Archive | May, 2014

Karlheinz Böhm, 1928 – 2014

31 May

I went into the Trafik as usual this morning to pick up my Saturday Kurier to read at breakfast and saw on the front page of every Austrian newspaper a large photo of Karlheinz Böhm and his dates. This news led me to break my otherwise firm habit of starting the Saturday paper at the back of the supplement and working my way forward and then starting on the last page of the newspaper itself and working my way forward. I turned immediately to pages 17 and 18 to read more.

Who is Karlheinz Böhm and why so much news coverage of his death? What follows is a very personal response to that question. The short version: Karlheinz Böhm was a dashing actor who became famous playing the Emperor Franz Josef (second to last emperor of Austria) to Romy Schneider’s Empress Elisabeth (“Sisi”) in the “Sissi” films of the 1950s. Thanks to genuine acting talent he was, miraculously, able to move beyond this role and later even played the part of a serial killer with success.

At some point he was on vacation in Kenya with friends and was appalled by the gap between the relative wealth of the tourists and the poverty around them. He decided to do something and changed his life completely. On a famous German TV show “Wetten, dass …?” (more or less “Do you want to bet …?”) he expressed the bet that not even one-third of the viewers (an estimated six to seven million people) would give one Deutschmark (this was a long time ago!) or one Schilling (for the Austrian viewers) to alleviate hunger in Africa. He won that bet, but enough people gave that over a million marks came in and he was able to start an aid and development project in Africa, ultimately in Ethiopia.

There’s an interesting story about how the country was chosen, if you were wondering why Ethiopia when he had the idea in Kenya. Apparently, he went to the Kenyan government first, but they did not want to accept his terms (he wanted full say in how the money was spent) so he carried on from one country to the next. The first government to agree to his terms was the government of Ethiopia and his organization “Menschen für Menschen”  (“People for People”) was born . He gave up his acting career and devoted the rest of his life to helping people in Ethiopia.

His way of using the money from “Wetten, dass …?” He went from village to village with an interpreter and sat down, literally, on the ground with the people in these villages and asked them what they most needed. Everything Menschen für Menschen does–and they’re still around after 30 years–is based on the answers he got.

Some of what the short version above leaves out is that, on top of being a famous actor himself, he was Karl Böhm’s (the world-famous conductor’s) son so he was brought up with considerable privilege. The short version also leaves out why Menschen für Menschen (MfM) is one of the few charitable organizations I contribute to on a monthly basis. First of all, I love the picture of this man leaving behind a career with the kind of success most of us would give our eye teeth for and going and asking what people need and then doing his best to deliver it. In addition, by focusing on one country MfM can apply an integrative approach to development very effectively. That means they don’t just focus on clean water or education or more productive farming techniques or making women more independent or health care. They work on on all these aspects at the same time to increase the impact of what they are doing in each area. And, as well as focusing in an ongoing way on making people independent from their support, they are also there quickly with help when there are natural disasters.

Austrian TV is, of course, in addition to the commemorations of Karlheinz Böhm’s life and life’s work, showing all the “Sissi” films over the next week or so. So please forgive me if I leave you now to go watch them one more time. But first I need to go and increase my standing donation to the work that meant so much more to him.


Words Germans (and for the most part Austrians, too) think are English

19 May

This applies for the most part in Austria, too. We don’t talk about “Open Airs” as far as I know, but probably tomorrow I’ll see it on a poster here or hear it in a conversation.

Eurovision update

11 May

And Conchita won!

Eurovision song contest 2014

10 May

From today’s International New York Times (the new incarnation of the International Herald Tribune): “Over the years, Eurovision has reflected Europe’s social and political changes, and this one is no exception. Along with the requisite scantily clad women and hunky men, an Austrian transgender singer, Conchita Wurst, advanced to this year’s finals, to the consternation of Eastern European social conservatives who have called Eurovision the epitome of the morally corrupt West.” There was a photo of Conchita on the front page of the print edition of the International New York Times . Fame indeed! The Austrian media I have seen seem to be simply pleased that Conchita made it to the finals, is representing Austria, and has a chance of winning, so don’t seem to share the opinion of the stated “Eastern European social conservatives”.

One point to clarify, though, I’m not sure that Conchita Wurst is transgender, as reported in the article. My source for that statement is German Wikipedia, so I don’t know how reliable or up-to-date the entry is, but there it is stated that Conchita Wurst is the stage name of Thomas Neuwirth, a cross dresser. Apparently as a homosexual from a small town in the province of Styria, he suffered a lot of discrimination and created the figure of Conchita Wurst to make a statement against discrimination of what is different. The first name was given to him as a nickname by a Cuban friend of his. The last name “Wurst” comes from the expression in German “Das ist wurst”–in other words “that doesn’t matter”. He wanted to express with it that it doesn’t matter where one comes from or what one looks like.

The whole INYT article can be found at:


5 May

5ºC (about 40ºF) here this morning on the 5th day of the 5th month. I think the ice saints may have arrived early this year, like everything else. 😉

Customer service

4 May

I’m doing a bit of clearing out this morning and found a file with the beginnings, in some ways, of this blog. I’ve been jotting down bits and pieces from life in Vienna since long before there was even something called the internet. This one is about quite a controversial topic in the U.S. American / Viennese dialogue, customer service.

