English Girl in Vienna

Cultural Commentator

Archive for the month “May, 2012”

German Class

The other week I finally started a German course. As we went round introducing ourselves I began to feel very international. In all of the sixteen students, I am the only native English speaker. I expected that we would be over represented, speaking too much English. But, no; there is no ethnic ‘majority’ at all. There’s a student from Turkey, Thailand, Ghana, Italy, Spain, Colombia, Ecuador, Romania, Hungary, Russia, India, Egypt and Slovakia. As you can imagine, there are some very interesting ‘German’ accents when we try to speak. Not that we can speak much at all at the moment. The thing about German grammar is that you need to know a lot of it before you can make simple sentences. We often start to speak but cut ourselves off because we’ve forgotten which form of the word ‘the’ or ‘a’ to use and believe me there are many versions to learn. And so, most of the time we sit there like mutes, understanding little more than we are able to express at this stage of our language learning.

Being a mute in a language class makes you both feel and look stupid. Beneath our glazed and dazed exteriors are all kinds of interesting people that cannot be expressed yet. I look round the class wondering what I may one day find out about each one. So far we know that one is an architect and obviously intelligent. The Colombian guy is a student who comes in most mornings looking hungover and I wonder what his story is. I already know that he can speak French and Spanish fluently and when he asks a question that he doesn’t have the German for, he does it in fluent English. He is studying philosophy and economics at the university and now he needs German. But to look at him, he looks like a kid in school, not aware of anything that is going on, with a tendency to stare out of the window. That’s exactly what we are, children with adult egos that need protecting while we stumble through a minefield of new vocabulary, spelling, punctuation, learning to count all over again, learning how to construct sentences as if for the first time, being corrected in almost every utterance, getting lots of crosses on our homework, being made to read out loud in class, getting most answers wrong. Our sense of humour has reverted to that of children as well. Our limited language means that our jokes are limited too; the most we can do to make each other laugh is point to a picture in the book of an ugly man, or a really old woman and say ‘You love him,’ or ‘That’s your girlfriend!’ and snigger accordingly.

Like enthusiastic kids in primary school, we do try hard, and then for all our efforts, we go outside and still have no idea what the man at the deli counter in the supermarket is saying to us; my tactic is just to say ‘no thank you’ to every question. I also have no idea what the special announcements on the tram say so my strategy is to follow the crowd whenever I get kicked off a tram, hoping that others will walk to an alternative stop I didn’t know about.

I think I’ll have a few more months of this, until I get to a stage where I can get my meaning across. Until then, I’ll just be faking it by smiling when people talk to me, or saying, ‘I’m sorry I don’t speak Deutsch.’

My course book. If it ain’t in there, I can’t say it.

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Any Excuse to Have a Drink…

Further to the last blog, I remembered thinking it hilarious when, a few weeks ago, there was a large street sale very close to where I live. Two streets were closed and lots of people from the area had put up stalls and were selling bric-a-brac and old kids’ toys. We wandered through, determined not to buy any clutter and then had to laugh when in the middle of this residential jumble sale was a stall where you could get a beer on draught. It’d been put up especially because, obviously, where groups of Austrians are to gather, there absolutely must be beer on tap. A hot sausage stall never goes unappreciated either. It was ten in the morning and the modest stall was doing a roaring trade, showing that there is never a time when having a drink is inappropriate. And now that the weather is a little sunnier, the streets of the city centre are lined with people drinking a curious bright orange drink called an Aperol Spritz. It consists of Aperol (something a little like Campari), white wine and is topped off with sparkling water. It looks like Tizer and kind of tastes like it too, although it’s a little on the bitter side. Everyone loves sipping an Aperol Spritz in the afternoon and what always surprises me is although it is potent, no one ever seems to get drunk and want to have a fight. I always feel that the city is chilled out and people get merrily drunk and not aggressively so. They are, in my experience, good drunks, happy ones or sleepy ones.

