Some facts and figures. For many of these I must thank Tony Judt, a gentleman and scholar who is sorely missed. His Postwar is an incredibly readable overview of Europe from 1945 to the early years of the new millennium.
I have mentioned elsewhere that Vienna in the 1960s was, in the words of my poet-friend George Vance, arrested in the Moose Lodge stage of development. Some numbers: Car ownership was low at the time: Great Britain had only about 2,300 cars in 1951; Spain just 89,000; and in France only one in twelve households had a car. But between 1950 and 1980, car ownership doubled each decade. The advent of the Volkswagen Beetle, the Renault 4CV,the Fiat 500 and 600, and the Citroen 2CV transformed Europe from a continent on public transport to one in the private car looking for the next rest stop.
Likewise, in 1957, most West European households did not have a refrigerator, a situation that was the result or the cause of the lack of supermarkets and the means to transport lots of goods home. This turned around in the next two decades, the period during which I lived in West and Central Europe. By 1974 about 90% of households had a fridge.
But the washing machine took longer to catch on, and that directly impinges on this essay.
Here’s the crux: In the mid-1950s only about half the households in Austria (and most other countries of Western and Central Europe) had running water in the flats. By the time I lived in Vienna, in the late 1960s and later, that number, had of course, improved. Still, about fifteen percent of flats still did not have “water in” in the mid-1970s, which meant those flats were cheaper to rent and perfect for an Ami trying to become a writer by pinching groschen.
There was an entire culture in flux with this changing technology: the Bassena culture was fast disappearing. Wasser im Gang, or “water in the corridor,” created a gossip clutch around the water basin, or Bassena, that was found in the courtyard or on each floor of the apartment houses that were more upscale. You would fetch your water from the communal tap for all your purposes, from cooking to bathing. Likewise, the clo, or toilet, was in the hallway. Bring your own toilet paper, thank you very much.
What this meant for those with no water in was a daily trip to the Bassena, which was actually an enjoyable experience, trading gossip with other householders. A less enjoyable experience was trundling down the hallway with a kitchen-towel-covered chipped ceramic chamber pot in hand each morning to the corridor toilet. Even worse was the regular trip to the public baths, of which there were a number in each district. “Public baths” does not mean what it does now in modern Vienna: a middle class swimming pool and spa. No. Back in the 1970s it meant pubic BATHS, as in showers and a swim if you wanted. But the shower was foremost. Not much fun doing the old spitz bath for weeks on end in one’s flat.
I survived in this culture for a couple of years in Vienna’s second district, living cheap but not living badly. And then came a prized job with the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency. Good money, paid in dollars, no Austrian or U.S. taxes, commissary privileges, and A NEW FLAT WITH WATER IN!
Some other pseudo facts to put this all in perspective. Austrian casualties in World War I: 2,521,734. Austrian casualties in World War II: 400, 000. In the First World War, Austria was an empire of 50 million; by the time of the Second World War, the truncated Austrian state was down to about six million. These numbers, however you wish to parse them, meant that a generation of men had been lost or wounded in the two world wars of the first half of the twentieth century.
It is the wounded I wish to address here.
Vienna, and its public baths in particular, was filled with an assortment of wounded men. Raw, red, and ugly wounds demarked the patches of lost limbs, shattered skulls, twisted ears, deformed noses–jaysus there were lots of walking wounded even then, three decades after World War II.
Did I mention I have a horror of blood, of wounds in general? Yes, I know this sounds terribly precious. After all, it is their debilitating wound, not mine. But there you have it: I plead guilty to preciousness.
A person with gauze on their skull is enough to leave me gripping my arsehole. A missing limb leaves me in limbo; a whitish cast on forearm or shin sends me into convulsions.
I spent two years of visits to the public baths in the second district attempting unsuccessfully to ignore the lost limbs and other imperfections of the human body that gravity might create; and then came the job with the U.N. Then came the mandate to upgrade to Vienna’s seventh district, to a flat in the prized Siebensterngasse, water and bathroom in.
I remember the last day at the public baths much too clearly. November 4, 1973. A freeze-your-arse sort of day on the way to the public baths for the last time. I would be changing apartments on the morrow. Joy of joys. All I had to do was survive the final day of the walking wounded at the baths.
I went mid-morning. Viennese liked to do things at the crack of dawn. I had figured out that the lowest usage points at the baths were at eleven. Too close to the sacred lunch hour for most; too far from breakfast for the rest
I got my chit and key from the attendant, stalked into the changing rooms, and kept my back to the world. No other person infringed on my naked privacy as I hastily changed into swimming trunks. I was on a roll.
The swimming pool was equally empty. I did my two kilometers of laps and trudged back to the changing rooms, took a shower so hot that it turned my toes pink, and then headed for the lockers, towel in hand. I was going to beat the odds; I was on my way to the high life of private showers and poops. No more holding my groin or other anatomical appendages when confronted with destroyed flesh.
I was toweling off, preparing to clothe myself against the elements once again. And then the door opened with a pneumatic hiss. I forced myself to look forward to the confines of my locker.
Metal clacked behind me as the new arrival opened and closed his locker. I was torn: I wanted desperately to continue staring into the grey recesses of my own locker, to preserve my sanctity on this last visit to the baths; at the same time I wanted equally as urgently to see my fellow bather. One last look. One last vision of infirmity.
I could not help myself. I turned slowly, slowly, glancing at the man. He was of an age where buttocks comingled with upper thighs. Moles dotted his back. Hairless legs, knotted with varicose veins, attached him to the surface of planet Earth.
And a rolled piece of gauze circled his neck.
I could not take my eyes from the gauze necklace.
And then slowly he turned.
Moving as the Earth around the Sun, achingly slowly, but still I could not take my eyes from him.
He turned perhaps 60 out of 180 degrees to face away from his locker when I saw it.
A worm of a wart, the thickness of a pinkie finger, perhaps an inch in length, protruded from his neck, held aloft by the gauze circlet.
I grabbed my most convenient appendage, but did not utter a sound.
I would not be defeated on my last day at the public baths.