Vienna is buzzing and it’s not the bees pollinating the trees. The subway speakers are quoting Conchita Wurst wisdoms about love and tolerance and gay and lesbian tourists holding hands and taking snap shots outnumber those from Asia. Even the city’s pedestrian lights are flashing green pairs of ladies walking hand and hand. And this morning, heeding the Austrian “Akademische Viertel” that Viennese have extended to not just the university but all parts of life, I cum tempore c.t.-ed my way to the Press Office at 12:15 pm and picked up my bright green press pass wristband. “Vienna muses!” she said, smiling and handing me my wristband.
Vienna Pedestrian Crossing Lights – two ladies hand and hand
Vienna City Hall Lifeball 2015
Armed with my ticket to the greatest party on earth, I opted to test its magic ASAP and flashed it to the guard at the Rathaus fence, who promptly let me slip in and snap a few shots of the City Hall.
The gold chariot awaits its driver and the cat walk is ready to go. The bars are up, the tent stations are manned and in less than five hours, Vienna’s craziest party of the year is about to begin.
But that’s not all. Thanks to my magical wristband, not only did I get some nice shots for you all of the Rathaus, but lo and behold, hurrying up the ramp to the stage, in a got-tons-to-do jot was Lifeball organizer, Gery Keszler himself – the man who must be utterly exhausted from all the preparations, and personally welcoming all the out-of-town “Promis” arriving at the Vienna airport. Pure adrenalin. And while I was kicking myself for not having my camera in ready-mode to get a better pix, he was all smiles and cheerful, making his rounds, checking it twice, making sure things will be perfect for the naughty and nice.
Gery Keszler – Lifeball Organizer – Making his rounds hours before the Opening
Just as only a lover can reveal to a man what life means to him and develop its innermost significance…– Austrian writer Hermann Bahr, 1901, in his “Speech on Klimt” describing Klimt’s artwork.
Gearing up for Vienna’s 2015 LifeBall
“Dress – good buy. Worn once. Wedding.” The taxi driver gave me a thumbs up and pocketed my Euros. One thing was sure, he was happy to see that thing go.
Second sure thing, if gowns could talk, this one would have tales to tell because it was going to the Lifeball. With me!
This year’s theme? GOLD – VER SACRUM ala Austrian artist, Gustav Klimt.
Gold Accessories for Lifeball
Klimt! The name “…intimately associated in the art-lover’s mind with sensuous lines, erotic and beautiful women, and decorative golden detail.” (Essential Klimt)
After the confirmation that I had accomplished the next-to-impossible task of securing a ticket, I moved into action mode. That evening I charged head first into Willhaben’s “Abendkleid” collection, scouring countless computer screens and hundreds of gowns. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, my weary eyes in blurred determination spotted it like a fata morgana on a distant horizon — a flowing toga-looking dress bearing a bold gold sash and dotted with gold spheres destined for Gustav’s magic.
Close of Gown
Next stop, basement of Libro in a hunt for fabric paints (don’t kids do crafts anymore?).
A kitchen table, a bottle of nail polish remover, 99 cent paintbrushes and a Klimt coffeetable book of art I had scored a few years ago for half price at Borders in North Carolina and I was set. I am no artist, but the lights in Vienna’s City Hall were bound to be forgiving. Or the alcohol flowing. Or both. Let’s face it, by midnight, all Cinderellas will have hurried home and every man, woman and Conchita is stunning in any costume.
Contrary to other Vienna balls, come 1 am at the Lifeball, it’s not just the ladies kicking off their heels to jam in their stockings, it’s the guys too. In fact, the entire night, you’re getting sympathetic nods, as they too adjust their mascara, dab some clear nail polish on the run in their ‘hose, and duck into a corner to readjust their bra straps.
Gold Glam at Vienna’s Faschingsprinz – perfect of Lifeball accessories
“Hmm Hmm Hmmm giiirl! Where did you get such a sassy hair feather? That so accentuates the azure in that gown!” OK. Maybe the German version of that. But you get the idea. And hey! Maybe not. Because the Lifeball is without bounds and without borders. Folks are from anywhere and everywhere. And you won’t know if they are black, white, grey, brown, yellow or polka-dotted green. Speak German, English or Swahili. You also won’t know if they are homosexuals, heterosexuals, transsexuals, asexuals or what-ever. Are they male, female, neither or both? You won’t know. Because no one cares. Everyone is there to have fun, party, celebrate and raise money for a good cause. So get with the program!
Amongst this crowd, if you don’t want to blend into the background like a sparrow in a parade of peacocks, you better go for the gold and accessorize.
Fortunately, I live in the district with probably the very best shop in town for Lifeball needs – Faschingsprinz. Don’t judge this shop by its website. They seem to have last updated their important events list in 2010, but I’m sure that’s just because they’re too busy uniting creative customers with their artistic needs. No idea where to start with your Lifeball outfit? Go there. And if you’re tempted by those sparkling red no-place-like home heels, go for it. They’re bound to match someone’s leather outfit.
Armed with leis of golden flowers and sparkly Egyptian style eye make up damning me to hours of mirror time, I headed home to pimp up my parade.
Full Gown for Lifeball
By midnight, pleased my gown project didn’t end in disaster (I have a low success threshold when it comes to creative projects), I was sleep-deprived enough to convince myself that the smock-donning man who was still inspiring multitudes with his beautiful works of art almost a hundred years after his death would have forgiven my attempt to emulate his technique — considering it was for a good cause. But even at that hour I seriously doubted he would have exhibited the thrilled enthusiasm of the taxi driver husband who was so eager to get the gown gone that he offered to perform a home delivery on a Craigslist sale item. A good buy. A very good buy.
Friends have asked why I would want to go to a ball alone. Truth is, I only got one ticket so it wasn’t really a decision. Sure it’d be a blast to go with some friends but if last year’s ball is any indication, I’m not worried.
At the Lifeball there are no sparrows, only peacocks. And I will just sync my step with the suicidal stilettos, shiny heels, sensible sandals and ripped stockings of my fellow Dorothies dreaming of a better place somewhere over the rainbow. That in Vienna, year for year, exists for an entire amazing night. Because beyond the gold, flash, and pizazz is a celebration of “life’s innermost significance” – what distinguishes but unites us. No matter color, creed or sexual orientation. Everyone coming together in a night of awesomeness to fight HIV and AIDs and celebrate life.
Shoes from Faschingsprinz high and sparkly enough to transport anyone over a rainbow
Saturday, May 16, 2015
Ball Opening: 9:30 pm
Entrances: Open as of 7:30 pm
The Vienna Ringstrasse will be closed Saturday evening from Schwarzenbergplatz to Schottentor from 6 pm – 11:30 pm.
Don’t have a ball ticket?
Come to the Rathaus (U2 Schottentor or Rathaus) and admire the costumes as ball guests enter the ball parading down the red carpet to the Vienna City Hall.
Want a preview of what’s to come? Check out the Lifeball Style Bible – Klimt’s paintings staged with live models – a feast for the eyes! No wonder the man caused a ruckus when he opted to stop painting the cherubs and go for something a bit more modern – over 100 years ago!
Because life is too short to wait around for good times to happen. You have to make them happen. – KC
Recently I received a document from – I loathe to admit this – a fellow American — addressed to me in Vienna, Italy. I understand that Vienna begins with a “V” as does “Venice.” And both cities have six letter names containing an “i,” an “e,” and an “n.” But Vienna is not Venice and Venice is not Vienna UNLESS, you were one of 6000 guests at the Kaffeesiederball at the imperial palace this past Friday night.
The theme of this year’s ball was “A Night in Venice.” Vienna’s Kaffeesieder have mastered the art of making a guest feel like royalty and their 58th ball in the imperial palace was no exception. Footmen donning red coats and white satin vests with gold buttons and trimming flanked the sides of the marbled grand staircase. All ladies ascending the red carpet to the ballrooms above were welcomed with a small gift resting on a silver platter — a brightly colored Carnival mask.
Footmen on the grand staircase offering arriving ladies Carnival masks
The cakes designed by each of the various coffeehouses and raffled to guests featured designs such as the Rialto Bridge and gondolas. Your raffle ticket didn’t land you a Sacher Torte? No worries. Mine didn’t either but I did manage to score two bottles of champagne, a six pack of beer and a gift certificate to a coffeehouse. After all, every ticket wins. Over 11 bands and orchestras played in 7 different dance and ballrooms – to every kind of music from waltz, to polka to traditional Austrian folk songs to ABBA. Waltzing couples followed in the footsteps of the 88 white-gowned debutantes who opened the ball with their white-gloved partners in the grand ballroom. The DJ playing at the bottom of the Ambassador staircase had a great mix of music to get even the most rhythm challenged attendees jamming. Guests who preferred to rock a bit of the night away 60’s style could do so with the Bad Powells on the top floor. ABBA not your thing? The stair climb or elevator ride is still worth the effort to just hang out at the sky bar and enjoy the panoramic view of the palace dome and Rathaus at night. Hungry? There’s oysters flown in from France on the top floor, Würstel at the passage near the Ambassador Staircase, Gulasch and so much more at the bars across from the grand ballroom, Viennese winery food and song tucked away in the bottom floor of the palace near the Josefplatz entrance and Apfelstrüdel in the room across from the coat check. Tired? Grab a quick espresso in the Meinl coffeehouse near the entrance.
