Austrians Are, Well… Different

For one Englishman living in Vienna, the devil lies, as ever, in the details

Since arriving in Vienna from London, the author has noticed that it’s all those little details that give away that his is somewhere a bit special…

Drivers are more considerate here and will frequently stop to let pedestrians cross, even far away from a crossing. The most dangerous spot for pedestrians unfamiliar with this city is when they wander into a bike lane – beware of psychopaths on cycle paths.Of course they drive on the wrong side of the road here. Incidentally, Austria drove on the left until the first night of the anschluss when Herr Hitler ordered people to drive on the right, immediately, with no warning or preparation.

All the traffic lights were then on the wrong side of the road. Dutiful people wait for the green man to cross a road here, even though there are no cars anywhere, and it’s the middle of the night.

I find the trams thrilling here, and so atmospheric.

Women wear knee-length boots here, which is a good look. And older women take a lot more care of their appearance than in Britain, dressing with flair even for a stroll in the park.
Old guys also dress with more of a flourish, feathers in caps and the occasional 60 year-old in black leather trousers. I like the weekend folk costumes, too, though these are more popular outside of Vienna.

Filling in Forms
A glorious national pastime, the more aimless the questions, the better. If I’d known how much bureaucracy was involved, I’m not sure I would have married my Austro-wife. Sorry babe.

Fresh Air
Virtually unknown concept back home, possibly because our buildings are so badly-designed that there are permanent drafts anyway. I’ve lost count of the times my partner has opened the window first thing in the morning, even in the middle of winter. Brrrrrrrrh.

Unfortunately the fresh air craze has not reached Austria’s Raucherlokale, or proud Smokers’ Bars. Smoking seems so retro in 2010.

Meaning “Right!” or, “Correct!” in English, but suggests a whole lifestyle in Austria. So many people are methodical here, risk-averse and wouldn’t dream of breaking the rules or innovating. It’s changing now, but very, very slowly. It sometimes seems I have 160 German teachers, because even when I’m attempting to buy a ticket on the U-Bahn, the person taking my money will correct my grammar. OK, so I may not know all the cases yet auf Deutsch, but it’s quite striking that strangers get involved in your tutoring.

Never happens back home, as it would be considered rude, and anyway, we’re used to people speaking poor English.

Garden gnomes, plastic flowers, Mozart chocolates, Andre Rieu. If you are unfamiliar with the Schlager musical genre, I dare you to look up Hansi Hinterseer on YouTube. Oh the haircuts! It is possibly the sweetest style of music I have ever heard, and not in a good way. And turn on the telly at weekends, you’ll quickly discover an oompah band parping away, surrounded by lots of cows and smiley locals in trad dress, half way up a mountain.

It’s been explained to me that many central European intellectuals find humour trivialises life and so they have dispensed with it completely. This is especially noticeable at public gatherings, where a little levity can really bring a nervous group together: But not in earnest Österreich.

People are way more attractive here than at home: they’re skinnier, with a healthier diet, take much more exercise and, frankly, are born with better genes.

When I DJ here, no matter how funky the records, nobody seems to dance. The most you can hope for is a bit of nerdy head-nodding. This is where poor 1980s records come to die. These guys would be lost without Phil Collins, Andrew Gold and Bon Jovi.

There seems less new music on the radio and in bars. And one aspect of sound in the public realm is quite shocking to my ears: the number of jingles used on radio, on OBB and even in supermarkets. Bing Bong…

One thing you don’t find back home is the wonderful gypsy brass bands and rowdy Slav party clubs, like Ost.

Pace of Life
Unless you happen to live on the Gurtel or Mariahilferstrasse, there’s an eerie silence in Wien, a ‘sleepy city,’ as a graffito near me says. On Saturdays, the busiest day back home, whole neighbourhoods here seem to be devoid of residents, as the locals head for the hills. As soon as you get off the train in London, you sense this dark energy, with everyone rushing to get someplace, very focused and a bit stressed. Only in Vienna could a television station get by broadcasting trams moving very slowly through the city, as W24 does. It’s dull but strangely hypnotic. Perhaps I am going native.

