"Traveling, you realize that all differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents. Your atlas preserves the differences intact: that assortment of qualities which are like the letters in a name." — Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
I woke late. I felt amazing. I ate a good breakfast and rode a lift to the top of Munich's New Tower and left Germany—I'd be back, just not yet—for Vienna.
It had been nearly a month since I'd written. I'd started off so well, recapping each day on the train or the quiet terrace of a hostel, and I needed it, for if I didn't write, I knew for sure I'd forget it all, that all of the great cities I'd see and experiences I'd have would blend together into a soured soup. I hoped one day, when I was old and my body too battered for such adventures, to have these writings to look back on, to remember fondly the faint details of that summer in Europe. And I enjoyed it, too: I enjoyed writing even if it wasn't very good, liked throwing words together and seeing what stuck, loved the way the little tip-tap of my miniature keyboard played a harmony with the rustling psithurism of the nearby trees. And, of course, I liked being able to share this adventure, the things I saw and the feelings I had, with anyone who was kind enough to listen.
Yet I'd been busy with Abby around, and as the days piled into weeks and the memories got all messy, the task of writing began to feel more like a chore, a daunting pile of paragraphs to parse through. Though a chore, I knew it to be a worthwhile one, and I knew once I'd caught up on my writing I'd feel much better about it, eager to bite off much more manageable chunks in the days moving forward.
But in order to write, I had to stop moving. I had to sit somewhere and give myself time to write, and I also had to stop accumulating new things to write about, new stories tossed atop the stack. And so I arrived in Vienna, and I told myself I would not leave Vienna until I had detailed every last memorable moment up to, and including, Vienna. And starting the next morning, that's exactly what I did.
It wasn't easy. I left my hostel for a nearby park, something free from distractions, and instead I found the single most distracting object I'd maybe ever seen, an indescribably massive concrete tower looming imposingly over the otherwise idyllic gardens. I thought it Soviet, but my history was all jumbled: it had actually been built by the Germans to fight the Soviets in the dark dying days of World War II, a massive bunker with room for ten thousand civilians inside and landings for anti-aircraft guns up top. Hitler had ordered it built, and ordered it quickly, so it was an ugly heap of dirty beige, but he had hoped to one day soon—a chilling thought—cover its ghastly concrete in all marble, to repurpose the flaktower as an enormous marble monument to the Germans martyrs lost in the war.
It was supremely monolithic, simply abandoned with a thin fence around its perimeter, and I'd never wanted to climb anything so badly in my life. There was one problem: it was a bunker, an edifice designed with the sole purpose of keeping unwanted people out. And so even if I could find a way underneath or over the fence (which I did), it had but two entrances, and they were both sealed up.
I found a second tower, almost as large and equally sealed, and later a cafe on the park's edges, and there, on the first day, I wrote. I wrote for five hours, fingers aflurry until my wrists cramped, and then I returned to the hostel for a shower. I exited the shower as one of my roommates entered the room. His name was Sean, and he was from California, traveling for a few weeks in Germany and Italy and Austria and Spain, and a really nice guy, so we chatted a bit, and when his friend Jennie came by—they had met in Berlin and realized they'd overlap once more in Vienna—they asked if I'd join them for a walk around town.
I had vowed to write and do nothing but, but my hands hurt, so I agreed. We just wandered, no real destination in mind, but in a place like Vienna that wasn't a problem: we cycled past beautiful baroque palaces and sprawling gardens, and in the setting sun we stumbled upon a little place called the Hunderwasserhaus, named after the eponymous architect, which may have just been one of the most remarkable structures I'd ever seen. It being remarkable and all, I should here remark on what I saw, but I don't know if I have the illustrative prowess to do so, so unique and indescribable it was. It hit us like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, a magical playhouse with a fuzzy patchwork spraypainted on its bulbous facade, trees growing right out of it and colorful tiles denoting where one apartment ended and another began—ah, that's important, these were functioning apartments—and as we peeked through the glass into the winding lobby, we found even the floor was uneven, hilly like the surface of a miniature golf course. It was chaotic and it was anarchic and it was beautiful.
