I flew to Vienna during the first week of December, which was the first week of Advent, which means coming, or arrival.
Vienna is a bizarre place to spend Advent because, as Billy Joel reminds us, it’s a city more accustomed to waiting than arriving. Austrian composer Gustav Mahler once said “I’ll move to Vienna when the world ends. Everything happens fifty years later.” The Viennese will sometimes quip that life is just an extended ride on the 71 tram—which terminates at the city’s cemetery.
Living there, it’s easy to feel like the rest of the world is hurtling forward while the Viennese sat in their coffeehouses, where the old-wooden seats, ornate chandeliers and tobacco-stained wallpaper are stuck in the thirties. In fact, if you happen to be looking out the window at the right time and catch a horse-drawn carriage carry on down the street, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Habsburgs were still on the throne.
Despite the city’s inertia, with each new season, each rumble of current events, each announcement of the next modern, sustainable, eco-urbanist real estate development, the city inches—perhaps against its own will—into the future, revealing itself anew.
I arrived just in time for the Austrians to try—again—to elect a new president. December 4 marked the third planned election in seven months. I happened to be in Vienna on the weekend of the first election as well. It was late May and the temperatures were unseasonably warm. I spent an afternoon sitting in a canopy chair at a fake beach bar on the Danube canal. In the vineyards outside the city, the vibrant blue sky crashed against the green vines. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who saw this scene as a bit of political allegory.
Alexander Van der Bellen, the enlightened European voter’s darling and member of the Green Party, won the first election by .6 of a percentage point. His opposition was Norbert Hofer, a Freedom Party candidate with ties to nationalist groups who dismiss Austria’s nation-state status as “fictitious” and yearn instead for a reunited “German Volk.” Hofer himself does not hold this view.
Hofer and his Freedom Party (FPÖ, official color: blue) promptly contested the result and Austria’s highest court, finding no evidence of manipulation but signs of the mishandling of absentee ballots, voided the election and ordered a second try on October 2. Then, due to the “extraordinary complexity” of the patented absentee ballet envelopes, that date was postponed to December 4, prompting the coinage of Austria’s 2016 word of the year: “Bundespraesidentenstichwahlwiederholungsverschiebung” or “postponement of the repeat of the runoff of the presidential election.” You can’t describe a seven-month process in less than fifty-two letters.
Once again, the Austrians had to wait. My euro-friendly Austrian friends grew anxious. The country grew weary of a long and drawn out political campaign that grew negative and cynical and laden with bad faith promises.
I stayed with a friend who lived on Nußdorferstraße, where the 37 tram cruises up a hill on its way to the Hohe Warte, the city’s weather forecasting station. One day we jogged from his place to the Augarten, a French baroque style park that dates back to 1614 and once served as the sportsman grounds for Emperor Matthias. We ran the perimeter of the park, circling an imposing, decrepit, concrete flak tower that the Nazis built to defend their cities from Allied air raids. At some point in the run it occurred to me that we had moved from forecasting, to hunting, to defense against death. Were we any more interested in metaphor, we would have had to trace the course of the 71.
On Election Day, a convincing fifty-three percent of voting Austrians decided to elect Van der Bellen in lieu of Hofer. It was a victory for globalism, for the European Union and for my cosmopolitan friends, who could exhale in the comfort that the end of the world was at least 56 years away. The Austrian President serves six year terms.
I could mostly share in my friends’ rejoicing. I was happy to see a candidate elected who will advocate for (some) of the weakest in his land. I was happy to see someone elected who will distance himself from race-baiting conceptions of his own country, who will fight for Europe’s existing border agreements and strengthen a health care system that was there for my sister when she needed it.
But I felt little of the vibrant energy that had gripped the country in May. Maybe it was due to December in Vienna, where rooftops and their cream-colored canopies dissolve into a white winter sky. Or my own (significant) political differences with Van der Bellen. Maybe it was due to dismay and numbness on account of the political situation in my own country, where too much of the federal government rests in the tiny fingers of an impetuous cretin. Combined, I was struck with the sense that none of this—neither meteorology nor war towers nor gentrified real estate—can condemn or save us. None of this is what we are waiting for.
On the back side of my friend’s apartment there’s a side alley that runs perpendicular to Nußdorferstraße. The alley is split by a set of switchback stairs called the Himmelpfortstiege, or “heaven’s gate steps.” While running back from the flak tower we turned down the alley and jogged up the stairs. There, as an old woman with a cane stood at the corner.
Sometimes I have to remind myself not to get carried away with metaphor. Sometimes the sky is just blue and the grass is just green. Sometimes a tram just takes you from one stop to the next. And other times you turn around at the top of heaven’s gate and are presented the picture of Advent: an old woman just inching by, waiting for a guest who merits her fear.