“Where I am at home”
Hedwig Abraham tells us at Vienna’s cemeteries why life is worth living.
By Uwe Mauch (text) and Mario Lang (photos)
There’s just no way around the grave of Falco! The ‘falcon’ is a must. Because if she were to pass by the last resting place of Vienna’s last world-famous musician without a word someone in the group would instantly cry out: Rock me, Amadeus! Hedwig Abraham knows that. She has been working as a licensed tourist guide in Vienna for 18 years. And you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who knows the city’s cemeteries better than her.
“I am at home at the cemetery,” she tells us on the way to the next tombstone tale. And she really means it. Vienna’s Central Cemetery is not only her long-standing field of study, it also takes up a lot of space in her daily work. Statistical evidence supports this: it is out here that she gets to know the most tourists and dead people.
It is obvious that she loves her work as a tourist guide. Her group is all ears, and while the 46-year-old leads them over to the baby graves she says: “I like to meet people, to constantly explore the city, to be active outdoors, and to have – more or less – flexible working hours.” “More or less” is important here. Because it puts an old stereotype into perspective: in spring and autumn, at least, tourist guides are not as flexible by far as they might like to be. At that time of year their days are very, very long und very, very rarely free.
And it’s not even a job that will make you rich. But for Hedwig Abraham that doesn’t really matter: “In the end money is just printed paper anyway.” She doesn’t have a car, and she lives in a small flat that is big enough for her and her 14-year-old daughter. She doesn’t spend much on travelling, either. She has seen the world when she was young, after finishing her less-than-exciting education at a business school at the age of 19. Today she prefers travelling around Vienna: “And I’m still not done with that.”
Hedwig Abraham is a child of Vienna’s municipal housing estates.
She still lives in the block in the 12th district, Meidling, where she grew up. A deliberate decision: “I like it there. I have leased a small garden in the courtyard, which I love to tend and look after. And when I ask my Turkish neighbour for an egg she would rather give me ten – provided I have at least one egg to show her.” Our way back takes us to the Muslim cemetery. The Muslims in Vienna are part of our history, too. And after that our guide is full of endearing stories about legendary Viennese figures: Calafati and his merry-go-rounds in the Prater, the itinerant preacher Waluliso, and – last but not least – Schneeweiss. Oh yes, Schneeweiss! The uncrowned king of speedway who breathed his last when his motorcycle crashed.
She was 28 when she was first booked as a tourist guide. The memory is still vivid: “It was terrible. I was supposed to meet an American couple at Hotel Altstadt but I went to Hotel Alt-Wien instead. Luckily I noticed my mistake in time. But I thought to myself: Oh my God, what a start!”
In the beginning she used to stand in front of the tourist info point in the city, holding a home-made sign saying “Guided tours of the old town”. The sign was heavy, and grew heavier and heavier the longer the tour lasted. Today she can’t see herself doing that anymore: “I don’t know what it would think if I saw someone standing in the street today holding a sign in her hands.”
Being accepted into the distinguished circle of Vienna’s tourist guides took almost a year, she recalls: “I used up all my savings in the beginning but then things gradually started to get better.” Friendly colleagues were also helpful.
“Word of mouth is the best promotion,” she says. Her mobile rings. A hotel. The next tour, in just two hours! Flexibility is called for again. And an understanding attitude of those around her. Not everybody is that supportive, however, which is why relationship break-ups are quite frequent in her profession.
The tour of the cemetery ends at Gate 2 after two hours. The group, it seems, is content, and there’s a round of applause. Some people also give tips. Much like actors and football players, tourist guides immediately get to hear whether or not their audience is satisfied with their performance.
On the way home to her Meidling flat in the evening: her feet hurt and her head is heavy. Someone on the train says: “Honestly, I’m glad I’ve managed to find a seat.” The physical strain of a tourist guide can’t be compared to that of a builder on a construction site, she says. Still it is ok to feel tired in the evening after 18 years of outdoor work.
A quick look in the internet before going to bed. Hedwig Abraham’s website is also worth visiting – a living encyclopaedia of Vienna’s cemeteries with lots of images and information. An overview of upcoming tours can also be found there: www.viennatouristguide.at.
Uwe Mauch is a journalist with the Austrian daily Kurier, Mario Lang is a Vienna-based photographer. The series Lokalmatadore (Local Heroes) has been appearing in every issue of Vienna’s bi-monthly street paper Augustin since early 2000. Every second Wednesday you can buy the new issues from the Augustin vendor of your choice. The Lokalmatadore book of portraits (in German) is available in the bookstore Bücher am Spitz: www.buecheramspitz.com.