For overseas visitors, Vienna is a city bristling with old-world charm. From genteel palaces and horse-drawn carriages to tuxedo-clad waiters in the traditional Viennese coffee houses, it’s a Belle Époque dream come to life.
Last year’s Eurovision victory tells a wholly different story. How could a traditional, picturesque and essentially conservative city like the Vienna we know from travel brochures give birth to Conchita Wurst? The bearded drag queen hinted at the edgy, innovative reality of Vienna nightlife, but also at the tolerance and laissez-faire attitude that prevails in the Austrian capital. The 2015 Eurovision Song Contest is Vienna’s opportunity to display this aspect of the city to the world.
Several weeks before Eurovision fans arrived, Vienna’s traffic lights got a major makeover. Solitary men turned into couples — same-sex couples. The red and green figures illustrate an attempt to embrace less traditional lifestyles. The launch was set to coincide with the Song Contest, as well as the largest AIDS benefit in Europe, Life Ball, a major event for the international LGBT scene. Tom Neuwirth was partying with the local gay scene at this party in Vienna city hall long before he became Conchita, and celebrities from Elton John, and Liza Minnelli to Dita Von Teese and Jean Paul Gaultier have graced its VIP tables.
The locals take it all in their stride. Their self-deprecating tone of conversation doesn’t translate well, not even to Standard German, but it does have its own name. “Wiener Schmäh” is a sarcastic friendliness with challenging overtones. It’s accompanied by a dark, ironic, often macabre sense of humour. When confronted with this particular type of small talk, you need to be constantly on your toes – a sharp wit and keen sense of sarcasm are essential. According to actor Christoph Waltz, Austria’s biggest Hollywood export since Arnie: “First of all, Austrians are very polite, and secondly, they don’t mean it”.
They are certainly sincere in their love of Vienna, but also wary of overly enthusiastic endorsements. This attitude may stem from a historical knowledge of greatness. Citizens of Vienna live in the knowledge that their city was once the epicentre of a global superpower… and look how that turned out for everyone involved.
Instead, they embrace the pointlessness of it all. Today, the Kaiser isn’t a revered figure of authority, but a “scheene Leich.” That Viennese catchphrase translates as “a beautiful body,” good for a grand funeral, but rotting away in the royal crypt just like the countless corpses interred at Zentralfriedhof (the central graveyard). The fact that both of these morbid local landmarks are on Vienna’s tourist trail speaks volumes.
As for Eurovision, the general public is as torn between enthused and ironically enthused as it is anywhere else. Prior to Conchita’s victory in Copenhagen, sausage-related puns abounded. No one truly believed the unstoppable Miss Wurst could really pull it off, but once she did, they embraced her success… and set to preparing a Eurovision that would do the country proud. Today, images of Cochita advertising everything from this week’s Eurovision broadcasts to caffeinated beverages and local banks are on every corner and her voice greets visitors as they step on the public transit system.
Once they step beyond it — be it to visit one of the many underground night clubs located underneath the city’s ring road, named “Gürtel,” or to attend the tongue-in-cheek Song Contest Sauna public viewing event at hip techno location Pratersauna — they’ll discover the world that gave birth to a character as artificial and yet authentic as Conchita. In all her genteel glory, with plenty of subversive undertones, she’s a decidedly Viennese type of Phoenix.