Sunday, May 1, 2011

On Becoming Viennese

Lest you think we spend most of our time traipsing around like tourists, this is a reminder that we are, in fact, Vienna residents (that's us in the top image, fitting in), and as such, we need to become more acquainted with civic issues. However, that requires knowing the language…. and therein lies the rub.

I’m working diligently not so much on speaking German but reading it.  Of all the significant losses of an expat, for me, a voracious reader since I was a wee girl, losing the ability to read is among the most distressing.

I’m trying to remedy this by increasing my German vocabulary to 3,000 to 4,000 words by summer.  If I remember correctly, for an ESL speaker in the U.S., a vocabulary of about 2,000 to 3,000 words is needed simply to survive and function in American culture. Americans without a high school diploma are estimated to have a vocabulary of roughly 5,000 words; high school graduates, 10,000 words, and college graduates from 20,000 to 60,000 words depending on their field of study. If I had to guess at my current reading German vocabulary, including the most basic words such as ja and nein, I’d put it at around 1,500.

I buy children’s books. Imagine the mortification of buying books written for 8-year-olds and not pretending they’re “for the grandchildren.” I jot down words I see on the street and from the tram trying all the while to look inconspicuous. Anyone who has seen the amazing and troubling German movie “The Lives of Others” might be able to relate to being wary despite that movie being set in East Berlin not Vienna. One of Jim’s associates calls the Viennese “curtain peekers” because of their supposed proclivity for turning in suspicious people to the authorities. I write quickly and don’t dally. OK, a slight exaggeration.
Find the Lowe

Also, I test myself by stopping in front of bookstore windows to see how many titles I can decipher.

This week, the word “Löwe” was on both an adult book and a children’s book in a window, and the only visual clue was a Garfieldesque cat. I gave up. I went into the store, and in German, I explained my bewilderment  to the clerk. She understood me until I spelled the word. She looked at me blankly. As Keir would say, epic failure.  But once I wrote it down, she said: “lion.” So, now I have one more word I won’t forget because of its association.

Every week  I look forward to reading the free district newspaper,  of which I can now understand about 30 to 40 percent of the words depending on the topic. That doesn’t necessarily mean I understand the sentences. I already have my favorite parts of the newspaper: the animal column and the question of the week . Sample: Which famous people should be in the new Madame Tussauds wax museum in Vienna? Of the six on-the-street respondents, three favored non-Austrians: Heath Ledger, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Brigitte Bardot. Hmm.

By reading the local newspaper I’m in-the-know about critical local issues.  Foremost, dog poop. Honestly. One of the oddities about Vienna is the considerable amount of dog poop on city sidewalks. This is a city that loves dogs. In fact, dogs are welcome  in many of the restaurants, and it’s common to see a Wiener walking down the street with large unleashed dogs simply following obediently behind. Most dogs here are remarkably well-trained. Unfortunately, they still poop.

The city officials launched a unique and controversial campaign to get dog owners to clean up after their mutts.  I don’t think we’ve mentioned it before, but a Viennese is credited for inventing the snow globe, and the original snow globe factory is still open for tours. Now usually the snow globes feature angels or dancers or Vienna sights or the Nativity, or in the case of U.S. presidents: his ranch for Reagan, Inauguration confetti for Clinton, and the First Family and First Dog for Obama. In this ad, however, the traditional snow globe encases simulated dog poop.

Now, if I read it correctly, the city official responsible for this innovative  ad is from the Green Party, and members of the other parties called for her resignation for an “unnecessarily provocative” and “disgusting” ad. Tempers flared.

We intended to get a picture of the huge poster featuring this unique snow globe (many people at first thought it was a cupcake inside…) that was posted outside the elegant Lichtenstein Museum, but it seems to have disappeared.  Apparently, that particular ad campaign was short-lived. We did find an image of the poster on the web and here it is: 
Snow Globe Controversy

Most everyone agrees that dog owners ought to pick up the dog poop, but many of the people walking dogs are elderly. I love it that everyone walks here, including older men and women, often with canes, walking slowly beside their old and decrepit dogs. I don’t think these dog walkers are physically able to bend over to deal with the problem. So, dilemma.

I’ve also learned about the need for more foster parents for neglected and abused children and efforts to raise the Viennese students’ reading scores.  Sound familiar? In addition, I now worry about the blind woodpecker,  Baba, and the epileptic Shih Tzu, Smokey, who both need loving homes, and about Vienna’s rabbits who are succumbing to an insidious infection.
Baba & Friends

This week another controversy brewed. A famous and beloved Austrian entertainer, Peter Alexander – a singer, actor, and personality ala Bing Crosby, died in February. One district official pushed through a proposal that an intersection or roundabout in the 19th   District be named after the entertainer.  A nice idea? Apparently not. Again the city council met, and the Greens, if I read it correctly, stomped out of the meeting.  It seems that this suggestion was both premature and irreverent because the district official didn’t wait until after the Trauerjahr (year of mourning; also called the Pietätsfrist). And it appears the other parties had colluded and excluded the Greens and the Social Democrats from their discussions. The final decision now rests with the cultural commission.

