Outside the Goulash Museum
A couple of weeks ago, I spent five days in Vienna, my first proper visit for more than seven years. Although my other half insisted that I was having a holiday, the objective was rather more prosaic. For those who don’t know, I am the Secretary of a society called the Austrian Railway Group (ARG), a collection of (mainly) English-speaking enthusiasts for the railways and country of Austria. We nonetheless have a small number of Austrian members, and a number of those are in the business of railways in some form or another. One of those members, Rudi Neumann, is the proprietor of a medium-scale model railway manufacturer, Ferro-Train, and he acts as a focal point for a lot of the more artisan end of the hobby in Vienna. Rudi has organised a show for small suppliers (Kleinserienmesse) for a number of years, but this year, he was invited to run a specialist hall for clubs and small suppliers in the main Vienna modelling show at the end of October. And he, in turn, invited the ARG to have a stand there.
We had the invitation early in the year, and four of us signed up to staff it. Sadly, shortly after putting the process in train, one of our number was taken ill and unexpectedly passed away in the summer. This left us one body short, although we inherited a legacy from our absent friend in the form of a recommendation for a good hotel that we all ended up staying in for organisational convenience.
The question arose as to what goods we should take with us. Our main stock in trade is books in English about Austrian railways. One of our members has transferred his video output to DVD, and some of that is now getting close to archival status. We sell his DVDs on his behalf, for a percentage. And we also produce merchandising – keyrings, fridge magnets, drinks coasters and especially greetings cards – bearing pictures of Austrian railways.
It might be thought that the books in particular would be something of a “coals to Newcastle” exercise; but some of our publications would be considered specialist even if they were about English railways. A couple of years ago, for example, I compiled a bibliography of Austrian railway literature, the first in any language for a century. Although this was never going to be a best-seller, the ARG was the logical place to look to publish this, as if we didn’t, who would? (We have a Vienna bookshop outlet, and he has apparently sold quite a few of these.) Equally, a number of our books contain information that hasn’t been seen in Austria before, especially the photographs. So we decided to take a small selection of books in case of some occasional sales.
The show was a full-scale commercial operation in Vienna’s main trade exhibition centre. This meant dealing with the show organisers, Reed (the same people who run the employment agency in the UK with those irritating tv adverts that suggest that you can be whatever you want to be, regardless of qualifications, experience or attractiveness of your CV to employers. Suffice it to say, in the past couple of years when I’ve been looking for work, I’ve had job notifications from Reed and applied for jobs through them, but never had even a response from any employers who placed jobs with them. So my opinion of the organisation is not that high. But I digress.)
The ARG regularly attends a number of exhibitions within the UK, including the big annual December* exhibition at Birmingham’s NEC, which is perhaps the closest show in terms of size and organisation to the Vienna one. The experience of doing the NEC show is different, because most of the organisation for clubs and traders is handled by the club that puts the show on. They have set up their own company to manage the show, and it is that body that positions itself between individual attendees and the NEC management, and handles all the issues such as booking pitches, issuing attendees’ hall passes, parking, publicity and so on. This wasn’t the case in Vienna; we had to deal with Reed Exhibitions direct, and although they were very helpful, especially in communicating in English when we needed to, it became very clear that they were unused to the idea of small suppliers and voluntary societies attending the show. Clubs and societies get special rates at the NEC show; this was certainly not the case here. On the other hand, attending the NEC, especially for set-up and pull-down of the stand, means having to deal with NEC site security, and they are quite regimented in the way they manage the show venue, running the whole thing like a military operation. In contrast, site and hall management at Vienna was almost invisible, and although public entry on the day was via automated turnstile, set-up on the Thursday was a far more casual affair, with access restricted by nothing more than a portable barrier of the type used to mark out bank or post office queues here in the UK; easily circumvented, and with little in the way of security. We were only challenged after going through this barrier by the staff of another exhibition whose front hall we had to pass through, and then only because the staff member involved was concerned that we were attendees at her exhibition who were getting themselves lost; and when we then reported to the model show enquiry desk to present our credentials, we were met with amused puzzlement, as if to say “You have your passes for entry? So why are you telling me about it? You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t supposed to be.”
And that is Austria all over. It is a very relaxed country. The up-front payments for the stand were sent out by post, and took nearly a fortnight to reach the UK from Austria – hardly a first-class service! But Reed seemed very unconcerned about ensuring that they had cleared funds before we were allowed to set up. Generally in Austria, it is still not uncommon to find business – sometimes even retail business! – transacted by invoice, and card payments are still not universal.
