Vienna's Got Balls
BY Matthew Breen
January 11 2012 5:00 AM ET
My first visit to Vienna was under less than ideal circumstances. It was 1995, and after studying at a summer program at Cambridge University in England, my friend with whom I was going to backpack around Europe cut his stay short and flew home, leaving me with my train pass and some half-baked plans for a month on the continent.
I had been primed to travel in the classic student style, armed with a shoestring budget, a list of hostels in various capitals, and my first real attempt at growing a beard, which was coming in meagerly. I wasn't opposed to traveling alone, and having just turned 21, I was feeling liberated, even if that milestone was looked upon as rather quaint by Europeans who at age 16 had grown accustomed to ordering a beer without even a sideways glance from a bartender.
Nevertheless, I was a little frightened by the prospect of finding my own lodging in Prague when I didn't even know the Czech word for "hello" or negotiating train travel in France when I could barely read a timetable in English. I had spent summers abroad before, but never entirely on my own. My plans were all pretty flexible, so I agreed to meet an ex-girlfriend in Austria. I suspect she may have been hoping to rekindle something (I was at least a year from coming out), as Vienna, an Old World romantic city, was high on her list of destinations. But that trip was kind of a bust.
The rain was incessant, and the temperature was unseasonably cold for late summer. The Viennese people I encountered were either made grumpy by the inclement weather or determined to live up to a tired stereotype about their haughtiness. In either case, I was overwhelmed by the deluge and underwhelmed by the attitude. So after only one day running from cathedrals to cafés, we called it quits. The highlights were some amazing gulaschsuppe (beef and paprika stew) and mélange (half coffee, half milk), and a ride on the Riesenrad (the giant Ferris wheel that makes appearances in The Third Man and Scorpio). After that we departed for a warmer location.
Sixteen years later, my second visit changed my mind so thoroughly about the city and its people that I returned a third time just seven months later. I encountered a city determined to maintain its rich cultural heritage all the while forging the foundation for a modern European center, fostering young artists, and rolling out the red carpet for tourists, especially LGBT visitors.