Sunday, September 26, 2010

PERSPECTIVES From the Far Side of the Alps

The Man in the Middle
My mother, who died in September, 1993, always started her letters with a weather report, as is common among Midwesterners and Dakotans, and based, probably in part, on her being a farm girl.  She was an amazing letter writer, and long before Facebook and e-mail made it easy to stay in touch, she communicated with scores of relatives and old and new friends through pen and paper. One of my many regrets in life is that I didn’t write her nearly as often as she wrote me.

When I was a college freshman, age 18, and stupid, I wrote her a scathing letter telling her I didn’t really care what the weather was; I wanted to know about LIFE.  Her next letter began, “The weather is sunny and warm today….”  Parent/child relationships were different then, and I remember that letter often as her way of telling me to back off. I imagine if she were still alive, she’d still begin her letters to me with news on the weather, only now I would be delighted.

So, in homage to my mother, here’s the weather in Vienna.

Today, Sunday, is cold, cloudy, and wet. Last night we had heavy showers and strong winds, and for the next few days, it’s supposed to be overcast and rainy. That’s fairly typical here, but there have been some glorious, sunny autumn days as well. We’re getting used to the September chill we avoided in Virginia for the past 9 years – it’s that brisk air that warns of real winter on its way, not that pale facsimile of winter we enjoyed on Cypress Drive (with the exception of last year’s little blizzard).  One difference here is the weather is so changeable that some days I feel like I’m menopausal again – hot, cold, sweat, shiver, jacket on, jacket off, window open, window closed – all within the space of minutes. Women friends of a certain age, you know of what I speak

It’s been a very good week here on W√§hringerstrasse. Friday night Jim had his first Japanese karate class at a dojo within walking distance of the apartment, and his fellow classmates – all Austrians - invited him out for a beer. On Friday and Saturday, Keir was in Munich playing volleyball and staying with an American family in Germany. (His comment about Munich International School was: Man, all the girls are so hot.) My highlight was I spent three hours walking in the Vienna Woods with a new friend, Gillian – a lovely woman from Scotland. It was like being immersed in a warm bubble bath to hear English spoken, especially in her soothing Scottish brogue.
Colin Sorting Apples 

Ocean and Reeve 
Many of you have had questions about how day-to-day life in Vienna differs from life in the States, so I’ll try to answer a couple, but first, it’s time to play the grandparent card. Here are our adorable grandsons – Colin in Maryland whom we haven’t seen since July and miss terribly and Ocean in France whom we haven’t seen since May and also miss terribly but plan to see in October. Oh, by the way, we miss their parents, too, and their Uncle Dylan in New York, who, we are excited to report, will visit us at Christmas

Regarding differences, let’s start with the basics:

Bathrooms, Bidets and WCs

Often, Austrian bathrooms and toilets (also labeled WC) are separate rooms, and die Toilette doesn’t have a sink, so you have to go to das Badezimmer to wash your hands. This is true in our apartment. Some of the styles of toilets are quite unlike those in the U.S., but others are similar; a toilet basically is a toilet, and they’re all much better than those I used in rural Peru, which, well, never mind. What is different is that beside every toilet, whether in a private home or public place, is a toilet brush, and the expectation is that when you finish, you clean that toilet, should it require cleaning. At least, this is the case if you have a shelf toilet, which we did in the B & B, so we assume it’s true in general since I saw a sign in one bathroom that I think translated into something like: "Do this."
Flachspueler translates to "bad idea"

At first, this is a tad unnerving, but then there’s this wonderful egalitarianism to such a thing, and I wonder when Secretary of State Clinton or the pope visit, do they, too, pick up that brush and do their duty?  I’m sure Ms. Clinton does; she’s a Midwesterner after all. I’m not so sure about the infallible one.

Some public toilets require payment (50 cents or 1 euro, about 66 cents or $1.30 depending on the day) paid either into a slot or to an unfortunate human. The public toilets generally have heavy, full-size doors with well-crafted locks. I mention this because some of my ESL students have commented on how weird it is that American bathroom stalls leave so much space at the bottom, you can see people’s feet and lower legs, and so much at the top, you can, if so inclined, peek over, and sometimes, due to flimsy or misaligned locks, you can see the occupant through the crack between the door and the stall.  The Japanese especially think this is terribly primitive, and now that I live in Vienna, so do I. But Hollywood would have a tough adjustment to make – no more cops kicking in the bathroom stall doors looking for the inevitable bad guy; they’d break their legs.

We are fortunate in that we have a large bathtub, so large, in fact, that there’s no way to use it. By the time the water gets a few inches deep, either you’ve gotten bored or the hot water has run out. But, the shower, for the most part, works fine once you get used to the hand-held option being the only option and when the drain actually does its job efficiently, which is, well, some of the time (this is an older building, after all).

