A non Swimming Day – arts in NYC

Rodin – got us in the mood before the exhibition
Nice bum to greet us

Wolfgang is punctual for the ten am opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue. We’re here to see the much praised and must-see exhibition of ‘Camp’, programmed to coincide with World Pride.

Chris & Wolfgang

In our search for the exhibition, we are seduced into the Impressionist galleries. Wolfgang is thrilled and has to revise his opinion of some painters. I’ve seen these before, but had forgotten how many impressionist paintings have ended up in the US. It’s great to re-visit these old friends.

Oscar Wilde teapot
Living as a woman

The word camp, is almost impossible to define and it’s not necessarily gay. Originating in France it can be roughly be described as standing with one hand on a hip the other arm limp wristed and striking a pose with attitude. Christopher Isherwood identifies two versions – High camp (with elegance and taste) and Low camp – without the taste, shocking, outrageous, vulgar. Susan Sontag is the only one to break it down intellectually. The exhibition itself is mostly about fashion beginning with Marie Antoinette’s big frocks. Seventeenth Century fashion is regarded as the height of camp. Then there’s the cross dressing – famously the brother of a king of France lived dressed as a woman for the later part of his life and there are numerous other examples – the Molly Houses where gay men dressed up in private and more publicly, male couples appeared in public as women. Oscar Wilde is cited as a camp icon as is Cecil Beaton, Vivienne Westwood, and tiffany lamps. The last room is a huge gallery of outrageous and elegant fashion which takes the breath away. Individually each display is stunning.

Jean Genet
Cecil Beaton
Gentlemen’s fashion
High or low?
Flamingos are always camp
The Rainbow
Liberace anyone?
elegant
Mommie Dearest?

I’ve bought an on-line ticket for the Guggenheim, just along the avenue from the Met. Wolfgang wants to walk though Central Park, but I’ve got the wrong direction in my head and we end up having to double back.

I’m hugely impressed by the way New York is embracing World Pride. Rainbow banners are everywhere, shop displays celebrate and there are churches flying the rainbow flag alongside the Stars and Stripes.

Methodists
In a Mapplethorpe frame

It’s the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit we’ve come to see – the Guggenheim has most of his work and although I’ve seen many of them before, there’s quite a bit of early work which is worth seeing. Mapplethorpe remains shocking, complicated and beautiful, more old friends. There’s a diptych where we can take a selfie and be in the mirror half of a Mapplethorpe.

I’m flagging by now and after a coffee, I have to go back to the apartment for a sleep before dinner with the Guptas. Udayan and Kathy live in the Battery Park area overlooking the site of the Twin Towers. They were very much caught up in 9/11 and the aftermath. Udayan and I were pen pals as schoolboys, whilst his older brother and wife were and are still important family friends. We walk though the beautifully planted park to an Italian restaurant – alfresco. The Guptas have their favourite, soft-shelled Crab while I carb up on a delicious pork and fennel pasta dish. It’s an evening of conversation – touching on politics and a lot about health issues. We flag towards the end and arrange for breakfast on Monday.

New Jersey across from Battery Park

Flushing Meadows, Queens on a Monday

The competition pool

The competition pool is cool, delicious and of even depth. I can tell at the end of twenty-five metres that it’s fast. As I reach forward, it’s easy to catch the water and push it back. Perhaps it’s also the training kicking in – aerobic fitness from threshold sets building up stamina. I glide though my wall at the end of the first two hundred – the warm up is going well. I use the backstroke section to pay attention to turns. Theoretically the flags are at the same position in every pool but that doesn’t always guarantee a perfect turn. There’s something not quite right but I’m sure it will be ok.

World Trade subway

It’s an early start, negotiating the subway from Mid-town Manhattan to the pool at Flushing Meadows – all with the aid of my phone.  My stop is Mets Point the site of a huge baseball arena, deserted today but I meet up with some of my team walking in the same direction to the pool. They’ve divided the fifty metres in half so the diving end is for warm downs and late warm ups. Everyone comments on the fast pool. There’s a problem with the electronic timing pads so the programme is an hour late starting. I’ve planned to top up my warm up nearer to my event, later in the morning. Ten o five becomes eleven o five and a session of HVO’s sets me up for the 200m backstroke. I’m swimming well, but manage to miss-time most of my turns – too close to the wall at one end and not close enough at the other. My race plan almost disappears as I struggle to get the turns right. It’s initially a disappointing start but I end up with a Silver medal and a PB. I’m thinking it could have been a few seconds faster had I got the turns right.

World Trade Concourse

For lunch, I collect a salad with beef from Chipotle across the road from my apartment but can’t finish it. I’m meeting up with IGLA friends to see a documentary Light in the Water later and Marcel from Gay Swim Amsterdam messages me about meeting for something to eat before. Time for an afternoon nap to sleep off the salad – perhaps I’ll feel like eating later. Marcel & I go for a pizza slice – full of carbs for the next day. We have time, to explore the World Trade Centre area – once Ground Zero. There’s a huge skeleton-like building, the entrance to the world Trade subway stations. The footprints of the twin towers are gigantic water features surrounded by Oak trees. I’m reminded by Kathy Gupta’s excitement when the first trees were delivered and planted. She and Udayan live across the square and I’ll be visiting them later in the week. Last time I was here in 2010, this was still a site of devastation – twisted metal and holes in the ground.

