Translation by Susan Thorne
This excerpt is the concluding chapter of Vladimir Vertlib’s novel Intermediate Stations (Zwischenstationen), an account of the migratory progress of a Russian Jewish family between Austria, Israel, Italy, the U.S. and the Netherlands, finally settling in Austria. As in much of this writer’s oeuvre, the experiences of the unnamed protagonist share many similarities with the author’s personal history, although Vertlib insists that the work is not an autobiography.
The final ‘station’ in the unnamed narrator’s odyssey is a move from Vienna to Salzburg – not a long-distance, international uprooting, yet one still weighted with significance for him. As his reflective musings show, the three-hour journey sets up a dialectic of opposing influences as he moves from a familiar environment to a newer and culturally different one, and from parental norms and influences to greater independence. This, too, is a migration, the text implies, while pointing out some of the many hallmarks of identity and belonging such as customary rituals, a circle of friends, prejudices and cultural stereotypes, and language. Vertlib’s distinctive contribution to this topic is his ironic, distanced stance and his wonderful, often self-deprecating humor. That irrepressible levity has (literally) the last word, too, in an exuberant and untranslatable Austrian yodel of joy.
Vienna on a Fall day in 1993. Mariahilfer Street. Rush hour in the late afternoon. People are standing squeezed together on the streetcar. Barely enough air to breathe.
Am I going to make it to the train on time? There are still three stops to go to the West Station. Maybe ten minutes. Usually it would be enough. But with this suitcase weighing a ton and the handle torn off, too, so that I have to carry it on my shoulder? I don’t know how I managed to drag it as far as the streetcar stop. And it’s still a long way to the station building from the stop where I get off.
I could have taken a taxi, of course. But apparently I felt I had to torture myself. I really needed some stress. Now leaving Vienna won’t be so hard. I’ve often toyed with the thought of leaving the city, looking forward to a moment like this. If your dreams are going to come true, you should let yourself imagine something more pleasant.
Maybe it’s because the trip isn’t long enough. Only as far as Salzburg. That’s not a real move, I’ve been telling myself these last few days ‒ it’s barely even a change, and besides, Vienna is only three hours’ drive away. So I won’t risk losing my circle of friends or our regular walks in familiar surroundings. Then why am I forcing myself to drag this suitcase along without taking a taxi?
I’ve heard that for West Austrians, the West Station is the most beautiful place in Vienna. “These country bumpkins, what do they understand about a big city, anyway?” my Vienna friends counter. Besides, nobody doubts that West Station is abysmally ugly. I believe there is no uglier central station in Europe. Delicate concrete elegance in the style of the early 1950’s, Austrian School: lots of light, glass, and station concourses which, I admit, make it easy to leave. All this has the effect of speeding up the human masses.
My partner lives in Salzburg, has a good job which she doesn’t want to give up. I can understand that. It’s clear that I will be going to Salzburg rather than having her come to Vienna. After all, I have so many changes of place behind me that another one more or less won’t make any difference.
It’s just as I feared: I have to stop and catch my breath every ten meters. Was it really necessary to cram my typewriter into this cursed suitcase, too? Not to mention those numerous books. What am I going to do if the thing breaks apart in the middle of the trip?
My parents had been hoping for years that I would leave Vienna, but they weren’t exactly overjoyed about my decision now.
“You’re giving up such a good job, such a job,” father said. His entire body sagged inwardly. He was obviously making an effort to appear long-suffering. Then he turned away and sighed. He was always such a good actor. I knew that this was just a prelude, that he would start bellowing next.
“You’re leaving Vienna?!” Now it started. Father’s voice trembled. He grew red, began to perspire. “You’re leaving Vienna, the only city in this goddamned small country where it’s still possible to get along, and you’re going to Salzburg, deep in the backcountry, to a woman who comes from deepest Tyrol. I can already picture you with a Tyrolean hat.”
Even Mother, who rarely allowed herself fits of rage or other emotional outbursts, got loud that evening. She talked about how I was throwing away my life for nothing and still more nothing. I would be destroying everything I had built up.
Father followed this up by pointing out that I am a Jew. It was already hard enough to live in anti-Semitic Vienna, but the Austrian provinces were even more chauvinistic than the capital. At least the latter had a breath of international character. Moreover, I was an immigrant, a so-called naturalized Austrian ‒ a foreigner, really ‒ and you could only afford to be a foreigner in a large city. And I was leaving them alone, the old parents, after all they had done for me. In any case I was acting brainlessly, deciding prematurely, since I didn’t even have a new job in Salzburg.
