Between sausage and doner kebab

After weeks of dillydallying, Lars Ostermeier, a Berliner friend, had made up his mind to visit his advisor Reinhard Kreissl at the Institute for the Sociology of Law and Criminology, in Vienna. He said I was also invited by his professor and the host was expecting that I would cook something Pakistani for them at least once. I agreed and booked a flight from Tegel Airport, Berlin, to Vienna International for a Friday. 

Thanks to the Schengen visa system, there are no immigration officers to deal with if you are coming from Berlin. Outside, I remembered the general advice to avoid the pricey means of transport set up for tourists but it was difficult to figure out the normal train (S-Bahn) to Mitte (city centre in German-speaking countries) and, somehow, the pricey train service CAT (city-airport train) was readily visible and available. I bought a return ticket. Upon entering the train, the feeling of smooth luxury removes any regrets about splurging in the mind of the tourist. There are sleek flat panels bilingual displays keeping the passengers updated with the latest events in the world of politics mingled with regular doses of advertisements. Outside, the green pastures and fields are dotted with greenhouses but the train moves so fast that soon the buildings of the city dominate the landscape. Within 16 minutes, the journey from the airport terminal to the city centre is over. 

At around 8 in the morning, I am out of the central station and standing on a footpath, looking at the grey rooftop of an old building with pigeons matching the colours of the roof tiles. The shops are still closed and there are not many people around. Either everybody has gone to their offices or they will all come out in half an hour and the mass transit system will prove reliable and efficient. I take another train to Schwedenplatz, which is the nearest station to the professor's flat. Out of the underground station, I encounter a throng of trams ready to rumble this way or that. Life is already recovering from the early morning slumber. I use a phone booth to inform my hosts about my arrival and hang around to wait for their arrival. 

After placing my rucksack in the house, Lars and I are roaming around the tourist-packed areas Hofburg Palace. The palace was the seat of Hasburgs Empire for more than seven centuries. The architectural style varies from medieval to gothic to art nouveau, depending on the century in which a specific part of the palace was added. There are private collections of the imperial family on display. Soon, I was overwhelmed by the sheer exaggeration of everything around. The uncountable number of silver spoons from the royal crockery to every ostentatious bit of the dresses of queens and princesses did not inspire a lot of emulative desire. Being a post-lapsarian urbanite, I wanted something cynically self-destructive. After photographing the statues of horses with kings on them, I asked Lars to take me to somewhere contemporary. Munching on a traditional horsemeat Viennese sausage, he thought for a while and then suggested MUMOK (Museum Moderner Kunst / Museum of Modern Art). 

MUMOK had everything post-modern I had been looking for in a modern Western city. An exhibition was on in which the artist had hung typed paintings on the walls. The typed words on the paintings were recipes on creating art or enigmatic phrases. One recipe that stayed in my mind for a very long time involved driving nails through mirrors. Lars was getting jittery about his presentation to his research team so he left me with the art pieces. There was a set of headphones near an installation. I put the headphones on. It was a recording of the artist describing another recipe to create art in a sleep-inducing monotone. Soon I was asleep in the middle of two art installations because of the travel fatigue. I woke up after a while because of the intensity of the gazes of two old art patrons who were looking at me as if I was part of the installation. I shuffled out to look for some caffeinated beverage to wake myself up. I was also planning to visit the house of Sigmund Freud but I gave up on tourism for the day. 

The next day was reserved for Freud. His house, where he lived and practiced almost all his life, has been turned into a museum and it is worth a visit. It is interesting to note that Freud's museum is near Turkenstrasse (literally "the street of the Turks") because Freud believed psychoanalysis would not apply to or work for patients outside the West (this has been documented by Slavoj Zizek in his book The Sublime Object of Ideology). 

I was also relieved to find out that right opposite to the well-kept Sigmund Freud Museum is a shop of second-hand clothes and other items. It was also quite heartening that Sigmund Freud is earning a good posthumous income and every visit to his house costs 7 Euros. During his life, his field of study was mocked at as a Jewish science and he had to run from the Nazis to England. He took the original psychoanalytical couch to London too. Now the museum in Vienna has a replica on display. Some personal items are still very intriguing. The halls and rooms of the house in which Freud used to practice remind the visitors of the times long gone. I left the museum and walked back to the city centre to enjoy a lunch of Turkish doner kebabs. After all, the German name of Austria is Osterreich, the Eastern Empire. After tasting the Turkish doner kebab, I realised why some conservatives were worried that the traditional Viennese cuisine (the sausage) was threatened by the kebab. Now it was time to unleash the Kashmiri Chicken curry on the Viennese too.

Published in The News on Sunday

dated August 31, 2008