A few years later, I taught a Viennese thinkers course to high school students. To buttress my weakness in architecture, on the fly I invited the math teacher's architect husband to lend us his expertise on the construction of the Ringstrasse. He also brought along his apprentice, who just happened to be from Austria and could provide invaluable verification, primarily through head nods, that indeed a particular building existed and was significant because he had seen it himself. Apparently it meant so much to him that we were studying his homeland, he "borrowed" my text and nostalgic sentimentality must have prevented him from ever returning it (even though he invited himself to all of our subsequent meetings). After such broadening cultural experiences, it crossed my mind that some of my students might one day visit Vienna in person, but I still never thought I would.
Then I had kids. And repressed thoughts, or at least those which related to Sigmund Freud, Vienna secession or intelligentsia of any kind. Even after finding out we'd get to spend a few months in Europe, my focus was solely on Salzburg, Mozart & the Sound of Music. A typical protective mother, I was more than willing - when it came to my own little girls - to put Modernity on hold indefinitely.
But then 9 year old Mikaela read a Marie Antoinette biography, and then another, and then another. Schönbrunn Palace became, in her mind, the equivalent of visiting Disneyland. Above all other places in Europe, she wanted to go to Vienna on her birthday and eat cake with Maria Theresa, Maria Antonia & Franz Josef. (I know - because Mikaela told me - Marie Antoinette didn't really say "Let them eat cake." Sorry, I guess I just lost my head. . .) But still (Bastille?), it got me out of preparations for a usual kids' birthday party - you know, making those tiny guillotine-topped cupcakes or a homemade papier-mâché Marie Antoinette head piñata (which I'm sure would have been a bust). So I agreed. We would celebrate her fin-de-décennie in ten year old decade-ends.
Inside Schönbrunn Palace (which Marie Antoinette claimed was far superior to her shabby digs at Versailles), we took the Grand Tour and saw 40 of the 1,441 rooms, including countless trompe l'oeils that were absolutely necessary to give an illusion of spaciousness to the place, blue porcelain and silk tapestries aplenty, the Mirrors Room where 6 year old Mozart gave his first concert before plunking himself down on the Empress' lap to smooch, and all else that glitters and is gilded. But, mostly, we saw the backs of the other 1,441 tourists who were also let in during our 15-minute assigned entry time slot.
Mikaela served as our very informed tour guide, correctly identifying Maria Theresa's 16 kids in the Children's Portraits Room and explaining the advantageous political marriage-alliances engineered by their empressive mama. We saw Franz Josef's historically important billiard and walnut rooms where he held minutes-long audiences with hundreds of dignitaries in a day. In his Spartan study, we couldn't help but wonder at his incongruous, dedicated work ethic - he awoke to splashes of cold water in his face at 4 am each morning, knelt on a stool next to his iron cot-bed for lengthy prayers and denied himself all extravagance with the one exception of a built-in ashtray in the otherwise austere wooden toilet bench in his bathroom (installed only after he realized he could devote the saved time to state affairs - yes, both kinds).
Outdoors in the "back 400," the girls were thrilled to run through two hedge mazes & puzzle out the giant Labyrinth, which proved nearly as challenging as the game of constantly jumping out of the way of poorly skilled carriage drivers and their galloping horses on the crisscrossing walking paths. Adding to the drama, police cars, ambulances and firetrucks kept roaring by, sirens blaring, across the groomed grounds to places undiscovered. We never figured that one out, but eventually realized no one else found it extraordinary, so we went to the zoo.
We also climbed to the viewing terrace of Maria Theresa's home office (aka The Gloriette) and staggered kilometers and kilometers to "hit the wall" at the Roman ruins (rebuilt for the sake of tourism). When M&K realized the Privy Garden was aptly named, more for its smell than its secrecy, we were ready to call it a very long day.
Back in the van, a cranky Katrianna serenaded us with "The Blue Danube" on her souvenir Johann Strauss mini music box and we felt inspired to look for a romantic spot to spend the night waltzing (ok, camping) along the river outside of the city. We gave up after finding only industrial-lined tributaries in all directions within 50 kilometers of Vienna. Well, sometimes it hapsburgs and you just have to rococo with the punches.
The next morning was spent cruising in dizzying circles around the Ringstrasse. Finally, we just decided to ditch the van and go on a fortifying walk. We strolled through the Heldenplatz gardens to Hofburg Palace, the royals' winter residence, and checked out the books at the Nationalbibliothek. We even saw the exercise field for the famed Spanish Riding School, but not the Lipizzaner stallions since they were literally put out to pasture at the time of our visit and no doubt had gone on holiday to horse around at the Cannes film festival. It was a let down after our rigorous preparation for seeing a live performance - we'd watched a whole Disney movie.
Of course, every museum along the Ring had must-see exhibits featuring Klimt, Kokoschka and Egon Schiele. We skipped in concentric circles around them all. Long ago M&K had seen works by these Austrian greats in a traveling 20th Century Art Masterpieces show at Houston's MFA and it had been a limited success in terms of enhancing their art appreciation. After five minutes of observing Jackson Pollock's Number 1 amid complete silence in a room full of art elites striking poses of profundity, a two year old Katrianna loudly proclaimed, "Mom, if he was gonna just scribble anyway, how come he only used black and white?" Even if those impressions had faded, I figured revisiting Gustav so I could deliver a more sophisticated explanation that his little black rectangles were phallic symbols of potent sexuality wasn't going to prove any more edifying for M&K this time around. So, we Kissed the chance goodbye, despite it leaving me feeling noticeably ver-Klimt.
Similarly, outside at 19 Bergasse, my Id dreamed of going in and seeking the famed analytical-psycho Freud (hysterical, isn't it?). But my Super Ego said no. Sigmund is unacceptably Beyond the Pleasure Principle, especially when in the company of minors, so I talked myself out of it and was cured. (Or maybe I just couched it in the unconscious, I can't remember.) Anyway, the Anchor Clock chimed that our session was over and I knew my time with the good doctor was up.
Along the murky brown Blue Danube, the road out of Vienna was a mess of torn up asphalt, construction cranes and traffic jams. However, it did allow plenty of time to observe the city's ubiquitous contemporary art: graffiti tags spray painted on every railroad trestle, bridge overpass and roadside wall. After not "being moved" by the fine art or the bumper-to-bumper bouchon as the thermometer hovered at 35 Celsius, we took a 90 degree turn into the fast (food) lane.
We pulled into a McDonald's to wait it out, get some drinks with ice cubes (unheard of anywhere in Europe except McDonald's, Pizza Hut or KFC - yes, they are all there) and appreciate the "architectural realism" of 21st century Austria which had fully embraced the structural form of golden arches. McD's was more crowded than any spot in Vienna, but this time it was not fellow tourists but locals who jammed in to criticize, and all the while enjoy, the restaurant's fine ambiance where they could listen to the American top 40 tunes - played nonstop there, without the interspersing of Austrian heritage music required of state radio stations. There were no seats to be had in the red & yellow booths below the hanging works of iconic portraiture, exquisite renditions of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. So, we sat out in the parking lot beside the Blue Danube and watched a stream of guys in business suits who came after work to rakishly lean across their little cars and eat big macs. Along with fries and soft serve ice creams, M&K got a "biggie size" order of Vienna's modern realism.