World Trade Tower

Light in the Water is the story of West Hollywood Aquatics the first LGBT swimming club. A couple of gay swimmers started it to beat homophobia in the swimming world and create a safe space for LGBT people to train and become accepted as gay athletes. The movie traces the origins of the Gay Games and its history. The AIDS epidemic is a large part of the story and how WH2O became a family fighting the hysteria and taking in people rejected by their biological families. There’s a Q&A session after the ninety – minute film. Nine of the interviewees have turned up along with the current co-chair of the Gay Games. These are men of my age group who have turned up to race. Some of them were instrumental in setting up IGLA after the first Gay Olympics to make swimming an annual event. The Olympics sued but allowed other non-gay and trivial Olympics to go ahead. Current difficulties with homophobia are touched on in the Q&A and the message is that we all need to turn up and show the world that gays can be top athletes. One of WH2O’s aims was to compete in regular Masters Swim Meets and beat the straight guys, and they did. WH2O have a strong presence here in the IGLA competition, winning lots of medals.

The winning mixed 160+ relay team

Tuesday: I need to warm up in the competition pool – concentrating on backstroke turns. There’s only one turn today in the 50m Backstroke but it has to be right. There’s quite a wait for the event so I do another top-up warmup; more HVO’s (High Velocity Overloads) fast off the wall for ten metres then easy to the end. There are no backstroke flags in the warm up half of the pool, so caution and counting strokes are required. The race goes well and Head Coach, Michelle is pleased plus I’ve got third place for a bronze medal. I have to remember that all the Americans are here this week and they are fast.

There’s about an hour before our 160+ years mixed 4 x 200 freestyle relay. It’s not my favourite freestyle distance but we’ve been working on blocks of two hundred metres in training. I break it into 100m then 2 x 50m in my head, aiming to get faster over the 50s. I think our entry time of 10 minutes was a guess and we come in at 11 minutes, but it’s enough to get gold and my section of 200m is a personal best.

I met Buck and Wolfgang in Amsterdam earlier in the year. They live and swim in Berlin, though Buck is a New Yorker. He’s sent me links to sign up for the Macey’s Pride Party (they have one every year) – yes, a party in a department store. I join a huge queue snaking around and though the merchandise in the menswear department. Marcel approaches and I suggest he joins me in the queue but he’s not sure he wants to be here, opting for the IGLA happy hour drinks. We’re in line to collect our rainbow wrist tags and two free drinks vouchers.

Main Stage

There’s a cramped ‘main stage’ obstructed by pillars and sales tables. The guests crowd around holding phones up to film winners and runners up from the ‘Rue Paul Drag Race’ – a tv reality show to find the best amateur drag artistes. Nothing much here is pushing my buttons so I go up to the 9th floor after queuing for my first drink. I ask for a Gin and Tonic and get the largest and strongest mix of Ballantynes Gin ever. Until the ice melts, it’s almost impossible to drink. It might just as well be a martini.

LGBT Window dressing

Nothing is happening on the 9th floor and I get lost in the strangely deserted Ladies Lingerie department – a scenario for a horror movie suggests itself – nothing like that happens in Macey’s I tell myself – but remember Stepford.  On the 9th floor, chairs have been arranged for what looks like a platform for corporate speeches. The plastic drinks glasses are half the size here – time to return to the 2nd floor for my second drink and where I run into Wolfgang. It’s much more fun observing this marketing show with someone else.

Drag boys
Photo opportunity

We look at some Drag boys being photographed with disabled and elderly women who may of may not be lesbians; there’s a mini live cinema with iconic gay songs and a long queue. A couple of hunks are playing games -getting guests to throw soft bags into a rainbow hole and a sparkling woman on stilts just passes by.

Larger than life
NY billboard
Buck Barry – NY billboard

Time to meet up with Buck and walk ten blocks downtown to a Thai Restaurant. The signs that New York is welcoming pride are everywhere. This is not Trump land and like London, New York is another country. Many of these guys quietly reveal that they are not fans of Donald – there’s no hysteria, just a reserve which I find refreshing. Our party of older men seems to grow – there’s good food, conversation and laughter.

New York for a week of Gay swimming 2019

International Gay & Lesbian Aquatics

Liberty – someone wondered what she might think of now.

Each year, IGLA ( International Gay & Lesbian Aquatics) supports an aquatics event somewhere in the world. This year it’s in New York, home of TNYA. It’s also World Pride, the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots which sparked Gay Liberation and Pride.

Hudson river from the 67th floor

          New York is cloudless and still from the sixty-seventh floor. A cruise liner nestles in the millpond Hudson River, a wisp of smoke emanating from its funnel. From a different angle, peeking between two towers the ‘neons’ of Times Square continue from the night before – New York never sleeps.

