I met a true Viennese Alexander Ehrmann at the St. Charles pharmacy, which he opened in 2006 – a beautiful place with a very special atmosphere.
KK: Did you want to become a pharmacist from childhood?
AE: Yeah, kind of. When I was 18 I wanted to become a theater director and thank God I didn’t. I am telling my son: you can become anything, but not an actor. (laughs)
There was a phase when I wanted to become a sport journalist and I still do by the way. Besides that I am a 100% pharmacist. As I am the 6th generation pharmacist I always saw what other people do in this job and what are the opportunities out there (which so few take advantage of). In our job you get close to the people, I mean they tell you everything. Where else do they do that? I worked with my father for 1,5 years and then I said, ok you do yours, and I do mine. I had the chance to buy this pharmacy which dates back to 1886 and we just opened it up. We made it wider and longer, making more space accessible to the public. At the same there were two shops available for sale across the street. I’ve always liked the idea of the traditional European medicine by Paracelsus. Everybody knows his name, but not everyone knows what he did. He said that there is a herb for any kind of disease right where you live, so the cure should be regional and seasonal. And that is what we do here, we have a big pharmaceutical house, and the herbs you will find there you can use in natural remedies, such as in natural cosmetics, and you can eat some of them directly. That’s why we have a store with natural cosmetics and treatments and a small restaurant. Two years later there was another shop down the road which we bought and now you can find there various practices: yoga, shiatsu, tuina, osteopathic, etc. In 2008 a lady wanted to open a St. Charles pharmacy in Berlin and we said why not?! So since May 2009 there is a St. Charles pharmacy in Berlin and it is as successful as the one in Vienna.
KK: How is this pharmacy different from the others?
AE: First of all, the idea behind it: we work with European medicine. We have 300 remedies we compound in the house. Pharmacies used to do that, but not anymore. They don’t think it is necessary. And I love it, I could not imagine myself just standing there and waiting for people to come, handing over the prescription and clients leaving quickly. What’s important for me is the nice atmosphere. When you come to a pharmacy, you are obviously not feeling well and I don’t want to make people feel even worse and think – let’s leave quickly. This is why we have music and Charley Chaplin movies. We quite often see people standing and watching the movie and kids are laughing out loud. People love it and that’s fantastic that they can enjoy the visit to the pharmacy.
KK: What strikes you about Vienna?
AE: I think the energy is good here – even though it is very laid back and very traditional – it is a good energy. There are a lot of things going on here right now. Maybe we haven’t quite found yet the right button to push, but it has changed so much when you compare it to 80s.
KK: What has changed?
AE: 15 years ago if you’d come here in August it was dead. I mean everything was literally closed and there was no one around. Nothing was happening, besides high cultural events such as operas or concerts. That has changed a lot. I would love if people would to do more because others like it too. What has changed tremendously is the Danube Canal. 15 years ago there were only rats running and now there are a lot of nice places to go, all of them fully packed and people love them. Another thing that is unique here is the mixture between Heuriger (wine taverns) which is a fantastic idea. I remember when I was a little boy we went there with my grandmother and used to bring food with us, we would sit there, have drinks and enjoy it. There are many great typical Viennese things like that. If Vienna manages to stay what it is by keeping all the good traditions and on the other hand just move on and accept contemporary ideas it would be the best place to live… I think that the quality of life is great and it is affordable here, unlike other cities, like London, where rent is extremely high.
KK: What would you suggest to your friends who are in Vienna just for one day?
AE: I would definitely go to a typical beautiful coffee house, like the Bräunerhof or café Sperl, sit there and watch people. Let’s say you start with café Sperl, then you stroll around Naschmarkt to get an idea (even though it is not my favorite market because it has changed so much), it is nice to walk around especially on Saturday, when there is a flea market where you can find yourself a weird whatever. And then you have to go to the first district for sure.
KK: Imagine you moved to another city and you have a stop in Vienna during a connection flight for 5 hours. Where would you go?
AE: I think I would go to the Kunsthistorisches Museum just to inhale Vienna. I mean, imagine if I would move to Tasmania and came back for 5 hours… (laughs) I would take the train (not the CAT) to Vienna which stops at the Zentralfriedhof. Get out at the stop Landstraße, walk around to the KHM along the Ringstraße. Then I would go to the next bookstore and buy a Thomas Bernhard book which I haven’t read yet and sit down somewhere, let’s say at the Burggarten, and read it there.
