That Girl and Her Sister
Blogs from Across the Pond
City of Music. City of Dreams.
We stay in a charming little artist’s room on the third floor of a quaint apartment building at the end of the tramline. It was advertised as: Little Room “Old Vienna” (Calm). The steps wind up in a spiral, floor to floor like a bell tower’s staircase. The apartment is truly a little room. The shower is in the same room as the kitchen, as the dining room, as the living area. The toilet is a shared one out in the hallway. In the loft, the beds are pressed next to each other—two mattresses, two comforters, two pillows. We get to the beds by means of a rickety wooden ladder.
Jesse says of our apartments, “Berlin had the best light. Prague was the most comfortable. And Vienna is the most charming.”
She lights incense and I pour myself a glass of wine. We’ve just managed to buy a bottle before the grocery store down the street closed. Everything closes early here. Like seven o’clock early. Seven o’clock in the evening on a Monday night early.
But we’re home for now. Settled in. Back where the words are spoken in German. Here in Vienna. Here in Austria.
Eventually, we climb the ladder and tuck ourselves in for bed. Tomorrow will be our first full day in this city and we’ve got a lot to see. I read for a little while and then turn out the light. I’m heading into dreams when a voice cuts through the darkness.
A man’s voice from the apartment below. It sounds like a phone conversation. Well, that can’t go on forever, I think as I try to block out the sound. But it does. Eleven o’clock. Midnight. One. Sometime before two in the morning, the voice quits. And silence brings peace and sleep.
We have breakfast at Café Central. A monolithic building with palatial decorating and an elevated atmosphere. Jesse and I had read that cafes were the thing to do in Vienna and we have a list of them to visit. Café Central is famous for being a meeting place for past figures such as Sigmund Freud and Leo Trotzki. We’ve made it just before the rush and a good thing too, as reservations are a norm for this fancy cafe. At first I feel underdressed. I wish I had some deep philosophy to discuss or political change to suggest for the betterment of the world, but instead Jesse and I sit across from each other in companionable silence. While we wait for our breakfast, I eavesdrop on the conversation the four bright young things sitting next to us are having. They’re from England, and they’re talking about past New Year’s exploits, drunkenness, parties, being out in the cold. One of the girls tells a story which includes the line, “My mum was throwing blankets over us. We were literally like corpses.”
I sit with my Viennese coffee in hand and thrash around the idea of what it would mean to be literally like a corpse. How cold is that? How rigid? Shivering or not? What if the corpse was still warm? Then it would not be literal.
Figurative. Literal. Imaginative. These are the thoughts I’m having. Not as elevated as the ceilings of Café Central. I sit there and parse words and meanings in my head while I have my breakfast. Jesse sits across from me and has hers.
Vienna is a maze of streets and buildings tall as the clouds, grand as the mountains. I let Jesse handle the map and we tour the city on foot by her direction. By the time we come to St. Peter’s Church I’m ready to sit and rest for a while. We gaze up at the domed ceiling and the elaborate artwork. Take in the saints and the painted, gilded stories. There are little square fliers on the pew backs advertising a free cantata. Jesse notes down the details. I lean back and let her. We’ve been sitting there on the wooden pew for a short space of time when suddenly music fills the room. Deep, reverberating notes from the organ whose pipes are stretching up towards the ceiling behind us.
It’s Bach. The music, not the organist. And it feels magical. No, not magical—holy, sacred, spiritual. A true interaction with art. To be here in this majestic place hearing this music is like stepping in to the presence of the holy. Jesse had only just said that that was what she wanted. To be in the presence of the holy, of what is holy.
I close my eyes.
The music plays, song after song, for about thirty minutes. And then, the practice is over. The silence hangs thick with the memory of every song ever played in this place. It’s overwhelming.
Our souls filled with the echoing notes, we leave the church and go back out to explore.
That night, in our apartment, the voice begins at ten o’clock. Not again, I think. Who can he be talking to? I scramble down the ladder and look out the window at him. He’s sitting on the balcony with a computer in front of him, smoking cigarettes—the click of his lighter accentuates his conversation, the glow of his computer and his cigarette radiate out, lift up toward the stars. I close the window up tight, get my earplugs, and go back up the ladder to bed. With the earplugs in my ears his voice is fainter, but still there, a constant droning. He talks until something like five o’clock in the morning. How can anyone have that much to say? I wonder.
