Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Encounter in Café Griensteidl

One cold and rainy November evening, Baron von Trotta met a man in his favourite Viennese coffeehouse.

The man shyly asked if he could share the Baron's usual table, the one furthest to the left at the back, just by the last coffee window.

The Baron's polite but resigned grin was able to dissuade most uninvited suitors, but that night the old streets of the Innere Stadt were so windswept and soaked, that he took pity of the man and nodded a reluctant agreement.

How the Baron and the man managed to strike a conversation will be the subject of other post, as that man, whom we will know from now on as The Seeker, will appear from time to time in these pages. The Baron met with the Seeker often after that first chilly November evening.

Among the many anecdotes that the Seeker told that night, the Baron will never forget that of The Seeker's failure in making a career in the so-called corporate world.

After finishing university, The Seeker joined a big industrial multinational company on account of his language skills, academic degree and general brilliant demeanour.

Being sent to the headquarters of the firm located in another European country, he quickly discovered new colleagues from abroad were not particularly welcome. He made it a point to improve his command of the language to a point where he was frequently mistaken by a fellow countryman, he worked hard and tried his best to fit in.

After three years, he was sent back to his home country, "his apprenticeship having finished". He was told he did not have the right to a relocation package because they were simply "sending him home".

Back in the local office, he quickly found out a growing sense of hostility among his former colleagues he could not explain, as he had frequently played host to them when visiting the headquarters. All became clear when he found one morning a copy of his payslip on his desk, with his monthly income circled in red ink several times, like a pen held by a furious hand.

Time to go, he said, and decided to invest all his savings in a Master degree, because at that time it was customary to praise in the media the young, entrepreneurial people who took risks, invested in education, and not in flats or short-lived pleasures.

So he took his entry exams, packed up his suitcase and left for another country. He was a good student, often helping others with homework, and getting good grades. As the course approached the final date, he grew a bit anxious, as he was not making any interviews. So he contacted the Dean and asked her if she could help. The woman received him with a scornful smile, and told him that "he did not have the same rights as local students", then asked him to leave her office.

When he finally got his degree, The Seeker was running out of money, and had to content itself with temporary employment, such as he has never done since University.

He tried to apply for jobs like those his fellow students of the Master had gotten after graduating, to no avail. One of them, told him, when meeting by chance in a tramway, that in order to get a job he needed to learn the language of that country, a difficult language not spoken elsewhere in the world.

The Seeker invested his few resources in intensive courses, and after several months, he had a reasonable command of the language, at least good for interviews. But interviews were still few and far between, if any at all.

After three years of failures, The Seeker took a plane to meet with his family. He had cherished in secret that meeting, expecting understanding and warmth. But he only found incredulity because "the radio says that everybody with an International Master degree and 3 fluent languages gets a good job". They even rained him with stories of such successes. When he tried to explain, he had the impression of muttering excuses, and was barely listened.

He prepared once more his suitcases and somehow ended up in dear old Vienna, handing in leaflets; giving private lessons; deputizing in summer in tourist shops; even working in fast-food outlets. His chance was not such that he avoided altogether meeting some of his former colleagues, who pointed their fingers at him, and laughed openly.

He kept trying, but none of his job applications were ever successful.
And he considered himself lucky, for he had met lost souls who, under similar circumstances, ha ended much worse.

He at least had a roof upon his head in Favoriten. None of his languages were of any use there, let alone his Master degree, and he had to learn Viennese German the hard -and  fast- way.

Baron von Trotta listened patiently, and could not avoid thinking about the strange ways of the post-modern world, where the able were punished and the incompetent rewarded.

He smiled, thinking for a moment what that great beholder, Karl Kraus, would have thought about such a story. Herr Kraus, who once wrote the most biting satire about the literati who frequented that same coffeehouse, more than 100 years ago.

Compared to the men that rule today's word, those mocked men were and remain true giants.

And he ordered one more große brauner...

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