While I am adjusting quickly to life in Vienna, I have barely been here two weeks and my greatest fear has become reality: I am a tourist. My superiority complex about being from New York City is a double-edged sword. Relieved to use public transportation and have access to endless museums, cafes, stores and music venues, I am constantly reminded that comparisons are safe and differentiation [is a rate of change in mathematics but also] is more beneficial to my experiences.
Like the once-relatable angsty “punk” pop band Blink-182 expressed so elegantly in the early aughts, what matters are all the small things. Vienna is a dynamic city that is often generalized by phrases including “historical but modern,” “the bridge between East and West” and “there are no Kangaroos here.” In my short time here, I have been impressed by Stephansdom, the most important cathedral in Vienna. The tallest tower of the medieval architectural masterpiece miraculously survived bombings from World War II and has endured reconstruction.
More human-made majesties include the Naturhistorisches Museum, where I spent about two hours exploring stones and taxidermied animals, and die Wiener Staatsoper, for which I paid three Euros to stand and watch Charles Gounod’s Faust. Seeing many younger audience members (well below the average age of 75) made me happy.
The last to this list of indoor brochure recommendations I have visited is Sigmund Freud’s apartment, save nearly all of his original furniture. My first encounter in Austria with the results of the Holocaust, his ability to flee with all of his immediate family to England fascinates me the most. An established figure in Viennese society, he was obviously very fortunate to be able to pay the equivalent of 200,000 Euros to the Nazis for his and his family’s lives. I am curious how the history of anti-Semitism and Jews in Vienna will continue to present itself during my time here. I know I would like to visit the Jewish museums and pay my respect to the majority of Jews who were not able to escape the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Politics inevitably accompanies history, and though I am not an Austrian citizen, I feel invested in and impacted by decisions made here. In two consecutive nights, IES Abroad students attended a ball at Hofburg Palace, followed by the Academics Ball, hosted by the far-right Freedom Party. According to the BBC, at least 8,000 people protested outside the ball. I received emails from the United States embassy to avoid this engagement, as I obediently did. I am not in the same position to express outrage and work to defend human rights here as I am back home. Perhaps there is a way to work practically for social justice while I am here. Observing and hoping don’t cause change.
On a lighter note, another essential aspect of Viennese culture is “coffee and cake time.” Surprisingly, there is much to write on this, but I will be concise. The joke follows that the Viennese spend more time in cafes than in their own homes or outside. People will sit for two or three hours in conversation, with a book or lost in thought. Relaxation has been the hardest part of my time here (first world problems). I am used to being in a rush, constantly stressed with no free time. I am trying to accept that not doing “something important” is okay. In Vienna, one can put everything on hold, sip a melange and nibble at apfelstrudel. Waiters leave customers alone (they are paid fairly and don’t rely on tipping) and, unfortunately, some blow off steam in the literal sense: smoking inside is legal here.
But what about classes? I am in the midst of my two-week German intensive class, which meets daily for two and a half hours. I am honestly still on vacation, enjoying my time but also eager to start classes. In between, I have a week off to travel (stay tuned).
Also, I must give a special shoutout to my amazing roommates and RA (residential Austrian). I have opened up surprisingly quickly to them and I already feel a sense of community, as cheesy as that is. Our apartment is lovely and our neighborhood is lovely and everything is lovely. We live in Margareten, the fifth district. Vienna consists of 23 districts and my goal is to visit and enjoy each one. I have walked between IES Abroad and my home a few times; it is only four stops on the U-Bahn. Walking around has been my favorite pastime, though I look forward to when the weather is warmer and we have more than an hour of sunshine a day. Vitamin D deficiency is a valid concern.
Vienna is so diverse and I have been here such a short time that I can only make a few generalizations about the population. People are environmentally conscious, meaning recycling and compost are norms, we bring our own bags to stores and electricity and water are conserved as much as possible. The exception, as previously mentioned, is the culture of smoking, which is harmful to both human health and the environment. Additionally, people are reliable and respectful. Public transportation embraces an honors system, meaning people don’t swipe or tap a card to enter but are trusted to have a ticket (routine checks and fines are in place). Jaywalking is much more rare and bike paths prevent rivalries with cars (I haven’t heard any drivers honk). Finally, despite the casual "Kaffee und Kuchen" times, Vienna is an efficient, well-oiled machine. Trains arrive frequently, concerts begin promptly and every street sign is uniformly, clearly marked on buildings with the number of the district in front of the name. City planning continues to interest me and I believe that many aspects of Vienna make it a model city. I have no complaints thus far.