main train station, and I finally found just one cigarette butt on the floor, proving not only that they are a fastidious people in the extreme, but also that I need a hobby. You can walk through the most touristy part of Vienna (population 2.6 million) without seeing so much as a fast food wrapper on the sidewalk. Cruise along on Austria’s Rail Jet at 140+MPH, and it takes 5 minutes just to find some unattended garbage along the way…that’s right, in Austria, there’s no “wrong side of the tracks”.
I asked about this from a local, and his explanation was that Austria very much wants to ensure full employment, so they take the least qualified people and put them to work policing up trash. Maybe that’s it (and I wish we had the same philosophy in the USA), but I’m more inclined to believe that they’re just genetically programmed to have more pride in their game than to trash their own city.
I think that’s what makes Western Civilization so great, in part-the heritable trait that you are responsible for something larger than yourself and your immediate family, and you’re expected to play your part in that, even if it’s something as seemingly trivial as basic cleanliness. It’s the same thing that keeps Austrian pedestrians waiting at the corner for the light to turn green even when there isn’t a car in sight. Sure, you could walk across the street easily-but you’d be letting your town-your people-down. It’s the same civic pride that rebuilt the bombed-out roof of St Stephen’s cathedral using only local resources at a time when the residents were desperately impoverished after four years of war had left many of them homeless and starving. They didn’t go begging, hat in hand, for money from their “betters”…from some NGO, from the USA, or from the (then nonexistent) IMF—they went out and did it themselves, because it was “their” cathedral.
That’s an important part of what makes countries founded by European peoples the envy of the world today. It’s not simply the rule of law: every country has that. It’s the fact that most of the people most of the time follow those rules without the need for any overt police action to enforce them. But more than that, it’s the fact that the citizens actually care enough about the culture that nourished them to preserve it. The social contract is bound not by the laws of men, but by the conscience of a God-fearing people, and nourished by the blood and soil of a particular place. Create a culture like that, and you allow for a flourishing of genius in art, literature, and music the world has never seen before. Develop beauty like that, and you have Western Civilization.
Now, Europe, or more properly, the unseen bureaucrats in Brussels, together with the oligarchs who control them, is engaged in tampering with that formula in an unprecedented experiment called multiculturalism, and we are just beginning to see the results. They are transforming the continent, bit by bit, into an amorphous polyglot mass of humanity bound not by God, blood, and soil, but by little more than physical gratification, consumerism, and trendy philosophies. If these new peoples worship any God at all, his name is either Mohammed or mammon. Their blood is an admixture of races, religions, and creeds from across the globe, and the results, so far, have been grim and predictable. Terrorism, we are now told, is simply something Europeans must live with. Mosques are built, while churches are torn down. A vast permanent underclass of unemployed and unemployable vagrants is simply an accepted fact of life. Filth and squalor decorate much of the continent’s major capitols, while the arts are increasingly devoted to little more than the pornographic and sacrilegious daydreams of a degenerate mindset. Nor can one openly and freely attack those ideas without fear of imprisonment. The cold, iron fist of an alien totalitarianism is choking off a continent that used to celebrate the free exchange of ideas. In short, Europe is rapidly becoming little more than a living museum for a decaying culture.
It’s probably too late for the likes of France, Germany, and Italy to save themselves, so we must look east for hope. There are signs that an awakening is occurring in the FSU (Former Soviet Union) countries, an awareness that the way to success does not lie in the deracination of their own cultures. There, paradoxically, in the states formerly under an atheist authoritarian boot heel, you will find real freedom of expression: the right to think and speak outside of a politically correct box. There has been a great resurgence of nationalism that includes a belief in a Christian God, a pride in their own unique heritage, and of the right of the people to protect their borders from invasion. There is, in short, in the east at least, a hope for the future of the European people, and that hope is very real in Austria as well.