English Girl in Vienna

Cultural Commentator

Archive for the month “January, 2012”

On Integration

I’ve just seen that on Loose Women, a TV show in the UK, they were talking about immigrants in Britain; whether they do enough to integrate and if more should be done to help them integrate. They all agreed that people new to the country should definitely learn English, but then went on to talk about the hypocrisy of many Brits who move abroad and never expect to speak anything other than English. It was refreshing to finally hear an acknowledgement that Brits abroad do what we accuse others of doing in England, namely sticking to ‘their own’ and creating mini sub-cultures. I think it’s human nature to do this and at the moment I’m one of those migrants, not speaking the language. The Loose Women discussion raised a really good question; what do people really mean, want and expect when it comes to integration? How is it measured?

Speaking the language helps but few understand how long it takes and how much it costs to learn a language to a level where you can actually converse comfortably in everyday situations. To do that you’re looking at a year of full time study, at least. If you study part time or for a few hours per week, it takes a lot longer. If you work, how can you afford the time? If don’t work, how can you afford the fees? Did I ever enrol on a German course, like I was going to the other week? The short answer is no, because the times clash with work and other courses cost too much. The city of Vienna currently offers language learning vouchers up to 150 Euros, which is wonderful, but doesn’t even touch it. And let’s remember that for people setting up in a new country it is a costly business, especially if doing it without the assistance of a company relocation package.

Where can immigrants meet locals? If you can’t make friends because of language barriers, how can you mix? If you take language courses, who do you think you end up making friends with? That’s right, every other nationality except the one whose country you live in. You end up in a wider expat group, mixing cultures, making a third culture which is different to the one you are supposed to be integrating into.

I wonder how to define myself. I can’t speak German, apart from the basics, and I only have three Austrian friends and they speak to me in English. But as an English teacher I mix with Austrians five days a week. My boss is Austrian, so are many other staff at the language school. They all speak English. I teach English to Austrians, and Russians, Czechs, Persians, Mongolians, Hungarians and Spanish, to name a few. I’m in a position where being an English native speaker is a pre-requisite, so I’m not ‘stealing’ another Austrian’s job. So, am I a more acceptable migrant? Am I integrated? Or am I an importer of another culture, a diluter of local culture? I pay tax. I contribute to the social system and pay for health insurance like everyone else does. I recycle like my neighbours do. I eat Austrian food in restaurants. I love Austrian wine which is produced in vineyards only thirty minutes from my home. I love Stiegl, the beer brewed in Salzburg. I want to love Viennese coffee. Sometimes I go to the Irish pub and watch the English footie. I went to great pains to track down a decent curry house. I got my mum to bring out Bisto when she came to visit and a friend brought Marmite and PG Tips. I insist on drinking tea with milk. I put my Christmas tree up a lot earlier than is the Austrian tradition. I feel at home and I feel away from home. I feel English and I feel European. I feel I understand Austrians more every day. I love Vienna. I want to stay in Vienna; I never wanted to stay in England. I feel like I fit in. Is that enough? Does it help that I come from a European culture with similar customs, religious backgrounds and holidays? I think so. It makes me not so foreign a foreigner. I think the key to integration is in how we handle our differences and not our similarities.


My Brit stash

Brit stash

Eis Laufen

Ice skating. Can you do it?

In an attempt to be a bit more active during the week and break out of our rather mundane habit of going to work and going home, going to work and going home, the hubs and I decided to do ‘something’ one evening per week. This week it was ice skating. The Viennese city council has constructed a large ice rink complex outside the Rathaus, the city hall. They have decked the entire ground, put up a booth for Radio Wien DJs to play some tunes and built two skating rinks linked by a long series of winding skating lanes complete with roundabouts. For the non-skaters there is a newly built log cabin pub, curling lanes and various stalls selling sausage, beer and Gluhwein.

Having been to look the weekend it opened when it was filled with loads of people, all of whom seemed able to skate, even the golden oldies, I was filled with trepidation. I’d been distressed by the absence of bandy-legged first timers clinging to the sides and people tripping over unfortunates who had fallen. But during the week and in the dark of the early evening it was much quieter. There were even a few people clinging to the sides, so we didn’t stick out too much at all. And there were kids throwing themselves on the ice tripping their parents and other unskilled skaters up. So, we went round a few times, never far from the sides and then plucked up the courage to skate down the lanes, hoping that no one wanted to get on the roundabouts while we were getting off. It was marvellous fun.

I’m happy to say I only fell once. It was a most spectacular fall, one done in slow motion, which ended with me lying face down on the ice with arms stretched out like I was doing a Superman impression. It had even attracted the attention of two attendants who appeared seconds later to check on me. I, like all the other fallers, was easy to spot. We wore our shame as a layer of snow coating our fronts, backs, bums, knees, whatever was the exact body part with which we’d hit the ice. As such, I had snow on the insides of my arms, the palms of my gloves, the full length of my coat and jeans and in my hair. Soon after, my legs turned to jelly, so it was game over and time for a bowl of soup.

Ice skating at the Rathaus; brilliant!


Trying to Put a Resolution into Action

It’s 10.10 and it’s raining. It’s cold in Vienna, around three degrees; the coldest it’s been since a short cold snap back in November. Christmas passed in cosy winter mildness, perfect for strolling round Christmas markets and standing for hours sipping glorious Gluhwein. Gluhwein: the reason I’m walking in the rain this morning. I consumed so much sugar over the Christmas season drinking that sweet and spicy brew that the extra calories have remained around my waist and so I’m walking wherever possible. Today I have no excuse not to. After an early start, I’ve finished teaching for the day (work is quiet at the moment) so it doesn’t matter if I end up all bedraggled. I walk the length of Mariahilfer Strasse in the direction of town, down towards the museums to take a right towards the Opera. I’m checking out a language school. It’s time to get back to German classes, one of my resolutions for the year. The small group of casually dressed smokers huddled together, without winter coats helps me find the school. It’s busy; reception is buzzing. I see from the literature that they only offer courses of twelve hours per week, three hours per day, four days a week. I may be able to manage that, maybe fitting an afternoon slot in between split shifts, but when I peek into the classrooms at the cramped, poorly lit, outrageously hot, sparsely equipped, slightly manky and just a bit smelly learning environment I bolt before even speaking to the receptionist. I think I need to look around.

