A couple of years ago I had to catch a 6 am train to Budapest. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I boarded the subway expecting nothing but a quick ride to the train station. But when I boarded the U-4, I noticed that the only other person in my wagon at such an ungodly hour on a Sunday morning, was a handsome young man sitting in the next set of seats sharing his bench with a rather large plastic pink flamingo. Austrians might like garden gnomes but I have never witnessed them escorting them on outings via the U4. And a flamingo? This is Vienna, not Miami. Pigeons and magpies but no flamingos.
By the time we had reached Schwedenplatz, I started to worry about them. Was this city worldly enough to tolerate a a lonely guy, with only a plastic flamingo as a companion?
At Stadtpark, a group of two girls and a guy, also in their early twenties, boarded our train. I determined then and there that if need be, I would exhibit the civil courage necessary to defend my fellow passenger and his fine feathered friend. Thus, we’d be three against three. First a smirk, then a shameless smile, and before we’d even reached Karlsplatz, the three of them were barreled over in laughter. At 5:15 am on a Sunday morning mind you. The young man played it cool and politely feigned obliviousness. But then one of them had the audacity to address the elephant in the U-4.
“What’s up with the flamingo?”
And this past Saturday evening, as I made my way, slightly self-conscious, to the Vienna Rathaus donning a sparkly grassy green ballgown, flowered heels and tights, white-feathered, garden party hat and discreet fairy wings, I feared there may be a person or two who, at the worst, would question my state of my mental health, at best, my fashion sense. But as I reached the barriers, a group of about 20 guys standing beside the security guards cheered and high-fived me with a, “Hey!!! Way to Go!!! Lifeball! Yeah!”
Because nowadays, everyone in the city knows the annual event of the Vienna Lifeball and everyone welcomes its. Once a year, Bill Clinton flies into town to get together with the founding father and “face of the Lifeball”, Gery Keszler. Together they work to increase AIDs awareness while raising money to battle HIV and AIDs. The red ribbon event is one of the biggest and most spectacular of its kind in the world. And IT WAS SPECTACULAR.
This year’s theme was, “Garden of Earthly Delights” and the costumes were extraordinary. The stairs and rooms of the Rathaus were over-flowing with peacocks, baroque couples, walking lawns, snakes, flower-pots with legs, Medusas, swans, farmers, gnomes, butterflies, bird cages…If you could find it in a garden, it was there too. Live music in the courtyard, (remember Erasure?), discos in countless rooms, pole dancing, massage parlors, and a “Oops!-your-costume/hair-needs-a-quick-fix” room. Amazing. Fun. Prominent people, famous people, politicians, costume designers, singers, actors, actresses, and ordinary people like me. All getting together for a great cause and a wonderfully unforgettable time.
Which brings me back to that flamingo. The athletic young man with the bird? A dancer who had delicately balanced his flamingo atop his head while opening the Lifeball that year.
Now it sat tamely by his side. But his night of partying was not yet over. The group invited him and his feathered companion to a bar at next stop. They disembarked together, talking, laughing and enjoying themselves and I smiled. No longer about the flamingo, but about living in a place tolerant and worldly enough where flamingos, Lifeballs and Conchita Wursts can not only be possible but celebrated.