Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Vienna School of Hosteling

Vienna is an intellectual city, so that may explain what you find at the corner of Berggasse and Kaiserstrasse. On the third floor of a low-rise apartment building, you will find a spacious apartment that serves as a hostel. Inside the hostel, aside from a brief period in the morning, you will find no staff, but as many as 20 guests. A series of rules, messages and notices, as well as a somewhat complicated (and abrupt!) arrangement allows the hostel to function despite the absence of any staff. Guests arriving outside of "office hours" as they are called, much like the weekly hour my professors devoted to meeting with students, are greeted with their keys hanging outside the front door.

At the heart of this grand social experiment is likely the following scenario. The door bell may ring, repeatedly. On the inside of the front door is a notice reminding guests, for their own safety, not to open the front door. After repeated efforts, someone will finally open the front door, to find travellers looking for keys that have disappeared. Their only recourse is to walk to some nearby tavern and give their name, in which case a set of keys will be produced. When this happened, I wondered if the entire enterprise was not simply funded by the psychology department of a nearby university.

The marvelous reality is that the hostel works as a highly self-sufficient, tightly-packed unit of 20 strangers from a variety of different countries and backgrounds, representing 4-5 different continents in any given room. There is surely a lesson in here, but I can´t think of what it is right now.

The rest of Vienna is similarly intellectual, dominated by elaborate architecture depicting various myths, towering museums, libraries and art galleries. The streets seem oddly quiet even during a weekday afternoon, suggesting a permanent holiday, but perhaps that sort of calm, coupled with an orderliness where cars stop at red lights, is why it is consistently ranked as one of the most livable cities in Europe. Between the Vienna of long-ago European history, with the Habsburgs and the various treaties concluded here, and the internationally dimunitive Austria of today is a significant gap, but coming to Vienna to see its palaces and museums helps to erase it.

Also, the coffee is quiet good, even though there are still many Starbucks here. Coming to Vienna to go to Starbucks is backwards, rather like dining from the toilet of a fine restaurant. That matter goes beyond the time I have, much like the other people I meet who are born in one country, grow up in another, and reside in still another.

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