English Girl in Vienna

Cultural Commentator

Archive for the month “March, 2012”


Is it or isn't it? The most important thing you need to know about a pub or restaurant

The Lonely Planet calls Austria “the last bastion of smoking” and, very disappointingly, you can still smoke in a lot of pubs and cafes in Vienna. If a place is larger than a certain size it has to have a dedicated non smoking section. Establishments even have the choice to be totally non smoking. But there are plenty of interesting, tiny places in Vienna that are so small they are not required by law to have two sections. A lot of them have opted to be totally smoking.

If most places have separate sections, then what am I complaining about? As many of us know from bygone days in the UK the non smoking section is usually in the ugliest part of an establishment, or the partition between smoking and non smoking is so wholly inadequate that it reeks.

Many office buildings here still have smoking rooms which basically stink out the whole corridor or make the people who emerge from then smell so bad they might as well be giant, walking cigarettes. I’ve met lots of students who like to smoke and like to be able to smoke in pubs. They bemoan the separate sections, saying that it separates groups of friends. Do you know what also separates groups of friends? That’s right; lung cancer. Apart from the obvious health risks, I find it all terribly old fashioned that smoking would be so protected. The stance on smoking has been linked back to culture. Friends have told me that it’s “so Austrian” for them to reject the moves that most of Europe has followed because they don’t want to be like everybody else; but more so, they don’t like to be told what to do. ‘People should decide for themselves’ is the justification I most often hear in relation to the smoking rules. Others simplify the argument and say it’s simply because, for Austrians, drinking and smoking cannot be separated; it would be like a sausage without mustard. Culturally for me, a smoky pub equals a blast from the past and seems a little, well, backwards.

I know lots of people who decide whether to go on a night out depending on the smoking status of the venue. The first thing I do when in need of a drink or bite to eat is look for the red and green sign on the door which announces whether it is totally smoking, totally non smoking, or a mixture of both. I have made a point of lingering so that hopeful waiting staff come out and ask if we are coming in and then walk away when we discover it is smoking. Things will only change when business suffers as well as health.

Last weekend was a bit of a victory; the nice pub down the road that we hadn’t been to for a while because the non smoking section was small, always packed and in the least atmospheric part of the pub, had swapped the sections and now dedicates most space to non smokers. It was a happy day for me in the Fischer Brau, and I also think the bar staff, the people who are never mentioned in this smoking debate, must appreciate the lack of fog around the bar.


A lovely pint (well, half litre) of Fischer Brau's own beer


What is Art?

One evening, I went to the MUMOK, Museum of Moderne Kunst – modern art. I’m glad we went on a Thursday when the museum stays open late and you can get in for a reduced rate because I didn’t like it. I didn’t get it. I was more impressed with the industrial, urban feel of the building than I was the art which seemed to be a range of everyday plastic items arranged on the floor or on a shelf. I left very dissatisfied. So, to compensate we went to the Albertina art gallery the following weekend, to see the Magritte exhibition. I appreciated the real art there. However, reading all the names of the artists I found myself reading the names of man after man after man and wondering where all the women were: invisible women, invisible artists anyway. The women were all on the walls; as the prostitutes with legs splayed, as the woman standing topless amongst a group of four fully dressed men, as the women undressed in their bedroom, as the women lying in lakes drowning and dying, as the woman suffering holding the baby, as the women in many and various stages of nakedness.

In Magritte’s work women were often undressed in contrast to the fully and, as the notes on the wall said, “respectably” dressed men, making the women disrespectable by default.

Does it help to know the biography of the artist when appreciating their art? It did when it came to Magritte. His mother committed suicide when he was a child and his lasting memory is of seeing her dead body covered with a shroud. Faceless people with shrouded faces feature heavily in his work. I’m still not sure if that has anything to do with why he dressed the men in his pictures and not a lot of the women. As for the female artists; we will sadly never know their biographies, never know what life was truly life for women other than the muses, wives, prostitutes, mothers or mistresses of men.

The MUMOK, more of a work of art than the works of art

The Albertina, a superb gallery

Sharing a shrouded kiss, one of Magritte's

The Dog Saga Part II

You may remember that I taught a dog the other week (see So Now I Teach Dogs from 23rd February); well the saga continued this week. It was a grey Monday morning and there were some rumblings in the staffroom amongst some fellow colleagues. It transpired that the woman who always brings her dog was on the premises and I told them how I was cornered into letting the dog into my class the other week. Like me, they were horrified. One even went off to find out if there was a dog policy. The phrase ‘health and safety’ was even bandied about (typical Brits right?).

