I’m just back from a few days in the Austrian city of Vienna. Given its central European location, just east of Prague, naturally it was quite cold at this time of year but, cold and dry rather than cold and damp, making it quite bearable as long as you were well wrapped up; sheepskin coats were understandably very popular with the natives. Architecturally, Vienna is a very beautiful city and there is a general refined and relaxed atmosphere. Arriving well into the evening on Saturday we dropped our stuff and headed out for a stroll. We found ourselves on one of the main shopping streets, a pedestrianised boulevard not too dissimilar to Grafton Street in Dublin, only much wider and covering a greater area. Much window shopping was conducted and I was very excited at the prospect of a Sunday browse through these fashion and handbag meccas.
Sunday was our first full day for exploration and so mid-morning we headed off. The city seemed quite busy with people strolling up and down but it wasn’t long before I realised that although the streets were populated none of the shops were actually open. Taking a second look I noticed small family units, couples with buggies browsing in windows and generally just out for a walk. Making our way to one of the many city centre parks in the nearby Museum Quarter another revelation unfolded. Family groups were enjoying the pathways and playgrounds, dogs and owners gathered for chats, Frisbee-throwing youths laughed loudly, young couples were huddled together on park benches and very well dressed older couples were also coming and going taking in the fresh air. Various exits from the parks led to the museums and art galleries which were open and back to the city streets where just the restaurants, coffee houses and cake shops were doing business. It was Sunday, a day of leisure, and one not to be spoiled by shopping. This was also a cold February Sunday so it must be quite something when the sun is shining in the warmer months.
It would appear that Sunday in Vienna is for spending with family, taking the dog to the park, exploring museums and art galleries or catching up with friends in one of the numerous vast coffee houses or just sitting quietly with the Sunday papers. You don’t even have to buy the papers if you are going to a coffee house as they provide them ready to read on the spot. To sum it up in one word it just seemed so incredibly civilised. With a little sadness it dawned on me that, for the most part, we have forgotten how to do Sunday in Ireland. If the shops weren’t open in the city centre then the coffee shops wouldn’t open either. Indeed in some Irish city centres on a Sunday even with the shops open, cafes and restaurants are closed. The Viennese take their leisure time quite seriously and this is evidenced by the numerous parks and leisure areas, mostly free to enter, dotted around the city.
The coffee houses merit a mention all of their own. It is like stepping back in time as you enter these high-ceilinged ornate coffee palaces. They have an ‘oldie worldie’ feel and it’s easy to imagine writers and artists of the last century sitting for hours exchanging ideas and getting high on caffeine. There is a bewildering range of coffee, cakes and pastries available, (Oh the cakes and pastries!) and the atmosphere is filled with chat and smoke. Yes you can still smoke in all of these places. To be honest the actual smoke wasn’t great, particularly when we are so unused to it, but it’s almost part of the atmosphere. Most places do have no smoking areas and tables but, as someone once put it, a no smoking area in a room is about as sensible as having a urinating and non urinating area in a swimming pool! Smoking aside it was all about relaxation and indulgence; I loved it.
We seem to have abandoned the idea of Sunday as a day off. Myself included, I will often use it as a day to catch up on grocery shopping or to take care of stuff that didn’t get done during the week. Even shopping for clothes, furniture, home accessories, garden and DIY, is often looked at as a way to fruitfully spend leisure time on a Sunday. We happily worship at the great altar of retail these days where most things are now available 24/7. I do it myself and having seen the other side wonder if it will stop me from doing it again; probably not. By the end of our Sunday in Vienna I felt thoroughly relaxed, culturally renewed and very ready to face the week. Even though we were staying on for another few days and not necessarily rushing back to work on Monday morning, I could appreciate the merit in deliberately making one day a week different to all the rest. We have lost that idea here, Sunday is merely an extension of Saturday and not a day of rest and leisure. Many of us may be officially ‘off work’ but we don’t necessarily stop working. We have fallen into that trap of busyness – making everyday the same and wondering why ‘burn out’ and stress have suddenly become so prevalent.
Of course it would have to be acknowledged that Sundays in Ireland were never really like Viennese Sundays to begin with. We’ve always been an all or nothing place. When the shops were closed on Sunday so was everything else, we never really struck the leisure balance. I don’t hark after winter Sundays from my childhood as on reflection they were quite boring. Sunday was almost depressing as with everything closed it wasn’t so much a day of enjoyment and leisure but a day spent thinking that Saturday was sadly over and Monday was on the horizon. (It was even more miserable if by 5pm you still hadn’t even started the weekend homework.)
So maybe it is not a reversal we need so much as a gradual change in what a day off is all about. With spring approaching and a definite stretch in the evening opportunities abound for Sundays and who knows, with an attitude tweak here and there, Sunday still has the potential to be the best day of the week.