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My Vienna: A macabre beauty

November 10, 2021

reading time: 7 minutes

by Laura Gianesi, LGT

Karina Tosch

Karina Tosch, who works at LGT Österreich, explains Viennese “Schmäh”, the importance of traditional costumes and ball gowns in Vienna and some of the quirks of local waiters.

Grumpy and warm-hearted, pompously elegant and cozy, quintessentially Austrian and multicultural. On a walk with Karina Tosch of LGT Österreich, we immerse ourselves in Vienna’s many facets and discover why it’s worth getting off the beaten track to explore the city on the Danube’s less touristy attractions.

“I moved to Vienna when I was 20 years old. And believe it or not, the first thing you have to learn when you arrive in this city is how to waltz.

I remember it like it was yesterday: a friend spontaneously invited me to one of the city’s countless balls. I told him I would have to buy a ball gown first. He stared at me in horror and asked, “What, you mean you don’t have a ball gown?”

By uttering those words, I had revealed I was not a native of the city. In Vienna, the end of childhood is marked by the purchase of ball attire at the age of 16 – so in the eyes of my friend, I was a real late bloomer.

My ball gown was a good and important investment – I use it all the time. If I hadn’t bought it, I wouldn’t be able to go to the Summer Night Concerts in May at Schönbrunn, where everyone sits outside on their picnic blankets, listens to concerts and then waltzes. And I wouldn’t be able to celebrate New Year’s Eve with my friends – going from concert to concert in the old city center, and waltzing in the new year together at midnight.

Another item that all Viennese have in their closets is a traditional costume. Like ball gowns, we wear them when observing specific customs at specific times of the year. For example, during the Wine Hiking Days held on one weekend in October, when we hike through the vineyards of Vienna. Some of the best wines in Austria grow within the city limits. We drink the wines directly at the vintners: in some of the many “Buschenschanken” (small outdoor wine bars) right next to the vineyard, where the winemakers pour their freshly-pressed wine – we call it “Sturm”, meaning “storm” in German – into thick jugs, which we then drink from thick glasses. The wine is accompanied by “Faschierte”, which are ground beef and pork patties, and “Brettljause” – an Austrian charcuterie board.

Ah, the food. The Viennese love their hearty cuisine. If you’re in Vienna, you should try ordering in Viennese. At the sausage stand, ask for “A Eitrige mit an Buckl” – that may sound strange, but it’s not: you’ll get a “Käsekrainer”, which is a sausage with cheese. It goes well with a “Sechzehnerblech” – a Viennese beer.

If you prefer coffee instead of beer, Vienna is also the right place for you. We are proud of our cozy and elegant Viennese coffee culture. On Fridays you will often see the Viennese meet for a coffee, a Viennese mélange, a “Verlängerter Schwarzer” (espresso with hot water) or a “Kleiner Brauner” (single espresso with milk or cream). These are always served on a silver tray and always with a glass of water. 

If you’re looking for a snack between meals, the best place to go is “Zum Schwarzen Kameel”. That’s where we meet up after work for a “Pfiff” – a small glass of beer that you can finish in one gulp – or an Aperol. You won’t find as many tourists as at Trzesniewski’s, although the canapés are delicious there too. At Kameel, we always chat with the maître of the house, who is as well known for how much he likes to talk as he is for his sideburns.

And the Viennese waiters! The other day I ordered goulash in a restaurant, but committed the sin of asking for mashed potatoes instead of spaetzle. Our waiter punished me with a disapproving look. “They will float around in the gravy, I won’t bring them to you,” he told me. I had no choice but to accept his verdict and eat up the spaetzle.

“Motschgern” or “sudern”, which mean something along the lines of “to complain”, are favorite pastimes of the Viennese. They grouch about things all the time – about the weather, about the way to work, about people, about life. When they run out of things to complain about, they find new reasons. But don’t get the wrong idea – it doesn’t mean they’re in a bad mood. They just like to complain.

That’s something you’ll also see at the Viennese cabarets. Locals like to attend these performances, especially during the colder winter months. Every district in the city has its own cabaret – the Rabenhof, the Simpl, the Metropol... We like to go, sit at our table with a glass of wine and watch the show. But let’s not forget the theaters! The Raimund Theater and the Volkstheater are less touristy than the Burgtheater.   

The Viennese have a unique fascination with the macabre that goes hand in hand with their well-known “Schmäh” (sarcasm). So be on your guard, for example, when a Viennese tells you to “fahrn mitn Anasiebzga”. They are telling you to take the number 71 streetcar, which goes in the direction of the Central Cemetery. If, on the other hand, they say “si de Erdöpfe vo unten oschaugn”, they are telling you to look at the potatoes from below – another of the many ways that people allude to death in Vienna.

By the way, a walk through the Vienna Central Cemetery is actually very worthwhile. It’s beautiful, full of Art Nouveau mausoleums, old avenues and flowers. About three million dead people lie under its two and a half square kilometers of earth. One of them is Falco, the rock musician and bon vivant. He was born in Vienna in 1957 and died in Puerto Plata in 1998. His song “Rock Me Amadeus” was the only song in German to make it to no. 1 in the US charts.

The Viennese still love him for that. To this day, his loyal fans leave packs of cigarettes and wine bottles on his grave – so that he can keep enjoying himself in the afterlife. That’s another example of Viennese Schmäh for you.”

Pictures: Stephan Huger

If you're going to Vienna, be sure to...

... sing: “Rock me Amadeus” by Falco

... drink: “Sturm” instead of normal wine (but expect to have a headache afterwards). Alternatively, have a small Pfiff instead of normal-sized beer, or a coffee in one of its many local variations.

... say: “Heute schon gesudert?” (Have you complained about anything yet today?).

... know: what “Schmäh” is (typical Viennese sarcasm). So don’t take everything people say too seriously.

... depending on the season: in summer, go to the wakeboard lift, where you can enjoy a drink and watch people take daring jumps against the backdrop of a magnificent sunset. In autumn, hike through the vineyards during the Wine Days. Winter is ball season, so find out in advance which one you want to attend. You can also go to a cabaret or to the leisurely Christmas market in Spittelberg. In spring, take a stroll through Vienna’s Central Cemetery. Vienna’s famous museums are interesting year-round, but the lesser-known ones like the Weltmuseum Wien are also well worth a visit. Bookworms should go to the main university, where they will find a beautiful old library that is open to the public and always reminds me of Harry Potter.

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