Vienna waits for . . . us?

Vienna. The name evokes a classical city from a bygone era, a capital of an empire that no longer exists. A place of palaces and horse-drawn carriages, operas and balls, wiener schnitzel and cakes. Richly atmospheric and glazed with frosting, it should be every traveler’s dream. And yet, until recently, I didn’t like it. If there was a vibe, it was a Baroque one – something I found impressive and photo-worthy, but also stilted and stuffy. Frankly, after the good fortune of seeing other cities in Europe, I just wasn’t that moved. (Let’s be honest: if Paris has its soaring Eiffel Tower and Venice has its picturesque canals, it is a bit lackluster to add that Vienna has its prancing horses and a monument to the plague).

But it wasn’t just the aesthetics that underwhelmed. After cutting my Central European teeth studying Russia and Poland (places that have raised suffering to an art form) it felt hollow to wander a city that was art itself. My own cultural framework also played a part. As an American, I love to cheer for the underdog, and Vienna doesn’t fit the profile. Sure, they lost their empire, but they still seemed perched on a pretty high horse. And, having been raised in unpretentious Phoenix, I was primed to smirk at highfalutin herren and frauen who listened to Schubert for fun.

So, Vienna wasn’t my cup of coffee. This wasn’t necessarily a problem, but it bothered me that everyone else seemed to be in awe of the place. In fact, it is consistently rated as one of the best spots for expats and one of the world’s most livable cities. What was I missing?

Correctness & Coziness

I got my chance to revisit the city with new eyes and an open heart this month, when my husband attended the Drucker Forum. Eight years after our first encounter, I was determined to figure out what made Vienna tick, and hopefully fall into like, if not love. (As an optimistic, goal-oriented  American, I believed if I set my mind to it, I could achieve it – but as an intercultural specialist, I knew the importance of realistic expectations!)

I started off by making a few changes in my approach. First, I studied German. Now, if you’ve ever done any research into Vienna, I’m sure you’ve heard that “everyone speaks English.” But that doesn’t mean it’s enjoyable to freeze up when a shop clerk or hotel employee calls out Grüß Gott and you’re at a total loss because you only know guten tag. Moreover, if I was going to try to see Vienna from the inside – at least more than before, I figured it couldn’t hurt to impress locals with my ability to ask for directions. Plus, having used Pimsleur with astonishing success on a previous trip to China, I felt almost giddy about trying it out with a language much closer to my own. Challenge accepted!

Next, I broke down and bought a touristy book, Top 10 Vienna. I don’t usually go in for that, but I’m so glad I did, because it revealed a whole new side of Vienna to us. A side accessible through planning, which just so happens to be a cherished Austrian cultural value. For example, because it highlighted top restaurants like Zum weißen Rauchfangkehrer and Figlmüller, we were able to make reservations. Because these places are very small and book up in advance, it’s unlikely we would have been able to waltz in off the street. What’s more, we seemed to be treated better, like honored guests. It’s as if by making a reservation we were saying, “this night is special” and the staff then conspired with us to make it so. Their reserved faces beamed with pride as they explained the local origins of each dish, and they took care to steer us away from wrong decisions, like when we tried to order schnapps with our kaiserschmarnn (oh! but that comes after dessert, our waiter corrected us).

An unexpected benefit of eating at these two places, renowned in Vienna for their traditional cuisine, was our newfound social capital. Really. Rather than disdainfully saying, “You Americans would think all we eat is schnitzel!” Austrians seemed genuinely delighted that we had bothered to learn about the city and do it the right way. At my husband’s conference, one such man raised his arms and exclaimed, “Figlmüller!!” upon hearing that we’d dined there the previous evening. This kind of pattern played out repeatedly, as anyone we conversed with wanted to know what we had seen so they could ensure we were on track. (Have you had Sachertorte yet? Did you visit the Hofburg? You must go to Demel.) And the more things we had done, the more pleased they were.

We felt like “A” students.

