An Early Morning Viennese Debate

As a child, especially around Christmas, I was obsessed with trains. They may have been going in circles but they always went places. It was in May of 2015 that I found myself on a train heading east. After several Aufwiedersehens I was ready to go with all I ever needed in my rucksack. As it pulled out of the station I caught glimpses through the window of my adopted home at the foot of the Alps. It was heart wrenching and difficult to leave it, but then again so was getting there in the first place.

My destination was one of the great cities of the Danube river system. A political, cultural and economic hub of not just the Austrian peoples, but of Europe as well. How many treaties and conventions had this city been a part of in its history? And how many cannons hit her walls? How many invaders fell short, never reaching her streets? How many more died defending her? Wien (Vienna), has endured centuries and has a lot to show for it. Forget skeletons in the closet, try basement dungeons filled to the brim with bones. However, for all its history and pomp I didn’t give it much thought. It was just the first leg in a toilsome journey from one mountainous realm to the edge of the breaking sea. Through this trip I met both good people and degenerate life sucking psychopaths. By the end of day one I would be shown my own inescapable ignorance yet again. It is that quality of (the way I) travel; to show one’s self (and not-self) what you thought you knew is only a perspective and that what you could never dream of may be more real than you thought. That is what makes it worth all the pain. Or at least that is what I tell myself to keep from breaking down into a hobbled mess on a train station floor.

It is already fairly late when the train finally rolled in to the Westbahnhof (train station). The sun has set and the city is ablaze with fading and upgraded neon advertisements. It was exceptionally quiet night for a such a large city, but it was Monday after all. While walking to my destination in the Citadel of Dreams I thought over my still half-hazard plan. I was about 55% sure of a place to stay that night in the city before my bus in the morning. Better odds than 50/50 right? The trip would take me through the southern Slavic states, after years of interacting and drinking with ex-Yugos I would finally see the heart of the Balkans. But that is another story entirely.

Walking through the grey and broken streets, past cafes and store fronts, I recalled an article I read about the Imperial city. It was 1913 and Wien was a center of desire. A strange mix of numerous cultures all living and working around and with each other. Less than half the population was native born and a quarter were from Bohemia. It was around this time that Tito, Ferdinand, Hitler, Stalin and Freud all lived in the city. The mix of dreamers and cultures from other lands would meet in coffee-houses to discuss and share ideas. I am here simply to tell you that Wien has not lost this characteristic.

I arrived at the bar where my soon to be ex-boss is finishing up another one of his famous Pub-quizzes. We get a pint together as I wait for a reply from my potential host. She was a girl from Texas that I had met a week earlier at a Cannabis protest in the city (forget name dropping, try protest  dropping). My ex-boss actually didn’t even like being called a boss though. The first time I uttered the word in his presence he asked me immediately to stop using it. I had been doing pub-quizzes for him in Salzburg and managed to at least find a replacement for myself before I left to keep the quiz nights going. He told me he didn’t like the idea of bosses, that we would be something closer to partners. It was a new idea to me coming from the States. I couldn’t believe how much respect the man was giving to an American foreigner. I went with it but I couldn’t get that American idea out of my head; this man is my boss. My happy hilarious Hungarian boss.

He had the name of a great conqueror but preached a tolerant and tame Marxism. We spoke of Austrian politics, tourism and other things the central Europeans like to discuss. Then I realize this Texas girl is not going to reply to me, I am on my own. After explaining this to my Not-boss he reminds me of our first drunken night together at that very bar. It was an Australian bar down a weird alleyway closer to the Westbahnhof. The establishment was fairly roomy, and despite surroundings of cold stone and dim lights it did not feel like a damp cave. His friend the bartender had at the time drunkenly decided I was alright, for an Ami that is. This was when he offered me a place to stay should I ever need one. It was time to call in that drunken favor that he might not even remember. But he sets me up for a place to sleep with this bartender and his girlfriend. Interesting. Now the barman was a native Austrian, but his girl was Australian lass. Another transplant from the New World back to the Old.

It was that Monday in May that I bade farewell to one of the best employers (better?) I have ever had. We drank probably a few too many last rounds then I set off with two pretty complete strangers to try and get some sleep. As we walk to their apartment I find out that not only is Max a bartender he is also a musician as well. He shows me some of his tracks on his computer and I am honestly impressed with his sound. His girl, Sheila (Australian girl), was a tour guide leader in Wien and in Hungary as well. Basically my dream job. The two of them keep making Cuba Libres and we continue to drink and talk about the state of things in the world, in Europe, in the city even. I was interested to hear more about the city from someone who actually lived there. And this couple clearly knew what was up. Awesome apartment, books lining the walls, records and smoker friendly. Everything was going splendidly.

Then this Sheila says one of the few things I cannot stand to hear about our shared previously colonized New World; it has no culture. Now, I have already expressed my frustration with European stereotypes of Americans. I am usually fine with it because I shatter the idea of the fat, not well-read, ignorant, rich American just by standing in front of people. A true contradiction. However, when they say there is no culture I get on the defensive. I hadn’t left my country because it didn’t have enough culture. I left it discover other cultures and learn what I might from them.

