Top Tens for Vienna

A fellow blogger in Brussels just posted her top ten favorite and least favorite things about her current post for the reference of anyone who may be considering a bid on it. I thought this was such a good idea that I wanted to do the same.

Of course, I’ve been blogging about Vienna for months now, so I won’t repeat myself too much! I already wrote about several of my favorite things for the FS Roundup a few months ago. They are, in no particular order:

1.) My son’s school. Not the one “everyone” uses, but it has worked so well for him.

2.) Awesome public transportation. I mean, really, it’s awesome.

3.) Great outdoor activities: walking, hiking, biking, generally exploring. I never get tired of it.

4.) Reasonably clean bathrooms available just about everywhere. Totally worth 50 Euro cents a pop.

5.) Street food. It may take years off my life, but it’s worth it. Especially the bacon-wrapped cheese-filled sausages. OMG.

To read more about these five items, check out Things I Like About Vienna.

6.) Christmas. Advent in Vienna. ‘Nuff said.

Let’s see, I need four more. How about:

7.) Environmental consciousness.

The  Austrians, as a rule, are much more aware of their “footprint” than we are. Recycling is taken very seriously, and even litter on the street is minimal for a big city. I wrote a long post about this a few months ago: A Place For Everything. And just recently I visited a innovative “green” energy facility: A Surprisingly Cool Heating Plant. Even our apartment is cooled in a climate-friendly way with cold water pumped in from the Danube. It’s just so interesting!

8.) Low crime.

Yes, there is pickpocketing, and there have been some burglaries in the Embassy community. But, in general, crime is uncommon here, and violent crime is rare. I personally feel very safe walking anywhere in the city during the daytime, and the parks and trails are busy enough that I feel safe there too, whether running errands or exercising.

At night, I don’t have much reason to be out by myself, but I feel very safe walking around downtown with my husband, and do not worry about my (teenaged and adult) kids being out after dark. Of course, walking by myself at night, I would observe reasonable precautions, such as avoiding dark alleys and creepy-looking people. All that said, it would be hard to find a major city anywhere in the world with safer streets.

After a string of high-crime posts early in my husband’s career, I truly and deeply appreciate this freedom to move around!

9.) Housing.

There are three separate missions here, and a huge housing pool. It varies quite a bit, and in fact, we requested and were granted a mid-tour move due to problems with our first apartment: We’re Movin’ On Up! But the big picture is that housing is pretty nice here. No bars, no razor wire, no weird third world critter or construction issues…don’t get me started. Let’s just say I am in a position to appreciate what I have!

One issue that does come up a lot is the heat. You wouldn’t expect this to be such a problem in Europe, but overheated housing actually comes up quite a lot in conversation. There are many days in the 80s and 90s in the summer, and the housing is simply not designed to deal with it. If anything, much of this housing is designed to collect heat, with big windows, no shutters and poor ventilation. There are also a lot of cheap landlords who refuse to put in air conditioning!

In short, when you are assigned housing here, air conditioning is something you should ask about, especially if the house or apartment has big windows or skylights. (By no means accept European portable “air conditioning” units as a solution!)

10.) That gardening thing.

Austrians love to garden, and are quite creative about it. Not only are the public parks loaded with beautiful displays (The People’s Roses), but many traffic medians and circles are planted with flowers and a sign from the city government proclaiming Unsere Garten. It’s a very urban environment, but window boxes, balcony and even rooftop gardens are everywhere. Also, there are private garden plots tucked into every available space: next to the train tracks, in gaps between buildings (probably WWII bomb sites) and on the outskirts of the city in siedlungs or settlements.

Plant and garden stores are abundant, as are lawn ornaments, which I love. (Do not scoff—this is the custom of my people!) Gnomes, concrete and terra cotta critters, gazing balls, and even junk art can be seen everywhere, from window boxes to balconies to garden plots. Plants and seeds can be purchased at the grocery store, just like in the States.

As a gardener, I am very content here, and even growing vegetables, though I don’t have a yard: A Southern Girl Needs Her Greens.

Now, on to top ten things I don’t like. Some of these are really very minor, but for the sake of symmetry…

1.) The weather.

Sometimes, it is just drop-dead gorgeous here. On a 75-degree, breezy summer evening, you think you have died and gone to heaven. Even the hot days are nothing compared to Washington, DC. The summer here is actually a real summer, though you do have to count on a week of cold, rainy weather now and again.

