024 / Conversations with a Viennese Cabbie
December 17, 2021

“The hubris that we live in the most sophisticated or interesting period in history is demolished by visits to museums, which show how people long dead, in cultures foreign to anyone alive today, had inner lives as rich, skills as masterful, and belief systems as limiting yet sufficient as our own. And most centrally, though inadvertently, museums prove that across millennia, art is what remains. Leaders die, political systems fail, societies crumble, languages morph, religions burn out and are replaced, but art survives, despite time’s ravages. Centuries after their makers’ deaths, artworks continue to communicate.” – Alice Gribbin

We took a night train to Vienna. It felt good to travel again, this time with a more defined purpose, and not alone. Nina studied architecture in Vienna, and besides having to tie up some loose ends from when she lived there, she wanted to show me the first city that deeply formed her experience in Europe after leaving Tehran. 

I feel somehow disappointed in myself about not being able to speak German as well as I used to. But while in Vienna , an Uber ride made me feel better. The driver, named Hilal, told me about how he had just bought a house, how much it costs per square meter, that he’d been driving in Vienna for 25 years. For most of those years he was working as a “normal” taxi, but since the pandemic he adopted all of the ridesharing apps, Uber, Uber Black, and two or three others that I had never heard of. He said that it all adds up, day after day, 5 euros here and 5 euros there. 

I still made many mistakes in this conversation, but something about being in motion as we drove through the streets of Vienna helped my German to flow, and I really enjoyed the short conversation with Hilal. At the end of the ride he asked me how old was. “Einundvierzig,” I answered. He responded, with the concerned voice and familiar expression of stern yet concerned grandfather “Too old! Why do you not have children yet? Don’t waste any more time!”

There’s been a change in my travel approach, I think I’ve mentioned it before. As I become older, I don’t try to overdo it on any given trip. I don’t need to do everything.In fact, I actively try to do less, but to simultaneously pay more attention. To stay in one area, one neighbourhood, and to make friends with it as best I can in a short period. Pick two or three destinations, and spend your time in those museums or shops and really see what they hold. Don’t let your trip be a simple checklist, instead attempt to make a deeper connection, go narrow but go deep. 

This is why I enjoy airbnb - if you get a place with a kitchen and a washing machine, it can serve as your base and you don’t need to spend a lot of money on eating out and laundry.  Doing your laundry and making you meals in the airbnb instead of going out to eat for each meal helps me feel more connected to what real life might potentially be like in whatever city I am in. I think it’s even better to find an airbnb somewhat out of the city center, where you can walk 30 or 40 minutes to get to places, and where the neighbourhood is more local and doesn’t over cater to tourists. Now you can feel, at least in fleeting moments, what it is like to go to the grocery store here, or to wait for the tram, or to walk over to the local coffee shop and become friends with the owners. 

Amsterdam is without a doubt a beautiful city. But there is something about cities that lie Eastward, like Vienna. Vienna possesses an overwhelming beauty on a scale that is different from cities in Holland. Here you can feel the history and power of an Empire as it emanates through the architecture of public and private buildings, in the layout of its vast promenades and sweeping boulevards. It is distinctly different from cities built upon trade and mercantilism. The character of Vienna is unlike Paris, which shouts its elegance at you, tempting you at every corner. Vienna is certainly not understated, but it seems more confident and tight-lipped. It lets you come to it, and when you do it will warmly welcome you with its pristinely maintained facades. Parts of the city feel like Rome or Milan, others like Prague and others like Berlin, but these parts cannot define the sum total that is Vienna.

The weather cooperates for nearly our entire stay in Vienna, and as we walk through the city I wonder to myself about the legacy left behind by the people who decided to have them built as they are. Why did these rulers, politicians, architects and citizens care so much about how things looked? How were they able to achieve such feats of engineering and architecture, when today it seems impossible to even have a new train tunnel or subway line completed on time and on budget? Obvious answers like projection of state power and religious motivations certainly play a role, but the overall expense and effort that went into creating these places used by everyone from the homeless wino to the king seems excessive and impossible by today’s standards. Yet here I am walking in the Belvedere gardens, and even in the less wealthy districts the facades of buildings are decorated with ornate reliefs and paintings that turn the city streets themselves into an art gallery.   Americans have a lot of preconceptions about Opera. A visit to the Vienna Opera house itself, without even going to see a performance, is a moving experience. The building is unbelievably beautiful, decorated sumptuously from floor to ceiling. As we took our seats a few minutes before the performance started, I wondered what it must have been like to experience an opera during a time when movies or film, let alone 5G and nascent virtual reality, did not exist. 

The scenography was so well done, the creators knew what areas of the set to add a lot of detail to, and what parts to leave vague and rough. Like in a painting or a novel, not everything needs to be in focus. Our imaginations will fill in the blanks and reconstruct what is not perfectly laid out for us. To create the set of the opera in any other way, to make it too finished, would only make it seem unreal. By leaving areas unfinished, blurry, it becomes indeed more real. 

There is also something about witnessing the present physical human body sing or play music that is different than watching a recorded performance. I think this is why no matter how advanced VR or AR becomes, it will never be a true substitute for our actual experience with other living organisms in the same physical space. You can feel the layers of the music in the opera house. The composers were sound designers, and understood how the waves of music would envelop over the audience, creating a corporeal experience that enhances the drama of the story they are telling. 

After visiting an art gallery or museum, one primary conclusion should be that humans have done the strangest things, performed the weirdest rituals, worn odd or seemingly impractical clothing, told uncomfortable stories, etc etc, and they have done so throughout all of history as far back as we can see. It becomes clear that nothing should surprise us, and that much of the motivation for doing this things that seems very opaque and strange to us is in actuality being acted out by  us today in ways that will seem just as weird and outlandish to generations of humans 500 years from now, or more so to any alien lifeforms that might happen to encounter homo sapiens in the future.

I ask myself, what were you looking for in all of those overnight train trips, journeys on ships, long rides through physical and spiritual deserts in a van… where were you going? Maybe I was looking for ways to reconcile my personal and family history. Was I looking to find artistic and cultural clues to serve as lifelines out of the trap that I felt Philadelphia was? Was I simply looking for myself? In all honesty I didn’t always have an answer in mind, and I suppose that’s a good thing. However it would not have been good to keep this wanderer’s approach to travel forever. Now I’m hoping to create connections that, like true art, will continue to resonate long after I have returned home.

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