Chapter Forty

During the 13 years that I lived one street west of Montreal’s fabled St. Lawrence Boulevard, I can’t see how I could have done better for a downstairs neighbor than Margaret Piton.
Marg is a writer and dedicated traveler. Back then, she wrote a column on travel for The Toronto Globe and Mail. Her repeated jaunts to Europe made her a regular reader of The Herald Tribune, that holdover from New York’s wildest newspaper days that still catered to English-speaking expatriates.
Sometime during my last year with the CBC, The Herald Tribune published an article on Blue Danube Radio, an English-language radio station in Vienna, Austria. It described the station’s peculiar hiring policy, since abandoned:
danube31Program hosts were limited to three-week contracts, but they included attractive ‘perks’ including some of the cost of return air fares, reduced hotel rates and comprehensive health insurance. Qualified people from all parts of the world were encouraged to apply. Knowing I was about to retire, Marg passed the Blue Danube Radio article on to me. I wasted no time applying and in April 1987, I was hired, with my three-week stint set for the 20th of February to the 13th of March 1988.
As it turned out, the Spring of 1988 was an especially interesting time to visit Vienna; ‘challenging’ is another adjective just as easily applied, especially where I was concerned. Coinciding with my stay in Vienna was the city’s commemoration of an event many Austrians would just as soon forget: the Anschluss – the linking of the country to Hitler’s Germany that brought cheering crowds to the streets of Vienna March 13th, 1938.
The Austria of 1988 had already done its share of soul-searching, thanks in part to a Canadian billionaire. Edgar Bronfman, the Seagram’s heir, had spurred the World Jewish Congress into a background check of Austria’s new president Kurt Waldheim; it drew attention to the former UN Secretary-General’s wartime past. All this at a time when Austrians entertained hopes of joining the European Union.

If I was to be at all effective as a host on Blue Danube Radio, my immediate task was to learn the basics about Austria. It was truly a matter of “starting from scratch.” To begin with, what German I had learned to be a CBC announcer equipped me to pronounce titles like “Die Meistersinger” properly. In fact, I had kept that particular title in mind to help me with one of the many traps the German language sets out for the unwary. I made a mantra of it, to be remembered before attempting anything written in German: “Die Meistersinger – ‘Die’ is ‘dee’ and ‘Mei’ is ‘my’.” It sometimes worked.
My passion for modern European history gave me something of a leg up towards understanding the Austria of 1988. For instance, it had always fascinated me that in 1955 the Soviet Union joined with the other occupying powers to grant the country its freedom under comparatively lenient restrictions rigorously denied to Germany. And I had followed Kurt Waldheim’s predicament with some interest, but Waldheim was the only Austrian politician I could properly identify; there remained dozens of others I would have to know about if I was to work at Blue Danube Radio. And then there were all those Austrian film and pop music stars just waiting to trip my Canadian tongue.
Accordingly, I put in a panic call to the Goethe Institute, the worldwide organization that furthers Germanic culture. Luckily, the Montreal chapter was an especially active and imaginative one. An official there took an immediate interest in my situation, and set me up with a recent arrival from Vienna whom I quickly hired as a tutor.
Helga came to my apartment twice a week laden with enough books, newspapers and magazines for a crash course in Austrian affairs – with a special emphasis on current happenings. We tried to think of everything that might ensnare someone parachuting into such unfamiliar waters: Helga helped considerably, but oh! The deficiencies we failed to address!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
A year before my Blue Danube job was to begin, an article appeared in The Montreal Gazette describing an exchange program that would bring a group of Spanish teenagers to the city that summer to learn English. The organizers were appealing to English-speaking Montrealers to open their homes to the young Spaniards.
My children had all long since flown the nest, leaving two spare rooms in my apartment. I offered them to the organizers and, within days, one of them paid me a visit. Since the exchange program sought to place the Spanish ‘teens in homes with people their own age, my accommodations didn’t immediately qualify. But an adult supervisor, a man in his late twenties, would accompany the teenagers; would I be willing to take him on? And that’s how I met Diego.
He turned out to be the perfect guest: orderly, companionable, considerate and – a bonus – his English was excellent. I couldn’t have asked for more. Supervising two dozen teenagers didn’t leave Diego much time for socializing, but he managed to get out of my apartment at least one night a week.
One morning at breakfast, he asked if he had disturbed me coming home so late. I was able to reassure him that, being a sound sleeper, I hadn’t noticed. I did ask him where he had been, expecting to hear he had made a tour of the many bars and nightclubs so close at hand. Instead he simply told me: “On the mountain.” It meant nothing to me at the time.

