Returning to the Vienna of the Past

Two Soviet émigrés revisit their first glimpse of the West, with its handsome cafés, cultured locals, and memories around every corner.

The view from St. Stephen’s Cathedral, overlooking Stephansplatz
ALEX HABERSTADT

ALEX:

THE SLATE-COLORED JANUARY MORNING drummed cold rain against the windows of Café Prückel. My friend Boris and I had arrived on the red-eye from JFK two hours before. He wanted to sleep; I wanted to go to Prückel, and he’d reluctantly agreed.

Alex Halberstadt, pictured here in Moscow in 1976
BORIS FISHMAN

BORIS:

JANUARY IN VIENNA: I should have known better. But if Alex had proposed the Sahel in August, I probably would have said yes, too. In Alex, I’d finally met, after 29 relatively barren American years, what felt like a doppelgänger. He had experienced the same immigration I had, ten years earlier; it had left him with similar complexes; and he had the same degree of separation from his Russianness and Jewishness that I did.

Boris Fishman, pictured here in Minsk in 1987
Lunch break in the Innere Stadt neighborhood of Vienna, smack dab in the middle of the city

ALEX:

MY FIRST MEMORY OF VIENNA begins aboard an Aeroflot jet, its fuselage painted with a winged hammer and sickle. My mother and I left Moscow in our winter coats, carrying two suitcases containing six changes of clothes, a photo album, and a book of poems by Anna Akhmatova. My mother’s wedding ring and watch were taken in customs. Aboard the plane we were served an unexpectedly luxurious meal of baked chicken, mashed potatoes, and a wedge of soft processed cheese in a foil wrapper that read “Progress!” I remember my mother slipping the metal forks and knives into her coat pockets. An hour into the flight the pilot announced, in German and then in Russian, that the plane had left Soviet airspace. “Meine Damen und Herren…,” the announcement began, and when it was finished one or two passengers, the boldest ones, clapped. At the airport in Vienna, I sat on my suitcase and gaped at a security guard with a German shepherd and a submachine gun. Then I watched a pilot walk out of the gate, his hat embroidered with the six-pointed star of Israel. “Is Austria a capitalist country?” I asked my mother. She said I looked “as scared as a rabbit.”

BORIS:

I HAD GIVEN ALEX PRÜCKEL, so he agreed to give me “Swimming Pool.” In Mitteleuropa, when it comes to fitness, yoga and spin classes are still the interlopers, and bath complexes the standard. But we didn’t go to the century-old Jörgerbad pool, in the sleepy 17th district, to take the healing waters. I wanted to see whether the comparative generosity of the Austrian state meant better art. For there was going to be art at the pool, commissioned by the nonprofit arts group Brut, a mainstay of the avant-garde scene in Vienna. A performance artist and several confederates were going to use the pool to “expos[e] the audience to the conflicting feelings of safety and uncanniness.” Whatever that meant.

Near the Stephansplatz metro station, with St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the background

ALEX:

ANOTHER THING ABOUT THE CITY that saturated my childhood imagination: the streets themselves. After growing up in one of the Brezhnev-era apartment towers that surrounded Moscow like a cinder-block forest, Vienna struck me as a marvel from a distant antiquity. In fact, the city was transformed in the 19th century by Emperor Franz Joseph I, and it is his Vienna — neo-Baroque, orderly, martial — that visitors see today. Franz Joseph’s vision lent the city the quality that has stayed with me most as an adult, a quality that no amount of skyscrapers can efface — an officious, comforting solemnity.

A midday glass of milk in Innere Stadt

BORIS:

FROM OUR SIX-HOUR MARATHON of eating, drinking, and smoking, the next morning I remembered only one thing, breathed into my ear by an older gentleman of uncertain employment but many opinions. (This was Xandi, Alex told me later.) “You know why Vienna is perfect?” he said. “It’s 10 to 20 years more slow than everywhere else.” He slapped his doughy hands together, dropping a good bit of cigarette ash onto my jeans. “No complications.”

At the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the largest art museum in the country

ALEX:

GOING OVER THAT NIGHT THE FOLLOWING MORNING, a last scene came into focus: We were at Café Anzengruber, a spot popular with writers and insomniacs, operated by members of a large Croatian clan. Xandi and a pair of young chefs soon appeared. The owner, Tomi, seemed occupied mostly with taunting his defeated-looking brother-in-law, who kept to himself behind the bar. Tomi brought bottles of Croatian Graševina and schnapps and God knows what else and sat down at the table, toasting extravagantly, and soon we were staggeringly drunk. All of us, that is, except Jutta — she sat grinning shyly and a little remorsefully among seven unlaced, hammered men. Something about her expression brought me back to a scene in my childhood kitchen, where my father and four of his friends shared loud, vodka-lubricated enthusiasms about Levi’s jeans and Edgar Winter records, with my mother functioning as the scene’s unmoving, silent axis.

BORIS:

FOR ALL THE SINCERITY OF MY SEARCHING, there was very little of 1988 Vienna left to discover. Forced to remain neutral as a condition of Soviet withdrawal after the war, Austria didn’t fully accede to the European Union until the mid-1990s. “When I went to Germany in the ’80s, I carried such lists of things to buy that my German friends would jokingly ask me if I wasn’t coming from East Germany rather than Austria,” as one person told me. But once Austria joined the EU, it didn’t look back. The modest pension where my family had stayed seemed to no longer exist, and the street where it was supposedly located listed no store of kitchen supplies.

Inside the Stadttempel, the main synagogue in Vienna, constructed in the 1820s

ALEX:

ON THE MORNING AFTER the euphoric, drunken night at Grünauer, Jutta drove Boris and me to see her vineyards on the city’s northernmost edge. As we were getting into her Audi, a Japanese tour group emerged from the U-Bahn station nearby, and a woman in a pantsuit leading the tour suddenly shrieked, “Jutta Ambrositsch!” She introduced us excitedly to the group in rapid-fire Japanese. The tourists reacted to this by surrounding us and bursting into applause.

On Seitzergasse, just a few minutes’ walk from Ostovics housewares store

BORIS:

ON THE BROKEN-HEADED MORNING after our bacchanal, what Vienna calls coffee — an espresso shot lost in a trough of milk and foam — was not going to suffice. I needed rocket fuel, and, feeling morning-after shame of a different kind, headed for the only solution I could imagine: a Starbucks. There, I did something I’ve never done even in America: I ordered a venti. It was only five minutes back to my rental, but it was five minutes longer than necessary to register the horrified stares of rush-hour Vienna at the RPG in my hands.

Late-night eats at a sausage stand

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Airbnb Magazine celebrates humanity wherever it exists: across borders, time zones, languages, and skin tones.

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Airbnb Magazine

Airbnb Magazine celebrates humanity wherever it exists: across borders, time zones, languages, and skin tones.