English Girl in Vienna

Cultural Commentator

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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.

One Glühwein, Two Glühwein, Three Glühwein, Lama!

It’s my favourite time of year in Vienna. It is Christmas market time. It is actually the reason I moved to Vienna. I came here on holiday once at the beginning of December and instantly fell in love with the twinkly splendour of the city.  A handful of markets opened last weekend and the remainder open this weekend and so, seeing as they are the reason that this English girl is in Vienna, I thought a write up was in order.

The locals I have spoken to all say that they totally avoid the market at the Rathaus, which is the biggest one and pulls the most tourists in, so it can get really busy, uncomfortably so at times. It is however, a very grand and lovely one with the biggest Christmas tree lit up amidst the back drop of the grandly gothic town hall building. The Viennese complain that it is too commercial and sells rubbish, but if you want some lovely Christmas tree decorations, toys and sweets, sweets and more sweets then it is more than worth a visit. Be warned, it also has the most expensive Gluehwein. Coming in at four Euros a cup, it is a whole Euro more than at other markets. Last year the prices pretty much seemed to be uniform, but this year there is a noticeable difference in cost, although it has to be said, it definitely tastes good.

Rathaus on a moody grey afternoon

Rathaus on a moody grey afternoon

Gingerbread heart heaven

Gingerbread heart heaven

Next we have the Spittelberg market which lines the small and charming lanes around Stiftgasse. It is small, but perfectly formed and has a very unique feel to it.  Most people agree it is best for buying jewellery, so it is a good place to buy a few presents. It also has great spaces under trees lit with fairy lights in which to enjoy a Gluehwein or Punsch. If you get too cold, there are also lots of bars and restaurants to shelter in and it has many covered areas in which to stand and have a drink in. It is very atmospheric, especially in the evenings.

A fine piece of Spittelberg jewellery

A fine piece of Spittelberg jewellery

Yesterday I was at the Karlsplatz Christmas market, right in front of Karlskirche church and it was there I discovered it is the best place for lamas. No, I hadn’t had too much mulled wine, there were actually lamas being led around. They were part of the ‘attractions’ for kids, because this market is probably the best one for families. It has an area dedicated for kids, with animals, straw for them to play in and a little workshop for them to do crafts. Food and drink stalls circle this area and so parents can amuse themselves while keeping an eye on the kids. This market is also popular with locals who appreciate the crafts, ceramics and glassware on sale. Lovely atmosphere, lovely Gluehwein and lovely lamas. Oh and if you ever wanted to see a photo of the baby Jesus, this is the place to go.

The market at Karlskirche

The market at Karlskirche

Here's a close up of that little baby Jesus

Here’s a close up of that little baby Jesus

That lama just winked at me I swear

That lama just winked at me I swear

The market I will end on is my favourite one of all. The Freyung market claims to be the oldest and for me it is definitely the most Christmassy. Freyung is a gorgeous little square which is beautiful at any time of year, but is especially magical at Christmas. It’s great for Christmas decorations and gourmet food products like mustards and honey. Even the Viennese give the Freyung market their seal of approval.

The old Viennese Christmas Market

The old Viennese Christmas Market

There are many more markets around the city, which I will try and review within the next few weeks. Until then enjoy the hot booze, the hot chestnuts and the lovely lamas.

Christmas jingle and sparkle

Christmas jingle and sparkle

Vienna Loves Kebabs

Further to my post in June, which highlighted the Viennese love affair with Kebaps and Wurst, I just had to post this as solid proof. Kebabs are so popular that you can now buy kebab flavoured crisps. They didn’t taste too bad either.

Kebab Crisps, well I never..

Kebab Crisps, well I never..

It isn’t All Smiles


I have realised, from comments that my students have made over the past year that Austrians don’t really like it when people smile too much. They seem suspicious of it. Many have complained about the “have a nice day” American culture and the necessity for small talk, saying that it is fake and meaningless. I have been left scratching my head wondering why wishing someone a nice day, smiling and sharing a few words with a stranger is such an offence. What’s more, when I have explained that the question “how are you?” is not a real question, more a formality to which you should reply that everything is fine, or if you do say something negative then you have to gloss over it, down play it and then say everything is fine really, they have expressed frustration that it is not real communication. When I try to explain that, culturally, British people like to put a cheerful spin on our daily interactions, they react quite passionately about it, which is always a bit of a shock. They seem to feel that they are being tricked; that if you say you are fine when you are not, then you are withholding information and they do not know exactly what is going on. It is hard to know the true meaning or intention behind what people are saying if they always mask their true feelings behind smiles and pleasantries. I said that we do it so that we don’t burden the other person with our problems, and that there was a good intention behind it, but I never realised it could be seen as lying, and actually, they might have a point. Who knew that the “How are you? Fine” ritual could be so controversial?