When I mentioned that I could live for a time as a house-husband, Mother was horrified. “For God’s sake, anything but that! That awful word! Don’t let it pass your lips! That would be the end of you! I feel sick when I hear that. You see what has become of your father. For ten years he has been without work.”
I wouldn’t just be washing dishes and sweeping the floor, I explained.
“What can you do there, in that little city, with your additional free time?” Father made a dismissive hand gesture. “You won’t find any work and you’ll just get bored. Living on spare change from your girlfriend: a disgrace! In any case it’s a step down. A step down to the provinces!”
Of course I understood my parents’ attitude. In Russia it had always been a great privilege to be allowed to live in one of the two great cities: Moscow or Leningrad. The food supply was better there than elsewhere in the country. In Soviet terms, the people of Moscow or Leningrad ate choice foods which the average resident of the provinces knew only from hearsay. Only in a large metropolis could the Kolkhoz farmer, having turned his back on his village, find well-paid work. Only in Moscow or Leningrad could an aspiring academic make a career, an artist succeed, the intellectual find a satisfactory milieu. However, moving into the major cities was severely restricted. For a South Russian or a resident of Siberia, Moscow was often as distant and mythical as Germany or France would be for a black African.
I tried to explain to my parents that in this age of shrinking distances and all-embracing means of communication, the boundary between city and country, metropolis and provinces had less significance. My parents waved this aside. All that was too abstract for them. A metropolis was a metropolis and a small city was a small city. The Intercity train and the computer wouldn’t change that one bit.
I had to listen to similar arguments from friends and close acquaintances, who all fretted about the provincial existence awaiting me. Rita was the most dismayed. She had never been in Salzburg herself, but she knew something about that city; she had acquaintances who came from there. Their descriptions had been very revealing.
Several years ago Rita had an argument with my parents and me and had demoted us from her inner circle of friends to the second, less esteemed circle. Now I had descended into her third circle.
“Why are you grumbling so much about the so-called provinces?” I asked. “You, of all people! You never go out of your apartment. So what do you know about the world …”
“What do you mean?” she countered. “Let me live my own kind of life. I have my books, my television, my newspapers, my radio. No long ago I saw an article about Ravenna. I could look at the mosaics more closely and precisely than a tourist who takes a long trip just to spend a few minutes in a church. So why should I go travelling?”
I would have a hard time, particularly because of the people, it was prophesied. One acquaintance, who comes from Wattens in the Tyrol, explained it like this: “In Vienna you can find people with the most varied backgrounds. It’s like a colorful carpet, and you can look for the color that you need. In a small Austrian city like Wattens everything is the same color.”
It’s easier going now with this trolley. I can get the suitcase to the train like this, preferably to an open seating car where there is more room …
“Achtung! The train is now departing!”
Hütteldorf is behind us now. Soon we’ll emerge into the hilly countryside of the Vienna Woods. I like this part of Austria, partly because there are none of those high mountains which will hem in my horizon in the future.
“Vienna and its surroundings are definitely one of the most beautiful regions of Austria,” enthuses a friend who moved to Vienna from Lustenau in the Vorarlberg shortly after graduation. Perhaps it is the differences which make Vienna so attractive, she asserts, and she isn’t just talking about landscapes.
“It’s no coincidence that the Viennese were such good Nazis. For if you have so many roots ...”
“Do you always have to look only at the dark side?” she says angrily. “Whenever it suits you, you pipe up with Nazis and the Holocaust. Give your heart a shove! Jump over your own shadow for once!”
I picture my heart flying over my shadow in a large arc.
There is something positive about resettling in Salzburg: the city has no connection with my earlier memories of childhood or emigration. In Vienna the streets sometimes become strange beings which change as if they were time-eating monsters, and suddenly I’m a child again in hostile surroundings, surrounded by people whose language and ways of thinking I don’t understand. Buildings arise that were torn down long ago, faces from the past pass by me. I search for the familiar and run up against that oppressive feeling that always haunts me when I least expect it. Salzburg on the other hand is a peaceful and reassuring setting of stone and mountains and forest ‒ faceless, existing only in the present.
The monotonous fields glide past, faster and faster; the small villages cower around the church towers as if they are ashamed. The chain of hills slides away to the left and eventually becomes flat. I fall asleep.
“Meine Damen und Herren, wir erreichen in Kürze Linz Hauptbahnhof. Lay-deez and chentlemen, vee vill shoatly be erriving et Linz.”
Where am I at home, if not in Vienna? my friends point out to me. I’ve even mastered the dialect perfectly. But this always makes me think of an experience from my student years.
