Thursday, February 6 – Wednesday, February 12
It was nice to wake up the morning of Thursday, February 6 finally in my own, permanent bed at Das Millicanhaus in Vienna feeling slightly more settled after a beautiful but mentally and physically exhausting few days in Schlagl.
First order of business – breakfast. Seeing as we had gotten home from Schlagl quite late the previous night, there had been no chance to stop in a grocery store, so breakfast was acquired from a little Anker bakery down the street from the apartments. A croissant “mit Schokolade” and a double espresso – I could definitely get used to this. In our first few days in Vienna, however, we encountered a few realities which would pose a bit more difficulty in our quest to get accustomed to our new home:
1. When we did finally get to the grocery store, we realized that we were going to have to do a little bit of improvising with our food choices. The selection in the stores here is miniscule compared to that in America, where whole aisles are devoted to one type of product. Everything here also comes 4 sizes smaller than everything in America, much of the reason being that foods high in preservatives made to last for weeks just do not appeal to the average European. All that to say, shopping here is significantly more difficult. Whenever I need something, I can’t just hop on to Walmart or Target. If I want groceries, I need to find the nearest Spar or Billa. For toiletries, I must walk an extra mile to the BIPA. If I run out of school supplies, it is best to hop on the Straβenbahn and ride it a couple stops to the Libro. I find myself continually complaining about the sour taste of unrestricted, free market capitalism, often forgetting that I am a product of it. I look forward to a lifestyle that is much less about convenience at every turn but, as far as I have heard, much more fulfilling.
2. The air in Austria is clean and the water is fresh, funneled straight from the Alps directly into to our taps. People value the environment here. Provisions for its protection are actually built into the nation’s Constitution, and each citizen or resident must put in a little bit of extra effort. One such example is the way in which Vienna handles its waste management. All waste must be separated into public bins, each marked separately for bio-waste, paper, plastic, white glass, colored glass, and finally trash. The trash is transferred to a tall, blue incinerator that is nearly impossible to miss walking the streets of Vienna, as it seems to loom over everything else with its strange design reminiscent of something in a Dr. Seuss book. The energy generated from this incineration process is used to provide heat to the city. This seems quite innovative, does it not? Why has America not thought of this? I imagine the coal and gas industries that make their money from burning holes in the ozone above America wouldn’t be too happy with our government embarking on such an endeavor. And if they withdrew their support, however would we finance our legislation?!
3. As innovative and progressive as Vienna is, the city also takes great care to maintain its historical identity, and this comes along with a few cultural expectations. On Friday, February 7th, two of my classmates and I ventured to the city center for lunch, hoping to find a little hole in the wall restaurant or café to explore. What we didn’t anticipate was unknowingly walking into one of the oldest still-operating cafés in all of Vienna, the Frauenhuber. The waiters were dressed in tuxedos, and the booths were made of red velvet. We walked around for a solid two minutes looking like we were lost because we had no idea if it was appropriate just to seat ourselves, or if we were expected to ask first. I finally spotted a waiter and asked him in German, “Haben Sie einen Tisch frei fur drei?” He understood and pointed us to a little corner booth where we sat and ordered soup, coffee, and ham and cheese sandwiches. We DEFINITELY didn’t fit in there. Not an eye in that place was younger than 45, and each one was fixated on us in harsh scrutiny from the moment we walked in. Even better was when one of my friends dropped her camera’s lens cap onto the floor, and I was forced to get down on my hands and knees and forage for it underneath the booth while the whole restaurant got a nice view of my backside. It was our first terribly failed attempt at being sophisticated residents of Vienna.
Our next stop that day was Schonbrunn Palace, the former summer home of the Habsburg royal family, built in 1699. We continued the trend of the day looking like complete outsiders taking our pictures in front of the palace and speaking obnoxiously loud, which we found is especially improper thing to do in Austria, where locals (and those wishing to blend in) are never caught talking above a whisper. Behind the palace, a tall hill is home to the Gloriette. Built for Empress Maria Theresa in 1775, this structure overlooks all of Vienna below. The view itself was breathtaking and a wonderful reminder of how lucky we are to be living in such a grand city full of so much history and cultural significance, no matter how badly we’ve been botching the cultural norms.
4. School in a foreign country is MUCH DIFFERENT from school in the United States. I arrived to German class on the first day of school, Monday, February 10th, my stomach a bundle of knots and nerves. We met our lovely professor, Claudia, a young woman in her 20’s, and right away we realized the atmosphere of this course would be much different than any language course any of us had ever taken. I regret to say that all the language courses I have ever taken were much too informal and resulted in minimal retention. From 5 levels of French in high school, I can barely hold a conversation, and my introductory German course last semester was far from sufficient. I can state my name, age, how I’m doing, and order food at a restaurant. That’s it. I’ve never felt truly pushed in my language classes. Claudia, however, speaks only in German throughout the class period, which is challenging, but it is KEY! However, she is never harsh and always willing to explain when we don’t understand. After class, some of the other students and I rewarded ourselves for getting through our first day with a Bratwurst from one of Vienna’s famous Wurstelstands.
5. Last but certainly not least, Austrians are not afraid to tell it how it is, even if that means being rude. I had not one but two experiences with rude Austrians on Wednesday, February 12th; it seemed they simply were not in the mood to deal with Americans that day. The first was at one of my favorite cafes, Pickwick’s. I met some friends there to do homework, and having just come from a different café where I had already had my breakfast and morning coffee, I wasn’t particularly in the mood to order anything. The waitress approached me as soon as I sat down, and I hadn’t even had a second to look at the menu when she asked me what I would like to order. I knew that going into a café and not ordering anything is highly unacceptable behavior, so in my panicked state I asked for a glass of water. The waitress looked at me as if I had just spit on her face. She firmly explained that it was not okay that there were three people sitting at the table and only one of us had ordered food. She said she would be in a “bad spot” if I didn’t at least order a coffee or tea. I complied, mostly out of fear, not quite understanding the big deal since waiters in Austria are paid a set wage and don’t rely on tips. And it wasn’t like the place was so busy that customers didn’t have a place to sit. We were the only ones in there. Most of all, I think I was just blindsided by the lack of the “customer-is-always-right” mindset that Americans are so used to.
The second occurrence that day was at the Libro store where I had gone with a couple of my classmates to purchase minutes for our prepaid European phones. We bought our minutes and looked at our receipts for directions on how to load them, realizing once again our severe incompetence in the German language. To say that the check-out ladies were reluctant to help us would be a gross understatement. Maybe we Americans just expect too much from others. We expect to be served with a smile, when in reality we know that the person serving us doesn’t care about us personally. It is not that there is a lack of competition in Austria, but in America, you know that if you are rude to a customer, not only will that customer never return to your business, you will also have a huge complaint filed against you, and you could potentially lose your job. For one reason or another, Austrians don’t seem to concern themselves with such things.