Because Malina and I wanted to see the Vienna we’d never seen before, we decided to take a trip on the AUSTROBUS
So begins one of Ingeborg Bachmann‘s short stories. I can’t remember which one, because I read it three years ago and Google is being surprisingly unhelpful in bringing up the reference (EDIT: My invaluable colleague tells me it’s from her story “Besichtitgung einer alten Stadt”, or “Visit to an Old City”, in English). In the story, the narrator and her partner, Malina, decide to try being tourists in their hometown. They hop on to a tour bus with a bunch of Americans, and pretend to be American academics visiting Austria. They hold conversations in their best Midwest-accented English, tour the castles and the churches, and end up by turns surprised and disappointed by the things they discover.
My sister and her husband arrived in Vienna today, which means that it truly is the beginning of the very end. Friday. It looms closer now; my days are punctuated by walks back to my little room from their hotel. We are scheduling trips to museums and markets around my inevitable administrative duties—trips to the magistrate’s office to deregister my address, closing my bank account, packing up my things and donating anything I can’t bring back to the States. In between, I am the tour guide, doing my best impersonation of Dr. Johnson, my program coordinator: “…the Karlskirche was built in the 18th century, and is unique among Vienna’s churches…”
I thought this would make things easier. I believed, as I so often do, that the busyness would save me from the waves of premature nostalgia and regret. I would have too much to do, that I couldn’t think about how terribly I’m going to miss this place, and these people, and how there just isn’t enough time to spend meaningfully with those who have given such meaning to my year. That is the worst of it—to know that I am going to have to slip away from people who are so dear to me, without much more than a quick “Hey, I hope I’ll see you soon,” casually tossed off at a party or in a hallway, because there is so much to do and so many people to say goodbye to. No time to watch that movie we always meant to, or go to that restaurant, or play that song.
In some ways, I feel like I ought to just let myself be present for this, in all its confusing grief; I ought to lean into whatever it is I’m feeling, because that is the honest way to experience the satisfaction and the loss graduating entails. But I don’t want to be honest. I want to, like Bachmann and Malina, see this city like an outsider for a while, to escape all of the meaning and difficulty that comes with living here—and leaving here.
I am still not sure which answer is right. I cannot pretend that I am a tourist here again, however much I might wish to right now. But I also cannot give myself over to grieving—it would be maudlin, and self-indulgent, and all of those things I talked about still need to get done. There simply isn’t time.