Saturday, 1 April 2017

Vienna, The Charmer

Chocolates from Demel

Two hours of sleep, dry sandwiches in the morning, and then we were flying over Swiss mountains. The plane cruised over a sea of clouds lapping at the bottom of the bluish peaks. We changed planes in Zurich and landed in Vienna.


A few hours later, after devouring hot wiener schnitzels with lemon basil sauce at an excellent vegan diner, we stepped into The Purple Cave. It was a small, slightly expensive vintage shop packed to the rafters with 60’s hotpants, 70’s dresses, patterned shirts and collectables including a white mini trench-coat and a leatherette catsuit with cutouts down both sides. I tried on an Ossie Clark-style navy wool dress. My company (El Lobo and Viri the pretty Hungarian) lounged in the tiny bar in the back of the store, surrounded by art books and torn sexy cinema posters. They sipped cold beers and listened to records. I bought the dress.
The Purple Cave

That afternoon we wandered around Vienna’s elegant streets past dapper old couples and horse-drawn carriages. A white-haired gentleman in a plaid three-piece suit put his camel-colored coat around his sweetheart’s shoulders. An Austrian Aphrodite with wavy red hair scurried to the metro in a long coat and stiletto heels. A young man with an angular face and sad eyes clutched a bunch of flowers on the tram. He looked just like an Egon Schiele painting. A car discreetly nearly ran us over…but everything was so calm and quiet we forgot about it moments later.


After investigating the whereabouts of the best Sacher Torte in Vienna, we visited Oberlaa Café. No queues, no obscene prices, just a café filled with locals and a glass case of sweet concoctions. We ate omelettes dusted with chives and oozing with melted cheese. And dessert? Behold the famous chocolate Sacher Torte and a Himbeer-Schaum Schnitte. The second treat was made of a layer of moist sponge cake, cream, tart juicy raspberries, and a thick layer of gooey meringue on top.  I also recommend the Austrian version of a Monte Bianco, a moist chestnut torte. It’s the perfect fuel for a museum marathon.

Industrial Vienna, very different from the rest of the city

 Another day, another thrill for the sartorially inclined: the dirndl outlet, right in the center of town. Imagine a forest of old-fashioned cotton dresses in every color. Viri and I parked the fellas at 1516, the nearby pub, while we tried on pale blue dirndls with cherry red aprons and crisp white blouses. I felt like Liesl in The Sound of Music, running to the gazebo.

We drifted in the frosty sunshine to a crowded restaurant, where El Lobo and I had a dramatic quarrel, the kind where you unearth shards of past arguments and present them with minor disappointments of the day. Tears on eyelashes.  Silence. He smoked a cigarette. I nibbled on a lemon wafer. Apologies. We walked in the fading sun looking forward to ice cream cones and the peace of sleep.


MARGO’S GUIDE TO VIENNA
(with help from the beautiful Martina)
TO DO
-Visit the museums. There’s a great Egon Schiele exhibit on at the Albertina (until June 18, 2017) but if you miss it the Leopold has a collection of Schiele and Klimt paintings. The upper Belvedere has a surprisingly boring collection, with the exception of Klimt’s ‘The Kiss.’ Skip it if you’re short on time. Vienna’s natural history museum is excellent.
-Take an Art Nouveau tour.
-Hunt for vintage clothes and stop for a beer at The Purple Cave. (Neubaugasse 78.)
-Buy spices, little gifts, and Middle Eastern snacks at the Naschmarkt (market) on Saturday.
-Visit old-fashioned, smoky coffeehouses like Café Bendl (Landesgerichstrasse 6, open late some days.)
-If it’s sunny and warm hang out in the bars by the canal.
-If you like traditional dress buy a dirndl. They’re pretty and usually very expensive…unless you go to an outlet like Original Salzburger Trachen, on Weinburggasse 8, near the metro Stephensplatz. Try on a size smaller than you usually wear. They also have new but vintage style suede shoes, blouses, and bras.

