Sunday, 6 April 2008

Vienna Museum and the Night Trams of Bratislava

I have a slight travelling hangover, a feeling of having over-seen, over-absorbed, over-moved. Some impressions: walking along Trnavska cesta very early in the morning, birds just beginning to sing, a slight scent of flowers, and the dark streets, the trams and buses of Bratislava, appearing out of the darkness with a faint rumbling sound, lights on, only one or two people at the bus stop, people in the buses with that dreamy early morning look about them, the magic of night buses, the early morning shift catching the night magic before it vanishes into the daylight.

The feeling of confidence at having mastered the art of moving around in this city, working out which buses would take me to the train station or the city centre or the airport, getting tickets at the little kiosk or discovering how to get them from the ticket machine when the kiosks were closed. I pushed the button for an 18 kroner ticket, put 20 into the slot, and it buzzed and clicked, delivered the ticket and even gave me 2 kroner back. To some this may seem a simple matter, but the practicalities of getting anything mechanical to work for me, are often the most arduous and anxiety producing. It's the little things – how to get the train window to come down, when every combination of pushing pulling and pressing levers just did not work. So I asked someone else, and she managed it perfectly.

Leaning against the yellow stone statue of a partisan outside Banska Bystrica stanica, waiting for the train-turned-into bus which would arrive I was assured, in front of the station. The smeared windows of the train from Zilina to Banska Bystrica, sometimes turned into sheets of light when the sun caught them, but still could not obscure the view of pine-covered mountains falling abruptly into valleys, sometimes right underneath the train tracks so you looked down into a giddy slope, dotted with trees.

The Museum of Musical Instruments is housed in Vienna's National Bibliothek, part of the Hofburg, a massive building that curves round in a semi-circle. Huge marble staircases lead up from the ground floor. When I went through the doors of the Musical Instrument museum – which one is requested to close behind one, to keep it at an even temperature - I felt a sudden sense of familiarity. Perhaps it was the faint smell that old wood gives off, I don't know, but some other time seeped in, and perhaps time is truly contained in objects and communicates itself through our senses. So that in any museum, we hurtle through different times, however much our logical self believes that we stay only in the present. This quiet place connected me with somewhere in my own past, which I only knew through this feeling of familiarity.

On the way up the marble steps, in a glass case, was the helmet of Skanderbeg, the Albanian hero of the 15th century, who, throughout his lifetime, successfully defended his country from the Turkish invasions, and died fighting them.

I'm told that a copy of the original helmet was made, and given to the ruler of what was then Sicily and Calabria, where Skanderbeg's family had fled after his death. His family had taken the original helmet with them of course, and it was this that was requested. According to the story anyway, that was not what he received, but a copy that had been made. The helmet in the Bibliothek is said to be the original which was kept by his surviving family and passed down through the generations.

I peer at the helmet, in a glass cabinet, lit by spotlights. It looks shiny, undented, unscratched. But then I suppose it would have been cleaned up for display. It occurs to me that I am standing in the exact spot that Elena Ghika, aka Dora d'Istria, had also stood, sometime between 1850 and 1860. I know this because she wrote about it. I'm too occupied with fiddling with my camera, taking photos with the flash on and then off, trying to get a good angle from the back, wedging myself between the cabinet and the wall, wondering if some official was going to come up the stairs and tell me not to use a flash, to think any more of it but it occurs to me now, I wonder now, about that sense of familiarity that I experienced, entering the musical instrument museum.

Back in the days of post WW II austerity and rationing – seven or eight years after the war I can remember my mother's ration card – people did not travel anything like the way we do today and I feel sure that had we gone to Vienna, it would have been mentioned. So I decided that it was most likely the smell of old wood, soaked with layers of polish in the lifetime of the instruments, that had stirred some olfactory memory.

Now, I wonder if it was Dora d'Istria herself, whose work I am translating, whose footsteps I was clearly following, if it was her presence and perception I had felt. Perhaps she was pleased and happy that I had sought out and loved what she too loved, perhaps she was communicating her pleasure and her curiosity too, perhaps she was acting as a guide, giving me a whiff of her experience and her perception, perhaps she was enjoying the experience of seeing what she had seen over one and a half centuries ago, in this new time. Perhaps she was encouraging me in my study and translation of her work, pleased that the buried truths of the past, the values that people fought for and died for, the value of freedom and liberty and self-determination, are being brought to light again, values that are placed above individual existence and survival.

In another part of the building, I look out onto the semi-circular balcony which overlooks the square below. A few people are walking across. On the other side of the road, horse-drawn carriages are lined up, brown, white, dapple-grey horses stand in their harness, in front of the carriages, ready to take tourists around the sights of Vienna. The horses are wearing blinkers, some with cloth ear-coverings. The carriages are mostly black, though there is one salmon pink one.

I am looking at the very balcony where Hitler addressed the people of Vienna, after the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria in 1938. It wasn't an invasion he said, it was a rejoining of two countries which should never have been separated. It was an historical, even a spiritual reunion. I wonder what Dora d'Istria, with her passionate egalitarian values would have thought of that?

In the Museum of Musical Instruments I am struck by some words of Schubert, written in Vienna in 1806, talking about the music of the Janissaries, the elite troops of the Ottoman Turks. 'Der Charakter dieser Musik ist so kreigerisch dass er auch feigen Seelen den Busen hebt.' (The character of this music is so stirring that it lifts the hearts of even the most timid souls).
I suspect that Dora d'Istria, who would have read this too, would have agreed with him.

The streets of Vienna have their own art exhibits and performers. There is the silver man, who moves with an amazing gliding technique of slow motion, who turns to look at people who approach him and follows them with facial expressions and gestures, miming that invisible energy that flows between people. There are people who stand on their hands and remain there, perfectly balanced. There is a golden Mozart, complete with golden wig and golden flared and deep-cuffed jacket, golden knee-length trousers, golden stockings and buckled shoes.

But he stands on his plinth looking uneasy, looks around him as if he's lost something and is looking for it. After the fluidity of the anonymous silver man, he looks agitated and uncomfortable as if he doesn't want to be there. And perhaps because people sense this, there is no circle of onlookers as there is around the silver man. Or they may doubt his authenticity – there are so many Mozarts in Vienna after all. They are on posters, they stand outside restaurants, they weave in and out of the crowds. There again, perhaps his unease is deliberate, and he's looking around him as if trying to orientate himself, wondering who these people are, wearing such odd clothes, and what on earth he is doing there.