Excitement… and a Little Fear

The Wiener Eistraum at the Rathaus opens up after New Year’s and welcomes some 560,000 visitors to one of winter’s true pleasures

Tourists and echte Wieners gather at the Rathaus Rink | Photo: David Wörgötter

An amiable blonde five year old was impatiently waiting for her mother to put on her skates while persistently trying to skate around on the wooden planking that surrounds the ice-rink at Rathausplatz. Friday afternoon seemed like a perfect time for family skating, and most of the people on the square had at least one child at their side. As the first four benches were all filled with elementary school children eating their sandwiches and drinking out of juice boxes, I followed along the length of the rink to seat myself and take in the goings on.

A red-haired Irish kid had taken over  the rink: he was swinging back and forth, couple of pirouettes in a row ending in a bracket shaped, one-foot turn. A near-by group of girls watched in astonishment; yet the Irish kid seemed not to pay much attention to their speechless faces. Ice-skating was about more than showing-off.

To me, there were two worlds at that moment: the high-action one of the skaters and the reflective one I discover walking at a safe distance. Ice is too much of a slippery concept for me, literally. On the ice the globe itself rotates faster, the transcendence of the wind makes the time passes by so quickly – adrenalin keeps pumping into our veins until we feel one of the cheeks kissing the frozen surface and see our friends fall down laughing. To some this 50:50 chance of falling is exciting; to some – like me – it’s terrifying.  I had a bad fall once, and a dangerous knock on the head. But I love to watch the floating weightlessness of skaters, freed from the traction that holds the rest of us earth bound, and hope one day I can overcome my fear.

Vienna’s Eistraum opens every January right after New Years and usually ends as March brings us warmer spring days. Some 560,000 visitors take to the ice every season, for an entry fee of €6. The rink opens at 9:00 and the lights go off at 22:00. During the season, the day itself dictates the crowd: Sundays are everyone’s favorite and sometimes it gets so loud that the serious skaters stay away; during the week late afternoons seem like a perfect choice. That is exactly the time when the change in generations occurs. It takes about an hour during which everybody mingles together. Then between 17:00 and 18:00 the children leave as the rental booth teems up with teenagers ‘spontaneously’ scanning the situation – girls checking out cute boys, and shy boys hastily smiling back. But the actual look-at-me game starts on the ice, when the promiscuous part of the younger crowd starts pirouetting along the lines of Beatles “Hey Jude”.

Outside the booth, near the rink, older folks bend over the board walk trying to spot their grandchildren in the ocean of vibrant rainbow-colored outfits (those kids seem to always slip away without a fuss, which leaves the poor grandparents helplessly worried for at least twenty minutes).

Still, not all are worried. As I was sitting in a tent-like restaurant waiting for my Früchtetee to arrive, a well-dressed older Austrian lady asked to join me as all other tables were occupied. I smiled in approval, and that point she figured out I spoke no German. After laying her coat over the chair, she hesitantly looked at me, and as soon as I caught her confused look and moved my eyes from the book I was reading, she hasty turned the other way pretending to be calling up a waiter.

A few minutes later, she mumbled something in German and moved to a near-by table where her could-be-new friend was drinking a Macchiato. By the time I was heading to the Würstelstand, these two were deep in conversation, punctuated with smiles and laughter the Viennese-accent too thick for me to catch a single word.

The swap-time was in its final stage, and there were almost no older couples holding hands and only a few children still jumping up and down pleading for a few more minutes on the ice. It got darker, and the morning whiteness now appeared diamond-white, sparkling purple-to-blue ice as the lightshow came on, sending beams of color down from the gothic arches of the Rathaus balcony. Surrounding statues remained frozen, but one could have easily spotted a dimple on their faces.

As I was leaving this slippery world behind, Shakira’s summer hit “Waka Waka” echoed over the square. The song had been composed for the FIFA 2010 Championship in South Africa, but as my fingers were about to freeze any moment, the Viennese winter landscape seemed like a very, very long way from Johannesburg.

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