Wien: Week 8 – THE CULTURE ISSUE

This week was pretty relaxing, to recover from Amsterdam the previous weekend and catch up on some sleep. Such an epic weekend.

This week we did some open-air ice skating at Wiener Eislaufverein. They were having a promotion, where ice skating was free but you just had to pay for the skate rental (expensive at €6 vs. $2-3 CAD for skates). It was a lot of fun! The only similar thing we have in Vancouver is Robson Square, but it’s still a covered facility. I guess I’m not a “real” Canadian because I didn’t grow up playing hockey on a nearby frozen-over lake (I’ve done it once at Big White Mountain…), but I was glad I can hold my own while skating. I was impressed by fellow exchange students who tried their hand at skating even if it’s not a normal hobby in their home country (ie. South American countries and other warm places).

Wiener Eislauferein

Wiener Eislaufverein

After skating, we went to Stadtpark Bräu for some Austrian food and yummy sturm.

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NASCHMARKT

I’ve mentioned Naschmarkt in a previous post, but I’ll elaborate a bit more here. It’s a cross between a produce market, a restaurant street, and a flea market. The operating hours are about 6am – 7:30pm, but closes earlier on Saturday and is closed on Sundays.

You can get all sorts of produce at Naschmarkt, from basic veggies to more exotic items like dragonfruit. You can also get deli meats, cheeses, spices, antipasti, fresh pasta, baked goods, desserts, and more. At the produce stands, you can sample any product if you ask for it.

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Spices

Cured pork leg

Cured pork leg

Snacks & desserts!

Snacks & desserts!

Dips & fresh pastas

Dips & fresh pastas

There is one lane at Naschmarkt of restaurants, and there are always people outside beckoning you to enter their establishment. There’s a wide variety of cuisine, from seafood to Austrian to Italian to Chinese. I personally haven’t ever eaten at any of the Naschmarkt restaurants, but they do look delicious. Probably pricey too.

Further past the restaurants, there are food stands. These sell take-away items like kebap (meat sandwiches/wraps), burek (a greasy, flaky meat- or cheese-stuffed pancake), etc. These are pretty cheap eats for a tight budget.

A busy Saturday morning

A busy Saturday morning at Naschmarkt

On Saturdays only, the normal perimeter of Naschmarkt expands to include a flea market. I swear, you can find almost anything at the Naschmarkt flea market, from antiques to jewelry to Polaroid cameras to leather jackets to cabinet handles to chandeliers. I find it’s mostly old, run-down stuff though. Also, you definitely need several hours to peruse the dozens of stalls if you want to take a good look and perhaps even buy something. You can also haggle & bargain at the Naschmarkt stalls.

Naschmarkt flea market

Naschmarkt flea market (Jason in the foreground)

Earlier that week I hit up Café Prückel, a classic Austrian café. Once again, I got the recommendation from the USE IT guide made by locals. The description for this café read:

Café Pruckel is one of the classic Viennese coffeehouses. For some it is “the” classic. Here you can find high, light rooms with an art nouveau ceiling, original furniture from the 50s, really good homemade cakes and coffee specialties, “original” Viennese waiters. This café is a favourite with young and old alike.

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Inside Café Prückel – not the best picture though

I had a Salut im Prückel (“baked Camembert cheese on a colourful salad with marinated grapes” was the description) and finished off the meal with a Hausgemachter warmer Milchraumstrudel (oven-baked pastry dough stuffed with a sweet bread, raisin and cream filling and served in with hot vanilla sauce – a homemade and original recipe) and a Schwartztee Assam (hot Assam tea).

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Salat im Prückel

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Milchraumstrudel & Schwarztee

Since this week wasn’t too eventful, I have some space to talk about a special topic: Austrian culture. Hence the title of this post. In my first post, I said I didn’t think I would be affected by the cultural differences between Canada and Europe because I’d experienced Europe before. But now, after being in Vienna for two months, I believe I spoke too soon back then. The thing is, I’ve never been immersed in a different culture for so long. Even though the cultural differences could be a lot more extreme – for example if I went to India or something – I’m starting to pick up the subtleties of interacting with locals here in Vienna.

First, I’ll talk to some of the most prominent stereotypes (for me) that exist about Austrians and the Viennese:

DISCLAIMER: I’ve formulated these opinions based on what I’ve witnessed, experienced, and heard from others. In no way am I some sort of cultural expert, nor do I claim to know everything about the Austrian culture. Please don’t be offended if you’re an Austrian or European. Take these points with a grain of salt, and don’t consider them too seriously!

1. The Viennese are always grumpy

Apparently this is only a thing in Vienna, not the rest of Austria. But it must be the strongest stereotype for this city.They say that the Viennese are incredibly grantig (grumpy). In every USE IT guide, there’s a section on how to act like a local. On the Viennese grumpiness: Although we are living in a city where everything works perfectly, we like to paint everything black and complain. A lot! As an original Viennese it is mandatory to be all grumpy because the bus is one minute late or because it is unbearably hot/cold/rainy/sunny. Don’t take our bad mood personally – it is part of our mentality that dates back to the monarchy, when half the population were civil servants.

I call it The Viennese Paradox (should I trademark the term?): They live in the most livable city in the world, yet they are grantig and have so much to complain about! I don’t get this. Although all the locals I’ve met have been friendly, I’m beginning to think that some Austrians live with more of a “life is okay I guess” mentality rather than a “life is great!” mantra.

