Losing Its Charm

Is Vienna’s Urban Character Suffering Under the Invasion of Global Banality?

Picturesque scenes such as this are becoming less frequent as globalization takes hold in Vienna | Photo: J. Gryffin

There is a place in Vienna that I used to call the paradise of vineyards. I always went there when I needed some time apart, some time just to follow my own thoughts, to shrink into myself, to scream, to jump, to run, to relax, to eat grapes, to dream and to enjoy this fabulous panorama of Vienna. I could see the whole city: my old school, the Millennium Tower, the Riesenrad, the Donauturm, the Danube Tower, the Danube itself and when the weather was nice, I could even see to the boarders of Bratislava.

But as time went by, the panorama of Vienna started to change. Some years ago the highest building that stood out above the rest of the city was the Donauturm, today you can easily overlook the tower, that is now surrounded by dozens of other tall modern buildings.

And as you admire Vienna landmarks, you can’t help notice that some have been embellished with advertisements. Yes, it’s temporary, during a cleaning or restoration project. But surely it is, well, immoral to use the cities pride for such intentions? There are so many other ways, like television, or posters in underground stations or other crowded places to promote products and services.

And speaking of landmarks, no one should come to Vienna without taking a ride around the First District on a Fiaker, a carriage drown by two horses. With the eyes closed it feels like being carried back a century, the sound of the horse’s hooves, the warm comforting horsey smell…

Smell?? There is no smell!! Not anymore. Due to new regulations the horses are now required to wear diapers. Seriously. An effort by the government to keep the city cleaner, or perhaps not to offend tourists so disconnected from reality they are uncomfortable around animals. But again, a part of tradition and culture was getting destroyed.

Even a community like Grinzing, a charming little village in the middle of the vineyards on the edge of Vienna’s 19th District is changing. The Würstlstand at the tramway station is now selling Kebap, the flower shop is now a travel agency. Coffee shops have turned into Chinese Restaurants and there are now betting parlors and a huge modern bus garage.

Elsewhere in Austria, another kind of cultural collision is underway, this one in the Alpine snows. Many, many tourists come from all around the world to ski in Austria, and Austrian tourism grows at an average annual rate of about 4% (Statistik Austria, Jan. 2007).

This is great for the countries economy, of course, but in order to make the resorts more appropriate and practical, many new hotels and apartments have been built, and ski lodges modernized. When there once was a cute little hut just a few years ago, there may now be a huge concrete block of graceless modernism.

In fact, a lot of modernization is going on right now just about everywhere in Austria. Charming old houses are being pulled down, natural environments are getting paved over, villages are developing into small cities, and to boost the tourism, skiing and health resorts are under reconstruction.

Just consider this: What comes to your mind when you think of Austria about 10 years ago? The Austrian Schilling, Wurstlstände, the Fiaker, Viennese Kaffeeh user, Wiener Schnitzel, Mozart, Skihütten

And what comes to your mind when you think of Austria today?

The Euro, pizza- and kebap stands, Chinese restaurants, giant concrete blocks and huge towers, horses with diapers and anything else but traditional.

What has happened to the Austrian culture?

Things are changing: countries are becoming much more global, the world economy is growing and changing, travel is easier and cheaper. People are leaving their countries of origin out of need or curiosity, to discover what’s there for them in the rest of the world, and in this way “exporting” some cultural aspects.

Even some of the requirements of the European Union contribute to loss of cultural identity.

Just take the consequences of the free capital movements. The most obvious change has been the introduction of a new currency: the Euro. At the beginning most Austrians were skeptical and mourned after the old Austrian Schilling. Even though today most of the Austrians want to keep the Euro, many still convert some amounts to the Schilling, especially higher amounts.

Actually it is kind of funny, that according to the OENB,  hundreds of thousands of Schilling have still not been exchanged to Euros, what indicates, that many Austrians keep it because of sentimentality.

Or look at the causes of the opening of the European Single Market. People have the right to study, work and live in any member state they want to, and they never seem to tire of using this new right. But in this manner they not only lead to a mixing of cultures, but have also created congestion in Austria’s universities.

Due to the “Numerus Clausus,” the entrance limitation for students in Germany and elsewhere that requires a very high GPA to enter university, many students from abroad  who don’t meet the requirement come to study in Austria, taking up university places needed by students here. Every third student on the LFU, the University for the Protection of Environment in Innsbruck, is a foreigner, according to the Austrian daily Der Standard, on Dec. 18, 2006.

In order to provide more study places in  Austrian Universities for Austrian citizens, the EU finally ruled that 75 percent of the places could be help for Austrians, 20 percent for EU citizens and 5 percent for students of non-member countries, according the the Austrian newswire APA on Jan. 24 of this year.

Another consequence of globalization is corporate consolidation, to make international firms more competitive. A number of venerable Austrian companies have been bought by German or other multi nationals, like the travel agency Magic Life or grocery chains like Julius Meinl (now Spar), Löwa, or Billa.

With these changes, some of the Austrian flair is getting lost; the food chains offer more non-Austrian brands (“Mueller”, “Schoeller”), the shops and restaurants are foreign names (“Segafredo”, “Langnese”) and the holiday clubs, offered by travel agencies are attracting guests from all over the world.

Sure, changing names does not hurt the economy, and tourist from all over the world are surely a benefit. But pieces of Austria as a culture are getting lost.

Even though Austria’s economy benefits from globalization, the heart of Austria may get broken. Culture matters and it’s important to balance the reasons and consequences of changes. I always thought that I didn’t identify myself with my country; I even doubted that Austria had a culture at all.

Later I found out, that no country in the whole wide world has only one culture, but in fact dozens and dozens of sub- and co-cultures and that cultural aspects often go unnoticed, because they are just daily life.

But whenever I have lived in another country, I have realized yet again that Austria has culture for sure, because I have started to miss parts of it, whose existence I was not even aware of before.

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