Vienna, Pension Barbara

by Richard Seltzer

Copyright by Richard Seltzer 1997 

In the evening, walking through the streets of downtown Vienna, the ones blocked off from traffic, between the Opera and St. Stephan's, I pass many pedestrians who, like me, carry the telltale tourist map of Vienna that is given out everywhere. The evident Americans tend to move about in larger groups -- half a dozen or more. But there are plenty of others in ones and twos clutching those same maps, staring here and there, walking down the middle of the street, rarely, if ever, stopping in those few shops and places of business that are still open; checking street signs and comparing them with the map, and moving on.

At St. Stephan's, the Gothic cathedral which is the postcard symbol of the city, the tourists crowd into the back area, fenced off from the area where the real worshippers worship.

Beyond St. Stephan's, I chance upon some narrow "gasse" -- alleys or passageways for pedestrians and not vehicles. Here and there I spot a "pension" -- a boarding house, the low-cost alternative to a hotel, often favored by students.

If Barbara were here with me, my experience of Vienna would be entirely different. I am detached, with no connection to my surroundings and the other people. I wander aimlessly and gaze at buildings, stuck more by the sameness of large cities than by any hint of difference. I shy away from the shops intended for tourists. I have no use for the dust-gathering knickknacks and mementoes for sale there.

Barbara would stop at every shop, at least to look in the windows, and often would go inside and handle the merchandise and talk to the shopkeepers -- not that any of it would be for herself. No, by nature, she is connected. When she travels, she has a list of all the people she must bring something back for. And I grumble and complain at such a useless activity, "No one needs this stuff,: I insist. "No one would pay attention to the gift for more than a minute; and it would take long hours of looking to pick it out and buy it. Besides, it costs money, and what are we here for? Why are you wasting our precious time in this city where we will probably never return to again in our lives?"

And she would smile, and coax, and insinuate friendly pleasures in store when we return tot he hotel if I just indulge her in this need of hers.

And, in fact, the quest that seems to me such a waste of time connects her to the city. It gives her an excuse to look closely and to talk to the natives and to hear from them about other shops and other goods. and each purchase weaves threads of connection between the moment in Vienna and friends and relatives back home. This is not just another tourist shop, rather it's the place she bought the stein for Tommy or the angel figurine for Elly. She will see more and remember more of the city than I. It will b part of the fabric of her life. And the photos she takes, even if they are only of buildings and of the very buildings that appear in all the postcards, will be connected with memories of people met in the shops and the restaurants and beer kellers.

Yes, she considers eating and drinking a pleasure, and the choice of a place to eat or drink is another opportunity and adventure, such like shopping for gifts. She makes the city her own. She eats and drinks the essence of it and becomes one of its people. While I eat form necessity, rushing on to the next important task ahead of me, such as finishing reading some book that hasn't really involved me, that I need to force myself to finish, without knowing why I bother.

Here, alone, I have no way of coming to know this city. I have no social skills, no natural cameraderie, no taste of inclination for buying gifts. I walk and stare and judge, disconnected.

But I can imagine Barbara here in the summer of 1971, just after she graduated from college and before we began going out together. She'd be here with her friend Ann Pennell. Pennell, like me, would be a bit detached, but unlike me, would be willing to linger in a restaurant and beer keller. The two of them would always be open to meeting interesting men -- Austrians or tourists; and while that wouldn't happen so often, the possibility of such adventures would add another flavor to the experience. Ann would probably be more overtly on the lookout for such opportunities, and the two of them would size up the prospects and the desirability of one or another spotted in the distance, perhaps at length, more often with a smile and a look, and a deliberate looking in the other direction.

But all the time, to Ann's annoyance, Barb would be stopping and shopping for token gifts and curiosities, always having a dozen more people on her list, and needing a little something for each of them from each country and each major city.

They'd see the Lipizzaner stallions in training. They'd be tempted by theater or opera, but not speaking German, they would shy away, not wanting to waste their limited cash on what probably would turn out to be a bore. But there was an endless variety of little restaurants and unattached college-age tourist men, looking for fleeting opportunities and half-hoping for storybook romance, just as they were. So the two of them would linger here a while, finding a low-cost pension in one of those footpath alleyways not far from St. Stephan's and in the midst of all the charm of the old inner city.

I'm here now on business, put up by my company at an American-like hotel in the American-like suburbs. But I'm tempted to find a pension, perhaps the very one that Barb stayed at (and thinking too of John Irving and the scenes he wrote of a stay at a pension in Vienna, with gypsies and a trained bear and circus midgets -- scenes from several of his books merging in my memory).

There are very few pensions listed in my European-wide travel book. (It only gives Vienna about five pages). But I suspect there must be many more of them. So I break loose from my cynical detachment and begin to ask -- at a restaurant, at a store, at a hotel -- are there pensions within walking distance of here? And having found one, I ask there for directions to another.

To my surprise, I hear tell of a "Pension Barbara." The person who tells me, on the square outside St. Stephan's, is a businessman from Canada. He had heard of it from a friend who had been here before. He doesn't remember where exactly it is located. But he is sure it's near.

