1. Setting a foot into the city.
By ZJ Galos.
The room has a view onto a typical Viennese block of standard bourgeoisie quality, across a courtyard. From the fourth floor the yard below stretches toward Kaiserstrasse, where the entrance to the hotel is situated. He stands in front of the large double glazed window, which is slightly open, as his spouse is hungry for fresh air. Will it be clean air? He ponders as his hand searches in his trouser pocket for a tissue. He takes a white tissue from the light blue pack that depicts a sailing seagull and he sneezes into it. Damned cold! he swears into his breath, I should have worn a cap on the airplane. His spouse moving about the room arranging her clothes, she has brought with, hardly notices his mumbling.
“You should have worn your beret on the plane,” she mumbles.
“Never mind,” he repeats with a low voice, as anything firmer spoken will annoy his wife causing aggressive responses from her. Why has B to interrupt his train of thought at all times?
The patch of visible sky, framed from the eaves of the adjoining buildings, has the lightness of French blue. Like the postcards, he would mumble again.
“What is it with you today?” B tries picking up a conversation.
“It’s nothing,” he replies annoyed.
“You are such a disgruntled man!” B throws in, but he could not care, lost deep in thoughts.
“I am just shouting my thoughts into the space above the courtyard,” he finishes his response and hopes to put an end to a silly conversation, but B carries on to criticize him.
He has switched his mind off that much so that even the movements of the evergreen leaves on their rambling growth on the firewall of the adjoining flat building next to it, have a pattern of up and down movements, choreographed by the ever-present gusts of a manipulative wind. He thinks of his past life, when he studied architecture and art in Vienna: Friends with their pretty girlfriends, days of visiting art galleries and the outdoors in springtime, the parties in summer, but most of all about a sensual beauty and most-treasured of all of his girlfriends – Michaela. The beauty of their relationship grew with a mutual desire to experience awakening love for the first time in a profound way that excited both of them.
He could judge his love now, more than a generation of time span passed that he really loved her, not only physically, but also from the innermost of his heart. It was love that could have taken off to greater heights, but had been ended due to her greater sexual maturity and keenness to experiment with other men desiring her, while he had become jealous and possessive of her. He knew that as great a love as it could have become, it had already ended there, with having great expectations of expressing this love through his art. He wondered how her life had turned out, besides how she would look today, perhaps a mother of children.
He lunged for the fine black and white dotted scarf he had inherited from his mother’s wardrobe. Folding it into a triangle, he formed a band by mode successive folding to use it as a scarf below his shirt collar. He enjoyed this accessory that became a symbol of his undying bond to his mother and it gave him underlying aesthetics of a Bohemian. While he slipped into his grey worsted wool jacket, he placed his long grey-white hair, held together with a black rubber band, outside his jacket collar and took his black beret.
“Are you going out?” Hi wife sounded concerned.
“Yes, I have an appointment with an architect.” B frowned, but she took it in her stride.
“Don’t be late,” she replied.
A gust of cold wind met his face as he opened the heavy glazed entrance door to exit the hotel. The northern wind penetrated his jacket and its sharp teeth brazed his skin like needles. He pulled his beret further down on his forehead and took the short distance to the tram in a steady pace. He had to cross the street that was controlled by traffic lights to reach the tram stop adjoining it. The tram arrived shortly after he reached the glazed shelter of the tram station, continuing with some speculation about his colleagues he remembered back from his student days. It excited him to hear soon from a woman architect, who had been married to one of his colleagues he had worked closely together on a factory for electronic components. But his mind had been already made-up to leave Vienna with his wife for Southern Africa.
The transportation system throughout Vienna is efficient, he mused, as he studied the underground’s map, when he entered the station at Westbahnhof, but my body isn’t any longer. His left hip joint started giving him trouble. It pains him with certain movements out of the blue. Damned Z, he moans to himself, why must be ageing such pain in midst a slow physical downslide and unstoppable disintegration? His eyes wandered about for distraction: Young couples kissing and an old man getting onto the train with great difficulty. He thought of Mrs NZ and remembered that she had told him that she was NZ’s divorced wife and that NZ had died fifteen years back. He wondered how his friend had died. Was it an accident? After all he was about the same age and Mrs NZ had not mentioned anything in her sparse Email correspondence. He had hoped to meet NZ when he came back to Vienna, even figured a continuation of a loose cooperation, as he had enjoyed working with him.