You figure it out 
Yes, we have a bidet. I’m not yet a convert, but it is interesting, and occasionally thrilling (just kidding). But it’s crammed in beside the aforementioned tub and the washing machine. I’ve tried to imagine anyone of any heft or with long legs or a bad hip being able to avail him or herself of the thing. For more on how-to-use-a-bidet, just go to YouTube to be both enlightened and entertained.

We have a washing machine, that has unbelievably long cycles, but which leaves the clothes very clean. As in many apartments and some houses, there is no dryer. Instead, since we don’t have access to clotheslines outside, we lay everything on dryer racks in the bathroom or bedroom, turn on a fan, and wait.  Unlike the apartment folks in Marseilles, people here don’t hang their wash outside their windows. The water here is very hard. Sometimes the liquid softener works, and when it doesn’t, we use the towels as loofahs or sandpaper.

The good thing is, we wash our clothes less often. The bad thing is, we wash our clothes less often. And, we iron more.

Austrian finances: Pressure, Pressure, Pressure

The banking system here is mind-blowing.  As I mentioned before, checks are not used (and, yes, at home, we increasingly used electronic payment, but not always). Instead, transactions are mostly in cash, and since the ATMs dispense only fifties and hundreds, you frequently pay with what in the U.S. would be a $100 bill. The first time we were paying, we had a couple of the 100-euro bills out, and Keir told us to put the money away because we looked like rich Americans flaunting our wealth. Hardly. Because of the ATMs, everybody often pays with big bills, which sometimes are checked in special is-this-counterfeit machines.

The other ways to pay are electronic transfers or debit cards, both of which have limits you haven’t necessarily been told about.  After we opened our account weeks ago, we were deluged with official-looking letters all written in German. Two of them came with rows and rows of lengthy numerical codes at the bottom. Now, Vienna is a center for international government organizations, so we assume there are spies around every corner (much like in the neighborhoods back in Fairfax County). In fact, some of Keir’s friends can’t tell him what their parents do or did – you know the drill, they’d have to kill him.

So, when you get an official letter you can’t read and at the bottom are columns of random numbers, unlike anything you’ve seen since your last Nancy Drew book, you think, “It’s a trick.” And the temptation is to burn it. But, no, that would be bad. Those numbers are how you transfer money, and they have little to do with American routing or account numbers (which you also need). Instead, they’re like check numbers. You log onto your account (something we’ve yet to be successful at, but we’ve gotten to know some of the neighborhood bank workers fairly well), and two numbers appear in bold type. Then you take out the letter, look at your list of codes, (and despite the account being joint, we have separate lists of codes), find those two numbers and then enter the remaining numbers.

For example:

3211223   4575625   9443220   4434543   3243220  4072335  9443220  2376783
6573833   1173635  4534543     8773335  7843220  2988889  5590572  0509877

You have 48 of these codes, and they can show up in any order. You find the bold numbers, write in the next five, put in the other info, and, voila, the money is gone. And then you cross out that code.  Now, we have no idea what happens when you run out of codes or if you lose that piece of paper the day you have to pay a large ransom to save a family member. I guess we’ll figure that out later.

Also, they give you a very lengthy number labeled: PIN nummer, but it’s not the PIN number as we know it; that’s in a different place with a different name.

When we set up our account, the bank person helping us was quitting her job in two days, and though young, couldn’t or didn’t want to speak English, and she wasn’t particularly attentive. When we got the letters, they were addressed to Frau Snow and Frau Dawson.  Last week Jim had to go to the bank office at IIASA (a bank employee comes once a week and sits in a glass enclosure) because we were in trouble for my not signing all of the forms the inattentive bimbo had handled. Jim mentioned jokingly that we were worried that we might get kicked out of the country for having an illegal marriage. Not to worry, gay civil unions (not marriage yet) are recognized in Austria. Gay partners have almost identical rights to married people (adoption and artificial insemination are the exceptions).  Let me say that again: in this very Catholic country, gay civil unions are recognized.

(The IIASA banker was so concerned about the Frau Jim thing that he apologized profusely and repeatedly, then handled a rather large transfer we had pending instead of making us do it).

Cost of Living (It's cheap if you don't buy anything)

It’s expensive here. Clothing and shoes are especially pricey.  I was amazed whenever my students who were au pairs from Europe or South Africa told me that they had bought so many shoes in the U.S., they had to ship them separately when they returned home.  The reasons? Payless, DSW, Target… I get it. Shoe stores are everywhere here, and the shoes are quite wonderful, but I’ll be lucky if I buy a single pair before returning to the States. I know I won’t need to ship a box of new shoes separately. (Incidentally, I feel so cool when I refer to the States: Have you been to the States? Back home in the States… When we return to the States. It doesn’t take a whole lot to amuse me, the trailing spouse, these days.)

