I went to Stanford’s Vienna campus in my sophomore year for the wrong reason—a girl. A working-class kid from Los Angeles, I had felt lonely and out of place during my freshman year. It wasn’t the privileged students inhabiting Stanford who intimidated me. Odd and alien as they seemed, I liked them, and they mostly liked me. It wasn’t the academic demands. Coursework never gave me problems. What disturbed me was the calm beauty of the place—what was then a still uncluttered Romanesque-Revival campus with the open woodlands set against the sloping foothills of the Santa Clara Valley. I had never lived anywhere that wasn’t grim and ugly. This demi-Eden left me feeling breathlessly lost and unworthy. Amid such unaccustomed beauty, what else could I have done but embark on hopeless romance?
Hopeless romance expresses itself best in needless melodrama. On the last day of my freshman year, I discovered that my inamorata had signed up for the Vienna campus. The program still had empty places. I had planned to go to Austria as a junior. Why not now? My parents barely inquired about my sudden change of plans. No one in my family had ever attended college. Still overjoyed that I had made it into Stanford, my folks were inclined to ask few questions about a world they found slightly enigmatic.
By the time I arrived in Vienna three months later, in the fall of 1970, my romance was indisputably over. (Her doing—sigh—not mine.) Sad, lonely, rejected, and 19 years old, I did what I had to. I fell in love again, head over heels and quite permanently—with the city of Vienna. This is the one great passion of my misspent youth I have never regretted.
No one visiting today’s prosperous and cosmopolitan Vienna will easily imagine the shadowy gray city I found. In 1970, Vienna was still recovering from World War II. Injured war veterans worked in newsstands and tobacco shops. Amputees begged in the train stations. No longer impoverished, the city was not yet prosperous. Thrift, caution and conservatism were everywhere apparent.
Having just arrived from ’60s California, the land of endless sunshine, success and social experiment, I wandered the dark streets and alleyways of this fallen imperial capital in a state of utter astonishment. It seemed as if I had stumbled into the film noir setting of The Third Man. An Angeleno abroad for the first time, I had never before experienced the weight of history. A neutral country caught between Eastern and Western Europe, shorn of its empire, defeated in war, uncertain of its future, Austria clung to its glorious past with affection, pride and desperation.
Vienna was still an insular and self-contained metropolis. The city had its own way of doing everything, and those forms were meticulously observed. Viennese haircuts looked different from those in Rome, Paris or Los Angeles. Not only were clothes cut differently, but even the fabric was distinct from what one saw elsewhere. The food was varied and delicious, but it was almost exclusively drawn from the countries that had once made up the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In every detail of daily life, an American experienced an overwhelming sense of foreignness—something no longer possible in today’s generically internationalized European capitals. That foreignness not only instructed me in what it meant to be Viennese; it also taught me what it meant to be American.
Vienna introduced me to three great pleasures and also effected one life-transforming change. First, I learned to drink in the city’s picturesque taverns and wine cellars. I know that one is not supposed to mention such things in alumni publications, but as someone who has never abused alcohol, I am grateful to have been tutored in the conviviality and pleasure of Austria’s civilized attitudes toward wine and beer.
Second, Vienna initiated me into a more dangerously addictive vice than alcohol—opera. I had always loved classical music. At that point I still harbored dreams of being a composer. But opera had seemed a stiff and pretentious art form. Stanford’s campus was only a few blocks from the Staatsoper, one of the world’s great opera houses. Standing-room tickets were available for only 60 cents. I started going once a week, then twice. Eventually I attended three or four operas a week—enjoying the luxury of seeing the same work repeatedly, often with different casts. Opera is now one of my passions—a bankrupting habit I unwittingly developed on a student’s budget.
Third, Vienna gave me a different view of literature from the dominant Anglo-French perspective of America. Studying the Austro-Hungarian tradition, I found less earnest, more cosmopolitan and more playful authors than in German or even American letters. I discovered powerful and distinctive writers who were little known in America, like Karl Kraus, Stefan Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler and Robert Musil. I also read more deeply in several authors I had known earlier—Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who have, each in different ways, exercised lasting influence on me as models of literary artistry.
Finally and most decisively, Vienna made me a poet. I arrived thinking of myself as a musician, but immersing myself in German—even eventually dreaming in that new language—I began to hear my native language differently. English now seemed a magical tongue evoking powerful memories and imaginative associations. I began reading poetry every night, and bought costly, imported paperbacks of modern verse at the city’s tiny English-language bookstore. Soon I filled small notebooks with my own awful verses. Occasionally, I wrote a good line, mostly by accident. I knew that I needed years of dedicated study and practice to write well, and the prospect of that enormous effort excited me. As my return to America approached, I had discovered my life’s work. I would be a poet, though I hardly understood then what such a decision might cost me.
Vienna taught me another lesson—the futility of planning your future too carefully. Something you strive for—like true love—may suddenly fail, and then something you never predicted—like being a poet—emerges in its place. Even bad luck has its advantages. It makes room for serendipity.
Dana Gioia was a student at Stanford in Austria from September 1970 to March 1971. The Overseas Studies Program’s Austria campus closed in 1987. He originally wrote this piece for the program’s publication Abroad.