Of the experience of getting to Vienna, setting up and opening the stand, and actually attending the show, little needs to be said. I used up some of my Air Miles (now Avios) in flying with British Airways direct from Heathrow to Vienna, as flying from Birmingham involves using Lufthansa and inevitably involves a stopover at Frankfurt and often quite a long stopover at that – on one occasion, as much as four hours! And flying from East Midlands, little more than half an hour away from me, was even less sensible, as its European connections are pretty poor. No, what was interesting were the differences between shows and show contents between the UK and Austria; and the reactions of visitors who came to our stand.
In fact, I’m sure that more than a few of the visitors didn’t twig that we were not Austrian until they actually spoke to us or looked closely at the books on display. Unlike, say, France, the German-speaking world uses English quite considerably in business and advertising; indeed, one of the recent crop of new publishers in the field in Austria calls itself “ the Railway Media Group” and uses that title in English. Those that did make that conceptual leap were really quite surprised; why, they asked, is there an English society for Austrian railways? (There is, after all, no reciprocal body in Austria or Germany for enthusiasts for British railways.) We explained it by saying that there are societies for many of the European nations’ railways in the UK; that interest in Continental railways is something different in the UK, and some of us seek out that which is different; and in any case, why do people support football clubs that they have no particular geographical or family connection with? Even given that explanation, people still wondered why we had nothing to show or sell about British railways. And most of our products were in English; only the DVDs had any publicity material in German.
Of the show itself, it was interesting to contrast it with similar shows in the UK. Model hobby shows here tend to concern only one strand, and there is a massive dichotomy between model railway shows on the one hand and scale model shows on the other. Meanwhile, collectors of die-cast model cars, wargamers and radio-control model fans all have their own shows. On the Continent, these hobbies all combine into one big show; that’s not to say that there aren’t single-strand shows for each of these interests, but there is at least one big national show combining the lot. And that’s not necessarily a result of differing population sizes, either. Austria has a population of about 8.5 million, but France and Germany have populations far higher – in fact, Germany is more populous than the UK at somewhere around 80 million – and the combined show is far more common. France and Germany both have a number of regional shows of this nature. Perhaps one reason is that modelling hobbies and a collective, club culture are more mainstream than they are in the UK. Indeed, there is a joke that when two Germans meet, they shake hands; when three Germans meet, they form a club. And there is not the same cultural cringe over being a fan of a modelling hobby in Germany or Austria, for example; indeed, being a railway enthusiast in Germany or Austria has a social status akin to being in a golf club in Britain, and the demographic that the advertising aims for is similar. Continental model railways may be aimed towards engineers, doctors and architects as much as the skilled manual worker.
Also, in terms of modelling itself, there is more crossover in skills and techniques between railway modellers and scale static modellers, whereas in the UK certain materials, skills and techniques remain within one particular ‘ghetto’ until some degree of conceptual breakthrough happens and a technique that one branch of modelling has known about for years is suddenly adopted wholeheartedly by another branch.
Meanwhile, what of Vienna?
Before I went, I was warned by a recent traveller that there had been an increase in street crime, aggressive begging and associated unpleasantness. I saw very little of this. The area around the Westbahnhof, which had been the focus of much of the movement of refugees through Austria a few weeks earlier (and mis-identified in the media as ‘Vienna’s main railway station’) has always been something of a magnet for slightly dubious characters – but that’s quite normal for railway stations across Europe, and most of the time these people aren’t a particular bother. What was noticeable was that the emergency services were camping out on the Westbahnhof forecourt, but that was only to be expected. Otherwise, Vienna is still the relaxed, comfortable, person-friendly city that I’ve always found it to be. (Compared to London, for instance, Vienna is positively human.)
One thing that I did notice was that, compared to seven years ago, there was some more high-rise development on the fringes of the city. And some of that new development was centred on the area around the Hauptbahnhof, the new Vienna central station that opened earlier this year but is not yet up to full capacity and won’t be until the remaining state railways’ long-distance services are diverted into it from December this year. I spent my one free morning visiting the three main-line stations that have been most recently redeveloped – Prater, the Hauptbahnhof and Meidling – to see what sort of changes there’d been. And again, I’m pleased to say that newness is balanced with the Austrian reputation for the human scale. On Meidling, for instance, we came across employees in the middle of the morning using a quiet time to clean up station fixtures and fittings. And the new Hauptbahnhof, whilst being built on the site of the old Südbahnhof, certainly combines modern design with human scale and efficiency.