Local politicians are a rather lively bunch, which is probably how it should be.

By reading the local newspaper,  I had this marvelous “I know her!” moment. Months ago I wrote about the Irish/Austrian woman who runs the hardware store, and whom I was using as one of my first guerilla tutors. I haven’t been back for months primarily because I’m embarrassed that my German is still awful. But, I opened the paper, and there she was – featured in an article about how the older businesses in the district are struggling.

My hope is that as my reading improves so will my understanding of this city. For instance, last week, Jim and I left our apartment one afternoon and discovered that three fire trucks,  an ambulance, and two police cars were on the street right outside the door. Fire hoses were  strewn about and smoke was in the air. An apartment in the next building, which is connected to our building, was on fire.

No sirens. We imagine that had we been in danger, someone might have warned us, but very, very quietly.  Keir got a couple of pictures:
No Sirens 

Emergency vehicles use their sirens judiciously. This concern with noise pollution is admirable but often irrational. I once almost got run over by an ambulance. I was crossing a small one-way lane on the edge of a complicated traffic pattern. I had a green light, and I had checked for oncoming traffic to the right. I stepped out and a sirenless ambulance going the wrong way nearly squashed me. Someone told Jim that the sirens are only used in real emergencies, such as someone dying. So, any time I hear a siren I assume it’s a pedestrian hit by an ambulance who is now dying in the very vehicle that ran him down.

By comparison Americans seem overly dramatic to me. Sirens for everything, SWAT teams, high speed chases that endanger multiple lives, noise, noise, noise. Oh, the Hollywoodesque drama of it all.

Surely, the sensible approach would be somewhere between  these extremes.

Not everyone in Vienna respects the silence. The other day I heard someone lay on a car horn in such rage that in the U.S. one might expect shots to follow. I looked out the window and saw that the traffic was terribly jammed up due to construction down the road.  One driver was conscientious and hadn’t blocked the intersection. Even the tram beside him was stopped so cross traffic could continue.  Suddenly, from a car two cars behind this responsible driver, the person whose horn blowing had failed to persuade him jumped out of her car, stomped up to the guy’s window,  and screamed at him. I mean, really screamed at him. Then she stomped back. The driver didn’t move because he couldn’t.  Eventually the traffic advanced and the woman tore off in anger.

Did I mention she was good looking, well-dressed, and driving a very expensive car? Seems like those People Who Are Just More Important Than Everyone Else exist everywhere. Sigh.

While I’m mired in news pages and children’s stories, Jim is making his own distinctive progress:

My progress is limited … and that is being kind.  Only one of the people I work directly with is Austrian, and her English is better than mine.  However, almost every day I stop in ADEG, Laxenburg's only grocery store.  After a couple of months of trying my bad German in ordering my daily sandwich – Ein Semmel mit Sauna-Schinken und chili Käse, bitte (that's ham and cheese on a roll) – I learned to shorten it to "das üblichen."  That means "the usual."  So, to change my order I have to learn new German.

Despite my failure, I received a promotion at ADEG.  I was recently informed by Rosa, the manager, that I was no longer considered a "Sie," but would henceforth be referred to as a "du." This is a big deal.   In Austria, "du" is informal, only used among friends, and in this reserved society the switch from "Sie" to "du" isn't easily achieved.

While Misti works incredibly hard on her German, and Keir is doing well in his Deutsch class at school, my "formal" training is mostly ADEG and Rosetta Stone.  Rosetta Stone is good, but you have to do it regularly and take seriously their suggestion that you also study other material – which I don't.
Band Meets Tram

Morning Parade
As for an events update, today is May Day, and that means political parades for workers.  We awoke this morning to the sound of a marching band coming down Währingerstrasse.  The band was excellent, and in step as they marched amid a small group of left-leaning folks carrying signs and trying not to get hit by the trams.  The banners were a little difficult to read, but one sign read, "The greed of the capitalist is our downfall."

Syrian Rally
Later, after lunch with a friend in an Italian restaurant in District One, we came upon a rally against the brutal crackdown on protesters in Syria.  The Syrian protesters were intense, the images on their posters graphic. 

We left District One and were heading home when we came upon a Communist Party rally in Sigmund Freud Park.  A rock band played "Gimme Some Lovin," an old Spencer Davis Group/Steve Winwood tune.  The band was good – they made an effortless transition from "Gimme Some Lovin" to "Birdland," the Weather Report tune made famous by Manhattan Transfer. 
Marx & Winwood

And, in the six degrees of separation category, the dad of my daughter Erin's neighborhood friend when she was growing up in Minneapolis was the drummer for Weather Report and may have been playing on the CD the band in Sigmund Freud Park used to learn the song.  Small world.  But I digress. 

Given the small size of the crowd, I don't think the Communists in Vienna pose much of a threat to the capitalists.  The Green Party is on the rise here, however, and we're all for that.

So, das is alles für diese Woche.  Tschüss!

1 comment: