Ideology is suspect, sharp distinctions disliked.

If you really must fall sick,” says an old Austrian piece of advice, “then do it in Vienna.” On a visit I did just that, slipping on some cobblestones while in a state of cold sobriety. This involved a taxi (even a Scot bows to an emergency), friendly chats with other walking wounded in the gloomiest Krankenhaus I’ve ever known, X-rays, excellent treatment, and an impressive plaster with German hieroglyphics that utterly mystified my own doctor. Checking in at Vienna airport en route home, I heard the clerk say to a pretty West Indian girl behind me, “Are you with this Plaster Man?” The theological implications of that description still make me feel uncomfortable.

Another kind of pitfall awaits any visitor who attempts a slick assessment of Austria and its 7.5 million people determined to hang on to their permanently neutral status. The historical significance of Austria as part of a once great empire is memorable, but its contributions to culture are scarcely less so. Vienna and music, for example, were for a time virtually synonymous because of the associations with Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Bruckner. There was also the Strauss who conned the world into thinking the Danube was blue, and of course there is the Vienna Boys’ Choir.

From a religious standpoint, Austria is a country of paradoxes. The church is widely regarded as an indispensable national institution, but in the same category as fire, police, and ambulance, answering calls when required, but with no necessary relevance to everyday living. Nearly 88 per cent Roman Catholic, Austria nonetheless has one of the world’s highest suicide rates—this though there is an inordinate preoccupation with ...

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