He himself is staying at a plush hotel this time -- on business, his company paying for it. But his friend and he had talked of coming to Vienna years before, when they were just out of college. And his friend had come here, with several other friends, and they had stayed at Pension Barbara and had a great time.

Mostly his friend had recalled waking at dawn and seeing across the alley on the stone wall there, enormous and delightful paintings of a beautiful young girl.

As the sun went higher in the sky, the shadows shifted and the images became darker and soon it was almost impossible to distinguish them from random patterns in the stone.

He'd asked at the front desk, "Who was the girl? And who did the paintings?" But the clerk looked at him like he was crazy, "What painting?"

He insisted, and took the clerk out to the street to look up, but nothing could be seen from there. He dragged the clerk up to his room to look out the window, but only the faintest hint, like a mirage was distinguishable. The clerk laughed, like this was some game of finding artwork in the shapes of clouds or among the shows the sun cast on mountain tops.

He had had tickets to Rome that night and hence was not able to see it again at sunrise, but before leaving, he sought out the owner of the pension, a young businessman with many other holdings, and asked him about the name of the place, "Why Pension Barbara? That doesn't have a very Austrian ring to it?"

The owner agreed. It was not a very good name for attracting tourists. "There is not enough Vienna in it, yes," he agreed. "I should change the name. and now that you have awakened me tot his reality, yes, I will indeed. I have a friend who knows of consultants who are excellent at this very task of naming, which is so essential to tourist-related business. Perhaps something like 'Mozart' or 'Edelweis.' Best to leave that to the experts."

The Canadian had insisted, "But why this name in the first place?"

"It was a whim of the previous owner, or so I heard. Something to do with an American tourist named Barbara who was just out of college, someone with a knack for bringing people together and bringing them out. She'd sit in the background and never seem to be at the center of the conversation, but when she wasn't there, there was no conversation at all, no gathering of young people. But the previous owner did not know that at first.

"Yes, the previous owner was a young American, just out of college, too, with a high draft number, so he didn't need to worry about Viet Nam. He had a wealthy father and no real reason to be one place rather than another. He had chanced upon Vienna and upon this pension -- I don't remember what it's name was then -- at the very time when Barbara and her friend -- there was another girl, American -- were staying here. Night after night the young people at the pension would assemble on the street, without anyone seeming to be the leader and instigator. They'd find a beer keller, almost always a different one every night. Then they'd return to the pension and, in the lobby by the fireplace, talk and sing and just enjoy saying and doing nothing at all.

"It was near Christmas and, and this American had had thoughts of heading home, but now it felt so much more like home here at the pension that he wanted to stay forever. He didn't want this moment to end. So he left, not because he wanted to leave but because he needed to capture this moment. He left to plead with his father for the money to buy this magical pension. and he talked passionately about not the physical structure of the business opportunities, but rather the convivial spirit that brought him to life more than anything he'd ever experienced. He talked like someone in love, but it was as if he had just met himself, his true self. Here in this pension, he had become the person he wanted to be. These people, this time, this place made him feel alive as he never had before, made him fall in love with the self he never knew he could be.

"His father gave him the money. He hurried back and bought it immediately. The offer was outrageously generous, based as it was on emotion rather than business. He had been gone for a couple days. It was still before Christmas. All the old gang was still there -- except one who had suddenly defected for home.

"But immediately the atmosphere was different. he felt uncomfortable. Many of the same things were said and done as before. There was the heightened excitement of the holiday and celebration of his purchase of this magical place, and extra money to lavish on free drinks and free accommodations for all -- to make it all the more likely they would stay and preserve this moment.

"But there was no magic anymore. He felt employ and rank much harder than before to blank out the emptiness.

"Only by New Year's did it dawn on him what was different -- the girl -- the cute one with the black hair and green coat and the ridiculous floppy green hat. He had hardly spoken to her. He couldn't remember a single extended exchange of dialogue involving her or about her. But she was always there, and around her everyone was always animated. She didn't draw attention to herself, but rather, somehow, probably without consciously intending to do so, she drew attention to others, to their stories and their interests. Her attention was the spotlight that made others stand out and seem brilliant and amusing. And her spotlight never shown in her own direction.

"He asked about her -- it turned out that her friend had moved on -- reportedly hitching her way to Spain -- a few days before New Year's. And that page of the guest ledger had been ruined by beer that he himself had spilling in a depressing and losing drinking bout. So he had no record of where she or her friend came from. And she had so rarely spoken of herself that all he could determine was that her name was Barbara, and she came from Boston.

"Now, in the evening, when he returned form the beer kellers with his new-found friends, the rich young American sat in the faded blue easy chair in the corner where Barbara had always at, and tried to see the room and his friends and himself through her eyes. He tried to remember the rushing enthusiastic tone of her voice, the way she always began in the middle of a thought -- not that he could remember the particular words, just the rhythm and pulse of her voice and her thoughts -- saying something and then having to backtrack, a bit annoyed that someone or everyone didn't understand the context of what she was saying, hadn't moved ahead from the current point in the conversation to where she had gone to in her mind, and in backtracking and backfilling she gave new life and direction to everyone's thoughts and brought them together in a marvelous maze, where everyone's feelings and concerns seems to matter more than her own.

