As soon as we arrived in Vienna, I wrote my mother, asking whether she thought this second child would be a boy or a girl. To have a daughter born on my return to my own birthplace, after almost thirty years, seemed to stretch the bounds of coincidence and credulity.
It had been a wrench to leave Rangoon, Alf’s first diplomatic post. My husband and I had arrived in the Burmese capital as newlyweds. Eighteen months later, we were ready to go on home leave, but with a new addition—a seven-month old baby boy. (When friends visited us in the Rangoon’s general hospital, they found it easy to identify Chris in the newborns’ ward—he was the only blue-eyed blond.) After our home leave vacation in Washington, where the August temperatures seemed even more sweltering than in Rangoon, we were transferred to, of all places, my hometown. My father, a career American diplomat, had been posted to Vienna when I was born. My parents left there when I was about seven months old, and I had never dreamed I would return as the wife of a diplomat, with a baby of under a year myself.
American ocean liners still plied the Atlantic, and as ordered by the Department of State, we had a minimum first-class inside cabin. The sea was calm, but I was sick whenever I tried to feed little Chris his breakfast. Nibbling a cracker before getting up finally helped me enough so that I could feed him before throwing up. By the time we landed in Genoa, I finally realized that I was pregnant again.
We had brought our Chevrolet aboard, planning to drive through the Tyrol to Vienna. When we stopped in Bolzano for the night, I felt exhausted and crampy. After a hot bath, I fell into bed. Later, I realized how close to miscarrying I might have been. After a wonderful night’s sleep, however, I felt fine the next morning and was able to enjoy the drive through the beautiful Tyrol.
In 1953, Vienna still was under Allied Occupation—French, British, Soviet Russian and American. “Gray cards” of identification were required in order to be able to move about the city. Housing was scarce and so expensive even the local population could hardly find places in the city to live. Each ally requisitioned a hotel to house its official staffers and their families. We were quartered initially in the famous Hotel Bristol, favorite of elegant notables in the glorious pre-war years.
For seven months, the Bristol was our home. After inspecting our room on arrival, I asked the frock-coated manager for a crib for little Chris. Drawing himself up to his full five-foot three, he fixed me with a steely glare. “This is not a family hotel, Madam,” he said. Well, it is now, buddy, I muttered to myself later while feeding Chris pureed carrots in the enormous white-tiled bathroom. It looked big as a ballroom, with outsize fixtures to match. The white porcelain bathtub could have held Diamond Jim in all his finery. Although the floors were tiled, ruby red damask covered the walls. Despite my best efforts, this elegant covering was soon pockmarked with forcefully expelled carrot bits. But Chris never fell out of his bed—a scarlet damask chaise longue wedged high with red velvet bolsters. It had been hard for me to leave our British-trained nanny behind in Rangoon. For seven months, she had devoted every waking hour to my son. Now I was to find out how well I would manage Chris all by myself.
Among the Occupation’s advantages was the cheapness of the U.S.Army-run facilities and excursions. Army-run movies in the capital cost a quarter (in paper scrip). For $25.00 each, we could take the train for a ski excursion in the Austrian countryside, which was incredibly beautiful. Salzburg, Innsbruck, and the lakes were lovely with their trees, hills and charming villages. Sometimes, the snow fell throughout the weekend; we skied (poorly, in my case) during the day and played charades with other inn guests by the fireplace in the evenings.
Young Austrians were hard to find. We met very few; the war had thinned their ranks. We were in our early thirties, but Alf’s business contacts as an economic officer were with local men in their fifties and sixties, in medium- or high-ranking positions. One of his favorites was a dignified old Austrian gentleman who had been Chief of Protocol under Emperor Franz Joseph II. Forty years later, he held the same position again (although not under an emperor)! Tradition remained very strong in Austria.
It was silly to ask my mother about my next child, of course. I knew what her answer would be; she may not have had ESP, but she did have firm opinions. “A girl, you silly fool!” she wrote back. In that teasing and loving exclamation, I could hear her inimitable British accent and infectious laugh. My mother, born of Scottish parents in Montevideo, Uruguay, had herself led a fascinating life, or at least her six children thought so.
She was right, of course. Our daughter, Susan, was duly born in Vienna. Our Austrian cleaning woman, Frau Margit, maintained the baby was a true Viennese— she was beautiful and even in her crib hummed musically. Shades of wine, women and song! So, half of our family would be Viennese-born; and with Chris born in Burma, only Alf, a native of Minneapolis, could be considered to be our one true-blue, native-born American—and the only one eligible to become President, although admittedly, that was stretching it.
During the week I left the hotel to have Susan in the temporary U.S. Army Hospital, Alf moved our family into the spacious ground-floor apartment of a suburban house just vacated by a transferred Embassy officer. The master bedroom alone was thirty-five feet long, and Alf had to climb a ladder at night to pull the heavy, gold satin draperies across the massive windows.
When the Occupation ended with the signing of the Austrian State Treaty, our U.S. Army privileges disappeared, and with them our modest Post Exchange and Commissary. We did all our shopping for staples there rather than at local shops, where scarce provisions were barely enough to satisfy the local population. We also drank water chlorinated by U.S. authorities, who are alleged to have ruined Vienna’s drinking water, considered to be among the world’s finest and best-tasting, with such treatment.
Thrown on my own after the commissary closed, I dreaded trying to buy meat at the local shops. How would I know the correct names of the cuts? By then, however, I spoke “kitchen” German, and after visiting the main meat market my fears vanished. Among other things, I discovered that Austrians seldom ate lamb, so delicious baby lamb chops and legs of spring lamb could be bought for a song. Veal, which Austrians loved, was expensive in comparison. Beef was seldom seen.
Properly housed at last, we were eager to use our new home to entertain official foreign contacts, and we decided to do something different from the usual diplomatic luncheon or evening reception. We planned to have a typical American picnic, along the lines of President Roosevelt entertaining the King and Queen of England at Hyde Park by serving hot dogs on the Fourth of July. From a tiled porch, the back steps of our house led down to a charming walled garden with a green lawn, flowers and a sandbox. We invited our new acquaintances—Austrians, French, Russians, English, and other friends and business contacts to a “picnic lunch—casual dress.” The American-style menu included baked ham, potato salad, baked beans, Cole slaw and buttered rolls, with coffee and apple pie a la mode for dessert.
The day of the picnic was beautiful. The term, “casual dress,” in our invitation resulted in the Austrian ladies appearing in dirndls, the men in lederhosen (native style leather shorts), the Englishmen in ties and tweed jackets, and the Russians in their omnipresent dark blue serge suits. A few Americans wore sport shirts. No one ventured onto the porch or into the garden, where we had invitingly set up folding chairs and tables. Most of the guests flocked around the buffet table in the dining room and never moved away. Potato salad—lots of it—was the only leftover.
The party was a success, we thought, but we never give another picnic in Vienna. We spent three years there before moving on to our next posting in Berlin, another occupied city. Susan now lives and works in San Francisco. Although she’s never married, I’ve sometimes wondered if she might return to Vienna if the proper occasion arises. Three in a row would be the start of a family tradition: mother, daughter and granddaughter—all Americans, all born in Vienna.
The author traveled overseas with her husband for many years, performing the vital role of Foreign Service spouse. She has since retired to Florida, where in her extensive writing, she excells in capturing the mood and “feel” of a post abroad as experienced by diplomat wives.