The most remarkable fact that I’ve found most charming from my quick look around Vienna, in anticipation of our supporters summit this week, is how Vienna adores its own history and identity. The great intellectuals, artists, composers, performers, scientists are proudly on display. And so are the horse-drawn carriages which are everywhere for tourists and natives alike, all modeled just like those of story and legend.
The big monuments Vienna are featured on all city iconography. Mozart is inescapable. You see him on the street everywhere – people dressed in his likeness to promote the evening’s concerts. His mug is on scarfs, keychains, chocolates, beer glasses, oven mits, and reproductions of his original music manuscript is on posters, stationary, and shirts.
The style of the town is super duper Baroque. Everywhere you look, you see the signs of the 18th century and all those things we think of as distinctly 19th-century Viennese.
It is such a relief to come to a place that loves itself and is happy to revel in its own history. I say this in particular coming from the American South, which has been running from its history for a very long time, erasing anything associated with the “old South” from its emblems, dress, music, and iconography, desperately modernizing in ways that have absolutely nothing to do with any roots – and that means all roots from the Jeffersonian ideals to its Spanish colonial heritage and of course its antebellum agricultural past. It’s all but vanished from the official presentation of what constitutes the meaning of the Southern experience. You could say that this is because of the stain of slavery but that doesn’t quite cut it since that stain is nationwide, even worldwide. A more direct reason has to do with the imperial victory of the federal government. Quite plainly, the South was not permitted to exist after some point in history.
Vienna, in contrast, was a direct victim of Hitler’s imperial conquest in the 20th century, and it was this that drove Ludwig von Mises and many his colleagues from their beloved home. Austria, however, prevailed and won back its right to exist. It seems to be in full flower today, with every bit as much charm and beauty as everything I’ve ever read about this place from the 19th century through the interwar years.
At the same time, this is no museum. It is as modern and contemporary as any other world-class city but it manages this while being true to itself. There was something wonderful about the confluence of vast tourists waiting to get inside St. Steven’s Cathedral and just across the street there was a long line of native Viennese teens all lined up on a Sunday afternoon doing the thing that teens do today: fiddle on their smart phones.
There are two sources of life and beauty in this world: art and commerce. Both must live else the city dies. The art is intrinsic to Vienna’s cultural landscape and its expresses itself in funny ways. I got such a kick out of these strange people who spray paint themselves with metallic paint and dress in various period uniforms and stand on bases to make themselves look like statues. You can tell that they are not statues because their clothes blow in then wind. Suddenly they make themselves move and people scream! It’s hilarious. I guess you can call it art.
Commerce is magnificently omnipresent in the main square, with every kind of shop open to sell its wares, from traditional torts and baked goods to high-end clothing and jewelry stores. This commercial activity is what prevents this very old place from being frozen in the past; instead, it is filled with life and action. Coffee shops and civilized bars are everywhere, with vast amounts of people doing the Viennese thing. And that thing, by the way, very much includes smoking, which is managed here without intrusive regulations. Smokers tend to hang around near the front windows and on the sidewalks. Non-smokers are closer to the interior of the restaurant. Incredibly, it all manages to work itself out without legislation and cruel enforcements.
Coming from the United States, which has become a police state over the last ten years, one is especially struck by the seeming absence of the police in Vienna. I’ve not heard a single siren, not seen a single police car on the chase, not confronted a single gun-weilded, taser-threatening thug with an official badge. There is a police station that I can see but I’ve not seen a single cop writing tickets or intimidating people. I think somehow Americans have gotten used to the idea of the police state, slowly over time. People imagine that chaos would be everywhere without them. And yet in Vienna, the order is obvious and beautifully on display without the slightest sight of a badge. It seems strange to an American – oh wow we brag about our glorious freedom! – to come to a place in the old world that feels much freer than we feel at home.