England, I Set Foot on You in Heels 

A Reflection.

Translation by Rachel McNicholl

The islandís outline is elongated and bear-like. Died scarlet, it lies on a Venetian terrazzo floor. Iím on the Canal Grande but am reminded of the shape of England by the fur rug. Where is the ermine of the kings, the popes, of the signora who lives here and adores the works of da Vinci and the Irish painter Francis Bacon? Sheís cooking in her gilded cage. How does England manifest itself when I shake it out of my sleeve? What canals, what channels connect me with the British isle?
The monarchy costs about £40 million a year. This foots the bill for the Queen to travel around the world, wearing the same style for the last 60 years as she stands in pastel-coloured coats and matching hats next to American presidents. During a banquet, Obama had the misfortune to propose a toast to the Queen just as the British national anthem was struck up; the Queen froze.
But the expression on her face didnít change; it suits every occasion, whether a funeral is filing past her or a banquet about to begin. She wears a silent look that only modulates in response to a given situation, expressing something approaching joy or sorrow. She is a mirror for othersí projections and a blank space which can be filled with 'common sense' emotions as the circumstances dictate.
Almost as if life did not really pass through her. Thus the face is an empty landscape of control and power. The taming of the face.

The Queen was my second Englishwoman. First place went to my aunt, who had escaped to London with one of the British Occupation soldiers. She wasnít a refugee; she was in love. She had always looked like the Queen. I used to think of them as being the same age. Faces that donít age, that always seem old, like aunts. When I heard that this aunt was coming from London to visit us, I started decorating the house. I turned my little armchair into a throne and moved it under the standard lamp. Turned on the light. The royal cape billowed and snaked in folds on to the floor, and the ermine trim was cotton wool with spots dabbed on.

The died bearskin rug is only sheepskin. The Canal Grande is just outside, and from the windows with their byzantine tracery my thoughts drift across the Rialto Bridge to the merchant of Venice, who insists on his pound of flesh and in this implacability reveals a touch of anti-Semitism in Shakespeare. The composer Viktor Ullman was deported to Theresienstadt; his children survived in London: Kindertransport. A Viennese documentary described how babies were taken from their Jewish parents in Vienna and sent away, to save them from extermination. The Ullmann children had no luck; they went mad.

Ingeborg Bachmann had never set foot on English soil but she too fell in love with a soldier, who set her on the path to uncovering hypocrisy amid murderers and madmen. England has countryside and cityscapes and coastal edges. Its sense of humour is cryptic but witty, something our English teachers in provincial Austria never managed. What was unfathomable was the hypocrisy.
But I always thought the Queenís face unfathomable too, for behind her brow there is a sea of thoughts that must be deep and wide and stormy, given how much of her history played out on the ocean wave. Who knows what she represents today, this formative national presence which, if one thinks about it too deeply, might start to fragment, dissolve and dissipate, like in a Francis Bacon painting, and conjure up the thought of the other side of the coin, namely the opposite of control: unfettered violence. Francis Bacon portrays the Pope sitting in a cage made of role and system, both of which deform the person; and costumed in robes. The Empire upholds structures, and the figure of the Queen is an export item, a mascot that creates identity in a reassuring way, even for me, although Iím not English.

Where do the English get their self-deprecating irony? The projections that inspired Alan Bennettís The Uncommon Reader could only be carried off by an author who knows himself inside out and hence the systemís every flaw. I didnít spend long enough in the United Kingdom to be able to identify all the social layers and nuances of speech. I can identify what is English about Hitchcockí work, or Greenawayís, Jarmanís and Monty Pythonís, whose Ministry of Silly Walks triggered the idea that led me to step out on my own artistic path.

