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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