English Girl in Vienna

Cultural Commentator

Archive for the month “July, 2012”

Cold Ones

What is it we need from other people? It is our expectations of others that cause us to feel satisfied or not with the actions of those around us. It is our expectations, often based on what we are accustomed to, which lead us to notice things and make comment. Most of my cultural observations arise from what is alien to me, what is unexpected, what I find surprising. I am amused, aghast and sometimes angered by things merely because they are different to anything I have experienced before, or,  perhaps more accurately, they are different to how I would like things to be on particular occasions.

When considering people, we often lump groups together and ascribe ‘national personality traits’; the British are punctual, reserved, stuffy, awkward, whereas Americans are loud, confident, unselfconscious. One thing I hear time and time again is that Austrians, and especially the Viennese, are cold, unkind, impolite. Perhaps those people saying this might have experienced such traits from Austrians, maybe even often enough to feel justified in ascribing this label to all of them. However, I must describe the situations in which I hear these complaints about the locals. It is in my classes. I have been asked if I like Vienna, by non-natives, and when I say I love the place they say  something along the lines of, ‘Yes, it’s a beautiful city, but it’s a shame about the people, isn’t it?’ If I defend the locals, or say I haven’t really experienced anything that negative, or start to say that people in most capital cities around the world appear cold because they are always in such a rush to get anywhere and the same is often said of Londoners, they shake their head knowingly and say, ‘Just wait. You’ll see.’ Such conversations take place in front of many Austrians, who can fully hear every negative thing being said. I once overheard an Austrian and a Czech talking and the Czech said to the Austrian, ‘Austrians are not nice people. They are very cold and not friendly.’ Understandably, the Austrian was a little lost for words. But I have to wonder why anyone would think it was ok to say that so blatantly to that Austrian person. What is nice, warm or even friendly about that? Nothing. And that’s my point: in being so rude and tactless, people become exactly what they complain about. If you’re from a culture that is superior in warmth, hospitality and openness, then why not display those qualities and not only to those who behave the same as you?

It’s easy to be around people who are the same as us; the key to surviving and even living happily in a mix of different cultures is how we manage being around people who are different. My point about the Czech student being rude to the Austrian also needs consideration because I looked at that behaviour through the eyes of someone who likes good manners at all times, whereas the Czech might value honesty in all interaction, and what I consider ‘tactful’ could also be considered ‘dishonest’. Like everything, it  depends on how you choose to look at it.

This is what came up when I typed ‘Cold Austrians’ into Google!!

How Much to Spend a Penny?

The lock-you-in loos

Pretty loos

It costs 50 cents to wee in most public toilets in Vienna. It’s an expensive business, but it is taken very seriously by the toilet attendants who I think must have undergone some kind of military training, their regimens are so disciplined. Never cross the toilet attendant; always have small change ready and always wait for their instructions; if you don’t, you lay yourself vulnerable to a telling off.

There is a set of public toilets in the first district that is as well preserved as all the old buildings that line the expensive shopping street called Graben. They are a fine example of art deco and worth visiting as a tourist, I think. The first time I went I was very confused. I went into the toilet cubicle, tried to slide the door shut, but it wouldn’t close; the latch wouldn’t catch and it kept springing open. As I was wondering if there was any way I could use the loo and hold the door shut at the same time, the attendant came rushing through the open door from the other side, the men’s side. It was a male attendant, which bothered me slightly, but not as much as how he was grumbling at me for not waiting for him. I didn’t understand why I would have to wait for him if there wasn’t a queue, there was paper and the toilets were obviously clean. That was until he ushered me back inside my cubicle and started to close the door on me. I thought it very strange and oddly overly-chivalrous to think I’d need help closing the door, but then he locked me in from the outside. After a few seconds wondering what the hell was going on, I worked out the system. The attendants have to lock you in from the outside, so the door stays shut. I really hoped that I’d be able to get out when I wanted, but I then got on with the matter of trying to pee quietly, aware that a man was standing not far away able to hear my every tinkle.

To my relief I was able to open the door from the inside, but then had to contend with Mozart waving at me from the men’s section. What am I talking about? It was a Mozart street performer, painted in gold, smiling and waving at me in the loo. The toilet attendant found it hilarious when he saw me recoil and stumble. I was disorientated from the whole process of being locked in a toilet by a man and couldn’t cope with a dead pianist trying to communicate with me. With the toilet man still laughing at me I left, thinking that for 50 cents I’d had a whole lot of Viennese and Austrian culture.

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