English Girl in Vienna

Cultural Commentator

Archive for the category “Schools in Vienna”

The Joy of Sekt

Austrians love to celebrate and they love to celebrate with a glass of something fizzy. Well, don’t we all? I have been in many teaching establishments and offices over the years in Vienna and whenever I open a fridge to look for some milk for my tea, something which attracts comments from the locals who usually drink tea black, I am always stunned by the amount of alcohol I find and disappointed by the absence of milk. There is always booze, at least five bottles of Sekt in there. Sekt is sparkling wine and is the must-have drink for celebrating anything. Just as Spain has its Cava and Italy has its Prosecco, Austria proudly has its Sekt. There is a lot to celebrate in schools apparently – the start of the year, the end of the year, retirements, birthdays, Christmas, Fridays. Once in school they even celebrated the end of some professional development training, and many meetings end with a glass. Sekt is brought to house parties and is often an integral part of a gift. Sekt is also the main ingredient in the drink called a Hugo, which is sekt, a dash of both elderflower and lime, topped up with soda and garnished with mint. It is deliciously dangerous, seeing as it is like drinking pop.

When you celebrate, it is customary to say cheers, which is “prost”. There are, however, definite rules to how you must perform this ritual of saying prost. For example, you must clink your glass with only one person at a time. The reason being is that you must make eye contact with each person as you say prost and you can only do that one at a time, unless you have eyes that can move in opposite directions and you have control over that ability. You also cannot cross arms, so you cannot reach down to the end of the table over the prosting glasses of another pair; this is bad luck. It is like in Ghost Busters when you cannot cross the streams. You have to wait until the way is clear. You have to, of course, close the circle and say prost with everybody, but you must make sure that there is alcohol in every glass. It is a no-no to say prost without booze. I’ve been with Austrians who will say prost anyway even when somebody raises a soft drink, but they are only doing that to make allowances for the Auslanders who don’t know any better, and would never do that normally. The group-cheers, the very quick and convenient cheers, where you all clink your glasses together and cover a lot of people in one go is also definitely not allowed. That means that the whole process takes a long time and is quite intense with all the eye contact. It is hard to clink your glass with another while looking someone in the eye. There is the constant fear that you will miss the glass altogether or get too carried away and smash the glasses. Another reason eye contact is important is that apparently there is a superstition that says if you don’t make eye contact, you will have seven years of bad sex, and another one warning that you will have ugly babies; serious consequences indeed! So please take it seriously.

Over the summer, I was very happy to find a small bar dedicated to the sole selling of Austrian Sekt. I had actually heard about this place a year or so ago, but back then it was a smoker’s place and I am happy to say that it is now smoke free (a growing trend in Vienna which makes me happy), although the smell of old smoke does linger on. All the produce is from Burgenland, a province next to Vienna, on the border with Hungary. It enjoys the perfect wine-growing climate and produces vast amounts of lovely wine. So, do as the locals do, and get celebrating; it is a highly enjoyable part of the culture.

The Sekt shop

The Sekt shop


19 types to choose from. Where to start?

19 types to choose from. Where to start?



Don’t Mention the War

fawlty-towers-t-shirt-war-500x500 How can I, in the two years I have been writing this blog, not have mentioned Hitler? It’s that Britishness engrained in me which means that even though I talk about the war and Hitler, I never do with the locals. I knew that I was moving to Vienna about a year before I actually did and from that moment on, I got everything out of the library that I could about World War II and the man who started it. The book by Brigitte Hamann called Hitler’s Vienna follows the life he lived in Vienna when he arrived as an eighteen year old. It even gives his old addresses and I found myself on a morbid Hitler tour which took me to 31 Stumpergasse, where he apparently lived in a shared room as a penniless young man trying to make it in Vienna. I have no idea if this building is still the original; perhaps it was bombed and rebuilt after the war, but it made me shiver all the same when I thought of the ideas and the plans that were being formulated in the mind of the Führer as a young adult.

One of Hitler's Vienna addresses

One of Hitler’s Vienna addresses


Whenever I read this book in public, I always bent the front cover back so that no one could see it.

Whenever I read this book in public, I always bent the front cover back so that no one could see it.

And that brings me to the impact it has had on language. The word Führer, which means leader, stems from the root word führen, which means to lead or guide. You can still use that verb, but you can’t use the noun. If you want to say you are the leader of a group, you have to say you are the Leiter, or even use the English loan word Manager. In every German course I take someone inevitably declares him or herself to be the Führer when they are talking about running a group or being a team leader in work; an honest mistake by those trying to get to grips with the language. Whenever this occurs, our teacher always stops and tells us, “Der Führer is schon tot. Gott sei dank!” (the Führer is dead. Thank God!) and he is right to warn us about the offence we could cause by using that word.


