English Girl in Vienna

Cultural Commentator

Archive for the category “Integration”

I Speak the Lingo You Know (Well, Kind of…)

I am still struggling with the language. I don’t mind. I know it will take another year before I feel comfortable with it, and I feel quite positive that I am chipping away at it and making the effort. I have been attending classes steadily since last April and I’m signed up for an intensive summer course.

It’s weird, but I mostly speak German with people from outside Austria; these people are the others on my German course. I’m happy that English is not our common language, because to get on with each other and have a natter, we must do so in our broken Deutsch and I love it. Once, I walked with my Italian friend for twenty minutes on our way home from class and we spoke German the whole time. We attracted many confused looks from locals along the way as we butchered the language in our heavy accents, but somehow we both made ourselves understood.

The people I speak German with the least seem to be the Austrians themselves. Take for instance the other day; I called a restaurant to make a reservation and did the whole thing in German. I was so utterly proud of myself and felt quite smug until the guy taking the booking repeated the whole thing back to me in English by way of confirmation. I felt dejected and very sorry for myself.

My course mate from Nepal asked our teacher how she could improve her pronunciation because whenever she speaks German in shops or cafes, the listener invariably screws up his or her face in utter confusion. The teacher told her she had good pronunciation and was perfectly intelligible. He said that of course she had an accent, like we all do and assured her that those who cannot understand her probably have the same problems with native speakers from other parts of Austria, or from Germany. He then went on to say it was the Viennese way to make a face on every possible occasion and we should not be put off by it. I then told him the predicament I have, that everyone can hear as soon as I open my mouth that I am English and immediately speaks back to me in English. He advised me to tell them to stop and to explain that I must practise my Deutsch. I did this once in a pub. I spoke German; the waiter spoke English.

I said, “Ich kann Deutsch sprechen.”

He said, in English, “I can speak English.” Fair enough, I thought, and we laughed.

It has been suggested that Austrians love to practice their English and on reflection, it does seem that they are trying to be nice to me by doing this. I also encounter people on a daily basis who have spent a lot of time and money on learning English, so I don’t really blame them for wanting to put their language skills to use after all the resources and energy they have invested. There does seem to be a bit of a love affair with the English language. In fashion magazines, most articles will have a headline written in English with the actual piece in German, and so it is with many shop names around the city. Consequently, I have found peace with the knowledge that all my dealings with locals will occur with me speaking German and them speaking English, and all my dealings with other Auslanders will be completely in German. It is one of the many quirks of living in Vienna.

English titles and captions in "Wienerin" (Viennese Woman)

English titles and captions in “Wienerin” (Viennese Woman)


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!!

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.

No More Schnitzel

Schnitzel overload

Occasionally, when you live abroad in a place very different to the one you grew up in, you get a bit fed up of it and you start yearning for something different. It can be anything that starts to niggle at you; the entertainment, the physical environment, the people, or the food. On this one particular Saturday, having reached the point of schnitzel saturation, I had had enough of Austrian food. When the issue of where to have lunch came up, I was adamant that I didn’t want to set foot in a place selling Austrian food with its greasy hunks of meat and sloppy potato salad which looks like a big splat on a plate. I needed to be somewhere that felt international and to eat something different. So we headed to the Brunnenmarkt, a big market in the 16th district of Vienna. I had heard about it from students and had overheard many complaints about that area in general because it has turned into a mini-Istanbul, all Turkish and no German. Perfect, we thought. I’ve never been to Turkey. So we headed down and yes it did feel different, the people were different, the price of the veg was cheaper, there was more of a buzz in the air because the people are less reserved than Austrians, the hot food stalls sold different food. We snacked on something I couldn’t catch the name of, something like a big hot pancake filled with spinach and feta and delicately spiced and gorgeous. However it wasn’t as Turkish as I’d been led to believe. The area was dotted with Austrian cafes and cake shops that were still doing a good trade and there were lots of Austrians there, shopping, eating and trading from their own cheese, meat and flower stalls. It was good to see that not everyone resents the ethnically different feel to the place like I thought because it does seem that out of all the immigrants in Vienna, the Turkish are the least liked. I have encountered lots of Turkish students who, having grown up here, state quite sadly that ‘Austrians are not polite’ and many had experienced negativity whilst growing up. I think Vienna needs to get over it; it is after all a capital city and capital cities thrive as multicultural hubs; they drive progress and globalism and most of all, add interest and flavour and life to a city. The main complaint about the Turkish is that they don’t integrate. But I wonder how is opening a market stall open to do business with any customer not integrating? And why would Turkish people speak German with each other? It wouldn’t make sense.

