We didn’t learn as much German as we should have while living in Vienna, but I did manage to pick up one lesson: The art of the German language is definitely not in the sound of the words themselves, but instead in the elegance of the ideas and images those words can evoke when they’re smooshed together into little linguistic Schichtkuchen (layer cakes).
Take the word Sehnsucht, for example. Google translates it to “nostalgia,” but this seemingly simple thing is actually much more complicated — just like everything else in Austria. Break the compound word apart and the little words mean “to see,” “to investigate.” Put them back together, and you get something like “life longing,” or “a sense of separation from the imaginative experience we crave,” a translation I particularly like and picked up here.
Anyway, this nuanced sort of longing — not for the reality of an experience but for the imagined perfection of it — is something that speaks deeply to how I felt about being back in Vienna for three weeks after almost a year away. This city never became home for us, not really, but our visit made us feel like maybe in fact Vienna had been, if only for just awhile.
After the conference in Prague, Matt had a visiting fellowship lined up in his old department at Universität Wien. And we opted to stay near our former district, which was convenient for him work-wise and also allowed me to wander by our old residence, Frauengasse 19, several times. I waved at the windows I used to write by every day.
But there really isn’t much to do on our old street, apart from trespassing on a school athletic field or visiting one of the three (!) brothels that have sprung up on the block in the last year. Instead, we spent most of our time on Yppenplatz, a trendy little square that blends Vienna’s Turkish and Balkan immigrants with university students and brunch seekers.
We got an Airbnb overlooking the square, which made for noisy nights but entertaining days. After all, where else can you watch an effigy waltz from your window, and then head down for schnitzel and spritzer?
Our apartment location also made us neighbors with Trevor and Jane, fellow Americans-turned-expats, who quickly became two of our closest friends while we lived in Vienna.
With them, we rented a boat and floated our way down the Alte Donau, a lazy little river that was once a branch of the Danube but is no longer.
While it was definitely fun to do a “new thing” in Vienna, it also brought on a pang of realization that there was so much more to do in the city, that we’d really only managed to skim the surface while we lived there.
But ultimately, the primary focus of our summer stay wasn’t about checking items off an infinite bucket list of activities. Instead, we were more interested in seeing old friends and revisiting our favorite things. And I wasted no time in doing just that: the day after we got to town, I got drinks with my buddy Gwen, a globetrotting medieval historian from Indiana who is now a card-carrying Dutch citizen.
I also had a couple of adventures with fellow writer Connie Miedler, a.k.a Miss Euro Blogger. One of them was a wine & paint night that put our creative talents to the test.
Almost everyone in the class approached me to express their … amazement … at my work, which I dubbed “Exploding Bridge.” And yes, despite multiple obstacles and all common sense, I brought this baby home to hang on the wall in Alabama.
Anyway, you get the idea. Both Matt and I made our social rounds in town, though we did do a little re-wandering together, too.
In addition to catching up with our people, our secondary goal for Vienna was to test out a new travel model for ourselves: “working travelers.” Instead of traditional backpacking, where folks tend to move from city to city every few days, we stayed put long enough to settle in. Long enough to buy groceries. Long enough to see the same folks in the building hallway more than once. Long enough to sleep in some days without worrying about “wasting time.” Long enough to just be, instead of always having to do.
Our new model wasn’t always easy; we both had sizable projects to balance with our sightseeing, which tugged at us while we were out-and-about — but we also felt guilty about working too much on any given day. This sense of feeling torn between work and play bugged me in particular; time on the road is valuable in a different way from “billable hours,” but our projects financially enabled this trip and required a fair amount of our attention and energy.
But overall, we did our best to strike a balance, and we both agree that “slow travel” is probably the most sustainable approach to our future adventures. It just takes discipline — and excellent Wifi.
Just before the end of our time in Vienna, I went to the same place I did a couple of days before we left Austria for Alabama last year. Ruprechtskirche isn’t the fanciest church in Vienna, but it’s definitely the oldest, founded in 740 and named for the patron saint of salt merchants. But to me, it’s a private, almost forgotten little corner of Vienna’s Jewish Quarter, in the otherwise bustling-and-touristy First District.
There’s something comforting and grounding about being in a place that’s been around for so long and is still being used for the same purpose today that it always has been. It’s a good place to light a candle and sit with the caretaker on a hard bench, staring at a modest stone altar until you get shy and go back outside to sit alone on the steps instead.
It’s where I go to say goodbye, I guess. It’s where I go to get ready for the road again.
I needed all the blessings I could get from St. Rupert. Because from Vienna, we flew to a radically different world from central Europe: Marrakech.