Election posters here invariably feature the face of a politician, regardless of how ugly they are. And sadly, many people standing for office here are shamelessly racist. Despite its history, this is still a country which flirts with the far right. Most evidence suggests it’s a poorly run country, with too many political fudges and a lack of vision. Disappointing also to hear of the number of jobs given on the basis of party affiliation, regardless of ability.

The Donaukanal offers a wonderful place to nap… or pass out. The joys of living in Vienna | Photo: David Reali

Quality of Life
Notwithstanding the above, public services here are excellent. Quality of life is low back home, with so many menacing drunks, crime, alienation, bad housing and transport.

When you stroll into a supermarket here, the staff say “Hallo”, which is charming. Less helpful is that most of them close in mid-evening, on Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday, just when people are free to go shopping. This seems old-fashioned in an international context. In Britain, assistants put change in your hand, whereas here they lay it out for you to inspect.

I can’t find a good curry in Vienna. They eat earnest brown bread here. At home, bread is something boring that you put interesting stuff on, but here it is full of big flavours itself. But you rarely get toast, and never find salted butter – it’s as verboten as porno in the nineteenth century. And why do they only have three flavours of crisps here? Most disappointing. My life would be meaningless without crisps (aka potato chips).

Anecdotally, I understand this is a country where many men sit down to urinate, out of respect. This can often seem to be the world capital of dogshit. And while we are on this subject – this is not for the squeamish – who is this guy designed Austrian toilets? They are a celebration of shit, putting it on a platform for you to admire, and smell.
In the UK, we aim to get rid of crap as fast as possible, whereas here, it is presented like a work of art to be explored. Dark. I suppose it goes back to some Freudian instinct.

Not just cars are on the wrong side here, books are also bound with their spine upside down, as are DVDs. Addresses are presented with the recipient’s surname first, followed by their street name before the particular flat they live in. I thought the idea of an address was you start with the most detailed information and then each new word is more general, but not here. German-speakers say their numbers backwards, for example 1 and 20, instead of twenty-one. And of course the verb comes last in a sentence.

In the UK, it often seems we have neither winters nor summers. Here there are four marked seasons, which is preferable. You need to have a cold winter to really appreciate spring. Yes the snowy winters can be brutal, but I love those toasty summer days. Even in winter, there’s plenty of blue sky here.

Working Life
Not so much socialising after work here, and considerably less drinking. Life seems to be more equitable, with people earning more or less the same. They love to use job titles and formality. And people get paid for 14 months a year here, which is a neat trick to pull off. Finding work seems to be more about who you know here, with fewer jobs advertised in the newspapers, which is required by law in the UK, for equality reasons.

You don’t see many yellow or pink palaces back home.

In Vienna, you can find interesting shops and bars hidden down little back streets, or on quiet residential roads. In Britain, planning permission is never given for such businesses, with all the focus on homogenous high streets. Many eccentric shops don’t seem to have any actual customers going in or out of them here. Mysterious.

My favourite German word I’ve discovered so far is schmutzig, or dirty. And one curiosity of being a foreigner here is that you get to use the much more beautiful and evocative word Vienna to describe the city, rather than the more mean-sounding Wien.

I don’t feel so far away from my old home, as so much of it is available here, from copies of British newspapers and the BBC, to lots of Brit music on the radio (and indeed ORF’s FM4 broadcasts in English, and is excellent), plus the English Premier League football gets lots of coverage (even though Austria and England share one common thing: their national soccer teams are rubbish).

Celebrity gossip here gives frequent updates on the likes of Prince Harry, Jordan, Amy Winehouse, Pete Doherty, Kate Moss, the Beckhams, Keira Knightley, Jude Law, etc. Plus there’s lots of English spoken and a million English and Irish pubs to choose from.

I enjoy living here and would not think for a minute of moving back. Though it may be some time until I pass the so-called “cricket test,” of cheering for Austria if they play against England at football. And skiing leaves me cold.

12 things Austria is better at:
Environmental protection
Learning languages
Quality of life
Respect for tradition

11 things Britain is better at:
Pop music youth culture

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