The neighbours

          As far as budget airlines go, Norwegian, new to transatlantic crossing are luxurious. I’ve opted for hand luggage only and no meal. There’s still a check-in desk and there are isle seats left towards the front of the plane for a speedy getaway. The young man next to me has heavy stubble, wears headphones and keeps falling forwards into sloop. Eventually he rests his head in the seat in front of him, activating the screen. Opposite, a row in front of me, there is a man about my age with a grey beard. He’s wearing casuals a pink shirt and Crocks on his feet – not quite chic, but he does have a large phone and a laptop. He’s American from his accent, which surprises me because he’s so arrogant and rude to the young woman serving the meals – no ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ which is the norm with polite people in the US. He’s ordering soda water and ice and insisting on looking at the meat he’s ordered before accepting it, demanding to know what the sauce is. The young woman is being very patient, polite and accommodating. I’m seriously wondering why he’s traveling on a budget airline and in Economy, not Premium class at the front of the plane.

World Trade building

Eventually, after four or five hours of harassment, the young woman calls in her male senior. This man has been drinking his own duty-free alcohol which is illegal on planes. The senior, threatens to call the police when they get to NY. He tells him how to order his drinks from his screen. The man dismisses this but after half an hour of thinking about it he gets out the screen and orders a beer. When it doesn’t arrive immediately, he presses the call button. They’ve run out of beer, but some time later, what looks like fruit juice is delivered. I’m thinking that we’ve got a functioning alcoholic on board. Discarded sachets of milk are scattered in the isle and he makes no attempt to retrieve any of it when the young woman passes to collect rubbish. I try to lean forward and collect it for her, but am restrained by my seat belt. She’s touched by my gesture and thanks me – a recognition that she knows I’ve shared her difficulties with this customer. As a final act of defiance, he unbuckles while we are still taxiing towards the terminal, gets out of his seat and retrieves his rucksack from the overhead locker two rows behind me. This prompts an extra announcement for passengers to remain seated with seat belts fastened until we have stopped. He’s got away with it and the moment we do stop, he’s around the corner in a flash to the exit door, no doubt shoving ahead of the Premium Passengers who are supposed to exit first. That’s partly what they’ve paid for.

Pret have made Pride cookies.

          Although we are thirty minutes early, we’ve had to wait until our parking place has been vacated by the departing plane. There is confusion in immigration (JFK along with Heathrow is one of the busiest airports) created by poor signage.  The staff suddenly realise that those of us traveling on returning ESTAs (Visas) are in the wrong queue. It takes the machine ages to recognise my fingerprints – I don’t think they have changed since I last visited the US two years ago.

          I’m determined to make use of the subway with a weekly pass but I can’t buy this on the Air-train which cost $5 on a metro card. It takes me a while to work out that the weekly visitors pass is a different card from a different machine. Success, but there’s a replacement bus service for the first two stops and it’s now dark and I have to find my way outside to a bus stop. All is well and I’m delivered to the Union Turnpike station as promised. The carriages are empty, but one stop later a herd of young middle class-looking people crowd in. they’ve been to a concert and the young man next to me senses my anxiety as I check my destination on my phone subway map to compare it with the on-train indicator. He assures me that we’re going to 7th Avenue but I wasn’t expecting so many stops. It’s late and several lines are combined to stop at every station. It takes forever and it’s 11.30pm by the time I get to Stuart and Emma’s apartment. The guy on the desk (Chris) is super helpful and friendly with directions on where to by breakfast stuff at this late hour. The drugstore around the corner has everything I need.

Columbus memorial

          The lift does not service floors until #46 where the apartments begin. The view from the 67th floor is magnificent but vertiginous – wow!

Sunday Morning: Still on London time, I meet the sunrise but doze on to recover from the travel. A short walk to Columbus Circus, a few blocks away seems like a good Sunday idea. This is one of the entrances to Central Park and the monument to Christopher Columbus (discoverer of the already discovered Americas) shrinks against glass towers of apartments. The statue celebrates this discovery of America by describing it as a gift to the world. Now, in 2019 this seems like irony (which Americans don’t do) but colonialists never benefitted from hindsight or an appreciation that other civilisations existed. Pigeons perch on statues which seem to be placed especially for their convenience. Homeless-looking people sleep on the monument steps, one with his legs entwined around his very new-looking bicycle, as a precaution against theft. I return to my tower block via a grocery store to stock up before more sleep recovery.

Perching

          Team New York Aquatics have arranged for a training session at one of their pools in a very posh Convent School up on the East side. It’s a twenty-five-yard pool – a strange experience swimming less than the usual twenty-five metres I’m used to. Each length seems to be over so quickly and one length of butterfly is one stroke less. Quite a few have turned up including many of the Out to Swim team. I don’t swim for long, just enough to get the heart and lungs going for tomorrow. Later, there are welcome drinks at a bar called Industry. It’s great meeting up with old friends going back from Edmonton in 2016 then Miami and Paris. I’m the only Out to Swim competitor in my sixties, so it’s nice to socialise with my age group from around the world. I end up in a Pizza with a group of OTS youngsters but a salad and a slice of Pizza is too much and I end up taking half of it home to watch the sunset over the Hudson with a beer.

bird child

THE LOST CHILD

She wept. For the third time she’d lost a child. The journalist had offered hope – a way home – but it hadn’t worked. She’d seen it all unfold on her phone and now regretted talking to him. Better to have remained unknown, but she’d done it for her child. The cold killed him – the conditions here. Perhaps it was for the best – they would have taken him from her – another type of loss – knowing he was alive. Now that the eyes of the world were looking on the other side of the earth there was a chance to disappear – find her husband. According to her phone, he was a prisoner. Maybe she could find him.

