Professor Fastl seemed like a kind man. He was tall, handsome and pre-occupied. He had renovation projects going on all over Austria and wasn’t going to look too carefully at this scruffy applicant. He had no reason to not believe my story of studying art in Edinburgh, of working in restoration in that great city – and there was an element of truth here; I had worked on building sites in Edinburgh, and they were renovation jobs – for Stewart Anderson — builder, climber and my Mother’s boyfriend.
– Have you heard of the restoration work of Professor Stewart Anderson? He is the leading expert in the restoration of ancient buildings in Edinburgh. He always praises your work.
– Humph, said the professor.
– It has been my ambition for the last two years to come and see your work.
– Hmm…said the professor, not really listening
– And if there is a chance to experience your restoration work more closely…
– Come here tomorrow morning. Have a trial. We will see then.
On the one hand I was euphoric – I was going to work in the most beautiful building in Vienna. On the other hand I was a fraud and I couldn’t bloody paint. How on earth was I supposed to do anything? I was in a panic as I left but Krzysztof, the Polish doctor who’d landed me in this, told me not to worry:
– I show you how to do this job. Is easy. You see tomorrow.
– Er, but, I can’t paint. I never could.
– Is no problem. Just come tomorrow. It will be fine.
I worked harder than I ever did in my life, desperate to keep this job and cover up my deceit. To my relief, the job was a lot simpler than I’d imagined. A huge renovation project was going on at Palais Ferstel and we were dealing with a relatively small part of it: painting huge pieces of fabric with a simple floral design. Each piece of fabric was about six metres long and two metres wide and took weeks to complete. When it was done we would attach wooden blocks to the back of the fabric, climb up scaffolding that was erected inside a series of huge arches and screw the fabric into the arch. The idea was to make copies of the original floral design that had been painted on the wall, inside the arches, and then cover them with this new fabric. Apparently this would improve the acoustics, as the room was destined to become a concert hall.
It was a bit like drawing in a children’s colouring-in book: you just need to make sure you don’t spill paint, which is easy if you concentrate. The tricky part was drawing straight lines. I was a nervous wreck: surely everyone could see that my lines weren’t straight, my hands were shaking and that I wasn’t an artist. My new colleagues, the real artists, seemed happy to have someone new to talk to and they were patient and kind. One of them was a sultry, attractive Hungarian woman called Beata whom I soon fell in love with – a hopeless case as her artist-boyfriend was working alongside us. There was also a small Turkish lady who offered me a room in her spacious apartment, an offer I jumped at.
Her flat was located at the Schottentor (the Scottish Gate) which was five minutes from the job, very central and next to the Sigmund Freud Park. It was an old and spacious flat, the most elegant place I had ever lived in. She used to give me coffee in delicate china cups and then read my fortune in the leaves; one evening she described my father in chilling detail and then showed me the cup and there he was, in outline, among the tea leaves.
I couldn’t believe my luck, although I was dreading the moment when Professor Fastl would next visit as he would look at my work, realise I was a fraud, and fire me instantly. My denouement became even more likely when an American artist showed up and managed to paint at twice my speed, whilst gabbling on about his jealous Austrian girlfriend. I was convinced that this friendly, long-haired American would get congratulated and I would get the sack. To my amazement the opposite happened: the American was shouted at by the professor and fired on the spot. He had used brilliant white rather than the magnolia colour the rest of us were using and the professor, who had been very mild-mannered until that point, was furious. I was so nervous about my own performance that I hadn’t even noticed what colours we were using; I had simply copied what the other artists were doing.
Gradually I mastered the art of drawing straight lines and filling in colour. Once I’d cracked it I started inventing ways of doing the job more quickly. Krzysztof, the silent Pole, was like a foreman in that he organised the supplies. He was also in charge of hanging the huge pieces of fabric in the arches, the trickiest part of the job. I could see that his was the least artistic role of them all and realised that this is what I needed to be doing. I watched what he did, helped him constantly and slipped into his unofficial position by the time he emigrated to America – about a month after I started. I also loved the part that everyone else hated – climbing up the scaffolding and screwing the massive piece of fabric into the wall. I had found my niche.