The notion of honesty in human interaction was brought home to me the other night when a student said he was going to Thailand on holiday. I groaned in envy, but another student said that although Thailand is beautiful and the weather is nice, he could not be there for more than two weeks because it annoyed him how the Thais smile and laugh all the time. He could not accept that their smiling so often could be genuine and therefore, it was somehow fake. How could anyone have anything against the Thais? I asked myself, but he was genuinely bothered by what he perceived to be a lack of truthfulness. It is true that if you ask someone here how they are, you should probably expect a full blown report of all the bad things that are going on and it is not uncommon for people to answer “yeah, bad” when asked “how are you?” which actually really tickles me and makes me chuckle. This, by the way, is not the appropriate response. It is never nice to laugh at someone when they say their life is bad.

I have taught business English courses too where on many occasions students were at a loss to understand why their British or Australian colleagues would open an email with “I hope you are well,” or “I hope you had a good weekend,” when they had never actually met each other. How could it be real if they were not friends? In reply to their questions about this issue, I was equally at a loss.

I said, “Why wouldn’t you say something like that to someone you email regularly?”

My student said, “But I don’t know her.”

I said, “So? Does that matter?”

He said, ‘Yes because I don’t know her.”

I said, “So? Can’t you accept someone saying something nice to you?”

He said, “No because I don’t know her.”

The conversation could have continued like that for a few more minutes. We ended up laughing when I told him to stop being so Austrian about it. It was really the only advice I could give that got the message through. The people on that particular course did not need much help with their English, but they wanted some advice on business culture. The thing that business English students usually want to practice the most is making small talk, a concept that seems so natural to me seems to fill them with panic. As a result, I have had lessons with many high-flying individuals, role-playing conversations about how their flight was, how the weather is and how they like their hotel, all as simulations for future business trips abroad.

“You British!” one student said to me, shaking his head.

I understood his exasperation, but it is these little social rituals and these little conversations we automatically have which are so important in a culture because we notice instantly when they are missing, just as my students have noticed how strange it is that they are there.

One famous Austrian not prone to smiling

One famous Austrian not prone to smiling

Don't smile for too long. You never know who you might upset.

Don’t smile for too long. You never know who you might upset.

The Signs

The Olympics came and went without too much fuss and interest in Austria. There were a few newspaper headlines reporting Austria’s “Flop” (same word in German) for their failure to secure a single medal in the main games and a few in the Paralympics. There was a distinct lack of Olympics-related chatter in my classes too and when I asked why no one was interested, most people just shrugged. I think the lack of interest mostly came from the fact they were the summer, and not the winter, games. Talk about the winter games and the Austrians get very animated. They love playing in the snow so much that the trains have space allocated for ski storage and the signs for this, being completely new to me, have always grabbed my attention. So, being so struck by not only this sign, but others of interest, here is a compilation of those which have captured my imagination, sometimes for juvenile reasons over the last couple of months.

First, we have the sign for ski storage, which is, interestingly enough, above the picture of a man with a really massive Alka-seltzer. This one always makes me chuckle.


Signs for priority seating. If you are wearing John Lennon glasses, or have a pregnancy-related condition where your hand changes colour, or you’re holding a mini crash-test-dummy, then you have first dibs.


Bum Fiddle anyone?


Very racy cleaning cloths.


For some reason, this tour company always does a roaring business.


Café for Ferals. Nice.


Ok, this one wasn’t taken in Vienna, but in Linz where they have some very peculiar shops.




I’ve been here so long now that I no longer expect to see Bono when I take the purple line.

What is Art?

One evening, I went to the MUMOK, Museum of Moderne Kunst – modern art. I’m glad we went on a Thursday when the museum stays open late and you can get in for a reduced rate because I didn’t like it. I didn’t get it. I was more impressed with the industrial, urban feel of the building than I was the art which seemed to be a range of everyday plastic items arranged on the floor or on a shelf. I left very dissatisfied. So, to compensate we went to the Albertina art gallery the following weekend, to see the Magritte exhibition. I appreciated the real art there. However, reading all the names of the artists I found myself reading the names of man after man after man and wondering where all the women were: invisible women, invisible artists anyway. The women were all on the walls; as the prostitutes with legs splayed, as the woman standing topless amongst a group of four fully dressed men, as the women undressed in their bedroom, as the women lying in lakes drowning and dying, as the woman suffering holding the baby, as the women in many and various stages of nakedness.