The other reason things are expensive is because even financial nincompoops such as Jim and I pay attention to the exchange rate. And the news is not good. When a euro is worth $1.33, that’s bad. What that means is that whenever we transfer funds from the U.S., we lose. Without being too precise, if we transfer $3,000 American dollars, it comes here as 2,000 euros, but things are not cheaper here.  Ouch. It puts us in a bind as to what to hope for. Right now, we really wish the dollar and euro would be 1:1. That way we transfer our remaining savings here without losing our proverbial shirts. Also, it would be really good for the U.S. But, when we leave, we’d be quite happy if one euro was worth, oh, I don’t know, ten dollars, because then Jim’s IIASA retirement account would be quite substantial when we transfer it home. Of course, the U.S. would no longer be worth returning to.

Or maybe none of this is true. I can see Will, our math professor son-in-law, shaking his head and wishing we had any clue at all with regard to math and finances.  Oh, well. It gets worse.

Tipping (Hurry! He's waiting!) 

The other mathematical challenge is tipping. You do tip the wait staff here, but only 5 to 10 percent (because they’re actually paid a fair wage). Not hard, right? But, what happens is the waiter hands you the bill and waits. The pressure is extreme. You immediately have to figure a percentage, add it to the bill, get out your mix of bills and coins and then subtract very quickly in your head to tell the waiting waiter how much change you want in return. It’s rude to leave the tip on the table, but it’s rude not to tip appropriately, so to avoid breaking into a panic sweat, we usually opt for the money on the table, understanding that we have just committed yet another Ugly American faux pas. If they could just be sensible and do it like Americans do. Lest you notify the State Department about the damage we’re doing to the international perception of American math skills, we are getting better at this. Really. And I did pass calculus in college, but those silly assume-this-to-be-true proofs aren’t helping me here.

 Grocery Shopping -- Daily Visits to the Billa

Ours looks like this one 
Another pressure point. When you go to the Billa, the small but useful grocery store, or the Spar, which is a bigger, better grocery store, they have one thing in common: few check-out clerks and very little space. You do your own bagging here, preferably in your own backpack or tote bag, which is good, but there’s very little room to do it. Some people just return their purchases to the cart or basket they’ve just emptied, and then move over to these ledges, also very small, to pack their bags. We don’t usually buy much in one visit, but we pack our backpack as quickly as possible (and not very wisely  - packing eggs quickly is never a good idea), hand over the money (usually a 50 or a 100) and then the clerk might ask in German if we have any coins in addition to the paper money, so his transaction will be easier, but we don’t understand what he’s saying, and the next customer is usually crowding us at that point (there are cultural spatial differences here), and we get flustered. We say: Es tut mir leid. (I’m sorry.) We don’t speak very much German. (blah blah blah) Then we look pathetic. If nothing else, this living in a foreign country without the language is humbling. And that’s good because it teaches you a lesson once again in:


One of my favorite things to do in my ESL classes,  is I bring in my large, laminated upside-down map of the world.  This is a map in which the world is “upside down” but the words are “right side up.” I have three or four students put it up, and while they’re struggling, their classmates start yelling, “It’s upside down! It’s upside down!” And the map putter-uppers get confused and disagree among themselves. It’s a moving moment of world unity – everyone is confused. Then some notice the words, and their brows furrow, and they look puzzled, and some get indignant. No matter where they’re from, the map initially upsets them, but later, during breaks or after class, I watch as they stand in front of that map and stare thoughtfully at it as they try to find their countries, such as South Korea, which is now north of North Korea.

The point of this map is perspective. Since there’s no up or down in space, the up/down we’re all used to on the map is simply a human construct; it’s what we’re all accustomed to.

I use the map to teach the word “perspective,” but also as an indication of how unquestioning we are about our own perspectives.  In addition, I see it as a visual representation of how it feels to be in a foreign culture – everything is probably there, just not where you’re used to seeing it. It can be very disconcerting.

So, imagine an Austrian living in the U.S. for the first time. This is what she’d say to the folks back home:

Can you believe it? These Americans actually have their toilets in the same rooms as their bathtubs and they don’t clean the toilet after they use it and they don’t use a bidet. No wonder they take so many showers, the filthy pigs. And, this is so weird, if you use a public bathroom, people can see your legs and feet and even peek in on you. A bunch of perverts, that’s what they are. And some old people even use these weird things called “checks” that are so incredibly inconvenient (I know you don’t know what they are; google it) and you’d think they didn’t know it’s the TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY.  And this is what really gets me. They actually leave the tip on the table! Can you imagine being that rude, and leaving the money with the dirty dishes?!!  Barbarians all!

Hmm. People and culture. Strange realities.

And I haven’t even begun to tell you about the Austrian death wish…. Next time.

Snippets of the week:  favorite German and Austrian words.



Such harsh words for such wonderful things: jewelry and whipped cream.

Then there’s this word, which I needed to use yesterday:

Staubsaugerbeutel: vacuum cleaner bag

Here’s one that I really like:

Nestbeschmutzer:  a bird that fouls its own nest; used to describe someone who is critical of his or her country or government.

Misti at the Russian Memorial fountain

Our favorite Klimt
Belvedere Fountain. Typical Vienna beyond the trees

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