Sissi’s 60th by
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With my glamorous cousin in the Hotel Sacher

My devotion to my cousin Alan Jackson, and great sorrow when he died young, in 1981 was documented in Action Jackson. I was equally devoted to his young wife, Sissi, with whom I tried to stay in touch after Alan’s death, lost for a while, but reconnected for good in 2000. She and her family visited us on Martha’s Vineyard several times and I stayed with her in London (where she had settled) in 2004.

So I was thrilled when she invited me to come to her 60th birthday party in Vienna (hosted by one of her older sisters, Josephina, knick-named Stupsi) at the end of January, 2008. The party would be on Saturday, February 2, but I flew out the prior Wednesday, arriving in Vienna on Thursday, so I’d have time to do some sight-seeing. My cousin Gregory (Sissi’s son) would be my tour guide I THOUGHT! Unfortunately, he fell ill.

His cousin Georgie, whom I’d met in London in 2004, graciously met my flight, gave me a little driving tour of Vienna and told me I was invited to his parents that evening for a dinner party. He dropped me at my hotel and told me what time he’d pick me up. Georgie spoke excellent English, as did everyone I encountered at the InterContinental Hotel, where I stayed. It was on the Ringstrasse, the large ringed boulevard that ran around the perimeter of the city. The bellman carried my big suitcase to the room and gallantly kissed my hand. He told me that was the custom. I confess, I rather enjoyed it. We chatted about music. Everyone in Vienna loved opera, he told me. I thought that I would love this city. I unpacked and took a nap.

I came to the lobby at 7:30pm. Press and photographers were everywhere. OPEC ministers were meeting at my hotel and I saw all the men, dressed in their flowing robes and kafiyas. The scene made me very uncomfortable. On the other hand, I wore my mink coat to Vienna (Sissi told me back then, it was still acceptable to wear fur in Europe; now one can’t wear fur anywhere). It did keep me warm!

Off we went to Stupsi and Georg’s apartment along Embassy Row, decorated with beautiful family heirlooms. Stupsi’s husband, Georg Festetics is of princely Hungarian lineage. There were paintings of the family palace hanging on the wall. Georg had recently retired from banking, was Harvard-educated and an erudite man. Before their guests arrived, we had an interesting conversation about art, music, and politics. Georgie, the youngest of four brothers, was mad about Western cinema and went off to see a film. The other guests included a couple who drove in from Westphalia; the wife spoke some English, the husband spoke none and another woman with whom Sissi and her partner would stay when they arrived. She also spoke little English. So the conversation over dinner was a mixture of German and English, only some I could follow. It was kind of Stupsi and Georg to include me, but I felt lost most of the time (this was a much older crowd and very Germanic). There was some talk of art and culture. Stupsi worked at the auction house Christie’s. I asked what was her speciality. The group laughed. Her speciality was that she knew EVERYONE in Vienna (her parents had been high society, as was she), so had access to all the wealthy Viennese with their valuable collections and could guide people to the auction house when the time was right.

Georg drove me home and gave me tips about what to see if I would be on my own the next day. And indeed, Gregory was too ill to go out. He now ran a high fever and had chills. I checked with the concierge, whose English seemed limited. He tried to give me the bus schedule, but since I couldn’t read the signs on the buses, this seemed futile. I had a little map with some of the sights marked. I set out on foot. That night was the Opera Ball; the biggest event of the social calendar. Stupsi and Georg invited me over later to watch it on TV with them and have a light supper, but during the day I was on my own.

I am not good in foreign countries on my own, but (to quote Shakespeare), I screwed my courage to the sticking place, and off I went. I found St. Stephen’s, Vienna’s famous cathedral. I’ve sung enough masses to know what to expect but found this one was under renovation while I was there; still it was impressive. Then Mozart House, where he lived when he composed “The Magic Flute”, also interesting.

I soon found a little Jewish Museum. There was heavy security. They made me check my mink – I was not happy. They looked at me suspiciously. I wanted to tell them that I am Jewish (at that moment I didn’t think to point at myself and say “Juden”), but no one there spoke English and of course, I couldn’t speak German. I tried in English, but that didn’t work. They glowered at me. It was one of the worst experiences of the trip, so unlike what I encountered from Sissi’s family. The museum had a good collection of Judaica, but I was still so uncomfortable there.

