Grüß Gott: A Viennese Introduction

Almost two months ago, my husband and I moved from New York City—where I spent the last 12 years—to Vienna. Since our August arrival, we’ve met a few lovely people, but I basically have one real friend so far, a woman I’ll call Asha. We met at our otherwise useless job orientation and did a double take: She was born in Montreal (like me) and went to McGill University (where my father taught for several decades). She spent the last seven years in New York, at Columbia doing her PhD (I, too, spent the last chunk of my life at Columbia getting my master’s degree). She moved to Vienna a few months ago and is weeks away from marrying her German boyfriend in order to obtain a visa. (I just married my non-German boyfriend in order to get a Visa to move to Europe, too.) We are almost exactly the same age.

After the orientation, we found each other and immediately became fast friends—a matter of survival so far from home. Her boyfriend is lovely and the four of us have swapped hosting dinner parties for the last few weeks, huddling together like the only four English-speakers left on earth. Under these circumstances, new friends are quickly brought in on private matters otherwise saved for a precious few. There’s no beating around the bush (should I call? Does she like me? Can I make room for another friend?). There is only the choice to admit to being lucky to have found each other. We’ve already paid each other the biggest compliment of all: “I would have been friends with you, even in real life.”

Me and my one of my closest girls, going over last minute plans before my wedding. Photo courtesy Matthew Murphy.

The other day, sitting at a café that marks the point between our two apartments—and being served free treat after free treat by her barista boyfriend—we got to talking about how hard all this was, the business of moving across the world. Because my husband and I spent our first two weeks in Vienna in a one-room flat with no internet, no kitchen, no ability to unpack, and an 80-year-old spinster of a landlady who tried to change the terms of our agreement (my husband is convinced she is also anti-Semitic, which, sadly, is not a reach here), we weren’t shocked by our feelings of displacement and frustration. But once we got into our lovely apartment—one packed to the gills with books, fancy kitchen equipment, a dishwasher, a washing machine and wifi—we figured things would ease up.

Our landlords left us their amazing book collection. Heavenly.

In some ways, they have only gotten harder.

This is not a post about bureaucracy, although it could be—the sheer number of forms we need to have stamped, notarized, tattooed, finger-printed and paid for is outrageous (often 50 euro a page), and the order in which these things needs to be done is, quite frankly, Kafka-esque. For example: At the university, where the hubby works, you need to apply for a refund on your travel before you apply for a refund in order to warn them that you will be applying. If you miss that first deadline, say goodbye to your 1500 euro. When we went to the American embassy, a very kind American woman with one arm informed us that we needed an additional two forms we didn’t know about, and didn’t need the three forms we had come to have notarized in the first place. I could go on, but I won’t—anyone who has lived abroad knows all about these hoops.

This is where one deals with bureaucratic matters in Munich, Germany, where my husband and I used to live.

What I’m more interested in is how technology does less than I would have imagined to soften the blow of moving across the world. We’ll Skype constantly! my friends and I said to each other. We’ll email and make computer dates and text on What’s App! I hardly see any of you anyway! I reasoned to myself before leaving. Sometimes it takes a month to get a coffee! But that is not the same as never getting a coffee, and it’s not the same as knowing you’ll eventually make the pieces of your schedules meet. And—duh—a computer can never stand in for a flesh-and-bones person.

Perhaps my husband and I should have listened when many people told us that Vienna was wonderful, were it not (ahem, excuse me) for the Austrians. This is a culture in which rudeness is not considered rude (people stare and knock into you without an apology) and nothing is said outright, so you spend most of your time trying to read people’s minds (see: Kafka-esque bureaucracy, which I’ve started to dub “Bureaucrazy”). For example: I didn’t know I had an office at the university where I teach; when I asked for the key, I was told they had “run out” and “could not make another copy.”

Viennese treats, also heavenly.

Anyway, back to Asha: Eating our lemon cakes and lattes, we agreed that we had been fooled into thinking that the Internet would help. I sincerely believed that—and of course, still do: here I am posting this, and can reasonably expect that a few people will read it in less than six weeks. But the feeling of displacement, of having traveled to another land, another culture, another reality are just as present and just as shocking as if we had taken a slow boat across the Atlantic, like my great-grandparents did to get to America in 1890. And in some ways, the change might have been easier to accept—it took forever to get here! Of course it’s different! Of course we’re so far away! Because you can hop on a plane, be here in 12 hours and be almost immediately in touch with everyone back home, the magnitude of the move doesn’t quite hit you until you’re standing in the drugstore examining what you think is a pregnancy test, and come home to realize—thanks to your German-reading husband—that you instead bought an ovulation kit. Or when you order a library card and the secretary says you can’t have one because you failed to put a stamp on it (even though it wasn’t being mailed). Or when you really need to talk to a girlfriend now, but it takes a week to organize a Skype call, which then gets thwarted by a bad connection?

Perhaps part of the difficulty of settling in has to do with never having fantasized about moving here (I’ll save that story for another post, but let’s say that my husband was offered a great job). Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon was a love letter to Paris; Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces an homage to Wyoming. How do you lay a foundation when you don’t know how long you’ll be here, and never truly dreamed of ending up here? And as La Zuccheriara asked me so astutely, Once you’ve decided you won’t be here forever, how do you operate without a foundation?

