Vienna, Pension Barbara

by Richard Seltzer

Copyright by Richard Seltzer 1997 

In the evening, walking through the streets of downtown Vienna, the streets blocked off from traffic, between the Opera and St. Stephan's, I passed many pedestrians who, like me, carried the telltale tourist map of Vienna that is given out everywhere. Most moved about in groups of half a dozen or more. But there were some alone like me, the same map, staring here and there, walking down the middle of the street, 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 crowded into the back area, fenced off from the area where the real worshippers worship.


Beyond St. Stephan's, I chanced upon a narrow "gasse" -- an alley for pedestrians, not vehicles. Here I spotted several 'pensions' -- boarding houses, the low-cost alternative to a hotel, often favored by students.


I realized that if Babs were here with me, my experience of Vienna would be very different. I was detached, with no connection to my surroundings and the other people. I wandered aimlessly and gazed at buildings, struck more by the sameness of large cities than by any hint of difference. I shied away from shops.  I had no use for the dust-gathering knickknacks and mementos for sale there.


Babs 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 was connected. When she travelled, she had a list of all the people she had to bring something back for. I grumbled and complained at such a useless activity, 'No one needs this stuff,' I insisted. 'No one would pay attention to gifts like that for more than a minute; and it'll take you hours to pick them out. Besides, it costs money, and what are we here for? Why are you wasting our precious time in this city that we'll probably never return to again in our lives?'


She would smile, and coax, and insinuate that friendly pleasures were in store when we returned to the hotel if I'd just indulge her in this need of hers. And, in fact, the quest that seemed to me such a waste of time would connect her to the city. It would give 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 would weave threads of connection between our moment together in Vienna and friends and relatives back home. This shop we were in would be transformed -- not a shop like every other shop, but rather 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 would become part of the fabric of her life. And the photos she would take, even if they were only pictures of buildings and of the same buildings that appear on all the postcards, would be connected with memories of people we met in the shops and the restaurants and beer kellers.


Yes, she considered eating and drinking a pleasure, and the choice of a place to eat or drink was another opportunity and adventure, like shopping for gifts. She would make the city her own. She would eat and drink the essence of it and become one of its people. While I eat from necessity, rushing on to the next important task ahead of me, such as finishing reading some book I'm not really enjoying, without knowing why I bother to do so.


Here, alone in Vienna, I had no way to get to know this city. I had no social skills, no natural cameraderie, no inclination to buying gifts. I walked and stared and judged, disconnected.


But I could imagine Babs here in the summer of 1971, just after she graduated from college and before we began going out together. She was here with her friend Anne. Anne, like me, was probably detached, amused by Babs's enthusiasms, but not involved in them. On the other hand, she would have been willing to linger in restaurants and beer kellers. Both of them would have been open to meeting interesting unattached men -- Austrians or tourists; and while that wouldn't happen often, the possibility of such adventures would add flavor to each day's meanderings. Anne 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, and how to catch their attention, with a look and a smile, and deliberately looking away.


All the time, to Anne's annoyance, Barb would be shopping for token gifts and curiosities, always having a dozen more people on her list, and needing 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 from live performances, 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, hoping for romance or adventure, just as they were. So the two of them would linger here in Vienna, finding a low-cost pension in one of these alleyways not far from St. Stephan's and in the midst of all the charm of the old inner city.


I was here now on business, put up by my company at an American-like hotel in the American-like suburbs. But I was tempted to find a pension, perhaps the very one that Babs stayed at back then, and thinking, too, of the scenes John Irving wrote about 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 were very few pensions listed in my European-wide travel book. It only devoted five pages to Vienna. But I suspected there must be many more of them. So I broke away from my cynical detachment and began to ask, at restaurants, shops, and hotels, about nearby pensions; and having found one, I asked there for directions to another.


To my surprise, I heard tell of a "Pension Barbara." The person who told me, on the square outside St. Stephan's, was a businessman from Canada. He had heard of it from a friend who had been here before. He didn't remember where it was exactly. But he was sure it was near. He himself was staying at a plush hotel this time -- on business, his company paying for it. But his friend had come to Vienna when he was just out of college, and with several other friends, had stayed at Pension Barbara and had a great time.


Mostly, his friend had recalled waking at dawn and seeing on the stone wall across the alley a series of enormous 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 had asked at the front desk, "Who's the girl? And who did the paintings?"


But the clerk looked at him like he was crazy, "What paintings?"


He insisted, and took the clerk out to the street to looked 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 shadows the sun cast on mountain tops.


His friend had had train 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, and asked him about the name of the place, 'Why Pension Barbara? That doesn't sound Austrian.'


The owner agreed. It was not a good name for attracting tourists. "There is not enough Vienna in that name, yes," he agreed. "I should change the name. And now that you have awakened me to this 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 in the tourist trade. Perhaps something like Mozart or Edelweis. Best to leave that to the experts."


The friend 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 owner did not notice that at first.


"Yes, that 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 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 -- 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, they would talk and sing and enjoy saying and doing nothing at all.


"It was near Christmas and this wealthy American had planned to head home, but now he felt so good here at this pension in Vienna he wanted to stay forever. So he left, not because he wanted to leave but because he wanted to be able to stay. He left to plead with his father for the money to buy this magical pension. and he talked passionately about not the physical structure or 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 the pension. His 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 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 the celebration of his purchase of this magical place. For several days, he offered free drinks and free accommodations, at random, to many -- wanting everyone to stay and preserve this moment.


"But there was no magic anymore. He felt empty and drank much heavier than he ever had before, to blank out the emptiness.


"Then it dawned 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 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, unintentionally 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 shone in her own direction.


"He asked about her. Her friend had moved on -- reportedly hitch-hiking 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 spilled 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 from the beer kellers with his new-found friends, this rich young American, proud owner of a pension in Vienna, sat in the faded blue easy chair in the corner where Barbara had always sat, and tried to see the room and his friends and himself through her eyes. He tried to remember the 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 -- saying something and backtracking, annoyed that someone 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 jumped 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 seemed 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 did. She didn't push herself forward to be noticed, but she 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 group 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 who he was because of her.


"Before, the wealthy American had avoided going to the Historical Art Museum. It was 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 of Barbara's face in the little portraits and in the vast panoramic biblical and mythical scenes.


"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 -- a skill that was once considered at the heart of true art and that 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 did 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 drifted on. There was nothing 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 cement-covered 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 nude as he imaged her.


"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, more rain than we had had in Vienna in decades. He couldn'd paint outside so he sat in the lobby with the guests, hearing Madeline spin ever more elaborate tales for the guests about the mysterious Barbara who had this 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 the persistence of the rain and the properties and thinness of the cement he was painting on. 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 previous owner 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 -- 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 ring true for Vienna. Yes, it should be Mozart or Edelweiss, or some other word clearly connected with Austria. My friend's consultant friend is sure to help with that. He's a professional with an international 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