Argentine tango is not English, of course, but as far as Iím concerned it belongs in the Silly Walks category and therefore to the Monty Python Ministry. I like to tango, and wear high heels to dance those strange steps. I execute boleos and ganchos in out-of-the-way places in cities like London and Venice. So my high heels always travel with me in a cloth bag. If Iím feeling new in a city, I quickly feel lost, and a well-rehearsed ritual helps me find my feet: dance. Whether in Venice or in London. At milongas, as Argentine tango gatherings are called, all the dancers know the customs, which universally recognised, the same wherever you go, and so you soon feel at home. But it takes more than ritual to create that sense of familiarity, it takes cordiality too. There was no sensuality to the ritual of our secondary-school English lessons with Ann and Pat. It was as if England was a cardboard cut-out and only became a real sensory experience through play.

My little basket chair was the Aunt-Queenís throne. And I decorated it with peacock feathers. My mother had spent her childhood on a farm, had collected the feathers and kept them arranged like dried flowers into a tall floor vase. Right next door to her parentís farmhouse there was a disused primary school, and the British soldiers, who were among the Allied forces liberating Austria, were billeted in the classrooms. They traded marmalade for eggs that my mother gave them fresh from the nest. At age 5 she could taste that the world was fruity, bitter.
Roast beef was bloody, barely cooked; Aunt Resi barely grown up, and she looked like the Queen before she ever met the Englishman. Her soldier had no time for Carinthia, apart from her. Years later, her English was so good that she spoke German with an accent. She only came back to bury her brother, an anti-Fascist. He had mutilated himself to avoid enlisting in the Wehrmacht, and it was for that reason, because he refused to fit in, that she came back for his funeral.

In German, England sounds like a portmanteau word ó das enge Land, the narrow land ó with two meanings rolled into one. A contradiction, because the capital, London, does not fit the image of a suitcase or portmanteau.
Sidmouth is a better fit, with its screeching seagulls; Bristol maybe; Bath and Dover. Steep coastline with chalk cliffs. I brought chalk from there back to my teacher parents to make sense of the lumps with which they taught.
Chalk is so crumbly yet it can bear a countryís weight: fascination with that creates the difference between fact and the power of the imagination. Like universal time running through Greenwich on the zero meridian.

London is my city of choice, a well-oiled machine where everyone seems to know whatís to be done, why work is grounding, and where walks build in impressions, text to go with the city. Though the city is incredibly closely monitored, every corner on camera, for security reasons supposedly, at least wherever the house prices are prohibitive. This works in a city where rituals are full of pomp but pass off peacefully. But is it a good system? Is it right? Iím thinking of the Queenís annual speech at the opening of parliament and of her audiences with newly elected prime ministers. The House of Lords and House of Commons. This ritual seems worthy yet of questionable merit. Afternoon tea and Changing the Guard.

The Tower of London has been renovated and display boards announce that in England only so-and-so-many death sentences were carried out. And when exactly was the last witch burned? Many of Viennaís Jews saw London as a place of refuge. Itís where Freud spent his last year, and Jean Amťry contemplated living here. I wrote about his work while in Brussels. And read the essay to an audience in London. A few weeks before I came to the Ingeborg Bachmann Centre, I had been in Auschwitz. I was working on a journalistic essay. I arranged my desk in London to make the most of the expensive view and increase my pleasure in it. Harrods on the horizon. In the foreground the rooftops, the patios, tea roses, courtyards and back gardens of the brick houses. The terraced facades formed alleyways of brick red and white pointing, with sash windows and characteristic chimneys. At night, the cornices and turrets of Harrods light up, like fluorescent make-up or fancy icing on a cake. Sometime Iíd like to go to Manchester and see the canals, where ships travel through the landscape, see sailors and captains. I know Heathrow, the Victoria Line and the British Museum, with all the looted antiquities that would have been plundered now in the Arab Spring and flogged off to private collectors, rendering them inaccessible to ordinary mortals. The Egyptian section with the mummies contained the first dead people I ever came close to. There is a male Snow White in the British Museum, in a glass cabinet. The corpse is thousands of years old. It was dehydrated by heat and sand; the hyenas didnít find the carcase and therefore didnít eat the murder victim. You can see the blow to the naked manís skull, see his rear end too. I would cover up his naked behind. Preserve some semblance of normality. Then uncover my covering again to trace the boundary where the grotesque begins.

