I recently went to Vienna, Austria to do a little background work for the novel I’m currently writing. I wanted to see the Institute for Radium Research, which was radical in its support of women scientists back when it first opened its doors. In its prime, in the 1930’s, almost forty percent of the research staff were women, and it was the first place that hired janitors: all other labs demanded that women scientists also serve as janitors.
It wasn’t until the 1980’s that the Institut got rid of the radium in the basement; in the process of cleaning the building they discovered so many hot spots that they had to dig pieces of the stairwell and the walls out and replace them.
I also went to the Leopoldstadt, the section of Vienna where immigrants typically congregate. When almost 200,000 Jews came in from eastern Europe in the years right after WW I, so many settled in the Leopoldstadt that it became known as the “Matzo Island.” More grimly and tragically, the Leopoldstadt became the ghetto where Jews were forced to live, and then deported to their deaths after the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938. I wanted to see the building where Lotty Herschel and her family might have lived.
I found Vienna challenging emotionally. Like most Jews of my generation and history, the past haunts me when I’m in Vienna or Berlin or Munich. The city, too, feels pinched in a way, but I was warmly greeted by Professor Marton at the Institut, and by the archivists to whom he introduced me.
I walked five or six miles a day, doing research and seeing sights and of course my trip was fueled by espresso. The best I found in Vienna was at the Coffee Pirates on Spitalgaße, across the street from Vienna’s great teaching hospital. The pirates welcomed me with open arms.
(On a side note, when I found a great coffee shop near my London hotel called “Workshop” I was wearing a sweatshirt from Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago. I became an instant celebrity: their owner had gone to Chicago to study coffee making at Intelligentsia.)
From Vienna, I flew to Istanbul to meet up with my beloved cousin Barb, who’s serving in the Peace Corps in Crimea. We enjoyed all the tourist spots–the Blue Mosque, Topkapi, Haggia Sophia–but the highlight was taking the ferry across the Bosporous to the Asian side of Istanbul. There we met with the team from Artemis Publishing, who just brought out the first of my V I books to be published in Turkish (Hardball). Afterwards, we had tea with an important Professor of Turkology whom Barb works with in Crimea. From the team at Artemis and from Professor Isen, we got some interesting insights into contemporary issues in Istanbul. Among other things, the pressure on women to get pregnant and have children is such that doctors phone them at home once a week to interrogate them on their fertility! This will no doubt soon become the law in Texas, too.
From Istanbul I went to London, saw David Hare’s The Judas Kiss about Oscar Wilde–astonishing production, which left us weeping at the end. Meetings with editors, agents, dog walks in Regents Park, great meals with good friends, good coffee, wonderful catching up with the incomparable Liza Cody and Margaret Kinsman, and my first outing to Kew Gardens, where I got to climb up to the Treetop Walk. You walk along level with the tops of great trees. It’s extraordinary and exhilarating. Then–home to laundry, bills, chaos, and The Book.