Depending on how you count, we recently came not only to the end of the year, but also the end of the decade. Or not as the case maybe. So maybe is it only fitting that I do a review of the decade that was or wasn’t.
Consensus suggests that the Great Financial Crisis was from 2007-2009 (or many scholarly articles use this range). And thus, the decade from 2010-2019 was one of repairing the damage, unless you had a foreign currency mortgage and didn’t get out of it, as losses were not made good, and the time to maturity has ticked down by a decade.
Vienna had a good decade of it, clearing up the accolades for “Best City in the World” in trivial surveys completed by even more trivial over-entitled bubble dwellers, who would struggle to scrape through the oily film of a puddle in their depth of understanding of what actually makes Vienna the delight to live in that it is. Recently, however, the city was also branded as third rudest, behind Paris and Kuwait City, in a similarly vacuous exercise. I am able to report that in coming close to three decades living in the city, I have never been asked, what makes Vienna the best city in the world to live. For me, the answers would be the public transportation, the individuality of its districts and Grätzln, its dedication to being a place for living and not just to live.
Austria’s political guard has changed: as the new (not) decade was ushered in we are seeing the Kurz II era begin after the Bierlein interim solution. This time young Basti, who has led the ÖVP’s colour change from black to turquoise, will be partnered by the Greens, who weren’t even in parliament a few short months ago. The ÖVP stint as part of a government, albeit with some help from coalition partners, grand or otherwise, stretches back to 1986, prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain. Of course the Kurz I government was toppled with the Ibizagate revelations, which led to the fall of the government, Meidlinger Bua Kurz himself losing a vote of no confidence, only for the ÖVP to improve their hand in September’s snap poll, as the SPÖ and FPÖ haemorrhaged voters, and the Grünen re-emerged from parliamentary exclusion. With Basti bouncing back, many forget that 2010-17 were the years of SPÖ Bundeskanzler, with Werner Faymann and Christian Kern having held the position.
However, the sentiment of openness and of opening up the borders three decades ago has been threatened during the last decade. Progressive Hungary, which was the first Warsaw Pact country to push for change in 1989 has become less open. Under the coalition with FPÖ, Austria’s stance on immigration has also regressed.
But back to the changing of the political guard. At district and city level, two behemoths, Messrs. Tiller and Häupl have anointed younger and leaner successors from their ranks. Tiller stood down after over 40 years in Döbling, while Häupl was in charge for twenty four years at City Hall. His successor, another Michael (Ludwig), will see the first challenge to his throne in 2020, when the mayoral elections are held. If I could vote, Ludwig’s recent comments about not being in favour of introducing “Tourist Zones” would sway me.
The idea behind the introduction of such Tourist Zones, championed by the ÖVP, would be to permit shops located in the zones to open on Sundays, and to improve Vienna’s standing as a world city or “Weltstadt”. Ludwig is someone who values a lack of Sunday opening, which Vienna and Austria has managed to resist, claiming it is good that there is a disruption to the retail flow. A man after my own heart, as one of my earlier posts back in 2017 revealed.
Meanwhile, Alexander van der Bellen, is now halfway through his first term as Bundespräsident, taking over from Heinz Fischer after an soap opera of an election back in 2016, a year that has entered history as a political nightmare, with my homeland, the UK, committing hara kiri by referendum to contrive to leave the EU. At the time of writing, subject to European Parliament approval, the resident man-baby at 10 Downing Street will claim to have “got Brexit done” at the end of January 2020, whereas he will, should he succeed, in fact only signal the start of a decade of trade agreements. An ambitious 11 month transition period will doubtless show whether he has overestimated his hand.
While the current British Ambassador to Austria, when not encountering local flora and fauna or blogging about his accumulation of clutter, tries to use every means of social media known to man to convince us 10,000+ British citizens that everything will be fine, I find his FCO approved script that he parrots from Bregenz to Burgenland as he gallivants about the country when not living out his crime writer fantasy somewhat hard to swallow. The nadir was reached in March when my podcast listening was interrupted with FCO propaganda telling me to register with the British Embassy to receive information. I’ve never been more inclined to want to hear less bluster from him and his colleagues to be frank, let alone attend a bleak gathering and back slapping show of entitlement that is one of their outreach events. I’m of an age that doesn’t like the taste that faux chummy leaves in the mouth, regardless of whether it is displayed by the Prime Minister or his Ambassador to Austria. And of course we have weathered three years of Donald Trump in the White House. Fortunately another Donald, Donald Tusk has shown greater statesmanship.
I make little apology for my professing that train travel is my favourite form of travel. As the noughties drew to a close, the old Südbahnhof, a post-war hangar-like pantheon of terrazzo cladding, was demolished. Wien Meidling, now again relegated to a stop on the Südbahn and a stop for through trains, briefly was elevated in importance alongside Vienna’s Westbahnhof. Both, however, were reduced to the ranks as the new Hauptbahnhof rose from the crater created from the old Südbahnhof. It is now possible to travel straight through Vienna, rather than having to change at Westbahnhof and then take the 18 tram across town to the Südbahnhof (or the U3 and U1). But that is far from the only change in the last decade in terms of rail transport.