My last visit to England was at the invitation of the University of London and the Austrian Cultural Forum. And there was a dinner in my honour. I had met the diplomatic couple before, in New York, where I had also been their guest some years earlier. I tried to piece a few elegant words together; my electronic dictionary was forgotten in my suitcase, I couldnít look anything up, had to try to remember which tense went with which future in English.

We drank Austrian schnapps from Austrian glasses engraved with the official coat of arms. The schnapps spread a warm glow, my blood vessels dilated, and maybe this is what gave me my very own personal English feeling and triggered a desire to stay in London for a while. I felt a bit like an island on the island. Narrow and bounded. I realised at that moment that the skin you are in can be touched from the inside too, by the feeling that generates inside you. I was here as an individual, unique and therefore unrepeatable, in an aura of almost protective cordiality. I was the guest of honour. Surrounded by all sorts of interesting people. I was enjoying feeling at home.

At the end of the evening I was asked to sign the visitorsí book. I opened it and realised I must have made an entry already and signed the book some time ago. I read: 'Thank you for the invitation; I had a stimulating time, and I will try to fulfil my task to the best of my ability soon again, though of course I will need to be given the opportunity to do so.'

Those lines were written in New York. The book was the diplomatís personal property. He took it with him from posting to posting. Not the house. Not the cutlery, not the glass, not the plates, not the food, maybe the recipes, and the guests were flung together randomly, as it were. As an Austrian writer I was serving the Austrian household; I could be relied on, like the inventory. This was no heritage museum of diplomatic life; it was an important cultural visit, but suddenly I felt actively engaged, playing a vital role for Austria, whatever that might be. Is that what being Queen feels like?

I was on English soil and had got to know the city, was even in love with a Persian tanguero who had been living here in exile since the Shah was overthrown. But I packed him off into the London wilderness all the same because we would have needed more canals than dance and history: weíd have needed real closeness.
Spitting rain in London. According to people in Rosental, Carinthia, the English wear checks with stripes and have strange tastes; they go for walks in the countryside, collectwild mushrooms, hunt game and eat mint with it.

They donít sunbathe, they fogbathe. England suits the fog, and the telephone boxes fit the picture too; London still has them, even in this mobile phone age. The same can be said of the monarchy, all the royal fuss: itís anachronistic but nice to look at. I manage to get closer to London by means of tango, literary practice and by transforming and adapting the world while working at my desk.
The time came to pack up my English props and bits of sets, drag my suitcase over the Rialto Bridge to the Tronchetto, make the journey from Venice to Vienna, and write about London. That English feeling set in again as I sat in my armchair by a crackling fire with a water of life, a whiskey. A finger placed on sealed lips appears before my inner eye: the tanguero who does not wish to be identified, whom I had tempted all the way to Vienna, who didnít even know why there were memorial plaques set into the pavement in front of my house. And didnít ask either. The next day the city was white, covered up.
The Venetians have a reputation for elegance but I didnít find them very chivalrous. The men offered no assistance. In Venice there are too many bridges over which one might have to carry ladiesí luggage.
Venice used to be a great place for Italian food; now London is. I ate my way through world cuisine, and in Vienna I follow English chefsí recipes.

For now, the most important English moment that caught my senses was my time in the Ingeborg Bachmann Centre, while the text I was to read was evolving, which led me to visit the kind of places that leave impressions but also recover them, even though they may seem to have been captured already, to be concluded, ready to file way. My English sojourn had a reaffirming effect because engaging intensively with literature shook me up and revitalised me. To crown my personal and literary development, however, as with Manhattan, I shall have to be invited back at the earliest opportunity. London is beautiful, and right now, as I write, the Danube is turning into the Thames.

Venice and Vienna, March 2012