Working the tube

He is there again on my return journey still working his way up and down the carriage on the Hammersmith an City Line.

         ‘Excuse me ladies and gents sorry to bother you … sorry to interrupt your journey. I’m currently homeless, I’m eighteen and have no family. I’m trying to get some cash together for something to eat and a room in a hostel tonight. Anything would be much appreciated. Anything? Have a good evening.’

The travellers in my section of the carriage studiously concentrate on what ever they are staring at. The advertisements for ‘Welthify’, their reflection in the window or just thin air in front of them. One woman is looking in her bag.

          ‘I don’t have any cash, but I might have some food here.’

I shrug as he passes. I seldom carry cash these days – sometimes a pound coin for the locker at the swimming pool but the token on my key ring works just as well. He is young, a few blond bristles show on his upper lip. His face is evenly dirty – blond hair stiff with grime looks as if it was once stylish but it’s grown out. He wears a sleeveless padded vest far too large for him over a hoodie. Grubby blue trackie bottoms sit on top of a still respectable looking pair of black designer trainers.

Two black travellers just past me contribute. The young woman has a handful of coins which she continues to play with. I want to help – offer him a shower and wash his clothes, but I know that’s not wise. An older gay man – could be easily misconstrued. He needs professional help.

As the tube draws near my stop, the young man appears again waiting to get off. He digs into his trackie pockets and withdraws handfuls of coins which he seems to be counting.

          ‘Ca, ca, ca boom ca, ca, cabomm. Brrroom, cha, cha, cha. Na, nana na, nana na.’ He chants his mantra.

Like me he knows which door of the train will stop by the station exit. I follow him as he bounds up the stairs. I wonder what he will to exit the station. Probably jump over the barrier or follow someone closely through the gates. By the time I get up the stairs he’s on the other side and buying something from the kiosk. A drink or sweets I imagine. I look back as I exit on to the street. He’s rubbing a scratch – card with a coin. I wonder if that works for him?

the Neighbours

          ‘Go over and see if there’s anything we can do,’ she said.

Pete hesitated. He was still deep in shock from the news and couldn’t for the moment think how he could help.

          His wife seemed to understand his dilemma. ‘The offer will be enough – to show support.’

He remembered the day they had moved in. The little girl was only a baby, the same age as their daughter. He’d said his name was Mohammed.

          ‘We’ll call you Mo; we shorten everything here. I’m Pete – no one calls me Peter and the wife is Sue.

          Mo was an engineer, he came to help re-build the city after the second earthquake. They’d got on well, after a couple of cultural gaffs. Pete quickly found out that a beer with Mo was out of the question and they wouldn’t be eating Sue’s famous egg and bacon pie – a national dish.  Luckily, she was ace at roast lamb and the other national dish, Pavlova was much appreciated. The gesture was returned with a middle eastern version and recipes swapped.  

          As Pete knocked on the back door, he couldn’t quite believe that his friend Mo wouldn’t be answering. It opened a few centimetres and he could see Jamal’s tear-stained face suddenly full of fear. In that moment, Pete understood that he was a pakeha, a white male, like the arsehole who’d shot his mate Mo and all the others. He’d grown up here around guys like that and mostly gave them a wide berth. He once defended his friend Hemi at primary school from one such bully making anti Maori comments in the playground – the only time he’d ever hit anyone.          

‘It’s only me … Pete … can we do anything?’

Jamal relaxed and shook her head.

          Pete felt tears welling. He didn’t recall having done this as an adult. He must have cried as a baby but grown men don’t cry. ‘This isn’t supposed to happen in New Zealand,’ he said.

          ‘We came here because it was safe. Where can we go now?’ she said.

          ‘It is … it was …’ Tears were streaming down his face. ‘This is not who we are.’ He was shaking with grief and anger. ‘We’ve lost so much today.’

Mother and Daughter

They are at the supermarket every time I go. Dressed almost the same, the mother wears a faded black jacket and straight skirt to the knee, stockings and comfortable shoes. She has alopecia and her remaining lank hair looks unwashed and plasters down her head. A light grey, long diaphanous scarf drapes her head but doesn’t attempt to hide her baldness. The younger woman wears navy and grey in the same style. She has already grown into her mother, without the hair loss. I always smile at them and they like that. They choose a few meagre items, discuss each one, look at the price and read the contents. Often, I see them in the entrance lobby with their full shopping bags, not sitting in the supermarket café, which they can’t afford but hunched on a ledge by the Argos catalogues – keeping warm – waiting.