Meidling is the sort of outer suburban station with many local transport connections that a lot of cities have that enable local people to access main-line services without a trip into the centre of the city. Many cities have such a station; sometimes, there is more than one. Vienna Meidling was upgraded as a part of the revision of the Viennese rail network that building the new Hauptbahnhof required; indeed, for a time during the rebuilding work, main-line services terminated here. More oddly, the airport coach service, which goes from the airport to the main railway stations in Vienna, still calls at Meidling rather than the new Hauptbahnhof.
The rest of my spare time in Vienna was in the evenings, when the show team went out in search of sustenance. I introduced my colleagues to the Siebensternhof, a pub with a micro-brewery attached which is highly popular with the Viennese themselves. My colleagues in turn introduced us to a proper Viennese wine cellar, complete with faux “gypsy fiddlers” who were not as familiar with the works of Johann Strauss as they might have liked to suggest they were. (I was able to ask for a popular Strauss polka, Freie Fahrt! [‘The Express Train polka’] that flummoxed them) (and what else would a railway enthusiast ask for?) One night, Rudi and his colleague Robert took us out to one of their favourite places, a Vietnamese restaurant in the Favoriten district. We also found a pancake house, also frequented by locals; and even when one of us developed a deep craving for dead cow and we found a steakhouse, opposite the Goulash Museum (no, that really isn’t a typo!), it was both quiet and not stupidly expensive.
Indeed, I was surprised at how quiet Vienna was of an evening once you got away from the Stephansplatz, the central tourist attraction of the city. I’d always assumed that anywhere within the Ring, the boulevard that circles the city centre, would be prime tourist territory; but no, even eating places almost next door to quite posh hotels were quiet, inexpensive and frequented by locals. Perhaps this is down to the way that central Vienna is still home to a lot of ordinary Viennese. Not all the apartments in the Innere Stadt have been taken over as offices or sold on to rich, non-domiciled property investors as in London; and as a result, the centre of Vienna is both lively yet at the same time as quiet as any other residential area at night. Though I also suspect that international chain restaurants have taken up a lot of prime sites immediately around the Stephansplatz and the Graben, the main shopping street; and I suspect that these are the places that attract the less imaginative international tourist, and charge accordingly.
We also spent some time exploring the streets of Vienna and taking advantage of the lack of traffic – and pedestrians – to admire the architecture, both grand and prosaic. There are still quiet corners of Vienna to be found if you go and look for them. And I even found myself warming to Vienna’s underground railway, something I’ve never been all that fond of because of their 1970s trains with lurid orange plastic interiors and the station designs which take no account of passenger flows when having to change lines. But being both modern and not comprised of deep tubes, I realised through using it on a daily basis the way the Viennese do, as a commuter, that it was far more modern than London’s Underground, and less threatening and restrictive. And they have recently supplemented their 1970s trains with new stock whose interior décor is far more restful. About the only irritation was caused by a drunken American woman spouting racist insults (in English) that I suspect most of the rest of the train’s occupants were unlikely to understand. I suspect that she would have ended her evening with a ride in a police car…
All in all, the trip was a resounding success for the ARG, both in terms of the trade we did and some of the contacts made. We have already spoken about repeating the exercise next year, and how to better focus our products to be more appealing to a Continental market; for example, print on demand means that it might be possible to maintain some of our titles translated into German and only print them off when required. I even suggested that a short history and tourist guide for Austrian visitors to Britain might be useful; and there are opportunities for reselling of a small selection of British railway books and DVDs, if we can find a supplier who’d like to participate. Financially, it was a success in terms of turnover, though until we do all the counting up the actual financial bottom line remain s a little unsure (and of course, we who attended paid for travel, accommodation and food out of our own pockets, which is the only way the Group as a whole could afford the exercise). The experience of doing the show has meant that we shall find ways of doing the whole exercise more economically next time.
In terms of networking, the ARG has made contact with the Südbahn Museum at Mürzzuschlag, and has already had an invitation to attend an event they are putting on next June. And I have made contact with an Austrian publisher, and had interesting discussions about photographs and possible projects. Without a doubt, the world is full of surprises.
*Well, I always think of it as being in December, though a colleague points out that it’s actually in late November this year – and probably most other years as well.