Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Viennese as they are

The Viennese as they are

Rónán-Gearóid Ó Domhnaill,

Wien, Wien, nur du allein, sollst von allen verachtet sein.

Arnold Schönberg

While the positive aspects of life in Vienna have been well documented criticism of the Viennese is noticeable by its absence. The Viennese, it is said, have a heart of gold, but gold is hard.
The following article is not entirely all my own work. Along with my own opinions formed from personal experience and observations over the years it is a compilation of opinions expressed by my students in English class, who are of all ages and walks of life with their origins in Austria and all over Europe.
It is not meant to be an attack on the Viennese, although it does not really put them in a positive light. No city or people are perfect and I believe every people and city, including my own native town, have room for improvement. It is through disputation that such advancements can be made. Nothing and no one should be above criticism.
I have spent most of my time in Vienna and am fully aware of the phrase ‘Vienna is not Austria and Austria is not Vienna’. Thus when one speaks of Vienna, one cannot speak of the entire land.

To start on a positive note one can say without hesitation that Vienna is one of the safest cities in the world. Unlike other European capitals you can walk anywhere, anytime, without fear of being mugged. Apart from the dog dirt, which I will discuss later, Vienna is undoubtedly a very clean city and the cleanliness is maintained day and night. The city does a lot for its inhabitants. Sports facilities and libraries are everywhere and easily affordable. The theatre and opera is also open to less fortunate members of society. In a nutshell, one is never bored in the city.

The Viennese themselves are however very much a closed group. Vienna, it is said, is the largest village in the world and it is true to say that a village mentality reigns in what should be a cosmopolitan city. Non-Austrians are regarded more of a threat than an enrichment. Exceptions are made if the foreigners happen to be extremely rich or who can play good football.
Ernst Hinterberger summed up the openness of the Viennese when his favourite character Mundl remarks ‘Alles was kein Wiener ist, ist praktisch ein Tschusch. Wurscht, ob er aus Sankt Pölten, Buxtehude, Japan oder aus dem Urwald kommt.’ (Anyone who is not Viennese is practically a Tschusch [term of abuse for people from the Balkans]. It doesn’t matter if they’re from St. Pölten, Buxtehude, Japan or the rainforest.)
On a more serious note, although illegal in other EU member states, it is still common to see racist phrases such as Nur Inländer[1] or Nur Österreicher in the newspapers when looking for a job or an apartment.
According to the far right politician[2], Heinz Christian Strache, to be Viennese you must be at least two generations in the city, speak Viennese and live the Viennese way of life. The majority of Viennese seem to share this view. They divide the city’s inhabitants into Urwiener (those fulfilling Strache’s definition), Wiener (those with parents not from Vienna but Austrian) and Neowiener (foreigners living in Vienna, who have recently become Austrian citizens but are not really Viennese). It is little wonder therefore, that so few of the 300,000 foreigners in Vienna wish to integrate.

The charming and easy-going manner of people such as Hans Moser, while stirring up a pleasant image does not really reflect daily reality. Requests for information whether on the street or in shops will often be met with terse responses or grunts. In the smaller shops customers are often regarded as a nuisance. Service in supermarkets can be a shocking experience for English speakers used to customer service. I have come to understand that it is because a different philosophy reigns in supermarkets in Vienna. People want to get out as fast as possible. Therefore, the girl at the checkout will work, as fast as possible and common courtesies are deemed unimportant. It disturbed me for the first two years as I allowed myself to be treated like dirt. Living in Vienna you become acclimatized to it and it is only when you receive visitors or visit another Austrian city that you realise how rude and impersonal shopping in a supermarket in Vienna can be. I remember once when my mother went into a supermarket alone and returned shocked and upset telling me how the girl had swept the shopping almost in one go over the scanner, not helped her pack the shopping, tapped in her fingers on the desk in impatience as my mother paid and then threw the receipt at her. Recently I bore witness to a Chinese lady standing in front of me at the checkout. When it came to paying she looked desperately for a clue as to how much she owed. Normally it appears on the cash register, but in this case it didn’t and the lady at the checkout wasn’t going to make it easy. She snapped the price once more at the bewildered Chinese lady who was either a tourist or not au fait with the heavy Viennese dialect. This is what one calls the Viennese charm.