So into my normal tirade I went. About how George Washington sat among a slew of other cultural revolutionaries of his time. About how dumping tea in the harbor and our acts of dissidence were the colonist’s nice way of saying to the King that we no longer shared a common life, a common goal, or even a common time-zone. I pleaded that a change in culture had to come before any chance at revolution anyway. Sheila stood her ground though. She pointed out that she meant the whole New World as a whole had no culture, I was still thinking too narrowly. They didn’t have the history that peoples here in Europe did. I was genuinely appalled and was drunk enough to continue to push back.

I assured her that I had no idea concerning Australia, but those United Fucking States had culture. We have all the cultures of the world. We took in the sick, the poor, the hungry! We treated them like crap but hell, we took them in. We have pizza! We have gyros! Not to mention a thousand styles of new beers, even Europeans will sometimes make an American Pale Ale. We do not only have culture; we have sub-cultures that are at odds with each other. A tired and corrupt police culture pitted against our most vulnerable citizens. For example, citizens from a culture of poverty, citizens from a culture of color and repression, citizens without proper legal documents. But this wasn’t good enough for her either. European culture was just richer. What the hell is that supposed to mean?! That is what I drunkenly yelled at some point probably.

At this point, Max has become bored with the conversation. An argument about a New World that he probably hasn’t given the time of day to think about isn’t that very exciting. And he was helping her prove her point. No one cares or even thinks to wonder if the New World has culture or not. They just run around wearing their flat-rimmed Yankees hats having never played baseball in their lives.

Forgetting I needed to sleep for an insane trip through the Balkans I continued to blather. I suggested that she must at least admit that there is some semblance of culture in the New World. As much of what Europe considers very traditional is actually from the Americas. Every cigarette smoked and potato eaten was an admittance that it is common for cultures to share and adapt to things over time. You can’t tell me that curry is British. She conceded that, yes, a culture very well may exist there, but that when she said; No culture, she meant; a young culture, a juvenile culture.  And as much as it still sounded condescending to the Maine culture back home that I knew existed, I also knew she was right. The only culture I ever knew growing up was a culture passed down by white folks, and I am pretty damn sure they were not the original inhabitants.

So sure, we have culture, but even I will admit we are culturally imperialistic and still share part of the colonist’s ethos. We are capable of slowly degrading other cultures. Burger King in Baghdad, baby. I always thought the Europark in Salzburg was such a sad American thing to have in such an old cultured nation. Ironically enough, it was an Austrian architect from Wien that drew up plans for the first American style mall. His idea of a town center with all the things you would usually get downtown now reached the suburbs. However, his idea for an open spaced area with fresh foods coming in was shut down and then shut in. The mall was closed in and every spare inch of space turned into an advert for something. The architect later saw these despot hell holes springing up in his native Austria and could only feel ashamed. And perhaps it was always the youths of other countries who thought that juvenile, young, new products were the best.

From 1850 to 1913 more than 20 million people moved from the Old World to the New World settlements. Perhaps one of the largest migrations of humankind. Packing lightly, one of the few things I think they could bring with them was their culture. But as they mixed and mingled that culture became something entirely different and new. And so new cultures were born. And it may be young but it does not lack substance. A colonial culture still has roots, though they may be short and replanted. And when I think about it in terms of the whole of human history, we have been changing and adapting as best we can to this unforgiving rock of a planet for thousands of years. We brought wheat from the Middle East and coffee from North Africa to the corners of the world. Many of us still use a similar alphabet. All languages, religions, music and politics were shared and traded. Who is to say one culture is richer than the other? I suppose that is anyone’s personal opinion.

I will admit that our culture is juvenile and exists. And I will only half admit that European culture is richer or better. Since the first humans separated and left Africa, if you believe that story, we collected new and interesting methods of all sorts of things. And in the past two centuries we have seen those ideas shared across the entire planet. I realize I was getting worked up over a silly definition. I realize it was pretty juvenile. But it helped me realize that even things that seem so sure and concrete may not be that way to everyone else after all.

I didn’t get any sleep that night arguing with those two. I went straight to the bus after our debate as it was about 7 am. I slept right down to the Hungarian border. Before I left though they both gave me their emails in an amazing book; Zealot. An in depth look into who the man Christ really was. I enjoyed the book very much so.

Perhaps America is an Irish twin of sorts to Europe. With Europe asserting some dominance by being a bit older. But how do these divisions in our global village shape our conversations and direct our actions? Even if they are only perceived divisions? We can and still do work together. From the individual to the collective we are on a crazy journey of experience accumulation, mixing and repetitions. What is the best way to evaluate these changes and developments? Hopefully, if anything, humans keep asking questions and breaking down barriers. Because while some Sapiens may erect walls, we always find that we were better off without them in the end, working, discussing, living together. Regardless of age or origin.

I’ll take a drunken debate over a street fight any day.



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