A live performance at the Brady Theater
Long Beach, CA
A live performance at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center
A live performance at the Saenger Theatre
A live performance at the Yavapai College Performing Arts Center
Buffalo, NY — with Robin & Linda Williams
A live performance with Robin & Linda Williams in Asbury Hall at Babeville
I was in Vienna with my wife and daughter last week and walked around the grand boulevards and plazas surrounded by imperial Habsburg grandeur feeling senselessly happy for reasons not quite clear to me but they didn’t involve alcohol. Nor paintings and statuary purchased with the sweat of working men and women. Nor the fact that to read about the daily insanity of Mr. Bluster I would need to learn German.
The sun was shining though the forecast had been for showers. I was holding hands with two women I love. There was excellent coffee in the vicinity, one had only to take deep breaths. Every other doorway seemed to be a Konditorei with a window full of cakes, tarts, pastries of all sizes and descriptions, a carnival of whipped cream and frosting, nuts and fruit. A person could easily gain fifty pounds in a single day and need to be hauled away in a wheelbarrow.
What makes me happy in a foreign city, though, is the fact that, surrounded by so much that is unfamiliar, the familiar leaps out at you. The pastries reminded me of my Aunt Elsie, the best baker in the family, and the perfection that she put before us at Sunday dinner. The horses hitched to the carriage waiting to carry tourists along the boulevards made me think of Uncle Jim who was farming with horses into my childhood and who took me haying with him and hoisted me up onto Prince when I was six, my face pressed to his black mane, arms around his powerful neck. Uncle Jim said he couldn’t afford a tractor, which maybe was true, but he loved his horses, and I felt privileged to help him bring in hay. And the Habsburg grandeur reminded me of the grandest office I ever had, which I occupied for a couple years while working at the easiest and most pointless job I ever had.
It came with a title, “Public Affairs Director,” and the office had a fourteen-foot ceiling and a view of manicured lawn and a building with white Greek columns; it was a featherbed, a sinecure, a well-paid full-time job I could manage in about ten hours per week, and after a few years I had the good sense to quit and find a small dim office and a sixty-hour job that lit the fires of ambition.
The lesson that year was: stay awake. Fifty years have passed and it sticks with me.
The Habsburgs imagined that the majesty of their palaces meant they were smart, even invincible. They also imagined that marriage to close relatives would make them even smarter. So when their archduke was assassinated by a Serb, they declared war on Serbia, and Russia came in on Serbia’s side, and Germany on the Habsburgs’ and soon everyone was in, and the Austrians put on their pointy helmets and mounted their horses and rode nobly into battle against powerful artillery and aircraft and thus were crepusculated, which so embittered Corporal Hitler that he set out to do it all over again. Between the Habsburgs and the Fuehrer, the 20th century was soaked with blood. This is the footnote to the grandeur of Vienna: beware of gold ceilings and marble floors and people who love to put on military parades.
It’s much cheerier to have a piece of apple strudel and remember my favorite aunt. She grew up motherless in a stringent Calvinist home during the Depression and against the odds, she retained a girlish sense of delight to the end of her days and she expressed that delight through her affection for family and love of stories and jokes and also with frosting and angel food.
On our last day in Vienna, my ladies and I sat in the Café Mozart, behind the opera house, near an old Habsburg palace, and enjoyed a plate of sausages, not the wurst I ever had, and coffee after coffee, and apple strudel mit Schlag, lots of Schlag, and more coffee, and then, in honor of Aunt Elsie, a slab of chocolate cake with white frosting and a mound of gelato beside. It violated all standards of moderation but we did it unanimously and felt delighted.
Grandeur is as grandeur does. Let other tourists peer up at the ceilings, listening to a guide, and I will experience Vienna my own way, thinking of my cheery aunt who defeated glumness and severity by creating extravagant desserts.