This Means Noth­ing To Me?

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(Fillgrader­stiege steps near my hotel)

I’ve been back in Vienna since Saturday, but I was busy at the annu­al work confer­ence. Last year was the first in a decade that I didn’t spend any time in Vienna, and that was strange. Vienna is a very big and grand capit­al city for a small coun­try of six million sparsely spread moun­tain people, a remnant of the days when it was the capit­al of the whole Austro-Hungari­an empire, cover­ing Austria, Hungary, Czech Repub­lic, Slov­akia, Slov­e­nia, Croa­tia and parts of Romania and Poland.

I’m teach­ing a group of ten year olds in a school in the 18th District on the outskirts of Vienna this week. The hotel work provides is in the centre of the city, in Mari­ahilf, the 6th District, which is incred­ibly useful. My neigh­bour­hood looks like this. Vienna doesn’t get much snow in the Winter. There are also not any moun­tains. A lot of people’s mental images of the city mix it up with Salzburg or Inns­bruck. The Danube isn’t a grand centrepiece like in Budapest either, it mostly runs in a series of canals in the east of the city.

I don’t even pretend to under­stand how the room numbers work in this hotel- they’re not even separ­ate wings or anything- the numbers are all jumbled up along each floor.

Müller is a chemist’s chain found in Germany and Austria. Their brand­ing is very Biba meets Willy Wonka. As well as sham­poo and toilet bleach and the like, they also have these aisles full of boxes of chocol­ates and cheap wine in most branches. Treat your­self while buying the verucca cream.

Vienna is further east than Prague and a good chunk of Poland, and about level with Gdansk. It has a lot in common with its twin Budapest, and a certain East­ern European flavour (and a dialect of German heav­ily influ­enced by Czech that sounds quite Slavic to many people). There are a lot of very grand imper­i­al build­ings in the centre, and glossy new glass ones, but the city still has a kind of good-natured seedy shab­bi­ness in lots of ways. In the Cold War days it was the last major West­ern city before the Iron Curtain, and it was abso­lutely full of spies and intrigue.

When I first star­ted coming here for work, what is now the Cent­ral Station was two small terminus build­ings. After the grand origin­al station was damaged in the war, they built two small ones- one head­ing south over the Alps, and anoth­er head­ing east, with strict pass­port controls. The nearest U-bahn station was also a fair walk across the square. Trains head­ing west went from West­bahnhof or Meidling Station further out. The pre-war inter­na­tion­al train­lines were still there, you just couldn’t actu­ally travel all the way along them. Can’t let people sit on a non-stop train from East to West. What if they don’t get off?

Obvi­ously now the borders are open thanks to the fall of the Berlin Wall and then the EU and Schen­gen Agree­ment, and they’ve restored all the trains criss-cross­ing Cent­ral Europe. They knocked down the old stations and built a new one with lots of plat­forms, shops and cafes. It’s very conveni­ent and pretty bland and glossy look­ing, so I didn’t both­er to take any photos. Instead here’s a picture from Wiki­pe­dia of the old station. The main 1950s terrazzo concourse was pretty cool (like a larger version of the still exist­ing 1950s station in Inns­bruck), and you can defin­itely imagine spies lurk­ing around the news­pa­per kiosks, but the lower floors and toilets were grim. In a Chris­ti­ane F way. You can see more photos of what it used to look like here.


Austri­an German can be very differ­ent from German German (although not as differ­ent as Swiss German), and there are also pronounced region­al accents. At this point I would say Austri­an German feels more like “home” to me than the German vari­ant. People from North­ern Germany sound posh and rigid to my ears, and actu­ally saying “guten Tag” as a greet­ing feels as unnat­ur­al as saying “good day” would in English. Of course this means it’s hilari­ous for people from North­ern Germany that I sound so Austri­an (and Vien­nese in partic­u­lar). I also find specific­ally Austri­an phrases like “das geht sich nicht aus” (ah, it’s not work­ing out, said in a tone of resig­na­tion when things don’t go your way) or “passt scho” (don’t worry about it, it’ll be fine) annoy them a lot- this is not the German philo­sophy of life.

This 80s guy from a longer docu­ment­ary film has a really strong Vienna accent. He’s complain­ing about the cost of living, how much he hates that far right arse­hole Jorg Haid­er. I thank­fully don’t sound like him.

