I was born in New York City—Manhattan to be precise—and have lived most of my life in Los Angeles. In a word, I am a city boy, for all of the pleasure I have derived from occasional forays into the countryside, forests, mountains, lakeshores, and seaside. But for the past few years, before and after COVID, I have lived outside Vienna and enjoyed the various customs of the festive year which so heavily mark the life of this area. This wonderful time between Christmas and Candlemas/Mardi Gras has a unique magic—even in the two cities I know best. But Vienna is truly entrancing. There is really only one American city like it: New Orleans, Louisiana.
Now, at first glance, the two metropoli could not be more different. One is a major port, the other tucked away quite literally in the centre of Europe. Vienna was first settled under the Romans, if not before, while the Crescent City is a mere stripling dating back to 1718. The old Kaiserstadt is resolutely German speaking, while New Orleans jettisoned its native French over a century ago. Vienna is a world-class capital, while New Orleans is merely the biggest city in an American state that is far from the largest—either in territory or population. One could go on and on. But the truth is, they have a very great deal in common.
The most obvious resemblance is the importance of Carnival season—Fasching in Vienna, Mardi Gras in New Orleans. From the Epiphany until the stroke of midnight issuing in Ash Wednesday, the two cities give themselves up to masked balls, parades, and all sorts of merrymaking, which spread out from their storied centres (the Erste Bezirk in Vienna; the Vieux Carré in New Orleans) through newer and older suburbs and into the rural hinterland beyond. Indeed, Vienna and New Orleans are among the few remaining great cities in the world that retain an organic white-tie ball culture.
It must said that for both of these places, the Carnival season is in a sense the prototype of life “as it should be.” New Orleans boasts of being “the City that care forgot,” while Vienna calls itself the “City of Dreams”—perhaps echoed further by the Creole City’s other sobriquet of “Land of Dreams!” This devotion to pleasure and an escape from unpleasantness is heightened by the role that both music and cuisine play in lives of the metropoli. Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and the rest are as much the tutelary spirits of the Viennese mind as Waller, Armstrong, Gottschalk, and company are of the New Orleanian. If Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans is the anthem of the one, Wien, du Stadt meiner Träume is that of the other. There is a strange convergence in sentiment between New Orleans blues and the Wienerlieder. So too with food; both cities have a local cuisine that has achieved world renown and plays a key part of their identities – from gumbo to Altwiener Suppentopf. Without a doubt, the late lamented Drei Husaren restaurant played a role in Vienna’s dream that Antoine’s thankfully continues to play in New Orleans. As regards hotels, one may equally compare the Sacher and the Roosevelt.
Love and romance have always also been considered an integral part of each city’s character—preferably doomed. If Vienna exhibits a seemingly endless chain of tragic Habsburg and aristocratic love affairs, New Orleans may respond with her Quadroon Balls and forbidden alliances across racial or class lines—even between locals and Yankees, or worse still, French and Anglos! Predictably, both sets of lachrymose unions have produced bumper crops of ghost legends, much to the delight of locals and tourists alike.
This last may be fitting, because both Vienna and New Orleans have a unique relationship—and perhaps fascination—with death. As befits historically Catholic cities, cemeteries in both places become candlelit wonderlands on the Feast of All Saints, and into All Souls. The cemeteries themselves are showcases of ornate sepulchral architecture. Viennese and New Orleanians alike will spare no expense for an impressive funeral. In Vienna, these still often feature horse-drawn carriages instead of hearses with bicorned drivers and footmen; New Orleans’ jazz funerals with their ‘second lines’ of dancing mourners are world renowned.
Our urban duo have another thing in common, and that is a peculiar class structure—in one sense stratified to the point of invisibility, and in other ways weirdly egalitarian. Ever since the odious Karl Renner banned the use of noble titles in 1919, Austria’s nobility in general have been sort of underground. But in such exclusive places as the Jockey Club für Österreich and the St. Johanns Club, they may congregate and enjoy one another’s company. So it is with the white aristocracy of New Orleans’ Boston, Pickwick, and Louisiana Clubs, and the black elite’s Autocrat Club. But on the opposite end of the social scale, Vienna’s lowest of the low developed the Gaunersprache—“Crook’s Language”— which has had a major influence on Viennese German. In a similar manner, Irish and German immigrants gave New Orleans its famous English dialect “Yat,” while Gombo French or Creole (not to be confused with the refined French once spoken by white and black Creoles). Yet, in a strange manner, these two extremes in both cities have an odd relationship with one another—most visible at Carnival and other public observances, and in their mutual disdain for newcomers. Indeed, these two ends of the social scale, in a sense, serve as the repositories of the genuine spirit of their respective cities, with all those in between seeming in some sense to range between newcomers and interlopers.
