Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Never Having to Say You're Sorry

I used to live in Vienna. It is probably the most beautiful liveable city I have ever been in. The buildings are magnificent, the cafes are like completely democratic St James's Street clubs, the public transport is marvellous, everything is gorgeous.

And yet, there is the question of the Viennese. Not all Viennese, of course not, but some Viennese, some attitudes, some things that are allowed to take place with impunity.

Let me give you just one example, which I found hair raising and I still can hardly credit, except that I know that it really did happen.

In the late 1990s, some friends were living in a pretty house in a leafy suburb. Next to their house was a little school for disabled children. Beyond that, was the house of a couple who clearly had a lot of money - Vienna is a bit of a "If you've got it, show it" kind of place, so, if people have money, you do tend to know it. The couple who lived in that house parked their gleaming Porsche outside each evening and dressed immaculately, in the glossy, (even slightly brassy), style of many wealthy Viennese.

The school seemed to be a very good school and, as demand for its services grew, it needed to expand. It applied to the local council to be allowed to use the garden - which was surrounded by a hedge and therefore reasonably private - in front of its building as an extra play area at lunch time for its wards.

When the Porsche owners heard about this, they were horrified. They tried to enlist our friends' support. Our friends would not assist them, but the Porsche owners found others in the street more than willing to go along with their protests.

Together, a band of them took a case to court, arguing that having disabled children arriving and leaving, morning and evening, was bad enough; if they were to be allowed to play at the front of the building as well, this would affect the street's house prices.

The astounding thing, we thought, was that anyone would even conceive of such an outrageously uncompassionate argument. Even more astonishing was the fact that they were prepared to express it, without shame.

But the biggest shock was still to come. The court upheld the Porsche-owners' objections and forced the school to seek alternative premises, somewhere where they would not threaten the potential investment gains of law abiding citizens.

Perhaps it was the memory of this experience that made me less critical of the film called Woman in Gold than the professional critics. Many of them argued that the movie's portrayal of the Austrian authorities trying to retain possession of a painting stolen by the Nazis from a Jewish family was not very nuanced. I enjoyed the film and, while I do, of course, know very decent people who live in Vienna, I fear that the authorities, even though they do come across at times as caricatures, were probably just like that in real life.


  1. A cousin lives in a small city in northern New Jersey. He belongs to the Lions Club, an organization that among other purposes aims to improve the lives of the blind. This chapter organized a group house for some blind persons in their city. A couple of prosperous locals complained to him that this was apt to lower property values. His reflexive answer was, "Wow, you really are ****s." I assume that this ended the conversation.

    1. You made me laugh. How awful we humans can be.

  2. Many years ago my stepmother appeared in Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea at Vienna's English Theatre. She invited my wife - then my girlfriend - and I to stay with her at the actors' digs. We arrived on an overnight train from Ostend and as we walked through the city for the first time, I was overcome by the beauty and elegance of the buildings. It instantly became my favourite city.

    However, I saw another side of Vienna that evening, when we went to see the play. I remember one of the characters announcing that they were in the RAF and there were several muted by clearly discernible hisses. At the time, my knowledge of the Anschluss was limited to The Sound of Music, so I was shocked. It didn't alter my opinion of Vienna, but from that point on, every time I saw someone over the age of 65, I wondered what they did in the War.

    1. I have to point out that I have really good friends who are Viennese - but, as one of them said to me when she came back to Vienna in the middle of an overseas posting, lots of her Vienna "friends" wanted to see her, but only to check that she hadn't got thinner or richer than them. I thought that was a bit cynical on her part, but shortly afterwards I was at a party in Vienna and a couple arrived, clearly in the middle of a major row. It turned out that they had just been to visit his boss's huge, newly built house in Wiener Neustadt or somewhere. He was furious with his wife because she had told the boss how impressed she was by the boss's indoor swimming pool. The husband maintained that her reaction should have been: Oh how nice, it's almost as big as ours, (despite the fact that they possessed no kind of swimming pool at all).