One morning I was sitting in the admissions pavilion at the Otto Wagner Psychiatric Hospital in Vienna, Austria, waiting to hear how a student was doing who had been brought there the night before after a psychotic break. This hospital is known popularly by its older name “Steinhof,” after the area where it was built and opened in 1907.
I had come to Steinhof by taxi the night before, when the student was admitted. It was one or two a.m., and the taxi driver got worried as we entered the campus-like complex on a hillside in the dark. I didn’t know which of the many pavilions we needed to get to, so I said we should look out for the ambulance that had brought the student. We spotted it at a lit-up loading dock two levels down the hill from where we were, and the cab driver relaxed.
He asked me what was going on. I explained briefly, and he summed it up: “Ah, eine Nervengeschichte.” In the thirteen years since, I have tried again and again to translate this phrase and the best I can do is to give a couple of possibilities that, taken together, perhaps start to suggest what the cabbie’s empathetic yet gently trivializing appraisal meant: “Ah, a mental thing.” “Ah, a nerve business.” “Ah, a psychiatric case.” (German still blends “nervous” and “mental” when talking about psychiatric and neurological matters.) My favorite version is the most literal and hence least informative one: “Ah, a nerve story.”
As I sat in the admissions ward, I watched a motley group of patients, still unsorted, milling about. One dark-haired young man in a hospital gown, his lower lip drooping, was drooling like the caricature of a mental patient as he walked straight up to whoever was in his path, dodging away only at the last moment. I noticed a distinguished looking middle-aged gentleman with white stubble on his chin, also wearing a flimsy, shapeless garment, and also pacing up and down.
I, with my dark full beard, was wearing a black winter jacket and a felt fedora. The gentleman stopped in front of me and said, “Shalom.” I replied, “Shalom.” He went on his way, but soon came back. This time he said one or two sentences in what I could tell was Hebrew, but did not understand. “Sorry,” I said in German, “all I know is ‘shalom’.” His eyebrows arched. “Oh, are you not of the Mosaic religious persuasion?” “No, I’m not.”
He walked quickly away, then turned around and apologized politely and profusely that he had taken me for Jewish.
The student was admitted and spent a week and a half in the institution, and then was allowed to transfer to the Christian Doppler Clinic in Salzburg. Our study-abroad program is located at the University of Salzburg. In the long term, after several twists and turns, her nerve story had a positive ending.
Two or three weeks later, I was waiting for a bus at the Mirabell Square stop, which in those days was across from the Mozarteum music conservatory. I noticed a woman wearing a traditional Austrian dirndl dress walking in my direction and talking out loud to herself. You could hear her even a block away. People on the sidewalk studiously looked up, down, and sideways. As she approached, she made a beeline toward me, and as she came up I heard her saying, in German, “So, are you going to New York or Tel Aviv, or are you staying here in Salzburg?”
“I’ll stay here in Salzburg for a while, and then I’ll go home to the USA,” I said.
“Oh, you’re from the USA? I have some friends in the USA, Jewish friends, in New Hampshire, I’ve visited them there.” She rattled on a while, talking about her friends and the USA and intimating that she, too, was Jewish. Then she fixed her gaze on me. “You are Jewish, aren’t you?” “No, I’m not.”
“Oh, yes you are! I can tell by your beard!”
I wasn’t even wearing my black fedora.