Staying in a hotel is a drab idea when option of living in a Pension is available. The term pension is typically used in Continental European countries. Pensions are generally cheaper than other lodgings, such as hotels, although they offer limited services. Pensions are often located in historic buildings and are mostly family-run.
I used to work as a consultant to UNIDO and visit Vienna frequently. I was recommended Pension Chistina on Hafnersteig 7. The location was near Schwedenplatz with excellent transport links and proximity to tourist areas. The Pension boasted of a dignified ambience where the old Viennese style of furniture was blended with the modern convenience. The Pension was run by a family.
“Bitte sehr” Mrs Becker said when I was checking in for the first time in Pension Christina. It was early morning of November and the weather was rather windy and cold.
I finished the checking in formalities. Mrs Becker ushered me to the breakfast area that was warmly lit. “I call you Prasad?” she beamed “I know you badly need a hot black coffee now. And while you warm up, let me get you some sausages with a tinge of mustard and couple of croissants. You must be tired and hungry”. She said this in a kind and friendly tone.
Mrs Becker was a plump lady in fifties I guess. She had a great smile and wrinkles on the face. She was the caretaker at Pension Christina.
As I was finishing my breakfast, I heard someone coming down running from the staircase. “Hey, Nora” Mrs Becker yelled “We have a guest here from India – show him his room please?”
Nora must be in early twenties. She had a beautiful face with long hair and an athletic body. Nora carried my bag to the tiny lift where we barely squeezed in. “Give me a shout if you need anything” she said as she reached me to my room. Then she winked and said, “or Press 9 – make your choice!”.
I took the Metro and reached UNIDO office at the Vienna International Centre. In the evening, when I got back, I did not see Mrs Becker at the reception. Nora was in charge. “Oh, my mother has stepped out for some shopping” She explained. “She is getting some Kopfsalat, Brokkoli and Spargel from the market to make you something vegetarian”. I really appreciated Mrs Becker’s concern and the kind gesture. I felt at home.
I stayed for a week at the Pension. I became friendly and close to the Becker family. Nora used to ask me hundreds of questions on India while Mrs Becker used to tell me stories about the history of the city of Vienna. Mr Fischer who used to drop by every day for a beer also became a good friend. We used to have couple of glasses of Hefe Weissbier (a popular beer) after the dinner service was closed and watch Mrs Becker and Nora cleaning up the kitchen. Mr Fischer was a teacher who retired from a school where Nora used to study.
During my assignments with UNIDO over three years, I made frequent visits to Vienna. I always stayed at the Pension Christina. Mrs Becker, Nora as well as Mr Fischer used to look forward to my arrivals and the gifts I used to carry, especially the Indian handicrafts.
“Hey Prasad, have you visited the green wine places in the Alps? Nora asked. She was peddling a bicycle, accompanying me as I was returning from a short walk on the Stephansplatz. It was a bright Sunday morning with light breeze rustling around on the cobbled street of the Hafnersteig. “Today there will be a viola recital – Interested?”. I readily agreed.
At 5 pm we were all set to go. Nora took out her Beetle car and I hopped in with sandwiches packed by Mrs Becker. As we were taking a turn on the A1 motorway (West Autobahn), Nora pulled the Beetle aside. There was a handsome man waiting for us. “Come on in Berk” Nora said.
Berk is a Turkish name. I could see that the handsome man had a Turkish accent and a Turkish face. He was Nora’s best friend. I asked Berk to take the front seat next to Nora and moved back.
Berk was an amazing person. He was a musician par excellence and played keyboards as well as Harmonica. At the green wine place, he explained to me about the Austrian folk music and deciphered some of the viola pieces that were being played. He used to perform at the famous Louisiana Blues Pub (LBP) located at Britta Schönstein KG.
Louisiana Blues Pub in Vienna
“Prasad, we must go to the LBP someday to listen to Berk” Nora said. I could see her admiration about Berk and an awe in her eyes. Certainly, the girl was in love.
I told Mrs Becker about meeting Berk and the LBP. “I don’t like this Berk character” Mrs Becker was very clear. “He is no Austrian you know. He is Turkish”. She did not mince the words. I could see Mrs Becker’s dislike towards Berk. I dont think she had ever bothered to know more about him.
On Monday night, Nora took me to the LGP. Berk was performing on the harmonica. He was simply superb and I could see the audience mesmerized by his renditions. The final piece he played was Beethoven Sonata No. 8 ‘Pathetique’ Mov. 2 following the “style” of the great Wilhelm Kempff.
A look alike of Berk
At this point, I saw Nora getting up and taking on the microphone. She started humming as if to complete the 360 degrees of the Pathetique – Her accompaniment was so gentle and so spontaneous. I could sense the deep emotions between Berk and Nora – so much was unspoken – and I felt rather envious. The Beethoven piece ended with a great applause. “I want to be a regular performer here Prasad – this is the place to play music in this city” Berk sounded a bit emotional.
