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In Düsseldorf

19 Jan

Am waiting to board the last plane to Vienna this evening and am interested in the information about Vienna they are showing on a screen–that there are more people buried in the main cemetery (2.5 m) than live in the city (1.8 m) and that there are over 300 balls a year. Fun to have another perspective!

And the former president …

4 Dec

And the former president of Austria, Heinz Fischer, recently was at a gala concert in the Musikverein to celebrate pianist Rudolf Buchbinder’s 70th birthday. One thing I have always appreciated about Fischer is that he likes classical music and can often be seen at concerts, usually without any obvious security. The first time I saw him, I was dissecting a concert with some Austrian friends and interrupted to point and say, “Der Bundespräsident!” They glanced over and said, more or less, “Of course. What did you expect? He often comes to concerts” and turned back to continue our conversation. What did I expect??? A security detail taking the president out through a back passage, not this short, middle-aged man walking out alone looking contemplative.

“Wie geht’s?”

22 Sep

One of the first phrases one learns in any beginning German course, “Wie geht’s?” means “How are you?” Simple, it seems. And yet it is important to know that there is no one-to-one correlation in how those phrases are used in Germany / Austria and the U.S.A.

First of all, in German “Wie geht’s?” by itself is quite informal. Ideally, you remember whether you are “per du” with someone or “per Sie”, the former being the informal you (like “tu” in French) and the latter being the formal you (like “vous”). If you are “per Sie” then the correct phrase is “Wie geht’s Ihnen?”–a German lesson in and of itself including relatively advanced concepts like the dative. If you are “per du” then “Wie geht’s?” by itself is acceptable or you could say “Wie geht’s dir?”

That’s the language lesson associated with that simple phrase. Then there are the intercultural aspects. In German, you only ask the question if you really want to know. This usually means you only ask people you know well, where you are prepared to hear a relatively long and truthful account of their current state of being (no “Fine, thanks, and you?” when someone’s back hurts or life is falling apart). It is acceptable to ask a stranger if there has been some kind of accident and you want to make sure the person is all right, but the general use of “Wie geht’s” simply does not exist here. For example, you would never find a salesperson asking you as you come into the store, even though “Schönen Tag!” (“Have a nice day!”) does seem to have crept into the language.

For years, I had a not entirely earned reputation of being a nice person, because I asked colleagues and clients alike “Wie geht’s” and listened patiently as they chronicled their aches and pains. The danger should one ask and then not listen to the answer is that one is labeled “superficial”–a grave allegation in this relationship-oriented culture.

Because I asked, though, I have also found some answers that have always intrigued me and that are, I believe, typically Viennese. One is “Lei’wand” (short for “Leinwand” or movie screen), which is generally interpreted to mean “Great!” The other goes deeper into the Viennese mindset. Sometimes people, especially those lower down on the socio-economic scale, answer, “Wie die Anderen wollen” or “As the others would have it”, expressing a sense that they do not control their destiny, are subject to the whims of others. So much for “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

Auf Wiedersehen

11 Jan

Note to self: The Viennese aren’t famous for speaking with each other on public transportation, but if for some reason you exchange (civil) remarks with someone it’s important to remember then to say “Auf Wiedersehen” when you part.

The Viennese and their weather

19 Dec

It occurred to me that those of you who have never lived in Vienna might wonder why I have a special tag for the weather. That is because we have a lot of it in Vienna. 😉 At least, the Viennese are very aware of their weather and talk about it a lot–not in the way the British do, as a kind of safe subject for small talk, but as an explanation, not to say excuse, for all kinds of things. Everybody is short-tempered? Must be the weather. You’re tired even though you slept well last night? Must be the weather. You’re dizzy? Guess what. Must be the weather.