Café Museum had always been a meeting place for the young and elderly artists, architects and students from the Technical and Fine Arts universities and it is a short walk from the Karlsplatz subway station. It’s minimalist white interior suited to hang on to thoughts and conduct private conversations. He recalled that Elias Canetti used to meet his interlocutor, a professor for languages and history, in this café regularly, discussing with him topics of his writing and review the status of social changes.
Mrs NZ came a few minutes later after he had chosen a table at the back of the café, away from the hub of the entrance areas. Not having met her before, he sent her a message where he was seated. When she stood at the entrance area of the back section, scanning the three occupied tables, he stood up. “Mrs. NZ?”
“Mr Z?” they both addressed each other at the same time. He had to smile.
“Yes, please sit down.” He started immediately a conversation about NZ and she began her story from the time when Z had left with B for the south of Africa. NZ headed some good projects at the firm where Z had been employed as well and worked together with NZ on a bigger project. Mrs NZ carried on: “He landed a job for himself that started a tug of war between him and his former employer. However the fight about it must have grown seeds of depression in him.”
“Indeed fights about a new project one has earned due to diligence and working hard at the previous one successfully, becomes always a moral issue of claiming it. It seems to be happening to most colleagues all over the world.”
Mrs NZ nodded and asked Z about his time at university, comparing notes about professors they both had.
“I remember the tragic death of Professor S. “ Z said.
“Yes,” Mrs NZ said and a sad expression clouded her eyes for a moment.
“He had great knowledge about architecture,” she added.
“Damned sad that he hanged himself,” Z remarked, but abstained to remark about the political background of a huge project that went sour on him.
“With NZ it came about to be similar,” she interjected, “he became more and more depressed and finally he did the same as Architect S.” Mrs NZ looked at me with sad eyes.
“You mean he committed suicide by hanging himself?” She nodded.
“Damned, one has to be quite desperate to do that putting up the strength for the final act and on the other side it is a great tragedy that it comes that far.” She nodded. NZ had left her and he fathered another child with another woman. Mrs NZ had to struggle to bring up three children and earn a living for her family. He felt compassion for the woman, who had given him a hand and connecting him back to the past with such depressing news. He felt a cold shower running down his back, a drawing from Goya of ‘The hanged man’ appearing like a flash in his mind.
“What will you do?” Her question startled him.
“I do not know.”
“Perhaps ask NZ’s friend, who had returned from South Africa too.” He made a note and Mrs.NZ mentioned another architect working on projects for South Africa and he had the feeling that the praise about Europe had its other side of the coin she had shown to him and that he heard about from grass-root levels. He will find out in due time much more, but certainly at present he will have to look rather for something different than work in an architectural office.
Mrs NZ finished her drink of white wine and soda and announced that she had to leave. She paid the waiter for her drink and he stood up shaking hands with her, then he sat down and he remained for a while at the café, finishing his glass of red wine. Suddenly he felt a stabbing pain in his left leg and collapsed back onto the seat. Damned, my hip joint gave up on me again, he gasped. The pain caused blue thoughts: How would he ever get a flat without proof of work? And how would he ever get work at his advanced age? The classical tale of the dog biting its own tail came to his mind, but dismissed the thoughts.
He looked out the window to the street where twilight had set in tainting the air in blue-grey mist. He asked the passing waiter for his bill and reaching for his beret, his fingers touched the small studs he had affixed to the side of it. He reviewed them: An Irish knot emblem from travelling to England; a gilded crown symbol from Hungary; a miniature Olympic Games symbol from the 2004 Olympics from Athens and an owl as symbol for the city of the birth of philosophy; and a spiral as a symbol for the labyrinth, he bought in Crete. He recalled that somebody in Greece had once remarked if he had earned all these decorations. He had to laugh and replied that he was linked irrevocably to the cities where these studs related to. Yes, he had earned them travelling to these cities and writing about them in his journals and short stories and at times anecdotes emerged in his novels or happenings were reflected in his poems. The person asking the question, he remembered now, a poet herself he had wondered about her remarks. What poetry was she writing?