Not too surprisingly, all of this has been fertile ground in both cities for writers. In Vienna, it produced Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, Franz Werfel, Friedrich Torberg, Karl Kraus, and a host of others; New Orleans also gave us an endless list, including Lyle Saxon, Robert Tallant, Walker Percy, John Kennedy Toole, and on and on. None of these writers could possibly have been who and what they were in any other place.
Both cities are haunted by the past—but not (despite the Nazis in one place, and slavery, reconstruction, and Jim Crow in the other) because of bygone evils. No, this is a unique burden of a past that was better than to-day or to-morrow could ever be: die Guten Alten Zeiten, les vielles bontemps passé. In the one case, it was the time of the Habsburg Monarchy, of the days when the waltz was king. In the second it is more of a moving target: it might be the Antebellum era, or perhaps the French Regime. But whenever this putative Golden Age was in either case, the present and by extension the future can never measure up. And so the citizens of both cities go about their lives; the more deeply connected familially or otherwise to the place, the more they seek refuge from the present by throwing themselves into the customs and rituals that distinguish their city from other, lesser municipalities.
Yet while this yearning for and dreaming of a past that will not return (and perhaps never really was) may not be the most ‘realistic’ approach to life, it is not without its charm—and for that matter, may be actually help its practitioners to cope better with a present-day reality of masks, social distancing, vaccines, and lockdowns that underline the unimportance of the individual in the face of an all-enveloping state than those for whom present and future are the best that they can hope for.
Moreover, Viennese and New Orleanian “otherness” is ultimately rooted in their shared Catholicism, which historically made living in a large and often dangerous metropolis far more palatable. Despite all that has happened since Vatican II, the Stephansdom and St. Louis Cathedral remain the respective spiritual centres of their cities. Each has a network of famous churches and shrines still much resorted to by the faithful—and as we have seen, the major observances of the Church inspire many of the communal celebrations that set these cities apart and undergird their similarities. For all that the Catholic clergy may have drifted from their traditional practices, those still form the foundation of the common mind of both New Orleans and Vienna.
To be sure, the inhabitants of these cities do live very much in the present. There are industries, the internet, and all the appurtenances of modern life—as well as all of its oppressions. But as indicated, in a real sense Vienna and New Orleans, in and of themselves, are able to provide those of their denizens who know and want it some refuge from current horrors—and through their literary, musical, and artistic patrimony, they are able to convey it to the rest of us at second hand.
But their dreamy magic has a greater value than mere temporary relief for those of us from elsewhere. For all their seeming impracticality, Vienna and New Orleans, despite everything, have remained themselves in the face of larger cultures, consciously or otherwise, attempting (with some success) to reduce them to mere sameness. What gives their dreams strength is that, in the final analysis, they are based upon ultimate reality. Life is indeed worth living to the full in all its best forms—love, cuisine, music, art, literature and all the rest. The elegance that has survived in both cities helps to illumine and ennoble it. But its term is indeed short, however sweet. Death awaits us all, and it must be prepared for whilst we live, honoured when it arrives, and its victims must be prayed for after they succumb. Every season of the year has its feasts and fasts, and happier shall we be if we live in accord with them. We should take pride in our state in life, be it high or low, and love our native place—strengthening while enjoying its various features. The past—the Christian past, at least—was indeed in many ways far better than what we— with our infanticide, euthanasia, and profaned marriage—produce, and we can use the best parts of it as guides for current endeavours. Above all—and indeed, at the root of all of these lovely things—is the fact that even now, Catholicism retains a strong imprint on the local social life. To be sure, both Vienna and New Orleans have their gritty sides, their bad neighbourhoods, their crime. But they have both come through horrors and retained not only their joie de vivre but their connexions to the eternal.
Much of what can be said of Vienna and New Orleans is true of other cities, from Rome and Paris to Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. Indeed, any urban centre Catholic enough to have an organic Carnival tradition of its own tends to have much of the same basic approach to reality—and to dream of a more glorious past (one thinks of Woody Allen’s brilliant film, Midnight in Paris). But as intimated earlier, the dreams of our two cities and of their similar sisters across the globe are not really of the past, for all that they are presented that way. They are dreams of that Heavenly City, of which all our best metropoli are more or less muddy reflections. In that realm alone shall we find that our dreams come true and our yearnings are satisfied. But until then, as Vienna and New Orleans teach us by their example, let us enjoy what we have and strive to be worthy of something better to come.
Charles A. Coulombe is a columnist for the Catholic Herald. His most recent book is Blessed Charles of Austria: A Holy Emperor and His Legacy (TAN Books, 2020). It was reviewed in our Winter 2020/2021 print edition. He is also a Contributing Editor to The European Conservative.