Curmudgeon emerges from the Funk(stille)

As the evenings drew in, the year took a couple of very unexpected turns, and my nephew’s apparent disappearance on the high seas of the Caribbean and the South Atlantic sapped me of a lot of energy, as my sister-in-law involved me in trying to re-establish contact to him. In the end, it was a case of all’s well that ends well, and he is now back in Vienna, recovering from what appears to have been a folly that did not live up to the promises and spin fed to the gaggle in a hotel seminar room in one of Vienna’s outer districts. And very much like the way that he emerged from the experience just before Christmas, I too have emerged from my own personal funk.

Just as the anxiety created by my nephew’s radio silence (Funkstille) was starting to get too much to stomach, compounded by other circumstances, my prodigal nephew suddenly floated up on the radar at Frankfurt airport, and my logistics skills and contacts were called into action to look after him as he was nearly penniless, having not raked in the money on board ship that had been promised at the initial sales pitch, despite working horrendous hours and having had nothing to really spend his money on. With Internet access on board very patchy and only available at eye-watering hourly prices, he had gone cold turkey, and gone off the grid. In the end he eked together the money to get a flight back to Frankfurt, arriving in temperatures about 25 degrees cooler than when he had left.

Upon arrival, my nephew called his mother, whose instinctive reaction was to get me onto the case (my wife’s sister’s artistic temperament comes to the forefront when confronted with any urgent task, but she delegates it to a calmer head) and I managed to get hold of an old former colleague who is based at the airport in Frankfurt and who was able to look after my nephew until he finished for the day and get him cleaned up, fed and watered and onto the sleeper train to Vienna that evening. Last Saturday, my sister-in-law and I went down to the Hauptbahnhof by car to meet him off the train, and I drove them home as my sister-in-law struggled to contain her tears. Fortunately a regenerative cheese and port evening with some friends was the pick-me-up I needed as a culmination of what has been a difficult and exhausting period in the run up to Christmas.

We have had some snowfalls in recent weeks, which have meant that I have been doing Winterdienst for the property in which our flat is just one of the dwellings, and which has meant ensuring that the paths are swept and gritted, and when the thaw comes also gathering the grit in to reuse it and stop it clogging up the drains. The task was one that I took on to stop a long-running argument among certain parties about the cost of having a professional Winterbetreuung, and the various service level commitments that they provide. I also have been helping my elderly neighbours out over the last few weeks, with getting them off to see their families for Christmas, dropping them off at train stations and now as New Year approaches, duly collecting them and bringing them home. I hope when I reach their advanced ages that some well-meaning and community-spirited friend will do similar for me.

Yet none of this explains the ‘funk’ in which I found myself. I’ve tried to shrug off the United Kingdom’s attempts to leave the European Union, and been a bit of an ostrich about it all. Being of very close to pensionable age at the time of the Referendum and not eligible to vote, but also with no intention of leaving Vienna, I avoided the arguments, and adopted the Viennese approach – “Na schau ma amol!” But, as the months have rolled on, and the uncertainty has grown, even my hermit-like solution, and my distinct lack of contact to the British community here in Vienna have not been enough to stop it getting to me. The few Brits I have contact to over here seem unsettled and worried. The Ambassador seems to tow the official “it’ll all be fine, and we’ll get a deal” line, and he is pressed into town hall meetings repeating the FCO mantra across the length and breadth of Austria.

The Vienna event was hopelessly oversubscribed, and I tend not to feel happy about the mingling associated with such events, so didn’t apply to go, but was able to watch a video of the address by the Ambassador, although it was cut off before the Q&A. With the wall-to-wall media coverage conquering the airwaves and news bulletins, my stoic resistance to get sucked in has taken a blow. But B****t is not the reason for my funk either. Nor is it the fact that I am continually overlooked by survey managers regarding the quality of living. The fact is that I keep myself busy enough to not be worried by what the UK decides (not) to do. Until early November, when Vienna was still enjoying an Indian summer, I was still on an even keel.

