Monday, October 18, 2010

Das gute, das schlechte, und das hässliche

BRRRRRRRR.  No, that’s not a weather report, although it is getting quite chilly here. It’s a comment on the Viennese.

I’ve been reluctant to write about the people here because I’ve been waiting for my negative impressions to be proved wrong. However, it’s been almost three months, and instead, those impressions have been strengthened.

Austrians, in general, have a reputation (and after teaching students from more than 90 countries, I’ve learned that every nationality carries a reputation) of being formal, reserved, cold, and, at best, impolite, and more typically, rude. This is particularly true on the street and in other public venues.

Now, my apologies to the Austrians we met in Modling, who, with the exception of two female pharmacists, were generally warm and friendly. The pharmacists, however, whom we met on a fruitless search for Advil, were a harbinger. When Jim mentioned their rudeness to his colleagues, he was told that Austrian pharmacists are notorious for their disdain. I tried to understand this and to see it from their perspective. After all, we were Americans who spoke almost no German requesting an American medicine as if we were asking for nothing unusual. Besides that, we were bursting with the excitement and happiness of the newly-arrived. What could be more offensive….

Except for our short time in Modling, we’ve dealt primarily with the Viennese, so I won’t cast aspersions on all Austrians, and obviously, the non-native Viennese, such as lovely Dominique and the Irish store owner previously mentioned, are not included in this assessment.

Let me try to describe the mean streets of Vienna.

Keir was the first to notice. He returned from an outing and told us the Austrians seemed to target him. He had never been bumped into, shouldered, and elbowed so much in his life. Now, remember, Vienna is not that big, and the sidewalks are not crowded in the way they are in New York, for instance.

Jim and I scoffed, assuming it was merely adolescent exaggeration. It wasn’t.

I venture out almost every day. Lately, I’ve had to steel myself for the experience. On the street, Viennese are cold – ice crystals hanging from their eyelashes cold. They routinely bump into you, expect you to get out of their way, ignore your greeting, and never smile, except at their own companions.  No matter how hard they bump into you, no one ever apologizes. My most common word here is “Entschuldigen” (excuse me.) I use it like an American – if I accidentally get in someone’s way, when I pass in front of somebody, when I need to reach across to get something off a shelf, all those occasions in which Americans say, “excuse me.” I even say it when people bump into me or force me off the sidewalk.

I greet people, not everyone, of course, but if we are the only two people on the sidewalk or in the store or if we’ve happened to make eye contact, I generally smile and say, “Gruse  Gott,” the standard Viennese greeting, which sounds roughly like Grease Got. I smile at children. I smile at mothers and fathers with infants or toddlers. I smile at teenagers. I smile at old people. I smile at dogs. What I get in return is almost always an impassive glower, a glare, a look of contempt that could turn anti-freeze to ice.

And I am not exaggerating. OK, the dogs don’t glower, but they don’t wag their tails like American dogs.

Americans, of course, also have a reputation and most people distinguish, as they should, between the American people and American foreign policymakers. My students are surprised by how friendly, energetic, optimistic and generous Americans are. Depending on their culture, they are amazed when Americans hold doors open for people, hold the elevator for someone, greet people with a hi-how-are-you, and engage in small talk with complete strangers.

In addition, by many cultures’ standards, American society is exceptionally well-ordered. For the most part, people follow the rules; they even stop at stop signs when no one is coming, something considered novel and ridiculous by many South and Central American students. The concept of standing in line isn’t even questioned by Americans, although it is utterly unknown in some cultures. And in American culture, you don’t bribe cops, the folks at the DMV, or teachers.  Some of my students have pointed out that we do have a bribery system – we call it lobbying – but even that has rules.

People from some cultures see American exuberance as naïve and unsophisticated, a result, perhaps, of our having not suffered enough (unless we’re Native or African American). Americans are also known for being superficial, work-obsessed, selfish, and hard to really get to know. As a people, we are seen as generous with money but not with our time. We eat lousy food, are obese, don’t respect the elderly, give children too little discipline, are uptight about sex, tolerate the intolerable such as homelessness, are anti-intellectual and woefully ignorant, and most of us couldn’t dance to save our lives. According to a couple of young Brazilian women I had as students, the worst thing about Americans is our bikinis are too big.

Two weeks ago I had a day when I simply gave up. I had gone forth as I usually do with the intention of speaking German as I did my errands. First stop, the cell phone store. Cell phones here are called “handies,” a term I really like. When I came in, an older customer was already at the counter, but the clerk, whom I had met previously, gestured to me. I asked in English if the other woman was finished, and he assured me that she was, but she remained at the counter about six inches away from me (personal space is very different here). I asked in German if I could practice my German, and proceeded to tell the man that my handy had a long message in German that I couldn’t understand and would he please listen to it and tell me what it meant. My German was pretty good. Throughout this exchange the woman stared at me, not kindly. The man wasn’t cold, merely tepid.

I smiled at the woman, and I noticed that the corner of her mouth twitched slightly. Oh, my god, I thought, she’s going to smile. But she didn’t. She merely hardened her face, which, considering it was already stone, was a feat.

When I left, it hadn’t been a particularly pleasant experience.

I returned to the sidewalk and after about 10 minutes of nothing but frigidity on the street, I was seething. I began having violent fantasies. I was going to trip the next Viennese who glared at me. I envisioned looking over my shoulder and seeing Viennese men and women strewn on the sidewalk for blocks nursing scraped knees and wondering what had set off the crazy American. I knew it was time to go home before I created an international incident.