On to the Hofburg (the Imperial Palace) where I got to see lots of silver, the Imperial Apartments, including the Empress Sisi Museum (which I loved). By this point, it was 5pm and dark; time to walk back to my hotel. I got lost a few times, but saw people starting to arrive for the Opera Ball.

Back at my hotel, there was a message from Sissi – what time she’d arrive the next day, where we’d meet, that we’d all go out for dinner, etc. I now knew how walk over to Stupsi’s apartment (a decent walk, but I wore good shoes). She was working on the food for the Saturday party, Gregory came out to say hello (he stayed in Stupsi’s apartment, but I hadn’t seen him and remained too ill to mingle. I chatted with Georgie while his mother made a light traditional Viennese supper. Georgie went out again while his father, mother and I sat and ate in front of the small TV and watched the Opera Ball. There was commentary (like the Oscars, they told me), but all in German. Debutantes, aged 17-26 can “come out” during this event, wearing long white dresses and above the elbow, white gloves, hair pulled up in high buns. They came out in two rows and danced a polonaise. This is a formal ball (like something out of an Edith Wharton novel), where they all dance with their escorts who wear white tie and tails. In her day, Sissi was the lead debutante. On the TV, there are overhead shots of the dancers, dancing in formation. Spectacular. There is entertainment: José Carreras, a ballet troupe. Georg says it costs a huge sum to get a ticket to attend and there are a few celebrities in the crowd, Bianca Jagger, Teri Hatcher. It was a lovely way to spend the evening and I had wonderful hosts who translated and explained everything.

It was now Friday, February 1. I did more sight-seeing in the morning. I was learning my way around. I went to some art museums. Back to Stupsi’s to meet up with Sissi, who always creates a whirl of excitement. I gave her the presents I brought (I had asked for advice from Gregory who said, “You know my mother – she likes gold stuff”). I bought her a gold purse and an Alexis Bittar bracelet. I liked it so well, I bought a thicker version for myself.

Alexis Bittar bracelet

She loved both and promptly put on the bracelet. She was off to meet a friend, flying in from London. She and Bryson, her partner, would take a group of us to a country setting for dinner. Real German food, served family style at the table. Only one of her daughters came in, but there would be the friend from London and a couple from Switzerland. Only the wife spoke English. Languages spoken around the table: English, French and German. I tried to follow along and contribute a bit.

Traditional country dinner with Sissi, Bryson, Victoria and their guests on the day before the party. I took the photo.

I began Saturday morning at the Hofburg Treasury. Only a few crown jewels remain, but some impressive crowns from the Holy Roman Empire dating from 1200 and impressive religious ornaments. It is distressing to see the wealth the clergy had when regular folks were so poor. I finally made it to the Kunthistoriche Museum which holds a fantastic Renaissance collection. I devoured it and felt like I was back in college, only seeing the REAL paintings, not just slides. On to the Albertina, which held good contemporary art.

Off to the Hotel Sacher to meet Sissi and some of her friends. We went to the famous café (where the Featured photo was taken, Sissi carrying the purse I gave her as a present) and of course, I had to get a piece of Sacher torte and a “melange”, a Viennese specialty drink, coffee with milk. All delicious. Sissi took me a few blocks away to show me the baroque chapel where she and Alan had been married in 1973.

Alan & Sissi, 1973

My Uncle Harry was allowed to recite the traditional seven Hebrew blessings at the end of service (in a Catholic chapel) to appease the Jewish relatives. My brother, then in rabbinical school taught the prayers to our uncle.

That evening was THE PARTY! Gregory, in the kitchen, dressed in a heavy winter coat. He said he felt better when he sweated. He worked on the salmon (which was delicious, as was all the food, served buffet on the dining room table). Lots of Sissi’s friends from all over Europe attended, as well as her relatives. Georg proudly announced that Georgie had just passed all the requirements and become a lawyer. We all applauded. Victoria toasted her mother in English.

Victoria (Sissi’s daughter) and her Viennese cousin Georgie

Sissi has a younger brother Robert, who with his family, now managed the family farm on the Czech border. I was told it had become one of the largest organic farms in Austria. Sissi had spent summers there as a child. Robert was very elegant-looking, but spoke no English. He called me Mrs. Jackson, knowing that I was Alan’s cousin (in fact, I was the only person in from the States, which I considered to be quite the honor). I smiled, but obviously, we could not communicate. He had two college-aged daughters, who spoke decent English but weren’t interest in conversing with me; his wife spoke reasonably well. She decided to give it a go and we sat for a while and had a good conversation. She kept apologizing, but I understood all she tried to communicate.

