Sunday, October 2, 2011

Second Impressions: Another Year in Wien

It’s now been nearly 15 months since we moved to Vienna, and once again I’m in my perch at the third-story apartment window ogling women’s legs.  Among my first impressions that have proven true is that Viennese women, regardless of age, have stunning legs and they love to show them off. Walking? Skiing? Hiking in the Tyrolean Alps? Biking? Genetics? Who knows? But these don’t strike me as legs defined by Pilates and honed by hard-bodied personal trainers.

Another initial impression proved true is that many, if not most, middle-aged and elderly Viennese women don’t know the meaning of “she let herself go.” As our friend Mark, who visited a few weeks ago, noticed, you can walk behind a woman here who is stylishly decked out, with a beautiful figure, strutting confidently in bare legs and high heels (the very sight of which makes my bunions throb), and when you actually pass her and see her face, you stifle your gasp. Despite the flattering hair and make-up, the woman is clearly in her 50s or 60s or even 70s. Now, for some men, this excellent rear view might qualify as false advertising. I prefer to see these Viennese women (and the French) as inspirations that could teach American women quite a lot about being sexy at any age.

Going into my second year in Vienna, I’ve got first impressions on my mind. Few things are as hard to overcome as a negative first impression, as those who advise job applicants are quick to remark. An interviewee has something like a nanosecond to come across as a desirable hire. I always told my ESL writing students two rules for writing. First, don’t bore the reader (me). Second, your first sentences form the reader’s first impression. They need to be the equivalent of the firm American handshake a prospective employer expects. If you want the job, or a friendly reader, don’t extend a floppy fish hand reminiscent of a sadly impotent man or crush finger bones to dust. And, if your introductory sentences contain basic grammatical errors, it’s as if you smiled at the interviewer with remnants of that last taco between your teeth.

(An aside to the grammar mavens among you. Yes, I’m aware that some of my blogs contain the occasional grammar or spelling error; editing oneself is tantamount to scaling Mt. Everest sans Sherpa guides. However, whenever I try to correct such errors, I blow up the blog, something Jim doesn’t find amusing.)

Okay. I’ve done it again. I’ve written without regard to photo opportunities. For this blog, Jim will provide a few visual interludes and comment.  Here’s the first.

Keir and Friends 
[Try as I might, I wasn’t able to find images of legs that would keep this a reasonably family appropriate blog.  Klimt has done some nice drawings,  but I’ll leave it to you to find them.  We haven’t been shooting pictures with the blog in mind, so this entry is very random.

Yesterday Keir’s varsity volleyball team played several games against visiting Budapest.  When he played Babe Ruth baseball in Virginia, an away game to Springfield or Herndon was considered long distance.  Thus far he’s played an away game in Frankfurt, Germany, and last week we hosted the team from Munich.   Here is a picture of Keir (#4) when the American International School Knights played Munich.

Keir vs. Munich

 While Keir’s team was soundly beating the Budapest team, I talked with the coach of their girls team.   It was a reminder that we’re not in Kansas anymore.  She was born in Poland and spoke with a Polish accent, but she lived most of her life in Quebec and was raised as a French Canadian.  She just got her PhD in social linquistics from Oxford and is living her dream of teaching French to high school kids in Budapest.   She also teaches Polish and German.  I was just trying to understand the rules to the vollyball game.

And here is Misti.]

As I was saying, first impressions matter, whether they’re formed in interviews, writing, speed dating, or traveling. One of the amazing and unanticipated things about living abroad for a year is that when you return home, you see things differently, almost as first impressions.

Colin & Misti
We were home in the U.S. for three weeks, including a delightful stay with Erin, Will, and adorable grandson, 2-year-old-Colin, in Maryland, and then we spent a few days in Minneapolis/St. Paul for my sister’s youngest son’s wedding – a lovely, classy, warm occasion during which we caught up with siblings, nieces, and nephews (and their children) whom we haven’t seen for years. We spent too little time with old friends in Minneapolis, the city in which all four children were born.

Back in Virginia, we were the beneficiaries of warm and generous hosts including friends and family.

Bride & Groom
Going from the isolation which is my lot here in Vienna to constant intermingling was, at times, overwhelming. The first night when everyone was arriving for the wedding festivities and greeting each other and catching up, I had to leave the room. Not only was the conversation of so many people at one time confusing, I could actually understand every word everyone said. My brain nearly exploded. Now, of course, I’m isolated and miss the contact.

