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The Californian at Vienna by Prentice Mulford

1873

I am in bonds and fetters through not understanding the German tongue. It is a weary torture to be a stupid, uncomprehended foreigner. I am lost in a linguistic swamp. It is necessary to employ one man to talk to another. The commisionnaire does not understand more than half I say. What might he not be interpreting to the other fellow? The most trivial want costs me a world of anxiety and trouble. I desired some blotting-paper. I went to a little stationery shop. I said, "Paper! paper! für die blot, you know. Ich bin Englisher—er: ink no dry; what you call um? Vas? vas? Hang it!" They took down all sorts of paper—letter-paper, wrapping-paper, foolscap, foreign post. I tried to make my want known by signs. I made myself simply ridiculous. The shopkeeper stared at me in perplexity, disgust and despair. Then he discussed the matter with his wife. I fretted, perspiring vigorously. I went away. I went to a commissionnaire at my hotel. It required five minutes to explain the matter to him. He discussed the matter with the portier. The portier is quite buried under gold lace and brass buttons. The commissionnaire returns to me. He thinks he knows what I require, but is not quite certain. All this trouble for a bit of blotting-paper! It is so with everything. Every little matter of every-day life, which at home to think of and do are almost identical, here costs so much time, labor and anxiety! My strength is all gone when I have purchased a paper of pins and a bottle of ink. Breakfast and dinner task me to the utmost. The slightest deviation from established custom seems to act on the people at the restaurant like a wrong figure in a table of logarithms. It required three days to convince a stunted boy in a long-tailed coat that I did not wish beer for dinner. He would bring beer. I would say, "I don't want beer! I want my—some dinner." He would depart and take counsel with the head-waiter, and I would feel as if I had been doing something for which I ought to be corrected. The latter functionary approaches and exclaims with domineering voice, "Vat you vants?" I reply with meekness, "Dinner, sir, if you please." He brings me an elegantly bound book containing the bill of fare. But it is in German: I look at it knowingly: Sanscrit would be quite as intelligible. I put my finger on a word which I suppose means soup. I look up meekly at the functionary. He glowers contemptuously upon me. He recommends me to an underling, and bustles off to guests more important. There are in the dining-hall French, German, Italian, English and Japanese. Tongues, plates, knives and forks clatter inside—wheels roll, rumble and clatter over the stony pavement outside. I wait for my soup. Hours seem to lag by. I appeal in vain to other waiters. Life is too busy and important a matter with them to pay any attention to me.

The aristocratic German waiter is cool and indifferent. It is beneath his dignity to approach you within half an hour after you sit down. He knows you are hungry, and enjoys your pangs. He is sensible of every signal, every expression of the eye with which you regard him. To appear not to know is the chief business of his life. He will with the minutest care arrange a napkin while a half dozen hungry men at different tables are trying to arrest his attention. Before I met this man my temper was mild and amiable: I believed in doing by my fellows as I would be done by. Now I am changed. I never visit the Vienna restaurant but I dwell in thought on battle, murder, pistols, bowie-knives, blood, bullets and sudden death. After eating a meal it requires another hour to pay for it. A nobleman, dressed de rigueur, condescends to take my money after he has made me wait long enough. There are two of these officials at the hotel. One in general manner resembles a heavy dealer in bonds and government securities—the other a modest, charming young clergyman of the Church of England. One morning, when the atmosphere was very sultry, I ventured to open a window. The dealer in government securities shut it immediately, and gave me a look which humiliated me for the day. I said I wanted, if possible, air enough to support life while eating my breakfast. He said that was against the rules of the house: the windows must not be opened. There was too much dust blowing in the street. What were a few common lives compared to the advent of dust in that dining-room?

You must live here by rule. Novelty is treason. It is the unalterable rule of life that because things have been done in a certain manner, so must they ever be done. It requires almost a revolution to have an egg boiled hard in Vienna. I said at my first meal, "Ein caffee und egg mit hard." It may be seen that I speak German with the English accent. The eggs came soft-boiled. I suppose that the nobleman who attended on my table went to the prince in disguise who governed the culinary department, and informed him of this new demand in the matter of eggs. It is presumable that the prince pronounced against me, for next morning my eggs were still soft-boiled. Then I braced myself up and said, "See here! I want mine zwei eggs, you know, hard, hard! You understand?" The nobleman looked at me with contempt. The eggs came about one-tenth of a degree harder than the previous morning. I resolved to gain my point. I saw how necessary it was to put more force, vigor, spirit and savagery into my culinary instructions to the nobleman. This despotism should not prevail against me. When the free, easy and enlightened American among the effete and crumbling monarchies of Europe shrieks for hard-boiled eggs, they must be produced, though the House of Hapsburg should reel, stumble and totter.

I said on the third morning, "Haben Sie ein hot Feuer in your kitchen?" Ja. "And hot Wasser?" Ja. "And will you put this hot Feuer under the said hot Wasser, and in that hot Wasser put the eggs and keep them there zehn Minuten, zwanzig Minuten, or a day or a week—any length of time, so that they are only boiled hard, just like stones, brickbats, rocks, boulders or the gray granite crest of Yosemite? I want mine eggs hard." Then I ground my teeth and looked wicked and savage, and squirmed viciously in my chair. There was some improvement in the eggs that morning, but they were not hard boiled.

The Viennese spend most of their time in the open air, drinking beer and coffee, reading light newspapers, eating and smoking. In the English and American sense they have neither politics nor religion. The government and the Church provide these articles, leaving the people little to do save enjoy themselves, float lazily down life's stream, and die when their souls become too spiritualized to remain longer in their bodies.

