5 Things I Have Learned In Vienna

Bridget Gervais
January 21, 2020
The Vienna Musikverein

Like most students that go abroad, it began with excitement. I finally get to explore, to live my life in the city of music. It is my first step in the world of independence. With the excitement, comes a bit of sadness and culture shock, which I never thought I would EVER endure. Throughout my first few days, I have learned a lot about myself as a student and a human being living in a big city of 1.8 million people. Like my first post: it has been "Bittersweet". I have always taken pride in wanting to adapt to culture, but when I get to the city, I realize that it is nearly impossible to do so. Once you use a wrong tense (past vs present) or article (der, die or das), people often assume you are a foreigner. Luckily, most Austrians that I have met have responded back in German in comparison to the Germans that I spoke with when I was in High School.

I also learned that you don’t always have to go to a restaurant to try new foods. Sometimes trying new things means making a ham sandwich in the comfort of your Host’s apartment. Ham tastes different in Austria than in the US. It is seasoned more and has a spicier taste, while ham in the US is sweeter. Also, Austrians eat a lot more ham than they do other types of lunch meat, hence every type of lunch meat ends with the word “schinken” which translates to “Ham”. There are so many different flavors of ham in the grocery store that I don’t know if I’ll be able to try them all within the 15 weeks of daily, on-the-go sandwiches. My host mom has shown me many of the foods that she eats, some of which are traditional Viennese foods, and others which are not. Living with a native has opened my eyes to new ideas and has helped me improve my German. Despite the culture shock that I experienced in my first few days here, both from cultural differences and stressful, intensive German classes, I have grown to love the city. Because things are within such close proximity, I get to explore the hidden gems of the town. Besides, where else can you find so many apricot flavored foods!

Here is a short list of things that I have learned so far about Austrian culture.


1. Don’t try to talk to people that you don’t know (especially children).

On the first day after orientation, once I had dropped my luggage off at my host mom's apartment, I decided to go to the grocery store. There was a girl ahead of me in line that was probably about 7 years old. I said “Wie alt bist du?” (How old are you in German), trying to make conversation and practice my German (This is how I would have typically interacted with children back home at the grocery store that I work at). I quickly learned that Austrians don’t interact this way with each other, after I got no response and a blank stare from both the girl and the cashier.

2. Brown sugar is not brown sugar (Some foods look like US equivalents, but taste very different).

I found this out on the same night, when I decided to make homemade granola, which requires brown sugar (the clumpy kind that has molasses in it). I went to "Billa", the nearby grocery store market, and found what “had to be" Brown Sugar because it said “Zucker” (sugar) on the package and appeared to be the color brown (now that I look at the package again, I think it's raw sugar). Never-the-less, I went home to find that it wasn’t like the brown sugar from the US, but rather a type of sugar made of bigger, partially transparent crystals with a brown tint. Not to say that Europe doesn’t have the same type of brown sugar, because I have seen it in packets at coffee shops, but you should really go to the store with phone translator so that you know exactly what you are getting, especially during the first few weeks while you are getting used to the language and the items that are available.

3. You should probably tip your waiter at the Café

This is a pure confession and a mistake. I was so under pressure with my German skills at my first Café, that I completely forgot about tipping. Also, tipping, as it was mentioned in our IES Abroad orientation, is not done by putting money on the table, but rather giving the server the tip directly.

4. When you buy a ticket and it says “Stehplatz”, they really do mean standing place.

My first official concert was a concert for the Tönkunstler Orchestra at the Musikverein. Standing room tickets are sold for 6 Euro up until the day before the concert. I assumed that when my friend and I bought our tickets, we would just be standing behind people who paid for sitting tickets. To my surprise, there was an area dedicated for everyone that bought a standing room ticket, and in order to see the ensemble, one must either stand on their tippy-toes, or arrive 30 minutes before the concert starts. Never-the-less, it was still a GREAT concert by an orchestra that had GREAT character to their sound, who played in a GREAT hall with GREAT acoustics, but I was very surprised to realize what standing room meant.

5. Austrians like their food to be fresh.

This can be seen through the small refrigerators that are in most Austrian households. The typical person buys food that will last a couple days and then they will go to the grocery store again (which happens to be on almost every corner and a short walk from my host mom’s apartment). Things are rarely sold in bulk, and milk is not sold in a container larger than a pint, so that food does not go to waste. Numerous times my host mom has mentioned to me that some of the food I have bought, is expiring soon. While this is fine, it is a bit of a difference from home, where food and leftovers are typically good for a week after they are made and the only thing that "really" goes bad is dairy products. A word of advice: If you decide to go abroad, make sure you go to the grocery store by 7:00 because they close around 8:00 every night.


2 bonus things I found interesting:

  • America has a lot of popular influence on European media:
    • While on the radio they play many popular German songs, the media also mixes in music by Ed Sheeran. My host mom listens to blues by up-and-coming American artists as well as Billy Joel and international artists from Italy or Cape Verde. There is a version of “Who wants to be a Millionaire” on German T.V that is identical to the American version, but it is in German and is based out of Berlin.
  • Austrian German is different than Germany German. When we were watching T.V together, my host mom mentioned that she didn’t know what some of the words meant and that they were “Hoch Deutsch” (High German). I wonder if throughout my German classes, we will learn any of these differences.

Thanks for reading my Blog. Bis Später.


Bridget Gervais

<p>I am Bridget Gervais and I am a Junior studying Music Education at Drake University. When I am not studying or practicing my French Horn, I enjoy reading, going on runs, cooking/trying new recipes, exploring and, of course, playing Christmas music on the Piano.</p>

2020 Spring
Home University:
Drake University
Des Moines, IA
Music Education
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