Austria: hospitality, sarcasm and the dangers of group psychology

We left Bratislava across the Danube. I was excited to cross this great river that has always formed one of history’s most significant borders. Looking across the misty banks, I could picture anxious  roman legionnaires at the limits of civilisation, surveying the dark, endless unknown  from their walls. As we crossed over the space-age soviet bridge, I imagined we were spies being traded by the superpowers  like chess pieces, across the iron curtain.

Our impressions were immediately set on a positive course as we stopped for coffee in a fortified town where a kind bystander furnished us with a landrover part dealer’s details . As we drove the surprisingly short hour to Vienna the sun came out, the warm air flooded through our recently smashed window and we were soon distracted by a picturesque riverbank. After an impromptu picnic, we basked, threw a ball around and took photos before realising we were now drastically late to meet our friends in Vienna.

This is a good opportunity to  write about our travelling ‘fiascos’ and how they occur.  Dan, Rich, my brother Guy and I would like to think of ourselves as functioning, relatively efficient adults, capable of solving problems and making autonomous decisions. We have all individually travelled in Europe and Africa before. However, as a group, we repeatedly seemed to run late, drive off with equipment unattached, forget key times or overlook important requirements for borders. Admittedly, the speed we were travelling, the complicated transfer of our equipment from car to tent to hostel as well as the huge amount we tried to fit into each day left us exposed to mistakes. However, every mistake seemed to follow a similar pattern. Analysis of each fiasco revealed that each group member had  assumed that someone else was on top of it. Often we had discussed the emerging problem beforehand but had not quite reached the point of preventative action. Furthermore the group had a tendency to exaggerate the prevailing mood. For example, when the mood was jovial everyone would read from the other that there was nothing to worry about, even as the car was towed, we became lost etc.
I can candidly criticise in the past tense because I feel there is a story in how we have become a functioning team, fit (hopefully) for Africa. From Bratislavan break ins to being stranded on the Serbian/Bosnian border without any currency, Europe has been a much needed teacher.

The four of us are all Generals. We are quick to take charge and delegate rolls. However none of us mind being absolved from decision making and simply given orders. The group member with the most vision or energy at the time tends to become team leader. We realised that one person with a set task such as shopping, works far more effectively then the four of us standing around debating the choice of cheese or passionately arguing the ingredients of a carbonara. We developed a dynamic whereby each person volunteers or is quickly assigned a role or responsibility. Arrival and departure have become particularly slick. The car pulls into a new destination and almost without a single word one person will stride off to negotiate a hostel (or pitch the tent) one person will climb onto the roof, one person will unload the inside luggage and then one person  will cook supper whilst the others securely park and lock the car. The golden rule being that if you mention an idea or spot a developing problem it is your responsibility to act on it until you delegate it to a specific person.

Friends we have met have been surprised by the blunt, businesslike way we behave toward each other when on the move. There is indeed a military feel to our economy of words and lack of pleasantries. We talk in a staccato series of orders, ‘affirmatives’ or ‘negatives’. In actuality there have been very few arguments and the level of trust runs high. The famous cry of ‘eyes’ when pulling into the outside lane, for example, confers responsibility to check for overtaking cars to the navigator.

We had been put in contact with Tanja, a medical student, via a friend from Cornwall. She kindly offered to put us up in her room in the centre of Vienna where she lived with three other students. We arrived in a blur of frantic activity. I can only imagine the first impression we made. Our vast mass of luggage was hauled out of our insecure vehicle into Tanja’s room. We then divided into cooks and mechanics. Guy and Dan somehow, through continuous bickering and infighting produced a masterpiece in the kitchen, whilst Rich and I splayed our tools out across the pavement, donned head torches and busied ourselves creating a new Perspex window. Unfortunately Tanja had to leave for the weekend but left us in the excellent company of her housemates Ruth and Shiva (? Spelling). I can only imagine what they thought about our sudden invasion but they certainly did a good job as hosts. Soon the beer and wine were flowing and we were well prepared for the rigors of a Viennese night out.