The Viennese save their aggression for sober rush hours when they like to barge onto public transport, elbows at the ready, regardless of whether people have been able to get off first. Perhaps it is being in enclosed spaces such as on a bus, or in an underground station that makes the Viennese a little bolshy, because when they are outdoors with a wee drinkie in their hand, the world is a safe and conflict-free zone.

Boozy Tizer?

Any Excuse to Have a Drink and Dress Up

It has been obviously apparent since arriving here that the locals love nothing better than to have a drink and they need little persuasion to do so. Rarely can you walk through town without their being some kind of festival on, and with a festival comes the wine, the beer, the bread and ham and the Lederhosen.

A few weeks ago there was a festival to celebrate Styria, a region known as The Green Heart of Austria and all the Styrian natives living in Vienna were out in style, as was the rest of the city. There were bands and dances and displays of virile young men chopping logs in time with the music. The display included time for them to stop and swig wine from the bottle before continuing with the ritual. I desperately snapped a few pictures of them in their Lederhosen, but I had ample opportunity to photograph people in traditional dress because it wasn’t just those performing or staffing stalls wearing it, lots of people were. There were some magnificent feathered hats and also lots of women in the traditional Dirndl dress: whenever they have the chance, they will proudly put it on. Last weekend I went to a vineyard that was having a small gathering to signify the start of the wine tavern open-season and lots of people wandered in in local dress there too. I felt a little jealous that we don’t have a national costume in England. There are obvious iconic images of course, like the Beefeaters, but you wouldn’t go round dressed like one of those, not unless it was a fancy dress party. It struck me that our characteristic unpatriotic-ness means we miss out on something, a chance to bond with others and celebrate in style. I suppose the closest we come is the image of the Union Jack on lots of t-shirts and bags, but I just can’t bring myself to wear it; it seems a bit icky. I get a bit closer to patriotism when it comes to sporting events like football and no doubt, should I find myself in the UK come the Olympics, I will happily drape a flag around my shoulders and go all team GB but that’ll be the extent of it. Until then I’ll be pointing at all the marvellous Lederhosen and Dirndls and joining the locals for a glass of local wine.

Her dress is a Dirndl

Note also the ham, and the wine

Strong Styrian wood cutters

Always an accordian

Marvellous Lederhosen

Alien Activity in the Classroom

The other week in class, in answer to one of my questions, one student started talking about the Mother Ship. I wondered what on earth she was talking about because I really hadn’t  asked about extra terrestrial space crafts. I had an image of a giant spaceship hovering over us in the classroom, calling for our return and I was about to burst out laughing at the randomness of it all when it suddenly clicked what she meant. She was talking about a photo in the textbook which showed a woman holding new born twins and by Mother Ship, she meant motherhood. It’s an easy mistake to make; we do after all have friendships, relationships and memberships, so applying the suffix ‘ship’ to ‘mother’ was actually quite logical, though it changed the meaning entirely and almost took our lesson into another dimension.

It got me thinking how tricky it is to learn a language. I once very innocently said in a German class that I was hot, but because I translated directly from English I actually said I was feeling horny. So, just remember if you go on your jollies to Deutschland or over here, you can’t say “Ich bin heiss” but have to say “Mir ist heiss’ which roughly means ‘for me, it’s hot’. I believe the same direct translation from English to Spanish has the same meaning, so be warned!

Since the Mother Ship incident, I’ve been on the hunt for words that are funny to an English speaker, but innocent to a local. I must admit that most of them are a bit juvenile, but I find myself sniggering every time I see them all the same.

When you’re a bit fed up, head to the Bloomin’eck flower shop

A prize what?

How nice of them to wish me a good fart.

What do they sell in this shop???

Oh frickety frick it

Would you like to go to this Austrian town on your jollies? This was from a newspaper article; apparently this sign keeps getting nicked.

What is WHAT?!

Art! It means ‘art’!

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