As I walked towards my classroom I passed the student with the dog. She was waiting for the lift because the dog was too tired to walk up a flight of stairs and it suddenly dawned on me that perhaps I was scheduled to teach Team Hound again. I walked down the corridor preparing to deny the dog should I need to and with a slightly increased heart rate (I get scared by the thought of confrontation) I sat and waited for my student, listening at the open door for sounds of a lift opening and the approach of a dog. Sure enough, there was a ping followed by doggy panting and the patter of claws on wooden floors. It didn’t stop at any of the other rooms along the way but kept coming and coming until they were at my door.

I was brave. I did it: I denied the dog. She started to protest but I was firm and said I didn’t like dogs and it had to stay outside. It took five minutes of fuss to make the dog comfortable. Because it was certain to make noise if it couldn’t see its owner, we left the door open and the dog sat on the floor tied to a chair for the duration. It barked a bit at times and the owner loudly shushed it, but most of the time it just looked annoyed and seemed to be giving its owner dirty looks. Did I feel mean? Not even for a second. I could still smell it from outside the room. By the time I got back to the staffroom my colleague had established with the management that no dogs were to be allowed in any class from thenceforth. People Power: 1, Pooch Power: 0.

Over the past few days I’ve compiled a dog montage for you. Hope you enjoy;

Dog in a pub

Dog in a cafe

Dog on a train

Dog in a shoe shop

Bad Hair Day

I went for a haircut the other week. I was quite anxious about the price because the last time I went for a trim what I ended up paying was much more than the amount quoted on the price list. I had been charged separately for the shampoo, the conditioner and the styling spray that I didn’t really want and didn’t like because it made my hair sticky. I was probably charged for the electricity to dry my hair; I maybe even paid rent for the time I occupied the chair. So this time I hoped I had found an ‘all inclusive’ price and how I wished it meant I got alcoholic drinks for free.

            I was welcomed by a very friendly man who ushered me into chairs by the sink and my hair was lovingly washed. I soon realised that it had a lot of trainees and they all stood lined up at the back of the sinks, all of them watching me. They didn’t speak English and I have limited success with German; shyness has a lot to do with it. It’s hard to go for it in broken German when all eyes are on you. However we muddled through and it was clear I just wanted a trim, just the ends off. I wanted it blow dried wavy. I used google translate on my phone, showed the stylist and he pointed at a poster on the wall of the exact way I wanted it. Perfect. Apparently, it’s not just words that can be lost in translation, so can hair dos. The trendy, loose waved hair do in the picture became a big-curled, poofy creation on me. Although the picture was on the wall, the stylist and myself had obviously interpreted it completely differently. Thankfully, sometimes no words are needed. The look on my face said it all. It said, ‘Why would you do that to me when all of you have modern haircuts?’ Not one of them had a big, volumous creation on their heads. Did I look like I’d just walked in from the 1990s? Surely, common sense needs no words.

The owner spotted my distress and swooped over. She was Turkish, been here since the 70s, had trendy hair. She asked if I was going to a ball; it must’ve been the only explanation for my big frou frou hair style. I said, by flattening my hair down onto my head, that I wanted no volume. She got me. My hair was blown flatter and we had a nice chat with the few words we shared. She saved the day. When I left she gave me a freebie, a pot of wax to help with the static. Ha.

The early Rachel do.

Dark Skies, Dark Mood?


Gloomy weather on Mariahilfer Strasse


Back to winter


They say the weather makes the Viennese grumpy. I’ve been told that autumn can be a pretty dismal time when a deep fog descends over Vienna and hangs for weeks at a time. That is certainly true of last autumn when, for a whole month, each morning started the same as the one before and never varied its shade of grey. It had a heavy presence, like it was breathing. I actually quite liked it. Being from the UK, I am used to a grey sky, rain and cold. I have also lived in a perpetually sunny place called The UAE where the sun made me miserable, at times. It was always goading me into being in a good mood, trying to antagonise me into being happy and scorching me as punishment when I wasn’t. I often longed for a nice grey day. With a nice grey sky, you can simply be. You can be serene, calm and still. You can stay in the same mood that you woke up in and enjoy your bad mood if you’re in one. You can be quiet and contemplative. You can stay in all day drinking tea and dunking biscuits. No one expects anything of anyone when there is a grey sky, whereas when it’s bright there’s social pressure to be annoyingly jolly. Reactions to the weather really depend on what people are used to. A Saudi Arabian student of mine couldn’t get out of bed last autumn, let alone think or concentrate. Like Superman, he is powered by the sun. I get energy from a spot of rain.

