A Slice of Wiener Life, According to an Ausländer

Newcomers to the city might be baffled by the U-bahn honour system, the religious greeting and the small coffee cups

On The Town | Nareg Seferian | March 2013

Culture shock is nothing to be afraid of if you open your mind to the new (Illustration: Paolo Bastos)

An honour system. For riding the metro? This was something new. How can you allow people to just wander onto a platform without bothering to check their tickets? And what’s with pushing buttons or yanking handles to open the wagon doors?

These were some of my very early impressions when I first found myself in Vienna, back in the autumn. But while I couldn’t believe the city would organise itself this way – it seemed rather naïve – on the other hand, I still haven’t taken a free ride on the U-Bahn myself. I keep saying that I have never seen a ticket-checker (and it’s true that I haven’t). But I also keep telling myself that I can’t risk getting Vienna upset at me. She’s too pretty.

So, slowly but surely, I am developing a relationship with this lovely city. It all began as I wandered into stores and kept hearing the same phrase over and over. I had just arrived and hardly knew any German. What were they saying? Not only the same words, but the same intonation, by all the shopkeepers. Turns out they were welcoming me with the greetings of God. Now, where I come from, we have a saying: "Greetings are to God", and for everyone. Even your worst enemy needs to be greeted. Around here, it is God who is doing the greeting. Or am I being asked to greet on His behalf? I try not to think about it too much. The point is that we all get along in Vienna, and God is in on it.

Now, this is country No. 4 for me, and the fifth establishment where I’ve attended classes. It’s going great, but the institutional set-ups are often surprising. One cute aspect of classroom interaction here is the ritual knocking or thumping of the table at the end of class. Lately, I’ve started counting the number of knocks. Is rapping a table for longer a sign of greater approval? Or perhaps greater frustration, leading to more knocks the table has to bear at the end? Either way, I wonder how often they replace the furniture, and if they factor the increased wear and tear into their budgets. The European Central Bank (ECB) would be wise to look into this matter.

Another thing for the ECB: What is with the absence of cheques? I opened a bank account. It took about an hour, which was fine, and then came the part at the end, namely putting actual money into the account. I had a cheque with my name on it. The bank announced it needed four weeks to get it cleared. They also had a nice laugh as my eyes widened and jaw dropped. Most of their customers from the U.S. or the U.K. have similar reactions, they said. So, that was another early lesson. No cheques. Instead, there are these pieces of paper that are fed into machines with screens on them. Somehow, that is meant to be more modern. It still involves pieces of paper with numbers on them and a signature. But it is not a cheque. I remember getting one and thinking now, "So, what do I do with this?", but instead, "What in Heaven’s name is this thing anyway?" It had my name and an amount in euros on it. Money for me? Quite the opposite, as I discovered.

I love walking in cities, exploring main thoroughfares, as well as wandering through nooks and crannies. Vienna is great for appreciating architecture or even some innocent people-watching. She has a lot to offer. I cannot tell you how many times I have gotten lost in the 1st District, only to find myself, after a few turns, right back where I had started. It still surprises me, though, to see people stick so strictly to street crossing signs, waiting for the light to change without a car in sight. I admit, if there are people around, I too engage with the hive mind, and especially so if there are kids – who wants to set a bad example?

And then there are people who look like they’re walking with a pair of skiing poles. I had never seen such things before and was afraid I hadn’t checked the weather and was woefully underprepared. A friend then told me about Nordic Walking. So Vienna truly is the centre of the world, then, what with the whole "East-meets-West" and "Mitteleuropa" thing, and now these "northern poles" all over the place. There is the UN around here too, after all, and the recent South-South co-operation dialogues round up the cardinal directions.

Vienna is also a great city for old souls like me. On my first day in town, I ended up in a classy café, reading a newspaper over a Wienerschnitzel and a cup of coffee. It was wonderful: a real, live newspaper made of newsprint! And the Garderoben! This old practice remains a novelty to me. Admittedly, I grew up in a country without winters, so a coat rack anywhere would be extraordinary. But here it is "a thing" to go the Garderobe, hand over one’s overcoat… and pay for it. I can’t get over the paying part. I tried to attend a concert with my coat on… and was stopped at the door. So I got the cheap student ticket all right, but I still had to pay full price for a peg on a wall.

But in the end, Vienna boils down – and brews up – to the coffee. I am a big fan of coffee and, being Armenian, I take pride in the role that my people played in spreading coffee through Europe generally, and to Vienna in particular. One complaint, though: the servings are often too small. I don’t mind ordering a second round, but the giant cups of a certain coffee house chain are more up my alley. But here, even they take on local flair by providing a glass of water along with. Now that’s Vienna inspiring class.

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