He made his way back to the subway and laboured about his walking. He avoided stepping down staircases and chose the lift instead. A mass of passengers sucked him into the mainstream of pedestrian traffic to get to the subway’s platform. His right leg took the commanding steps, while he used his left leg like a supporting walking stick, hobbling along. He had to smile meeting once a woman who had a similar problem with the other leg and they eyed each other for a short while thoughts of a matching couple tumbling in his mind, he reckoned just as in hers.
The next morning a constant howling wakes him. It’s noise from the hot water tap, a hammer-head due to unprofessional installation of a venting system. It is even more unpleasant than the constant hammering from builders in the courtyard area below.
After a buffet breakfast, he travelled with his spouse, as she had arranged a meeting with a former friend of her estranged sister.
“Perhaps R could help us with a postal address that is needed for the authorities if we had to stay longer than two months having applied for financial assistance.” He agreed. But he had to find the correct address alone, as his spouse had visual problems. It also meant that one having found the correct street number on the building, the respective stair number is crucial to find the desired rooms in the old courtyard complexes. Finally he found the way having phoned the secretary of Mr R again.
Mr R was friendly and he thought about how to help them, but unfortunately he could not help them. There is nobody around it seems who could. They are left to use their wits and ask around for tips and a guide. However Austria is a socially conscious country and Vienna has departments of social security that will assist if one is in dire need, or so one hopes the adverts harbour truth.
“It is difficult to become citizens of Vienna again,” he mentioned to R.
“You should try to advertize teaching English, as you are recognized as a native speaker,” he mentioned.
“Indeed,” he replied, “he had a TEFL teaching certificate from the USA.”
“Well you can advertize in the Bazar,” he concluded and wished them good luck. Z was glad that B had organized this talk. Every time, even if there is no direct help, some pointers might crop up and some good advice is given that helps them on their way forward. In a way it is like marriage counseling, he thought, without the adviser knowing it, as the theme is all about building a sustainable life in a city they both once claimed to be their home.
But now all seems to be strange and foreign, the familiar streets and landmarks not more than faded postcards from the conscious mind. There are though some places that seem familiar and extend a welcome feeling with a sense of security. To him they are the art galleries like Albertina, Sezession and Oberes Belvedere and to her as well, but more so the boutiques that suit her taste for fashion, she delves in trying on dresses as if wishing to change into the security of one she prefers.
However, as she always complains about her feet aching from walking the pavements of the inner city, he is on the constant lookout for a reasonable coffee house. He wonders why B has this urge delving into luxury, when their funds are limited and tight. What goes on in B’s mind?
“I want to sit down in Café Europa,” she suddenly airs her whimsical request.
“That Café has closed down,” he replies.
“How do you know?’
“Well, as we were searching the other day for the old ‘Kurier-Eck’ on Kartnerstrasse, we should have walked past it.”
“It had comfortable seats.” At her remark he spots a coffee house if front of them.
“Let’s try this one,” he points at a Grunderzeit corner building and he is amazed as she accepts. “Tirolerhof,” he utters reading the entrance sign. The interior is typical for that time period over 100 years ago. The seats at the windows are upholstered and covered with a traditional velvet cloth. The tables have a local ‘Kunststein’ top that feels warm to the touch as it is a mixture of natural stone chips and concrete and are in spite its tightness sufficiently designed for consuming coffee and cake and even a small meal.
B immediately took to the farthest seat adjoining the wooden partition wall that separates the smokers. She places her handbag on the bench and then rests her left foot on it.
”It is swollen at the ankles again,” she says and orders a still mineral water from the waiter, who seems not bothered by her doing.
”Gerne, meine Dame,” he utters with his Viennese charm. “Und der Herr?” He orders a glass of red wine.”Ja, mein Herr kommt gleich,” he completes his niceties to his new customers. The sound of businesslike politeness takes Z back to his time, studying at the technical university faculty of architecture. Free time spent at the Café Hawelka in the inner city, an interesting place with Mr Hawelka’s own gallery of art incorporated in the coffee house. It attracted a host of different people, at different times. Mornings the newspaper reading pensioners and students looking for a quiet place to swat and compare notes, in the afternoon the groups of literati, attracting a bevy of beauties and at night the mix of artists, poets and critical journalists, students and their girlfriends. He enjoyed the aura of a Bohemian group of artists with their specific characteristic habits, dress codes and mannerisms. He recalls of having continuous debts with one of the waiters, but he enjoyed life, equal minded friends and his lovers.
