Vienna Snow and Soviet Meltdown.

Author:Baker, Robert
Position:Foreign Service Life - Essay

November 2016

Vienna was snowed in when I first visited there in 1972. Twenty years later I was back in Vienna to relax and to direct the Regional Program Office' excellent staff. Then Moscow melted and the Office had huge amounts of new work to help set up new embassies in former communist countries and to produce translations in languages for the Baltics, the Balkans, Central and Eastern Europe.

But back in 1974, the brown Mercedes airport taxi dropped me off at my hotel just in time for Saturday supper on my first visit to Vienna. The flight from London was easy.

A windy, chilly few blocks away from my hotel, I stepped into a green-fronted, old-fashioned cafe. Immediately, the room disappeared behind my fogged glasses. Pocketing them, I saw twenty wooden tables, a few booths next to the windows and a glass case with beautiful pastries. It was smoky and warm. I ate a delicious sauerkraut, pureed potatoes and ham dinner. Bread and a pat of butter (each pat came billed separately). Strong coffee with a slow cigarette washed off the tiredness of all day travel from London.

Refreshed, I stepped out into the dark to see something of the city. The gusting wind now blew whirling blankets of fat, white snowflakes. While I had been eating supper, snow had already gilded church towers and made white dashes on the window sills of looming apartment houses. It rounded up the tops of parked cars and barren tree limbs in the park across Ringstrasse. Flakes swirled in wide, falling circles around the lamps swinging on wires over the middle of the street. I pulled up my collar, trapping a couple icy flakes on my neck, pulled down my cap, tucked my glasses into a pocket and walked for an hour past the ghostly but immensely solid buildings. Almost no traffic plowed through the foot deep snow except the white-capped trams that glided swiftly in dead silence. Vienna was very beautiful in the snowstorm, a grand first visit.

Back in my hotel room, I noticed my shoes were sodden. I was first chilly, then sneezing and that night, shaking, with my first Viennese flu. Really sick next morning, I dressed, went down and asked the bellman for a delicatessen nearby. He said there was none. Turns out, Vienna does not have American delis at all. I told him I badly needed a bowl of hot chicken soup and asked where I could find it.

He directed me to a Jewish club not too far away. It was up a bare wooden stairway. At the top was a dingy room about thirty feet square. Old guys in yarmulkes grumbled over chessboards and coffee at a dozen little tables. Food came out of a window in a wooden wall where you ordered from the fat woman behind the counter. She was grumpy that I wanted chicken noodle soup. All they had was flanken and potato pancakes. I took it. It was good and filling, not the same as chicken soup, but the flanken hit the flu right in the head. However, back in my room, an hour later, I was shaking again. I called for a doctor who showed up that afternoon with some pills, told me to stay in bed and left. I was wretched, alone and...

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