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The Great Escape

For an American expat on her own in Vienna, getting trapped in her room winds up opening more doors than she ever imagined possible.

Author Sarah Wildman Illustration Emiliano Ponzi

Image – Emiliano Ponzi


“Help! Key! Superintendent! Please!” Useful German words for when one is trapped in an apartment on the sixth floor of a creaky, late 19th century building in a sleepy working-class neighborhood of Vienna and trying not to panic. (Much better than what I’d practiced at home: “Haben Sie das in schwarz und klein?” or “Do you have that in black and in small?”)

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It was freezing the night I arrived in Vienna. When my cab rolled up to my building the driver turned to me. “Are you sure this is the right address?” he asked. It was true the street felt somehow too dark, too quiet. But what did I know? I’d rented the place sight- unseen off Craigslist. The last time I’d booked a place that way I ended up in a windowless apartment in Paris. If you think it’s impossible to be unhappy in Paris, try sleeping in a closet.

It took me several minutes to unload the taxi. I buzzed the intercom and met my lugubrious new roommate, Hilke. “You have more bags with you than clothes that I own,” she said without smiling. I laughed. It’s true, I don’t travel light. In the Madrid airport, a fleet of sleek Europeans wheeling what appeared to be makeup bags that would slide into any overhead had sniffed disapprovingly at my massive duffels. It didn’t bother me; I was staking my claim on the city.

Hilke told me a recent break-up had prompted the reluctant rental of my room; she needed the cash. “He wasn’t experimental enough,” she said sadly, “and that’s very important to me.” I nodded and accepted a cup of chamomile tea. The guy sounded like a real winner, having once left her cooling her heels on a romantic island in Greece where they’d planned to meet for the holidays. It was a lot to share on our first meeting, but I like dishy stories. Then she told me she was famous in certain circles of Vienna for a movie she’d made that sounded not at all suitable for general audiences. I smiled, but I knew we’d slid right by new-girlfriend confidences into a whole other territory. I rued passing up a more expensive apartment with a friendly-sounding translator in a hipper part of town. Too late now. I went to my room.

When I emerged in the morning, Hilke was rushing out the door. “I’m sorry,” she said, as she gathered her things, “you can’t shower now.” There was a man working on the bathroom tiles. She said she would be gone all day; naturally, she had no cell phone.

With that, the only person I really knew in Vienna vanished.

My room, though airy and bright, with large, antique windows, was just off the shower-room, with no external door. I had to walk through the shower to leave—a quirk, needless to say, that went unmentioned in the ad. As in many old buildings in Europe, the toilet was down the corridor.

I closed the large red-felt curtain the roommate had kindly hung for my privacy. When the tileman had gone, I walked through the bathroom to exit and found the door stuck shut. I jiggled the handle. A key fell out the other side.

The door wasn’t stuck; it was locked. I yelled for help, but the man was gone.

I was trapped in my room on the sixth floor of 38-40 Wallensteinstrasse in the 20th district of Vienna. Outside, tram number five rumbled and clicked to a stop, over and over. No one looked up at me as I opened the lovely century-old window, leaned out over the rooftops and sought out my new neighbors, in the street below. “Hello! Hello! Yes!

You down there!” I tried, foolishly, in English. “I’m, um…Hello! I’m stuck!”

No response. I laughed aloud, a little giddy with the ridiculousness of the situation: The last member of my family to live in Vienna had escaped a city teeming with Nazis. Now his granddaughter had returned and couldn’t escape her own bedroom. Plus, she was getting a bit hungry.

Outside my window, the air was crisp and wintry. I eyed the electric tram lines, imagining myself rappelling, Jason Bourne–style, to the street. “Help!” I yelled. Three men who worked at the grocery across the street glanced up at me and continued to load their fruit. I doubled back to the bathroom and, frustrated, kicked the door—hard. Wood splinters peeled off, cracks ran the length of the frame; the lock held.

I returned to my perch at the window, waving my arms frantically down at the street below.

English having failed me, I armed myself with a few choice vocabulary words gleaned from a pocket dictionary. “Bitte hausmeister!” I bellowed confidently. “Hilfe! Hilfe!

A woman and her child looked up. “Sprechen sie Englisch?” I yelled down to her.

Nein,” she called back.

But she’d acknowledged me! Suddenly I caught sight of the tileman, my hausmeister, six flights down. He looked up, doffed his cap, and then disappeared back inside.

I rushed back to the bathroom door, where I heard shouting. It was the hausmeister, yelling instructions. The only words I understood were “schlussel” and “strasse”—key and street—and then it dawned on me: He wants me to throw keys to the street! I hustled back to the window and hurled them down.

A few minutes later, he finally freed me, clucking disapprovingly at the splintered door frame. Then, noting my trembling shoulders, he fished out a business card and handed it to me.

KARACINOVIC ZIVOJIN masseur Walleinsteinstrasse 36.7 1200 Wien te. 0699 11 579 795

Then he left, returning moments later holding what looked like an old bottle of sunscreen. “Baby oil,” he explained, smiling. “Massage now.”

Nein,” I said. “Nein?” he asked. “Nein.” I confirmed, as I pushed him out the door.

The whole ordeal had lasted only an hour and a half. It felt more like a year and a half. Deciding I had to move, I called the friendly-sounding translator. Sadly, her room had been rented.

So I set out wandering through two districts in search of a new place to stay, slowly calming down as I began to acquaint myself with more picturesque parts of Vienna. That evening I attended a cocktail party for my new job. I arrived and grabbed a glass of white wine. Everyone was chatting amiably, in small groups; the lingua franca was German.

A man named Georg asked me how my first day in Vienna had gone, and I let out a sigh. “Frankly?” I replied, “It was terrible!” And I started to tell my story, waving my arms animatedly, sloshing the wine in my glass. “Hilfe! Bitte hausmeister!” I yelled, starting to laugh. And behind him another fellow, a thin man holding a thin, filterless cigarette, interjected, “Sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear your story…Would you mind telling it again?”

So I did. All night long I recounted my dramatic tale of panic and massage oil. The next day, at work, more new acquaintances approached me, laughing, requesting an encore.

For weeks people kept asking. “Sarah, Uli never heard the hausmeister story!” And what began as a nightmare became my entrée into a whole new social circle.

Strangely, I never ended up moving out of dour Hilke’s place.

Partly it was because those duffels were too heavy. Partly it was because Hilke herself soon became a source of endless cocktail party conversation. A few weeks later she curated an exhibit of art so extreme it would have given Hieronymus Bosch the shakes. My workmates left in disgust, and we laughed about it for days. She and I never did become very close.

I did keep the hausmeister’s card, not for the massage but on the off chance I get stuck again. But the truth was I no longer needed it. I had friends to call. In my sheer foreignness, I’d somehow found a home.

SARAH WILDMAN has sworn off roommates but makes an exception for her husband and baby daughter.

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