KK: What is the aroma of Vienna?
AE: There is a very typical smell for me in the city. When taking my bike to work every day I have to cross the Donaukanal (Danube Canal), When crossing the canal there is a specific smell, for me, that’s my Viennese smell.
KK: What is the sound of Vienna?
AE: It depends on the season. Winter is pretty quiet here; I don’t really like it then. It is cold, dark and foggy; there is no sun and it affects people, they are grumpier than during the rest of the year. In Spring everything pops up, birds are coming back and what I like most of all that life comes back with all these festivals and music events. My favorite time of the year is Summer with its clicking flip-flops. One thing that Viennese people really make use of is the Danube and the Donauinsel (Danube Island): they live there, they come for swimming and eating. A friend of mine just moved to an apartment at the Alte Donau. It is a totally different life, you come out of your house and go swimming and then you take the U1 line and within 15 min you are in the city center. As long as people in Vienna wear their flip-flops and you hear that sound – they are in a good mood. Autumn is kind of like Spring – in a certain way life stops in Summer, cultural-wise for example, a lot of places are closed. In Autumn everyone comes back… What I like is to take the bike on a nice Autumn day and I would be the only person going through the town on a bike who can overtake a Fiaker while cars and taxis have to stay behind and wait. So the sound of Vienna in Autumn is a sound of horses and carriages.
KK: What is the strangest thing about Vienna?
AE: You know – when you order a coffee in a coffee house – why do you get a glass of water with it? Originally it was not for drinking, as you would have thought. A friend of mine, who is an architect and has built a lot of restaurants and coffee houses, did much research, recently told me why. Coffee used to be a drink for aristocrats. And then, of course, there were butlers, who would take the used spoon away. And the idea was, if there is no butler, you take the sugar with a spoon, and what do you do with it after? You put it in this glass of water.
KK: What is your favorite place for contemporary art in Vienna?
AE: I really like TBA21-Augarten. And there is high-class art there. We are a group of friends and our kids are the same age. Whenever there is an opening there is always someone taking care of the kids. My son is six and his friends are the same age so they don’t really need anyone to take care of them but nevertheless it is a great idea.
Of course there are Schleifmühlgasse and Eschenbachgasse with many interesting galleries.
KK: Do you have a hidden place in Vienna, maybe something in the second district where you live?
AE: You know what I’ve seen yesterday? I really dislike places like Tewa and Marktachterl at the Karmelitermarkt. They used to be great places: Tewa used to be a Jewish butcher and the other one was a Turkish place and they were fantastic. Now it’s Tewa with their boom boom music trying to be organic which they are not. It could be much better… And then there was another place, not the Charleys’ Eck, but one of those places where you could hardly see anything because of the smoke, the owner sold it and I thought: «Oh no, there will be another Tewa or something». I saw it yesterday – now it is called 6er Haus and it seems to be pretty much the same. I think it is very important for a market like that to have this diversity and have not only hip places, but also a choice.
And a secret place… There is a new Heuriger, which is really great. It is called Schank zum Reichsapfel, (Karmeliterplatz 3). A beautiful place: they took all the furniture from an old Heurigen and put it there. The food is organic and tastes very good and in summer they are going to have a garden. Another place I really love is Engel at the Grosse Pfarrgasse. They also have a bar (refurnished pharmacy) where we often meet with friends for a glass of wine.
KK: What is your favorite building in Vienna?
AE: I think it’s the Hochhaus at the Herrengasse. It is a very special building, the idea behind it; how they built it is just great! The apartments are fantastic. Gerald Mat, ex-director of the Kunsthalle has interviews in one of these apartments once a month or so with the weirdest people. Everyone can attend for free, there are chairs and etc. Usually you squeeze in, because there are about 30-40 people. And these interviews are then shown on one of a local TV stations. It is really a lot of fun.
Right at the entrance of the building they have a coffee place now made of glass. The house itself has a very interesting history; so many important people lived there.
KK: What is the best upcoming event for you?
AE: Of course I always like the Festwochen and the Soundframe.
KK: What is the best Souvenir from Vienna?
AE: Soul Splash Eau D’energie by Paul Divjak from St. Charles pharmacy.
I love Vienna for its mood, energy, and possibilities. There are possibilities; you just have to take them.