Whenever I’m in town I always take the slowest route back to my tram stop to enjoy the views. I pass the Opera, the wonderfully old and grand building that still looks stately even in the rain and I wander down Kaertner Strasse. It’s not so busy. There aren’t many shoppers. It really does feel bleak and all January-like. There are lots of fifty per cent sales and I resist the temptation to browse the shops. I reach St Stephan’s Cathedral which looks suitably serious underneath the black clouds. I stop to look at it; I always do. There are tourists contorting themselves into all sorts of shapes trying to fit the whole thing into their camera frames, but no matter how many times they try they will always be too close to get it in. There are the usual street performers, guys painted gold posing as Mozart, moving at intervals to scare the children. And lined down the side of the cathedral are the Fiakers, the horses and carriages. The horses have had blankets lovingly wrapped around them to keep them warm while waiting for customers. And the drivers, both male and female press their bowler hats onto their heads as they stand and chat.

I’m cold and hungry and don’t have anywhere to go other than home, but I don’t really want to. The tourist in me still remembers the first time I came here and loves to retrace the old steps and just stand and look for a minute or two. Reluctantly I turn left down Graben and walk back to Shottentor to get my tram.

Gluhwein on sale everywhere at Christmas

Horses lined up outside the cathedral

What is Fun?

I’m on a train travelling back to Vienna following my first ever skiing holiday. I went to a gorgeous little town called Ellmau in Tirol. I find myself wondering why skiing is fun. It’s such an absurd thing to willingly throw yourself down a mountain with blades stuck to your feet, yet despite my fear, tears and tremblings I quite enjoyed it, I think. Maybe the enjoyment came from not dying. Every once in a while, whenever I was brave enough to stop chanting out loud “no fear, nice big circles, snow plough! snow plough!” and actually look around me instead of down I was struck by the beauty of a snowy mountain. I tell you what isn’t fun; puking from bad food for two days. Another thing that isn’t fun; a seven hour train journey on your own.

The journey back started as a nightmare. It was the day of major ski races in Austria, in Kitzbuehel, a place I had to go through to pick up my connection to Vienna. When I got to the station at St Johan it seemed half of Austria was there enjoying a can of beer or two as a post breakfast treat. It was then I learned of the races and saw with horror the number of trains running late or cancelled due to snow and the sheer volume of singing people draped in flags. I asked the woman at the information desk if I could get on an earlier train seeing as the one I was booked on was bound to be late. I was told to get on the next one at no extra charge. I could’ve kissed her. I stood on the platform with hundreds of clueless others. When the Munich train came a few with suitcases got on and the race goers stayed put, but after a minute they all piled on too. Luckily, I spied the conductor and asked if the train went to Woergl. He seemed to consider it then decide yes. But it definitely said Munich on the train, so I asked him again in case he was trying to trick me and for his final answer he picked up my case and put it on board, leaving me no choice but to follow it. I stood crammed with the others feeling somewhat shy and outside the festival mood as strangers chatted to each other and the conductor. On seeing me observing meekly, not joining in someone realised I was an Auslander and asked “woher kommst du?” to which I replied “Ich komme aus England.” We all had a chat for the next ten or so minutes in broken English and German during which time I learned they were on a company day out entertaining sponsors. They gave me and the conductor a hat with their company logo on and I thanked them for the late Christmas present. I was quite alone when we departed from Kitzbuehel, apart from the conductor who didn’t speak English. It turned out that the train wasn’t scheduled for these stops, but did so out of need, again something I was very glad for. I felt we had an understanding, the conductor and me, as we stood in silence looking out the window at the snow which was falling, it seemed, in every direction.

No More Quack Doctor

Christmas is over and my New Year hangover has faded, leaving only the memory of being out in the city centre at Freyung, trying to drunkenly waltz as a group of three when the clock chimed twelve and the New Year started. The locals seemed so elegant, despite being bundled up, as they waltzed and glided, unlike us bashing into each other spilling our cans of Goesser everywhere.

I’m on the train, early on a misty morning, going to see a new chiropractor on Hutteldorfer Strasse, hopeful for some pain relief. This is me taking charge of my health. At the end of last year I went to a back specialist who, after some unsuccessful treatment, suggested acupuncture and so I gave it a go. On my first visit the doctor told me that acupuncture would work wonders for me. He prescribed Chinese herbal tablets and ordered me to watch The Life of Brian. Hmm. He said my back problems were partly the result of being British and the British attitude. Hmmm. There was some talk of unexpressed emotions and The Life of Brian would help me with having a better attitude towards things I can’t control. At least I think that’s what he said; I was trying hard not to laugh. I was prescribed three months’ worth of tablets to soothe my liver, as the liver stored heat from emotional memories, and three months’ worth of tablets to help my muscles relax. The chemist, god bless her, asked me if I really wanted three months’ supply and when I asked her how much it would cost I decided I’d give them a go for just one month. The tablets went and the back pain persisted. The euros were spent and the needles pushed in and the back pain persisted. That’s when I decided I’d given it a go and it was time to spend my money instead on something I knew worked for me.


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