One topic that comes up again and again among U.S. American expatriates in Vienna is the quality of customer service. The general opinion is that it isn’t very good. My feeling is that it is different from what you get in the U.S.A. but not always worse. Yes, there can be grumpy and / or rude waiters especially in the traditional coffeehouses, who sometimes—but not always—become less grumpy when addressed in good German. On the other end of the spectrum I have stories of customer service I’ve received in Vienna that is so good it is off the scale.

First of all, there is the kind of customer service that the Viennese miss when they go abroad. In the words of a Viennese who has been a professor at a major U.S. university for over 25 years, “I miss sales clerks who know what they are talking about.” He was referring to the system of training people to be specialists that is still common in Vienna.

Shortly after he said this I experienced vividly what he was talking about. I have the kind of engagement calendar which is like a ring binder and for which I need to buy new inserts every year. I bought it because I liked the look of it, never realizing that it is not a common brand and therefore very hard to get inserts for. For a number of years I went to one store on Kärntnerstraße in the First District. Then they fell victim to the general trend of replacing Viennese stores that had been there for generations with the usual chain stores you find in every European capital.

After asking around, I found out that there was another stationery store, Mayr & Fessler, on Kärntnerstraße that might have what I need. I went off to see if they could help me. The young saleswoman I talked to knew exactly what I was referring to but said she feared they were out but that they usually got their weekly deliveries from that distributor on that very day of the week. She would call down to the stock room to see if the inserts I needed had come in that day’s shipment. In under a minute she was able to confirm that they had. In less than three minutes one of her colleagues had brought them up for me. Having worked in retail myself, I was much impressed that she knew that a shipment should have arrived and that she went to the trouble of checking for me. When I thanked her she said it was “selbstverständlich” (approximately in this context “her job”).

This was the same store that, on another occasion, after selling me the leads for my mechanical pencil offered to refill the pencil for me. When I saw that they put the leads in from the top, not shoved up from the bottom as I am wont to do, I asked the saleswoman to show me how she had done it and got a quick lesson in the manufacturer-approved method.

Then there is the customer service in Vienna that allows the customer as much time as he or she wants. (Granted this can backfire—sometimes you are allowed far more time than you want!). The Viennese are used to being allowed to sit for an entire evening in a restaurant and would be shocked to be rushed or even kicked out. You must ask for the check in a Viennese eatery or you will sit there forever. The waiter will never bring the check without being asked.

I know the system in the U.S. is different. Having worked a short stint as a waitress I am perfectly aware that restaurants live from turnover on tables and the wait staff live from their tips. I still had no comfort or explanation to offer one of my Austrian friends who was in Washington, D.C., on business. After a hard day’s work he went out with some other European colleagues (all high-level employees of an EU government body) to a restaurant recommended to them as one of the best in Washington. They enjoyed the meal and were lingering over their coffee. The waitress brought the check. They were in no rush to pay. The waitress made a few subtle attempts to get them to pay. They resisted. She finally asked them outright to pay and leave as she needed the table. At this point they complied, naturally, in their opinion, leaving no tip. As the waitress confronted them about this they explained their position. At this point the manager got involved—on the side of the waitress! Whatever else you may have to put up with in restaurants in Vienna (grumpy waiters, slower service than you are used to, problems paying at the end) I doubt you will find that you are first asked to leave and then expected to tip for the pleasure!

And then there is the extraordinary customer service, the customer service clearly based on the Golden Rule.

For example, there was the time someone called me from the main post office. She had a postcard for me on which there was no family name and no address but my telephone number. It’s a long story how that happened. The short version is that I had met a student from Korea on a coach between Oxford and London. She thought she might be coming to Vienna so I gave her my telephone number and asked her to call me if she came. She sent the postcard to let me know that she wouldn’t be coming after all and, as all she had was my first name and my phone number, she used that. The lady from the post office asked for my address, I gave it to her, and she sent along the card.

There was also the time when I was so impressed by the customer service that I interrupted a busy day to painstakingly write, in German, a letter to the head of the company about the incident. I had paid for a purchase at my local perfume store with my debit card. Then I made a change to my purchases which entitled me to a credit. I was told that only the amount of my final purchases would be charged. Yet when I did my bookkeeping for the month I saw that the credit hadn’t been taken into account. The store owed me a little over EUR 12. With very little hope I went back to the shop, wondering how on earth I would be able to explain what had happened and back up my claim. I had barely launched into my story when the saleswoman said, “We owe you EUR 12.05.” She reached into a drawer, took out an envelope with the money in it, gave it to me, and gave me a small present to make up for the trouble of having to come back. I shall be their loyal customer until they are taken over by the international chains taking over all the small shops in Vienna.

The Zoo in Vienna

3 May

The zoo at Schönbrunn is the oldest in Europe and has won prizes for the quality of its animal care. Evidence of this is the high rate of reproduction among the animals. Here they are celebrating the cheetah cubs born on April 16th.:-)zoo_cheetah cubs_2014