The Viennese  were  friendly, laid-back and witty. Our British tendencies for ironic insincerity, self-deprecation and plummy wordplay were all matched. Their English was embarrassingly good compared to our rough collection of broken languages.

We stayed for three brilliant days, the second being a large national holiday. Vienna is an impressive sprawl of grand baroque and neo-classicist buildings. Marble columns rise up and deities gaze down on every street. Palaces and universities dominate orderly squares. This imperial city  was fittingly adorned by the large scale military parades that were taking place.

The addition of four chaps and a car full of luggage was clearly demanding on the house, especially the plumbing. Despite our best amateur plumbing efforts, first the kitchen sink,  then the bathroom and finally the shower became blocked (this is probably due to a central fault rather then any misuse of the facilities). Matters reached a head one morning as Dan was showering, plunger in hand, in order to force the water down a reluctant plug hole. Guy was brushing his teeth the other side of the curtain when the washing machine began to empty. This regurgitated water up into the bathroom sink which began to brim. Guy grabbed a small paper cup, sounded the alarm and began to bail. Poor Ruth, who came to investigated was greeted by the sight of my brother frantically sloshing dirty water into the shower, all over a desperately plunging and naked Dan. A flood was narrowly avoided.

The following night, Shiva took us to a party to which he himself had a tenuous invitation. We were early to arrive and were greeted at the door by the host. After we explained that we weren’t the band and that we were actually temporary lodgers of a friend of a friend, we were asked to take our shoes off, add our beers to the communal stash and come in. It was an intimate party and we were quite conspicuous and awkward. However, we soon got to know some of the partygoers. We met Natascha, a curator from the Viennese MuseumsQuarter. Despite the late night, she kindly promised to show us around the following day before we set off. We were only slightly late.

We had our own expert guided tour of the modern art exhibitions and installations, meeting some of the artists themselves. The museum offers the opportunity for international artists to live for free within the complex for up to three months whilst they work on a project. For more than a moment I considered taking up a post and living the exciting life of an artist in Vienna. As I currently have relatively few ideas for a large scale modern art project that the world is ready for, I decided to continue on our journey.
The weather was changing for the worse. We planned to head for the city of Graz that evening. Ruth worked hard phoning around the people she knew in order to find us a place to stay. We we’re to be the guests of Melissa and Karin, two sisters studying at the university. Our tour of Vienna’s art had made us a little late. We drove on to Graz in the dark being battered by a tremendous storm. Water flooded into out leaky vehicle as we shivered onward. Our electrics continued to misbehave with the the indicators failing and the headlights having sporadic tantrums. Having studied the wiring diagrams and checked throughout for short circuits it appeared there was no easy explanation for the problems and that they were either multi-factorial or due to a malevolent evil spirit that now possessed our vehicle. Having the car exorcised remains on the to do list.

Our hosts had patiently waited up for us to cook for them. We arrived cold and damp to a welcome of warmth and hospitality. After a hearty meal, we were given the option of a nearby house party. It was Saturday night and despite the lingering fatigue Vienna had induced, we headed out. The party was friendly, buzzing and crowded. At one point there was a power cut and to fill the silence we all began to sing the shanty, ‘South Australia’. This seemed to go down well apart from the fact that everyone now thought we were from Australia and had decided to sing some kind of alternative national anthem.

The following day was crisp and autumnal as we walked up to a viewpoint to gaze over the beautiful, small city and the mountains behind. It began to snow.
After a goulash, we packed, said a fond goodbye to our hostesses and departed. Ahead of us across the mountains and the oncoming blizzard awaited Slovenia.

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One thought on “Austria: hospitality, sarcasm and the dangers of group psychology

  1. Loving the commentary about group mentality, a mixture of pure romanticsm, can-spirit and plain old British ‘don’t panic it’ll be alright’. Keep it up, stay safe and I hope you’re all getting some fabk pics , its got the makings of a great book – three men and a …..? suggestions on a postcard.

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