I’m currently in the slightly bizarre position of writing a personal essay in the voice of a person who doesn’t exist, because the two-book mini-series (surely someone will excoriate me if I use the admittedly absurd word, duology) Erin and I are currently writing involves, among other things, a travel writer who can’t get his manuscript about Vienna right.
I was in Vienna for my day job in January and February 2016, in the midst of ball season. I found out that ball season is even a thing that exists about a week before I got on the plane. While I was uncertain if I would actually go through with attending one (ticketing is somewhat complex, involving admittance, seating, and a number of other items, all assembled separately into a single ticket), I packed a formal gown (let’s be real, a multi-purpose bridesmaids dress), spent as much time on Google translate as I could, and then as the date of the one that seemed likely approached, wavered back and forth.
I don’t speak German, although I have gotten to a point where I can do social niceties and follow the gist of a conversation had in my presence. My contemporary social dancing is adequate at best, and while I can do the sort of waltz favored in the U.S., a Viennese waltz is completely beyond my skill set. Strangers scare me. Men, at this point in my life, are largely a foreign country. And Viennese social customs, as I am given to understand them, suggested none of this would even matter, as the let’s-make-temporary-friends with strangers behavior common in the U.S., and that I’ve often encountered in the U.K., doesn’t seem to be a thing there.
If I went to the ball I would be alone, confused, unable to dance, and with little opportunity to engage strangers should I have even found the nerve, which I tend to do once I cycle through the sort of fretting above.
In the end, though, I bought tickets to the Zuckerbaeckerball, as it was recommended to me by a random Tumblr person and was one of the few to fit in with a heavy work and travel schedule. Held at the Hoffburg Imperial Palace, a short walk from where I was staying, the Zuckerbaeckerball is put on by the sugar-baking industry (cakes not breads!) and like any proper ball has debutantes.
While I grew up with debutantes (I’m still not joking when I compare my childhood to Metropolitan), I was certainly not one myself. My family wasn’t that type of important, didn’t have those sorts of means, and didn’t really see me as part of the social whirl that was expected by the world in which I was educated. Sure, I went to balls, like the Gold and Silver Ball of the Junior Committee of the Junior League of New York (a name only typed here so you can experience the full ridiculousness of this stuff), but they were practice for events of the sort I never graced. It’s all useful fodder for writing now, but I might have been better served as a person if my parents had just said no.
At any rate, every ball in Vienna has debutantes. And, arguably, everyone in Vienna who wants to be a debutante can be. With hundreds of balls each year representing industries and social clubs, and with balls being unavoidable in the city’s social scene, young men and women who wish to make their debuts, most certainly do.
At the Hoffburg, alone, I crowded into the main ballroom to see their presentation. I watched as row after row of girls kneeled as their dancemasters and ball officials passed before them. On their knees for ten minutes at a time, maybe more, as their escorts stood beside them, some of the girls shook. One, near me, had a fabulous butchy undercut, that had been smoothed down with product and had tiny flowers clipped into it.
After the debuts, the main ballroom floor was opened for a Viennese waltz. My feet aching, and with no hope of a dance partner, I fled to sit, but without a purchased seat (it felt too weird, to be stranded at a table of people whose language I did not speak, who would not welcome a stranger), I had nowhere to do so until I found an out of the way bathroom on a mezzanine level of the palace.
From my cubicle I listened as girls sixteen to twenty slammed in and out of the bathroom, fretting about make up and shoes and boys and parents. I, meanwhile, fretted about the hundred euros I’d spent to hide in a bathroom.
So I put my shoes back on, stood up straight, and remembered that years of my life had been dedicated to how to comport myself in this entirely unlikely circumstance. And so I found a perch on the edge of the ballroom from which to watch the proceedings and wait for some serendipity to find me.
It came when the music switched to American standards, and the bandleader played Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” As I stood there, thinking about my Upper East Side childhood and how I was never meant to be — and never could be — the girl in that song, I wondered to what extent the song made sense in Vienna. Surely, no on there knew about the ten blocks that defined my childhood, but also surely there was a Viennese equivalent to it, and the song, and girls like me — with the song’s hot blood and wedged poorly into an an archaic social structure as beautiful as it is offensive.
I smiled as tears rolled down my cheeks. Serendipity. The most perfect moment. Even at a ball where I could not dance.
Today, I’m faced with describing a very different version of that moment as experienced by a lonely male writer, ten years my senior, who fit in exceptionally with the shared world of our childhoods, and for that, has managed far more contempt for it than I ever have, to his much greater happiness.