A tram stop, right near the Westbahnhof.

One last thought: We live in the shadow of the Westbahnhof, the city’s main train station. This is also our UBahn (or subway) stop, which means that anytime I come or go, my main company consists of travelers and tourists. Seeing Vienna through this lens day after day—the kids in backpacks on their way to or from Prague or Budapest, families pulling suitcases—makes the transient nature of this experience even harder to shake; I can’t help but experience Vienna as only a stopover.

The beginning—we all know—is always hard. My parents lived in Paris for two years when they were in their early thirties. “We hated it for the first six months,” they both still say. “But–it was Paris! We fell in love eventually.” In a few years, we’ll look back on our European adventure and see it with a misty glow. Remember when we slept in that loft bed and ate the most delicious schnitzel and drank the most luscious sturm, and realized that all our neighbors could see us naked because no one has screens or blinds here? But for now, I can only see it as it is, unfolding unknowingly before us.


19 thoughts on “Grüß Gott: A Viennese Introduction

  1. “Mit Schlag” is the ONLY phrase I remember from my stay in Vienna. And I gained five pounds in a week because of course I would always ask for cream with my hot chocolate! The one GOOD thing I remember from Vienna is the public transportation. Is that still any good? Lovely post, Mit Schlag. Remember, people form some of their longest lasting friendships during military service and other difficult experiences. About that key: they charge so much to MAKE a key in Vienna –offer to get it made yourself, but expect to pay big bucks. I don’t think there is anything to do about the rudeness.

    • The transportation is amazing– you rarely wait longer than 4 minutes for a subway or tram! This is my favorite thing. Also, the parks are wonderful. As for the key: I think it’s a lost cause. The semester is almost over anyway…

  2. I’m about to move from Switzerland to New Zealand so I enjoyed reading your experience. I try to prepare myself for the culture shock (kiwis will probably think I’m rude and I won’t even know why ;-)) but I also hope to make good friends quickly. Leaving my friends and family will be the hardest; I’m actually looking forward to experiencing a different way of life.

  3. I just moved from New York to Seattle, which, while lacking all of the novelesque details of a move to Europe, has left me too feeling unmoored. Outside of my husband and daughter, I don’t know anyone. Before moving here I spent only one day in Seattle, having lunch with a cousin (as above, so below: my husband got a job, just like yours). What interests me about the displacement I’m experiencing is the way in which my body dishes up endless waves of exhaustion. I know I’m not actually this tired. I’m stressed, and overtaxed with the sudden conversion of what were simple everyday tasks to an infinite barrage of questions: not “let’s have eggs,” but, “where the hell do we get eggs?” Do others experience such tiredness, or is it a nervous tick all unto myself? I’m like a cat: I want to skulk around a new place and hide for a while, before I can gather the courage to mingle amongst the living.

    • You’re not alone, Lulu — one of the most revelatory things that happened in our early weeks here (fodder for another post) was discovering how my husband and I dealt with this displacement differently. I was so overwhelmed by everything that I wanted to just find someplace I liked (cafe, resto, grocery store) and go back, repeatedly, to create some sense of order and control over the situation. He wanted to do the opposite: try a new place, a new route every time. I found this exhausting and even more discombobulating. I just wanted to know ONE THING! But it was his (completely opposite) way of gaining mastery or control over a new situation. Once you know where to find the eggs and the new coffee, it does get…not such more easier, but less absurd.

      • Oh, also Lulu: Once we moved into our flat, I don’t think we went out to eat (or anything) for WEEKS. We were so happy to have a home. So I know the whole hiding-for-awhile thing. Only now are we (sort of) coming out our shells.

  4. I spent three magical days in Vienna in summer ’11. Your post, A, is such a reminder of how vastly different a place can be, depending on your relationship with it. I hope they make you a key soon.

  5. I like to think of an expat experience a little like the dutch view land development…stealing land from the sea. If you have no foundation to build on, you make one – a partner, a friendship, your own sense of wonder at this new experience…and then anchor yourself in that. I am on year five of living in Amsterdam. I have never known how long I will be here and I still don’t. Sometimes it feels like you are on hold from your “real life” and part of you can’t wait to get back to that. When you go “home” you realize your “real life” is moving on without you. Things changed for me when I chose to be at home where I am. I took a class, a job, a coffee date with someone I probably would not have been friends with in the US.
    You are gifted with a partner you love and a new dear friend. The rest will come…think of how long it takes to get settled in NY 🙂
    Beautiful post Abs!

    • You are totally right to get to the stage of being at home wherever you are– not thinking it’s not, as I said, “real life.” This is of course real life and I admire your ability to just be there, not knowing what will happen year to year (this has been one of your fortes since I’ve known you!). The temptation to get back to the so-called real thing is strong though, but you certainly do miss many wonderful things along the way with that view. I’m going to take a cue from you….

