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What You Can Learn Walking In Vienna, Morning, Meditation #6

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What You Can Learn Walking In Vienna continues the 3rd Edition of, A Million Different Things: Meditations of The World’s Happiest Man, with Meditation #6 from the Section, Morning.

What You Can Learn Walking In Vienna

The State Opera House In Vienna, Austria, was constructed along the Ringstrasse in the Nineteenth Century. The boulevard, broad and busy with buses, street cars and auto traffic, encircles the core of the historic city. The design of the Opera House is elegant. Its grounds are bordered by open urban spaces, sort of like front and back yards for culture. Each year, thousands come to enjoy music or just to appreciate its beauty.

What You Can Learn Walking In Vienna, Morning, Meditation #6
Exterior of National Opera House, Vienna, Austria
Richard Nebesky
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During World War II, allied air raids, which seem to have had an affinity for the destruction of architectural heritage, pummeled the Opera House, severely damaging most of the building. The people of Austria, however, rebuilt as their culture and economy gradually returned to vibrancy after the Nazis were defeated, the restorations enabled ironically by generous handouts from the allies who did the damage.

Adolf Hitler was Austrian and struggled in Vienna early in life. As Führer, he returned triumphant and accepted the partnership of the citizens in the city Mozart loved, the town where Beethoven triumphed and where Freud developed his revolutionary theories of the mind. Hitler slept royally in a hotel near the Opera House and was well received by the Viennese when he grandly announced his alliance of Aryan nations. The step was not a radical one, given the country’s long history of pogroms and other institutionalized Jewish persecution.

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Walking In Vienna, The Present

Vienna bustles today, and the boulevard and plaza in front of the Opera House make up one of two hearts, the other being the pedestrian only, historical area around St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The Opera House area, however, is less blended. It draws on more contrasts in Viennese life, making it–for me–the more memorable.

What You Can Learn Walking In Vienna, Morning, Meditation #6
Hundertwasserhaus, Vienna, Austria
Doug Pearson
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You can walk around the area easily. Broad tree-lined sidewalks pass unique shops and cafes. When the weather is rainy or cold, you can cover blocks indoors through connected buildings and retail malls. Not far away is Vienna’s treasure of art museums, collected in parklike settings.

Accessible directly beneath the Ringstrasse is a hectic transit center where multiple train lines intersect and shops and cafes cater to commuters. It’s unlikely you’ll find greater contrast in urban, social conditions anywhere than you will if you take the few steps down into the concourse from any entrance near the Opera House.

Only steps from one of the most elegant and admired buildings in Europe, street people, public drunks and petty criminals are unselfconsciously at home as well-dressed connoisseurs of art and music pass on their way to and from trains. Multiple rail lines converge here, making it a place where all strata of society must intersect.

What surprised me most about this concourse on my first visit, apart from the abrupt departure from ritually clean and orderly Vienna, was that there seemed to be no efforts ongoing to clean it up, to bring this concourse nearer the orderly elegance of the streets above. This seemed to be a place where the Viennese ideal was dismissed as fakery and pretense and the other side of city life flourished.

Our friend Gabriella, then living in Vienna, led us to our train. Short, stout and in her sixties, Gabriella walks quickly with the focused determination of someone who just plain knows where she’s going, no uncertainties.

We walked the full length of the underground concourse. An accumulated density of stale cigarette smoke saturated the air. Minutes before, Gabriella, my wife and I had shared coffee and desert at a cafe on the Ringstrasse. Ashtrays were incidental on all the tables as they once were in America. All over Europe then, it was still necessary to get used to the universal presence of cigarettes, and overall, Vienna seemed the smokiest. Adjusting quickly to the increased odors as well as the informal clusters of loiterers mattered, though, because pollutants were far from the most immediate dangers along the unswept concourse.

When Walking In Vienna Covers More Than The Tourist Books

Guidebooks advise travelers to be alert for petty thieves in all the major European cities, and usually, the fears are unrealistic and alarmist. I’ve never been able to confirm the claims of youthful pickpockets lurking near the Spanish Steps in Rome, and the sidewalk con artists in any city have never seemed any more menacing than the daily run of bad actors on the streets of New York.

