Vienna: “The Imperial City," “City of Music”, or the “City of a Million Melodies."
A city that is drenched in culture. Wherever you go, you are followed by art and music. Its citizens are often melancholic and reflective, but never silent, never serious. Looking back, all my life I had never experienced a serious Vienna. Until that evening.
I am from Vienna. Whenever people realize this, they share their memories of grand buildings, boulevards, coffee houses, and palaces, that take you back to monarchical times. They share pictures of the amazing pastries they tasted and their wishes to attend the famous 'Opera Ball' one day. They share their takes on The Sound of Music and Sissi. But what many people don’t know is that our “Grande Dame” Vienna has a modern and progressive side. It is a melting pot for different cultures. An intersection between Western, Southern, and Eastern Europe, Vienna is considered home to many cultures, religions, and beliefs. Sandwiched between Germany and Italy, it truly is a mix between German sincerity and Italian vivacity. And it is considered the “most liveable city of the world”. In large, because of its safety.
Then the evening of November 2nd shook the city to its core. It was a mellow autumn night, very unlike the Austrian climate. Like many others, I was out with a group of friends. Restaurants were packed with mingling people and loud chatter before our city would fall silent for the next month. We wanted to enjoy one last evening of freedom, one last dinner together, one last piece of normalcy before the nation-wide lockdown started at 00:00. Little did we know that this evening would resemble anything but normalcy.
We are waiting for our table. Right then my friend gets a call from her boyfriend, who is out in the city as well, informing us about gunfire, which he had just escaped in the very heart of Vienna’s nightlife scene. At first, I cannot take it seriously. Vienna is a safe city, right? Right? Maybe some teenagers were trying to unload their anger, I tried to tell myself. We don’t dare picture the gravity of the situation. We are not in the immediate area and decide to wait. Staying inside was much safer than being out on the street.
While our table fills with Mexican food, our phones start buzzing. And doesn't stop. Incoming messages from everyone we know, asking where we are and if we are safe. Social Media groups flooded with terrifying videos and pictures. News channels frantically announcing that, indeed, terror has arrived in Vienna. Police cars, one after another, racing down the street. Rumours of hostage-taking close to our area (which later turned out to be false). Our restaurant locking its doors. One of the pictures I vividly remember is the scene in the restaurant. Most customers are on their phones, calling their family, checking the news, or looking out of the windows. But in the middle of the chaos, one couple is enjoying its last dinner out. Not having their phones in sight, they are unaware of the panic that is spreading through the city. I wonder how this evening would have played out many years ago, in a world that wasn’t constantly being refreshed and up to date. I wouldn’t have known until I came home. Would I have noticed that the streets were unusually empty? Would I have asked myself, why there were police subtly stationed on each corner?
Acts of kindness in the madness
While madness and fear infected Vienna, small and big acts of kindness proved that we will not let terror divide us. Businesses, already prepared for closure, opened their doors for the stranded seeking refuge. Hotels, heavily impacted by the pandemic, running on little profit, provided a scared crowd with rooms and service, free of charge. Taxis offered to bring people home safely. Locals shared their homes with strangers for a few hours. Two young Austrians of Turkish descent risked their lives to help an old lady out of the fireline and gave first aid to a wounded police officer. And while the inner city shut down until police gave the all-clear, leaving many locked in in theatres and concert houses, the philharmonics and other musicians continued playing for their audience. Vienna was silenced, but it wasn’t muted. What now? It’s like the city has inhaled and held its breath for days. People scatter around the crime scenes, trying to get a sense of what happened. Trying to grasp this act that happened before our very eyes and is yet so hard to comprehend. I don’t know how the Viennese will carry on from this. All I know is that pointing fingers, blaming others, spreading hate and fear will only divide us further and give the terrorists exactly what they wanted: a platform for their hate. And we cannot let that happen.