A related example of planning ahead was purchasing advance tickets for the Staatsoper, Vienna’s opera house. One thing that struck me was how peaceful the hall was before the show. People quietly climbed flights of marble stairs, checked their wool coats, took their seats, and waited for the conductor’s entrance. They were dressed in their weeknight theater outfits: dark colors and conservative lines, dressy but practical shoes, and the occasional tasteful, artistic flourish, like a scarf. As the show progressed, their correct behavior continued. They knew not to applaud between movements, and never whooped or whistled. And yet, in their own appropriate way, they expressed enthusiasm for particularly stirring parts of the performance. At the end, a few even stood up. And that was that. Witnessing their sparkling eyes and broad smiles, I saw the Viennese in a new light. Perhaps they hadn’t come to the opera because they were haughty or condescending. Maybe they were here because they took pleasure in seeing something done well. Arguably an all too rare experience in today’s world . . . and I suddenly craved more of it.

Besides planning ahead, I also sought cultural insights from my colleagues and books. In doing so, I discovered a key concept: Gemütlichkeit. The sages of Wikipedia explain that Gemütlichkeit (gum-oot-lee-kite) “describes a space or state of warmth, friendliness, and good cheer. Other qualities include coziness, peace of mind, belonging, well being, and social acceptance.” I’m glad I learned about this in advance, because I saw it everywhere: in window displays, in the way our hotel staff greeted us each morning for breakfast, and especially in the restaurant ambience. I saw it in the cheerful if slightly cluttered small shops, in café comfort foods, and in locals’ abiding appreciation for lingering conversation. I saw it in their perfectly placed benches under chestnut trees, in the tiny beers served at Bar Trzesniewski, and in the way a restaurant sat an older woman at my table, since we were both solo. The more I experienced it, the more I wanted to snuggle in. And I realized, to my surprise, that I felt more at home and at ease than I had in years.

Are you from Vienna?

The combination of correctness and coziness seems at first like a paradox, and yet, it started to dawn on me that it described my German family perfectly, especially my full-German Grammie. You can see this in her house. Just like her favorite saying, “everything has its place, and everything in its place,” everything is always in order, just as it should be. She serves breakfast in a dining room with high back chairs, and yet the dominant feeling is one of hominess. Just like the Frühstück in Vienna, it features bowls of sliced fruit, glasses of juice, mugs of coffee, plates of buttered bread, jars of jam and honey, and ample scrambled eggs and sausage. And of course, a bowl of sugar, just in case. She isn’t chatty, and she shows her love by efficiently timing the delivery of the next batch of food, but you know you’ve really connected if you can make her laugh.

The more I interacted with people in Vienna, the more I realized that I wasn’t code switching in the way I thought I would be. I was acting like I would at Grammie’s house. And it wasn’t just me. My husband (who, in 15 years, has had plenty of time for visits to Grammie’s and countless family get-togethers), remarked that it felt that way to him, too.

If we felt at home in Vienna, the feeling seemed to be mutual. Clerks and waiters only spoke to me in German, and seemed surprised when I had to explain that I only spoke a little. Austrians at the conference saw our last name, Hahn, and exclaimed, “You are Austrian!” (They even took to calling Mike Herr Hahn, which he quite liked). Even an English attendee asked us, over drinks before the gala, if we were from Vienna. It was hard not to burst out laughing – could anything be farther from the truth for two kids from suburban Phoenix, and one who also grew up in Korea?


And then, we looked in the mirror. Eight years after our first visit, we were dressed more or less like locals. No longer scorning felt hats and boiled wool coats, we were completely at home in our city of cobblestones. Was it that our latent German-ness shone more brightly now that it had an outlet? Was it our previous stint living in Poland? Could it be that a period of less than a year in Austria’s Central European neighbor somehow outweighed all of the time we’d spent in Arizona and, most recently, Los Angeles? Was it that we were older and more serious, and therefore more appreciative of a city that embraced the same? Or was it that this was the first time we had ever made a serious effort to engage with Vienna by starting to learn the language, researching it advance, and spending several days there (rather than it just being a layover, as it was in the past)? Or is it that at the end of 2015, a place where people care about doing things right and are absorbed in conversations instead of their smart phones is a new definition of paradise? Maybe all of the above.

Whatever it is, we’ve officially been converted. Somewhere between the inconceivable amounts of bread, and the chocolates left on our pillows, we leaped past like and right into love. Danke, Vienna. With luck, we’ll see you again soon.

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