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21 Jan

I love shopping at Mastnak on Neubaugasse. It’s the epitome of the kind of specialty store Vienna used to have hundreds of (or perhaps thousands–I’m not very good with numbers).

In this case, their specialty is paper and office supplies, although they also have a very good arts and crafts department. A fews days ago when I was there, I was looking for refills for a four-color Lamy pen I’ve had since I was a teenager and erasers for a Faber-Castell propelling lead pencil. (You can keep your Mont Blancs and your Graf von Faber-Castels. I’m a middle-of-the-road kind of woman who appreciates quality and ease of writing but doesn’t want to take out a mortgage for a writing implement.)

I knew that I could get the Lamy refills because I have bought them there many times. I was less sure about the erasers, but having struck out at Libro (the Austrian equivalent of Staples, where I bought the pencil itself) I thought Mastnak was my best bet. I never should have doubted them. Even though I neglected to take the pencil to show them (Faber-Castell makes a lot of different models) they promptly took me to the right drawer and provided me with a pack of three erasers (the original eraser lasted at least five years so we’re talking fifteen years of use here) for a little over EUR 2. While I was there, I was reminded of the year I decided to use up old candle ends and make my own candles. I remembered how to do that from summer camp, but I had no idea where to get wicks. Well, that arts and crafts department I mentioned, which shares the floor with the pencil erasers–they sell wicks, among many other things.

For the record, I am someone who hates to throw out a toaster, for example, because I can’t repair it myself and the repair shop tells me it isn’t worth doing because the repair would cost twice what a new appliance would. I hate being made an accomplice to this wasteful, throwaway society we live in. For that reason, I deeply appreciate how the Mastnak product range and service make it possible to live an old-fashioned economical life, at least in my paper and office supplies. It makes possible a life where things (even old candle ends) aren’t just thrown away but are re-used.

As our grandparents could tell us, living economically in that way is also environmentally friendly. You don’t have to throw away the very nice propelling lead pencil because it doesn’t have an eraser anymore. You replace the eraser and get a couple more decades of use and pleasure out of it.  And beyond helping people recycle old candles and restore their mechanical pencils, Mastnak helps its customers live an environmentally friendly life by having a whole section of office products made, for example, from recycled paper. They even sell the inks you need to top up those refillable flipchart markers that most people don’t bother to refill, probably partly because it’s not easy to find the necessary ink.

Those aren’t the only points that make it a specialty store, though. Their staff know what they’re doing. They know where things are, even though the store is on several floors and has things squeezed into every corner. They understand what you need even from your rather flawed descriptions. And they are helpful. None of the quite common “Das gibt’s nicht” (“There’s no such thing”, which means “I’ve never heard of it” or “We don’t stock it” or maybe even “I’d have to get a ladder to get it down from the top shelf and that is just too much trouble”), which you might hear at other stores in Vienna. At Mastnak, they smile at you and lead you to the thing you’re looking for.

How can Mastnak survive, I hear you asking, when they take up time and space with erasers that only cost EUR 2 for a pack of three? For one thing, they sell Mont Blancs, too, and one Mont Blanc probably pays the rent for at least a week. For another thing, the store was crowded when I was there, with short lines at each of the several cash registers. They probably also have a thriving online business. Being lucky enough to live in this city, though, I’ve never used it.


The Third Day of Christmas

27 Dec

What a surprise it was to step onto the street today shortly after 8 a.m. for the first walk of the day and find people and cars and open shops and simply activity in general!

For many, my surprise will be incomprehensible. Was it really so quiet the last few days? Yup. Shops usually close in Vienna at midday on Christmas Eve and remain closed for Christmas Day and the Feast of Saint Stephen (known in the UK as Boxing Day). This year, however, Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday, when most shops are closed all day anyway, which meant that we have had three days of wonderful peace and quiet (and a most unusual abundance of free parking spaces) with the Viennese enjoying one of their favorite things–Ruhe (also known as peace and quiet).

A garage in Hernals

15 Sep

I’ve been meaning to take a photo of this for years. It is precisely the kind of building that is a perfect example of an earlier time and most likely to be torn down or converted into something else. In this case, although the building is much older, the fact that it is called a garage makes me think of the 1950s, when very few Viennese had cars and quite often they parked them in neighborhood garages, which were more like workshops than more modern parking garages. Mary Stewart describes just such a place in Marseilles in her wonderful romantic thriller Madam, Will You Talk?

garage on hernalser hauptstrasse_01

garage on hernalser hauptstrasse_03

Poisoning pigeons in the park ;-)

9 Jun

There are some new signs in the park. The ones exhorting dog owners to clean up after their pets have–temporarily, I imagine–been replaced by signs telling people that “Those who feed the pigeons are feeding the rats.”

don't feed the birds_modern

Interestingly, the fine is the same as if you don’t clean up after your dog–EUR 36.

There are permanent signs with the same message. They just aren’t as catchy–even if they are, in fact, more severe–and apparently needed some help to get the message across.

don't feed the birds_standard

The text (in my very inelegant translation): “No feeding the birds! (Prevention of rodent pests.)”

Behind-the-scenes Vienna

3 Jun

I caught the behind-the-scenes Vienna this morning, taking Mylo out for his walk. A few steps out of our house we passed a street cleaner in his bright orange uniform using an elaborate, clawed implement to pick up trash from the sidewalk and gutter. Upon seeing Mylo he gave us a big smile and said “Guten Morgen!”–a good start to the morning, indeed. Then, in the park, we saw the little (electric?) truck going along, one man driving and the other one walking along emptying the contents of the trash bins–considerable at this time of year as picnic season has begun–into the back of the truck. So that is why Vienna looks so clean. There is a crew backstage setting the scene just so.


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.