– You want a job? Here? In Vienna! Are you mad? You don’t even speak German!
My new friend Andras was most amused. He was short, athletic, handsome and spoke fluent English. His family were obviously rich; he had his own flat in the centre of town and didn’t seem to work. He also had a small but incredibly fast car – a Peugeot 206 – which he raced round town and in rallies. Andras had studied English in Edinburgh; I had got his number from a friend and invited myself to stay.
Andras pointed to his girlfriend, a long-haired blonde with a perfect figure, a languid aristocratic manner and a beautiful face. Just looking at her was a pleasure.
– Look at her! She’s been searching for a job for two years! And she can’t get one. How on earth do you think you can?
– Er…I dunno…but does she go out there and ask for work?
– Actually no, she just sits around here all day, and then has me drive her to the shops. Don’t you baby?
– Fuck off darling!
– But how on earth are you going to get a job?
– I’m going to walk the streets for three days and go in every shop, restaurant and building site and ask for work.
– Hmm. I’ve never heard of anyone doing that.
– If I can’t find a job within a week I’ll have to go back to Edinburgh, and I really don’t want to do that. My plan is to travel overland to China.
– Well I think you’re absolutely mad but you’re welcome to stay here for a couple of nights.
– By the way, how do you say in German: Do you have any work?
– Haben Sie Arbeit?
We were in a small, exquisite flat high up in an old block in central Vienna, overlooking St Stephen’s Cathedral – one of the most beautiful buildings I had ever seen. Arriving in Vienna was one of the most memorable moments in my life: never before had I seen such incredible buildings, such gorgeous networks of narrow streets, beautifully preserved houses that you could sometimes glimpse inside – such stylish and well-lit interiors – and well-dressed and handsome people everywhere. The whole place was magical and I couldn’t think of anywhere better to live. Andras didn’t share my enthusiasm for his home town:
– Vienna is populated by students and old ladies. Budapest is more beautiful and more fun, and it’s only down the road.
The next morning I got up early and started looking for work. The unbearable thought of going home motivated me to go from door to door – shops, cafés, cinemas, restaurants, hotels, building sites – and say the magic words: Haben Sie Arbeit? Although I didn’t understand the replies, their body language and facial expressions were enough to let me know the answer: no, we don’t have any work for you! I dealt with this series of rejections by comparing it to hitchhiking; thousands of cars pass the hapless hitchhiker before one will stop. Working as a sales rep for publishers is similar; most of what you present to the bookshops isn’t wanted. Being rejected is a part of everyday life.
After three days I had a success – a hotel where the young manager must have recognised the hungry immigrant’s look in my eye. He was vague about what I would do and I didn’t like his laid-back manner. When I saw a topless girl in a leaflet saying Come with me! Come on me! Come in me! I decided not to come back unless there was no other option.
One of the first things I’d done in Vienna was to visit the British Embassy, where I asked for a job helping set up a British Arts and Crafts exhibition:
– How did you know about the exhibition? asked the friendly young diplomat.
– I met a Scottish artist in Berlin called Gwen Hardy. I asked her advice about getting a job and she advised me to go to Vienna. She told me she was exhibiting down here, at the Künstlerhaus, and that I should ask for a job helping to set it up.
– Hmm, very interesting. And you came all the way here, from Berlin, looking for a job?
Three days later they called the number I had left them – at Andras’ flat – and left a message telling me to show up at the Künstlerhaus. In a flurry of excitement I rushed down to the city art gallery and, without any formalities, got my first job abroad. It only lasted about a week but it banished the pessimism that had been gathering like storm clouds. I threw myself into it with such energy that the organisers from the British Government’s Central Office of Information offered me a job back in London, but I was heading east and had no intention of returning.
My job involved humping paintings around, something I knew all about, and setting up the information desk. But there was plenty of spare time to sneak off and go round more shops and building sites asking for work. One day we were told that Prince Charles and Lady Diana were going to show up in a few hours and officially open the exhibition. The whole place went into a frenzy of excitement. A tough looking crew of security men came round the building looking for bombs and we were all herded into the basement.