There is, in fact, one weather phenomenon known to cause some physcial symptoms–Föhn. This is more common in Innsbruck, but that doesn’t stop the Viennese from talking about it. I once had the joyful job of trying to explain Föhn (pronounced rather the way Inspector Clouseau as played by Peter Sellars pronounced “phone”) to a group of American visitors. At the time I believed, because my Viennese friends had told me this, that it was a hot wind coming up from northern Africa. Now there is Wikipedia and I can tell you with authority that it is a “warmer trockener Fallwind” or a warm dry wind that comes down over a mountain (great diagram at: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallwind). What does it feel like? Perhaps it helps to mention that Austrians use the word Föhn for  “hairdryer”  rather than the more standard Haartrockner.

But what does it do, this warm dry wind coming down off the mountain? The most common complaint associated with Föhn is headache. But sometimes you also hear of someone suffering from a Kreislaufzusammenbruch (Kreislauf = circulatory system; Zusammenbruch = breakdown). The first time a business partner called to cancel an appointment because she was suffering from Kreislaufzusammenbruch I gasped and said, “Are you calling from the hospital? Can I do anything to help?” She was audibly amused and said no she was at home but not up to a meeting. Life-threatening as it sounds, Kreislaufzusammenbruch does not usually require medical intervention. It makes the sufferer feel dizzy and miserable, but is not usually serious and is usually quite short-lived. (The circulatory system, by the way, is to German speakers what the  liver is to the French. We have Kreislaufzusammenbrüche; they have crises de foie.)

In spite of my New England upbringing, where external factors are seldom an excuse for falling down on the job, I notice that I have lived in Vienna long enough to feel it, too. Got a headache? Must be the Föhn!

Specialty shops – 1

6 Oct

The search for bobbins for my sewing machine has reminded me of the confusion and fun of the first year or so of living in Vienna.

In different countries you can find that things you need or want are not sold where you would expect them to be sold. What I most clearly remember was the search for contact lens solutions. Used to the all-service supermarkets in the U.S. I tried there first. People looked at me as if I were crazy. I fled. Then I thought, “I bet they have them at the pharmacy” (a much more restricted concept in Austria than in the U.S.), but when I asked there they thought I was crazy, too. But at least they told me where to go. In Austria, still, the one and only place to buy contact lens solutions is at the optician’s.

The Austrian culture is higher on uncertainty avoidance–that’s a technical term and part of Geert Hofstede’s model of cultural dimensions–than the U.S. American culture. One way this expresses itself is through the credence given to experts. What might happen if we were allowed to buy aspirin or contact lens solutions all by ourselves at the supermarket? (Other than the disintegration of the pharmacies and the opticians’?) Heaven alone knows! Better to be safe than sorry.

So back to my sewing machine. I thought I had figured the system out by this time. I went to a specialty sewing shop to buy, among other things, bobbins for my perfectly normal, nothing out of the ordinary Singer sewing machine. And was told I could only get them from Singer direct!

Another reason I live in Vienna – the Austrian mentality

13 Jan

This is perhaps not the most understandable statement for any U.S. American who has spent any time especially in Vienna. The Viennese in particular can be quite grumpy and rather closed. Yet there are parts of the Austrian mentality I treasure and can identify with.

In my early years (about 20 years ago) there was a referendum about (a) should Austria build a hydroelectric plant and (b) should Vienna co-host the World Fair together with Budapest. The Austrians voted yes to the hydroelectric plant (green, modern thinking) and no to the World Fair, which, apparently, they felt would bring too much crime into the country. The money it would have brought wasn’t important enough to them to balance what they saw as the disadvantages. In general, the Austrians are willing to put their money where their mouths are. (Take a look at the tax rate and, on the other hand, the social services some day.)

In a similar vein, I saw today in the free newspaper “Heute” that in an opinion poll 42% of Austrians said yes to the higher taxes and the austerity package the government is proposing. They understand that you can’t go on spending money you don’t have and that you need to get money somewhere (e.g., from taxes) if you have a deficit. I can really respect such pragmatism and only wish my country were willing to let some of this rub off on them.