In Magritte’s work women were often undressed in contrast to the fully and, as the notes on the wall said, “respectably” dressed men, making the women disrespectable by default.

Does it help to know the biography of the artist when appreciating their art? It did when it came to Magritte. His mother committed suicide when he was a child and his lasting memory is of seeing her dead body covered with a shroud. Faceless people with shrouded faces feature heavily in his work. I’m still not sure if that has anything to do with why he dressed the men in his pictures and not a lot of the women. As for the female artists; we will sadly never know their biographies, never know what life was truly life for women other than the muses, wives, prostitutes, mothers or mistresses of men.

The MUMOK, more of a work of art than the works of art

The Albertina, a superb gallery

Sharing a shrouded kiss, one of Magritte's

Bad Hair Day

I went for a haircut the other week. I was quite anxious about the price because the last time I went for a trim what I ended up paying was much more than the amount quoted on the price list. I had been charged separately for the shampoo, the conditioner and the styling spray that I didn’t really want and didn’t like because it made my hair sticky. I was probably charged for the electricity to dry my hair; I maybe even paid rent for the time I occupied the chair. So this time I hoped I had found an ‘all inclusive’ price and how I wished it meant I got alcoholic drinks for free.

            I was welcomed by a very friendly man who ushered me into chairs by the sink and my hair was lovingly washed. I soon realised that it had a lot of trainees and they all stood lined up at the back of the sinks, all of them watching me. They didn’t speak English and I have limited success with German; shyness has a lot to do with it. It’s hard to go for it in broken German when all eyes are on you. However we muddled through and it was clear I just wanted a trim, just the ends off. I wanted it blow dried wavy. I used google translate on my phone, showed the stylist and he pointed at a poster on the wall of the exact way I wanted it. Perfect. Apparently, it’s not just words that can be lost in translation, so can hair dos. The trendy, loose waved hair do in the picture became a big-curled, poofy creation on me. Although the picture was on the wall, the stylist and myself had obviously interpreted it completely differently. Thankfully, sometimes no words are needed. The look on my face said it all. It said, ‘Why would you do that to me when all of you have modern haircuts?’ Not one of them had a big, volumous creation on their heads. Did I look like I’d just walked in from the 1990s? Surely, common sense needs no words.

The owner spotted my distress and swooped over. She was Turkish, been here since the 70s, had trendy hair. She asked if I was going to a ball; it must’ve been the only explanation for my big frou frou hair style. I said, by flattening my hair down onto my head, that I wanted no volume. She got me. My hair was blown flatter and we had a nice chat with the few words we shared. She saved the day. When I left she gave me a freebie, a pot of wax to help with the static. Ha.

The early Rachel do.

Trying to Put a Resolution into Action

It’s 10.10 and it’s raining. It’s cold in Vienna, around three degrees; the coldest it’s been since a short cold snap back in November. Christmas passed in cosy winter mildness, perfect for strolling round Christmas markets and standing for hours sipping glorious Gluhwein. Gluhwein: the reason I’m walking in the rain this morning. I consumed so much sugar over the Christmas season drinking that sweet and spicy brew that the extra calories have remained around my waist and so I’m walking wherever possible. Today I have no excuse not to. After an early start, I’ve finished teaching for the day (work is quiet at the moment) so it doesn’t matter if I end up all bedraggled. I walk the length of Mariahilfer Strasse in the direction of town, down towards the museums to take a right towards the Opera. I’m checking out a language school. It’s time to get back to German classes, one of my resolutions for the year. The small group of casually dressed smokers huddled together, without winter coats helps me find the school. It’s busy; reception is buzzing. I see from the literature that they only offer courses of twelve hours per week, three hours per day, four days a week. I may be able to manage that, maybe fitting an afternoon slot in between split shifts, but when I peek into the classrooms at the cramped, poorly lit, outrageously hot, sparsely equipped, slightly manky and just a bit smelly learning environment I bolt before even speaking to the receptionist. I think I need to look around.

Whenever I’m in town I always take the slowest route back to my tram stop to enjoy the views. I pass the Opera, the wonderfully old and grand building that still looks stately even in the rain and I wander down Kaertner Strasse. It’s not so busy. There aren’t many shoppers. It really does feel bleak and all January-like. There are lots of fifty per cent sales and I resist the temptation to browse the shops. I reach St Stephan’s Cathedral which looks suitably serious underneath the black clouds. I stop to look at it; I always do. There are tourists contorting themselves into all sorts of shapes trying to fit the whole thing into their camera frames, but no matter how many times they try they will always be too close to get it in. There are the usual street performers, guys painted gold posing as Mozart, moving at intervals to scare the children. And lined down the side of the cathedral are the Fiakers, the horses and carriages. The horses have had blankets lovingly wrapped around them to keep them warm while waiting for customers. And the drivers, both male and female press their bowler hats onto their heads as they stand and chat.

