“Willkommen am Flughafen Wien. Die Temperatur draußen ist 3 ° C… the air hostess announced. “and the rest of the announcement was drowned amidst the unbuckling of seat belts and ruffling of clothes as the passengers prepared to deboard. I was assigned to work at the IAEA in Vienna on a special project for the United Nations. However, as I landed in Vienna, I became very cynical about the future that the strange nation had in store for me.
The first cultural shock I experienced upon arrival at The Austria Trend, an upscale hotel in downtown Vienna, was that I had to carry my own luggage to the front desk, unlike in New Delhi where the bell boys would rush towards you in assistance. A note on my bed read,
“Welcome to Wien, Mr. Panikker. Hope you had a good flight. The car to our office shall report at your hotel at 8 AM. Wish you good rest. Looking forward to meeting you tomorrow – Ingrid”
Exactly at 7:59 in the morning my car arrived, while I was in the middle of a sumptuous breakfast spread with varieties of bread, cheese, bacon, sausages, fresh juices and with a live waffle counter.
At the IAEA, I was ushered into a massive room on the 14thfloor. I walked around the glass wall perimeter, enjoying bird’s eye view of the historical old city and the meandering Danube that flowed across the city.
“Hello, Mr. Panikker. Welcome to Vienna and to our beautiful office”, a lady’s voice greeted. “My name is Ingrid Reisinger. I am from the Human Resources Department and responsible for your induction.”
“Oh, Thanks a ton, Miss Reisinger,” I said to the slightly obese but young lady who came in on a motorized wheelchair.
“You can call me Ingrid, Mr. Panikker. Can I show you around our office now?”
“Sure. You can call me Rajesh”, I said as I followed her. The induction was smooth and swift and handled expertly by Ms. Ingrid. She introduced me to other colleagues as “Mr. Rajesh from India”. It sounded much better.
“Wish you all the best, Mr. Rajesh. Hope you will enjoy working with us” Ingrid smiled assumingly, as she showed me my office. “And by the way” she added, “The leasing company has shortlisted a few apartments for you to move in. Whenever you wish, please let me know, we can have a look and finalize within this week”
The residences looked distant in the map, but Ingrid assured me that they were well connected by the U Bahn, Vienna’s MRTS from our office. I settled for a single bedroom apartment near Josefstadt Station in the suburb. Ingrid apparently lived close by and commuted to office by the MRTS.
I was beginning to get a feel of this beautiful city, thanks to Ingrid. She was caring and made me feel very comfortable. She helped me with the basic German language. Guten Morgan and Wiedersehen entered my vocabulary. I looked forward to the weekends. Vienna’s weekends started on Friday at 11 AM and went on till Monday noon and I spent most of it with Ingrid.
On one such Friday evening, we were in the middle of Belvedere Palace when she stopped abruptly. Rather, her motorized wheelchair stopped. She had forgotten to charge the battery, and the backup didn’t work. I disengaged the brake and pushed along. She was heavy and I did not imagine it would be so difficult to push a motorized wheelchair. I was exhausted by the time we exited the Belvedere, and hungry. Ingrid suggested we take the tram car to Flutchgasse where there was an Indian restaurant. She could probably also charge her wheelchair there.
The restaurant was called “Khyber”. It was run by a Pakistani couple Rasheed and his wife. I was amazed at the ease at which she ordered Garlic Naan, Chicken Tikka and Dal Makhni without glimpsing through the Menu card. Rasheed came around to take my order. He sensed my predicament and said “Janaab, here everyone orders for themselves. It is not common to share food in restaurants”. He added nonchalantly “and also you pay only for what you eat, and she pays for hers unless you are on a date or celebrating some occasion or hosting a client” Ingrid mentioned that she had acquired a liking for Indian cuisine during her Birmingham days. As we waited for our food, we took the opportunity to know each other more. Ingrid narrated first.
