Since mid-October, evening drinks had only been consumed at home – and while the Craft Beer Advent Calendars and the various postal orders from tenfifty.at and stocking up at Metro had ensured that I did not go thirsty (indeed there is still a crate and a half of Czech beer in the cellar that is still to be finished), in recent weeks I have had a particular need to have drinks with friends. I had long since fallen out of love with Zoom drinks (they were so first lockdown!) And so it came to pass, on Wednesday, after nearly seven and a half months that I ventured out to a bar to take up a friend’s invitation for a small, select and social distancing group of us to meet for drinks to celebrate his birthday.
Currently, bars are shutting at 10pm in Austria (one friend quipped about it being a return to the drinking hours of 1970s England on Sundays!), The problem is, when you have three young children who, no matter how early you corral them to bed, are only asleep closer to nine than eight, meaning the only hope of drinks before the 10pm “Sperrstunde” is to have them lined up in a Schanigarten as you tumble into an Uber into town. But what do you do then? Heading back home at 10:30pm having had at most sixty minutes to vent the pent-up dad chat of the last eight months won’t work. Fortunately, on Wednesday, having finished work at 5:30pm and cooked some food, I left the flat at 6:15 and headed down to Julius-Tandler-Platz, a place where some of my Saturday nights out started back in 2000, when I was “fresh off the boat”, and lived on Porzellangasse.
Back then the shops were slightly more upmarket than now, with a Niedermeyer and other traditional shops. Sadly there are now many bargain shops and the cobalt mullion and transom office block over the Franz-Josefs-Bahnhof, once home to Creditanstalt and subsequently Bank Austria’s IT operations, is empty but is scheduled to become an state-of-the-art office concept when the rebuild is completed in 2023. The actual Franz-Josefs-Bahnhof (head station for the Nordwestbahn) has become the stomping ground of the ne’er-do-wells fuelled by the cheapest and most potent beer from the supermarket and the police seem to be patrolling fairly frequently. The Akakiko is still there, although I only visit to take away on the way home from work (when I am in the office on Otto-Wagner-Platz, which at the time of writing has been once this calendar year!) However, with a Russian wife, Buratino has become a convenient Russian grocery store for stocking up on various items, and on this occasion was also to be the supplier of some of the night’s entertainment.
A friend was popping in from Lower Austria (pre-corona this kind of thing was a very normal occurrence, now it was a positively decadent and adventurous step), and I’d agreed that I would raid the fridges at Buratino to find some of the choicest Russian beers and whatever they had that wasn’t standard Austrian. I had some Serbian Zaječarsko, which is available at Billa Plus (Merkur for those who used to live here and left!) as well as some Efes (replete with foil anti-corona doyly) in reserve in any case, however, Buratino had some Baltika 9 (which knocks Special Brew for six!) as well as number of beers from Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia and other Russian brews. However, as we’d had corona tests to be able to go to a bar, we grabbed a couple of beers at Saadi on Tandler-Platz beforehand, as we felt we needed to have a civilized sitdown beer, and couldn’t get off the mark at the Golden Harp nearby (the franchise pseudo-Irish bars that have sprouted like cress seeds on cotton wool) before we headed to the bench by Friedensbrücke U4 to start our tasting session.
My friend, who has an interest in Eastern Europe “as it used to be”, therefore suggested that we have an Eastern European beer tasting session. Our definition of Eastern Europe was fairly loose – maybe “anywhere East of Austria” might have been a more accurate definition. And so, in our quest to taste our way through our booty (of Czech, Bulgarian, Greek, Serbian, Turkish, Belarussian, Ukrainian, Georgian beers) we had to do what Vienna’s young have been doing and drink by the Donaukanal. The beer altar/pyre was set up on a bench and photos taken, and the contents duly guzzled by our little group. The artist in the group even brought some Happy Birthday bunting. Passers-by – after all this is prime cycling, jogging, walking territory in the evening – reacted with mixed smiles, impressed nods and dirty looks. Cans and bottles were duly drained, responsibly disposed of and we went our separate ways, having had our fill of beers and “dad chat”.
The Friedensbrücke area is one of the quieter ones and there were a few isolated gatherings, whereas closer to Schwedenplatz is where it is really busy. The night we were out there were apparently a lot of revellers at Resselpark (near Karlsplatz) and the police had to move them on, which was met with some resistance. The Maria-Theresien-Platz, known affectionately as ZwiDeMu, is another stomping ground of the young and has become their hang-out in the pandemic.
A year previously, we had also met for the first time after lockdown for the corresponding birthday. That night bars had been open to midnight, with drinking inside and not nearly as spartan capacities, and with people in closer proximity under a less stringent masking policy. People back then hadn’t had to prove that they had Covid tests to go out drinking – whereas we were all now either partially vaccinated, or if not had arranged Covid tests to be able to go out. We still bump elbows to greet and bid each other farewell.
I grabbed the last U4 to Heiligenstadt and then walked to get a 38 tram from Nussdorferstrasse to get closer to home before calling an Uber. The Stadtbahnbögen are dead – pre-corona they were busy until the early hours (and then the bouncers would fall into the Glashütte, which has reopened). Leo’s Wurstelstand is still going strong, but normality still seems a long way off. However, for now it was good to have some social interaction after what has seemed a very long winter.