With B tugging into her tomato soup with croutons, the sip from his red ‘Zweigelt’ brings up philosophical thoughts: It’s a delicate undertaking to return to a city we never wished to return to. Perhaps in time we will find a modus vivendi that allows us to enjoy the benefit of one small flat, with the advantage of living our own lives. But that is still subject to review and it’ll take another month or two becoming reality or disaster. I still have to transfer the artistic life that I have built up in Athens to Vienna, he thought and massaged the knuckles on his hands. It’s the only possible way forward, he was sure of that. Besides as his old friends have passed on or disappeared, he will have to make new friends, just as he found a new Viennese coffee house, not stacked with eco tourists. Life in this city was hard, but it would harden him too, as long as it will be physically related and not mentally as well. He wished to stay sensitive at his inner core, write poetry from the heart and paint canvases from the instant stirrings of the soul. His mind flashed back to pictures of his arrival and his many hours travelling by tram, underground and railway. The airport at Schwechat had been expanded like an elongated sausage and there are other similar examples in a city that bursts at its seams. It’s a nightmare to walk along to one of the many gates, especially if one is in a hurry. On top of the linear extension, a badly designed signage system is the cherry on the top of confusing a weary traveler. The lady he asked in the shop for the way to the baggages reclaim area agreed: It’s a miracle to find as it is nowhere signposted.
“I have to condemn the airport in this regard and point to the one in Athens,” he said to her, “as it is signposted well and also in colours that are more legible to everybody.” The saleslady nodded.
Being infrequent travelers, he allowed a big enough time cushion for getting to their flight in Athens. B dreaded the x-ray and control area, as it never seemed easy to get through without any kind of holdup in an endless queue of travelers. They had their share of stress, with B having too much luggage items with her. She has a handbag and another shopping bag filled with clothing items, prepared for the colder weather in Vienna. At times he helps her carrying the smaller bag, besides his own bag on top of the holdall fitted with rollers. As soon as their holdalls are checked in, the remaining items of smaller handbags are easier to carry to the airoplane. He has a long woolen coat with, he carries on his arm.
”You have to fold it together tucking one sleeve into the other,” B reminds him, as she had it shown to him beforehand. His mind is not on such trivial matters, however practical they might seem. The world of a poet and artists is at home in the clouds, to which they soon will ascend. He relaxes from B’s constant comments, which remind him of her aunt, a school teacher, who sounded just like her. B has never been like this, he muses; she always prided herself of being an staunch individual. She still has that character trail, but her constant comments about him borders on bickering and it annoys him. He dislikes this present state of his marriage and he lets his mind go in order to stay at a relaxed mood, whereby forgetting everything around him. Neither he nor B, who stopped commenting as he ignores her silly talk, are in a conscious level that would need enough attention to recognize the reality of an upcoming event. The short exchanges of aggression had distorted their voices to the sound of arrows swooshing through the air are hitting their targets right on.
He takes a deep breath, pulling the arrow from his chest, dispensing the instant responding anger’s arrowhead with his conscious mind and listen to its rational voice: How stupid, how childish, how self-centred and egotistical you two behave! He nods and feels ashamed. The first step to apologize is on his mind. His next words are spoken in a soft voice, the one he is familiar with, his better side, the lighter coloured one of his sun-loving character – the golden child – Mum liked depicting him.
The air clears again from a flashback fight of Troja that everybody carries as a piece still within them. The sudden flashfloods of blood flow have been absorbed by the ageing bodies and the sun of communication has emerged again. These are the moments when B is trying to be interested in his writing process. She asks him to follow her, as she has detected three seats an aisle back, where she could put her hurting leg up on the adjoining seat. However as he walks toward the third seat adjoining hers, the man sitting nearby claims it as reserved for his wife.
“You should have placed an item on top of the seat so it would be obvious,” he tells him. The man seems incommunicative. B points to a seat opposite to her.
“Take that one Z.”
