Hallo meine Freunde! It has been 2 weeks today—2 weeks of culture shock, 2 weeks of adaptation, 2 weeks of stress and very little sleep, 2 weeks of falling madly in love with Austria. For the next three months, I will be keeping you updated on my cultural discoveries and insights as I embark on my European adventure studying abroad, living in Vienna, Austria, and traversing this beautiful continent. I hope you find something unique to discover for yourself from these words. (I promise to keep subsequent posts much more concise. I apologize for any lack of brevity in my attempts to play catch-up.) So without further ado, WILLKOMMEN IN OSTERREICH!
Sunday, February 2 -Wednesday, February 5
I touched down in Vienna on the morning of Sunday, February 2nd. Between packing, flying, and jet lag from the seven hour time difference, I hadn’t slept in 36 hours. My body was running on its last reserves, and my mind was shutting itself down, slowly diminishing into delirium. But I wouldn’t change a thing. One day in Austria and I already felt like I had lived an entire week.
As soon as we arrived at our permanent home in District 9 of Vienna, we had only time to set down our luggage, quickly freshen up, pack a small bag, and hop on a bus for Stift Schlagl in the Rohrbach District of Upper Austria, where we would be enjoying the first three days of our orientation to the Lipscomb University Global Scholars Program.
Cobblestone paths and narrow hallways, bedrooms that smelled like fresh wood, and a fat tabby cat name Felix greeted us as we arrived to the Stift, or Monastery, for those readers unfamiliar with the German language or too lazy for Google Translate. A young priest, Mattius, treated us to a personal tour of the monastery. We sat in the pews listing to him explain the Roman, Gothic, and Baroque influences that gave the church building its unique architectural identity throughout the ages, being repeatedly built, adapted, and rebuilt beginning in the 1200s. From the imposing Gothic arches to the intricate woodwork, glowing stained-glass windows, and magnificent pipe organs (the oldest from the 1600s), I was face to face with history. My favorite part of the tour however was entering the “modest” library of 16,000 books, some dating back to the 13th century.
It is almost paradoxical to think that these books with their time-worn bindings and faded leather, hand-written pages , as well as the buildings in which they are housed, have survived centuries, not only physically but also in their significance and intellectual richness. These are the words of the world’s greatest thinkers, without which we could have never hoped to arrive at the level of intellectual evolution we take for granted today. When no longer is everything produced by the labor of the human hand, and modern literature is so abundant, our books are so easily broken, discarded, and dismissed. We have the technological capability to make our products last forever, but our society values material and abundance, and our capitalist institutions make us believe that the only way ever to be happy is continuously to acquire more stuff, new stuff, the latest and greatest. Corporations intentionally make their products go obsolete over time so that we consistently and endlessly consume. I personally would be much happier to live my entire life in the corner of that library, reading all that my fingers could reach and soaking up the ideas of these revolutionary thinkers, rather than have all the money in the world to buy all the useless stuff our society makes us believe we need.
Almost more prominent than the history and philosophy lover in me is the lover of food, and the food in Austria is some of the most delicious in the world, especially if you enjoy all things fried, pickled, and void of leafy greens. The healthiest options seem to be available early in morning – fresh breads, cold cuts, rich cheeses, butter and jam, and soft-boiled eggs…yum. Born to Romanian parents, I grew up used to this type of morning meal. Rarely did I ever eat a traditional bacon-and-eggs breakfast when I lived with my parents. Lunch and dinner, however, offer significantly less health benefits than the light breakfasts common in Europe. In Austria, the people are known for loving their starches, sweets, and meats. Wiener Schnitzel (pork or veal pounded into a flat slab, covered in breadcrumbs, and fried), Kasespatzle (egg noodles smothered in cheese), and a variety of rich pastries and desserts make for high cholesterols and a high rate of circulatory disorders. I can imagine the relief a kid growing up in Austria must feel. This would be heaven, never having to worry about parents nagging them to eat their vegetables before dessert.
I was happy to be able to break out my rusty and limited knowledge of German with the waiters in the restaurants in Schlagl, who were surprisingly very nice and friendly. Customer service is not a priority for workers in Austria, whether it is waiters or shopkeepers. Neither rely on tips, and I had heard that most have absolutely no problem being rude to customers, but this was never an issue in Schlagl. Two waiters in particular impressed me. The first was Herr Schiffner, owner of the Schiffner Restaurant, and the second was Gunther, the owner of the Stifts Keller Restaurant. Both were greatly impressed with my German. We had full conversations about where each other is from, ordering food, how to get to the bathroom, and paying the bill. I was surprised that they didn’t try to speak to me in English despite knowing that I was American and being fairly proficient in English themselves. I’ve noticed how it is especially important not only to be persistent, but to make the person you are talking to feel like they matter, especially when there is a language or cultural barrier. Showing respect for the other and his customs, especially making the effort to speak the native language opens countless doors for relationship building.