Now, I realize the Viennese are not behaving this way just to irritate me. This is how they are, how they perceive the world, how history and culture have taught them to be. All cultures are shaped by such factors as geographical location, natural resources, wars, foreign occupation, religion, and the vagaries of fate. The trick is to parse out the why without necessarily justifying the what.  In a later posting, I’ll wrestle with the reasons why the Austrians and the Americans are the way they are.

I decided to go out the next day to shop for Jim’s birthday presents. I was going to spend my money in the neighborhood, and I was determined to wage a one-woman American charm offensive. I knew what I wanted  and where I was going to get it. I practiced what I needed to say, hummed the Rocky theme song, and headed out.

The first challenge was an old one that predates our move to Vienna. Dante missed an important ring of hell – shopping. I detest shopping unless it’s for books, art, or music in a small, cozy store. My idea of hell is being stuck in a 7-11 or any massive warehouse be it Home Depot or Ikea or a shopping mall, any shopping mall. Now not only was I shopping, but I had to do it in German.

I was a woman on a mission.  I walked to the men’s clothing store as quickly as possible before my resolve could wither under the cruel eyes of the Viennese.  I met the young clerk and asked him for permission to speak German, and we were  off. I was there for more than a half hour, a variety of expensive blue shirts spread out on the table, and he and I had a delightful time speaking almost exclusively in German, so delightful, in fact, that another clerk, a woman perhaps in her 40s, came to join us. I bought the shirt, told the young man he was wonderful (Sie sind wunderbar!), and he and I were both beaming as our encounter came to a close.

Phase 1:  Success.

I ducked into and out of a few clothing stores, spreading my American joy, but not my money. Finally, I was ready for Phase 2.

Just down the street is a small jazz and classical CD store. I’d seen the proprietor before and he was a tad scary – in his late 50s, burly, bearded, gruff. But I went for it. I asked if I could speak German, and he looked cynical but amused. Within minutes I had a new Herbie Hancock CD for Jim and had asked about some Chopin nocturnes for me. It wasn’t the warmest conversation I’ve ever had, but it was satisfying.

By then, I was exhausted. It is taxing enough to speak in a foreign language, but to be charming and speak German was almost too much to bear. To reward myself, I went to the bakery, and, fortunately, the woman in her 40s was there instead of the more impertinent younger workers. I asked in German for my new bad habit: a chocolate croissant and a latte to go. She smiled and through broken English, German, and pantomime, told me that what I had said was, “I would like a chocolate croissant and a latte because I am pregnant.”

It was time to go home.

I still go out almost every day; I continue to greet people, smile, and apologize for my lapses and theirs.  I’ve thought about sending an invoice to the State Department to reimburse me for all the diplomacy I conduct daily in this city.

One reason why I expend so much time and energy thinking about this is fear. I don’t want to be Vienna-ized, at least not in this way. I know from my students how easy it is to be Americanized. I see it when my Korean students who were raised on kim chi (which some believe can cure the avian flu) bring in doughnuts slathered with frosting, double-stuffed Oreos and sour cream potato chips to a class party. I hear it in the ugly American slang the young students can’t wait to use. I see it as the au pairs gain weight and a closet full of shoes.

One Chilean woman said when she’s in Chile her friends don’t like to go out with her anymore because she’s so American. When I asked what she meant, she said she will no longer drink alcohol when she goes to dinner if she’s going to drive home. A Ghanian colleague didn’t get the official paper he required while in Ghana until he remembered to bribe the guy behind the desk. A couple of Eastern European au pairs said that when they now see infants in their native countries held on laps in cars or small children not in car seats, they’re horrified. One of Jim’s English colleagues jokes that when she returns from the States, she has to work at becoming a dour Brit again. In each of these cases, I think the American way is better.

The Ghanian colleague, who has lived in the U.S. for almost 20 years, however, said he knew when he had truly become American -- when he no longer allowed Ghanian relatives and friends to stay at his house for any length of time; instead he found them a hotel. Ouch.

As with so many axioms, we mouth the “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” catchphrase with too little thought. Yes, we should adapt and adopt better customs than our own, but I don’t believe we need to take on the negative characteristics of a foreign culture. Obviously, determining which aspects are positive and which deleterious is a matter of judgment.

I worry because it might be easier to behave as coldly as the Viennese as I would certainly experience less frustration and disappointment. Also, I’m not sure I have the fortitude to retain my American energy in the face of all of this joylessness.

See the lamp? When we first moved in, Jim, Keir and I were all aghast at the lamps in this apartment. Although perhaps they were lovely in their original time and place, we find them hideous, this one in particular. This lamp stands a short way from the entryway, and I see it multiple times every day.  Most days, I no longer notice it, but when I do, I stop to wonder if perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe it really is a thing of beauty.

Adaptation can occur consciously or unconsciously. It can be advantageous or insidious. If when I return the States, I’m cold, haughty, superior, humorless, and unkind in public, promise me, you’ll whap me upside the head as many times as it takes to make me American again.


  1. Hi Misti... Du kannst mir schreiben... ... bitte keine Sorge über diese Österreicherlöcher... sei nur dein selbst und lächelst jeden Tag...

  2. Try driving in Austria, Misti. The other night, my husband stopped to let some pedestrians cross on a zebra crossing and the driver behind us was furious and leaned on his horn.

    By the way, it's against the law in Austria and Germany to give the finger to another driver. But there are ways to do this without them seeing.

    It was far worse 10 years ago, by the way.

    Dour Brit