More tales of Cold War Vienna:
That year I lived on Uchatiusgasse, a long and undistinguished street, not far from the Landstrasse stadtbahn station. It was a word so full of gutturals that I never questioned until years later the derivation of the name. My street, it turns out, was named after one of those curious nineteenth-century autodidacts, Baron Freiherr Franz von Uchatius, an inventor and military man who once ran the Vienna Arsenal. Among his inventions was a primitive projector for moving pictures that predated the American Edison’s by fifty years. He gained military renown and a general’s rank for his invention of a steel bronze alloy that proved effective in casting military weapons. However, when one of the cannon cast from this metal exploded while being demonstrated to the Emperor himself, Uchatius took the Viennese way out and killed himself.
No symbolism here, it is simply that my little street, so unprepossessing, so dreary and gray, actually had a secret life. My landlady, Frau M, was a fine woman. An entertainer, she made her living singing aboard cruise ships. The best kind of landlady–one often away from home.
She had traveled enough to feel somewhat abashed at the bathroom rules she needed to enforce: twice weekly showers were included in my rent. More than that must be paid for individually. The clo, or toilet, was, happily, inside the apartment, just inside the front door as a matter of fact. In Vienna of the 1960s and 70s, it was not uncommon for apartments to have a communal toilet in the hall; about 40% did not even have water inside. Sliced and diced pages of the daily Kurier hung from a sting loop which in turn was anchored to a nail in the wall by the toilet. If I wanted other toilet paper, I needed to purchase my own. As the store-bought alternative–rolls of pink and corrosive paper which bore a striking resemblance to sandpaper–was not such a wonderful alternative, I made do with the Kurier It was, after all, a tabloid; I did not feel so guilty wiping my bum with it as I would have with the more upscale Die Presse.
Once these few rules were dispensed with, Frau M and I settled in quite nicely. I had a tiny room in the back of the spacious apartment; the window looked out onto a linden tree that grew in an alarmingly narrow little courtyard below; I could barely see a slice of sky out the window.
But that was alright; I spent little time in my room. I had classes all day and then afterward, all of Vienna to explore.
The heating oil was delivered toward the end of October. There was a huge tank in the hall, disguised with a turkey carpet, which held the gallons needed to get the apartment through the winter. Each room had its own heater; you turned on the oil and let a little pool form in the windowed burning chamber, and then dropped in a lit piece of paper, and voila, you had a glowing little fire in the room to cheer you on the increasingly cold nights. I was unsure how to use the heater. The bulky and bald oil delivery fellow, chuckling at my rotten German, explained the process several times, warning me above all not to leave the oil on when not in use. You had to turn the appropriate dial all the way to the right.
This was about the time they re-opened the borders to Czechoslovakia. Prague Spring had been crushed just months earlier. Now tourists were allowed in once again and I was determined to be among the first. A number of students from our school decided to make the trip that last weekend of October. It was a holiday for Catholics–All Saints and All Souls. Halloween for us. Some friends rented a little Opal and off we went through the agricultural fields of Austria toward the Czech border. It was a Friday afternoon with golden light spilling across the fields and broken into amber columns through stands of poplar trees. We were young and invincible; this was a lark, a magic adventure.
Anticlimax, however, once we hit the Czech border and were waved through by smiling soldiers when they saw our U.S. passports. Where were the Soviets? The tanks? We had missed it all, and now there was not even a trace of the Soviet invader.
Then, about five clicks further along we came around a bend in a road and there to our left, stretching from the side of the road to the horizon easily a kilometer away was a row of Soviet tanks that made your stomach do a flip. No smiles from the soldiers mounted on top of these: they stared at our Opal until it passed out of their line of fire.
Prague was dark and cold when we arrived. Foreigners, we were relegated to one of the few international hotels in the city center. It was spare and impersonal, like one of those slabs of glass and metal you saw in Soviet propaganda films about how happy the people were with their new housing. The projects.
Rooms were at a premium and I ended up sharing lodgings with two other students, a couple, in fact, who had just hooked up. I spent much of that weekend with a pillow slapped firmly over my ears in my lonely single bed as they got to know one another.
The rest of the time, I was roaming the streets of Prague, which still showed the sign of the recent invasion. There were candles lit in the main square where some of the students were killed by Soviet soldiers. The pockmark of bullets showed on many of the buildings in the center of the old town. Soviet soldiers were everywhere, smoking their foul cigarettes, laughing with each other as they strolled arm in arm down the middle of the sidewalk forcing other pedestrians to make way.
I stuck to the back streets. One middle aged man stopped me, asking to exchange currency. Dollars were at a premium; he patiently explained how he was trying to save up to buy his wife a washing machine. In the end, I declined. We had been warned about the Czech police attempting to draw unsuspecting foreigners into such illegal exchanges. Was he undercover or just a guy who wanted to make his wife happy? I never knew, but the cautious part of me gave him a no thanks.
Later I learned that one student from our school had his own little run in with the authorities, and it could not have happened to a worse person. I do not mean that the student was a bad guy, only that he was from the South and hugely conservative. This was 1968; hard to find lots of conservative college kids. His arrest–for unwittingly taking pictures of military importance in Prague–only reinforced every evil image he had of the Communists and the Soviet Union. They strip-searched him, held him overnight, and eventually the U.S. ambassador in Vienna had to intervene to get him back. That was a neocon in the making.
A high point of my visit–remember, I was only twenty at the time and the epitome of a callow youth–was a visit to one of Prague’s famous beer halls. Czech beer is something to be savored, wonderful lagers with foamy heads of pure perfection. That evening I fell in with some Czechs there who shared with me the secret of great beer: it must have a head on it that will hold a toothpick upright. And you do not simply stick the toothpick in the foam, you must give it a good toss.
With this life altering information in hand, I left Prague the next day. I was anxious to get back to my little dank room on Uchatiusgasse, for I had not had much sleep the last nights, smothered under my pillow.
It was clear something was wrong the moment I entered the flat. Frau M looked at me with sad eyes, shaking her head. Could it be her little dachshund? It had been sick before I left. Had it died?
But I quickly found it was much worse.
The married couple in the apartment below Frau M’s noticed the leak on Saturday morning. A deep brown circle of moisture on the ceiling of their child’s room. By the time they tracked it back to Frau M, the oil was dripping into the room below.
I had obviously left the oil on in my room, against all advice to the contrary. I still have no idea how I managed that, but it was clearly the case. The oil had flowed inches deep in my room, destroying the parquet, soaking through the rest of the flooring and into the ceiling of the flat below.
The long and short of it was that the repairs would be in the hundreds of thousands of schillings.
Frau M never blamed me nor demanded compensation; she just kept looking at me with those sad eyes. Neither could she afford to get rid of me: she needed my rent now more than ever. I was moved into the spacious sitting room overlooking the street. It was as if I had been rewarded for my stupidity.
The next month, Frau M headed off on a previously unscheduled tour boat gig. She had to make up the money somehow. I was left in charge of the apartment with builders coming daily to repair the back bedroom.
A cleaning lady came in once a week. She vacuumed and swept and scrubbed in her underwear, a great polar bear of a woman with industrial strength bra and panties. There was nothing sexual in the attire, she just wanted to save wear and tear on her street clothes. We got along well: she would nod and I would say Guten Tag, and then we would get about our business.
Life on Uchatiusgasse went on. I lived there for a year. I can never smell heating oil in the fall without thinking of that place. I rarely drink a beer without first tossing a toothpick in the foam.