On the second day, I wrote more. I said goodbye to Sean and Jennie after a great night strolling the streets and ending up in an underground bar—quite literally underground, butted up against an old train station—and I found an empty seat at a busy cafe in the city center, and I ordered a coffee and cracked my knuckles and got to writing. I was soon interrupted by a fellow traveler, Adrian, who asked if I was there alone and if I wouldn't mind if he joined me, and though I had just begun to write, it actually came as a very welcome interruption: he seemed lovely and genuine and full of spirit, and I urged him to have a seat. He was from Romania, now living in Britain, and we swapped stories of our travels, past and present, while he waited for his afternoon train to Prague to arrive. As it neared Vienna, we said our goodbyes, and he hurried off to the station.
Mid-afternoon had already come, so I wrote straight through until the evening. I rewarded myself for a solid day's work with a leisurely dusk stroll through Schonbrunner Palace, vast grounds of grass and garden, and then I slept, another night in Vienna.
On the third day, I searched for a suitable place to write and I found something else instead: a third flaktower, much like the two I'd seen in the Augarten, but this one, dropped right in the middle of the modern city, had been repurposed into an aquarium. Though I'm no fan of scooping wild things out of their homes in the big blue sea and boxing them up in little glass containers for us to poke at and ogle, I am a fan of creative repurposing of dying structures, and so I was duly impressed. I then neared the tower for a closer look and I rounded its hard corner and instantly grew doubly impressed, triply impressed—not from the aquarium, that was just okay—but from what hung along its western face: an enormous climbing wall with its rainbow of holds and its magnificent top ropes billowing in the wind, and somewhere halfway of its height a pair of climbers scaling the flat face of it.
When I said I'd wanted to climb that first tower, I'd meant an old decaying staircase inside, something just sturdy enough to get me to the top with a crack through which to peer out and see the city. This was my wish taken literally: the tower could actually be climbed.
But not by me, sadly. I watched the climbers with envy as I was informed in rough English that I would need a belay partner, which I didn't have—a sad consequence of traveling solo—and not really wanting to inconvenience the Austrians who were climbing with my annoying request to belay me, not really having the German to even ask or trusting that I could learn the German commands to reciprocate, I instead entered the building and paid four euros to the woman behind the desk in the aquarium to take the stairs, which afforded those same spectacular views but with none of the rebel's reward, no triumph at having successfully scaled a fence or slipped through a door undetected.
It was a half-victory. I accepted it. The bunker's balcony seemed a suitable place to write, so there, on the third day, I wrote. I wrote as the sun arced high in the sky and then dipped low once more, I wrote as the tiny cars and the tiny people below me hurried like ants along the tiny streets. I wrote great sloppy stories of sorry syntax, paragraphs littered with annoying alliteration and sentences that never seemed to end, cumbersome sentences just like this one that carry on and on until you think that they're finally about to end, maybe right here, and then they get scooped up by a comma like a plummeting shuttlecock hit upward by a poor racquet and then the racket continues, it just keep going, another instance of alliteration or pitiful wordplay fueling it further, forever forward, and maybe you think it's going to redeem itself by sentence's end, that perhaps all this lead-up will be worth it once the words carry themselves to some great truth, but no great truth ever comes: it's just more commas and, oh, that colon back there, and semicolons and em-dashes and lots of these lists that break themselves up with "and" where a comma would do just fine, not because commas are no good but because they're in short supply, what with being used everywhere else in the damn sentence, which can hardly be called a sentence anymore—it's not just a run-on sentence, but a run-on paragraph, for not even paragraphs should last this long ... but perhaps an ellipsis fixes all that, suddenly turning everything around into a new thought, and then the whole thing is just born again and starts anew with a fresh breath, and then just when you think it'll never end it suddenly
I wrote until my fingers stiffened and my mouth dried and my bladder ached, too close to the end to even think of pausing. I wrote until the guards of the bunker began eyeing my suspiciously, up there for hours perched on that stiff bench. I wrote until I finally, after three long days in Vienna, caught up to the end, to that moment where the past and the present were the very same thing, where there was nothing left to write but the now, where I am writing these very words at that very moment, which is in your past and now in my past too but at this moment in my present, and having sufficiently ripped through what was already a pretty paper-thin fourth wall to begin with, and having at long last accomplished what I'd come to Vienna to do, I packed up my keyboard and descended the stairs of the old flaktower and took off into the setting sun to be one with Vienna.