TO EAT
-Try the wiener schnitzel (a flat, breaded cutlet of veal, pork or chicken, often served with potato salad and a slice of lemon.)
-If you’re vegetarian/vegan Vienna has lots of options. I love Swing Kitchen, a cheap, casual vegan diner with fantastic schnitzel, “chicken” nuggets, homemade cola, apple soda and beer. Schottenfeldgasse 3, close to Zieglergasse metro station and The Purple Cave.
-Drink spicy chili beer and sample the apple strudel (a delicious combination) at 7 Stern Braeu, a microbrewery in the 7th district. Seibensterngasse 19. Open 11 am-midnight.
-Snack on dreamy pastries at Kurkonditorei Oberlaa. Neuer Markt 16. Metro: Stephansplatz.
-If you like fancy chocolates in beautiful boxes buy presents at Demel. Kohlmarkt 14.
-Have a drink at Das Moped. They make a tasty curry mango cocktail and it’s open on Sunday. Avoid the cake though. Salmgasse 23, Metro: Rochugasse.

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CITY NOTES: Most shops and many cafes and bars are closed on Sunday, though most museums are open. If you’ll be zipping around town a lot get a 2 or 3-day metro pass. Many cafes and bars allow smoking inside (Das Moped has an awesome though fragrant 60s smoking room in the back.) Dogs are welcome in many restaurants, shops, and on the metro.
The metro in Vienna, March 2017

Thursday, 23 March 2017


I wrote this short story a little while ago…



The Sharper One

I met her in Rome, where she bought me a red wool cape. Then we drove up to a small town in Tuscany, where she was working on a massive house, guarded by monumental rusty gates and a pack of dogs.  She unlocked the gates and the door and showed me into the drafty house with stone floors.

I felt the strange panic approaching, the imprisoned feeling I usually get when I’m in the countryside. There’s no escaping thoughts and solitude in the silence of the country. Without the multitudes of people and things around me I might become someone else.

I unpacked my suitcase, carefully taking out all the clothes I thought my mother would approve of. Stylish combinations to quiet her prickly concern.  If everything was in top condition, unwrinkled, then there would be one less thing for her to comment on.  I wanted to be close to my mother but I didn’t know how to talk to her. She speaks to me as if I am a half-finished painting in need of repair, one that she has been working on for many years that bears the mark of the artist. I try to communicate through my clothes, wearing what might amuse her or please her.

The next day my sister’s boyfriend brought his best friend over for lunch. The two men moved through the room with the relaxed confidence of people who don’t have many things to worry about. My sister’s boyfriend John was a doctor and his friend, William, was a photographer. 

“You’re a photographer? How fascinating!” my mother declared. “Come and see the pictures of Margarita!” She led William to my sister’s photographs of me. She lingered on a large black and white picture of me, half-naked, floating in a lake. A topless Ophelia washed up on Long Island.

“It was very cold that day…” I offered.
“I see, ” he replied, glancing at the photograph.

We resumed our places at the long wooden table. My mother poured more wine in everyone’s glasses. She served homemade cake and told us to have fun on our walk. I gulped two glasses of Campari in the kitchen while the others bundled up.

William drove while I looked at his Ipod, picking out French pop songs from the 90s. The four of us tumbled out for our winter walk over Etruscan trails, past a massive heart made of rocks and a circle of kids smoking by a heap of bikes. My sister and her boyfriend walked behind us, holding hands. We forged forward. The Campari made me more conversational, and lively, though I wondered if I smelled like Marcello Mastroianni on a Sunday morning.  I felt intimidated by William’s beautiful chestnut-coloured suede Chelsea boots, probably one of many pairs since he was wearing these ones on a muddy walk.  I wanted his comfortable life, to travel and take pictures, and beyond that, the rest of it was a mystery, peppered with offhand mentions of Venice in the spring or a wedding in Florence. 

John led us past a waterfall to an ancient chapel carved into a cave. Sunlight filtered in, painting the inside a soft golden colour.  William took pictures of my sister and John dipped in shadows. The afternoon faded away. We walked back to the car. I sat in the front and peeled a clementine and fed a few segments to William while he kept his eyes on the road.

After they dropped us off my mother was quiet and then she said, “Maybe you can marry William.” 