Vienna Street
The first new first impression: diversity. Vienna is very white. We see an occasional African or African American, and one of my acquaintances is a black South African attorney (who is the one thing sadder than a trailing wife, a trailing husband). Unfortunately, he has occasionally experienced the racism that still plagues Vienna. In fact, a slight scandal occurred last spring when a taxi driver kicked out an American opera singer because she was black.  Asian faces are a tad more common, but varying hues of vanilla dominate the human landscape. It doesn’t seem particularly 21st century here despite the statistic that 30 percent of the inhabitants were not born in Vienna.

A building as Art
My former students, especially those from countries with extremely homogeneous populations such as Korea or Saudi Arabia, often described their shock upon landing at JFK or Dulles. They were dumbstruck by the races, nationalities, languages, attire – the hubbub of the world’s peoples milling about in one place. The reality in any American city, and most smaller towns, is that the U.S. looks like what it is: a nation of immigrants from every corner of the globe.

During our visit home, I was struck by a simple scene.  On a street in Falls Church, I saw a minor fender bender involving three cars. The drivers, an African American woman, Middle Eastern man, and Asian woman wearing a U.S. post office uniform, were all calmly, if not cheerfully, exchanging their insurance information. At NOVA alone, I taught students from more than 90 countries and many American public schools contain students speaking more than 80 languages and dialects.

My second new first impression of the U.S.? Excess.

I still find it odd in Vienna that I can go into the Billa or Spar and see empty shelves. “Let’s have chicken breasts for dinner,” I think, and then I hie myself to the store only to discover there’s no chicken breast to be had. In Virginia, I stopped to gawk as I entered a Giant supermarket. How can there possibly be that much food in one place? That many choices, that much junk, that much excessive packaging, that much certainty that unless there’s an impending hurricane or blizzard, the shelves will be fully and invitingly stocked?

Which led naturally to the other obvious American excess -- pounds, and I don’t mean the British currency. Rarely do we see obese people in Vienna, but, unfortunately, it’s a common sight in the U.S. and the whole world knows it.  The solution becomes really quite obvious when living in Europe: Eat less junk food and walk, walk, walk.

Shortly after we arrived in Austria in 2010, Jim and I went to a café in Modling for a light lunch. I simply ordered roasted potatoes, Jim had a sandwich of which he ate half. The waitress, who spoke excellent English, burst out with, “You can’t eat that little. You’re Americans and Americans always eat way too much.”

My first impression of the Viennese being rude, unfriendly, and cold in public, has, alas, proven true. I enjoyed a wonderful conversation with Oleysia, the wife of the couple who is renting our house in Virginia. She is originally from Siberia and moved to the U.S. when she was 18.

When she asked me how I like Vienna, I responded with how beautiful the city is, how much I love public transportation, how the history is overwhelming at times. Then I said, “And the people….” And she finished my sentence for me: “They’re really mean, aren’t they?” She went on to talk about how she –and even her mother – will no longer visit Russia or most of Eastern Europe because the people are so harsh.  In contrast, she said what I’ve heard hundreds of times from my ESL students in Virginia, “Americans are so friendly and polite. I love it here.” Yes, she agreed, that friendliness can be superficial, but given the choice between people who run into you on the sidewalk and crash into you at the supermarket and cut in line and glower and glare and growl and who apparently believe apologizing is a sign of weakness, and people who actually hold the door open for you, smile, say hello, and are quick to apologize if they’ve been discourteous, well, the choice seems pretty obvious to me. As I've said before, on a one-to-one basis, the Viennese can be charming but not in public.

Another first impression of the U.S.: Except for their ridiculous love of guns and consequent violence and the behavior of a few asses at recent Republican debates (cheering for executions and booing an American soldier – really?), Americans tend to be orderly and fair. They stand in line, for instance. And at doctor’s offices, people behave themselves. We had made a variety of doctor’s appointments, and it was a joy to see people patiently waiting; even people waiting for possibly negative test results were uniformly pleasant. I don’t think we’ve written about Jim’s experience at an Austrian doctor’s office. Here’s Jimmy Lee:

Schloss in Fog
[IIASA, where I work, has a “house doctor” who comes in one afternoon every week and is really good.  But, if you need more than a casual consult, you have to walk across the platz in front of the schloss to the other doctor, who has a practice with a real office.  He opens just for IIASA employees for a few hours once a week.