This year, consumerism seems to have got worse. The pre-Christmas consumerist orgy seems to have been longer, harder, more visible and more depressing. I steadfastly avoid the masses of Mariahilferstrasse, or shopping in whichever mall is in at the moment, and still value a genuine interaction with a staff member, rather than being a victim of hard sell, or worse still up-selling. My mobile phone company seems to be upping its pestering and badgering me to get the latest whizzbang smartphone with spurious battery life, dubious child labour ethics and more data volume than I can ever hope to consume.

I can only presume that encyclopaedia salesmen are already deader than the dodo, and that the data tariffs are done to satisfy the needs of the always online culture that I have no aspirations to join. I stop short of reducing the claims in papers, magazines and online media to a jumble of red ink (a perk of a teaching wife), but the constant bombardment has ground me down more than ever, and the demise of the local independent bookseller near my brother’s felt like another nail in the coffin, pushing me closer to having to line Jeff Bezos’ wallet to be able to do anything.

However, the mortality of retail in the shopping streets across the world has also paled into insignificance by some reflections on our own transient occupation of this planet, and the impending doom cycle as the over-populated globe seems hellbent to extract every last natural resource in the pursuit of gadgets sleek and shiny, as carbon footprints expands and food also seems to be struggling to remain seasonal. In the last couple of months I have felt the reaper hovering behind me with his scythe, not due to any newly diagnosed incurable illness, I am in rude health, albeit with an expanding waistline, which I vow to tackle in the New Year. I say vow advisedly, because a New Year’s resolution is something that peters out, not too unlike the fireworks that have not been banned yet here in Vienna, although we’ll doubtless still find firework carcasses littering the pavements well into the second week of 2019 despite assurances that a clampdown is under way. To this end I vow to get out for more walks, which seem to have decreased in their frequency in the last few months.

The reaper lurks for two reasons, firstly due to the fact that I have been given the task of resolving the mother of all family disputes, and effectively “optimising” the costs of tending the various family graves. The fact that the task has gone to an “in-law” is a sign of how acrimonious even death can prove to be. But it has also proven revelatory, as past disagreements previously abruptly shut down with remarks like “Mit denen gab einen argen Streit!” (we had a bitter argument with them!) without ever getting to the bottom of it all, now finally apart to have their reasons. I am making progress on tackling them, armed with Excel and ring binders full of invoices and paperwork, and hopefully bygones will soon be bygones. The triviality of the exercise has also got to me, as it has also unearthed some home truths that have been difficult to swallow for some, and resentment seems to be a multi-generational issue, and it not consigned to history like the departed are assigned to plots.

Secondly, alas, the reaper got that little more real again, as a good friend and long-time drinking partner and bon viveur, Wolfgang K., who was always great value and fun, died suddenly in early December. He was a wit, raconteur, cook and all-round good guy, with whom I have spent a lot of time over the years on our group DIY projects, as well as being cooked for and also out drinking. He was always a “nailed down cert” to attend my annual quiz night with my drinking friends.

When we gathered for this year’s edition on Friday evening, we left a seat empty for him, as had been done at the wake after his funeral. While his demise was remarkably swift (he never regained consciousness after a heart attack while out shopping), it hasn’t made it any easier to get to terms with. In the new year, his sister (he died unmarried) has asked a few of us to help go through his worldly effects, and to help her with digesting his premature death by helping go through his stuff – he was a hoarder, and his hoarding was instrumental in his encyclopaedic knowledge – as regaled recently as we celebrated his life with his few surviving relatives and a scattering of friends. Given his love of wine, it was only fitting that the picture round of this year’s quiz was dedicated to wine. A glass was fondly raised to his memory, followed by a brief period of silence, before the evening continued in more subdued fashion than had he been among us, since he so often was the life and soul of the party, grateful for our company, and repaying us with his tall tales and remarkable stories. Such a pity that he never put them down on paper.

My thanks go to my dear wife for her unstinting moral support, and recognising that I was not my usual self and for her patience in helping me to get back on course again, while not allowing it to get to her – no wonder that her pastoral care of her pupils is held in such esteem.

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