Our second day in Vienna started early with quiet snow falling on the window of our hostel room. It had been a while since I stayed in a hostel and I was surprised by the distinct contentment I felt when I rolled over in my sterile sheets that morning, waking to the soft light and the kindly muted sounds of strangers moving about the room. There’s a certain youthful innocence to the hostel experience, kind of like camp; except instead of rolling out of your bunk bed and going downstairs to your archery lesson or nature talk, you roll out of your bunk bed and go downstairs to a grungy bar, pool table, and a dozen 20-somethings using their 50-cent block of internet time to update their Facebook statuses: So-and-so “is in VIENNA! Hell yes!! Europe 2009!!!” or some other equally obnoxious, overly-exclamated way of making sure all their friends know they’re doing something cool. (Admittedly, I do not exclude myself from this group.)
So we pulled on a few thick layers and went for a stroll through the colorful sunlit Naschmarkt, Vienna’s largest outdoor market, before exploring the enormous Belvedere gallery where we were lucky enough to brave the crowd and stare – numb with awe and adoration – at Gustav Klimt’s great shimmering masterpiece, “The Kiss.” From the museum we rushed back to our hostel to get dressed for our evening out. This time we wouldn’t be going out to sit in a cloud of smoke and laser lights only to be overcharged for drinks and dodge the eyes of sleezy drunks with greased up hair. No, instead we went to the opera. Guiseppe Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” at the Vienna State Opera, to be specific. It felt rather incongruous to be pulling on evening dresses and heels in our hostel, the dirty water on the floor of the bathroom soaking through the feet of my tights as I did my best to apply mascara in the dim light.
But while we may not have fit in there, we certainly looked the part at the opera house, even if we didn’t act it. Arriving late, we crept through the heavy door of the stately building some 20 minutes after the start of the first act, and flew up the empty stone staircases – our heels clicking on each cold step – to our seats. We then really embarrassed ourselves when the usher reprimanded us for arriving late for the second act as well, having spent too much time taking pictures against the resplendent backdrop.
Our 10 euro tickets did not include a view of the stage, as we were seated so high up and to the side that we could only see the giant donut-shaped chandelier. But we read our translator boxes, let the music move through us, and stood up for a good look when anything exciting happened. The man next to me – Austrian, simply dressed and alone – was strong evidence that one doesn’t need a good view to enjoy the opera. The way he moved – the subtle but frenzied flicks of his wrists and the thrilled twitch of his smile – showed his thorough knowledge of the music, of every rise and fall, every sparkling moment. When it ended, he invited us down a few rows with him to lean over the banister and have a better look at the triumphant performers, then he walked slowly out of the room, his hands raised high above his head as he clapped them together with the reverberating boom of a man truly moved.
We finished off the night with dinner in a fancy Italian restaurant and drinks in a 6th floor lounge/bar sitting against huge windows with a view dominated by the adjacent St. Stephen’s Cathedral, lit dramatically against the black sky. All in all it was a high class evening, but I didn’t get through it without losing at least some of my dignity with a minor incident that truly demonstrates Austrian politeness. As our waiter removed my coat before seating us at the restaurant, my heavy wool shroud (and the static cling that it had been devilishly propagating against my satin dress) came off only to lift my skirt above my rear end and attach it to my back, revealing my ass – thinly veiled by sheer gray tights, but clearly there nonetheless – to the entire restaurant. And although I am regrettably certain that people saw, including our wait staff, I noticed not a single reaction then or throughout the meal.
I thanked the heavens for this the following morning at the Hofburg Imperial Chapel where we sat through mass with nuns and tourists alike to hear the angelic voices of the famous Vienna Boys Choir. It was one of the strangest, most unbelievable things I have ever seen. Truly unworldly, seraphic sounds coming from the diaphragms and vocal chords of 25 bony, scraggly 10-14-year-old boys with shaggy hair and wrinkly sweaters.
We too, it seemed, proved unable to fit ourselves into our surroundings there quite like we’d hoped. Though so much of the city calls for solemnity and dignity, we couldn’t help but laugh at inappropriate times throughout the weekend as we pulled our inadequate clothing around our shivering shoulders. I mean, although it is simply the German word for “Viennese” – a word that evokes only rich history, art and grandeur – it’s difficult not to giggle when “WIENER” is posted with such exuberance and pride everywhere you look.