Sunday, July 30, 2006

I have been meaning to write "lighter" post about living in Austria, amongs the "Wieners" focusing (as is my wont) on the strange and bizarre aspects of being here. While I hate the typical "Oh my God, these people do things differently from us, isn't that kooky!" type of narrative that afflicts Slate's (among others) travel writers, there are some things that I find rather inexplicable from a culture so similar to the one I know from the US. Chief among these:

It's a great town for dogs but they don't pick up their dogs' shit. Having a very cute Labrador, I am grateful that Vienna has a lot of parks and green space which are open to dogs, and that dogs are allowed on the buses, trains and in restaurants (I can feel all you dog haters crossing Vienna off your itineraries right now). BUT, even though this is a clean city where people don't throw trash on the streets, dog owners do NOT clean up their dog poops. Even though they all eventually step in some other doggies' do, it does not occur to them to, as Gandhi said, "be the change they want." I have no explanation for this, unless it is related to the fact that:

Wieners openly and unashamedly break their own laws. One friend of mine here was commenting about driving in America and was amazed how much Americans mind the speed limits as compared to Austrians (even thought heir speed limits are higher). I, in turn, was amazed that he thought this, but it made me realize that most Americans break laws guiltily, whereas here they do it without qualms. On any given bus or train about 80% of the people are "Schwartzfaherer", i.e., those who ride without paying. There are occasional inspectors, but there are also websites that list the stations at which the inspectors will be on a given day.

Wieners are generally pretty grumpy people. When even Germans complain that Wieners are dour, you know something is amiss. For a people who invented the term Gem├╝tlichkeit, they don't seem to be enjoying themselves very much. Again, I have no explanation for this. This is a clean (except see above) attractive well-run city with a good economy and a better climate than most of central Europe. I think it may have something to do with the fact they still haven't gotten over going from the largest empire in Europe at one time to a country the size of Maryland. Another Wiener friend of mine commented that "we don't like the Germans, we don't like the Swiss, we don't like the Italians, and we don't like ourselves very much either." The only ones they tolerate are the Hungarians, their partners in lost empiredom. This sense-of-superiority-while-looking-for-something-to-feel-superior-to feeds (I believe) into the following tendency:

Wieners like telling other people what to do. Again, when Germans complain that Wieners nag too much, you know it's a serious problem. These nags are particularly (it seems) sharp when it's over something that doesn't concern them in the slightest. E.g., when I ride my bike with my dog next to me on the leash, I always receive someone yelling at me about how I am endangering his life, even though if I were in an accident, the first thing I would do would be let go of the leash so he wouldn't be dragged into it.

And, the thing I find most annoying (OK, besides stepping in other dogs' crap):

Wieners are notorious line-cutters. Anyone who has ever been in a queue in the Third World will recognize the "triangle formation" of most Wien queues, with the apex somewhere at the end of the line and the base at the front, where numerous people are trying to edge their way in. The old ladies are particularly good at this, it seems. Also, if you are in line at a supermarket, and another cash register opens, sprint as quickly as you can to the new line, because everyone else is. None of this "I can help the next person," stuff here. By the way, if you think American sales clerks hate their jobs, wait until you see the ones here. And while we're on the subject:

Most bars and many restaurants here do not have cash registers. This can cause getting drinks at bars to be agonizingly slow, as the ubiquitous leather money pouch must be opened and the correct change pulled from the mass of coins inside. Again, I have no explanation why this is so. The technology exists, I have seen it.

OK, disclaimers: I have largely enjoyed my time here. As I said, this is a very livable and affordable city, with a lot of stuff going on, and once you make some friends, you make very deep and lasting friendships. But it is always the things one doesn't expect that stand out.

One final warning: if you are here and it is your birthday, don't mention it in a bar unless you want to buy a round for the house. That is the tradition here, the reverse of what we are used to (fortunately, on my birthday my friends here understood this and bought me a round - my tradition rules!) . I am told it is this way in most of Europe except England, so it is not specific to Vienna, but I thought it a useful bit of advice for my fellow travelers - it can save you a lot of money.

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