“It’s like he’s in the same room with us,” Jesse says the next day. Our room is small for two people. Three is definitely a crowd.
“Who can he be talking to that long?” I ask her.
Then it hits us, “Maybe he’s a writer.” The pauses between his sentences, his German paragraphs, aren’t always long enough for a response.
“Maybe he’s dictating his book,” I say. After all, that’s how I write, most of the time. I almost forgive him for keeping us up. If he’s a writer. But still. I like my sleep. I had wanted to see what kind of dreams Vienna gives.
“That free concert is tonight at seven,” Jesse says, a day later, on Thursday when we’re walking along the Danube. “We should go.”
“Okay,” I say.
We plan our day to get back to St. Peter’s church by that hour. We get off the metro at the right stop with plenty of time, a full hour before, to find our way to the church. However, the stairs up out of the subway tunnel are blocked by a line of police. People are going up the escalator next to the stairs, but the intimidating Valkyrie of a cop tells us that we can’t. She points us away, back into the dark womb of the underground.
We go out the opposite side, and then wander for what feels like days in the mouse maze of the city. There’s some outdoor concert going on—that was what we were deflected from going to, I suppose. Maybe we had to have tickets. We wander, and rush, and wander a millions times past St. Stephens, that impressive cathedral, but never by St. Peter’s. “It should be right here,” we both say. Jesse consults the map and I try to find an answer with my phone. Somehow, by a turn of the street, by a miracle of drifting, we end up at St. Peter’s. Finally and with a half hour to spare.
As we make our way to a seat, out of the corner of my eye I see a sign that says: No tourists. But we’re too intent on our arrival to pay attention. We’re not tourists, we’re concert goers.
Other people come and take their seats in front and around us. I begin to suspect that maybe we’re here too early. Maybe there’s a service before the concert. Well, we can sit through that. No problem. But then the service doesn’t start. The concert will be late at this rate, I think. How strange. We sit longer. I watch those that come in. They’re dressed in dark clothing and I wonder if we’ve crashed a funeral. We sit patiently on. Seven o’clock comes and goes. Around 7:10 or 7:20, the priest begins the mass. Jesse and I look at each other. Mass. One of those square fliers is on the pew bench in front of us. But I can’t see well enough to read the fine print from where I am. Oh well. We stay for the entire service (what else could we really do?), rising when the others’ rise, singing along in German to the hymns, repeating the chanting lines after the priest like a Greek chorus. We know enough to not join the line to take communion. I sit writhing inside with hilarity, telling myself to not smile manically with humor, to not laugh out loud. What a hilarious mistake. Mass. When it’s all over and the priest has blessed us to leave, we grab one of the fliers and look.
Jesse consults her notebook. “Oh, I had the date and day wrong. I thought the ninth was today.” We laugh. Shrug.
“Well,” I say as we sit at a pub and have a late dinner, “at least we can say we’ve been to a German mass now.”
It’s rained softly all day and is still gently raining when we get home, when we go to bed. Our downstairs, night-talking writer stays inside. I sleep the sleep of the exhausted and bless the rain.
On Friday, the day of the concert, we go and see Vienna’s Anker Clock where figures from different eras parade across the face of the clock accompanied by period music at the stroke of twelve, we visit the Belvedere, the Shönbrunn Palace. As the day diminishes, we look at each other.
“We should try for the concert, shouldn’t we?”
This time the metro exit is not blocked by terrifying, goddesslike police officers and we emerge into the open air from the right stairwell. However, we’re still lost in the maze of this extraordinary city. I can’t bear to think of wandering the way we’d done the night before. So I stop and ask a carriage driver for directions with my one halting German word, “Entschuldingung, Saint Peter’s?”
He takes me by the arm and turns me around and then in English he gives me precise and perfect directions. I thank him in English and German and all but give him a kiss on the cheek.
In less than five minutes, Jesse and I once again walk through the doors of St. Peter’s church.
“We’re spending a lot of time here,” I say.
“It’s our church now,” Jesse says.
The cantata begins. Bach fugues. The voices and the instruments ride over one another, fill the church to the brim, echo slightly, resound. This is spiritual. This is art. This is holy.
This is Vienna, the city of music.