"He tried to reconstruct from memory her fingers -- short, fleshy, surprisingly sensuous. He'd held them a few times at convivial moments when they all joined hands walking up the street; and one or twice when they'd happened to dance together as a group.

"And her nose -- how could he describe it -- flat on top and turned up and just begging to be touched, begging for a friendly knuckle to brush against her upper lip and pass upward as if to relieve an itch between the nostrils, but really just to see the way she'd both back off and come forward at the same time, shying away from being touched, but wanting it as well.

"She didn't flirt, overtly, like her friend, not wanting to push herself forward and be noticed, but wanted to be wanted all the same; not expecting to be singled out, but delighted to be included in the larger group. And without realizing it, there was no question of her being included. The groups was only a group, only had life and purpose and direction from her unobtrusive caring presence among them. They were who they were, and he was show he was because of her.

"Before, he had avoided going to the Historical Art Museum. It was simply too touristy a thing to do. Now, he was at the door every morning when it opened. He went straight to the second floor where the paintings were -- mainly Dutch and Flemish and Italian from the Renaissance. He studied the faces of the women carefully, and sketched many of them, not from appreciation of the art, but rather striving to understand what made a face unique and memorable, finding a hint here and there in the little portraits and in the vast panoramic biblical and mythical scenes of a feature of Barbara's face.

"He struck up conversations with art students who camped there day after day with their easels and palettes, making precise copies of these classic works. One, an Irish girl named Madeline, he hired to give him lessons in the evenings. He apparently had talent, especially at capturing the likeness of a person -- that skill that was once considered at the heart of true art and now, thanks to photography, is considered a merely mechanical skill.

"For the practice, and in hopes of perhaps seeing once again a flat turned-up nose or a green-blue eye that could sparkle in such a way that you forgot yourself and found yourself, he would set up an easel in Karntner Strasse and do five-minute pencil portraits of passersby -- accepting payment not because he needed it, but because it was expected of him.

"None of the old gang remained at the pension. Even though he offered them a free place to stay, they all eventually drifted on. There was nothing there to hold them. Their drinking and joking had become hollow and repetitious. they all sooner or later wanted to move on to fresh experiences or to head back to where old and new responsibilities awaited them.

"With no attention paid to the business side of the pension -- no publicity, no special effort to draw in customers from among the steady flow of young tourists in Vienna -- he lost money month after month, and his father grew impatient with the regular requests for more cash to keep afloat.

"Money worries began weighing on him, until Madeline, who he continued to see for lessons and who was now the only one left with whom he could share his obsession with Barbara, until she suggested that he do a mural on a grand scale. His neighbor across the alley, an accountant for a large corporation, who was rarely at home, was kind enough to indulge him, to let him use a large windowless wall as his canvas.

"That summer, a year and a half after Barbara had left, he immersed himself in the task -- building scaffolding by hand and mixing his own paints, all with the help and encouragement of Madeline.

"By the end of September, it was nearly finished -- Barbara over and over again, large and small, sometimes only a head in a floppy green hat, sometimes full figure as he imaged she'd appear in nothing at all.

"Crowds of tourists would gather to watch as he worked. Madeline would walk among the crowd with a hat, taking donations. (They insisted on making donations, and she wasn't about to stop them.) And many stayed at the pension now, and she would tell the legend of Barbara to them in the lobby as they looked out the window at the scaffolding and the painting with spotlights shining on it, as he worked well into the night.

"Then came the rain -- slow but steady, day after day. Just enough to keep him away from his work. And he would sit in the lobby with the guests, hearing Madeline spin ever more elaborate tales for the guests about the mysterious Barbara who had this great artist in her thrall.

"He had mixed his paints well -- with full knowledge of the underlying chemistry and the demands of the weather. But he had not counted on the properties of the stone. Unbeknownst to him, there was an admixture of sandstone in what at first had seemed solid granite. And day by rainy day, the vast and glorious painting melted away, and the crowds at the pension melted way as well, leaving him with a strangely dirty wall and a losing business.

"I never met the man myself, having heard this tale from the washer woman and the old night clerk when I bought the place through a broker. At first I thought I could reignite the mystique of the legend of Barbara, which had for a brief while made this place a Mecca for tourists. But the spinner of the myth -- that Madeline -- had disappeared when the former owner did. I was unable to track her down. Perhaps they left together. I'd like to think they left together.

"And all that remained was the name 'Pension Barbara,' which, as you so accurately point out, doesn't quite ring true for Vienna. Yes, it should be 'Mozart' or 'Edelweiss,' or some other name with a fine Austrian ring to it. My friend's consultant friend is sure to help with that. He's a professional with an international consultant firm based in New York. Yes, he's sure to know just the way to make this place -- by name, by brand, by look -- feel like the Vienna that tourists want to believe in and return to."  privacy statement