First week in Wien and the Austrians

For my first two weeks in Wien, I am living in the sixth district of the city. Named Mariahilf, this small neighborhood lies on the southwest border of the city center. It is one of the hippest neighborhoods in Vienna, home to many shops, bars, cafés, and restaurants. Mariahilfer Strasse, the main street of the district, is a large pedestrian zone filled with people and street performers at almost all hours of the day and night. It is also the center of Vienna’s gay community, so you could call the district the Viennese version of Chicago’s Andersonville and Lakeview neighborhoods, the part of the city we lived in during our time there.

From Tuesday to Friday, I attended my Fulbright program orientation. A lot of the talks were aimed at preparing us for living in Austria with Austrians. Dr. Lonnie Johnson, the director of the Fulbright Austria program, stressed that though Austria is in many ways a similar Western culture to our own in the US, we might be caught off guard by the differences.

The first difference he stressed was that Austria has an “asking” culture—not a “telling” one. This means that if you don’t know how something works or what to do in some situation, no one will tell you unless you ask, as opposed to the case in America, where our idea of customer service leads us to incessantly check, “Is everything okay?” or “Can I help you with anything?” This is clearly the case in restaurants, where the waiters and waitresses will definitely not interrupt your conversation to make sure the food is good. Really, the only initiative the staff will take is filling up your empty beer glass. Recently, while looking for good cafés on the Internet, I saw one review that praised the staff for its “typical Viennese rudeness.”

The second trait of the Austrians he pointed out was their Catholicism. Not literal church-going Catholicism (Austrians are far less religious than Americans on average), but the culturally inherited traits of a deeply Catholic past. God, in Austrian history, was a distant and ultimately unknowable entity, obscured by the rituals, institutions, wealth, and Latin language of the Catholic Church. The fear of a mysterious and vengeful God is largely gone, but fatalism remains ingrained in the Austrian character, as is a certain type of hedonism. There is an Austrian saying, “Wer trinkt, raucht, und rotes Fleisch isst, stirbt. Wer nicht trinkt, nicht raucht und kein rotes Fleisch isst, stirbt trotzdem.” (One who drinks, smokes, and eats red meat, dies. One who doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and eats no red meat, dies too.) Austrians still smoke far more than Americans, and it is allowed in more places. (To me, Vienna smells like stone, diesel, and faintly of cigarette smoke.) Drinking is more common throughout the day; even on workdays, a ½ liter beer with lunch is not unusual. You can also drink in public—there are no open-container laws, though you’re not allowed to drink on public transit.

The third Austrian trait Dr. Johnson pointed out, was the country’s history of “enlightened absolutism.” That is, reform in Austria has typically come from above, from the state. The Austrian idea of efficiency is a state directed, bureaucratic one. It’s an idea that leads to high taxes, a squeezed private sector, smaller and older appliances, much more expensive cars and gas, and a plethora of DMV-like institutions that you must interact with on a far more frequent basis than you have to in America. At the same time, public transportation is highly-funded and excellent, beautiful historical buildings built under the Habsburg regime are protected, and strict zoning laws keep ugly suburban sprawl in check.

A few other differences that strike me daily:

Grocery store culture is different. The stores are smaller, often only a little bigger than a Wawa, but with narrower aisles. The brands are all completely different, except for the availability of Coke and Diet Coke (called Coca Cola Light in Europe) and sometimes Sprite and Pepsi.  There are no free plastic bags, you have to buy them if you didn’t bring your own bags. The cashiers scan your items quickly and chuck them to the bagging area, and of course they don’t help you bag. Often times they will be halfway done the next customer’s order and throwing their stuff down with yours before you can grab all of your things. There are usually tables by the door where you can organize and bag the goods you hastily gathered to get out of the way of the next customer. But there is definitely no idle chit-chat about the weather or what you must be making for dinner based on what you’re buying (a fact I greatly appreciate).

Though you have to legally keep a photo ID on you at all times, you must register your residence with the local police, and you are subject to search without probable cause at all times, security is generally lax. I live directly above the Austrian Chancellor (the most powerful position in the Austrian government), and the only security measure taken is a police sentry at the front door of the apartment. They don’t do anything, it’s just another person for me to say “Grüβ Gott” to when I go in and out of the building. When you land in Vienna, you have to go out of your way to find the customs officers. If you don’t want to be bothered, you can just follow the signs that say “Nichts zu verzollen” (Nothing to declare) right out of the building. At the same time, last time I was here, I did see about six cops beat the crap out of a guy who was caught shoplifting.

And, as I’ve mentioned, restaurants are quite different. You almost always seat yourself, and a meal almost always lasts longer than it does in America–You’re never supposed to be in any kind of rush when you go to a restaurant in Austria. Also, Waiters and waitresses are paid normal wages, so any tip you give is much smaller. Usually you just round up to the next even number. So, a normal lunch at a sit-down restaurant for me costs around €13 plus change. I usually just give them €15 and say “Stimmt so” (“keep the change”), and even that for them is a good tip, and they always seem pleasantly surprised to get that much.

This week I’ll be moving in to the apartment we’ll be staying in for the rest of our time here, in the 3rd district of Landstrasse. Details to follow…

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