A dark-skinned passenger, speaking German with a strong accent, gets on the streetcar in Vienna. He struggles despairingly with the ticket machine, which is proving treacherous, then turns to the driver, who starts explaining: “Yeah, first you push the button, then you throw in your coins …” The streetcar stands still, the passengers are getting restless since it’s early in the morning: rush hour. One man starts complaining about foreigners who “don’t even know how to ride on the streetcar.” I’ve already listened quietly several times in similar circumstances, and haven’t gotten involved. This time I contradict the complaining passenger and insult him in flawless Viennnese, call him a racist. My opponent insults me back, the battle of words grows more and more heated, until the man plucks at my sleeve and says, “Hey, we’re both of us Viennese, we’re both at home here. Why should we bother arguing on account of a foreigner?”
They would be pleased if I moved to Paris or Amsterdam or Montreal, my parents had said. But Salzburg?! No relationship can be so important that you have to leave a city like Vienna and give up a good job. Moreover, it’s always been customary for the woman to move for the man, not the other way around. I would be frittering away the best years of my life in a dreary little town.
“You know that old Russian proverb,” Mother said (for the nth time). “Drink the wine in your cup as long as it’s good and goes down well. Live as long as there is life: you don’t get two lives!”
That rhymes in Russian, creating a pretty little doggerel verse. I’ve thought of it often in the last few years. I rode to work every morning and back home again in the evening, always on the ‘J’ streetcar line. Every day I saw the gray houses roll past me, saw the same figures, looking as gray as the houses, who proudly proclaimed that they had been with the company since 1974, since 1967, since 1955. One older woman from Equipment Administration rode to work on the same streetcar I took: every day since 1958 on the ‘J’ line. And she intended to keep doing this during the three years left until her retirement, unless she was struck by lightning or there was some other unforeseeable event. I had a nightmarish vision of myself still travelling on the same streetcar along the same route day in, day out in the year 2030. The next day I went to the Personnel Department and gave my notice ‒ ahead of time, several weeks before the planned date.
In fact I envied this woman. For it was only superficially a question of streetcars and not at all about gray houses; as far as what really affects people, most of them are gray anyway, and it would be presumptuous to believe that I’m any different. At least that woman didn’t need to think about belonging. She had a solid place in the world. Yet it made me think constantly about the fantasies of my youth and my longing for faraway Canada or Australia.
Everything (I thought once upon a time) would be different in those large, beautiful countries, where the anti-Semites could only be the children of anti-Semites and (in rare cases) of part-time murderers ‒ not the children of anti-Semites and professional mass murderers. And they had a well-earned pride in their own history there, after all, and only seventy percent of it was taboo (not ninety percent as in this country).
On the day before my departure, my father called me at my work. He was crying. His words were unclear, and I only understood the sentence, “Don’t go!”
“We’ll talk about it this evening,” I mumbled. “I can’t talk now. First of all I have to say goodbye to all my colleagues, and I also have to go see the boss. It isn’t the right time to …”
He hung up while I was still pressing the receiver against my ear. Then I hesitated for a minute and dialed his number, but he didn’t answer.
Before going to see my parents after work, I bought a box of chocolates, a bouquet of flowers, and a package of Father’s favorite tea. But Mother was alone in the apartment.
“He is always here when I come home. For the past fifteen years there hasn’t been a single time that he hasn’t been at home.”
She looked searchingly at my face and asked whether we had quarreled. “He wanted to call you today. Did he?”
“Why would we have been arguing?”
“You can’t imagine how your move to Salzburg is taking it out of him. He doesn’t talk about anything else. I come home tired from work, and there is your father already waiting for me with a long monologue … Actually, I’m happy that he’s not here for once. Very happy, even. He should go wandering around the city until midnight if he’s having fun.”
Yet she looked anxiously at the clock.
“He was in despair early this morning. He hadn’t slept all night. And all on account of you.”
We sat facing each other in silence for a time, waiting.
If he had friends or acquaintances, I could call someone,” she said finally.
Suddenly I knew where Father was. “I’ll go look for him,” I said. Mother declared that I was crazy. Even as a child I hadn’t been able to think logically, was a dreamer and given to fantasies. How was I supposed to find Father in a city with millions of people? After all, Vienna wasn’t Salzburg … Barely listening, I ran out of the apartment.
The streetcar didn’t come. I couldn’t stand to wait any longer, rushed to the next streetcar stop and then to the one after that. Finally I took a taxi. I rode to the Augarten because I knew that Father liked that park and still went walking there sometimes, although my parents had moved into a new building in another part of Vienna years ago.
I ran back and forth through the park without finding Father. It made me think of how he used to take me along on his walks when I was a child. The Augarten, entrance Wasnergasse, then further to the round flak tower, to the porcelain factory at the other end of the park, back to Gaußplatz, through the whole district across Jägerstraße and Wallenstein Square to the Brigitta church, and then home again. Perhaps he was walking on the old route right now, too?