At the end of the long strip of market stalls is Yppenplatz, a wonderful square which is alive during sunny weather. It was just what I’d wanted; a place in Vienna that felt really international. There were cafes like you’d find in Paris, funky cafes like you’d find in any modern city, Greek places, Turkish places, Indian places, sea food places and wine bars selling local wine. It was packed with every kind of person and loads of Austrians which shows that a bit of an international mindset can bring everyone together and help you travel without the cost of a flight ticket. I was happy to chow down on lamb skewers with cardamom rice, succulent courgettes, tzatziki and loads of fresh salad with not a sloppy potato salad in sight.

I was feeling all warm and fuzzy as I took photos of Yppenplatz square; that was until a woman who walked in the way of one of my photos started talking to me in German, very fast German. When I said I didn’t understand she shrugged, looked angry, looked to the sky for the words then loudly and proudly said, in English, “English is bullshit!”

“Okay then,” I said, promptly turning round, thinking “move along”. My international bubble was burst. Perhaps it will always be like that for the Auslander abroad, anywhere abroad; always being reminded from the outside as well as the inside that you are different. She was entitled to her opinion, but not entitled to dump it on me so rudely, and unprovoked too. But I have a choice over how to respond. It was just the action and opinion of one person and not representative of the majority, so I decided not to retaliate against Vienna. The next day I was back on the goulash and feeling more sympathetic towards the humble schnitzel.

For more info on Brunnenmarkt:


Yppenplatz square, lots of lovely places to eat and relax

Lovely fruit and veg at Brunnenmarkt

Local cheeses in the 'Turkish' market

Spring has sprung

And in the middle of all the action, Stauds - a famous Viennese brand of jams and marmalades


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.

On Integration

I’ve just seen that on Loose Women, a TV show in the UK, they were talking about immigrants in Britain; whether they do enough to integrate and if more should be done to help them integrate. They all agreed that people new to the country should definitely learn English, but then went on to talk about the hypocrisy of many Brits who move abroad and never expect to speak anything other than English. It was refreshing to finally hear an acknowledgement that Brits abroad do what we accuse others of doing in England, namely sticking to ‘their own’ and creating mini sub-cultures. I think it’s human nature to do this and at the moment I’m one of those migrants, not speaking the language. The Loose Women discussion raised a really good question; what do people really mean, want and expect when it comes to integration? How is it measured?

Speaking the language helps but few understand how long it takes and how much it costs to learn a language to a level where you can actually converse comfortably in everyday situations. To do that you’re looking at a year of full time study, at least. If you study part time or for a few hours per week, it takes a lot longer. If you work, how can you afford the time? If don’t work, how can you afford the fees? Did I ever enrol on a German course, like I was going to the other week? The short answer is no, because the times clash with work and other courses cost too much. The city of Vienna currently offers language learning vouchers up to 150 Euros, which is wonderful, but doesn’t even touch it. And let’s remember that for people setting up in a new country it is a costly business, especially if doing it without the assistance of a company relocation package.

Where can immigrants meet locals? If you can’t make friends because of language barriers, how can you mix? If you take language courses, who do you think you end up making friends with? That’s right, every other nationality except the one whose country you live in. You end up in a wider expat group, mixing cultures, making a third culture which is different to the one you are supposed to be integrating into.

I wonder how to define myself. I can’t speak German, apart from the basics, and I only have three Austrian friends and they speak to me in English. But as an English teacher I mix with Austrians five days a week. My boss is Austrian, so are many other staff at the language school. They all speak English. I teach English to Austrians, and Russians, Czechs, Persians, Mongolians, Hungarians and Spanish, to name a few. I’m in a position where being an English native speaker is a pre-requisite, so I’m not ‘stealing’ another Austrian’s job. So, am I a more acceptable migrant? Am I integrated? Or am I an importer of another culture, a diluter of local culture? I pay tax. I contribute to the social system and pay for health insurance like everyone else does. I recycle like my neighbours do. I eat Austrian food in restaurants. I love Austrian wine which is produced in vineyards only thirty minutes from my home. I love Stiegl, the beer brewed in Salzburg. I want to love Viennese coffee. Sometimes I go to the Irish pub and watch the English footie. I went to great pains to track down a decent curry house. I got my mum to bring out Bisto when she came to visit and a friend brought Marmite and PG Tips. I insist on drinking tea with milk. I put my Christmas tree up a lot earlier than is the Austrian tradition. I feel at home and I feel away from home. I feel English and I feel European. I feel I understand Austrians more every day. I love Vienna. I want to stay in Vienna; I never wanted to stay in England. I feel like I fit in. Is that enough? Does it help that I come from a European culture with similar customs, religious backgrounds and holidays? I think so. It makes me not so foreign a foreigner. I think the key to integration is in how we handle our differences and not our similarities.


My Brit stash

Brit stash

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