Diego and I became good friends, and – when I told him I was going to Vienna the following Spring – he insisted I extend my stay in Europe to include a week or more in his home town, Madrid. As it was, there were other people I wanted to visit while in Europe, all former CBC employees. A woman I had met at the CBC’s short-wave radio service was then an exchange worker with the Dutch equivalent Radio Netherlands; she had set up her little family in Hilversum, Holland, where Radio Netherlands had its studios. And Bill Peterson from my Quebec AM days had set up in Berlin.
Accordingly, I had a travel agent prepare an airline ticket that would get me not only to Vienna but to Madrid as well, and afford enough flexibility for side trips to places like Budapest, Berlin, and Hilversum. A tall order, and it still didn’t cover where those ‘side trips’ would eventually take me: Munich, Granada, Toledo, Seville, Valencia, Alicante and Utrecht.
So, thanks to these overseas friends, I was able to indulge my passion for modern history with a glimpse of Stalinism’s death throes as well as the remnants of fascism in two of its forms. I was also about to meet and travel with an eccentric would-be film director and an out-of-work British actor and witness the emergence of the new, Euro-centered Spain. And – on my own – I flew on Soviet bloc airlines, stumbled on an exhibition of Klimt and Kokoschka originals, and got hopelessly lost in three European capitals.
All that in a span of just two months!

Blue Danube Radio had found me relatively inexpensive accommodation for my three-week stay in Vienna: a room and daily breakfast at the Prinz Eugen Hotel, across the street from one of Vienna’s major railway stations and walking distance to Blue Danube’s studios.
Anxious as I was to explore Vienna, I felt an immediate need for sleep the day I arrived, and spent most of it in my darkened hotel room with a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign hanging on the outside doorknob. Hunger woke me and led me down to the nearest rundown restaurant for what I had contemplated since a visit to Lahr, Germany, nine years before. I knew I was eating the sort of lunch a Vienna street cleaner would consider about average, but I savored it to the last nockerl and made sure to wash it all down with Märzen. Heaven!
Back at the hotel I collected a city map and set out to locate what would be the centre of my existence for the next twenty-one days: Blue Danube Radio, located in one of the lesser establishments of Radio Austria in Vienna. It turned out to be across the street from the imposing and rather gloomy Soviet embassy, and just around the corner from the headquarters of the Austrian Communist Party.
I didn’t report for duty that day but spent a few minutes in a hallway just inside the building where a series of photomurals recounted the history of broadcasting in Austria. The very noticeable absence of photos for the years 1938 to 1945 reminded me that Austria was commemorating the Anschluss, which folded Radio Austria into the broadcasting system of ‘the Greater Reich’ for seven years.
Many of Vienna’s landmarks were close by, a few of which I recognized from Carol Reed’s epic film “The Third Man,” which, I was to discover, ran continuously in one of Vienna’s movie theatres.
Vienna’s main drag – the Ringstrasse – appeared commendably staid with only a scattering of neon signs to spoil the old world skyline, but I remember a quite prominent one advertising Weight Watchers. It seemed to fit in with the city’s reputation for rich pastries and other diet-busters. There wasn’t much in downtown Vienna to remind the visitor that the city was severely damaged in the latter stages of World War II; but, here and there, a plaque on a wall offered the information that a building had been flattened by bombs or shells and that several hundred residents had been trapped inside and killed.

