ON NOT SEEING A PLACE THROUGH ROSE-TINTED GLASSES:
We wake to grey skies releasing an endless flurry of snow.
Our first stop this morning is Schönbrunn Palace. We wonder around the white-blanketed grounds, giddy with that childish excitement that only the first snow of the season can produce.
It’s a long time before we pay too much attention to the cold that comes with it, but eventually our fingers are numb in the tips of our gloves, and the grey slush seeps cold into our boots. We become aware that we’re shivering. I also become aware that the cold is shrinking my bladder and making me need to pee. I scout out a toilet sign, under one of the side entrances to the palace gardens.
At the bottom of the steps, in a kind of underground cavern, I pay my 50c to the elderly woman at the desk. These toilets, at least, are well kept, with plenty of toilet roll and a comforting lack of urine splashes on the floor and seat. And after the cold of outside, it’s a relief to sit down in the relative warmth, if only for a moment. As I leave, the woman is hunched troll-like over a mound of dull gold coins, muttering to herself as she divides them into stacks.
We walk back to the U-Bahn, down photogenic streets. A crow stalks the ledges like something primeval as melting snow hurls itself at us from the roof. As I dodge a discarded condom on the pavement, I can’t help but wonder at the people who would be brave enough to do their business outside in these freezing winter temperatures. We make our way to Stephansplatz, via the station that smells vaguely of stomach acid and churned eggs.
The air is still biting at our cheeks when we emerge from the station, so we file into the cathedral in a column of cold and bedraggled tourists. Mass is underway, so everyone is bundled at the back by the entrance. Occasional words of scripture float back to us along the nave, words made incomprehensible by the echoing distance even if they hadn’t been in German.
I’m standing at the gate that separates the main nave from the back of the cathedral: the serious worshippers from the huddled tourists. Beside me, a row of tea lights flickers with people’s prayers. From here, the cathedral has a lofty symmetry, an intricate beauty of the kind that for me defines so many elegant places of worship on the continent. I’m thinking that if I could just move a foot or so to my right, I could squeeze my camera through the metal bars and take a photo along the central line of the nave, capture that sense of balance and height – but there’s a woman standing there. I suppose in some way I see her as claiming the view for herself, because isn’t that what any stance is? Claiming a point from which to view the world?
I decide to wait the woman out. I’m good at waiting. Waiting is just a case of finding something in a scene to occupy yourself, so that the act of waiting becomes an act of observation and making emotional connections – so it becomes active rather than passive.
The woman stands there, and I wait, and the woman stands there some more.
I’m not sure exactly when or how it happens, but while we’re both standing there, I become aware that the relationship between us has changed. We’re no longer competitors for the same photographable view. Instead, we’re watching side by side. Up in the choir, a woman sings the Angus Dei in a sad slanting voice that carried right to the back of the cathedral, right to us. The woman beside me pulls out a tissue and wipes her nose, then her eyes.
Eventually the service ends. The worshippers disband. The woman melts away into the crowd, and I explore the rest of the cathedral.
On the way out, I light a candle – not because of any religious urge, but because I feel like this moment was in its own way a sort of prayer, and the candle is my acknowledgement of that.
As I stand my candle in the tray of sand, a woman lights a candle next to me, smiling and posing for her husband, fingers in a peace sign as he snaps a photo on his phone.