Vienna discoveries and memories

Museum Hundertwasser

Tuesday – I’ve got my sights set on Museum Hundertwasser. It’s a bit out of the way – not near a Ubann station, so there’s a bit of walking ahead. I take a seat on the train next to an abandoned newspaper. The youngish woman opposite is taking photographs of articles. She says it’s easier to read them on her phone by enlarging. We get talking – it’s easier just to say I live in London. She says she loves London and that her mother took her there. ‘London people are so friendly,’ she says, not like here. I’m surprised by this and guess that this might have been around 2012, when London suddenly became uncharacteristically friendly. I learn that her mother is dead and get a sort of life story. When she finds out that I’m heading for the Hundertwasser, she insists that I go with her as her dental appointment is near there. We catch a tram and both get out at the same stop. ‘It’s not far, you just turn left then right.’ She’s a bit late for the dentist and disappears. There are signs, but I want to go to the museum first and have to resort to my sat nav. The building is magical, but no photography is allowed. The terracotta tiled flooring undulates unevenly with a claim that the earth is like this. I’m not so sure as, being older, I’m finding keeping my balance a slight challenge. One of the first things I notice is that Hundertwasser mentions being buried in Ao Tea Roa. I’ve never seen  my native land spelt in this way before and immediately want to know more. I scan his time line – he was Jewish and changed his name at some point, but there’s no explanation of how he survived the war as a child in Vienna. He went to art school, but didn’t stay. There’s a man dressed entirely in black wearing sunglasses. He has walking poles and walks around the exhibit repeatedly like an automaton. Strange – I wonder if he is part of the show.  The walking poles obviously help his balance on the uneven floor.

Silver spiral
Green town

The art is amazing and colourful. Often representational, including spirals of different colours. He seems to have travelled all over the world but after his first visit to New Zealand/Aotearoa he returned there repeatedly. He became ill and was cared for in a rural hospital and bought a property there. In the end he was buried in Aotearoa, on his property, with a tree planted over him to make use of his molecules in this new life. There’s a picture of the young tree doing well – I’m slightly disappointed that it’s not a native of Aotearoa, but a Tulip Tree or Liriodendron. Mum had one on our lawn when we were young it took twenty years to produce any flowers. Friedensreich Hundertwasser, I’m amazed to learn, designed flags. His Green Koru for New Zealand
is simple and effective. Ex-prime minister John Keys could have saved a lot of time and money by just adopting it.

For Australia he designed a red half circle supported below by the blue ocean and one star.

Hundertwasser House detail
Hundertwasser House
Hundertwasser House
Hundertwasser House

I’m interested to find that his flag for Israel included a blue star of David with a green crescent moon. He was also great at print making and graphics – an inspirational visit and I’m keen to get on down the road to see the Hundertwasser House – a block of apartments done in his inimitable style, not unlike Gaudi and to be found in various other world cities.  It’s gloriously sunny but not over crowded with tourists.

Karls Kirche

I’m slightly disorientated by now and take a while consulting my google maps to decide which way to walk. I take a risk and find a tram gong in the right direction. It passes an underground station, so I get off and take the Ubann to re-visit Karls Kirche, which we’d passed on our walking architectural tour. The church was completed in 1737 and combines a variety of styles and epochs in world history.

Karls Kirche
Karls Kirche
Ceiling Karle Kirche
Ceiling Karls Kirche

There are stairs up to see the ‘treasure’ – not really worth the climb and my legs certainly didn’t need the exercise. Inside the church are several large inflated silver and transparent globes which reflect the walls and murals. It seems vast and very high. This is due to various tricks of perspective which make it appear so. Marble columns and panels are tapered towards the ceiling. There’s a huge clump of scaffolding in one corner which houses a lift and I take this up to a viewing platform to see the ceiling art-work. Looking down is scary – vertiginous. Luckily there are Perspex panels – blacked out lower down to give a better sense of safety. It’s worth the journey to see the murals and the view down to the street below.

Secession
Klimpt Frieze
Original Secession
Front decoration
Klimpt Frieze

From here, it’s only a short walk to re-visit Secession, also seen in the near-dark on our walking tour. It has been stunningly restored and it’s now possible to go in. I’m down to my last few euros and so ask to pay by card. Many places in Austria still have minimum amounts, like 15 Euros. The nice man on the desk lets me in for the group tour price leaving me 30 cents. The main exhibition space is displaying video art/installation. Very engaging and suitably in the spirit of secession.

Dancing women

Down a level there’s similar work – a young man walking and falling over, getting up and walking – narrowly avoiding being run over by cars, falling down again and so on. There’s someone carrying a white screen which takes up most of the video screen. You just get a hint of the landscape. Down yet another level is the Kimpt frieze. Worth the wait for that. There’s a picture of the original building, the back of which was severely bombed at the end of the war. You can see the frieze of women holding up rings and now a small part of the frieze has been re-created. There’s also a photo of the ribbon of approval the building had from the nazis during their annexation of Austria.

Time to go back to my apartment for a rest and re-group. There’s another local pub style restaurant listed in the Gay guide. Sixta offers traditional Austrian fare and I have soup followed by the most delicious goulash. The clientele is not at all gay – mostly locals but I think the waiter might be.

Johann Strauss

I’ve booked an evening of Mozart and Johann Strauss music at the Kursalon, a concert venue where Strauss himself performed. I’m early and briefly look in the park to admire a golden statue of Johann. The venue is grand and looks like a wedding cake, all lit up with fairy lights. Crowds of coaches are pulling up and loads of tourists are flooding in. I notice that its €1 for the coat check. I’m all out of cash and so decide to take my coat in with me. That’s not allowed, I have to check it in.

‘But I don’t have a euro.’ I tell the man. ‘Can you do VISA?’ He suggests I go to a nearby ATM. ‘I’m not going to go to an ATM and withdraw one euro. I only do cards.