Chandeliers in Ballroom
Feeling dizzy from the hunger strike you embarked on two days ago to squeeze into your one-size too small gown or feeling a blister sprouting from your too expensive, too tight, too high, sparkly new heels? No worries, one of the balls two tuxedoed emergency doctors can rush to your side and save the day. Your partner not dance-happy? One of the 25 available “Taxidancers” hired by the coffeehouse owners is sure to keep your restless feet waltzing for a Strauss tune or two.
At the end of the evening, at 3:30 in the morning, we decided to call it a night. As we exited the palace, charming ladies in ball gowns placed a Damenspende – a bag filled with gift certificates, marmalade, tea, Campari soda, a porcelain coffee cup, Niemetz Schwedenbomben and other goodies into each of our hands. As we waited in the queue for a taxi, a white stretch limousine pulled up next us, tempting us to accept Café Landtmann’s generous free ride to breakfast in Sigmund Freud’s most beloved coffeehouse. I eyed my friend who gave an indecisive pause both of us reluctant to let the night (morning) draw to an end. But a gust of biting wind, her jet lag and my lack of sleep argued that it would be better to put our aching feet to bed.
Paris Trip Giveaway
This year, a friend from NYC, Monique Patterson, who is an executive editor at St. Martin’s Press, flew into town for the weekend so she could come along. I had gushed about the ball at a conference we met at last year. I told her I didn’t understand why more people didn’t come to Vienna to attend the balls because they are so much fun. I mean, how often does one get to play Cinderella for a night and attend a ball at an imperial palace? She agreed and not even a half a year later, I was standing at Vienna airport early Friday morning, waiting for her red-eye flight to arrive.
Ballroom with live Jazz music
Sometime in the midst of the evening, after more than one random handsome tuxedoed man had stopped her to compliment her on her gorgeous gown, and a camera crew interviewed her about her experience, as we were sipping our champagne and watching a group of ball-goers dress up with French props to compete to win a free trip to Paris, I asked, “Was it everything you imagined it to be?” She answered, “Everything. And so much more.”
“We must plan for freedom, and not only for security, if for no other reason than that only freedom can make security secure.” Austrian-born philosopher, Karl Popper, “The Open Society and Its Enemies.”
“I always thought America was so free, but …” As a high school exchange student in Germany I often heard the complaint and knew word-for-word what would follow.
Did someone prevent the Germans from exercising their Fourth Amendment rights in front of the Capitol building? Forbade them from drafting a New York Times editorial in between stints to the Grand Canyon and Disneyland? No.
The reason why America’s Land-of-the-Free reputation was losing serious ground in the court of German tourist public opinion was: “we couldn’t even go “oben-ohne” on the public beach.” Helga’s inability to display her knockers while soaking up the rays on Newport Beach was indisputable proof that The Land of Liberty was nothing more than a Hollywood-based, Bob Dylan propagated, myth.
My German at the time was far too basic to explain that Helga’s one-sy was an act of public kindness and the freedoms anchored in the Bill of Rights supported far weightier issues than her Double Ds. At the time, less than a day’s drive away, Germans far less fortunate than their Western counterparts were living in a society with very different ideas about privacy and freedom.
“The government statistics office in the Hans Beimler Street counts everything, knows everything: How many shoes I buy a year: 2.3; how many books I read; 3.2, and how many students successfully complete their graduating exams: 6347. But one statistic is never recorded, perhaps because even the bureaucrats find such numbers painful, and that’s the amount of suicides. If you call Beimler-Street and ask them, how many people between the Elbe and Oder or Ost Sea and Erzgebirge were driven to their deaths by desperation, then our number oracle remains silent, and probably jots down their exact names, for the sake of national security, those grey gentleman, who are in charge of our country’s security and happiness. “
– “The Lives of Others”
In 2006, German filmmaker, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck premiered, “The Lives of Others” (Das Leben der Anderen) portraying a world where, in the name of national security, ordinary citizens were constantly monitored by secret government agents and anything you said or did in the privacy of your four walls could be used against you. Objectively, you might not have anything to hide, but because information is power and the state had information about your most personal exchanges, your innocence was forever vulnerable to the whims, fears and desires, of the government agents recording your data or those directing them to do so.
