Return to Öz

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I’ve been back in Austria for work for 5 weeks or so, and next week is my final week. I think people get the idea I go to some kind of Alpine Scand­inavi­an utopia, by look­ing at the scenery and maybe an mental image of some long ago ski holi­day or week­end break in Vienna. The real­ity is quite differ­ent. The fact that I work visit­ing schools and have to teach teen­agers at 7.30 in the morn­ing makes it less of a holi­day than people imagine, and also the fact that I have no say what­so­ever in my destin­a­tions or week­day hotel book­ings, but I’m more inter­ested in talk­ing about the coun­try and culture itself.

Austria certainly is a pros­per­ous coun­try with beau­ti­ful scenery, strong envir­on­ment­al protec­tions, and excel­lent public trans­port that scores highly on inter­na­tion­al qual­ity of life surveys. (The teach­ers at Austri­an schools also have much, much better work­ing condi­tions than the UK). It’s also however bland, conform­ist, stuck in a time warp and has seri­ous prob­lems with racism and sexism.

Austria is a comfort­able beige cush­ion of a coun­try, where everything tends to the middle of the road. They don’t have Germany’s hard-edged util­it­ari­an­ism (let’s have a bit more style than that please), but they don’t have Italy’s chaot­ic energy either (let’s have everything a bit more just so, mess is too stress­ful). Everything is taste­ful and medi­um and a bit bland. There is an Austri­an way of doing things, and if you fit in with that exactly your life will be pleas­ant and easy, if you don’t want to fit in exactly, fuck you. I hope you like cheese and ham rolls for both break­fast and lunch. (Every super­mar­ket in Austria sells exactly the same items as well. You get very tired of the selec­tion, espe­cially when you are living in a hotel and have no access to a kitchen).

The schools here don’t have uniforms, but all the school kids all wear almost identic­al jeans and sweat­shirts (unlike Germany or Slov­akia where subcul­tures are very much in exist­ence). You don’t meet any kids who don’t have decent clothes or lunch (much unlike Germany where there is some grim poverty), the social safety net works fairly well, but the depress­ing places in Austria are depress­ing because there’s a stifling sort of bubble effect where the kids have no aware­ness of the exist­ence of anything outside a very limited and dull exper­i­ence. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t been in the envir­on­ment.

There is also still very much an assump­tion behind how things are arranged that you have a house­wife at home organ­ising everything for you. It doesn’t matter that the super­mar­ket closes an hour after you finish work, half the shops are closed on Saturdays, and the chil­dren come home from school at 1pm, because don’t you have wifey/​mummy at home organ­ising everything for you? 

(If you work, the open­ing times of things are a night­mare- shops are often open M-F 9-5, Sat 9-12, Sun closed- I am in Graz at the moment, a big city and region­al capit­al, and when I went into the city centre at 2pm on Saturday most things were closed)

The Austri­an government’s own website says that “The Austri­an labour market is gender-segreg­ated: Women predom­in­antly work in lower-paying jobs in the service indus­tries such as in retail or in health and social services” and “Austria’s gender pay gap remains one of the largest in the EU”. Wiki­pe­dia tells me that “In the European Union, only the Neth­er­lands has more women work­ing part-time”

It’s not as bad as Switzer­land, where Appen­zell only gave women the right to vote in local elec­tions in 1995 (yes, nine­teen ninety five) when all the men of the villages got togeth­er to have a vote on wheth­er they would allow their wives to vote or not,  but there is defin­itely a time­warp feel­ing.

Of course you can argue that parti­cip­a­tion in capit­al­ism and capit­al­ist­ic work is not true free­dom, but we live in a soci­ety where you can’t eat abstract rhet­or­ic and do need money to live and have choice in how your life goes, and Austria is a soci­ety where the men have money, and the women do a large amount of unpaid house and care work.

I have also seen an unfor­tu­nate tend­ency for parents to treat sons as little princes who must never be said no to, while being strict and unfor­giv­ing towards daugh­ters.

There is also a signi­fic­ant prob­lem with racism and xeno­pho­bia. The far-right FPÖ party reli­ably win votes, and have recently been in coali­tion with the Conser­vat­ives in govern­ment. There’s often an atti­tude that kids who were born in Austria but whose parents are from anoth­er coun­try aren’t really Austri­an, and sneery comments about them having any accent or gram­mar mistakes in German. 

For a wealthy, well-educated coun­try, there is also a baff­ling lack of read­ing going on in Austria. Book shops here are crap, and expens­ive. Imagine the kind of selec­tion they sell at Tesco, but everything is €15-20 (the covers are also extremely dull). You cross the border into Czech­ia, Slov­akia or Hungary, which are poorer coun­tries with smal­ler, more obscure languages, and their book­shops are great and have so much stuff I want (which is frus­trat­ing, as I read German so much better than any of those languages). The children’s selec­tion is often partic­u­larly poor- a whole shelf of ghost-writ­ten fran­chise tie-in books, and not even German-language clas­sics like Michael Ende. The net book agree­ment where books are the same price in all shops still exists in Austria, which protects inde­pend­ent book­shops, but the inde­pend­ent book­shops here are just as lack­ing as the chains.

The same with school librar­ies. Some of them have a great selec­tion, but many just have a sad book­case of clapped out books from the 80s that the kids ignore. One school I went to had a wonder­ful look­ing library room where we did a work­shop, but when you looked at the shelves it was just stuff like books of agri­cul­ture stat­ist­ics from 1988 that clearly had not been touched in a long time. (School classrooms having project­ors in 2023 is also a bit hit or miss- and it’s not due to lack of budget, the schools are very well main­tained and have excel­lent sports facil­it­ies, it’s more due to atti­tudes to change).

I found Denmark very simil­ar to Austria, just with sea instead of moun­tains, and a Danish friend actu­ally complains about many of the same things about her home coun­try. Denmark has hygge, Austria has the identic­al gemüt­lich­keit.

Anyway, I guess my point was that it’s easy to ideal­ise anoth­er coun­try from photos of beau­ti­ful scenery, or a quick break to the most scen­ic and touristy parts, but it’s differ­ent when you work some­where and speak the language and real life starts poking its ugly way in, so don’t let the appeal­ing photos I delib­er­ately cherry pick make you think the whole exper­i­ence is too dreamy. (I also dislo­cated my shoulder and then got a chest infec­tion from a mouldy aircon unit in a hotel room).

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