06-10-2002

I've just come back from a pleasant few days in Vienna, guests of Radio Austria International, the Austrian Foreign Ministry and Vienna city council. I was taking part in a conference attended by several other international broadcasters, all of them representing countries which were once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So in a way, I suppose, we were recreating that diverse mix of nationalities, cultures and languages that made up the once great imperial reign, an empire that stretched from Galicia in southern Poland to Dubrovnik on the Dalmatian coast.

Everywhere I went during those four days I was reminded of the old empire - indeed in Vienna, the former imperial capital, it's hard not to. Sumptuous imposing palaces, grand tree-lined avenues and pompous statues of forgotten generals all commemorate the glories of the old regime. Vienna is, of course, a modern, vibrant city, but to a hopeless Austro-Hungarian enthusiast, it's like stepping back in time.

This was aptly illustrated on our last night in the city. We were invited to dinner at the Rathaus - the old Town Hall. For those of you who've never been, it's best described as sumptuous to the point of excess, almost ridiculously posh. The rooms are panelled with mahogany, the walls are decorated with tapestries and gold.

RathausRathaus Around the table were seated twelve people of many different nationalities - Austrian, Polish, Hungarian, Slovak, Croatian, Slovenian, English (myself) and an Australian thrown in for good measure. One would have thought that the waiters would be jittery at the prospect of serving so many different people from so many different countries, but not a bit of it. They switched effortlessly from language to language, without missing a beat. I ordered my aperitif in English, my starter in Czech, my main course in German, and my coffee in Slovak.

After the plates were cleared we chatted with some of them, mostly men in their forties and fifties. It turns out several were ethnic Hungarians from southern Slovakia, who drove to Vienna and back every day. Others had settled in Austria, and went back not more than once a month. There were Czechs among them too, they said, but they were serving a different salon that evening. But all of them were tri- and sometimes quadra-lingual, and all felt equally at home in Bratislava, Vienna or Budapest. "It's just like the old days," said one. "They had Slovak waiters here during the empire as well."

The multi-lingual and multi-ethnic diversity of the dining table - and the waiting staff - was a constant source of conversation that evening, some of it serious, some of it less so. At one point the garrulous head of programming at Radio Croatia sat back and said "when I was leaving Zagreb my colleague told me - why are you going to Vienna? Are you trying to re-create the empire?" He laughed loudly at the remark, as did all of us. But as I sat there in the splendour of the mahogany-panelled salon, being addressed in German by a Hungarian waiter from Slovakia who lives in Austria, I couldn't help thinking that bringing back the empire wasn't such a bad idea after all.

06-10-2002