To my surprise, I found working for Blue Danube Radio to be an extension of what I had been doing for the CBC. For the most part, it was magazine programming: I read a lot of news, introduced the more sedate pop music of the day, interviewed people, and even conducted a few phone-in programs.
I had the best of help: my superior was a charming and knowledgeable woman, Tilia Herold; the control room technicians were thoroughly professional; and I delighted in the variety represented in the young production staff: a laconic fellow from the southern U.S., an Irish lass, and two Viennese. I was especially impressed with Blue Danube’s news editor John Wilde, a middle-aged Brit who spent his holidays cycling in the Alps. It’s no exaggeration to say that John saved my bacon on a daily basis.
If I had any outstanding failing as a broadcaster, it was my ignorance of all sports, and every Blue Danube broadcast included a thorough sports review. The 1988 Winter Olympics coincided with my stint in Vienna, and the fact they were held in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, didn’t give me much of an advantage. I could pronounce the names of the venues without difficulty but I had never seen so many foreign names in my life!

Matti Nykanen
Jens-Uwe May

To my delight, John Wilde turned out to be something of a linguist. Between us, we worked out an emergency routine. He would be sure that the sports information I was to read on the air was double-spaced. As I read it over in the newsroom, I made a list of those names I couldn’t pronounce. I had brought a small, hand-held tape recorder with me from Montreal. With my recorder in one hand and my list in the other, Wilde would read the troublesome names aloud, pausing between each.
Matti Nykanen
Jens-Uwe May
I would then return to my sportscast to make good use of the spacing between the lines: hand-printing a phonetic version of those troublesome names just above each.
‘MAW-tee NOO-ka-nen’ over Matti Nykanen; ‘Yenz OO-vah My’ over Jens-Uwe May.
I still muffed several names per sportscast, but the news editor’s linguistic skills certainly helped. Another source of correct pronunciation was the BBC World Service: if those lads didn’t get it right, nobody did.

My schedule at Blue Danube Radio didn’t allow for much sightseeing: the contract called for 21 work days in a row, weekends and holidays included. No days off. But the hours were reasonable, the pay good, and there were unexpected ‘perks’ – its cafeteria, for instance, provided cheap and plentiful meals. At the end of my three-week stay in one of Europe’s more expensive cities, I was able to leave Vienna a thousand dollars to the good even after I had paid my hotel bill.

It was time to make the travel arrangements for the more adventurous –and worrying – part of my European tour. The KLM airline ticket I had stored away in my money belt would get me from Madrid to Amsterdam and allow for a stopover there before I boarded a KLM plane for home. I had no idea how I was to get from Vienna to Madrid, not to mention to the far-flung cities I wanted to visit in between: Budapest, Dresden and Berlin. I had spent many a night in my hotel room, pouring over my map of Europe. Everything seemed so far away! Another consideration: Budapest, Dresden and Berlin were all on the other side of the Iron Curtain that still divided most of Europe in 1988. And then there were the daunting distances that separated any of those cities from Madrid. I decided to approach the problem a city at a time.
Strolling Vienna’s ritzy Kärntner Strasse, I had taken note of a ‘Hungarian Tourist Bureau’ nestled among the expensive clothing and jeweler’s shops. I didn’t expect anyone there would get me any farther than Budapest, but I hadn’t counted on the wily strategies of Helmuth-Johann Shulreich. Schulreich was a dapper little fellow in his fifties with a salesman’s patter that shattered many of my preconceived notions of the Iron Curtain. When I told him I wanted to visit Budapest, his first question was:
“And where are you going from there, Mac?”
As I described the seemingly impossible itinerary I had planned, my hangdog mumbling must surely have displayed my own skepticism. But it seemed to ignite something in Schulreich.
“Don’t worry, Mac,” he chirped. “I’ll get you through all that – and save you a bundle in the process. You’re still way off-season, y’know. First off, I’ll book you into the Buda Penta Hotel in Budapest for a few days, then we’ll put you on a Malov flight to Berlin. And from there, there’s a good chance you can hop that Aeroflot plane that refuels at Schoenefeld on its way from Moscow to Madrid.”
He rattled on like that for long enough to have me totally mesmerized. The first thing you know, I was looking for one of those instant photo booths for the pictures I would need for my Hungarian tourist visa.
I was on my way.

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