A look alike of Nora
When we sat down with a glass of wine, Berk showed me the harmonica. It was a Hohner Meisterklasse that is played by professional players. This harmonica could master any score written for the violin. Its construction utilized a narrow mouthpiece with rounded channel openings. More importantly, it had 56 Classic chromonica reeds and apparently, it is the only Hohner chromatic with a range of 31/2 octaves from g – c. The case of Meisterklasse had letter B (i.e. Berk)
The Meisterklasse with a Case
I have been an amateur harmonica player myself and play reasonably well. I always had a dream to buy a Hohner harmonica but never got the guidance. Hohner is the world’s largest manufacturer of quality harmonicas. Berk said that the best place to buy a Meisterklasse in Vienna was the City Music Wien located at Taborstraße 14. “We will go there one day with Berk and get you Meisterklasse” Nora said
But we could not – as I had late work sessions at the UNIDO practically every day.
The night before I was leaving for Mumbai, Mrs Becker “hosted” a dinner for me. “This dinner is not going to be invoiced Prasad. Its for you from the family”. I was really touched by her gesture.
“Prasad, Nora has invited Berk for the dinner. I really don’t like his coming. He is not the kind of person Nora should be involved with. He doesn’t have a regular job. He is only a musician and plays in a Pub. And besides, he is not an Austrian” Mrs Becker was clearly disturbed
I told Mrs Becker that Berk is a nice guy. He may take some time but sure he will do well. He has the talent and the confidence. And more than anything – he will take good care of Nora as they love each other. Doesn’t this matter the most? I said.
Mrs Becker listened to me patiently and then said “Prasad, let us see. I really don’t know much about Berk. But if I like the boy, I will open a bottle of Grüner Veltliner (great Austrian white wine) during the deserts and if I don’t like him then it will be something ordinary”. I liked this deal.
The dinner was lively. Berk impressed Mrs Becker with his wit and insights. He spoke about the historical places in Vienna – a subject that was close to Mrs Beckers heart. Mrs Becker told stories about the Stephansdom, Vienna’s cathedral and one of the tallest churches in the world. Nora was more of a listener but she ensured that all of us were well looked after. During the dinner conversations, she held Berk’s hands a number of times and he held her hand firmly with affection. Mrs Becker was watching. Both of us noticed Nora’s eyes – the warmth and happiness she was expressing. When we finished the dinner, Nora went to the kitchen to get some deserts.
“Mrs Becker, can we have a glass of wine with the deserts” I asked
Mrs Becker said “sure” and walked down the stairs to the cellar.
I was real tense.
She returned to the table with a bottle of Grüner Veltliner.
I was so delighted that I did thumps up.
Nora didn’t know about our deal – but it was clear to her that Mrs Becker was now very comfortable with Berk and probably I had a small role to play. She drove to drop Berk at the metro station.
After she was back, she knocked on my door and offered help to pack my bags. I let her do a bit as I didn’t want to disappoint her.
I was at the security of the Vienna airport in the morning to take my flight to Zurich. The inspector at the security asked me to show my handbag – “Sir, are you carrying any metal device?” When I said no and showed my surprise – he asked me to open the handbag and spotted a case. I was surprised as I did not recollect that I had one. “May I request you to open the case please” The Inspector asked politely.
I opened the case and noticed that it carried letter “B”. There was a small note – with complements Berk and Nora
“Excellent choice Sir” The Inspector said while closing the case that had “my Meisterklasse”
Today, Christina Pension is not there anymore. The management has changed. The pension is now renovated to a hotel called Alma Boutique. The old charm has gone.
Hotel Alma Boutique
I have stopped working for UNIDO and no longer travel to Vienna. I don’t know where Mrs Becker, Nora and Berk are today as I don’t have their contacts. I really miss them.
I play Hohner Meisterklasse occasionally. But the magnificent piece of ‘Pathetique’ Mov. 2 that Berk played, still haunts me – and not to forget the spontaneous voice over from Nora.
I plan to visit the Louisiana Blues Pub once again.
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On my first visit to Germany in 1975 week end trips to various cities were planned with the
book Europe trip in 10dollars a day.Naturally all the lodgings were pensions .Even with small daily allowance from my company I could make a substantial savings without sacrificing quality week ends.
Nostalgic…superb. I can “feel” the environment that you have described just reading the blog !!!
Thank you Zarasp – as always
Wow, a fantastic morning to start with. Your lovely selective words makes us to feel the experience what you had in Vienna. Your mesmerizing words made Mrs.Becker to have Mr.Berk as her son in law. The credit goes to you, since you had enlightened and made a pathway to start their life as a couple. No doubt, wherever they live, their generation ll bless our beloved professor.
Thank you so much for your appreciation. Writing this post made me real nostalgic!