Vienna, Austria, has a ball season, and waltzing the night away leaves you dizzy what with the glittering crystal, the flowing gowns and the seeming liquidity of time.
What I mean is, if you squint ever so slightly and open your mind, you can easily believe that you've gone back to the 19th century. But, of course, today's reality is even better, because the Hofburg Palace has 21st-century comforts and, thankfully, we've left the corsets far behind.
Even more importantly, the diversity of guests at today's Viennese balls would have been impossible at the height of the empire -- or even 75 years ago. It's wonderful, truly, to see people from all nations share the evening in what was historically one of the most exclusive palaces. Times have certainly changed.
On the other hand, going to a ball is still a major production. It was probably easier way back when ladies' maids managed the preparations. But that time is long gone, at least for most of today's attendees.
Absent a ladies maid, I actually had more in common with a fairy-tale character. Seriously.
Last Friday night, I empathized with Cinderella. I desperately needed some assistance, because I have no experience with transforming into a princess for the night.
Fortunately, I found a modern-day fairy to help. She's a hair stylist and astute social commentator just down the street with a gift of laughter that complements her professional skill.
The ball began at 8:00 p.m., so by 5:00 p.m. I was in the salon seat stretching my imagination and trying to believe that the image in the mirror would be ready for a gilded hall. Big stretch.
My stylist's first action was to offer me a drink. I accepted, gratefully, but then had to wrap my head around the concept of sitting in the salon with a glass of champagne; that too was totally surreal.
To make matters even more challenging, I'd arrived for appointment with my hair "dirty" per my stylist's instructions. According to her, clean hair (or maybe its just my hair) is too fine to style. She even provided historical examples to make her point, referencing the hair styles at the court of Louis XIV. You know, the toppling, powdered aristocratic hairdos that included items such as bird's nests (and maybe even birds?) -- I hoped she had no such plans for me.
Instead, I submitted to receiving a copious amount of hair spray that left me gasping in a cloud of I-don't-want-to-know-what chemicals. As a result, my hair transitioned from being simply dirty to downright sticky, ready for the curlers. I watched the show (my show, that is) and sipped some more champagne.
The hairpins appeared shortly thereafter. There were countless hairpins. In fact, when I took them out later that evening, I wondered whether maybe (like birds in their nests) the hairpins had reproduced prolifically.
A few minutes later, and she'd piled and swirled my hair high on my head. She had somehow affixed a dozen tiny crystal glittery things that looked like diamonds. My head looked elegant and totally unfamiliar.
The result was amazing. I gazed into the mirror and saw my own face surrounded by what had to be my own hair, but which had been clearly touched by magic.
"I feel like a princess," I stammered.
My stylist laughed and said, "but that's the whole point! Every woman in Vienna who goes to a ball feels the same way!"
So I went home by 6:00 p.m., through a raging blizzard on my husband's arm with my head tucked tight under an umbrella (no doubt resembling a mushroom more than royalty). I put on my ball gown, grateful that polyester looks so much like chiffon silk, and slid my feet into dancing shoes of soft leather (which are so much nicer than glass).
Then, best of all, I left the house and arrived at the palace on the arm of my own Prince Charming. Later, unlike with Cinderella, we had no need to flee the ball at the stroke of midnight. A taxi served as our carriage, and much later that evening, we went home having danced the night away.
Attending a ball in Vienna is a magical yet very real experience; and it seems that here, even if only for a night, fairy tales really do come true.