Ingrid was originally from Croatia. Her family was wiped out during the Croatian War of Independence, an act of late-night cowardice by the invading Serbs, who massacred a sleepy village along the coast of Adriatic. She was the sole survivor in her family in that ambush. Battered and bruised, she was found barely alive by the UN Peacekeeping force who repatriated survivors to safer camps in Austria. She had lost her left leg in the attack. She was subsequently granted “Refugee” status by Austria along with scores of young Croats. After finishing school in the city of Salzburg, she graduated in Political Science from the University of Vienna. Later, an international exchange programme took her to Birmingham. That explained her command in English. She joined IAEA as an interpreter and later settled down in the HR department. I was overwhelmed at the way she faced life head-on, against all odds and even defeating death in the process. The food arrived. I noticed that she did not speak while eating.
It was my turn to rant on the next weekend at Hasir Café, a Turkish restaurant that is famous for Kebabs. I narrated how I was on the verge of a breakdown when this project landed in my hands. To my colleagues, it sounded like a dream job. To me, it was a getaway or a second innings as someone had fleetingly mentioned at the farewell party. I did not know who was happier to see me leave, my father or, my stepmother or my girlfriend or the ill witted colleagues. She listened to the rest of my story on my troubled past with unflinching attention.
The old city of Vienna housed the most famous spectacles of history. But except for the Opera House, most of the other places like Donauturm, Haydn cinema, Artiscinema, Schonbrunn Palace were not wheelchair friendly nor were the old stations that led to these places. She loved Vienna, but her restricted mobility meant that she couldn’t visit her favorite places as often as she would love to. I planned to change that situation. We made an exhaustive list of places we should go to and fixed the schedules. I was amazed at her extensive knowledge about every monument and every place of interest. On the contrary, I was clueless when she asked me simple questions about India. “How old is the Taj Mahal?”, “How many millions live in Delhi?”.
Ingrid was a connoisseur of wine. She taught me how to differentiate between Sauvignon Blanc, Verdelho, Semillon. and Chardonnay. She also took me to exotic coffee shops. Coffee wasn’t just a beverage in Vienna. It was an emotion. Café Ulrich and Sacher Coffee house were our favorite haunts. It was at Sacher we planned our first date. Ingrid felt amused when I said that I had a girlfriend but never went on a date. Our dating was quite uneventful unlike what I knew from Hollywood movies. The only take away was that the invitee did not have to pay the bills!
One morning, Ingrid did not arrive at the station. I called her and was a bit worried when she did not pick up my call. I knew where she lived and went right away. The door was answered by the Oriental lady who worked as domestic help. I had met her a couple of times before with Ingrid. She was telling something incoherently as she let me in. I found Ingrid seated on the wheelchair looking pale with her right leg stretched across the bed. The transtibial prosthesis on the left leg was unclamped. Apparently, she had a fall and had called the hospital, who were on their way. Without warning, she burst into uncontrollable sobs. I went near her and held her face close to my chest.
A fortnight later, I moved in with Ingrid.
Our love was impulsive yet unpretentious. There were no theatrics, no melodramas. We were two people from different parts of the world, who found a haven in Vienna by chance. Together, we could pick up the broken pieces in our life and bury a tumultuous past inflicted physically on her and emotionally on me by very contrasting calamities. The culture, history, and monuments preserved through romantic settings perfectly combine for love stories that only Vienna can tell.
We celebrated our third anniversary at Christkindlmarkt at Rathausplatz. I wheeled Ingrid through the Christmas market. Ingrid looked at me with pride as I ordered two goblets of Gluhweinand and Kiachl from a decorated stall.
Willkommen am Flughafen Wien. Die Temperatur draußen ist 3 ° C – “Welcome to Vienna Airport The temperature outside is 3°C….”
U Bahn, – Vienna’s Mass Rapid Transit system (MRTS)
Guten Morgan- Good Morning
Wiedersehan- Meet again ( goodbye)
Christkindlmarkt- Christmas market
Gluhwein- is a hot wine
Kiachl- Austrian doughnut with Cranberry jam
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