From the moment I stepped off the tram and into Vienna’s Innere Stadt, I felt like I was on a movie set in Hollywood. Parliament rose like a Greek temple across the wide ring road, and as I wandered toward the seventh Bezirk, the Hofburg gardens emerged through the fence on my left, pruned and hedged and orderly even now in the middle of winter. I continued into the MuseumsQuartier where two monstrous Baroque buildings — now both museums but for a hundred years the Hapsburg family stables — loomed on either end of an expansive courtyard.
Feeling agoraphobic, I turned down a smaller street to look for something less picturesque and cold, but all I found were Art Nouveau flourishes on apartment building after pastel-painted apartment building.
When I raised my Nikon to my eye, trying to find a warm angle, a view that might finally make me connect to this royal Disneyland city, I realized that the buildings were just too large and too clean. Every which way I framed the architecture, it still looked like something from a postcard, or a textbook, or an animator’s reference board for Cinderella. I gave up.
Later, while waiting for my cappuccino in a traditional Wiener café with high ceilings, red velvet chairs and a waiter in a tuxedo, I wished for a just moment that I could click the rubber soles of my travel-worn sneakers and wake up back in my bed in Berlin, Vienna already fading from my memory as a fantastical nightmare.
I was in Vienna once before, six years ago, on a whirlwind Central Europe spring break tour with the art teachers and nine of my new high school friends. We were fifteen years old and abroad, many of us, for the first time.
That trip, we spent our nights congregated on a single hotel bed long past curfew, listening to Jack’s Mannequin on tinny iPod speakers and talking about the future, the meaning of our lives and everything we still wanted to do with them. Then, at four in the morning, we would sneak off in pairs back to our assigned rooms and, just a few hours later, would drag ourselves to the hotel lobby bleary-eyed but excited for the next adventure.
Back then I wasn’t worried about how I was seen by the world. I was more concerned about how much of the world I had still to see.
When I found myself on Kärtner Straße just the other day, I suddenly remembered standing on that same street with my friends for the first time, trying to comprehend the fact that we were in Europe, young and still full of dreams with no one to tell us yet that we couldn’t do everything we wanted.
And yet, somewhere between then and now, I got bogged down in the past. I’ve spent a lot of the last four years renovating and restoring the various identities that I defined in my college applications: the Kalli that was really smart in high school, the Kalli that plays viola and loves chamber music, the Kalli that has an erratic relationship with her mother.
Except that now I work hard for my grades, I pick up my viola maybe once a month and, right now anyway, my mom and I get along just fine.
Vienna may know what she’s doing, spending so much time and money to keep things as they once were. According to the Vienna Tourist Board, tourism brings in more than five million visitors per year and 71% of those visitors come for “art and culture,” ready to spend big money on hotels and palace entrance fees and Hapsburg-themed souvenirs. I’d say that’s a pretty good reason to perform Mozart’s music in white wigs and to keep your imperial hedges pruned.
But a human being can’t craft a complete life out of has-been success or once-was fame.
It was drizzling the day my ÖBB train finally rolled away from the Vienna Westbahnhof, and as I studied the wet streaks on the window, I resolved to let some of my former selves gather dust. They weren’t going to disappear if I left them alone for a while. Those Kallis would always be in the background waiting to be rediscovered, just like my fifteen-year-old self on Kärtner Straße.
Though my train was racing westward at 90 kilometers per hour, I realized that the seat I’d claimed in the crowded car was facing east, back from where I’d come. I peered through the rain at the receding Austrian countryside and thought that that felt just about right.