The EU has made zero impact in Vienna. The average citizen has no idea what it is all about and would be challenged if asked how many states are in the union. My students at university once asked me if they needed a work permit to work in Ireland. The EU flag is rarely seen[3] and the citizens are EU sceptical if not hostile. One wonders why Austria joined the EU in the first place. The majority are completely unaware of any advantages the EU might have. The government fails to inform them otherwise and the Kronen Zeitung, the tabloid that tells Austrians what they should be thinking, with a readership of nearly three million is extremely anti-EU.[4] The EU threatens to bring change and while the Viennese want change, albeit on a very small scale, they do not want reform. The city is still very much living in imperial Austria The EU threatens to bring the outside world into the city and modernise it. The EU must also compete with the ‘red-white-red’ ideology that grew steadily from the 1980s as the Austrians began to gain an identity independent of the Germans, and is firmly implanted in the minds of the young. This ideology stresses the importance of ‘Austria first’ over a united Europe. It is intolerant of any criticism. Anyone remotely critical of Austrian nationalism is immediately classified as an enemy of Austria and writers such as Jelinek, Bernhard and Simmel who dared criticise their country found themselves either ostracized or the victims of hate campaigns. It is not surprising therefore that some of the best Austrian writers live abroad. It was this nationalism at times bordering on the extreme, that I first noticed when I moved to Vienna not long after the present government had taken up office. I learnt to my cost that it was taboo to compare the Viennese with the ‘stupid’ Germans.[5] This is perhaps part of an inferiority complex. Having had personal experience with Irish and German nationalism I was not terribly impressed with Austrian nationalism and it is all very much like what Nestroy once said: “Es ist alles uralt, nur in andere Gestalt”. (It’s the same old thing, just in another shape).

Imperial Austria is still very noticeable in the city. The University of Vienna is the best place to see how imperial Austria worked. Nothing has changed there in the last hundred years and the feudal system in operation is unparalleled in the western world. The students are treated like serfs and in order to study there they behave as such. The so-called ordentliche professor has the role of Kaiser and enjoys unlimited powers and it is he that makes the rules. He may be racist, sexist and generally xenophobic but in a country where titles are cherished above all else he is answerable to nobody. Indeed, with enough titles you can get literally get away with murder. One only has to think of the late Dr. Gross, who recently died peacefully, unlike his victims. The university is designed chiefly for the Viennese with many professors delivering their lectures in Viennese dialect to ensure that only Austrians will be able to follow the lectures, which is too bad for foreign students who only understand Pfiefchinesisch (Standard German). This was in contrary to the policy at other universities where I studied. In Dresden for example, if the German literature professor were to have spoken dialect, it would have been regarded as ill educated and unprofessional.
The University of Vienna suffered a brain drain from which it never recovered, when it expelled all its Jewish professors in 1938 and showed little interest in taking them back after the war. These mathematicians, scientists and psychologists went to America, where their talents were used to the full. An anti-Semitic atmosphere prevailed at the university (and in the city itself) until the late 1960s. Far right student groups[6] still enjoy the support of the university, making the University of Vienna one of the most closed and intolerant universities in the world.

A trip on the U-Bahn is like a journey to hell. Everybody looks either depressed or angry. In the tram people generally sit on the outside seat, leaving the inner one free but inaccessible to the passengers standing. When exiting, it is usual to push your way through. The Viennese only speak to strangers to warn or insult them. If they speak to you otherwise they are almost definitely from one of the other federal states. The favourite hobby of the Viennese is to complain (raunzen). They will however, not try to change their situation, because although they don’t like it, it is too strenuous to change it and they could risk being faced with an uncertain future.
The Viennese love their dogs more than they do small children. There are currently over 50,000 registered in the city. They bring their dogs everywhere, even into restaurants. Dog dirt is a serious problem. Only the overwhelming stench of urine and horse dung of the first district can compete with this eyesore. I have never lived in a city where it is so omnipresent. Given the disgusting amount of dog dirt and urine in the streets it is hardly surprising that the shoes are removed when entering the apartment. It is common practice to walk your dog in another district, other than the one in which you live and let him do his business in the middle of the footpath or in a doorway. To walk along some footpaths is to move like a ballerina.
Every year it snows in Vienna and every year warnings of snow are given on radio and TV, yet the Viennese are deeply amazed when it does indeed snow the next day and chaos ensues, as the people are unprepared.

