Ham Sandwiches & Sleeper Trains


This evening we leave Austria for Italy on a sleeper train. The children have been counting down the nights with unprecedented excitement; when bedtime comes around there’ll be bunk beds and locomotives, all together in one rocking place. But before we pack up and leave, we’ve time to see a little more of Vienna.

We dash out early for a walk along the Donaukanal – one of the Danube’s canals and a scenic spot popular with runners and commuters – where we stop to skim stones at the water’s edge. There is a brief interlude at Rudolfsplatz for a swing and slide alongside the children from the neighbouring kindergarten, before we reach the 1st District.

The worst thing about not having a guide book is that you rarely know where to go or how to get there. The best thing about not having a guide book is that you stumble across a jewellery-maker burnishing silver at her window off Fischerstiege (the hilly residence of the former fish market), who recommends her favourite lunch spot. We head to Hidden Kitchen on Färbergasse for a bite to eat (great and excellent value for money), before making our way to Judenplatz. We pass yet more trendy design shops, couturiers, kaffeehausen and bookshops, all the while dodging a tremendous amount of shit that is ceremoniously excreted by the glossy horses carting glossier tourists around the Innere Stadt.


The Innere Stadt is Vienna’s Old Town, and Judenplatz is one of its main squares. Judenplatz (Jew’s Square) was the beating heart of the city’s Jewish community in the Middle Ages (the now much diminished community can be found on the other side of the Donaukanal in Leopoldstadt), but it is now home to Rachel Whiteread’s impressive and shocking (and once upon a time hugely controversial) memorial to Vienna’s stolen Jewish community.

The ‘Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial’ (or ‘Nameless Library’ as it is sometimes known) is a commanding concrete box on whose surface is a repeating pattern of unnamed books. Whiteread is best known for her inside-out concrete casts of buildings and here she literally turned a library in on itself, metaphorically exposing the rawness of it all. The books – and the people they serve (the ‘People of the Book’) – can not and will not ever be read; row after row of blankness, reminding us of a time when art, music, poetry, philosophy, literature were vanished from the pages of life.


In its blankness, Whiteread’s memorial acts as a counter-monument: it is neither elegant nor celebratory, and it is deeply contrasting to the city’s flamboyant Baroque-influence, as can be seen in the architecture that encircles the piece around Judenplatz. The late Simon Wiesenthal (whom initiated the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial) said at its unveiling, “This monument shouldn’t be beautiful, it must hurt”. And it does. (It also responds to Theodor Adorno’s sentiment that ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric…’) However, I wonder what Wiesenthal would have thought if he saw someone SITTING ON IT EATING A HAM SANDWICH (alimental desecration!), as we did. I ask myself, when do memorials stop remembering? Perhaps at the moment they are made.


What we also see, however, is that life goes on – and The Husband and I find this disquieting. This is the place where no more than 70 years ago, he and I would have been shot on this very pavement and our children carted off to camps in cattle cars marked KINDER, and now business men and women in pristine white shirts, sitting at pristine white tablecloths, sip translucent riesling as the crystalline blood of their elders turns igneous in the paving stones. (I think, all these restaurants, the horses and carriages, the souvenir shops and memorials, they’re ‘making a killing out of killing’.)  The past has not long passed.

Our two- and four-year old children want to know what this big inside-out bookshelf is all about and, of course, we attempt to respond with care and mindfulness; keeping in mind for ourselves, too, that humankind continues to perpetrate acts of violence.  I am reminded of Primo Levi who said of Auschwitz, ‘It happened, therefore it can happen again.’ Never again is never never again.

The Husband and I leave Innere Stadt feeling exhausted – emotionally (understandably) and preemptively (we have a train to catch on which we each have to attempt a good night’s sleep in a bunk bed attached to a small child) – and, yet again, out-of-place.

We intend to go into the Freud Museum on the walk home, as both children have fallen asleep in the pushchair, but psychoanalysis seems a little too demanding after the Judenplatz. We decide instead to walk in the museum’s deserted courtyard, and I wonder if this is the best place to take in the spirit of Freud anyway; he and his family would have enjoyed it during their 47 years here, and maybe he created his theorems out here in the open air.

Later, we return home to pack our bags and make sandwiches for the train, and when the early evening draws in we go next door to say goodbye to Martina and her children.

Martina is making pancakes and kindly feeds our salivating children before hers. They particularly like the morsels of stale bread that she dips in batter, fries, and sprinkles with sugar – a treat that Martina’s mother made for her as a child. Then the four children play together for the last time.

By the time we discover that they are playing with a wooden till containing paper money printed with black stars – okay, enough now Vienna! – we have to leave to catch our train. We thank Martina and her lovely family for their warmth and generous hospitality, hand over a parting gift, and take the lift down to the street. Martina, Eleni and Magnus wave to us from the window as we make our way to the Donaukanal and U-bahn (underground) beyond.


When we arrive at Wien Westbahnhof railway station, our train is poised, waiting for us to jump on. Zippy and Roo clamber up the deep steps as quickly as their little legs will carry them, and when we reach our couchette for four we all squeal with delight! There’s a window looking out onto the pink-orange moon, four inviting bunks with pillows and clean sheets (Zippy is in heaven!), a sink in a cupboard that lights up whenever you open the door (Roo is in heaven!), and a table hosting four bags that contain complimentary fluffy slippers (The Husband is in heaven!). There are wash cloths and soap, packets of funny-shaped bar snacks, bottles of water, and four cups of sangria (I am in heaven!). The Husband and I make that two sangrias each, which I think we drink before the train has even left the station.


At 7pm we pull out of Vienna and push into the night towards Italy. We brush our teeth in the cupboard, use the bathroom, and fill out our breakfast cards (yup, breakfast cards) that we hand to the incredibly sweet carriage manager who is our host for the night. We tumble into bed and I think this could be a grown-up spa hotel, were it not for the lack of spa facilities and the small child kneeing me in the back.

The sleep is good – well, good enough – broken only by some stops and hairpin bends. Our alarm goes off at 4.30am and we gather up our bags and children before stepping out into the rain and early hours of the Bolognese dawn, with two doggy bags full of breakfast made by the lovely carriage manager. Trains are the only way to travel.

On the platform the children sway from the wonder at arriving in a new place to tearfulness brought on by tiredness. Their parents are too exhausted to carry the children and all the stuff up-and-down stairs, so we wait for the lift to be turned on (yes, turned on) at 5am. The lights are bright, everyone is talking and smoking – even the two policemen on the platform – and they all look like us: short, dark, and as if they have enjoyed a nice meal with the family.


We hail a taxi outside the station and the kindly driver takes us to our new home for the week, on Via Vallescura on the south side of central Bologna. Our host, Alberta, appears at the front door at 5.30am in her dressing gown. Clearly we have woken her but she scoops up Roo and carries him up two flights of stairs to our apartment, and he doesn’t even seem to notice. She’s very clearly a professional nona and this, I think, is a great sign of things to come.

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