Back in 2011, an alternative private operator, Westbahn, started serving Vienna to Salzburg with competitively priced double decker trains. I’ve used them on many occasions, in particular due to their services stopping at Hütteldorf, a few stops down the S45 from me. Since the Lainzer Tunnel opened, another triumph after a decade of construction throughout the noughties, ÖBB trains no longer stop in Hütteldorf on the RailJet routes, so the Westbahn provides me with a convenient alternative to travelling to Meidling. The 10s have been the decade of the RailJet – the fastest RailJet Express trains now do Vienna to Salzburg in under two and a half hours, with Vienna-Innsbruck now just over four hours travelling time. Indeed, were it not for the Deutsches Eck (between Freilassing and Kufstein) the time would be under four hours.
The investment in train travel is set to continue, with two major tunnelling projects being worked on, namely the Semmering Basis Tunnel, which will make trips to Graz considerably quicker and increase rail freight, and the journey time from Vienna to Graz will fall by about thirty minutes. A project that was first a topic back in the late 1990s will be reality in the 20s. Even more impressive is the Koralm Tunnel project, which when finished in 2026 will also see a direct high speed line from Graz to Klagenfurt, knocking the journey time down from three hours to forty five minutes.
The tens have also been the smart decade – at the start of the decade you could get your e-mails on your phone or BlackBerry, I remember having a Windows Phone device with a stylus (no, it wasn’t papyrus) for getting mails on for work for a while, but it was not like everyone had a smartphone. Apple has taken over, along with Huawei and Samsung, as the dominant market players, with Nokia, Ericsson and BlackBerry confined to the sidelines. There is seemingly and App for everything, which given the ubiquity of Smartphones has maybe helped with digital inclusion, but of course this shift does not take everyone with it. My cohort of wobbly, bobbly old ladies will not enter the smartphone era, and are threatened with being isolated and excluded as a consequence. As more and more services are pushed online they also kill off the retail environment. Tabak kiosks no longer sell stamps, shift fewer magazines and don’t even make some pin money from selling parking vouchers, as one is pushed towards an app to do that task. Our parcels are tracked seamless from depot to door, or logistics centre to package shop, and some go missing en route.
Convenience food became more convenient – even fast food chains use apps, touch screen ordering systems and you can even have your Mac Meal delivered if you are too lazy to at least go to a restaurant to get your intake of calories. Bars, cafes and restaurants all come and go with ever increasing frequency. As the decade came to a close, Austria, for a long time the last remaining ashtray of Europe, finally came kicking and screaming after several false dawns into the age of non-smoking restaurants and bars.
Every facet of modern life for the Millennial is steered by an App. Friends are made and lost (or “unfriended”) with a few swishes across a screen or taps of a screen. E-mail is now a long form of communication – SMS is so uncool, and now messages are littered with Emojis. My only foray into brevity of communication is through twitter, where everyone who is anyone uses it as a mouthpiece, and then flounces in a hissy fit. Or in the case of the USA’s manbaby President, types strange, sometimes incredibly brazenly stupid ones at that. A lot of the narcissism of social media is all some big popularity contest. But all this “communication” – or is it little more than “noise” – doesn’t make people happier.
People are addicted to screens, tablets, laptops, and don’t talk like they used to. Despite all this popularity in terms of followers, people have become lonelier. People peacock about their fitness routine, their ostentatious lifestyle to impress their vacuous cohort of groupies. And we don’t own music in the way we used to, instead having a playlist from a musical repository. I’ll confess that I have digitalised my music collection, but there are times when I long for that fish supper and putting on a new vinyl LP on a Friday evening. But the thought of a smart speaker listening to my evening instruction, command and utterance is another part of the decade that I have not embraced wholeheartedly.
But all of these advancements pail into significance with the perilous plight of our planet. Extinction threatened creatures, seas full of microplastics, booming air travel and CO2 footprints. Climate emergencies are apparent, with seasons off kilter. Food packaging and out-of-season fruit, or fads like almond milk, avocados etc. are all contributing to the downward spiral. A young Swedish girl has become the face of climate protest, although her innocent message is being twisted by anyone who thinks that they can makes some political capital from it all. Granted I have not yet gone over to an electric car, and have a diesel engine in my car, but generally I have tried to keep my on emissions footprint under control. I recycle, try to avoid wasting food, avoid excess packaging, shop locally and eat seasonally. But that does little when there is a population of 8 billion not obeying the rules.
But I end this review on a happy note. I have made it to retirement. I have a dear wife and we live modestly having had a happy decade together. We have our hobbies and our friends, and then again there is always a good beer to enjoy with friends. Now go out and seize the bullhorns of the 2020s. And look after your neighbours.