A new city is like a new loverI left Brussels on a cheap Slovak bus, a 15-hour journey to Vienna. I had arrived in September to my first European city and in the five or so months that I was there, I experienced the travails of living in the heart of Europe.
I left Brussels on a cheap Slovak bus, a 15-hour journey to Vienna. I had arrived in September to my first European city and in the five or so months that I was there, I experienced the travails of living in the heart of Europe. Brussels was a contradiction, a meticulously bureaucratic city that was split along linguistic lines, along ethnic lines, and along administrative lines. In one small city that could be crossed in a day, there existed numerous fault lines, each uncrossable by the mandarins who ran their separate kingdoms. Brussels was an enigma, a diverse city that had suffered much from the opening of its arms and yet, refused to be cowed into the reactive paranoia and suspicion, so unlike the United States. It was a city that loved to live, relishing its heavenly deep fried frites that the rest of the world maligned with the sobriquet of French. And its beers, oh its otherworldly beers. [I have dedicated an entire column to the Belgian beer so I will refrain from singing its praises yet again.] But Brussels passed pleasantly, as if floating languidly down a slow-moving river.
The 15-hour ride on a grossly uncomfortable bus was eventful, to say the least. The woman in her sixties sitting next to me was Austro-Hungarian, like the empire, and she attempted to strike up a conversation in halting English. As a hubbub began from the Eastern Europeans at the back of the bus, she leaned towards me and said confidentially, I understand everything. I nodded back, not quite comprehending. She explained that she could understand their language and leaning even further in, with a hand around her mouth, she whispered, ‘Gypsies.’
Later, as I attempted to sleep, a baby in the front of the bus awoke screaming. I was mildly annoyed but over the years, I have gotten accustomed to the hazards of travelling. I smiled wanly at the woman next to me and pointed to the baby. She smiled back but went further. The baby was ‘mixed,’ she said. ‘The mother is there but the father, question mark?’ She smiled evilly and I did not know how to respond. Much later in the bus ride, she would speak at length about how ‘mixing’ was not a good idea because cultures were just too different. Perhaps she was attempting to communicate something to me. Perhaps she just needed an outlet for her subtle racism. I smiled awkwardly and made no more effort at conversation. She persisted but not always with prejudice. I had a cold and she offered me tissues. She told me of her son who had just passed his Masters in London. She told me how she lived by herself and is often alone but sometimes goes out to drink beers with her neighbour. I listened politely, not contributing much in return. I did not know what to make of her casual bigotry.
Partway through the trip, somewhere near Frankfurt, we were stopped by the German police who proceed to select a number of us at random for a full body and luggage search. I was surprised when they did not select me at first, given my brown skin and my full beard. When a young policeman tells me step out, please, I was finally relieved. Bodies and bags were checked. The policemen were polite. One came up to us and remarked in English, ‘So he is the one from Nepal.’ I acknowledged my country of origin and the policeman checking my luggage said apologetically that it was not every day that they see someone from Nepal. After two hours, when the checking was over, they handed back our identity cards. The policeman did not call out my name like he did for the others, simply yelling ‘Nepal’ with a goofy grin. I did not mind. Better this than a host of others.
At the end of that 15-hour journey, I arrived in Vienna, my home for the next five or so months. It is a grand old city, majestic and awesome, built on the spoils of empire. Every street is lined with massive buildings that dwarf your human frame. There are gilded eaves and intricate ornamentation. This city does not seem to have been built for its citizens; it is a city that was built to project power. Compared to this, Brussels seems unabashedly provincial, like a runt from the village pretending at being a city boy. Vienna is imposing. But it is also the one of the most livable cities in the world. It has cast aside its imperial pretentions and has embraced a socialist bent. It is now known the world over for its social housing.
In the days since, I have been walking Vienna’s many strassen and gassen. Just like every city has its own smell, its own taste and its own ambience, each city has its own rhythm, a tempo that can range anywhere from the languid to the frenetic. This tempo is purely experiential; it cannot be described, it must be lived. Kathmandu is frantic, New York is feverish but Pokhara is leisurely, Brussels is deliberate. I have yet to make up my mind about Vienna. I have been trying to lodge myself into its rhythmic flow, trying to fall in step beside two young Viennese going to university or a young girl walking an impossibly beautiful Golden Retriever or an older construction worker smoking on the job. At the Der Wiener Deewan, I eat Pakistani food to bursting while rubbing elbows with a crowd. This pay-as-you-wish restaurant serves Pakistani food that is bland but comforting. I eat Krapfen and schnitzel and kasekrainer. I ride the U-Bahn. I walk the Gurtel. A new city is like a new lover. She reveals herself to you slowly, at first in the dark, when the lights are out.
With the winter retreating, spring will arrive soon. The trees and flowers in the Prater and the Augarten will begin to bloom. With the air warmer, I sat by an open window in my apartment in the ninth district and I listened to the Blue Danube and Mozart’s Requiem. It seemed fitting to inveigle Vienna with two of her most favoured sons. It is only a matter of time.