But the Viennese must be used to foggy autumns and changeable skies, so it doesn’t really explain why bad weather equals a bad mood. It’s been alleged that it is the Viennese temperament to be grumpy and so they need little excuse. I teach a lot of people who grew up in different regions of Austria and one diplomatically said she finds the Viennese very creative in their ability to find so much to complain about. In reply, the Viennese student defended his inherent right to moan about anything and everything, admitting it was a favourite pastime of his. He was proud that the people of Vienna are all so skilled in the art of complaining. Someone else once asked me how I coped having to teach the Viennese with their melancholia. In truth, I don’t find them to be miserable. If being happy is a positive number and being grumpy is a negative number then Viennese people hover around zero, neither happy nor sad, which is an excellent place to be; it has balance.

Today, after having a whole week of what appeared to be the start of spring, it is snowing again. But because the snow is mixed with rain the sky is dark and the atmosphere is a little depressed. The others around me in the café do look a little glum and pensive. There is a lot of gazing outside the window going on. All are silently watching the snow falling on the hooded figures on Mariahilfer Strasse, which is quieter than usual. The people in here mustn’t be true Viennese because if they were, I suspect they’d be feeling very content, happy to have something to grumble about.

Room with a view, today's coffee shop hang out in Thalia Bookshop

No Bits Please. I’m British.

Doing what the monkeys do on a cold day

The other week I went to Oberlaa, on the outskirts of Vienna and discovered the best thing about Austria. It is brimming with thermal lakes which have been turned into day spas or hotels. In Oberlaa is Therme Wien, a large complex of thermal pools. It’s fabulous to sit outside in a steaming bath while it’s minus seven on a bleak winter’s day. I felt like one of those Japanese monkeys that you see pictures of, the ones sitting in hot springs, having a great time while it snows on their heads.

After an afternoon of relaxation I sleepily trundled off to get ready. I knew what trauma was awaiting me; lots of open showers with starkers people in it. It’s always the same. Austrians love stripping off and it makes me feel incredibly bashful; it takes all my confidence to wear a bikini when I’m not on a beach. I always find myself thinking ‘God put it away love,’ and I am set enough in my cultural ways to say that I couldn’t possibly go naked because it’s just not British. I rigidly stick to my habit of showering with my swim suit on and getting changed under a towel in the absence any free changing rooms, because the showers are just to rinse the chlorine off before you go home and get showered properly. Thankfully, these changing rooms were segregated, but I have been to a swimming pool where there were naked men in the communal shower, because for some reason they didn’t want to use the empty shower cubicles which had doors, opaque ones at that.

Back in the Therme Wien I had a brief moment of panic when I thought that perhaps the naked showerers were going naked to ensure they removed all traces of chemicals from the sulphurous pools we’d been lounging in, but on consideration I concluded that they were naked because it’s what they do. Just to be on the safe side, I pulled at the top of my swim suit and had a quick rinse of my bits when no one was looking. And yes, most eyes were on me most of the time because I was the strange one effectively showering while still dressed.

We’d bought the cheap ticket and not the all-inclusive ticket which entitled us to use the swanky looking ‘Sauna World’ so we went to investigate in case we wanted to go in next time. We saw at the entrance signs clearly stating that the saunas were naked and pictures of clothes and swim wear enclosed in big red circles with a big red line through them. The typical no smoking sign had become the ‘no clothes wearing’ sign. There was a choice of three saunas; Damen, Herren, Gemischt; women, men, mixed. While the thought of mixed nakedness with strangers makes me shudder, I have been told this is all very normal. A friend of mine told me about the time he had a naked sauna with his girlfriend and all her family, at the family house. He even sat next to her mother. I sniggered for ages when he told me and asked lots of immature questions about whether everyone looked at each other’s bits.

Perhaps one day I’ll go native and go naked, but for the time being I’ll be showering in my cozzie.



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