‘What, you wander around with no cash?’

‘Yes.’ I tell him. ‘Here, I have forty cents.’ He tells the coat check man not to charge me for checking in my coat. Result.

Kursalon

We are in a level concert hall with a dais at one end. Chandeliers drip liberally from the ceiling. I’ve gone for the cheaper seats at the back as I know that the sound should be ok. An usherette parades around the auditorium holding up a card representing no photography. She has a stern look on her face and makes sure that everyone in the hall has seen her. Finally, the musicians arrive; the leader of this nonet is an elderly violinist who seems to have a sense of humour. They start off with a polka – rousing stuff. Then we seem to be working our way through the well-known Johann Strauss waltzes and polkas. The trouble with waltzes is that they are for dancing. The first few staves are fine, then it becomes repetitive. It seems that there is only so much you can do to develop a Waltz. The solution is to bring in a couple of dancers. She’s very balletic with legs and arms going up and down, while he is no Nureyev, but good at leading a Viennese waltz. They can only dance in one plane – across the front of the dais and back – so the choreography is limited and can’t even compare with ‘Strictly’.  A soprano comes on and sings an aria from a Strauss Opera – it’s a waltz. Things might look up as a baritone comes on to sing some Mozart. It’s Non Piu Andrai – an aria I used to sometimes sing at auditions. His acting isn’t very good and he doesn’t quite have the right power. We are back to the Strauss waltzes and the dancers. Suddenly there’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Mozart – this also has memories – strange – of performing this piece as part of a clarinet quartet at a secondary school chamber music competition. At last there’s the duet from Don Giovani – La ci darem la mano. The two singers return and they are very good. The baritone has found his place as the seducer. It’s an ok experience, but not stunning, although the Blue Danube is well done. The encore is another strange memory from way-back. Brahms’ Hungarian Dance Number 5. We used to play this in the town orchestra and I could never manage the clarinet part. I remember the gusto with which our elderly rural violinists attacked this piece. Sadly, the opera was all sold out so this is second choice.

Medals

The final day is travelling home. I’m ready to do all the airport security in reverse and you can even buy a bottle of drink to take through wrapped up in a sealed transparent plastic bag. Something in my bag has alerted the machine and I’m asked to open up.

‘Have you got any crystals?’ she asks.

Medals

‘Yes,’ I reply. I wondered if my swimming medals would cause a problem. Of course, they’re in my swimming bag right at the bottom of my carry-on. I’m in plenty of time, so there is no need to panic and I refuse to be rushed by the woman.

Later, back in London at swim training I ask my team mates if the same thing happened to them. Yes, it did. It’s hard going, the first swim in four days. I did six races, five museums and two palaces. My legs are wrecked.

Vienna Museums and palaces

Sunday morning is the traditional brunch for European gay swim meets and it’s a feast – smoked salmon, cold meats, scrambled eggs and bacon washed down with coffee and prosecco. The Out to Swim youngsters don’t look too worse for wear after the party and many are off to catch flights home. I’m off to look at museums. Mumok is dedicated to contemporary work. Imposingly nestled within the Museum Quarter like a gigantic lump of coal it seems argue with the surrounding Neo-classical surroundings. The main exhibit is a retrospective of Ernst Caramelle (Austrian) from 1974. Apart from several striking perspectives achieved with two dimensional geometric shapes, his work did not engage me. I was more interested in the building – metallic inside with a lift shaft opening onto metal grill landings.

Mumok in the Museum Quarter
Gustav Klimpt
Egon Shciele
Schiele self portrait
Schiele self portrait
Schiele house
Schiele village

On the other side of the courtyard is the Leopold museum. Its modern walls blend in with the neo-classical surroundings and make less of a statement that the Mumok. Here there is an exhibition of Viennese fashion textile design with mannequins and photographs. The main attraction is work by Klimpt and an extensive exhibition of Egon Schiele (1890-1918) – a tortured soul by all accounts.

There’s time to fit in the Mozart Haus at the end of the day, even though my legs have had far too much work so far this weekend. It’s in a back street off Stephanzplats and a bit tricky to find.  This is the only remaining house that Mozart lived in here for 3 years at the height of his success. It is also the most spacious. The audio, included in the entry, is interesting and prolongs the visiting time of a quite sparse exhibition. Nothing, except for the manuscripts and letters remain, so the house displays items which come from the period and which might have been in the household. Mozart was quickly adopted as the darling of the Viennese, but royal patronage was more difficult to come by – another example of populism rubbing up against conservatism. The Marriage of Figaro, almost wasn’t allowed by the Emperor – the play version was forbidden a few years before because of the negative depiction of the aristocracy. Vienna was underwhelmed by Mozart’s opera – not so Prague, who loved it. Vienna woke up to what it was missing, but too late as Mozart was near the end of his life and only just completed his Requiem and The Magic Flute.

I’m not really up for another Japanese noddle dinner nor a naff looking fish restaurant nearby, but find a reasonable Italian place for Linguini Adriactica – seafood. Perfect except for the fact that two couples across the isle are smoking in between courses and they have a baby with them. I’m shocked.

