The Sound of Streetcars

goodbye to la dolce vita

The first sound I fell in love with in Vienna was the beep of the streetcar button:

clip taken from:, image from Falk Lademann

Back in 2007 when I was tramping around Europe, my only piece of luggage was a beat-up shoulder bag that held a laptop, a toothbrush, some books and outfits, tarot cards, and a DVD of La Dolce Vita, which I watched about once a week. As soon as I pressed the button to open the streetcar door, I felt a flash of recognition — the city was playing my song!

Yup, the Viennese streetcar buttons play the first two notes of Perez Prado’s mambo Patricia, featured throughout La Dolce Vita. I felt instantly at home.

And as Vienna became my home for real, those moments of belonging were precious enough. I was 21 and considered myself the daughter of urban madness, of bustling metropoleis like NYC or Fellini’s Rome. I liked my cities sexy, confused, ambitious. And Vienna? Well… did you know the snow globe was invented here? Indeed. And after the initial splendor of Jugendstil facades and Leberkäsesemmel began to fade, that’s just how I started to see the city — as pretty and as impotent as a tchotchke under glass.

Vienna streetcar —

Allora. Times change; I’ve changed; no doubt Vienna’s changed too. It’s been over eight years since I moved here and next week I’m relocating to Madang, a “city” in Papua New Guinea of thirty thousand inhabitants and not a single café. Now that I’m seeing and hearing Vienna through a veil of anticipatory nostalgia, its calm efficiency seems almost idyllic.

Over the last days, I’ve done my best to drink all that urban luxury to its dregs. I strolled through the Naschmarkt and Michaelerplatz, took in a new production of The Threepenny Opera at Theater an der Wien, stopped by Moses Records to pick up some used LPs, bought a cappuccino with a heart drawn in the foam, admired Russian futurist art at the Kunstforum, and capped off the night at the Radlager café, where I drank an Italian herbal liqueur without needing to worry about whether it might blind me. All the staid urban comforts. I even got to sleep in a plush hotel with curlicued lettering and Klimt paintings on the wall that were not The Kiss.

This is Natalja Gontscharowa’s “Elektrisches Ornament” (1914) and also a pretty close approximation of what it feels like to write in a cold office while dreaming of tropical islands

On my final night in Vienna, heading back to the hotel, I took a shortcut through Währingerpark. It was snowing lightly. The thin layer of white crunched under my boots and, in the light of the full moon, gave a glowing canvas to my shadow.

In one week, I will leave this frozen urban jungle for a real one of rain and sweat, give up streetcars and theaters for jeeps and birds of paradise. My life is a hook that I am casting into distant waters. The winds of Madang will immerse me

  • into sudden heat and frequent storms;
  • into a tiny city populated by magnates, missionaries, development workers, and migrants from a country of over 800 tribes each with its own distinct language;
  • into the lexicon of the creole tying them all together; and of course,
  • into an intriguing new cuisine.

It all sounds wild and unknown and that’s just how I hope it will be. I want to be shocked. I want confusion. For me, that’s the point of travelling, and even more so of moving (which is a lot more effective).

When I told people I was quitting my job as a research assistant at University of Vienna’s philosophy department to move to Papua New Guinea, I generally met with support and curiosity, or at least an amused ‘good luck.’ One colleague, though, was absolutely against it. I had a good set-up at the university, she reminded me, and shouldn’t be seduced by that trap of thinking the grass is always greener…

Obviously I didn’t listen. But she did have a point; my grass is plenty green. I don’t need to fly to exotic islands to get shocked and confused. The last university event I attended was a Filmosophie screening of Derrida, in which Jackie D describes how he is split from his “I,” and says that all his writing and thinking is an attempt to hunt himself down. I too often find strangers with me, living in my own skin. So why run off to Papua New Guinea? If I want something foreign, why can’t I just chase my shadow through Währingerpark? Or read a book? Hell, if all else fails, I can just go to the theater and see some Brecht. That’s plenty distance.

Familiarity is just as inevitable. I don’t yet know what my mambo streetcar buttons in Madang will be, but I know they’re there waiting. In all that exotic tropicality, I will end up finding myself, over and over.

So it’s both “wherever you go, there you are,” and “wherever you go, you’re lost.” The moon is the moon, all over the world, and the moon is never your friend.

Still I want to go.

Which is good, cuz I’m going.

On Monday. (!)

While moving to Papua New Guinea may be a lazy and fallible shortcut, I bet it’ll be effective. Plus, it’s a double win because in addition to all Madang will give me on its own behalf, it will also re-frame the cities of my past. With a host of new associations, Vienna will no longer be Vienna; its sounds will warp with distance. And with all respect to Derrida, I thrive off meeting things that aren’t myself, things ‘like fire, that mirrors nothing.’

Nuances of a Theme by Williams by Wallace Stevens
It’s a strange courage
 You give me, ancient star:
Shine alone in the sunrise
 toward which you lend no part!
Shine alone, shine nakedly, shine like bronze
 that reflects neither my face nor any inner part
 of my being, shine like fire, that mirrors nothing.
Lend no part to any humanity that suffuses
 you in its own light.
 Be not chimera of morning,
 Half-man, half-star.
 Be not an intelligence,
 Like a widow’s bird
 Or an old horse.

And so I’m leaving, setting off for a country where there are no streetcars or cappuccino hearts, no snow, no Brecht. I am flying to an island not yet suffused in my own light.

Meanwhile, I hope we can keep in touch through this blog! Please do leave comments or highlights or whatever (you have to make an account to do so, but that’s not hard). It’s nice to know that even on an island, you’re not alone.
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