It takes years to really get to know the Viennese. It is said however, that once you get to know them you have a friend for life. In this regard they cannot be accused of superficiality. They seem to be perpetually cantankerous. Their bark is however, worse than their bite. While they have a big mouth, disputes rarely escalate into violence. Although the socialists are in power Vienna is essentially a conservative city, whose inhabitants rarely let their hair down. It would be an exaggeration to call it Europe’s party capital. Singing and busking in the streets or making noise in public is frowned upon and are likely to involve the police. In this regard it is a city designed more for old people than young people.

To get invited to a Viennese home is a rare honour. They prefer to meet people in a restaurant or heurige. It is possible to know the Viennese for years and have never seen the inside of their apartment. I was once invited to Viennese home, but only after they had seen my apartment. If you do get invited to their home it will be to show it off. Thankfully this practice is limited to Vienna and people from the Federal states think nothing of inviting you to their home, however humble, whether it is in Vienna or the countryside.

When talking to a Viennese the questions you will be asked are extremely predictable. You can basically prepare for the questions they will ask. The usual question (question no. 2 or 3, depending on the person) is ‘how long are you staying?’ which although could be interpreted as impolite, intolerant if not bordering on racist, is not actually intended as such. Once you mention you are from Ireland you will here things like ‘Protestant or Catholic’? ‘Northern Ireland’, ‘Guinness’ or ‘whiskey’. It is always the same old clichés, regardless of the age or education of the Viennese. These clichés are generally intended as humorous, even if they indicate a complete ignorance of Ireland, but when you hear them on average at least once a day over a number of years, they tend to become tired.
In the eyes of the Viennese no foreigner can speak perfect German. Once they hear a trace of an English accent they will answer the other person in English, which irritates those who make an attempt to speak German. It is regarded as a compliment when a Viennese says that someone ‘speaks good German for a foreigner.’ Nor is a foreigner permitted to correct the Viennese. If they do so they will be reprimanded with the phrase ‘Wos was a Fremder?’ (What does a foreigner know?)

Vienna is a city of music and money. The latter is important and those who have it tend to flaunt it and it also allows you to behave anyway you please. Clothes make the man and those not dressed accordingly will be treated shoddily should they venture into an expensive shop. Vienna however, has no financial centre comparable to Milan or New York and little or no industry. The Viennese lives from the Habsburg legacy, Mozart and the Viennese waltz. While the waltz may be something that died out a hundred years ago in Western Europe it is still very popular in Vienna. While this way of living appears charming at first, the accompanying snobbery is not.

Tourists are warmly received. They are the city’s life-blood. They bring money into the city and best of all, like all good foreigners, they go again. Western Europeans are treated like tourists even if they have been living in the city for years. Since the Viennese do not leave Vienna it is beyond their comprehension that somebody from western Europe would want to work and live in the city for longer than two years. The vast majority of EU citizens will work for international companies or organisations. It is nigh on impossible for a non-Austrian to find gainful employment in an Austrian company. Protectionism is too strong. Exceptions are sometimes made for the Germans[8] and those married to an Austrian. A French student of mine once advised me to invent an Austrian fiancée or wife when going for a job interview. This strict protectionism does not apply to blue-collar workers, who are permitted to do the dirty work but not expected to rise above their station. Thus an Italian should sell ice cream, a Turk is here to make kebabs and a English native speaker should work as a native speaker.