Schonbrun Palace
Schonbrun front courtyard
Shonbrun back side
Palace gardens
Palace Gardens
Palace Garden
Palace from the monument

Monday, I’ve booked one of those bus tours of the city and hope that the Friday Art Nouveaux experience on foot is not replicated. It’s not and the bus leaves from the Opera House (rebuilt after being destroyed in WWII). We drive around the Ringstrasse in different directions having various buildings pointed out. The windows are tinted, so no possibility for photography. The Hapsburgs are mentioned, a lot. They sounded a despotic crew who lorded over central Europe for several centuries. We can’t go into the Palace complex but instead head out to their Summer residence, Schὃnbrun Palace. Our guide sets us up with earphones connected to her microphone so that she can keep us all together. No photography is allowed and we only see the ground and grand upper floors. There are no cellars so the ground floor is laid with wooden cross sections – it’s apparently damp. The horse-drawn carriages drove through to the hall-way to deposit guests or straight through to the gardens. On the upper floor, there are beautiful inlaid floors made from Brazilian forests. Empress Maria Therese was fond of oriental decoration and the walls are covered with Chinese silk and porcelain. There are no fire places so each room has a huge porcelain pot-belly heater, which was presumably filled with hot water, brought from the kitchens across the courtyard. Maria Therese was the power and her husband barely mentioned (except for his wealth). We learn that the empress kept loosing wars, but eventually she won one and promptly built a triumphant monument on the distant hill at the end of the huge garden. We have some free time to visit things like the coach house to see gilded carriages. In spite of the warning that I shall have to run up the hill to reach the monument, I give it a try. I’ve seen enough carriages over the years. The view is rewarding and you can see how close the Palace is to the city. They wanted to be near enough to move back into town in the event of an attack. It seems that someone was always trying to assassinate the emperor and eventually the Arch Duke was killed, leading to the First World War and the end of the Austrian Hungarian Empire. The last Emperor refused to abdicate and was banished and the country became a republic. The League of Nations was established and Austria forbidden from joining up with Germany. It all sounds so complicated and unnecessary – no wonder problems persisted in Central and Eastern Europe.

Belvedere Palace
Lower Belvedere
Int. Orangery
Interior Orangery
Medieval Collection
Medieval collection
Medieval Collection

We gather at the coach at 12.20 pm precisely and return to the city. Our tour guide gives us the option to leave the tour at the Belvedere Palace to see the Klimpt collection. A French nobleman who worked as a mercenary fighting the Ottoman Empire to the East, made a lot of money and built this Palace. I’m the only one on the tour getting off here. For me it’s too good an opportunity to pass up. The League of nations was set up on this site and the Great War settlements were agreed. I start off in the lower Belvedere – what was the Orangery. It’s a lovely walk down the formal gardens and the sun is shining. There’s an amazing collection of Medieval Art down here, not normally my thing, but I do like the vibrant colours – still bright after centuries – and every now and then there’s a non-religious scene. Faces are also of great interest to me – how they have or haven’t change over time. One thing is certain, medieval painters couldn’t do babies. I’m about to walk up to the main building when I discover a treasure.

women’s gallery – young man
Brencia Kaller-Pinell
Helen Funks
Mariette Lydas La Partie de Dames 1937
Self portrait – powerful
Stephanie Hollenstein

A special collection of women artists. Wow, what a find. It’s interesting to see the way female artists look at women compared with male artists, who sexualise their subjects so differently.

In the Upper Belvedere, there’s a café and I’m starving, my legs have done overtime and I need to sit down. Deep fried chicken with salad is the dish of the day. It turns out to be chicken Schnitzel on a bed of potato salad. There are a few dots of green spring onions. Still in spite of the low green content, It’s tasty.

Kilmpt
Klimpt the Kiss
Klimpt
Klimpt
Klimpt?
Klimpt

Here, I find the main Klimpt Collection – since seeing the interactive Klimpt show in Paris last year, I’ve been keen to see the originals. What a treat.

The Vienna gay guide lists a restaurant called Motto at the other end of my street. I almost miss it as the doorway is dark and the sign very discrete. I’m offered smoking or non-smoking – an improvement on last night. It’s not particularly gay and the menu is expensive but excellent. Cheese dumplings come on a red salad and the boiled beef slabs are delicious and both traditional Viennese dishes.

VIVA Valentines in vienna

It’s always stressful arriving in a new city in the dark and alone. No matter how much research you’ve done in advance, faced with an automated ticket machine which won’t deliver what you think you want and with a growing queue behind, some panic is inevitable. I’m trying to get a ticket from the airport to town and end up buying a 72- hour ticket. A kind young man reads the German text on the ticket and tells me that it includes the ride from the airport. Most people are taking the regular train and not paying the extra for a sixteen-minute ride. But this is the tricky bit – which platform? Following a small crowd seems like a good idea but what if they are all going somewhere else? A young man opposite takes off his headphones to answer my question. This train is gong to central Vienna – phew. From there it’s only a few stops on the Metro so I’m half an hour early to meet the guy who is going to let me into my Mr B&B apartment. It’s huge and charming, large enough for a family. It’s too late for supermarkets to be open so I go into Stephensplatz, where I’m told restaurants will be open. It’s a choice between takeaway pizza or Japanese noodles. I go for the noodles – cash only and by now it’s 10.30 pm and I’ve got thirty minutes before closing time. Vienna, it seems is an early-closing city.