The winter, on the other hand, is a major bummer. Dark, dank, and gray for weeks on end. It is a real hardship for a lot of people. I take a small dose of anti-depressant, use a SAD light, and work out frequently to get through it. As hardships go, it’s not generally a deal-breaker. But it is difficult, all the same!

2.) The heat: or failure to deal with it.

There is really nothing wrong with the summers here. They are hot, but not killer hot. The problem is that people here have absolutely no idea how to deal with hot weather. In fact, there seems to be a general Austrian aversion to any kind of ventilation! I don’t miss freezing my you-know-what off in restaurants and grocery stores like I do in the States, but my gym, for example, doesn’t even have fans.

Let me just say that again. My gym, which is full of hot sweaty people doing hot sweaty stuff, has no fans. And only minimal air conditioning on the bottom floor. At least there, no one seems to mind if you open the windows. This may be because it is across the street from a university, and younger people here don’t seem to have the aversion to air movement that the older Viennese do. So, I can actually lift weights without passing out!

I feel sorry for anyone sitting next to me on the tram on the way home from the gym. Except that everyone else on the tram is sweating because someone will freak out if you open the windows. And if there is air conditioning, the driver doesn’t turn it on. I mean, it’s really nuts: Dear Viennese, what is wrong with you people?

3.) Stick-up-the-backside-syndrome.

Austrians are very polite, really. They are big on social niceties like saying good morning, please, thank you, etc. It’s nice.

BUT, they have a certain way of doing things, and if you deviate from it, they are not happy. And will let you know. On a weekly, if not daily, basis I see people lecturing each other over things that we wouldn’t even notice in the States. Sometimes accompanied by what I have heard termed the “Austrian finger” which is a waving of the index finger in your general direction—you know, like your meanest kindergarten teacher used to do.

Walk on the edge of the bike path? Someone will tell you that you are OUT OF LINE. Bag sticking out into the aisle on the tram? Entschuldigung! Put something down in the wrong place—say, a shopping basket at the grocery store, or a ketchup container at a restaurant? Bitte! Don’t start on a dime at the green light? Oh yeah, you’ll hear about that, too. Loudly. Which leads to…

4.) Completely insane drivers. 

Something happens to many Viennese when they get behind the wheel of a car, and it ain’t pretty. I don’t know if it’s all those Eiscafés and Red Bulls or what, but for a generally polite people they are seriously aggressive, rude drivers. Leaning on the horn and driving up your tailpipe until you get out of the lane are absolutely normal behaviors here. I once saw a guy get broadsided on his motor scooter, and while he was stumbling dazedly around the intersection picking up pieces of his demolished scooter other drivers were honking at him to get out of the way.

Even if the drivers were patient and polite, it would still be a bit tricky. There are tram tracks everywhere, buses stopping suddenly, bikes and motor scooters darting in and out of traffic, and really a lot of pedestrians. Which is a good thing, but sometimes they seem to think I can see them better than I actually can, especially in the twisty-turny downtown area. Maybe not such a good idea to pop out from behind that bus with your stroller out in front of you, lady…

Not that any of it stops me from getting behind the wheel (though I do know many Americans who refuse to do so.) I didn’t back down from Salvadoran traffic, and I’m not backing down from Austrian traffic, dang it! But I will admit that I pay very close attention when driving here, and am always slightly relieved when I get home!

5.) Bogus ethnic food.  

This is not a big deal, really. Austrian food is okay. If you are perfectly happy eating schnitzel and wurst for three years, punctuated with the occasional quite decent Italian meal, this won’t bother you at all. But there is not much good ethnic food in Vienna.

Austrians favor a very bland diet, for the most part, and even restaurants that would normally serve spicy food generally accommodate that palate. Your three-pepper dishes on a Viennese menu might be a mild two-pepper dish on a good day in a Virginia strip mall pho joint.

There are a few good Thai, Vietnamese and Indian places, but forget Mexican. We went to what was supposed to be a “real” Mexican restaurant one time, and it was a nice place and the food was not bad, but neither was it Mexican. The molé was chicken in chocolate sauce that may have inadvertently passed by a chili pepper on its way to the table.

In short, this may be a world-class capital, but I can’t wait to get back to Herndon, VA for some burritos, guacamole, and pad thai! (Not all at once, of course. Except maybe on the first day.)

6.) Crazy expensiveness.

I do not shop retail here. It’s insane. Ordinary, boring shoes can easily run over $150, for example. I bought one pair of hiking boots for $65: what I might pay in the States, but they were 50 percent off!