He is not complaining for having to give up his comfortable leatherette seat before for this dark grey plastic seat, slightly moulded, pushing into his back, stooped over a bunch of registration forms, using the reverse blank sides for writing. They have been a day ago at the municipal offices of the social centre that had accepted their registration for the minimal financial support to sustain a living. For that purpose they have to live in Vienna. But B is annoyed that he is not talking to her but write away as if it would be his last piece of writing, as if he would wish to keep it as a mental barrier between their different worlds. As if he would avoid answering her questions what he was writing about. He is annoyed being interrupted, especially in midst of a flow of inspired writing. He cannot understand her behaviour toward him, as he respects her request for not being addressed by him at mornings, when she concentrates on making herself pretty for the day ahead. Exactly, so he expects her to respect his inner concentration now, as he had asked her before, or has she forgotten to understand the happening of an oncoming flow of creative writing?
Sahid, the Egyptian taxi driver took them to the airport in good time. They had agreed with him that he would fetch them at eight am, stopping on the opposite side of the hotel entrance. They had to be fast as he was not allowed to stop there. He was perhaps a minute or two later than eight and B nagged Z to phone him. If he would ask her to wait a bit longer, she would start an argument, so he obliged and phoned. Sahib replied that he was about half a minute away and he sounded tired, but he hardly ever loses his cool, even if he is pushed harder by irate customers.
They loaded the holdalls and bags into the boot and he rushed them to take seats at the back of his white Mercedes. Suddenly Z’s mind was hit by a flash: The small black canvas bag!
“I forgot my small bag,” he shouted and Sahid stopped after the traffic light. He turned in his seat.
“It’s lying on the pavement,” he said, while Z opened the door and dashed back toward it.
“He always forgets his bags,” B started to comment again, as soon as he returned, but Sahid ignored it.
“It’s history now,” Z said, stopping her negative commenting. After all he wanted to have an easy conversation with Sahid and he talked about finding a flat and Sahid promised to assist and ask his wife, who met a lot of people with teaching art.
“You could even teach art,” Sahid said, “there are many schools opening for using art and drawing as a therapy.”
“That’s great,” Z felt comfortable with his new friend.
“Indeed and you could exhibit your paintings.”
“Aha!” More hope to feel welcome by an Egyptian Viennese.
“How many paintings have you got, 30, 60?”
“I’ve about 30 watercolours and about 30 smaller canvases painted with acrylic paint. “
“Excellent,” Sahid replied. “When are you coming back?”
“At the end of November.”
“Aha. I will be away to visit Egypt,” Sahid turned his head slightly toward me.
“However it is not sure yet, I might be back again.” He smiled.
“Well my timing depends on the answer I am awaiting from the magisterial offices.” Z told him.
“All right, I have your telephone number. If something comes up I let you know.” He thanked him and considered it as good news talking to the friendly Egyptian with an Austrian wife. B had been jealous that he made friends easily and instead of supporting him, she attempted to undermine his attempts showing him as weak and forgetful. However Sahid might have noticed that anyway and therefore the vagueness in his talk about being here next time. He recalled staff at the hotel, like Steffi with a head scarf and Muslim outfit always being helpful and friendly and Toumi the porter, who helped him with tips of getting around and get mail forwarded, besides getting his boarding tickets printed out. He talked to him about settling again in Vienna and he sensed the difficulties that awaited him in his attempt.
“For Austrian citizens there is always help,” he mused and Z understood that it sounded as if it would be double as hard for foreigners. But he had no overall view of this growing social problem yet. Z thanked him for his help.
“There is a solution for everything,” he said to him as Z had paid him and handed him a tip.
We arrived in good time at the Schwechat airport. Sahid charged them only for the car’s expenses with a great discount.
“We’ll make it up to you and your wife next time,” Z said and smiled.
“Auf Wiedersehen,” he shook hands with them. They thanked him.
This time they had no incidents about items with them that were not allowed into the airplane’s cabin by security. B had to open her bag and retrieve a nail file she handed to security.
“It’s too long,” the woman officer said and snapped the plastic handle off. She must have thought of it being used as a weapon, if at all. And who would know she had a long nail file? Terrorists with movable mini x-ray equipment? Other than that we had a trouble free, no beeping through the magnetic gate, check-in and this, after a pause of three years. Thanks to Internet online boarding tickets we had a choice of seating right up front annexing the business class. Having been seated, B asked if they served alcohol as well, which he doubted. In any case she could always ask the serving stewardess. Z had to chuckle, as there never has been a hard drink on short distance flights for the ‘chicken class’, as his friend had called it. B said her ankle had started flaring up again.
