The downstairs neighbor at our apartment in Baden gave us her 12-liter aquarium along with gravel, filter and goldfish food. "Get three goldfish - two orange and one black - for luck," she recommended.
We drove to Fressnapf, a local pet supply store. We visualized our aquarium filled with healthy, happy, colorful fish - just like the ones in the blue-lit tanks stacked floor-to-ceiling in the back corner.
"We'd like to buy some fish," I told the blond woman working the aquarium department.
"Sorry," she said.
What? Were the fish we saw darting all around us not for sale?
Yes. But not to us. Not until our aquarium water had been tested.
Oh! We would drive home, dip out some water and bring it right back.
Not so fast. How long had our tank been running?
Since an hour ago, when we filled it.
She smiled and shook her head. The tank had to run continuously for two weeks to acclimate before the water could be tested.
And then we could buy fish?
If we passed the water control.
My son looked crestfallen. Since the tragedy involving a goldfish doppelgÃƒÆ’Ã†'Â¤nger to fake another's life, he had waited seven years for his mother to agree to another aquarium; then he waited from May until September while we settled for the school year; then he waited weeks for fish to make their way up the list of priorities, after school supplies, a piano, food, dog supplies, car maintenance, yard work, hiking and friends.
"Could we at least get some plants?" he asked.
I glanced at the sales help, who nodded. We were cleared for plants. But first it was necessary to assess the size of our tank to determine the number of plants it could support. We were permitted to buy three tiny pots of plants and a heater.
On the way home, I wondered how the Austrian economy managed to stay afloat. Wasn't a robust sector of the American economy dependent upon the attrition/replacement rate of children's pets - the hapless fish, hermit crabs, hamsters, rats, turtles, parakeets and gerbils that departed for the eternal hunting grounds every year - and along the way, supported an entire legion of veterinarians? (Please do not ask me about hamster electrolyte infusions; I'm not ready to talk about it.) Weren't dead pets the backbone of a thriving economy, not to mention a healthy bottom line at the pet store?
Europeans seem to have a curious notion that animals should have a fighting chance for a decent life. Rome and several other cities passed laws to prevent goldfish from being kept in spherical tanks because they are hard to clean and present too little water surface area for proper oxygenation. In Turin, the fine for not walking your dog three times a day is up to 500 euros (about $650).
Two weeks after our first visit, we rushed a vial of water to the pet store. A staff member opened a case of reagents and bottles and pipettes that resembled the chemistry sets of my childhood. She measured phosphates, nitrites, nitrates, oxygen, iron and carbonates, each time mixing, swirling, shaking and comparing the color of the resultant solution to a color chart. Each "pass" felt like a victory bringing us one step closer to fish. Then we failed the last test, pH - too alkaline.
We left the store with pH adjuster, fish food - flakes and pellets, algae remover - and fish. A school of five small, lively fish and an algae eater have survived for more than two weeks. It's rather heartening. We're dreaming of a bigger aquarium, more fish.
Now that's good business.
Eva Ciabattoni is a Los Altos resident and freelance writer living in Vienna.