By: Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn
It was Christmas Eve, 1982. My assignment in the office of Governor Robert Ray had come to an end and so my wife Le Son, our two sons (Davin, 7 and Shandon, 3) and I had packed up and moved from Des Moines to Vienna, Austria for my next assignment with the U.S. State Department.
Christmas Season in Vienna might conjure up magical holiday visions:
• Wandering through the Christkindl Markt at night in front of the historic Rathaus (City Hall) along the Ringstrasse, to see the array of myriad Austrian handicrafts, ornaments and other Christmas decor for sale;
• Strolling along the Graben (the elegant central pedestrian shopping plaza), pressing your nose against the windows of the bakeries to see the gingerbread houses, holiday cookies and other Yuletide pastries;
• Squeezing into the Stephensdom Cathedral to hear the choir intone Stella Nacht (Silent Night) amid the candlelit Advent wreaths adorning this 1,000 year old gothic masterpiece.
These are the kind of experiences that would fill one’s heart with the joy of the season and make you feel you were truly in “old world” Europe. But nothing could have been further from what we were going through. We did not know a soul in Austria. None of our household effects (including the Christmas presents for the kids) had arrived. We were all squeezed into a temporary one bedroom apartment in an old building that had once served as Sigmund Freud’s first medical office, but had gone downhill ever since.
Without cooking facilities, there was no possibility of a home cooked Christmas dinner. So, we were going to have to find someplace to eat on Christmas Eve. The only problem was that virtually all of Vienna was closed, including every restaurant and shop, so that everyone could be at home with their families.
So the four of us ventured out and wandered along the now totally dark and deserted Graben in search of any place that might have food. I don’t remember ever being so depressed about what a miserable Christmas this was going to be. We were about to give up when we finally found the one restaurant that was apparently going to open in about an hour. It had as un-Austrian a name and ambience imaginable- The Chattanooga Choo Choo Café (but one with at least an encouraging Iowa connection, since the name derived from a song from the 1940s made popular by legendary Iowa band leader Glenn Miller from Clarinda).
The four of us sat waiting on a bench huddled against the cold amongst the falling snowflakes, just relieved that we were going to be able to get something to eat. It was then that we noticed a young Asian woman walk up and sit down by herself nearby. She looked so lonely and all alone that, when the doors of the restaurant finally opened, we and asked her to join us for dinner. The five of us were the only ones in the place. She was very shy and spoke next to no English. As we did not know any German or Japanese, there was very little in depth conversation, but we did learn that she was Buddhist and an exchange student from Japan. However, the smile that came over her face as we shared hot chocolate “mit schlag” (with whipped cream) and the sparkle in her eyes as the food arrived seemed to indicate that she was feeling some “glad tidings” just to be with some other individuals, all equally adrift in the Austrian culture. It began to have the feeling of a family united around the Christmas dinner table, which made all of us smile as well.
With stomachs full of Austrian style “Choo Choo burgers” and pommes frites (which the kids recognized as French fries) we said goodbye to our new friend and headed back to our drab apartment, now facing the second big challenge: How to stage Christmas for a seven and a three year old who had been certain that Santa always came down the chimney of our house on Christmas morning.
Having learned from my colleagues in the intelligence services the importance of a good “cover story,” I had had to come up with one which could explain how St. Nick could visit our fire place-less apartment, a day early. So, even before going out to dinner, I had told the boys that in Austria Santa had to deliver presents on Christmas Eve, because only in this way, could he get to America in time to place presents under the tree on Christmas morning. After a few pensive moments, seven year old Davin, having just flown across the Atlantic, appeared to find this explanation plausible.
Next, as we left the apartment, I made a big point of having Davin turn out the lights himself and then try the door several times after I locked it. This is where our neighbor, Huri, a Muslim woman from Turkey, came in. Taken aback when I approached her earlier in the day, Huri had agreed to secrete the presents for the kids in her apartment (we had managed to buy some rudimentary toys and wrap them). Then, while we were out at dinner, Huri used our spare key to open the door, sneak in and place them all around our spindly, drooping Christmas tree, adorned with a few colored blinking lights (purchased at a bachelor party store – since Austrians only put candles on their trees).
Huri then left all of the apartment lights on and the front door ajar, hopefully suggesting how Santa would have furtively entered. When we returned, the boys were wide eyed with surprise to find the door open and the apartment brightly lit. As they pushed open the door, enthralled by the sight of the brightly wrapped packages, they rushed over to the tree. The kids ripped them open and began playing with their new games and toy miniature cars, never doubting that Santa had come early this year.
We had several more Christmases in Austria, all filled with the kind of magical, old Europe experiences I mentioned above. But, while it may seem strange, some of my most vivid memories of our time in Vienna are of the Chattanooga Choo Choo Café and a Buddhist student from Japan and a Muslim woman from Turkey who helped transform a dismal lonely night into a truly Merry Christmas.
Source: The Des Moines Register