English Girl in Vienna

Cultural Commentator

Archive for the month “August, 2014”

Getting Around

I love living in Vienna and a lot of expats I know are really very happy with the lifestyle they have here. Every year a report comes out, saying that Vienna is the number one place to live in terms of quality of living. When people ask me why I like it so much one of the reasons I give is the quality of the public transport, which makes me sound like a train spotter, but I’m really not. The transport system is so good that it adds to the ease of life, and the accessibility means that you rarely feel like somewhere is too far to go to, and so the city is there, easy to navigate and easy to get to know and love.

I caught up with some UK news just last week about how rail commuters will shortly be informed by how much the cost of train tickets will rise in the coming new year. I had to feel a little smug when I thought about the minimal cost of travelling in Vienna. When I tell my friends in England, especially the London-dwelling ones, that I pay for a yearly pass just 365 Euros, yes that’s right, one Euro per day, they almost start to weep with envy. It’s not just the affordability of the public transport system; it’s the scope of the network. You have access to fast over-land trains, the underground, buses and also trams and at weekends and the night before public holidays, they run all through the night. You can even get around on Christmas Day and New Year’s with no problem. In my three years of living here, I have been late to work just three times due to delays. There are numerous ways to get to the same place, which means that if your route is interrupted, you have plenty of alternatives and you don’t often end up stuck just waiting for the disruption to end.

Trains don't even get delayed when it's snowing

Trains don’t even get delayed when it’s snowing

The U-bahn

The U-bahn


You can even hire some of the older trams for special events. These are called the ‘party bims’ (bim being the local nickname for trams, because of the ‘bimmmm’ sound the bell makes when you press the button to request to stop), and once or twice we have tried, unsuccessfully, to board a tram which was full of revellers quaffing wine and bopping along to music.

One of the old style Bims in the snow, not a party one though :-(

One of the old style Bims in the snow, not a party one though 😦

My absolute favourite thing though is the website www.wienerlinien.at, upon which you can type in the address you want to start your journey from, and then input where you want to go to, and it will tell you exactly how to get there via the quickest route. It even gives you a map of where to walk once you get off the tram or bus. There is also an app called Qando, which can detect where you are and tell you all your public transport options in that area and when the next underground, or bus, or whatever it may be, is due. Like the website I just mentioned, it will also plan your route for you, and both of them have English language versions. God bless Wiener Linien.


Of course, there are times I get sick of it. At peak times there can be a lot of elbows at the ready, especially as the locals are not too fond of queuing, and during the height of summer, it can get a bit fruity on the older vehicles that don’t have air conditioning. There are days I feel like I spend my whole life on public transport and that I know the lines and various stops off by heart is a bit sad, but it enabled me to take a job that I would not have been able to without giving in and getting a car.

One thing that is very confusing when you are first here as a tourist can be where to buy a ticket and where they are checked. There are no barriers at stations to put your ticket through and drivers do not need to see a ticket when you board, so you think that if you were so inclined, that you could travel around for free. I must confess to having done that at first, that was until I was informed by a friend that that made me a Schwarzfahrer and liable to pay a fine if caught. I wondered how I could be caught when I had never seen a conductor of sorts, but I dutifully bought a ticket. I was glad I did the next time I was on the underground, when the man next to me suddenly stood up and produced some ID and a portable ticket machine from under his coat and started checking people’s tickets and travel passes. The plain-clothed ticket checkers patrol different lines on different days and dish out the automatic, on-the-spot fine, which is a hefty one hundred Euros. At least one person gets caught every time and I felt very sorry on one occasion for the fraught mum who jumped on the tram for one stop because her very little kids were late for school, only to get caught straight away. The locals also tell me that the frequency of ticket patrols increases in December when the city tries to collect as much extra revenue as possible before the year end, and there have been times when my ticket has been checked more than once on the same journey. You have been warned! Alternatively, you could get a horse and carriage, but that is much more pricey.

60 Euros for 20 minutes. Nice, but I'll stick to the tram

60 Euros for 20 minutes. Nice, but I’ll stick to the tram

Summer Holidays

The long-standing joke amongst Austrians goes along these lines; there are only two reasons to become a teacher and these are July and August. That’s because schools are out for the whole of those two months and the holidays are looonnnnggggg.


Summer holidays are taken very seriously here; everyone recognizes the importance of taking a break and most think that one week just is not adequate. During my first two years in Vienna I was a freelance English teacher and I learned the hard way in the first year that I had to save a lot of my salary from autumn and spring in order to make up for the loss of pay in summer when the fervour for English learning evaporates with the heat and all English learners exit the city for holidays. It is common for people to save up most of their holiday for the summer months and have around three to four weeks off, whether in one lump or staggered over the two months.


What surprised me and still continues to do so is the attitude towards holidays from those in business or public services. Holidays are considered a right, a normal, integral part of summer and it is common to walk past cafes and smaller, independent shops and see that they have closed so they can take their holidays. The desire to make a profit, it would seem, takes a break too, or perhaps it is strategic: perhaps all their customers are away and so it makes sense to close while it is quiet. Official institutions take a break too and you should not expect to get official paper work done quickly at this time. Indeed, last year I started a new job in September and had a terrible time in August trying to find someone in the human resource department to actually get my documents to. I also did not receive my first salary until October because the people in accounts were off on holiday and so could not process everything in time for the September pay date. The notion of such staff being required to stay around in August to process the many new teachers’ contracts is preposterous and although people might not like it, it is an accepted fact that things pretty much grind to a halt in summer.


The biggest surprise for me though was what happens when doctors go on holiday. Most doctors in Vienna have set hours when they have open clinics where you can just turn up and wait in line to see your doctor. The beauty is that no appointment is necessary. The downside is that occasionally you turn up, after having taken the morning off work because they may only be open from 9-1pm on that particular day, only to find a big sign on the door saying they are off on holiday. I was used to a system where a locum doctor would be on duty, or other doctors in the practice would substitute, but clinics here often have just the one doctor and locums are not used. They do, however, provide a name and address of a substitute doctor, but then you have to find them and hope that they are open at the same time, which is often not the case.

Doctors need a holiday too. Perhaps they go on a group holiday with the reception staff. 

The difference in approach is something I am gradually getting used to and I like this European attitude that says summer equals holiday and seeing as summers can be sizzling hot then it seems fair enough. The newspapers recently reported that we have had the worst summer in Austria for a while but compared to England, obviously it has still been a decent one.


What I do love during the summer is that you can go to one of the many outdoor pools and enjoy some rays. Here’s a picture of my local pool, which is better than a lot of holiday resorts.


Not quite the seaside but just as good. The Viennese outdoor pools.

Not quite the seaside but just as good. The Viennese outdoor pools.

It is just a shame that even these pools also take it in turns to close down for three weeks over the summer period, despite demand remaining high. Still, it is a nice way to spend your all-important, long holiday without having to leave Vienna.

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