English Girl in Vienna

Cultural Commentator

Archive for the month “February, 2012”

So Now I Teach Dogs

Last night, in class the last student to arrive walked in with her dog. Then, she asked if it was ok for the dog to stay. I paused and said yes in a way which any Brit would know meant no. And I knew that she had asked a question that wasn’t really a question. It was a full class and space was limited and so the hound ended up next to me, very close to my feet. Close enough for a good kick. So I wouldn’t be tempted, I shuffled further round the table, closer to a younger male student who looked rather alarmed at his teacher wanting to sit right next to him. It’s not that I’m scared of dogs. It’s not even that I don’t like dogs, but who in their right mind would ask to bring a dog into an English lesson? Who would bring their dog to school? It’s a very un-Austrian question for me to ask. Perhaps the question should be ‘Why wouldn’t you bring your dog to class?’ because dogs are everywhere in Vienna. The Viennese love their pooches. Dogs are on trains and buses, on the underground and on the trams. One day I’ll probably see a dog on a bike. Once, on a three hour journey to Salzburg there was a dog in a bag on the table in front of us. Small enough to fit its owner’s overnight bag, it sat munching on bits of croissant it was being fed generally looking cute, but the one that was on the floor under the table panting, not so cute. Dogs have their own section in parks, called a Hundezone, which I refer to as the Poo Park. Dogs can be found in cafes and restaurants, even in pubs and bars long past when they should be tucked up in their kennels. Dogs can get into places that children and babies can’t. I’m slowly getting used to it, seeing dogs sitting on the floor drooling while the owners snack on plates of cold ham, used to seeing dogs lying round sleeping. And I’m happy to let sleeping dogs lie, but not, surely not, let one lie on my classroom floor.

And so, the hound, a smallish, whitish thing with a dirty coat lay on the floor and learnt some of the various forms we use to talk about the past. Well, he would have done had he listened instead of noisily licking his paws and making that dreadful clacking sound of a dry tongue working up some saliva. I constantly shot it looks, praying each time it wasn’t licking its bits; warning it not to even dare. He just raised his eyebrows at me then licked the floor.  

I was bothered for the entire lesson. The students didn’t even blink. Perhaps they did mind but were too polite to show it, all of them were very young and awkward with each other. Nor did they seem to notice how when the room started to heat up from having six people plus a dog in it, the smell of warm animal pulsed from the hound on the floor and filled the air we had to breath. I opened the window. I opened the door. I got cross when the owner asked to close the door again because of the noise from outside. I was in general cross at the owner, for being so besotted with the dog that she wanted it to speak English. And how did I show my annoyance? By rolling my eyes in a way that only I knew I was doing it and fidgeting, as is the British way.

Hundezone. Hang out for dogs.


How to say those three little words auf Deutsch


I, very romantically, spent Valentine’s evening teaching my advanced English class. Although Valentine’s Day is not celebrated as widely or enthusiastically as in the UK it is, I’ve been told, catching on more and more. There were lots of chocolates floating round the language school on this night. And although German isn’t typically considered to be the language of love, both me and the hubs got each other German cards and wrote our messages in German. Ich liebe dich (I love you) caused us much hilarity, as it does to all English speakers who joke about loving ‘dich’ (pronounced ‘dick’).

We celebrated Valentines the next evening with a very good and authentic Japanese meal at Tennmaya just off Kaernter Strasse, near the opera. It was the evening of the Opern Ball, the most famous of the ball season. Roads were closed and public transport diverted to allow access to this special event. All around the opera was swarming with police and the hubs got himself royally told off by a policeman because he started to cross the road while the red man was still on. It’s a taboo to do such a thing here. At first it didn’t make sense to me to wait when it was obviously safe to cross and so I used to take the initiative and nip across the road, but the public shaming got too much to handle. I was stared at, tutted at, and had heads shaken at the recklessness of my behaviour and it made me a bit timid. I could feel social scorn following me. So now I wait, like all other Viennese, wait for several eternities at empty junctions and deserted roads until the green man (the little dictator that he is) grants his permission.  That’s why the hubs got told off and I didn’t, because I refused to cross with him when he wanted to, preferring to wait in the snow and sub-zero temperatures like a good citizen at the traffic lights. We have no idea what the content of his telling off was; the German the policeman spoke was rather fast though clearly inflected with lots of sarcasm. The hubs just nodded stoically as if all was understood and dutifully took his place and waited besides me for the green man, and then we started to giggle.

