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Finding Freud

As much as you might wash your hands or get a flu shot to avoid getting sick on vacation, there are some trips you take that really test your body -- and your immune system -- to the limits. And there are also those journeys for which there can be no protection, where it's your mind that's put through the grinder. We sent The Savvy Traveler's Martin Stott on such an adventure, to Vienna, Austria in search of one of the greatest minds of all time. So if you're at home, lie down on your couch...relax...think about your childhood and come along for the ride as our own Martin Stott takes us with him on his journey to discover Sigmund Freud.

Finding Freud
by Martin Stott

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Most people I know who study psychology are screwed up. They're looking for the answers to their own problems. On the basis that if it's not broke don't fix it, I've never touched a psychology book in my life...I'm too nervous about upsetting the delicate equilibrium. So this isn't a trip I expect to enjoy.

at the station
The Freud Museum in Hampstead, North London

But then, how could you not enjoy Vienna, home of the waltz, with its glorious coffee houses and their fantastic array of cakes, where you can spend hours losing dollars, gaining pounds.

Then there are the museums and palaces and finally the home of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis.

From St. Stephen's Cathedral in the center of Vienna, it's only a short tram ride to his house at number 19 Berggasse. All I know about Freud is that he's obsessed with sex being the cause of all our problems. So it makes me laugh when I arrive at his house to discover the shop opposite sells sexy lingerie. Not sure how some of his patients would have coped with that.

Freud lived and worked here for nearly half a century from 1891. Vienna was then at the heart of Europe, a melting pot where east met west and a center for radical creativity.

at the station
Plaster coffin mask of a female Egyptian from Freud's personal collection

From the art of Gustav Klimt, which you can see at the Belvedere Palace, to the music of another Gustav, Mahler, which I was lucky enough to hear in a concert.

Mahler was just one of Freud's many famous patients. Others became famous for their idiosyncrasies, like the Wolf Man. Or the Rat Man (and this one's really gross), who heard this story of a Chinese torture which involved tying a bucket full of rats onto someone's buttocks. The rats escape by gnawing their way through their victim's anus. The Rat Man became obsessed with the story, believing his family was about to be punished likewise and it was all his fault. After months of analysis Freud pinned the cause down...to a problematic early sexual development. Well he would, wouldn't he?

Freud's apartment is now a museum. His hat and walking cane hang in the foyer. The waiting room is furnished just as it was over 60 years ago when Wolf Man, Rat Man and all the other distinguished screwballs queued for consultations. You'll also see some of his huge collection of ancient antiquities. Freud was an avid collector, these statuettes, vases and bowls excavated from deep within the earth reminded him of his psychoanalysis, delving for buried triggers to a person's neuroses.

at the station
Freud's daughter, Anna

In another room, videos hosted by Freud's late daughter Anna show fascinating black and white flickering home movies of Freud and his family towards the end of his life. He's a slightly stern grandfather figure: not unfriendly, but I'm not sure I'd want to discuss my sex life with him. One of the strangest things I discover here is Freud's collection of jokes, many of them Jewish. Our guide tells me one.

[Guide tells joke]

I didn't laugh either. Freud, himself a Jew, didn't collect these gags for a weekly stand-up routine at the local comedy club. He actually wanted to analyze them to find out why they were funny (or not) and how the way you respond to jokes reveals some of your hidden self. This guy had to analyze everything! But what also emerges through the displays here is what a genius Freud was. He revolutionized our approach to psychological problems. While others were surgically attacking the psychologically disturbed, he was inventing the "talking cure": psychoanalysis. Howard Markel, a professor from the University of Michigan, is another who's come to pay homage.

Markel: "He's probably one of the leading intellectual figures of the 20th century. His ideas have passed on to popular culture. The term "neurotic" and "transference" and so on...even elementary school students are using nowadays. It's incredible to see the steps that his patients walked on, the rooms that they waited in and so on. You get a much better sense of the human being behind the great figure when you go to where they actually lived and worked."

Not far from the museum is the Sigmund Freud Park and Memorial. In the Jewish section of Vienna's Central Cemetery you'll find his parents' graves. But there's something missing in all this: the couch.

Freud's couch
Sigmund Freud's couch

In 1938, persecuted by the Nazis, racked with agony from the jaw cancer that was to kill him the following year, Freud fled Austria for the safety of his family. Everything - his books, antiquities and furniture -- came with him to London.

This is Hampstead in North London and Freud's house, a beautiful brick, three-story detached English home. It too is now a museum.

Davies: "We're standing at the moment in the room that was Sigmund Freud's study and consulting room."

Erica Davies is the museum director. I love this room full of books, pictures, and rich dark carpets. And of course there it is, all roped off, the couch. Think of the bottoms that have been on that: Mahler's, Salvador Dali's, H.G. Wells's...

Davies: "Yes, probably, we imagine, one of the most famous bits of furniture in the world. If you look at it closely, it's really quite a simple piece of furniture."

Martin: "Can I lie on the couch?"

Davies: "Why don't you have a try? Then you can imagine the position of the Wolf Man, the Rat Man, in the long line of very famous Freudian patients. So just go ahead.

I can't believe it! She said yes!

Stott with daughter Emily

Martin: "Here we go. Oh, it is very comfortable. You could actually drift into...a past world, couldn't you?"

Davies: "Yes, you can see how it must be such an interesting experience. If you think of what treatments for mental disorders had been before this...I mean, just think about women having ghastly operations done for them for so-called hysteria,' how revolutionary it is to get people to lie down and free associate."

We stay chatting for quite some time, me on the couch, Erica in Freud's seat just behind me. Between Vienna and London I'd done some reading up on Freud. I got all spooked out about this idea of psychosexual development and the Oedipus complex. I was about to become a father. I can tell you, thinking about your child's sexual journey through life is about as discomforting as imagining your parents still having sex. A couple of weeks later my daughter arrives:

And there she lies in her crib my adorable little smasher. Innocent. That's how she'll stay. Me too. Psychology? Nah that's a Pandora's box you can keep shut, thank you. But I'll say one thing for Freud, he had a great sofa!

From London, this is Martin Stott for The Savvy Traveler.


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