Dear Vienna

Written by: Yasmin Zacaria Mitchel

Dear Vienna,

It’s not me, it’s you.

With your crippling cobblestones and wannabe city-grid pursuits, I am through.

I guess I should start from the beginning, but I question if you deserve my words. I have already wasted so much breath and effort navigating you, never feeling safe or content. I sought solace in your confidence and hoped you’d equip me with my own. But you broke me down further. You starved me, blistered my feet, and pitied my American sensibilities.

It started innocent enough, a pure honeymoon stage sweeping away my senses. I was intoxicated by you. Despite our language barrier, I thought we could coexist, learning from each other through stories and food. I was promised I’d never want to go home, that I wouldn’t think twice about turning my back on America. Considering the events transpiring this past November, I felt blindsided. Hate and harassment filled my Chicago bubble and I thought you could provide refuge. In both regards I was naive.

I took classes about you, one on culture the other on food. I learned about your Ringstrasse, the grand boulevard of historicist buildings mirroring the eras they wish they would have been from. The neo-renaissance Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera), the classical-motiffed Universitat Wien (Univerist of Vienna), the imperial Österreichische Postsparkasse (postal bank)—all facade.

My studies made me skeptical, but my ignorance kept me in check. I wanted you to be everything and more. I knew pictures didn’t do you justice. I wondered how my vegetarian self would avoid schnitzel and sausage and survive on coffee and pastry.

At first, it didn’t seem like a bad life. Let me break it down.

  1. Naïveté

I saw a poster of you glistening in my academic center. You stood out among the other cities, seeming to have everything—you’re a historic district after all, a UNESCO approved heritage site. I ripped you down and slid you into a folder, safe and sound.

When I got home, I scoured the Internet, because that’s all you can really do in the 21st century. I fell in love with the idea of you, because I had never been anywhere.

(You were my first. Did you know that?)

I entered the honeymoon stage. Full stop. Full heart. Full mind. I read onwards, you had perfected leisure and coffee. Two things I never truly understood or embraced.

You loved my ambition and celebrated my drive, how I’d work myself up when thinking of projects and racing against deadlines. But I found your smile condescending, your support paradoxical. Leisure was irrelevant to me, I’d argue. I found pleasure in routine and rigid familiarity. But you shook me, woke me up to a leisure I could never have imagined. We were in a world that perfected leisure, where coffee was a drug and society was desperately hooked.

In December, we were finally together for nineteen short days. You were peppered with Christmas Markets selling gluhvien and potpourri. I had entered a fairy tale, a winter wonderland. But I realized too late it’d be of the Grimm Brothers variety rather than Disney.

My mind struggle to wrap around you, a medieval city undergoing an identity crisis. I should have known then. If you don’t know who you are, why did I think you’d help me find myself?

  1. You blistered my feet.

Not only did you take advantage of my mind, but you took advantage of my body. I told you to tread gently, but you were unforgiving.

I ran away from you and found myself in Salzburg, where the hills were supposedly alive with the sound of music. Although I had this break, Vienna, you were always lingering in the distance.

I trekked along the Salzach River, watching the sunrise, the sky ripped apart with ribbons of color. Deep reds and oranges awakened as I timidly made my way to St. Peter’s Abbey. I was ready to lose myself in a sacred place of refuge, but your jealousy was relentless. You tore into me without hesitation, blisters and bruises constantly erupting with pain.

When I finally sat in the wooden pew of the abbey, my seat soft with use, I cried.

You tricked me, Vienna. I was dazzled by your facade, ignorant to the harshness by which you coaxed me along. You said there was beauty in the pain, but failed to mention if I was ever beautiful to begin with.

  1. You starved me.

Before my trip to you, I had loved the idea of coziness—the feeling of close comfort and a shared warmth. You made reservations to a traditional Austrian restaurant that supposedly embodied this desire. But that night, I sat stomach to table, shoulders hunched, elbows in. I was dying. Breath was labored as I failed to fit in my seat. Waiters maneuvered around the tables with a frantic sort of grace. They were accustomed to the congestion and making themselves small.

I was flustered and American, obvious in my discomfort and wide build. My mouth ran dry and I panicked for a glass of anything. I was in my mind for so long, not realizing my table remained empty of silverware, napkins, and water.

Out of nowhere a menu was slapped down onto my table. It was in English, solidifying my otherness. The sections were easy to navigate and the key at the bottom delineated everything from vegetarian, peanut allergies, and paleo creations. I flipped pages and pages before finding one with the leaf icon:

Avocadosalat mit heißen Erdäpfeln, Jungzwiebeln, Kernöl and Koriander

Avocado salad with potatoes, spring onions, pumpkin seed oil and coriander

I ordered and twenty minutes later was filled with regret. As the waiter approached my table, I prayed that he’d drop the tray. As he maneuvered around chairs and under broken chandeliers, I could see a green pile of goop, atop protruding yellow mounds. I looked back to the menu, then back to the dish. What I read was avocado salad WITH potatoes, not ON potatoes. But alas, Vienna, you sat in silence as I poked around my plate, starving and attempting to swallow my pride.

Despite the abundance of decadent pastries and fresh breads, I starved. I felt myself falling into a deep delirium. Tortes and strudels danced around me, laughing and taunting. Sugar highs were empowering, liberating, and then quickly climaxed into incredible headaches. My mind slowed and my heart quickened. Caffeine running through my veins; my addiction to the rush became more apparent.

I felt like the ground wanted me more than the earth, and you weren’t part of this bidding war.

  1. You pitied my American sensibilities.

The worst games you played concerned my identity. As a museum-goer and art lover, I sought refuge in these established spaces of comfort and intellect. But, when I met you, you destroyed this first love—jealousy devoured comfort and heritage. You made museums overwhelming and anxiety inducing. Artwork was hung floor to ceiling, mimicking a Charles Peale-esque gentleman’s hang. No labels and no apologies.

Who was I to demand explanations and context? In a coffee and sugar induced delirium, I stumbled. In America, museums were a place of familiarity, not torture. My head spun and spun seeking refuge, but everywhere I looked was infected. The building was art. The walls were art. The floor was art.

As an American, I love business and constant stimulation. I find tasks and goals invigorating. Here, with you, I was restless and overwhelmed simultaneously. I navigated a world of slow motion, always too aggressive and unappreciative.

You messed with my mind, and I wonder how much is to blame on the caffeine, as I sit here currently nursing an addiction.

Dear Vienna,

It’s not me, it’s you.

Thank you for breaking me down and beating up. I now know what I truly need, and you are not a part of it.

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