2. The service is terrible

I must say, this is what’s affecting me right now. I find this most obvious in restaurants, cash tills, and customer service desks. People in these positions are generally not very friendly, and don’t care about helping you at all. For me, I am used to the North American service industry and all its affectionate, over-achieving “worship” for the customer. The customer is king, right? Well in Vienna…. wrong! The USE IT guide explains: Don’t be surprised if the waiters are unfriendly – not the guest is king, he is. Address him with “Herr Ober” and treat him like your superior and he’ll reward you with a smile. Just kidding, waiters never smile! For his courteous service a tip of 5 to 10% of the bill is what the king expects of his subjects.

What kind of twisted system is that?? I know the writeup is a bit exaggerated, but I still can’t get over how unfriendly the service people are. I normally enjoy interacting with service people back home, especially if they make an effort to be funny or personable, but here I feel like people treat me like an idiot and I’ve done something terribly wrong to not deserve any courtesy. As if it’s like: How dare I ask where the sugar is found! There are some exceptions though. I HAVE come across some people who actually smile and act friendly towards me (ie. the ladies at the Felber bakery near my residence) but in general, I don’t particularly enjoy crossing paths with service people here. It’s not that I’m a service snob. I know there exists good and bad service everywhere, and that it’s inherently different than back home. I just don’t appreciate how people, who are supposed to be in a helpful position (ie. information desks), give me attitude and purposely act like they could care less about me, the customer. The person who is supporting their business. It’s depressing. I sound like a real Viennese, complaining about this, don’t I?

3. Austrians are conservative

People here are not loud or obnoxious, but rather it seems that they keep to themselves quite a bit. As a North American, I am used to energetically talking to somebody when I meet them for the first time, I swear almost to the point that I feel like I’m best friends with this person I just met. In North American culture I feel it’s also important for us to connect with as many people as we can (or maybe it’s a business school thing). But it’s so different here in Vienna. People generally won’t put themselves out there as much as North Americans, and it can take a long time to “peel away the layers” of a hard outer shell. But once you get to know someone after a while and become closer with them, your relationship with them will surely last forever. There’s a nice sense of loyalty and assurance with this. It makes me think that North American relationships often tend to be a lot more superficial than in other cultures.

Another illustration of Austrian conservatism: There are people from all over the world in my International Marketing & Management course at WU. So, we had a discussion about the different customs in our respective cultures, and the dialogue on Austrian custom was something like this:

Non-Austrian: The waiters are so unfriendly here!

Austrian: That is because they are not working for a tip, like in North America and other places (sidenote: it’s not really courtesy to tip here like it mentions above)

Non-Austrian: But even in the supermarkets too. In North America, supermarket workers don’t get tips, but they’re still way friendlier. I’m not asking for people to be overly outgoing, but some courtesy would be nice! (non-Austrians in the room nod)

Austria: But maybe it would be strange for us if the person at the cash till was asking us all these questions like “how are you? how was your day today? what are your plans for the evening?”. We might think, ‘why are they speaking to us in this way? what do they want from me?’ We would be suspicious of this person.

Well, that certainly is a big difference I’ve noticed here, the conservatism. It doesn’t bother me, it’s just different.

4. Austrians avoid conflict

Stemming off of being conservative, Austrians are not very confrontational either. Or so goes the stereotype that originates from the Austro-Hungarian empire times. In order to acquire more land and avoid war back in the day, Empress Maria Theresa systematically married off her children to princes from neighbouring lands (including the infamous Marie Antoinette to Louis XVI of France). A funny vision I think about is Maria Theresia meeting with the royal family who owns the piece of land she wishes to acquire, and saying “Please, I don’t want any trouble.. just have my daughter! Truce!” I guess this mindset has trickled down from those days.

5. Austrians have no national pride

In our first week, we attended a lecture about Austria, delivered by a WU professor. He mentioned this funny mentality that Austrians have about national pride. When things are going bad, Austrians tend to avoid the fact that Austria had anything to do with it, and blame the outcome of the situation on external factors. One extreme example is WWII: often, it’s said that Austrians play the victim when asked about the rise of Hitler (an Austrian himself), that Austria was “the Nazi’s first victim rather than its collaborator”. On the other hand, when things are going well for Austria, for example winning a big soccer football match, it’s then obviously attributable to the great and powerful country that is Austria. Or when the bearded drag persona Conchita Wurst won the Eurovision song contest earlier this year. But on a day-to-day basis, you don’t see Austrian flags hanging off people’s homes or people wearing Austrian-patterned clothing. I guess they’re just not that patriotic?

6. Austrians hate Germans and Germans hate Austrians

Ah, the classic conflict. “Aren’t Germans and Austrians the same?” Whoa, stop right there. Don’t ever say that out loud in front of either party. I swear, the only Austrian pride you’ll see is when they’re being compared to Germans. Although the differences might be subtle to the average ignorant North American, they are in fact miles apart. Not just because of the linguistic varieties, but also in behaviour (even more different than Canadians vs. Americans, but it’s still important not to get to two mixed up.. gotta throw in my Canadian pride somewhere in this post!). I have spoken to both Austrians and Germans and asked their opinions about the other. In a nutshell:

Austrians on Germans: Germans are arrogant, obnoxious, and much too direct for their liking. They are too pushy, and they impose their ways on others.

Germans on Austrians: Austrians are lazy, unfriendly people who are just jealous they aren’t German. They also care way too much about their professional titles.

To sum it up, watch this hilarious Conan O’Brien video with Christoph Waltz, an Austrian, and his opinion on the difference between Austrians and Germans.

So, after all this, did I miss any stereotypes / cultural differences about the Austrians? Let me know! 🙂  I also have more thoughts on culture + being an Asian in Europe – to come in a future post.

Next post: my trip to (not so sunny) Greece!

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