As my aunt tried to explain what could have motivated my mother to leave the family she loved and come to America, she talked about what Vienna was like after the war. We all know about the Nazis and the atrocities they committed, but even during the final days of the war, everyone had a ration book and a place to go to retrieve those rations, however meager they were. But when the war ended there was nothing, literally nothing. One day my aunt heard that there were some red cabbages at the main train station. She got on her bike, rode across town through the rubble of bombed buildings, climbed up into the wagons, took two cabbages and returned home. My family lived on these two cabbages the rest of the week. Eventually food aid came from Russia of all places. They received canned vegetables, but when they opened the cans worms still alive smiled up at them. Then canned fish came from the US. Eating such fish was not appetizing, but at least there were no worms. They ate all the canned fish they could get. I am used to seeing photos of hungry children in Africa, but the idea that my own family was starving was a bit of a shock.
We certainly are not starving here now. My cousin thought it would be nice to have a goose dinner in honor of St. Martin's Day. We went to a highly regarded restaurant in central Vienna where parking was a night mare and we ended up getting a parking ticket. Austria is a Roman Catholic country and every day of the calendar honors a specific saint. Martin was a highly regarded cleric who was about to be promoted to a higher position which he did not want. When he hid to escape notice he was betrayed by the geese honking around him – thus the tradition of the goose dinner. The cooking reminded me a lot of the meals my mother used to prepare when I was a child and all my friends were enjoying meat loaf and hot dogs. Regrettably during my childhood I sometimes did not appreciate my heritage and just wanted to be like everyone else. Those days are long gone.
At my request my aunt brought out the family photo albums. There really weren't that many pictures, but as each page turned it made me think of more questions. And if it didn't make me think of questions, it made my aunt think of something she wanted me to know. The hours flew by – in German of course. Ken wisely brought an Ipod along stocked with hours of good things to listen to. So the hours flew by for him as well.
My aunt is not fond of cooking – perhaps I got this from her. So every day we ordered take out from a nearby deli and brought it back for lunch. She is as slim as the day she married and looks at us and overestimates big time the amount of food that we regularly consume. We will be leaving her with a refrigerator full of leftovers.
One of the features that Vienna is famous for are its coffee houses. The Viennese were the first to introduce coffee to Europe having learned about it from their neighbors to the east. These over caffeinated folks lingered in these places for hours, reading the newspaper, smoking, debating the issues of the day, and just plain hanging out. Some artists did not have the cash to pay their bills and they gave the owners paintings they had created instead. These days the walls of the coffee houses are festooned floor to ceiling with these bill payments. My cousin took us to see one and we were surprised that it was full of cigarette smoke. For the most part smoking inside is illegal here just as it is in the US, but the coffee house owners have argued successfully that the smoke is part of the ambiance. This made my cousin who still smokes like a chimney very happy, but now I smell as if I had been roasting marshmallows over a campfire.
Although this was not a typical tourist visit, I have certainly accomplished my goals to learn more about family history. Seeing palaces and museums can easily wait for another time. Vienna is a beautiful city and is a must for any tourist's list. I'll be back.