When I finished my MA, I did some temp­ing work at a subtitling place in London. They had a whole batch of Austri­an shows that needed the German subtitles reviewed for qual­ity control. A native speak­er (but not from Austria) had typed them up, and I had to watch ten minute clips of the shows and grade the subtitles for accur­acy and how well they were synced up to the audio. They needed someone famil­i­ar with Austri­an German, as many of the shows such as this one have strong region­al accents.

This is a comedy drama about a clean­er and secur­ity guard couple in a coun­cil build­ing in Vienna who win the lottery, but can’t tell anyone. The dad in partic­u­lar has a very strong Vienna accent (as do a lot of the custom­ers in the hairdress­ing salon scenes). I got pretty in to it, but I never got to see a whole epis­ode the whole way through. Now it’s on Youtube, perhaps I should fix that.

Wien­er Schmäh

The Vien­nese are known for their Schmäh- a sarcast­ic smart-arse atti­tude. Someone who’s a wind-up merchant is a Schmähtand­ler in Vienna- liter­ally a sarcasm deal­er. This altern­ately results in rude waiters and shop assist­ants who can’t resist telling you dad jokes (success varies on your level of German). There is a very old man who works (or did until the last time I was here) in the news­agents near the hotel. He responds to quer­ies like “I’m afraid I’ve only got a €50 note” with replies like “I wish I had prob­lems like that”. He is a snotty treas­ure and I hope he’s still there.

Austria is a little lack­ing in modern music, but Falco was prob­ably the most Vien­nese man alive. Look at that smug smar­tarse face, but not taking himself entirely seri­ously.

Cafe Sperl

Vien­nese coffee shops are an insti­tu­tion. You expect brown wooden panel­ling, surly sarcast­ic waiters, as much time at the table as you like, and a supply of indul­gent cakes. Cafe Sperl is one of the most famous, and also right near the hotel. It also happens to be next door to the Art School, who were hold­ing an Open House over the week­end, so I went in for lunch before seeing the exhib­i­tion. Unlike a lot of tour­ist insti­tu­tions, the food is both tasty and reas­on­ably priced, prob­ably because locals and art students also go there.

I ordered tradi­tion­al Austri­an pump­kin soup. The brown on top is Styri­an pump­kin seed oil made into a balsam­ic salad dress­ing or to drizzle on top of food. (I also had a cake and coffee).

There used to be an extremely old man who worked there, who would say extremely old-timey things like “would the gracious lady care to sit down?” who seemed to have been there since Austro-Hungari­an times. He wasn’t there this time, perhaps he finally retired. He had a styl­ish way with a teatow­el, obvi­ously honed through years of exper­i­ence.


Austri­an soci­ety has very differ­ent flaws to the UK (mainly far too high a toler­ance of outspoken racists, and a worry­ing tend­ency for the far-right party FPÖ to actu­ally win power). There are many things they do right however. 30-40% of all the hous­ing in Vienna is owned by the city and rented as social hous­ing. Many of the build­ings have a proud inscrip­tion on. Rents are much fairer than London, and people have secur­ity of tenancy in both public and private rent­als. Public trans­port is subsid­ised, and effi­cient and afford­able. A week’s tick­et for all modes of trans­port with­in Vienna zones cost me €17.

The level of poverty and inequal­ity that the Conser­vat­ive govern­ment has allowed to happen in the UK over the last decade just doesn’t exist in Austria. It often comes out top or near the top in inter­na­tion­al surveys of well­being. Land­lords can’t charge fortunes for substand­ard homes. There are some home­less people in Vienna, but not in any way as many as in London or Manchester, and you don’t see them outside of the couple of major cities. There is also more stabil­ity in a lot of things- if you find a cafe or restaur­ant or shop you like when visit­ing, the odds that it will still be there when you return a year or two later are very high. Vienna is defin­itely not a place at the cutting edge of anything, but they like to do things with a bit of style and comfort, and make the comfort­able life access­ible to the common person.

I visit schools all over the coun­try- they’re public, state-owned. They are all much the same qual­ity. Decent, consist­ent fund­ing, but noth­ing lavish, rather than the cycle of neglect under the Tories and then massive upgrades under Labour we get in the UK. Teach­ers stay, rather than getting burnt out in a few years. Some­times the local coun­cil pay the fees for the work­shops I run, and some­times the parents pay (espe­cially in the holi­days- the price is very modest for child­care for young­er chil­dren). You don’t see chil­dren who don’t have lunch or decent shoes or pencils. School finishes at 1pm, and the local coun­cils run vari­ous free or subsid­ised activ­it­ies. There’s just a lot more sense applied to meet­ing people’s needs, and less greed.

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