God is Watching You graffiti, Donaukanal, Vienna, Austria, 2014
“It was a film about the mass surveillance of an entire society in the name of public security.”
This past Friday, after navigating my way through a street full of partying, kissing lesbians protesting in front of Café Prückl, I arrived at a long queue extending to the curb outside the Gartenbaukino. After a wine and some chit chat, my friends and I made our way into the cinema. Almost every single one of the 736 seats was filled. The audience represented a broad strata of the Vienna public – old and young, men and women, Austrians, Germans and English-speaking expats, alternative and conservative types, students and business people, all crammed together to see another film on mass surveillance — Citizenfour.
Since then, I’ve tried to trace my memories back to a time before email, Google, Twitter, Reddit and Facebook. I’ve recalled the clicking coins of a pay phone, the musty warm smell of a library book, the ultra-thin paper of an international letter, and the homemade covers of personalized cassette tapes. Sweet, private, transient memories from a past age in which vital words and thoughts only persevered when recorded in the hearts and minds of those that shared them.
In the dawn of the internet age, we eagerly embraced the new technology that promised a hitherto unimaginable capability to connect with people around the world and access to treasure troves of information previously stored in the dusty bowels of libraries and archives. All in the blink of an eye, in real time, news, photos, recipes, songs from Cincinnati to Sydney, were ours for the taking. Adieu old publishing house gatekeepers, hello information age. As technology advanced in leaps and bounds, computers decreased in size and the ability to store terabytes of information increased at a phenomenal rate.
The future seemed rosy.
Then came the cookies (not chocolate chip), personalized ads (no banner behind the airplane), smart search engines, chat archives, tracking software, motion activated video cameras and cloud computing. Suddenly Lyndon Johnson’s words in 1968 when urging members of the US Congress to enact the Privacy Act, seemed chillingly prescient:
“We must protect the American people against a new threat to one of our oldest and most precious rights—the right of personal privacy.
The principle that a man’s home is his castle is under new attack. For centuries the law of trespass protected a man’s lands and his home. But in the age of advanced technology, thick walls and locked doors cannot guard our privacy or safeguard our personal freedom. Today we need a strong law – suited to modern conditions — to protect us from those who would trespass upon our conversations.”
“Those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear.”
At one point in Citizenfour, Guardian journalist, Glenn Greenwald, jots down information he would like to share, then shows the pad of paper to the person he’d like to share it with, and once it has been read, rips it to shreds, and leaves it in a pile no doubt destined for a match and garbage can. It reminded me of a very similar scene in “The Lives of Others” when one character points to hidden listening devices in the walls, turns up a record player and then holds up hand-written signs to communicate with his visitor.
Throughout the history of mankind, people have been abused, flogged, stoned, tortured, interned, exiled and put to death for adhering to the wrong religion, the wrong race, the wrong sexual orientation, the wrong political party, the wrong social class, the wrong education level, and the wrong belief system. “Wrong” determined by power, not objective principle. The “harmless” information stored about you today could be the proof of your adherence to the “wrong” tomorrow.
Watch “The Lives of Others.” Then watch, “Citizenfour.” Then try not to think about watching what you say, do or type, because, who knows who else could be watching and their definition of wrong vs. right.
It begs the question: Are we now all living the lives of others?
My hero, John Oliver, tries to convince the American public, this is an important issue and goes to Moscow to interview Edward Snowden – you have to watch this:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
– Pastor Martin Neimöller in reference to the failure of citizens to act against the Nazi regime.
Unterleutnant Axel Stigler: [enthusiastic] I’ve got a new one. So… Honecker comes into his office in the morning… opens the window, looks at the sun, and says…
Unterleutnant Axel Stigler: …and the sun answered, ‘Good morning dear Erich!’ At afternoon Erich sees the sun again and says, ‘Good day dear sun’ And the sun says: ‘Good day dear Erich!’ After work Honecker goes back to the window and says, ‘Good evening dear sun!’ But the sun doesn’t answer! So he says again, ‘Good evening dear sun, what’s wrong?’ And the sun answered and said, ‘Oh, kiss my ass, I’m in the West now!’
KC Blau is originally a steel city girl who has resided amongst the cobble-stoned lanes of Vienna, Austria for over 15 years. She is a German-English translator who loves to relate the tales of a bygone era of the fascinating women who lived, loved and struggled (not necessarily in that order) in turn-of-century Vienna.