There are ways to get around it. A friend told me that her rule is that anything that is not perishable and not liquid should be mail ordered. So, that’s what I do. I have subscriptions for several household and grocery items at Amazon, and buy 98 percent of our clothing online.

I also shop thrift stores. Those are pretty nice in Vienna, and it’s the done thing. Second hand boutiques can be found all over town for clothes, and I am a regular customer at Caritas for household items and just plain cool stuff!

For groceries, I have membership cards for all the major grocery stores. I save receipts and file for the VAT back. And I pretend that I am paying with Monopoly money at the checkout!

Vienna does have a COLA, so that helps. We figure it pays for the restaurant meals. Basically, you can afford to live comfortably here if you are organized about it. You just have to pay more attention than if you were living in the third world, or even in DC.

7.) Racism.

Or xenophobia, or whatever you want to call it. It’s not that every Austrian is racist—far from it. But things that would no longer be acceptable in the States seem to be at least somewhat mainstream here. Like a right-wing political party that emphasizes that its blue-eyed candidate is “Made in Austria,” and can rake in 25 percent of the popular vote. I mean, that’s just creepy.

Since I have been here, I have observed several incidents of older Austrians being uncharacteristically rude to people who are obviously immigrants. A cashier apparently deliberately whacking a woman wearing a niqab on the head with a box in a grocery store, for example, and then making only the most perfunctory apology. It was clear the Muslim woman knew what was going on. Cops following a man who appeared to be a Roma walking his dog in the Prater and snapping photos of him. I believe in the States we’d call that “walking while black.” And we’d call what the cops were doing “harassment.”

Despite the thousands of immigrants in Vienna, Austrians clearly see themselves as a white people. You can see it in their advertising, for one thing. I literally cannot recall a single ad for an Austrian product that featured a person of color. Any color! It’s that mixing of ethnicity and nationalism than gets Europe into trouble every time. It’s pretty icky. I realize that Americans are hardly in a position to throw stones right now, but at least we aspire to better.

8.) Sunday Closing Hours.

They are just the dumbest thing: Sunday Closing Hours Are Just Stupid. And then there is whole shutting down the country every time a saint did anything, ever. So over it.

9.) Die Deutschspracheschwierigkeit

German is difficult in any context. But the Austrians don’t actually speak German. They speak Österreichisch. To tell you the truth, this doesn’t bother me, since I didn’t speak any German to begin with and have no idea what is haupt Deutsch or not. But it does bother some folks. So, I’m adding it to the list.

Also, if you bid this post, do try and get at least a little German under your belt before you come. Many people here do speak English, but you can’t count on it. And nearly all information that you need to see or hear is entirely in German (sort of). It is technically a world language, after all.

10.) Crappy Internet

We always hear about how we in the States are behind other countries in internet speed and accessibility. Well, I don’t know what those countries are, but they aren’t Austria. My internet kinda sucks, frankly. All the Americans I know feel the same way. On a good day, we can stream video. On a bad day, we are SOL for Skype. Puts Verizon in perspective.

This has been an interesting exercise. I was clearly reaching a bit on some of the last ten items. But what do you want?  It’s Vienna!

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7 comments

  1. This was great Kelly! There are always, no matter what country you live in, things that drive you crazy. I can’t stand the way Kiwis say certain words. Just drives me crazy. But on the plus side there, the accent is part of what keeps my oldest daughter from dating, so I can deal with it, hahahaha…

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  2. You might want to try their special tacos they serve only on Fridays and Saturdays as well as their enchiladas verdes (my favorite). And don’t miss them when they are at the International Bazaar in December…they offer a fabulous off-menu taco there. Warning: check their website for opening times. They are closed Sundays for family day and close for several hours between lunch and dinner.

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  3. The winter, on the other hand, is a major bummer. Dark, dank, and gray for weeks on end. It is a real hardship for a lot of people. I take a small dose of anti-depressant, use a SAD light, and work out frequently to get through it. As hardships go, it’s not generally a deal-breaker. But it is difficult, all the same! ???????? I had to react! THATS WHY THEY INVENTED ALL THESE GREAT XMASS MARKETS! instead of taking antidepressants one should socialize at the many outdoor xmass markets or take a 30/40 minute train ride out of the city to go do outdoor winter activities! Antidepressants only make the pharmaceutical industry happy! (all the rest of your ” minus” points I agree with)

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  4. Sorry but Los Mexikas is not good! I heard about this place from many people and was very excited. Not excited enough, however, to eat partially frozen enchiladas verdes and drink excessively sweet cocktails. Not to mention the extreme lack of flavor and spice. 😦

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