Before going to Vienna last week with Bine, I had never heard of Sissi. Nor had I felt the lack of Sissi in my life. Before Vienna, I knew about the irascible Thomas Bernhard, and the sad exiles Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, about Freud’s couch, about Schiele and all his extraordinary, bony hands, about Bosch’s cracked eggs, webbed feet, fallen angels and impaled sinners, about Wiener Werkstätte.
Nothing about Sissi or any Hapsburgs at all.
Now I know that Sissi - real name: Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary and Queen consort of Croatia and Bohemia - was very beautiful and, to understate the case, obsessed with her beauty. Little girls growing up in Austria and Hungary watched the Sissi trilogy with Romy Schneider, and dreamt. Now, while admittedly I still don’t know much about Sissi, I know who she is and that she matters very much indeed. I have checked on Netflix for any of the many Sissi movies and mini-series, to cheat on my research, but sadly none are available on Netflix. My computer’s spelling program does not recognize Sissi, or its alternate spelling, Sisi.
I discovered Sissi via her sarcophagus. I had no idea about the Hapsburg predilection for fabulous monuments to their dead. Inside the Kapuzinkrypt, or Church of the Capuchins, I came to know a few Hapsburg tombs. As Bine predicted, Sissi’s had fresh flowers. So what that she died over 125 years ago. Bine told me how Sissi was born in Bavaria to a duke obsessed with circuses and his princess wife. Her childhood was, by noble standards, relatively rustic and unstructured. Sissi liked to catch frogs, ride horses and make daisy chains. Then she married Emperor Franz Joseph and even worse, acquired the formal and controlling Archduchess Sophie as a mother-in-law. Sissi often escaped the humorless rigidity of the Vienna court by heading to Hungary and parts beyond. And throughout, the maintenance of her beauty, her wasp waist and cascading hair, became her life’s work. Her beauty regimens are too painful to even describe. Poor Sissi was assassinated, almost by accident. The Italian anarchist was planning to assassinate the Duc d’Orleans that day, but when the duke changed his plans, the flexible anarchist went after the next noble to present herself, Sissi. There, on the promenade in Geneva, he stabbed Sissi with a sharpened file. Initially, her tightly laced corset staunched the blood flow, but she died just the same.
After making her acquaintance, after letting Sissi into my life, there was nothing to do but repair to the PalmHaus café (the second café in what would be a 5 café day) and drink pink wine in the sunshine.