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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: 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 KreislaufzusammenbrĂŒche; 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.

“We are the champions”

7 Nov

This was the title last Friday of an article in the free city newspaper Heute (Today). The subject of the article? The recent WorldSkills fair in London (, where people between the ages of 17 and 25 compete to see who is best at his or her job. Austrians won three Gold, one Silver, and two Bronze medals. One of Gold medals went to a fine pastries chef, Stefan Lubinger, so you may think that Austria simply used its natural advantages to good effect. 😉 In fact, what probably helped this small country (only 8 million inhabitants) to do so well is the ongoing belief and investment in vocational education (I’m consciously not using the word “training” because it is, in fact, an education).

The apprenticeship system–where students spend a certain part of every school week in the classroom learning the theoretical part of their trade and what they need to one day run their own small business and the rest of the time practicing in a work environment under masters–is alive and still relatively well in Austria and serves a real purpose. It makes sure that pupils who do not want to go on with academic subjects have a viable alternative in the educational system and also that the population has a pool of extremely well-qualified stone masons, plumbers, electricians, waiters, chimney sweeps, office admin staff, pastry chefs, and so on.  Truly seems like a win-win situation to me!

Blaming the others

8 Jun

For those who haven’t been following current events in Europe, at this writing 22 people in nothern Europe, almost all of them in Germany, have died of a new strain of E.Coli. What was the first reaction in the media? “It’s probably the Spanish cucumbers.” When this statement could not be backed up by any evidence, the suspicion was switched to German soya sprouts, although there is currently no proof that it was the sprouts either.

This first assumption was made easier by the reputation Spanish veg has in northern Europe–dangerous because it contains high levels of pesticides and other chemicals. But the reaction–“They did it. They are responsible.” –is a very common reaction when something goes wrong. We don’t want to believe that our compatriots could be careless, incompetent, or dirty so we blame others, even if we have little evidence.

Blaming others is a natural reaction but not always a helpful one. That the vegetable industry has suffered as a result of the outbreaks (vegetable sales in Europe are down about 35% according to the International Herald Tribune) is perhaps inevitable, as people will try to protect themselves until there is some clarity. The fact that the Spanish farmers suffered disproprotionately shows one of the costs of this knee-jerk response, especially for Germany who may be required to pay compensation for that.