In school the other day, I picked up the mandatory history books and saw that the war is dealt with honestly, with warnings for the past not to be forgotten. Almost every school has the book “Die Welle”, The Wave, on its literature reading list. This comes from an American TV-film written about a true story of a high school teacher who, in response to being asked why ordinary Germans didn’t do something about Hitler and his wave of persecution, starts an experiment to try to show how ordinary people get caught up in a mob mentality. We have indeed seen The Wave, dubbed in German, in our German class. Most children here will read the German translation in school as a warning about following the crowd and getting swept along in a movement without stopping to question.


The city drips with references to Hitler, the war and its legacy. There are streets named after famous Nazi Hunters and a whole Israeli and Jewish community whose synagogues, schools and cultural centres are protected by armed police patrols. The second district is known as the old Jewish district and Praterstern, a large train station now, is the location where Jews were rounded up and removed from the city to the work, concentration and death camps. It is only in recent years that this district has started to be regenerated and seems to be more up-and-coming. There are monuments that say ‘niemals vergessen’ (never forget) and there are frequent art exhibitions all with the same aim; to protect against oblivion. They know that to not forget the past is the only way to protect the future. When you walk around the city it is as if some famous landmarks bear a ‘Hitler was here’ mark and I find myself telling my visitors as we walk past the opera that Hitler used to go there, being able only to afford last minute standing room only tickets and that he was greatly influenced by the grand performances. Likewise, when we walk around the splendid Ringstrasse, I talk about how Hitler was influenced by the pomp and ceremony of Kaiser Franz Joseph’s parades and included many of the same elements in his public rallies and speeches.


Whilst not wanting to forget, the locals don’t like to talk about Hitler. Eating out with friends the other week my Austrian friend mentioned Hitler and immediately followed it with the realization, “Uh-oh. I just said Hitler in Austria,” and whilst we laughed, it was true that people at the surrounding tables had all pointedly turned and looked at the moment the name was mentioned. When Russell Brand recently posted on YouTube that he was sitting on the bed that Hitler once slept in in Hotel Imperial, it was reported in the free tabloid paper the next morning and declared to be an unfunny, insensitive joke and the hotel was quick to release a statement to distance itself from the truth of Brand’s assertion. It’s a good thing that Hitler’s shadow across the city still makes us shudder and the city should make sure that no one forgets.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kxQTcQdIZfM#t=39 for Russel Brand’s YouTube post

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVRXXbU-z7U for The Wave on YouTube

http://www.amazon.com/Hitlers-Vienna-Portrait-Tyrant-Young/dp/1848852770 for Hamann’s book

Back to School

At the start of September the kids went back to school and this year, I went with them. Now teaching in Viennese schools, I get to experience first hand the Austrian education system.

The first difference compared to the UK is that school children here do not wear uniforms. That has of course been obvious since I arrived here more than two years ago, but similar to the UK, the shops all use the Back To School theme as a marketing campaign. I expected it in stationery shops, but was surprised to receive a brochure through my door from C&A promoting its back to school range. I love how they still have C&A here when it disappeared from British high streets in the mid nineties and yes, they have all the same ranges like Clock House and Yessica and yes, it is always just that little bit unfashionable. I flicked through with interest to see what their back to school range was, thinking that perhaps there were some schools that have uniforms that I just did not know about, but it became apparent that back to school clothes are in fact just normal everyday clothes which you should just buy in preparation for September.

Back to school in your jeans.

Back to school in your jeans.

So, similarly casually dressed in my jeans, I went off to start the new school year. My lasting impression from the first day is of the technology, which blew my mind. Not because there is a lot of it, but because it’s so rubbish and virtually non-existent. Any computers they do have are unbelievably slow. In the staffroom there are two computers for all the staff. No teachers are given laptops. There are no computers or interactive smart boards in classrooms. In fact, it’s like stepping back in time to see chalkboards being the main teaching aid and the chalk and talk method still being the main way of teaching. It frustrates the teachers and accounts for them only being in school when they have to teach: you really do have to go home to do all your planning and admin.

I had often wondered, upon seeing large groups of children hanging around the streets as early as 1pm on a week day, why they never seemed to be in school. During my first few days it all became clear to me. Pupils have to be in school at 7.45am and schools pack all their lessons into the morning and go right through without a lunch break. Instead, they have a fifteen minute break called a Jause when the kids try to stuff as much bread and pop into their mouths as possible whilst also trying to run around the school corridors. Often they cannot wait until this Jause and so try to eat in the five-minute breaks between classes. The absence of a long break when they can run off some energy means that they have ants in their pants in class. School is out for some by 1pm, for others it is 2pm. On one or two days a week each class may have to stay until 3 or 4pm for a later lesson, and on these days they can have a proper school lunch, but that is also a strange system to me, to finish at varying times through the week with a timetable that can change every couple of months. I often wonder how parents cope with the irregularity of the school hours. It’s strange to see children and teachers leaving the school at different points during the school day. I wonder how they keep track of everyone. As a teacher of British origin in Vienna, I find this system of a school day without many breaks really tough because there’s never enough time to make, let alone enjoy, a cup of tea!

Is that appropriate foot wear?

Is that appropriate foot wear?

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