The others seemed quite happy to sit around underground and take a break, but I wasn’t. I snuck back upstairs, saw the security people leaving and thought I should stand behind the information desk which I had helped to set up. What was the use of an info desk without someone behind the counter? The gallery was deserted – the Austrians were all in the basement drinking, smoking and playing cards and the Brits had disappeared. I had a moment to appreciate the imperial architecture of the building, the light that flooded the place, the windows all along the ceiling and the dramatic paintings that had just been trucked in from London. Künstlerhaus means House of Art and I suspected it was one of the most impressive galleries in Vienna.
There was a commotion coming from the front door and suddenly Charles and Di appeared, as if they were in a real hurry. My first thought was: How can they be so small? They don’t look small on TV!
But they looked open-minded, attractive and keen to get away from the crowd of sycophants, officials, and posh hangers-on who came surging through the hall after them; people with excited looks on their faces, delighted to be in contact with British royalty and chattering like monkeys. Not one of the entourage even noticed me or took a second look at the Information Desk – but Charles and Di did.
Prince Charles walked straight up to me and said:
– You from Vienna are you?
– No, just passing through.
– Really? And he was gone.
– Would you like one of our brochures? I said, holding them out to the departing couple and feeling rather ridiculous.
– I would, said Lady Diana. She took a few steps back to where I was standing, took a brochure, walked off and gave me a backward glance and a seductive flicker of the eyelids.
I was smitten. Like everyone else of my generation I had seen hundreds of photos of Lady Diana, and who didn’t know about the Royal Wedding of 1981? But I hadn’t thought much of her and found the media coverage excruciatingly boring. I was neutral when it came to royalty – they seemed rather harmless and people say they attract tourists – which is rather odd if you think about it; the best argument we can come up with for justifying royalty is that they’re a tourist attraction. But seeing her in the flesh was another thing altogether; she was not only beautiful but she looked rather lost and vulnerable. I fell in love instantly, was head over heels, fantasising about what we could do together, plotting about how I could entice her away from Charles.
I crept into the grand room where Prince Charles was giving a speech to the officials, artists and hangers-on. He was reading slowly from a series of elongated cards but I don’t remember a word that he said. Lady Di was standing to one side like a formal Japanese doll and I wondered if she was bored out of her mind. Does she have to listen to this sort of stuff every day? I wanted to go up behind her and whisper in her ear: Let’s get away from this place! I’m going to show you the delightful backstreets of Vienna! But I noticed the beefy men with well trimmed beards and plain clothes who stood at strategic points around the gallery, legs apart, watching everything. Each one carried a little handbag that contained, I was sure, a pistol. These men were calm and motionless and they blended into the crowd, and they had surely spent time honing their killing skills with the Special Forces. It would be a matter of seconds to knock me to the ground and stick a pistol in my back.
Andras and his girlfriend were astounded that I had managed to find a job, and I took advantage of their surprise to ask if I could stay a few more nights (which stretched to three weeks). Although I was technically employed I knew the job wouldn’t last for more than a week, I hadn’t seen any actual cash and wanted to avoid paying rent at all costs.
I made a lifelong friend at the Künstlerhaus: Bettina Tucholsky. Bettina always seemed to be smiling; she had chubby cheeks, a mischievous nature and we had conversations that never seemed to end. She had been brought up in London by Jewish parents who had fled the Nazi persecution in Russia. They had set up a small shop and taught their children to speak German, English and Russian. I had never met someone before who could speak as fluently as a native in three languages, and I was intrigued. We would hang out with Paul, a giant of a man with a black moustache and an unhappy marriage.
I soon realised that I wasn’t being supervised at all and, as long as I did what was asked, I could disappear off for a few hours and nobody at the gallery would know. I was pounding the streets again, saying Haben Sie Arbeit in every shop, cafe and restaurant I came across.
When I walked into Café Central on Herrengasse in central Vienna I knew my chances of getting a job there were non-existent. There was no point in even asking. I was getting nowhere. Andras would kick me out before long, I’d run out of cash and I’d have to make a humiliating call home begging for a loan so I could crawl back to Scotland in disgrace. A feeling of failure and guilt, for sneaking off for so long from the Künstlerhaus, settled over me as I admired the interior of the Café Central, which was located within a palace – Palais Ferstel. It made me feel small, weak and pathetic.
