I ran out of film by the time I got to Vienna, so I don’t have any Vienna photos. Oops.
We have this notion today of the starving artist. The tortured, scraggly-haired soul who just wants to express himself and make ART but can’t, because he’s too poor, addicted to heroin, beaten down by life. Our modern day image of an artist is shaped by the likes of Van Gogh, Cobain, Rothko, who suffered for and through their art but created, through their pain, incredibly unique and expressive works.
Art wasn’t always like this. Back in the days of imperial Europe, painters and musicians were members of the royal court, leading comfortable and posh lives painting quaint scenes of European countrysides, or composing cute little symphonies that a nobleman could easily digest with his dinner. They were pampered and wore regal attire with decorative ornaments. Their art was uncontroversial and peaceful. They were employed! In the past two centuries, our understanding of art has evolved from a commodity of the rich to the defiant expression of the oppressed. These contrasting views of art essentially illustrate the difference between Vienna and Berlin. While Vienna is like the celebrated Spanish court painter Velázquez who painted pretty portraits of the royal family, Berlin is Jean-Michael Basquiat, scarred, provocative, challenging.
When you walk through Berlin, you notice signs of its tumultuous past. Graffiti’s everywhere. Abandoned government and military buildings lie unpurposed throughout the streets. Parts of the wall still stand, reminding residents and visitors that the city was divided just 20 years ago. There’s a definite sense of tension and unease pervading Berlin, a city that doesn’t seem to have found an identity, or maybe is uncomfortable with what it has been.
But it’s this tension and lack of a definite vibe or aesthetic that allows Berlin to feel so free and be a hub of artistic freedom. Young people dress in alternative and eccentric styles, with tattoos all over their bodies, sporting modern boho. Artists sneak into abandoned amusement parks and military bases and cover the walls with spray-painted murals. The city’s club scene, legendary for its intensity and hedonism, starts at 4am Friday nights and parties through entire weekends, enough time for tired patrons go back home to nap and seek therapy before returning in the middle of the day. My friends who’ve gotten into the notorious nightclub Berghain shake their heads in disbelief when asked about their experience. “It’s unbelievable,” they say. “The craziest atmosphere with the best sound systems. And the best techno”.
If Berlin pulses to the industrial beat of East German techno, Vienna feels like it still wants to dance to Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube waltz. The city is stately and pristine, one of the cleanest cities I’ve ever been to. Its architecture is a constant reminder that it was once the center of the European world, some 300 years ago. There’s a cathedral or basilica on every other block, and people still dress up in their old colorfully ornamental military uniforms unironically. They offer horse-drawn carriage ride up and down the streets, because that’s just what you do in this town.
Even the food in Vienna is noticeably different. Each dish the city is known for feels like it was created by royal cooks who tried to outdo themselves in decadence. Look at Wiener Schnitzel, for example: take the finest cut of veal, roll it flat, cover it in a light batter, and fry so that it’s lightly crunchy on the outside, but incredibly rich and juicy on the inside. It’s difficult to get exactly right, but it’s really just a royally treated veal chop. The same goes for sachertorte, a chocolate cake that’s just been made more decadent and rich with jam, a thick coating of chocolate ice cream, and whipped cream on top. Viennese foods are just luxurious variations on known culinary themes. Compare this to Berlin’s most popular dish, currywurst, which literally came about when the owner of a food stand somehow realized that putting old curry powder and ketchup on sausages makes for a delicious combo. Or Doner Kebab, created at Turkish food stand that put their schawarma into a bun so that Germans could eat it like a sandwich. While Viennese food is served in fancy restaurants where waiters wear emerald-green vests and hold trays of food with their palms above their heads, Berlin food is served in re-purposed public toilets underneath the S-bahn.
Now this isn’t to say that Berlin is disgusting, or Vienna bland. But it does surprise me that in an age when cities are judged by the cheapness of beer and energy of youth culture, Vienna is remarkably backward. Instead of allowing space for local brands and stores, its streets are instead taken up by designer jewelry brands that no one really wants to see, anyways. Even if you compare the street art, you notice that Vienna’s is incredibly tame. In Berlin, everything is covered with graffiti — the walls, the escalator steps, the signs by the WWII memorial — and the messages are political and provocative, mocking American culture and hegemony, satirizing Angela Merkel, telling viewers to go fuck themselves. By contrast, Vienna’s street art is restricted to acceptable parts of the city: on the walls by the canal and around the subway tunnels, but nowhere else. And still then, its so straightedge and polite: murals of the Gorillaz, Frankenstein, even pointing to the nearest Ben & Jerry’s for fuck’s sake. Graffiti is supposed to be aggressive, illegal, offensive. Viennese street art is none of these things. It’s taken this modern day art form and put it in the wrong place, making it awkwardly meaningless.
But maybe I’m biased. As a 21-year-old going into his final year of college, I’ve deliberately searched for cities that fit my modern idea of “cool”. I smoked weed in Amsterdam. I partied in Prague, drunk off the cheapest beer I’ve bought in my life. I went to Berlin because everyone told me I’d love its grunge, its art, its pockets of alternative and bohemian cultures. Vienna offered none of those things, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have its old-style charms. The weiner schnitzel I had was pretty delicious, and came with a potato salad that I still dream about. The Kaiser’s palace and gardens blew away anything a former Stadholder or King lived in in any other part of Europe. And an old Indian guy I met on a train there treated me to pizza and took me to an amazing gelato place by the edge of the city.
My last night in Vienna, by recommendation from a friend who grew up there, I plunked down at a table in a local cafe on a narrow alleyway by Stephansplatz. I ordered their special pastry, the plum buchtlen, and the local mélange coffee from a snooty waiter who seemed annoyed that I didn’t speak German. It was pretty late, but the musty smell of the wooden walls and furniture and the warm temperatures invited groups of locals in. The tables were lined with different newspapers for patrons to pore over, and the low lighting complemented the dim murmurs and chitchat perfectly. I sat there eavesdropping on conversations that I couldn’t understand, watching as a gray haired gentleman chatted with a young lady, as an old couple drank their coffee and smiled at each other silently. Even the snooty waiter made his way to a table by the wall and laughed with a local about some news about the Olympics. In the middle of city’s regality and splendor, here was this moment of humble coziness. Here was the city’s nightlife. An old world café that brought the locals together, and somehow made this imperial capital feel cozy and welcoming.
As I left the cafe, the waiter collected my dishes and asked with a coy smile if the buchtlen was delicious. Yes, it was. Maybe Vienna wasn’t so bad after all.