Volksoper, Vienna – November 1980
The young man in the sweatshirt and grubby blue jeans stands out amidst the genteel splendour of the opera house, an ugly intrusion like a foul weed in a bed of delicate perennials.
He stands at the rear of the stalls in the area set aside for those ticket-holders unwilling or unable to pay for a seat, self-consciously avoiding the amused looks of the well-heeled Viennese crowd filling the auditorium, masking his awkwardness by staring with great intent at the ornate furnishings and lights. If only those lights would dim quickly so he can stand anonymously in the darkness, shielded from the curious glances of the suits and gowns.
He looks pale and thin, barely old enough to be out of school, like a baby-faced tramp. It is as if he has wandered in from the set of a movie where children all play the parts of adults.
This is, in fact, closer to the truth than the young man perhaps realises or would care to admit. He is indeed playing the part of an adult – in this instance, an adult attending a performance at the opera – albeit in the only costume he possesses, that of a backpacker in winter.
What is he doing there? The obvious answer is that he’s there to see an opera, possibly Don Giovanni although the details of the actual program are hazy at this distance. Strangely enough, it’s not as if he likes opera all that much but he’s here now, in Vienna, and he knows from his upbringing that going to the opera is one of the things that adults do.
A more complete answer is that he’s travelling north from Venice to Berlin and, according to the map of Europe he carries in his jacket pocket, Vienna is kind of en route, connected by the thin red lines of motorways along which he can hitch a ride.
As to the bigger question as to what he’s doing hitching from Venice to Berlin as the winter nights draw in and the air turns freezing cold – well, I don’t think even he fully understands the reasons for doing that, then or now. He’s taking some ‘time off’. He’s travelling. Going places that he’s never been.
Right now though he’s hoping the performance will start soon, not just so he can melt into the darkness but also, he hopes, so the sound of the orchestra will mask the rumbling in his stomach as he hasn’t eaten anything since the meagre breakfast at the hostel that morning.
That’s what happens when you’re travelling on a tight budget – at least it did in the days before easy credit and plastic cards – and have to agonise daily over choices, to eat or pay an admission fee, to sleep in a hostel or catch a bus in the rain to the next town.
If only it wasn’t so stuffy inside the theatre. Everywhere in Europe is so over-heated – except for the hostels which are run more like ex-military camps. Already the lack of food and the warmth of the theatre are making him feel quite weak. He’s not sure he’s got the strength to stand up for – how long is Don Giovanni anyway?
He feels in his pocket for the few coins he has left for the remainder of the day. Perhaps he will allow himself an advance on tomorrow’s budget to get something to eat at the interval, although he knows what that will mean for the following day. Perhaps if he is on the road he won’t need to eat, or a kindly driver will buy him a meal at a roadside stop. It happens sometimes.
All that is in the future though. He’s here now. Tomorrow it will all be a memory, quickly replaced by new experiences and sights, disappearing from view faster than he can ever imagine until nothing is left of the opera house, the sleek Viennese, Mozart’s music or the aching leg muscles from having to stand through it all.
Only a small ticket stub remains, a flimsy confirmation of an admission to a performance at the Volksoper in Vienna many years ago. As to what really happened there on that evening, we can only speculate.