Sissi and her brother, Robert Harmer

Most there spoke reasonable English and tried to engage with me. One, a friend named Therese, lived in Geneva (where my cousin Alan had lived for years; as long as I could remember). Sissi told me she called Therese the night Alan died. Lori, the friend from London, thought I looked like Sissi had looked in her 40s. I was very flattered! I am only five years younger than she is.

with Stupsi and Sissi

For me, despite not speaking German, the evening was a huge success and I was thrilled to be included.

Sissi and Bryson picked me up in a cab the next morning. Sissi found a mass where Hayden’s Jesuit Mass was sung with full orchestra throughout the service. She knows how much I love the music (and sing much of it myself). The remainder of the service, including hymns, were performed in German, so I couldn’t make out what was going on. The church was huge and cold. I was glad that I had that warm coat. At a certain moment, the sun shone through a top window and lit up the golden figure of Christ atop an elaborate pedestal. It must have been planned just that way – to illuminate the Christ figure for the hoi polloi. It was awesome! I had to leave before the service was over. Sissi came out with me to hail a cab and we said our fond goodbyes.

I scurried back to the hotel and the bellman who kissed my hand on my first day got my luggage while I checked out. He grabbed me a cab and I was off. The airport was confusing for non-German speakers, but I eventually found where I needed to be and my Viennese adventure drew to a conclusion; a thrilling experience.

With the glamorous sisters at Gregory’s wedding, outside London, Sept, 2016




Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Characterizations: well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    What a delightful story, Betsy, and beautifully told. But it also underscores the difficulties and discomforts of different languages and imperfect comprehension (on both sides). That said, you obviously had a wonderful time and handled it all just right, even when the language barriers were in place.

    As it turns out, I have spent a good deal of time in Germany — and also a bit in Austria — in business and, in that context, all the natives I came in contact with (i.e., international businessmen and lawyers) spoke perfect — if not perfectly idiomatic– English. So, despite my smattering of German as a result of my step-mother being German, I never had to use it. And I was reminded how much better continental Europeans speak English than we do their languages.

    In fact, the only “lost in translation”-type experience I had was noting how frequently the Austrians noted or corrected others to note that they were Austrian, not German. And this is not just a post-WW II/Nazi-related phenomenon. My mother’s Jewish family came over from Austria in the 19th century and she would tell me, with amusement, that that was a point always made in their family history.

  2. Suzy says:

    Wonderful story of a memorable trip. And the pictures are terrific, as always! I love that Alexis Bittar bracelet and the gold purse – great birthday presents for Sissi! It sounds like, despite not speaking the language, you did really well, and thankfully nothing was lost in translation (or if it was, you never knew).

  3. Wow Betsy, what a whirlwind tour of Vienna you had, and worth the trip for your cousin’s 60th . It’s a city I’d love to see someday, and perfect for a musical gal like you!

    I can’t quite imagine an American bellman kissing my hand, but hey, it was Vienna!

  4. Marian says:

    I enjoyed the tour of Vienna and your parties and dinners with friends there, Betsy. Wish I knew more German, although as John says, most Germans I’ve met spoke English very well. I keep hearing about that Sacher cafe and imagining the cake and coffee. Yum needs no translation.

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    That was certainly a memorable trip to Austrian society, and it was accomplished well despite some language differences, which inhibited some of the conversation. Too bad it seemed to make the visit to the Jewish museum unpleasant. It is possible they are just always on their guard—I found that at the San Francisco Jewish museum as well. Your pictures illustrate the trip perfectly.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Interesting that you encountered the same difficulties at the Jewish Museum in San Francisco, Khati. I think you make a good observation. The guardians have every right to be wary (increasingly so). It just hurt me in that moment since I am a member of the tribe but had no way to communicate that to the old men who were suspicious of me as I entered.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    What an adventure, Betsy. You were very brave to attempt this on your own with so few people speaking English. When we went to Vienna and saw many of the same sights, we had a dual-language guide — super helpful!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I thought I would have a personal guide, Laurie – my cousin Gregory, but he got sick, so I was on my own! Definitely not ideal. Somehow I made the best of it. I’m sure I missed a lot but I did have a wonderful time too.

  7. Dave Ventre says:

    What a great opportunity to do a deeper dive into a great European city than most tourists ever manage!

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