So, a bunch of us IIASA folks gathered in his waiting room, most of us suffering from flu-like chest colds.  The doctor was late (trains are on time here, but doctors aren’t), and as we waited, an elderly Austrian woman, clearly from the village, came in and sat by herself in the far corner.  A few minutes later the doctor walked in, strode through the waiting room and into his office.  He shut his door.

That apparently was the signal to the elderly non-IIASA woman, who leaped up, moved quickly across the office, pulled open the door, gave us all an “up yours” look, and went inside.  She didn’t come out for 15 or 20 minutes.

On the local English-German-French rock radio station, the Austrian co-host, a woman named Nina, talked the other morning about how she always cuts in lines “because waiting in queues is boring.” When her co-host, a Brit, pointed out that it was rude, the otherwise likable Nina said she didn’t care because she didn’t like to be bored standing in line. The phrase "common courtesy" doesn't seem to exist here.

As bad as the Viennese are, the volleyball coach from Budapest said the people there are even worse.  They were part of the same Austro-Hungarian Empire  as the Viennese,  she said, and when it collapsed the Hungarians felt even more powerless and ignored than the Austrians.  They make up for it by being even ruder, she said.  Hard to imagine.  Back to Misti.]

Among the frustrating things about the U.S. is the utter dependence on cars. In Vienna, I’m not in a car for weeks at a time, and Reeve and Melanie in Arles, France, don’t even own a car. Being in the traffic hell that is Northern Virginia made me question American sanity yet again. The hours wasted in traffic result in talent undeveloped, creativity deadened, ideas unexpressed, intellect atrophied, revelation denied, potential romance squandered, less love made, and, oh, yes, bodies turned to flab. Whatever it costs to build a modern public transportation system would pay off hugely in the long run.

Vienna Mass Transit

Little things.  While in the U.S. I realized how much I miss American closets and clothes dressers and how much I love clothes dryers.  I was like a member of a lost tribe somewhere deep in the Amazon rain forest when I beheld clothes that came out of a machine dry, soft, and wrinkle-free. A gift from the gods. Upon returning to the streets of Vienna, I realized again how much I enjoy walking in this city and how I never tire of its exquisite details.

More Mass Transit
OK, it is now a month since I started writing this blog  and mentioned the difference in grocery stores.  Yesterday Jim and I went to a supermarket, Merkur. I pass the store every time I ride the bus to Keir’s school, which is situated in a far corner of the 19th District, right on the edge of the Vienna Woods.  Jim and I dropped Keir off at school at 7:30 for SAT testing and then four games of volleyball against Budapest, so we decided on a little grocery store field trip. 

The 19th District, which is a popular American expat district that is also home to wealthy Austrians and a few ambassadors, has had a certain cachet for more than a century.  Beethoven used to go to the 19th District to compose occasionally, and Mark Twain during his two years in Vienna as The Famous American Writer spent part of that time living very well in the 19th when he wasn’t hobnobbing with the aristocrats in the First.

And More
Anyway, we stopped, and despite my general lack of interest in food, I spent a long time going up and down aisles just to see what was there. It wasn’t quite Whole Foods or Harris Teeter but had elements of both. The major thing? We rarely spend more than 30 euros at a grocery store. Today, for relatively little food (but the Johnny Walker Red Label was on sale, and the olive tapenade just looked so good, and that ready-to-cook homemade lasagna would be so delicious tomorrow night, and ….. ) we spent 96 euros. Don’t bother to do the conversion. In either currency, it was too much. It definitely felt like we were in the US again.  When we mentioned our outing to Keir, he said, "Oh,yeah, that's the grocery store for rich people." We won’t be returning to Merkur anytime soon.

More Still
So, on to year two. Despite how much I miss beloved family and friends, colleagues, students, Chase the dog, our house and piano and wood burning stove, our own personal statue, the Jag (used, old, but like driving a Steinway), English, the bamboo (sorry, I love the bamboo), my ferns, the birds at the feeder, the deer (sorry, I love the deer), I’m thrilled to be staying. A year isn’t enough to learn the language or plumb the depths or understand the culture or create a rich personal world. Already since we returned, I’ve had more days of serendipity and wonder than days when I greet Jim when he gets home from work with, “I wanna go home.”

Now it’s Sunday morning, the sky is prehistoric Danube blue, and I can see the elegant statues outside my window that have become daily companions. Vienna might not yet qualify as HOME, but it is, for now, home.

A belated thank you to everyone who made our visit to the U.S.  so satisfying, stimulating and wonderful. You have another year. Come visit.