“I’ll come visit him at least three times a month,” I thought at Gaußplatz.
“I’m grown up, I live my own life, I won’t let myself be blackmailed,” I thought at Jägerstrasse.
“The main thing is for nothing to happen to him,” I thought at Wallenstein Square.
At the Brigittaplatz I swore to myself not to visit my parents for half a year. “He has to learn!”
I looked around in despair. No Father to be seen. There was a small expanse of lawn in front of the Brigitta church. I dropped onto a bench, thinking how Father had wept over the phone, then jumped up again and made my way to that house where we had lived twenty years before.
“Now you’ve got me where you want me!” I shouted. “I imagined a nice last evening, but no!”
Some passersby looked over in my direction: I had been yelling in Russian. Whenever I come to Brigittenau, I automatically switch languages.
I turned into Rauscher Street. Here was the streetcar station where we always took Line 5 to get to the West Station. A telephone booth stood opposite our old house. I called my parents’ number.
“Yes, hello,” I heard father saying.
“Well, thank God!” I forgot all the conciliatory and clever words I wanted to say to Father. “Where in the hell were you?” I bellowed instead.
“Why are you yelling like that?” He spoke quite calmly. “I was taking a walk. In the Augarten.”
I’ve been travelling for more than two hours, moving relentlessly toward Salzburg, and my discomfort is increasing minute by minute. Aren’t they right, all those well-meaning friends? Really, I knew from the start that they were right. How can I be so dumb? Who moves from Vienna to Salzburg of his own free will?
Now I will lead a peripheral existence, I think, I won’t go all the time to the theatre, movies, exhibitions, bookstores, and libraries like before. I won’t be able to meet interesting, highly unusual people any more … Suddenly I have to laugh. I’ve actually become an Austrian, or ‒ to be exact ‒ a Viennese. I’ve had to leave Vienna to realize that over time I have accepted all the prejudices of this city: the selfishness, the boastfulness, the egocentrism and narcissistic love-hate, the suspicion of the “provinces,” the inferiority complex vis-à-vis the outside world, and a nostalgic romanticising of the city’s one-time significance as a metropolis. I also recognize common clichés about Vienna in my observations, and I feel even better because I have accepted them and feel compelled to believe in them secretly ‒ and maybe after a long stay in Salzburg I will complain about that swell-headed Vienna and the arrogance of the Viennese. Then I’ll praise the beauty of the mountains, the healthiness of nature, and rejoice in the warmth of the people, who are so different from those anonymous big-city people. And in adopting all these easily understandable patterns of thought, I fully recognize how at home I’ve become in this country.
The train is travelling along a curving stretch between Wallersee and Salzburg through a thick pine forest. Then meadows, industrial facilities, and shopping centers alternate with the monotony of single-family homes. All in all it doesn’t look very much like a city. In the final stretch to Salzburg’s central station the tracks cross under the first autobahn built on Austrian soil. I recognize the concrete relief of the Reich’s eagle on one of the posts. The year is inscribed next to it: 1939. In the middle of a ring held in the eagle’s claws a swastika has been clumsily chiseled off.
When I get off the train, I take several deep breaths. I drag the suitcase down the steps, through the station hall, past the homeless people (“’Scuse me, Sir, couldda esk yuh somethin’?”), out of the building, to the taxis at the square in front of the station ‒ it’s called South Tyrol Square, like so many station squares in Austria. Then I remember my father’s comment about a Tyrolean hat, and in the next instant I catch sight of a shop selling traditional garb. I leave the suitcase standing for a minute, go into the shop, and buy myself the very best green hat with a feather.
[Author bio] VLADIMIR VERTLIB (b. 1966 in St. Petersburg, USSR) is an Austrian-based writer of fiction, essays, articles for German-language newspapers and periodicals ‒ and the libretto to an oratorio. His novels and short stories focus on the themes of migration, Judaism, and identity.
A freelance writer since 1993, Vertlib previously studied economics and is currently a Lektor at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna.
His literary work has been recognized with (among others) the 2001 Adelbert Chamisso Prize (awarded to authors whose mother tongue is not German) and Austria’s Anton Wildgans Prize.
In addition to Intermediate Stations (excerpted here), his important publications include the novels Last Wish, Simon’s Silence, The Special Memory of Rosa Masur, and the essay collection My First Murderer.
[Translator bio] Susan Thorne is a translator primarily of short prose works. Her translations have appeared in a number of literary periodicals including Prism International, ASYMPTOTE Blog, ORIGINS, Two Lines Online, K1N, no man’s land, Your Impossible Voice, and Verfreundungseffekt.