‘Silvester’ on the Graben

Fireworks, Fiddlers, and Fate All Conspire

On New Years Eve, the Graben is festooned with chandeliers and bunting of 1000 tiny lights | Photo: Wien Event

My plane set down in Vienna at 8:32 in the morning of December 31. It was grey and rainy, and much too warm to be New Years Eve. It had been a rough flight, at least on the inside: there were four babies in our section, with parents either too green or too tired to help them settle. So it seemed best to volunteer a lot of pacing and back patting in the interest of collective tranquillity.

Thus we fell through the airport exit doors in a stupor. We stumbled along behind the hero who had come to collect us and headed home directly, falling into bed. I slept fitfully most of the day, waking on and off, tired and grouchy. To hell with New Year’s, I thought, turning over and burying my head in a pillow. Finally, at about 4 pm, I fell into a very deep sleep and disappeared from the world.

When I woke hours later, it was dark and still. It must be nearly dawn, I thought. I reached for the light, just as a sharp crack came from the street. And then another, followed by a whistle, a fizz and a poof. I blinked at the clock. It was only 10:30 pm. Could it be possible? I thought of George Bailey standing on the bridge in Bedford Falls in the snow, laughing at his bloody lip.

I was awake! I had been given another chance!

I had not missed the New Year after all! I got dressed and headed out to the celebrations on the Graben.

As I crossed the Salztorbruecke on the way into town, fireworks were exploding on all sides and lighting the sky.

The streets were thick with people, laughing and singing (and some stumbling), walking with Champaign in fluted glasses or beer in bottles and (most important) Glühwein in mugs, munching on Würstl from a stand along the way.

The music changed with each neighborhood: On the Hohemarkt, I passed a band from Radio Wien doing a very presentable rendition of “Satisfaction,” and could hear the faint echoes of “Bye, Bye Blackbird” from somewhere in the direction of Am Hof. On the Neue Markt, I might have heard Hungarian Gypsy music, and elsewhere cabaret, or maybe operetta.

On the Graben, under chandeliers and bunting formed of a thousand tiny lights, it was Strauss waltzes, which for this night were really the best.

A live string quartet of dazzling dames in slinky black leather filled a central stage – re-inventing the 18th century pop classics for a new generation – alternated with recordings of the Vienna Philharmonic at top fidelity over the loud speakers, as the crowd warmed their hands around the mugs, or sipped their bubbly. Here the eats were more interesting – spiced ham with mustard and horse radish, Goulasch or Frittattensuppe. In spite of the numbers, somehow there were no real lines. There must have been stands every 20 meters although I couldn’t see far enough to be certain.

It was all infectious, and moments after arriving, I was thoroughly in the mood. …Sieben…, Acht…, Neun…, Zehn… Herzlichen Glückwunsch!!  They count forwards here, I realized through the steam rising from my Glühwein. This must mean something….

Faces were euphoric, people somehow managed to find spaces in the throng to waltz, which widened around them – furs and felts along side wool hats and parkas. Fathers danced with children on their shoulders, mothers with their little girls, friends with friends, and students adding cap and bells to their usual brooding black. The spirit was irresistible and I felt my smile muscles stretch to meet it, thoroughly glad I had made the effort.

At about 1:30, I started for home. At Petersplatz, a half dozen police were lounging about keeping an eye on the goings on.

“All serene,” I commented, half statement, half question.

“So far,” the policeman laughed. I raised an eyebrow. “It doesn’t usually begin to unravel till sometime after 2.00.”

“Well, good luck,” I said. He nodded.

But luck is not handed out evenly in this world. As I strolled on down Marc Aurel Strasse, a young man stumbled out of a pizzeria pivoted around to his much steadier girlfriend, gestured with a sweep somewhere to his right and toppled into a lamppost. He hardly noticed it; her face drooped with bottomless disappointment.

On down Salztorgasse to the bridge, a group of diners, well wrapped and effervescent, stepped out of a Gasthaus and started off up the street. A few strides later, they stopped in front of a sleek blue Audi; a long discussion ensued punctuated with pokes and laughter until, happily, caution won the day and they headed off up the street on foot, to the taxi stand at the top of the hill.

On the bridge, the ribbon of black satin water stretched off into the distance toward the Kahlenberg, glistening in the clear night. The cracks and whistles were fewer now, the voices quieting, with a single laugh or shriek cutting here and there through the stillness. At the far side, a cluster of people had formed at the corner. Perhaps the light was out.

I saw a police car… but then I saw another, and an ambulance, its red light rotating silently in the darkness.  I came closer – I had to pass that way – and threaded my way through the crowd.

A car was stopped at an angle in the middle of the intersection and below it, a body covered in blankets lay on the pavement, emergency workers on either side.

A man at the curb had seen the accident. A car, turning on green, had not stopped for the zebra stripes and hit a woman crossing the street. She was young; a friend was with her; she did not seem to be able to move her legs. As I continued on my way, I saw her lift her head and start to speak. She looked terrified.

Every cycle has its dark and light, every joy its sorrow.  It was a new year. And nothing would ever be the same.

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