Link to some pictures from this year’s Opern Ball:



More Thoughts on Integration

View of the Opera from Starbucks

When I speak German in shops the staff hear my accent and talk back to me in English because they like to be helpful and they like to speak English; true, it’s also part of their job to use English in a city where there are lots of tourists. But it got me thinking about integration and how people integrate with me. It’s not a one-sided thing. I am not expected to do it all alone.

The other day I found the Vienna Expat Center, its goal is to assist expats settling into life here, providing any information and assistance they can. But aside from people whose job it is to be nice to foreigners, there are many people who embrace outsiders and simply enjoy being international. Such examples include the group of Austrians sitting next to us in the Artis cinema, watching the Muppets in its original English version. In the Irish pub the other week there were a few locals in there enjoying the English footie and the Guiness.

I’m sitting in a coffee shop overlooking the Opera. After vowing to learn to like coffee, I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit that I’m in the Starbucks rather than in a traditional Viennese coffee house, and I’m drinking tea. However, I’m not the only one. There are locals in here speaking German so I fast that I can’t really catch anything. There are also lots of other nationalities. Some are tourists escaping the cold and some are foreigners that live here. There is a group of women to my right, all Indian. I think they are speaking Hindi, but I can’t be sure. They seem to be discussing ‘things’ rather than chatting like a group of friends and their ages are mixed, so I assume they are some kind of organised group, perhaps an expat group. Lots exist. There is a group in front of me of totally mixed nationalities. I know because they are speaking English slowly and each one leans towards the speaker, watching the mouth, trying hard to understand. I think one guy is Turkish. There is a blonde American girl. She speaks the loudest. They are talking about their experiences with the German language and what they are studying or doing for work. They are definitely a new group; they are so polite with each other. I immediately warm to them and wonder how they have come together. Just before they leave the American girl says,

“Thank you for the coffee.”

“Thank you for your friendship,” says the Turkish man with the white hair. It’s desperately sweet.

My point you ask? Integration; it’s not about dissolving your own culture in order to make it secondary to the culture of the new place in which you find yourself living. It’s the process of actually integrating a range of cultures and mixing it up, finding time to be a bit English and finding time to be a bit Austrian or any other nationality you come across. It’s not about degrading one culture at the expense of another and it’s not about self-denial. It’s about acceptance and it’s about accommodating all the facets of you in ways that coexist. I mix with the locals and, crucially, they make the effort to mix with me.

I Try to Like Coffee

The title is an exaggeration. I was aiming only to be able to tolerate it on this particular Saturday, to be able to drink just half a cup.

To truly fit in, I must like coffee. That’s what I believe. Vienna has the coffee houses and a list of famous intellectuals from history who wiled away the hours in these revered shrines to coffee. Whenever I’ve been to café Hawelka and café Central I’ve only ordered water, wine or coke and have felt ashamed to do so, so ashamed that I refused, each time, to order tea, something I thought would be too British a thing to do in such a Viennese institution. And so I started work on my goal, to gradually grow to like coffee.

I was in café Hawelka, awaiting my order of a Melange, a frothy coffee not too dissimilar to a cappuccino. I also ordered cake, some Sacher Torte, and I knew it came with water, both of which were to aid in the consumption and be my reward. It looked nice when it came, perfect almost. It was topped with a comforting layer of foam, perfectly creamy against the mellow brown coffee. My disappointment was as intense and dank as the taste. The sensation was not mellow, but an attack on my mouth. The taste of dirt sank instantly into the middle of my tongue and remained for the longest time. I felt it as something solid in my mouth. I looked into the cup and saw evil in the murky puddle, like it had been decanted from a cauldron. I asked my husband if he really did like it and when he said he loved it, I wondered why anyone would.

I began to feel quite unwell, like a teenager does after the first illegal drag on a dirty little cigarette. And like nicotine stains the fingers, I thought the coffee would stain my tongue and turn my insides mucky. I added a sugar cube and stirred it till it drowned. It fooled my lips for only a second until the nausea started again. I added another sugar and stirred the mud. I took a sip of water, but just as drinking water as an antidote to spice only intensifies the burn; it only deepened the pollution. Then everything started to bother me. The tables looked like they’d been brushed with wire and had coffee worked into the marble. The ceilings looked like they’d been smeared with coffee paste. I felt coffee steam on my face, the reek of it in my hair and on my clothes. I felt everything and everyone was stained with coffee. I stopped drinking and ate the chocolate cake, hoping it would restore me.

It was a disaster. But I will not rest. I still believe I must learn to like coffee.

As we took our leave, the waiter wished us a pleasant holiday in Vienna and he was quite right to do so: when it comes to coffee, I am a total tourist.

Not even half way through my Melange



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