Danger is never at the top of my sightseeing checklist, no matter how vividly the writers describe threatening conditions. My disrespect for danger has rewarded me with a more relaxed enjoyment of numerous interesting places. I saw no reason why Vienna should be an exception.

As we walked briskly toward to our platform, the warnings I’d read sprang to mind. I watched as a scruffy young man pealed off from this gang and began shadowing Gabriella and my wife as they crossed the concourse. I had a habit of dropping out of their conversations, hanging a couple of steps behind and watching. This left the purse-snatcher unaware apparently that I was with them.

I noticed that he had a partner a few steps ahead who acted as a sort of look out or, maybe, he was there to create a distraction. Before things came to a head, I stepped forward and positioned myself between Gabriella with her big handbag and the man who’d been edging closer. He slowed as he analyzed the new circumstances, then fell back toward his associates. We paid or fares and turned off toward the always well-organized rail platforms.

What I Learned From Walking In Vienna

There is nothing exceptional about this story, except that it’s the only hint of petty street crime I’ve ever seen in Europe. I’m sure our erstwhile pickpocket found a victim, sooner or later, and, the way things go, probably found his way into an incarceration facility before long as well.

What stayed with me, though, was the contrast between street and concourse. I’d never seen the underside of Viennese urban life before, and usually, the edges are not so stark. It unsettled me to move abruptly from a walk along a graceful, urban boulevard, imagining Mozart in the same place two-hundred years before, to a much ruggeder surface of modern life. There was a lesson here, and it continued to churn in my thoughts.

Wisdom, I came to realize, isn’t about rejecting the things in the world that are ugly, frightening or distasteful. It comes after finding the way that integrates everything and makes sense of it. Now, I had a bridge I didn’t know how to build.

The styles in which people around the world decide to live are uncountable and always changing and diversifying. We are shown many examples of cultural homogeneity when we study history, but my guess is that diversity has always been an equal partner. Packing denser populations into cities may only have added wrinkles and complexity to the underlying chaos.

What You Can Learn Walking In Vienna, Morning, Meditation #6
Hofburg and Kohlmarkt, Vienna, Austria
Jon Arnold
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Our ancestors enslaved each other, forcing contrasts as great as any we have now. Gradations between lords and serfs must have existed, at least to establish balance, and each class must have had unique characteristics and values. Without getting lost in a history lesson, let’s assume the divisions between classes went all the way back, even to the time before wolves taught us the pleasures of living in packs.

Gradually, I realized that my disorientation was the natural result of faulty ideas I’d been repeating for decades. By faulty, I mean mistaken, misleading. I’d fallen into the trap of assuming that the high cultural life represented by the Opera House was somehow better than what I found populating that smelly concourse. In reality, it was simply different.

Any mugger’s life is as rich in his or her own terms as anyone else’s.

For everyone, there is always choice. Even the idea of objective values is a tricky one, and that understanding took me a step farther. A reason why it matters that we openly accept both the beggar and the prince is that we are both. Among the carnival of characters hidden beneath each of our skins is a mugger who gets into tiffs with his king and a royal aching to jump out of his suit and enjoy a night of radical slumming. The value of choices is revealed by contrast, and I mean valid contrast, not just something tossed up there as a moral equivalent.

When our choices are easy, even automatic, we are dipping our toes in shallow water. We learned not to get stuck there as kids, didn’t we? We learned that getting a thrill required heading for the deep end of the pool, no matter how many warnings were posted. Integrating as many contrasts as we can, standing them side by side in all their diversity, blending them, enriches us and our enjoyment of everything around us. It means accepting that all things are possible.

We are Hitler, Mozart, the architects and builders of the Opera House, the transit center, and every stop in between. Get acquainted with the milieu milling within each of us. Our ticket is for everywhere. We always take a ride, and the destinations are always immediately before us.

David Stone

What You Can Learn Walking In Vienna continues the 3rd Edition of, A Million Different Things: Meditations of The World’s Happiest Man, with Meditation #6 from the Section, Morning.

 

What You Can Learn Walking In Vienna, Morning, Meditation #6
General Contributor
Janice is a writer from Chicago, IL. She created the "simple living as told by me" newsletter with more than 12,000 subscribers about Living Better and is a founder of Seekyt.

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