He leaned back, closed his eyes and thought about sorting out his manuscripts and printed out poems he had stacked into the bottom of the cupboard at his present study. As he pictured the volume of 1.5 x 1.5 x 0.6 m of writings and research papers, his head began feeling hot. It reminded him of a movie, where a writer had a pile of books stacked on the floor.
Z took a hanky from his pocket and wiped his temples and forehead. Nobody had noticed the swing in his body heat. B paged through a magazine and the woman next to her studied a map of the Peleponessos. The swooshing sound of air vents provided white noise. Then he realized that above their seats were no outlets, only the seat in front of them had some. He dreaded to ask the woman in front of him to turn the vents on more, as she had remarked on his woolen coat with a sound of sarcasm before. ”Sie haben einen Wintermantel?”- You have a winter coat? – Kind of saying: Are you nuts? Flying to Athens you don’t need one! B answered back instantly that we came originally from Greece to Vienna and for us it had been at times very cold here.
Distracting himself from the ventilation problem, he looked up the weekend magazine of the local newspaper. The article with a colourful photograph of a dancing scene interested him. The ‘Crazy Horse’s’ new show ‘Feu’ must be indeed a great titillation of eroticism with the overall aesthetical input of good looking dancers and the art of colourful projections on their moving bodies. He’ll certainly will google the website and see if there are shows on Youtube to sample. The temple for erotic connoisseurs with excellent pace of dancing, immaculate choreography and great music, is a feast for the senses: Paris, a moveable feast, wrote Hemingway. Indeed!
Z wished to visit the ‘Crazy Horse’ for as many years as he had desired to travel to Paris again. Even if it takes more years to afford it financially, he hoped also to have still some fire left in him. Well if David Lynch has a movie made about that show, it promises to be an intense documentary with a shot of unusual angles, besides he is considered cultural director of movies. There had been also a movie from Fred Wiseman about the establishment, called ‘Crazy Horse’ and he hoped to be able to see a free download from it. This article has wetted his appetite and everything else became insignificant to him. He reread the one sentence – Feu, the language of the body in erotic perfection. It stayed with him. Perhaps he could catch the 3D movie, when he came to Vienna for the second time.
B starts waking up again. After two hours of flying, she opens her eyes, pulls out an onboard magazine and opens a page depicting perfumes and bric-a-brac items. “Look,” she shows Z a page where ballpoint pen’s transparent top portions are filled with polished glass crystals by Swarovsky.
“I am not interested in glamorous writing instruments offered to women,” he says. B frowns. “I have moved forward from my interest in fashionable accessories, but I recognize the trends.”
“At least that’s something,” B snaps back
“The only shows I am interested in are those that have total conceptual approach, from the way the dresses are presented, the background of a place is chosen with the right kind of lighting and music. Integrated colour, lighting and dance of professional performers, be it on a catwalk, or in a show on stage, in a semi-nude or nude state, are preferred by me.” B remains silent for a change. He carries on making notes about ‘Crazy Horse’, and B does not even question him any longer. She utters something about liking the pens.
“And what interests you now?” She finally responds.
‘Other than that I said before, I like to look at a sexy dressed woman suited to her age or character.”
“Interesting,” B mutters, “you hardly look at me.” He has to smile inside, as she is not unlike her older sister, fishing for compliments.
“Well if I notice somebody on the street, during a ride in a public transport vehicle, or at public gatherings in a coffee house, espresso bar or during a stroll along a busy shopping street.”
“You have after all still an eye for women.”
“Yes, and if I like somebody, I will ask her to sit model for me, studying women for my next painting.”
“And what is that called?”
“Aha, why that?”
“It’s meant as homage to Picasso.”
“I see,” B says and draws her attention back to the fashionable items in her magazine. He recalls his friend from Crete, who painted abstract in fauve colours. Yes, now it came back to him. Mario was his name. Mario, the Greek Fauvist. He has to phone him and arrange a meeting with him, asking about models who will sit in the nude for them. For his and B’s design of scarves, he needs to find a silkscreen printing shop. He wondered about his memory. For over six months he could not recall the name of his friend. I hope this is not a symptom of an emerging Alzheimer’s sickness. He felt the need for a drink.