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Singing in Vienna

It’s a story that long begged to be immortalized in writing, and I finally decided to give it a try. I might even start a whole new category with it, aiming to relay some of the more remarkable and/or memorable experiences from our travels.

Imagine Vienna.

Among end-of-day things to do in the Austrian capital, a trip to the northern suburb of Grinzing to sample heurigen fare counts as one of the most delightful. “Heuriger” is the name for the local new-vintage wine, which over generations gave rise to heurigen, typical Vienna taverns where wine and other drinks are served at the table, while the food can be bought at the self-service buffets; at the most popular establishments, there is live music and the unending atmosphere of good times, for a comparatively small monetary outlay. Wine, music, and a “local” experience – we do not need hard convincing to try that combination.

Our first attempt provided middling impressions, though. The recommended tavern turned out to be a fairly modern establishment, serving pretty good food but entirely lacking the authentic atmosphere that we sought. We needed to try again.

On our last night in Vienna, having first taken a spin on the famous Ferris Wheel at the Prater amusement park, we made another trek to Grinzing, to a tavern by the name of Altes Presshaus.

Now, that was a typical heurige, complete with wooden tables and benches, and serving ladies dressed to evoke simpler times of yesteryear. Two musicians, playing accordion and bass, provided an appropriate background.

We commandeered a small table and ordered our carafe of wine. We slightly erred in selecting the food at the buffet; you did not pay a fixed price per weight or per number of choices, but rather each selected product – baked potato, a slice of ham, etc – was counted separately. As a result, we picked way too much and paid more than we should have had had we been smarter. The food, though, plays no real part in this narrative.

The tavern was not too crowded, with a few tables occupied by German speakers who looked like locals and a couple of others seemingly occupied by tourists, not unlike ourselves. A large table in a semi-enclosed booth near us was occupied by a boisterous party of German-speaking ladies in their 70s, celebrating some sort of a reunion or an anniversary, no doubt.

We drank, we ate, and we observed the people around us. All that time, the musicians belted out various tunes of Mozart or Strauss – obvious staples of any musical performance in Vienna. The group of old ladies even got up for a waltz at some point.

After an interval, the little band went into a rendition of a folk song. A couple of tables started badly singing along in German, including the grandmas, proving to us that we were at least partially surrounded by Austrians. When the song finished, everyone – us included – politely applauded the simple display of national pride.

Funnily enough, the following melody played was syrtaki. I don’t know if there were actual Greeks among the patrons or whether it was simply part of the standard program. A vision of the Yankee Stadium during a game suddenly crystallized in my head and I said to Natasha: “I think next they are going to play Hava Nagila or Калинка“.

When the duo then produced the first notes of Hava Nagila, we – already loosened up by the wine – could not avoid bursting into laughter. The musicians did not take that as an affront, but they moved into the immediate vicinity of our table. We tried to conceal our sudden embarrassment with some inconsequential conversation.

Which no doubt allowed the band to confirm any suspicion that they might have had about our cultural identity. The next song coming from them was Катюша.

Not only that, but the accordionist actually sang “Расцветали яблони и груши…” in the best of German accents and leaned towards us with a clear invitation. That was the entirety of the opening that Natasha ever needed – and she did not hold back.

I would be making a gross understatement obvious to anyone who had the fortune of hearing Natasha sing if I said simply that she sings very well. In a microsecond, all conversations around us completely stopped. The entire tavern directed its attention toward Natasha. As one, the old ladies’ gang suddenly sat there with open mouths and a look of utter rapture on their faces.

Natasha enjoyed herself. She always had a soft spot for singing in public, and she was not about to miss an opportunity to shine in front of a receptive audience. And the audience was certainly appreciative, showering her with a thunderous round of applause and cheers when the song ended. The grandmas – considerably further along the lubrication path than we were by that time – produced the loudest whoops.

The musicians figured they had struck gold. As soon as the applause died down, they broke into Дорогой длинною. Natasha did not need to be asked twice.

We proceeded to Подмосковные вечера, then to Как много девушек хороших, Шаланды and even Миллион алых роз. The band seemed to have a very extensive Russian repertoire; no doubt they were used to entertaining Russians keen on singing. I am not as good a singer as my wife, but I’m still pretty good, so I contributed some backups. After a couple of songs, a large new carafe of wine suddenly materialized on our table. The waitress responded to our surprise with a nod towards the old ladies’ table, who waved and clapped when Natasha acknowledged the offering with a bemusedly grateful look.

After a while, some of the other patrons figured they had enough of the Russian concert and resumed their conversations. Not the old ladies. They continued to listen with utmost concentration and even swayed along to the music.

Yet, we decided that too much of a good thing is eventually too much, so I gave the musicians some money and did my best to convince them to cool it. Natasha got up to go to the bathroom but was immediately captured by the crew of old ladies, who all wanted to shake her hand and compliment her on her singing. In German, of course. Which Natasha does not speak. She feebly tried to explain to them that (a) she needed to fulfill the demands of her bladder, and (b) her husband was making too quick of a work of the carafe that she earned with her singing. In English, of course. Which none of the grandmas seemed to speak well enough. Eventually, one of the ladies mustered enough English to make Natasha a deal: They’d let her go as long as she would sing more afterward.

She had to oblige. When she returned and drank a bit of wine, she was ready for the second act. I mimed to the musicians so they would play whatever else they had in their Russian repertoire. They started Смуглянка. Perfect! The performance was on again.

Sooner or later, the band was running out of songs that they could play. It was also getting late, we still had an hour-long trip across town to the hotel, and our flight back to the States was departing comparatively early the next morning. I tipped the musicians again, we made sure to finish the wine, and, to a discernible chagrin of the party of old ladies, – who still applauded the exit of the mysterious diva, – we took our leave.

We will come around to visit the place again when we are in Vienna next time, but this priceless memory will be hard to top.


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