Vienna- I went through the former multi-imperial capital at the crossroads of central Europe as part of this gradual journey eastward toward the orchestrated chaos playing out in the Levant. Part of why I chose to visit the Austrian capital was simply that I had never been there. When I first began traveling in the EU over 20 years ago, the airline industry here had only been formally deregulated the previous year. Thus traveling overland across the continent in the late 1990s was still both the economic and cultural norm.
As a university student you would travel on Eurolines buses or via train on a summer Eurail pass. As such, I traveled all over western, northern, and central Europe in a largely contiguous fashion until reaching the politically disjointed post-colonial Middle East. With the advent of Ryanair, Easy Jet, and the like, by the mid-2000s I began flying from point to point on uncomfortable low cost carriers which did away with observable overland gradual cultural and linguistic shifts. By 2005, I was in Barcelona and suddenly I was in Athens. Yes, these were both urban centres southern Europe but how were they connected in terms of a historical grand narrative? Rarely ever in train stations and ports of call today, it becomes more challenging to intellectually discern-by way of visual and audible minutiae-the linkages between civilisational entrepôts. Travel had been a way to absorb knowledge by the nature of its comparative inefficiencies. Today, internet-driven hyper connectivity has brought vast new opportunities for the denizens of this vast economic bloc but at a cost to cultural nuance, a boon to aspirant autocrats and vilifying populists.
As the EU has become more of a cohesive supranational geopolitical entity, some qualities have fallen by the wayside in the name of some of globalisation’s uniformity principles. I’d visited or at least passed through all of the states surrounding Austria save for tiny Lichtenstein in my early travels but stopped moving about in a spontaneous just-for-fun manner as the era of the Terror Wars was hastily ushered in immediately after 9/11. Austria is of course the republic’s Latinised exonym for Österreich, ‘eastern realm.’ (Thus the Aust in Austria is a Latin phonetic of Öst ‘east’ and unrelated the naming of Australia which is purely Latin in origin derived from Terra Australis, ‘southern land’ after New Holland was renamed.) The name to me intimates that it is the gateway to the beyond. It largely signals the periphery of the Germanic and Latinic world (with the exception of Latin outliers Romania and Moldova) abutting the Finno-Urgic ethno-linguistic exclave of Hungary and the western reaches of the vast Slavic realm.
In essence I made myself pass by the city of Sigmund Freud and the one-time monarchic seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire just for the sake of going somewhere I hadn’t been. To be somewhere unfamiliar. To see the wide boulevards that felt more Budapest than Berlin to me. I only wish I’d allotted more time to such a spectacular urban space.