  6. First, welcome aboard! Your post struck so many chords with me. I’ve had the dubious honor of living in 4 different countries, aside from my home one. I’ve discovered it takes at least 5 years to feel like you can call that place home. And there’s a honeymoon period (often mine are food related), and there can be truly wonderful stimulation in being displaced (think of all the writing to be done from all these mix ups, and WTFs). But then, after a while, you just want things to be ‘normal’, whatever that is. You want to stop second guessing and unknowingly breaking the rules. For a day. You want everything to stop being so hard.

    I’ve been back in belgium now a year. I lived here for about 2 years, 15 years ago. But then I was a student, life was really different. I was in a city, now I live in the ‘countryside’. It’s a very different thing to trawl student cafes and meet exchange students than to walk the one street town and wonder if the old woman thinks you run the Chinese takeaway. I’m trying to make new friends, but maybe I’m getting old, it gets harder to ignore that it’s circumstance that’s marking my effort. I’ve learned to accept things that I would never have if I’d never left home. It is different, of course. I did sort of fall in love with Belgium (and one belgian in particular) 15 years ago. That helps. When I lived in the middle east, I took on a philosophy of ‘make the most of it’. And I know when you’re somewhere that maybe you didn’t choose to be (or sort of chose to be) that there’s a part of you that musn’t admit you don’t like it. Because it doesn’t get you anywhere. Certainly not forward.

    You are right about the limits of technology. I’m so grateful to it, so many of my conversations are done via a computer these days and I’d be dead in the water without it. But, as I said in La Z’s village post, it’s not easy to tell people when you’re house is burning, when you need something or someone. And no one’s around to clue in.

    To the point about what do you to build a foundation when you know it’s not forever? Take stock in the present, enjoy those odd cultural clashes (as much as you can, I know break out in hyena laughter when those things happen). What helps is, I’ve long decided that home is no longer a place. Because as someone said above, you go back and even that ‘old notion’ of home has changed. Or you have. You’ll have become more Austrian (perhaps), or at least more sensitive to what being you means. Home for me is Mr. Bitter en Zoet, and my Dog. And that is the foundation I work from.

  7. To pick up just where BeZ has left off: this notion that home is not a place has spun around in my head in different ways for so long now– and as you both know, is of particular interest to me. In college I became obsessed with the (overly theoretical, perhaps, and too scholarly) concept of the ‘imagined homeland.’ This term blew me away. I began reading dense books about it, and more importantly, carving images of my own imagined homeland in wood blocks in the printmaking studio and inking them up, pressing them into paper, trying to gather them together. (Where else could round hay bales and Hawaiian songs and Central Park come together but on a piece of Arches cotton cover paper?) I did not have one place to go to that felt like real life, and from maybe the age of seven or eight, I tried to figure out how to get one. I remember bringing in a book of photos from every state in America for show-and-tell in second grade, perhaps wanting my 20 classmates to help me close the gaps between where I had come from (Montana), where I was (Hawai’i), and where I was about to go (which, at the time, I only knew as the mythical New York City). I liked looking at globes, rather than maps that misleadingly superimpose a giant Hawaiian island chain right next to California, to get a sense of where I was on the planet. I always believed there must be some way to be in one place forever that felt real and good and, yes, like home.

    Which is why this idea of an imagined homeland took on such significance for me at a time when I was working out how I might go into the world and make my own home. I’m still figuring that out. And like BeZ said, I’m figuring out that the place is perhaps not the point at all, or at least not the whole point. The difficult piece is that people (not the husband and dogs, but the larger village) are not always as sturdy as (my imagination of a permanent) place. This is the tricky point for me — and what I hear in your thoughts about how much technology can do to close the gaps, about what it takes to begin investing in new friendships in a new place — and what I seem to be working out for myself here on MS of late.

  8. We lived in Germany for two years (moving from Canada) when I was very young. I know my Mom had a really hard time with it at first, but eventually she made friends that she still has over 30 years later. I can imagine how hard it must be to be in a brand new place with no idea how long you’ll be staying. And it’s true that the internet isn’t the best substitute for staying in touch. May you find a good, cozy cafe to hunker down in and hang in there! Even if you go home tomorrow, you’ll have some great stories to tell. 🙂

  9. All these responses resonate so deeply with me, thank you — especially the idea of Mr. Mit Schlag becoming my (new) home and also the triviality of resisting the experience, or admitting to not liking it. You’re right BeZ, this won’t get me anywhere, and it certainly serves to fortify a feeling that’s not *totally* true. There are many wonderful things about this place (schlag being the #1 thing, right after my e-card and the wonderful tram/ubahn system), if I let in some space around my initial shock. So much of this, of course, has to do with this new marriage and partnership. Both BeZ, LZ and ST (I think?) seem to know about this moving for your husband’s work thing– even though you agree and WANT to do it, and think it will ultimately be a great thing, there’s still a piece of this that’s new to me– like, every choice isn’t all about ME anymore?! Huh?

    On a related note, LZ: You better put all those things about an “imagined homeland” and silkscreening of it all together into your book. I’ve never read about that before and it is necessary, beautiful and fascinating. xo

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