Wien Darf Nicht Tokio Werden… (And Other Sins of Modern Life)

Beer, Sausages, Schlager Music And Claustrophobia: A Trip to the U1 Opening Reveals the Perils (And Pleasures) Of Public Events

An impenetrable mass of people flooded the streets at Kagranerplatz for the Sept. 2 opening of five new stations on the U1 subway line. At the nearby Heuriger, DJ Mike put on yet another thumping dance remix and bellowed an incomprehensible avalanche of words into the mic in his throaty Viennese German.

Turning away from the painful throbbing bass, the street filled with a wide array of booths, banners and balloons in all the colors of the political rainbow. The scene reminded one passer-by more of a rock festival than a ribbon cutting. But maybe that was the idea.

The U1 is the oldest subway line in Vienna. Begun in 1969, it was initially supposed to run only between Praterstern and Reumannplatz, however the collapse of the Reichsbrücke in 1976 changed the plans, and the rebuilding of the bridge permitted the extension of the line all the way to Kagran by 1982. The second extension from Kagran to Leopoldau, got under way in 2000, and took six years, at a cost of 560 million.

So there was a lot to celebrate, guaranteeing a whole day extravaganza lasting till the evening hours. Most of the party was taking place on the streets and in fact, public anticipation seemed more enthusiastic than the actual discovery of the shining new entryways, corridors and escalators that were being honored inside.

Along the sidewalk, sales clerks smiling in overdrive worked the shop stands as if their lives depended on it. And the throngs ambled by sampling things here and there, talking and laughing in the contagious spirit of urban festival crowds.

At the heart of cordoned off festival area, the euphoria was dying down. People stood around idly, uninterested, holding a drink in hand, observing the local bands playing on stage. At the beverage stands, it became obvious that the aura was not the only thing resembling a music festival. It seemed a little exaggerated to ask for 2.30 Euro for an iced tea and 4.40 for a pack of cigarettes, since there was a Tabak less than fifty meters away.

Underground, the new subway station brought no relief from the chaos above. It being opening day, the trains came every two minutes, yet this helped little to relieve the overfilled metro. It was a flip of the coin; either squeezing into one of the packed wagons or crossing your fingers that you’d fit into the next.

“Just like Tokyo…” comments one onlooker with a grin. Inside the train, the situation seemed more normal. Hot, but normal. The landscape passing the train windows was lined with building materials, indicating that although the stations have opened, work is far from finished.

Approaching the final station, Leopoldau, the train slowly rolled to a halt in the middle of the tunnel, our destination nowhere in sight. The voice of the driver reverberated through the speakers, informing the passengers that “due to the short time intervals between the trains, there are delays,” and asked, “everyone to remain patient.”

We didn’t wait long. Arriving at the station minutes later the passenger’s relief dissolved as we saw the crowd waiting for a train back into town. Hundreds of heads crane, eyes squinting to see when the next train is due. It immediately becomes apparent that we have to find another way back; no one is willing to go through another second of this madness. And a pit stop at the Leopoldau station’s Tabak confirmed that the enthusiasm exceeded all expectations.

Had this chaos been going on all day?

“I think you can see for yourself,” says the vendor nervously, pointing to the empty shelves where lonely cigarette packs struggled to hold the fort.

We restocked our tobacco rations, and finally resurfaced on ground level in Leopoldau.

Here, the scene is no different than at Kagranerplatz. Sausages, beer, remixed “Schlager” hits and general confusion. Apart from the few benches placed outside the station, no other seating was to be found. There was little more to be done than find an alternative way home.

Stumbling upon the 29A bus station, the 2 minute waiting time turned into ten – until the display finally announced STAU IN ZUFAHRT (congestion on the way in), burying our last hope of getting out of Leopoldau by modern public transit.

A solution was finally found not entirely by chance. A companion had had enough presence of mind to grab one of the maps of the new U-bahn line that were being handed out at the stations, allowing us to navigate through the rows of family houses staring at the map that was beautifully clear except for one essential detail – the lack of street names.

However a quarter hour later, the Grossfeldsiedlung station came into view, and before long we were back at square one: Kagranerplatz.

There was just one last hurdle, taking the long winding staircase overflowing with people and walking at a snail’s pace until we glimpse dthe light of day.

We sympathized when we saw an elevator that had chosen to take the easy way out of the chaos – it had simply given up the ghost.

Additional research for this story by Gamma Siregar

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