After five weeks of lockdown, as fun as sitting reading on the terrace is, both my wife and I were longing for a change. And half in jest, I mentioned to her about the great pseudo-vacation I had in the mid-1990s when I found myself with time to kill, but little money to splash out on a holiday, and not fancying several days of Schanigarten-based all day drinking just around the corner from my flat. Back then, I took up the offer to swap flats for a week with my half-Austrian, half-Australian mate (who prided himself on being a two-culture “larrikin” as Australians call them), who was in a similar predicament, albeit be one where he needed to lie low for a while as he’d got in a spot of bother. Larrikin’s plan was as ingenious as it was simple.
Back then, our flatswap (it being his way of motivating himself to clean his little garconniere somewhere near St Marx) saw me up sticks from my little 1.5 room flat in the 15th district off the Outer Mariahilferstrasse with a holdall full of clean and ironed washing and a set of bed linen and decamping to the third district. To make the “vacation” part of it that bit more (sur)real, we even stipulated that we should meet for a beer at a rundown dive bar somewhere in Meidling to swap keys. In hindsight, neither of us needed to go through Meidling to reach the other’s flat, but I am sure there was some kind reasoning for doing so. Back then life was simple, we had no problems of needing to be contactable. No e-mails, no mobile phones, a landline at best. And I spent the next few days exploring the side streets, just soaking in how life was a bit different in another district across town. I did a food shop at the nearest Billa, but dined mainly off Beisl lunch menus, resisting the temptation to spend the afternoons drinking with the locals. So how, you might ask, did my wife and I recreate the staycation in lockdown in the ever reachable 21st century?
Back to lockdown in April 2020, and we realised that we have a lucky luxury in our flat, namely a spare room. It is useful for guests to stay overnight, and for many years we have had out of town friends to stay and been to theirs to stay in return. So this time we packed a very small trolley case and went to stay overnight at most a dozen metres from our normal bedroom. But of course to recreate the break away feel, we had to try to recreate other parts of the experience. Last evening we had a fine dinner of Schnitzel delivered from Figl‘s enjoyed together with a wine picked up from our local Billa that we don’t usually drink. And for dessert a Billa tiramisu, which is something we never usually have at home.
Sleeping in the spare room was an interesting experience – it didn’t quite feel right. Granted we do occasionally use it – usually when one or other of us has a sniffle, hacking cough or full-blown ‘flu – in order to enter the other gets a good night’s sleep. But we don’t ever recollect having both slept in the spare room, so doing so aided our attempts at a break without leaving home. To increase the atmospheric quality of the experience, we even adjourned to our room for the night after dinner rather than spending an evening on the couches ensconced in tablets and smartphones checking on our nearest and dearest, and simulated a signal notspot by putting our phones into flight mode (in an emergency family and friends could have reached us by landline). Fortunately the small television set we have in the spare room only gets the free-to-air channels, so we watched a pretty low budget TV film last night and were even able to watch the Wetterpanorama this morning, which reassures you somehow that all is well in Austria, albeit the country is still in a state of near lockdown. And to keep up the charade, the travel kettle and a couple of mugs and some instant coffee and teabags were brought into the room to create the impression of “tea and coffee-making facilities in room” that have been something I particularly like a hotel to have. I did however stop short of filling a thermos with hot water.
Breakfast was more of a challenge, although we found a way to beat this issue. In a cupboard in the kitchen, tucked away we had recently found some eggcups that had been presumed “missing in action” for a long time, so went for cold cuts and boiled eggs. To recreate the charm of a “schmuddelige Pension”, we also had a bag of Semmel and a loaf of “Singletoast” as well as some of the spreads and pâtés you find in modest hotel breakfast buffets, but which you would never knowingly have at home. And, despite the fact that neither of us particularly likes it, knock-off brand Multivitaminsaft, which again is a staple of moderately priced family-run hotel breakfast buffets, and those silly little juice glasses that seem to help the owner eke out as mainly servings of juice as possible from the elegant Tetrapak.
And how we laughed. My wife got into the swing of things by ensuring that there were a few trash fiction books on the shelf, and there was a miniature bar of Milka on each pillow and sample sachets of cosmetics in the bathroom. Unfortunately we did feel our bathroom was still a bit too nice for our imaginary Pension. There was no shower cubicle that you couldn’t quite stand up in, or brown tiles, and certainly the loo roll was far above the standard we would have expected. True to form the lightbulb in the room decided to strike, and one bedside lamp seemed to have a slightly dodgy connection. And for her pièce de resistance, despite the fact that we live nowhere near a church, my wife woke us up at 7am with church bells ringing, courtesy of an alarm on her phone.
Maybe we are onto something here, if there are to be no summer holidays and tourism as we have grown to know and love this coming summer. Let’s just hope some airbnb guttersnipes don’t cotton on to our fanciful frippery and monetize the Pension Curmudgeon experience for their own ends. Both of us felt that the “fake minibreak” really did wonders for morale, as we both engineered funny little quirks of past stays at Pensionen into our “night away” which reminded us fondly of some of the little places we have stayed at over the years. And we laughed about the faults of the spare room, and shrugged them off, well apart from my noting that I need to change a lightbulb and maybe check out the bedside lamp.
Stay home and stay safe – and, if you can, try to escape the monotony!