The gothic interior of the building was more beautiful than anything I had seen yet and the waiters, in tuxedos and bow ties, glided around as if trained at the Bolshoi Ballet School. How could they even consider offering me a job? I didn’t know their language, didn’t look the part, had never worked as a waiter and surely they already had someone to take out the garbage. This was the place where Hitler used to hang out when he was a penniless artist, so presumably it had been a cheap place for a cup of coffee at one point. Not any longer. Now it was full of grand ladies in fancy hats and there was no way that I could afford the espresso which I craved. So I sat on a chair in the empty hallway and contemplated my situation.
Suddenly a door burst open and a short, fat man in overalls stepped into the hall. He was covered in dust, carrying a piece of wood and seemed oblivious to the fact that his scruffy presence was lowering the tone of this grand location. He slammed the door with a deft kick and shuffled up some steps, leading away from the grand world of Café Central. As if pulled by a string, I stood up and cautiously followed him up the steps and along a marble-floored corridor. He opened another door and disappeared inside a big room with pillars and arches and the familiar sounds of a building site. My heart leapt: here was a building site right under my nose. I had been so pre-occupied with my own misfortunes that I hadn’t even noticed. This was more like it! I felt at home on a building site, and what a building site this was! The feelings of unworthiness that I had been wallowing in two minutes earlier were banished like mist in the morning sunlight.
– Haben Sie Arbeit? I asked a kind looking man in a beard. He didn’t reject my question immediately, as was the norm, but he looked at me and seemed to be thinking. Perhaps he was wondering why I had a silly grin on my face.
– Upstairs go, he said, in broken English. Go see artists. Maybe have work there.
Artists on a building site? I thanked him profoundly, bounded up the stairs and stepped into a room that was as spacious as a skating rink and as tall as a cathedral. The floor was made of ancient wooden tiles. Tall arched windows reached up to the full height of the room and flooded it with light. Halfway up the wall was a narrow balcony, a mezzanine, fronted by elaborate wrought iron railings with imperial eagles painted in gold-leaf. High above where I was gaping, was the pièce de résistance: a wooden ceiling, with elaborate coats of arms painted onto huge roof beams. Later, I discovered that this had been the stock exchange of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an entity which had controlled much of Central and Eastern Europe until the First World War. I was so stunned by this room that I had forgotten to ask for a job. Just standing there and basking in its beauty was enough.
– Can I help? asked a thin bearded man in fluent English. I snapped out of my daydream and looked at him. He didn’t look like the usual roughneck you find on building sites, he wore a white coat and had intelligent, penetrating eyes.
– Er, I’m looking for a job.
– What job?
– Hmm. He was silent for a while and seemed lost in thought. I wondered where he was from as he spoke English well, without the tell-tale German-speaker’s accent.
– Have you worked on a building site before?
– Yes, in Edinburgh. I am from Scotland.
– Good. You tell him that.
– Tell who?
– Professor Fastl. He is the boss. He’s not here. He comes tomorrow. You must come back and tell him you are a student of art, that you studied his work, and you came here from Edinburgh for the great opportunity of working with him. He will like that. Come back tomorrow morning.
– But I can’t say that! I’m not an artist. I can’t draw anything. And I didn’t come here to see him.
– Just come tomorrow and you might get a job.
– But I’m not an artist.
– Not a problem. I’m not artist. I am a doctor from Poland. I come here to get away from Communism. I go to USA soon.
And with that he was off. He walked back to a group of scruffy but handsome artists, at least I presumed they were artists, who were lounging around. They were painting a huge piece of fabric and looking over at me with curiosity. They looked totally out of place on a building site. They also looked bored.
The rest of that day was a torment. It would be a dream come true to get a job in a place like that but I would have to tell a story that was untrue. I didn’t know if I had the courage, or if I could keep it up in the face of my interrogator. Wouldn’t he see through me at once?
These chapters will soon be published as 9 Months in Tibet — the eBook. If you’d like to get a copy just leave a comment below as I’ll see your email address and get in touch. Or you could email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or even call/WhatsApp on 0044 747 138 1973.