A winter's tale in Vienna

This is a very simple story about the best Christmas gift I have ever received.

Being on your own in Vienna at Christmas is very beautiful and very lonely. There wasn’t snow but I could feel it coming, somewhere high and from the direction of the Alps. There were festive lights strung from lamp-posts and the night air was black and sharp as ice, and the grand sculpted buildings of the Ringstrasse gleamed white as though they were carved from stalagmites. 

I walked through the streets thinking of all the people back home that I loved, thinking of the warmth of December in South Africa, the sounds of Christmas beetles and the smell of woodsmoke from a neighbour’s braai drifting through the neighbourhood. I thought about the sound of children laughing and running around barefoot and the splashing and shrieking of small bodies jumping into a swimming pool somewhere down the road.

My heart ached, first a little, then a lot. I was tempted to drink some eggnog or brandy or whatever they traditionally serve in Austria to warm you over the season but I knew that would be a bad idea. Being lonely and far away is one thing, being lonely and far away and drunk is a recipe for disaster.

I went to see the apartment where Sigmund Freud once lived and worked but it was closed and dark so I walked back to my hotel with my hands scrunched in my pockets and the collar of my coat turned up. I had brought my warmest clothes on this trip but I hadn’t realised how very cold the European cold can be. I had a scarf but it wasn’t warm enough; I had gloves that did nothing at all. My feet were heavy, my heart was even heavier.

The back streets were dark and empty but as I walked up past the Rathaus, the gothic city hall, there was a blaze of bright floodlights and music through loudspeakers. There was a gleaming open-air ice-rink set up on the square in front of the marble stairs to the City Hall and I stared in wonder as youngsters and old folks in bright puffy clothing went skating by, their eyes sparkling, the blades of their skates flashing and scrawling thin doodles on the ice.

It was overwhelming – so much light and activity and happiness. There were more smiling people on that rink than in the rest of Austria combined. There was a clean, sharp, electric smell in the air, the scent of fresh ice and ozone and adrenaline.

My heart lifted. This was so much better than sitting alone in a hotel room with German-language television. In a burst of enthusiasm I hired some skates and laced them up, but then I looked again at the skaters on the rink. They were all so fast and confident. 

The last time I’d been in the ice was fifteen years before, at Caron Priestley’s birthday party, and even back then I’d wobbled around like a camel who has somehow managed to stand on four different blocks of butter at the same time. I couldn’t go out there. I’d get in the way, people would bowl me over, I’d ruin everyone’s good time.

And so I sat there on a wooden bench, leaning against the metal railing, watching the skaters like an orphan kid pressing his face to the window of a toy store. 

And then a woman skated up to me. She was red-cheeked and wore a woolen cap and her hair was in a ponytail. She said something to me in German and I shrugged apologetically and spread my hands to show I didn’t speak German. She said something else and beckoned to me, and I realised she was inviting me out onto the ice.

I blushed and said no thank you, but she insisted and turned and waved to some other people to join her to help persuade me. Her husband skated over, and two teenagers, and they all smiled and extended their hands. It was such an act of bewildering generosity – for a family to notice a lost-looking stranger and to go out of their way to make him feel welcome, to give him someone to skate with – that I felt the tears prickling in the corners of my eyes.

I pretended it was just the cold, and I tottered onto the ice and joined them, and they helped me around and held my hand and laughed with me when I staggered, and laughed even harder with me when I fell. They shared their thermos of cocoa with me, and her husband gave me his business card and we couldn’t really speak, but we didn’t have to, because when you’re giving someone the gift of love, of kindness, of human contact and fellow-feeling, you don’t need words at all.

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Darrel Bristow-Bovey is a columnist, screenwriter, travel writer, author - follow him on Twitter

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