Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt

Twitter is proving interesting. I get my news headlines from a range of sources nicely tweeted, and there are also some more niche members of the twitterati that I follow. Possibly the 280 character limit has helped hold my interest – as it allows a thought to be developed. And the threads of tweets can prove quite readable. There are also some wonderful tweets to blog posts and websites, and I am also guilty of this… Maybe, dear reader, you found your way here from twitter.

Last Sunday, I saw a tweet for a place I remembered from back in the mid 1990s, from going to a friend’s flat on Grosse Neugasse, a street that I otherwise would have had no reason to know otherwise. From childhood, when my grandmother used to despair of my parent’s frequent moves around the place – never down the road but always to different parts of the country, as well as briefly to Germany, she instilled in me a way of familiarising me with new towns. She told my brother and I that it was a good idea to use “permanent features” as a way to build up a mental map of our surroundings.

Bridges, churches, hospitals, town halls, police and fire stations, train stations, museums were all part of our compass, committed to memory, in a similar way that the register of my class at the school I was at longest is still etched in my mind. I can hear the voices of now long-deceased teachers calling out the list of boys “Abbott, Atkinson, Barker, Bentham, Broad…” in my mind. I can still remember the route home – left from the school gate and along the road to the church with the steeple. From there up the street that rose up the hill, past the pond, turn left by the pillar box and it was the detached house on the right hand-side.

I used the same system when I moved to Vienna. Particularly for outer districts, it has proven very useful. In the days where retail stores are fickle, as are restaurants and bars (or at least their customers are) I’ve tried to find these special “way points”, and Red Vienna has helped a lot, due to the imposing housing complexes. It took me ages to remember a particular street name, but I knew often where places (eg. my friend’s flat) were by a series of these way points. My landmark for his flat was the “Abgebranntes Haus” apparently named due to it formerly being a denizen, and people emerged “abgebrannt” ie. burnt from losing at cards.

For a while Holland Blumen Mark places, with their windmills were also such way points, as they seemed permanent enough in my mind, although the brand is dead in that form and the windmills dismantled. I used to use landmarks like the Amalienbad to help me get back to Reumannplatz from visiting a friend, or the Theater in der Josefstadt, to navigate me to where I needed to get to. It worked far better than trying to get tram directions as lines changed and went. I did struggle a bit in parts of town where had no real way points to guide myself with – Floridsdorf used to throw me horribly in that regard, especially when for a while I used to go ten pin bowling somewhere behind the Franz-Jonas-Platz – and used to know how to reach the place from the Pius-Parsch-Kirche just off the Jonas Platz. Definitely outside my comfort zone. Just a few hundred metres from home, I hadn’t expected the Zrunekanlage to be such a way point in my life when I first drove by as we were looking at a flat to buy in the Cottageviertel. Returning from a holiday, a business trip or even just a drive now, it is like a beacon of constancy.

Buildings seem like better way points than people – until I really embedded myself, through my Austrian wife’s friends, friendships were somewhat here today and gone tomorrow. Friends were made and lost very quickly when many friends were only here in Vienna for the short-haul for work. Many of them, I’ve not seen hair nor hide of. Similarly, the “wir bleiben eh in Kontakt…” from my most recent colleagues has proved to be a somewhat empty “Floskel“, regardless of how well-meaning it was said.

One of the positive effects of the approach of using buildings as way points, was the fact that by doing so, Vienna, so many times larger than anywhere I had ever lived before, became manageable. Of course the fact that I have spent more years here than anywhere else, especially than I ever did in my formative years in the UK, has helped to make Vienna a home. Granted one doesn’t mourn the passing of a way point (some were eventually knocked down or renovated into a form that was not even vaguely recognisable…), but they’ve been good company along the way.

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