Three months passed quickly. My love affair with Beata got nowhere, but it was nice being in love and I would amuse her trying to pronounce impossible Hungarian words like eggy-sheggy-dray (which means cheers). Her boyfriend noticed my obsession for his girlfriend but didn’t seem to mind, he even made the odd joke about it; was he bored of the relationship or did he trust her totally? The work was going far better than I had expected, all thoughts of going home were banished and I even managed to get a job for Bettina Tucholsky, my new friend from the Künstlerhaus. My apartment never ceased to impress me with its big windows, wooden floors and beautiful art on the walls and I kept thinking: What have I done to deserve all this?
It was time to go. I had over two thousand dollars in my money belt and this time I felt determined to keep going until I reached Shanghai. When I asked Professor Fastl for a reference letter he gave me such an excellent one that I considered staying on indefinitely. But it was time to go. I organised a going away party in my apartment and the next morning I was on the road, hung-over, with my thumb out and a cardboard sign that said Budapest.
In Budapest I met up with Bettina for a weekend together. While I was hitchhiking she was getting a ship down the Danube. We had become closer and closer over the preceding months and we would go out for long beer drinking sessions. My definition of a friend is someone you can talk to about anything, indefinitely, and never get bored. We had managed to keep the whole thing platonic – avoiding romantic entanglements is an essential part of my type of travelling – until the combination of alcohol, closely packed bodies and dancing at my going away party had somehow ended up in bed.
Budapest had a special status within the Soviet bloc. I could feel it as soon as I arrived in this most beautiful of cities. Its architecture was similar to Vienna’s but it had a sinister atmosphere I couldn’t explain. I was told that Budapest was more open than any of the other Soviet bloc cities in the region; the staff in restaurants and stations were friendly and efficient, they spoke English, there were foreign tourists everywhere and someone told me this is the city that Russia uses as a place to meet with westerners. It’s their window to the west. They also offered a service I had never heard about before: a list of families from whom you could rent a room. In other words you could officially stay with families. We stayed in a big, nineteenth century room belonging to an elderly couple.
I had a small camera with me but I took very few photos in those days. Film was expensive and you could buy professional photos, very cheaply, in the form of postcards. I kept one black and white photo of Bettina in a bikini, laughing, in an old fashioned outdoor pool (lido) for which the city is famous, where old men played chess on floating boards, enjoying the hot water. In the background was a line of concrete dolphins, water spouting from their mouths.
In a crowded bar we bumped into a young, chatty American with a neat beard and a loud voice. He turned to me and said:
– So, you’re going to China?
– Which way are you planning to go?
– The usual way, in through Hong Kong. It’s the only way in as far as I know.
– Not any more. Things are changing fast over there.
– What do you mean?
– I’m just back from Asia and I met people who got into China through Kathmandu, Nepal.
– You mean they got into Tibet?
– Yeah, they’ve just opened up Tibet to tourists.
– Wow, it would be incredible to visit Tibet. I’d never thought about going there.
– Go for it man! Go to the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu and ask for a tourist visa. They’re giving them out.
Heading for Nepal and Tibet seemed like a much better plan than working my way through South-east Asia where there were bound to be border problems, expensive visas and other hassles. I’d already spent enough time in Eastern Europe and I didn’t want to waste more time by picking my way through small countries like Burma and Thailand. On the spot I decided to head for the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu, from where I could discover a land I knew precisely nothing about: Tibet.
There were still too many East European countries to get through and I was getting impatient. I wanted to be in the wide open plains of Turkey, Iran and India – getting nearer to my destination – but I was stuck in this patchwork of small, complicated, repressive, dark countries. I didn’t feel I was actually getting any closer to China and over four months had passed since I had left home. If things carried on like this I would be an old man before I reached Shanghai. It was like a dose of the flu – I had to be patient and work my way through it.