As fore mentioned, for the Viennese there is no life outside of Vienna. They tend to get homesick in Hütteldorf. Vienna is for them, the centre of the earth and those who go as far a field as Bratislava or Munich are shocked to find that Austria and more importantly Vienna, does no really feature in the news and newspapers. Most of them leave the city only to go on holidays. Otherwise they are born there, go to school there, get a job there and die there. The majority of Viennese have never been to Bratislava, although it is only half an hour away. They only venture into the Czech Republic and Hungary to avail of cheap counterfeit goods and to help support the sex industry.

Languages such as Czech, Slovak, Slovenian and Hungarian are not taught in Viennese schools. Spanish, French and Italian are deemed more relevant. This would suggest that there is very little contact with the surrounding neighbours. The Viennese are similar to the Americans, namely they tend to live in their own world, except the latter travel more. Their knowledge of the outside world is limited largely to clichés. They know exactly how the Americans live because they watch American TV shows which reflect reality perfectly, just like Kaisermühlen Blues and Mundl reflect exactly how all the Viennese live. Thus, all Americans are fat and stupid. They don’t even know basic things that shaped our modern world like who scored the wining goal against Germany in 1978.

Problems such as racism and sex slavery in Vienna are not openly acknowledged. The Viennese prefer to examine these problems in other countries. Austrian anti-racism associations such as ZARA do not get government funding and although he was honoured all over the world the late Simon Wiesenthal was regarded more of an embarrassment and a thorn in the side of a country that insisted it was a victim.[9] While Germany went overboard with its examination of its dark past the topic has hardly been touched upon in Austria. Programmes regarding Austria’s role in the Third Reich will either not be screened on ORF or shown at an awkward time like one o’clock in the morning. History books still stress the high level of resistance to the Nazis (which was representative of only a very small minority) and only mentions war crimes committed by the Germans.

The Viennese are the Viennese. They live in their own little world, blissfully unaware of the world outside. They are content to live like this for the world outside would be very strange for them and they therefore rarely venture into it. A student of mine once compared them to trolls living under ground, never seeing the light of day. It may appear that they hate Jews, Turks, blacks and Muslims but they do not really hate anyone. They are merely indifferent, which reminds me of something George Bernhard Shaw once said- the worst sin towards our fellow man is not to hate him, but to be indifferent to him. That is the essence of inhumanity.

[1] Living in Germany, a country where EU membership is noticeable, I never came across such a term. Unlike the Viennese, the Germans regard foreigners as those who do not come from the EU.
[2] Despite evidence to the contrary the majority of Austrians do not view the FPÖ as an extreme right wing party. In fact they are highly accepted socially.
[3] This is not entirely true. In January 2006 Austria took over the EU presidency and since then the EU flag has been on prominent display on two city buildings, the City Hall and the parliament.
[4] The newspaper has also an extreme right-wing touch to it. On 20 April 1994 when the country was experiencing a surge in neo–nazi violence they published a poem in honour of Adolf Hitler.
[5] Although the Viennese hate the Germans so much it does not prevent them from watching German shows such as ‘Wetten, dass…’ or ‘Der Bulle von Tölz, supporting German football teams or entering German shops. Indeed, the vast majority of shops in Austria are under German ownership.
[6] These groups also exist in Germany but with a considerably weaker xenophobic and racist agenda than in Austria. Regrettably, most of the politicians in the ÖVP, FPÖ and BZÖ are members.

[8] I recently telephoned with an Austrian newspaper. From her clear understandable German it was obvious that the woman on the other side was German. Asking her how she managed to get a real job in Austria she replied it wasn’t easy and that in the interview an important question she was asked was what she could do for Austria.
[9] Jews in Berlin were ten times more likely to survive the holocaust than in Vienna. It is interesting to note that the Gestapo agent who arrested Anne Frank survived the war. When Wiesenthal tracked him down to Vienna he was still working for the police under his real name. He was eventually brought to trial. Although through his actions innocent people were sent to the extermination camps, he was acquitted of any wrongdoing. During the infamous Eichmann trial demonstrations for Eichmann’s acquittal were held in Vienna.

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