I turned to her and clenched my fists “What are you talking about? I just met him! What makes you think I even like him?”
“Why do you always date those frail destitute gay men?”
“They’re not gay, they’re from London! There’s a difference!” I shouted. I ran to my room, feeling like a teenager, and searched for a notebook to write in.

A few days later, my sister’s boyfriend came by with his friend to take us to dinner.

“Do you want to make your famous negronis?” my mother asked.  A glass beaker was taken down from the shelf and filled with ruby liquid and passed around the room.  My mother suggested we go to the hot springs.  She waved us goodbye.

After a dinner of pasta and red wine and animals for the boys, we parked by the springs around midnight. My sister stripped off all her clothes and bounded in. Her boyfriend disappeared behind her. I unzipped my dress and wished I had worn newer underwear. I waded into the water, a flash of white cotton and winter-pale skin. William cloaked himself under a large blue towel and changed into long swimming trunks. He crept in after us. 

The warm darkness beckoned so I stumbled over the rocks and sat down near a small waterfall. Somewhere in the steam my sister was falling and laughing, her blurry shape colliding into the shadows of her love’s arms. The December air bit at my shoulders as hot water rushed around my waist, pulling me in.  The ravioli and wine acted as sedative. I was making peace with the evening.

Tucked into the springs, wavy hair licking my shoulders, I stared at the stars.  I moved and felt another set of limbs. I tentatively felt the leg – definitely not mine.  There was a moment of stillness, of contemplating whether this was a throne or a man, and then he drifted to the right. William was gone in a few splashes. Did I frighten him? My sister called me. It was growing cold. It was time to drive home. As I dried off I saw William’s car speed away.

“He’s so uptight,” my sister commented, “and ‘Rita, you were really drunk at dinner.”
“I know.  I was nervous.”
We zoomed through the deserted country roads, singing along to the dance music.  After two hours the lights of the house parted the blackness. We were home.

In the morning my mother drove me to see the Etruscan tombs. I scaled the fence and met her by the rocks. We walked along the slippery path in the drizzle, silent except for the soles of our shoes brushing along the rock, the dirt, and the leaves. We have so much in common and yet I didn’t know what to say.

On my last night I was packing my suitcase in my room.
“Are you wearing men’s underwear?” my mother accused, appearing in my room like a phantom.
“This is why you’re still single…” she continued.
“These are my pyjamas: boxer shorts, a shirt – I didn’t think anyone would be seeing them on this trip.”
“Didn’t I give you silk pyjamas for Christmas last year?”
“I have lots of nice pyjamas at home, for when I have an audience. I have Agent Provocateur pyjamas!”
“Then why don’t you throw those away?”
“They’re comfortable.  I didn’t realise there was a dress code for bed around here.”

She picked up the red cape, picked up black thread, and began sewing a velvet ribbon on it, to keep it closed against the wind. She jabbed the needle through in messy, angry stitches.

“You’re so ungrateful. Oh, how I suffered being forced to go to all those excellent schools and ski trips! The torture, the spiders, the injustice! It’s so hard. So, where do you want to live, the ghetto?” she mocked.

“I don’t live in the ghetto! I live near the Central Line. East London is not the ghetto.  I have a great apartment. Why are you always disappointed in me?”

“You’ve become really high-strung. You’ve got to get out of advertising,” she snapped.

“Why do you think I’m in advertising? For the life-affirming deep satisfaction that I’m improving people’s lives? No, I do it for…”

I couldn’t tell her how I wanted to impress her, to get her approval. I thought if I made some money she wouldn’t act so dissatisfied with me. She would notice me, or maybe even praise me.

“It’s your life. What are you going to do?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

 The next morning we all woke up just before dawn. My sister cooked scrambled eggs and my mother packed snacks for the drive and wrapped up a jar of Nutella for me to take home. My sister and I got in the car; jammed with suitcases and pictures she had to deliver to Sicily. She started the car and fastened her seatbelt. I opened the door and jumped out. I ran back in and gave my mother a hug. I felt like a child. My sister honked. The grass was dewy as I stepped over it, back to the boxy little car that reminded me of a cassette tape.  The car coughed over the rocks. The sun rose over the gate as it closed behind us.

-Margo Fortuny


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