I am fast becoming German. I have my coffee at nine: it requires two hours to drink it. Then I dream a little, smoke a cigar and drink a glass of beer. At twelve comes dinner. This I eat at a café table on the sidewalk, with more beer. At two I take a nap. At five I awake, drink another glass of beer, and dream. From that time until nine is occupied in getting hungry for supper. This occupies two hours. Then more beer and tobacco. Some time in the night I retire. Sometimes I am aware of the operation of disrobing, sometimes not. This is Viennese life. One day merges into another in a vague, misty sort of way. Time is not checked off into short, sharp divisions as in busy, bustling America. From the windows opposite mine, on the other side of the street, protrude Germans with long pipes. They sit there hour after hour, those pipes hanging down a foot below the window-sill. Occasionally they emit a puff of smoke. This is the only sign of life about them.

The window-sills are furnished with cushions to lean on when you gaze forth. The one in mine is continually dropping down into the street below, and a man in a brass-mounted cap, who calls himself a "Dienstmann," does a good business in picking it up and bringing it up stairs at ten kreutzers a trip. The kreutzer is a copper coin equivalent to an English farthing. Every day here seems a sort of holiday, and in this respect Sunday stands pre-eminent.

The ladies, as a rule, are fine-looking, shapely, well-dressed and particular as to the fit of their gaiters and hose—a most refreshing sight to one for a year accustomed to the general dowdiness which in this respect prevails in England. Most of the English girls seem to have no idea that their feet should be dressed. The Viennese lady is very tasteful. She is neither slipshod nor gaudy. I never beheld more dainty toilettes. Everything about them, as a sailor would say, is cut "by the lifts and braces."

Vienna abounds in great bath-houses. I have tested one. I wandered about the establishment asking every one I met for a warm bath. Some pointed in one direction, some in another, and after blundering back and forth for a while, I found myself before a woman. For fifty kreutzers she gave me a ticket. Then she called for Marie. Marie, a black-eyed, bright German girl, came. She went to a shelf and burdened herself with a quantity of linen. Then she signed for me to follow. I did so in an expectant, wondering and rather anxious frame of mind. Marie showed me into a neatly-furnished bath-room. She spread a linen sheet in the tub, and turned on the water. I waited for the tub to fill and Marie to depart. Marie seemed in no hurry. I pondered over the possibilities involved in a German "Warm-bad." Perhaps Marie will attempt to scrub me! Never! At last she goes. I remove my collar. Suddenly Marie returns: it is to bring another towel. There is no lock on the door—nothing with which to defend one's self. I bathe in peace, however. On emerging I examine the pile of linen Marie has left. There is a small towel, and two large aprons without strings, long enough to reach from the shoulders to the knees. I study over their possible use. I conclude they are to dry the anatomy with. On subsequent inquiry I ascertained that they were to be worn while I rang the bell and Marie came in to substitute hot water for cold.

The American commission to the exhibition occupies a bare, disconsolate, shabby suite of rooms. They resemble much the editorial offices of those ephemeral daily papers which, commencing with very small capital, after a spasmodic career of a few months fall despairingly into the arms of the sheriff. I had once occasion to visit the commission on a little matter of business. What that was I have forgotten: I recollect only the multiplicity of doors in those apartments. When I turned to depart, I opened every door but the proper one. I went into closets, private apartments and intricate passages, and after making the entire round without discovering egress, I made another tour of them, but still could not find where I had entered. A solitary American was seated in the reading-room looking weary and homesick, and I asked him if he could tell me the right road out of the American commission. He said he hardly knew: this was his first visit, but he'd try. So both of us went prospecting around and opening all the doors we met, while a deaconish old gentleman behind a desk looked on apparently interested, yet offering nothing in the way of information or suggestion. I presume, however, this is the only amusement the man has in this forlorn place. I was beginning to think of descending by way of the windows when the strange American at last found a door which led into the main entry, and we both left at the same time, glad to escape.

I will do one side of the American department in the exhibition stern justice. It commences with a long picture placed there by the Pork Packers' Association of Cincinnati, descriptive of the processes which millions of American hogs are subjected to while being converted into pork. There are hogs going in long procession to be killed, and going, too, in a determined sort of way, as if they knew it was their business to be killed. Then come hogs killed, hogs scalded, hogs scraped, hogs cut up into shoulders, hams, sides, jowls; hogs salted, hogs smoked. Underneath this sketch are a number of unpainted buggy and carriage wheels; next, a pile of pick-handles; not far off, a little mound of grindstones; after the grindstones, a platoon of clothes-wringers; next, a solitary iron wheel-barrow communing with a patent fire-extinguisher; following these a crowd of green iron pumps, with sewing-machines in full force. Such is a bit of the American department.

It is the fashion here that every one should have a growl at the general slimness and slovenliness of our department. Every one gives our drooping eagle a kick. This is all wrong. We can't send our greatest wonders and triumphs to Europe. There is neither room nor opportunity in the building for showing off one of our political torchlight processions, or a vigilance-committee hanging, or a Chicago or Boston fire, or a steamboat blow-up, or a railway smash-up. Were the present chief of the commission a man of originality and talent, he might even now save the national reputation by bundling all the pumps, churns, patent clothes-washers, wheel-barrows and pick-handles out of doors, and converting one of the United States rooms into a reservation for the Modocs, and the other into a corral for buffaloes and grizzly bears. These, with a mustang poet or two from Oregon, a few Hard-Shell Democrats, a live American daily paper, with a corps of reporters trained to squeeze themselves through door-cracks and key-holes, might retrieve the national honor, if shown up realistically and artistically.