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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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?
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.