          Friday morning, I find the local supermarket and stock up on breakfast things – bread and butter for toast, cheese and cold meats. I also find the thermostat for the apartment so I can turn down the temperature at night to sleep. I’m starting with the museums and in particular the Fine Arts Museum which is housed in one of two identical neo-classical buildings in the Museum Quarter. It’s slightly cheaper to get a combo ticket for three museums, but I suspect that the Fine Arts will keep me busy for all of the morning. It’s a very grand building inside – marble staircases, elaborate decorative walls and pillars everywhere. This mostly houses the collection of the Austrian Arch-dukes and includes items purchased from Charles I’s collection sold off after his execution. The display starts modestly with artists I’ve never heard of who don’t impress, but it grows. These days I tend to skip religious paintings unless they grab my attention. Velasque suddenly appears – portraits from Spain showing how the Austrian Grand-daughter, Marguerita Theresa, is growing up.

Titians
Reubens

There’s Carravagio, Titian and Van Dyke. Tintoretto is represented and there are loads of wonderful Rubens. Bruegel takes up most of a gallery and there’s Cranach in the side rooms. There’s Durer and Holbein with a small collection of Rembrant. The café looks stunning viewed from the top floor and my legs are ready to have a rest. Looking at art is hard on them. The Viennese sausage is ordinary but the espresso and small salad are good. The waiter seems disappointed that I’ve not ordered any cakes – clearly their speciality. Suddenly a group of Out to Swim guys appear. It will take them the rest of the afternoon to get around here I tell them. I briefly contemplate taking in another museum, but my legs win and I head back for a nap before my walking tour of the city, laid on by Vienna Valentines for the swim meet tomorrow.

Breugel
Cranach
The Café
The Post Office Bank
The Cashiers room in the Bank

          The meeting place is outside the Vienna Post Office Bank designed by Otto Wagner. This building is considered the finest of the Art Nouveaux period of the early 19th Century. It stands opposite the later-build neo-classical stucco Ministry of War.  Alex, our tour guide is super organised with a team of helpers whom he disciplines with a rolled-up poster which has his notes written on the back.Conductor-like he directs his team who react with mock fear. One lad has a book of images which he shows at various key points in the tour. The post office is indeed spectacular and we are able to go and look at the interior of the bank then around the back to inspect the joining up of the later part of the building.

Severe Art Nouveax
Neo Byzantine church – influenced Art Nouveaux
Medieval Building
Coffee Company building
More Art Nouveaux
Even more Art Nouveaux
Linear clock – full of symbolism

From here we are on a roller coaster of the diverse architecture of this small period when Vienna rivalled Paris as the art capital of the(western) world. Klimpt belongs to this period. Alex is at pains to point out the significance of the Seccession movement – a break-away group of artists dedicated to high quality art and fed up with the conservative tastes of their contemporaries.   Alex talks at length about the diversity of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire and how architects from all over came to Vienna. The Buildings he shows us reflect the diversity of the Art Nouveaux period – including the influence of American architecture.  It’s an interesting introduction to the ongoing conflict between conservative elements and the popular innovators. The tour ends up at the Café Savoy, where we are to register for the swim meet. Phil and Mark have been on the tour and I suggest a local middle eastern restaurant I spotted earlier,just along the street. It’s perfect – Turkish/Persian cuisine, just right for filling up the tank for tomorrow.

A gold medal haul

Saturday, the swimming day, means an early start, getting breakfast out of the way early enough before the warm-up and races. Everything is so close in Vienna that public transport takes no time at all. The pool is sweet and sun-lit with six-lanes. There’s also an area divided by a boom at the shallow end where we can swim down – Bliss. Out to Swim have managed a huge contingent of 23 swimmers for this meet, which alternates yearly between Vienna and Amsterdam. I rarely race 200 metres freestyle so it was good to get it out of the way first up. Was a bit slower than my entry time – I was thinking  more of a 400-metre pace but still came away with a gold. Out to Swim seemed to be everywhere, so there was hardly any rest. I was either racing, getting ready to race or cheering someone on. 50 Backstroke followed with a decent time and another first. The 100 Individual Medley was a nice penultimate event of the morning.  My rule for Butterfly is only one length of the pool. This translates to 100 IM in a 25-metre pool and 200 IM in a 50 Metre one. The morning finished with the 4 x 50 Medley relays. Out 200 + years didn’t get placed but the youngsters won 100+ and 120+ and battled it out in the same heat. Exciting stuff.

  The afternoon was quieter for me with only the 100-metre backstroke and a 4 x 50 freestyle relay. Once again, our younger teams came away with results – a fantastic ending to the day. Out to swim was the top club at the meet. 22 Gold,14 Silver, 6 Bronze – overall 42 medals. Time to retire to my Mr B&B to snooze and re-group before the dinner. I’d booked the party by mistake and managed to swap it for the dinner. It was a good move as I ended up on a table of swimmers from Sweden who actually came from different parts of the world – much like our swimmers. I was sitting next to a Swede who, like me had been an actor and producer but was now working with older autistic people. Fascinating. It was only a short Ubann ride back to my place to collapse into sleep. My body was complaining – a lot.