An im­pul­sive trip changed author LS Hil­ton’s life

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Ileft home for the first time in my late teens to spend six months in Vi­enna. Be­fore that, I’d barely been any­where at all be­yond hol­i­days with my par­ents. I’d hardly even been to Lon­don. To say my plans were im­pul­sive was an un­der­state­ment. I had the equiv­a­lent of £200 in Aus­trian schillings, but I’d read an aw­ful lot of books. I was in love with the glam­orous, in­tel­lec­tual world of Ste­fan Zweig and the tor­tured beauty of Egon Schiele’s paint­ings, which seemed like good enough mo­ti­va­tion at the time. Ar­riv­ing, I spent a day drag­ging my suit­case around the mag­nil­o­quent im­pe­rial ar­chi­tec­ture of the First Dis­trict and a hor­ri­ble por­tion of my tiny bud­get on cof­fee and sacher­torte in Demel, the fa­mous cafe. Then, as the golden au­tumn evening turned to twi­light, I sat in the gar­dens of the Schön­brunn Palace and had a panic at­tack. What had I done? I needed a place to stay, a job, and I knew no one. I didn’t even have a guide­book. I thought there were would be cheap hos­tels near the rail­way sta­tion, but I had no idea where that was, ei­ther. Nearby, there were two young men play­ing Fris­bee; when I over­heard them speak­ing English, I asked for di­rec­tions.

‘Why do you need to go to the sta­tion?’ one of them asked. I ex­plained that I needed some­where to stay. ‘Why don’t you come home with us?’

So I did. It seems in­cred­i­ble that I could have been so care­less. When I imag­ine my own daugh­ter in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion, my blood runs cold. But I had come to Vi­enna to live, and I wasn’t scared of any­thing. They car­ried my suit­case up the stairs at 17 Ge­b­ler­gasse. The flat had one gi­ant bed, a bath­tub in the kitchen and a mu­si­cian who prac­tised blues sax­o­phone on the op­po­site balcony. I never did get round to leav­ing.

My new friends Jonny and Carter were stu­dents at the art school in Schiller­platz. That first night, they took me to a Greek restau­rant where they needed an English-speak­ing waitress, and then we went danc­ing at a place called Ti­tanic, which was full of beau­ti­ful club kids in home-made fin­ery. Later, we went out to Donauin­sel on the river Danube to go skinny dip­ping, and ate palatschinken (pan­cakes) with apri­cot jam for break­fast as dawn came up over the green-roofed city. I cer­tainly wasn’t in Cheshire any more.

Ste­hende Frau in Rot by Egon Schiele, whose work drew LS Hil­ton to Vi­enna

Vi­enna’s in­spir­ing im­pe­rial ar­chi­tec­ture

LS Hil­ton: ‘Vi­enna wasn’t re­ally about sex, but f reedom’

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