I recently re-read, possibly for the twentieth time, my battered copy of “1066 and All That”. And it was the latest post by fellow long-term Brit about town, Robert Barratt, that made me realise that I was long overdue a post, and possibly to explain how I ended up here and have stayed for nearly three decades – I would somehow fit most closely into his second category, if any regarding the trajectory of my existence here. My battered copy of “1066 and All That” had been stowed in my suitcase when I took the plunge to leave London life behind in the very early 1990s, now almost three decades ago. My story about how I came to settle in Vienna was probably down to “1992 and all that”.
As my friends in London had all steadily paired off and reproduced, I found myself in a curious position, and potentially left on the shelf. I had a good job, that had allowed me to get on the property ladder, and not just on the bottom rung. Whether I could have enjoyed such a fortuitous situation in this day and age, without say my parents having remortgaged or helping me out, is pretty clear cut – I couldn’t. By a distinct bit of luck, I had bought a house in an “up and coming” area of the capital in the mid 1980s, which had been converted into two flats, and then sold it on for a handsome profit in the late eighties just before the property bubble burst, having myself lived in remarkably frugal circumstances on the edge of town, commuting into work, rather than occupying one of the flats.
In the late 1980s, my intention (sketched on the peeled off back of a beer mat) had been to meet and settle down with someone in London and then to move back into town, and then have the place in suburbia to rent (one of those plans that is laughable now with such a long time having elapsed). But that plan never quite worked out, and I then thought about Plan B – to have a more comfortable place out in the suburbs and shifting the place in town, either by selling one of the flats or both. In the end a guy with a big suit, loud tie and a filofax made me an offer I really couldn’t refuse, and I cashed out in town, and started looking for a bigger place on the edge of town, giddy that I had somehow managed to do alright out of a place that my father and mother had both tutted and muttered about.
And then the recession came, and possibly the gains I would have made on selling my suburban place had retreated again, but it did make me think that I might have nothing to lose in seeing the world while the UK made its way out of that recession. I was lucky that my job was never at stake, but slowly I felt the daily commute draining the life force out of me in my mid/late 30s. After all, I was never going to meet someone and settle down if I was out in the sticks. This was back in the days before people had the Internet at their fingertips, that could at least help in terms of the opening gambit for their matchmaking endeavours.
One grey and wet day in early 1991, as my train slowly made its (delayed) way into town, I pondered whether the lot that I had was really what I wanted from life. What I had realised on the place in town with a tidy mortgage would easily pay off my mortgage on my small little place in the suburbs, and set me up for a year or so on the continent. As I looked through my paper, there was talk of Central and Eastern Europe being the up and coming place to go on holiday. And there was all this talk of “1992” being a big year, so I thought maybe it was an opportunity to seize on, and a good reason to have a look around in the summer of 1991 (I tried to find some youtube footage from around the time – and this video from someone’s trip in 1989 was one I liked as it was familiar territory for me). My brother was a family father and so couldn’t be cajoled to join me on the trip, so I went it alone. I got trains across and around Europe for the best part of a month, and that trip included a few days in Vienna, then with Austria not even in the EEC, although the noises were that this would change before too long. I remember arriving at Westbahnhof – and this video captures it from around that time. Fortunately the cheap hotel on the Gürtel that I had booked given its proximity to the train station did little to dampen my enthusiasm for the city – as this great video from the series Alltagsgeschichte demonstrates what the Gürtel was like back then.
One night in a bar in Vienna, somewhere fairly central but don’t ask me where, I got talking to a Hungarian girl, and we swapped addresses and stayed in touch. By the time I came to Vienna the following spring, having taken voluntary redundancy, she had met someone who she married and subsequently divorced, but she also introduced me to her best friend who was working in Vienna for a company that had a lot of operations in Central and Eastern Europe (particularly Hungary), and while I didn’t land a job there, I did meet a lady who I thought I was willing to stay in Vienna for, or so I thought at the time. I had various short-term jobs as I picked up the language, and had a group of friends who seemed at that point also to be in Vienna for the long haul, although suddenly a couple of them really started going places, and not wanting to be left behind on my own, I started to fraternise with the locals more than the expat crew. I didn’t fit in with the crowd from the international organisations in Transdanubia, and was also quite glad to have a very anonymous life in Vienna.
I still hung onto my place in the suburbs of SE London and a tenant who was paying off the mortgage, so I was in no real hurry to return to the UK immediately, and steadily found myself sinking into Vienna’s grasp. Granted Black Wednesday did cause me to have to redo my sums in terms of firmly putting down roots in Austria, but living modestly in rented accommodation and living a no frills lifestyle (Waschküche availability and running out of clean shirts was practically the only thin that kept me at home in the evening in the early days) as I lived in a very compact and humble abode. My ageing parents had more or less presumed that I was having some kind of a premature mid-life crisis, but grudgingly gave my chosen emigration their blessing.
Not even an end to the fiery relationship with my Hungarian girlfriend made me want to up sticks and return to the UK, and after I settled into one of a series of sales jobs, which saw me travelling extensively through CEE, Austria and subsequently “DACH” (Germany/Austria/Switzerland) in a number of positions for a few years, I eventually cashed out on my place in the UK, having met an Austrian lady, who like myself was finding that we were the last singletons standing. We moved in together and married, and after a long search found a lovely place in the Cottageviertel that remains our home to this day. I seemed lucky have relative ease in finding new positions, and companies weren’t put off by my seniority (in terms of age) and my final two jobs also saw me helping with research for the company, and presenting the findings around Europe, albeit in a very subtle way to try to bolster their sales.
Not bad for someone who was written off at school and who had a somewhat “round the houses” education and career, but whose skillset seemed to work for what the companies had in mind for me. In hindsight, I must have been remarkably lucky, as I never had some of the heartbreaking trawling through job ads, looking for anything to keep the roof over my head. Yes, I did shovel snow with a mate in my first winter here, but more to immerse us into the other side of life in Vienna, get us some friends who would hopefully only speak German to us and also to get us fit. but it wasn’t like we had to do it.
All this is of course a vastly different thing to my nephew’s not so meteoric career pathway. It seems in this day and age in Vienna, in order to get a job, any job even, that you need to have a degree and probably a post-grad qualification to get anywhere, and nephew’s attempts at studying were sadly abortive. Then he also slipped through the net in that he didn’t face up to the problems that he accumulated (extravagant life style on a student income). After a very rocky and rough ride on board a cruise ship, he has become much more grounded and introverted, but the pandemic has tested his resolve, and the problems that he and his hairdressing girlfriend have faced in the last 15 months of the pandemic have certainly set them back in terms of aspirations for a high-flying future.
Now in retirement, I miss all the social side of being retired, and have struggled in particular this winter with isolation, no doubt brought on by the six months of alternating lockdowns and curfews that we have endured as Austria has tried to overcome the pandemic. With my wife edging nearer to retirement, a year of enforced antisocial frugality has helped us top up the fund for a big trip when she does retire – hopefully by then Vienna will once again be the city I came to enjoy all those years ago.