I’m cold and hungry and don’t have anywhere to go other than home, but I don’t really want to. The tourist in me still remembers the first time I came here and loves to retrace the old steps and just stand and look for a minute or two. Reluctantly I turn left down Graben and walk back to Shottentor to get my tram.

Gluhwein on sale everywhere at Christmas

Horses lined up outside the cathedral

What is Fun?

I’m on a train travelling back to Vienna following my first ever skiing holiday. I went to a gorgeous little town called Ellmau in Tirol. I find myself wondering why skiing is fun. It’s such an absurd thing to willingly throw yourself down a mountain with blades stuck to your feet, yet despite my fear, tears and tremblings I quite enjoyed it, I think. Maybe the enjoyment came from not dying. Every once in a while, whenever I was brave enough to stop chanting out loud “no fear, nice big circles, snow plough! snow plough!” and actually look around me instead of down I was struck by the beauty of a snowy mountain. I tell you what isn’t fun; puking from bad food for two days. Another thing that isn’t fun; a seven hour train journey on your own.

The journey back started as a nightmare. It was the day of major ski races in Austria, in Kitzbuehel, a place I had to go through to pick up my connection to Vienna. When I got to the station at St Johan it seemed half of Austria was there enjoying a can of beer or two as a post breakfast treat. It was then I learned of the races and saw with horror the number of trains running late or cancelled due to snow and the sheer volume of singing people draped in flags. I asked the woman at the information desk if I could get on an earlier train seeing as the one I was booked on was bound to be late. I was told to get on the next one at no extra charge. I could’ve kissed her. I stood on the platform with hundreds of clueless others. When the Munich train came a few with suitcases got on and the race goers stayed put, but after a minute they all piled on too. Luckily, I spied the conductor and asked if the train went to Woergl. He seemed to consider it then decide yes. But it definitely said Munich on the train, so I asked him again in case he was trying to trick me and for his final answer he picked up my case and put it on board, leaving me no choice but to follow it. I stood crammed with the others feeling somewhat shy and outside the festival mood as strangers chatted to each other and the conductor. On seeing me observing meekly, not joining in someone realised I was an Auslander and asked “woher kommst du?” to which I replied “Ich komme aus England.” We all had a chat for the next ten or so minutes in broken English and German during which time I learned they were on a company day out entertaining sponsors. They gave me and the conductor a hat with their company logo on and I thanked them for the late Christmas present. I was quite alone when we departed from Kitzbuehel, apart from the conductor who didn’t speak English. It turned out that the train wasn’t scheduled for these stops, but did so out of need, again something I was very glad for. I felt we had an understanding, the conductor and me, as we stood in silence looking out the window at the snow which was falling, it seemed, in every direction.

No More Quack Doctor

Christmas is over and my New Year hangover has faded, leaving only the memory of being out in the city centre at Freyung, trying to drunkenly waltz as a group of three when the clock chimed twelve and the New Year started. The locals seemed so elegant, despite being bundled up, as they waltzed and glided, unlike us bashing into each other spilling our cans of Goesser everywhere.

I’m on the train, early on a misty morning, going to see a new chiropractor on Hutteldorfer Strasse, hopeful for some pain relief. This is me taking charge of my health. At the end of last year I went to a back specialist who, after some unsuccessful treatment, suggested acupuncture and so I gave it a go. On my first visit the doctor told me that acupuncture would work wonders for me. He prescribed Chinese herbal tablets and ordered me to watch The Life of Brian. Hmm. He said my back problems were partly the result of being British and the British attitude. Hmmm. There was some talk of unexpressed emotions and The Life of Brian would help me with having a better attitude towards things I can’t control. At least I think that’s what he said; I was trying hard not to laugh. I was prescribed three months’ worth of tablets to soothe my liver, as the liver stored heat from emotional memories, and three months’ worth of tablets to help my muscles relax. The chemist, god bless her, asked me if I really wanted three months’ supply and when I asked her how much it would cost I decided I’d give them a go for just one month. The tablets went and the back pain persisted. The euros were spent and the needles pushed in and the back pain persisted. That’s when I decided I’d given it a go and it was time to spend my money instead on something I knew worked for me.


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