Arriving in a City Where the Past is Ever-Present
After arriving in Austria, the first thing I noticed was the similarity between lives here and in the U.S. Despite being halfway across the globe, everyday life here appears to be much the same. In the apartment above mine, a family goes about their daily routine just as an American family would; I wake up in the morning to the pitter-patter of restless little feet getting ready for school. Though the streets are often cobblestone, and while the buildings may be grandiose affairs hailing from the Baroque era, what these buildings house fills the exact same niches demanded in the US. It looks strange to a foreign eye seeing H&M’s, McDonalds, and Nike stores nestled in buildings that are centuries old, having survived world wars, diseases, and weather through the ages. There seems to be a tension between past and present: modernity with all of its capitalistic enterprises encroaching in on the mid-19th century romanticism. Perhaps to the Viennese the art of inhabiting a place with centuries upon centuries of history is now effortless, but to me it still boggles my mind that I live, eat and walk through a city that was once a Roman settlement, the focus of Turkish sieges, and the extensive capitol of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Vienna is a city drenched in the past.
Even the apartment I live in nicely illustrates the contrast between old and new that makes up the heart of this city. When I first stepped into my apartment, I immediately noticed how modern it looked, especially compared to the outside’s rather decrepit grayish appearance. After walking up dimly lit stone stairs curving upward in an older style, walking through the door affronted the senses with the contrast between the mustier hallway and what I walked into—it was like stepping into an IKEA catalogue. Trendy patterns in black, white, and bright greens greeted the eyes, with new floor paneling. This to me seems to be characteristic of what I have noticed about Vienna thus far—new constantly interacting with the old. My bed lies next to a slight door sized protrusion in the wall next to it, evidence of an extension of the building that is no longer there. Our closet-sized bathroom, awkwardly positioned right near the entryway of our apartment, is what remains of likely the only bathroom in the apartment building (communal back in the day). This historical memory is ingrained in buildings all throughout the city—other examples include the building where my IES classes are. Years ago it used to take up the entire block, a palace inhabited by one wealthy family with numerous servants, but now that block is chopped into ¾ of a block. Where a portion of the building was bombed out in the Second World War lays a markedly newer white building housing a restaurant. A testament to this destruction lies in the stairway in the IES main school building with a door that leads to nowhere. Similarly, St. Stephan’s Church, the largest gothic church smack-dab in the center of the city has almost all of the stained glass replaced again after WWII bombings, robbing the holy place of much of its grandeur. Here the past is ever present, with the new encroaching on the old.
A modern flavor also comes out in the food, especially surrounding my apartment building located in the 6th district. As my lovely Austrian RA explained, the Naschmarkt (a large open air market, with everything from sausages to baklava) in this district has lead to the spread of ethnic restaurants throughout this part of town especially. I had heard from a friend abroad this summer that Vienna had good Asian food, and wanted to verify this. (As a sushi lover, this would be quite the bonus.) Turns out the majority of food near me is ethnic, with enough sushi, pho, Indian and pizza to satisfy all my cuisine-related hopes. The first night all of the IES students in the apartment building, 10 in total, lead by our RA, adventured into a nearby Indian restaurant. The establishment seemed to nicely blend Austrian and Indian tradition, with outside garden seating in a courtyard typical for Austria, while the waiter was more outgoing, looking after our table more than other Austrian waiters had thus far (in contrast, the more stereotypically Austrian waiters very efficiently perform their job, but are unlikely to “check-in” on your table to make sure you’re doing all right, and certainly would not hover around).
Like their city, the Viennese themselves so far are hard to pin down, a mix of modern tendencies rooted in tradition. A quarter of the city’s population is retired, giving an indication of the general age of not only this city, but also its inhabitants. Known for their efficiency and sophistication, the first handful of natives I’ve met have, like any place, been very different. One woman chastised our tour group for neglecting to see the small boxes she put in front of her shop entrance, hinting that we should not walk on that portion of the sidewalk but around it. Oblivious to this, we did walk through that part of the sidewalk. She responded by walking out of her store, condescendingly reproaching our group for our stupidity in a tone that needed no translation. Another mannerism that seem strange to me, coming from American culture, is the Austrian’s uninhibited habit of staring. The people of this city exhibit a certain freedom of the gaze, having no problem looking at you for extended periods of time (During our orientation we were told we could ignore it or stare back if we so wished). Despite a few customs that will take getting used to, other Austrians have gone out of their way to be helpful. My first experience at the grocery store I was checking out, and the cashier launched into speaking as soon as he got to my little bag of potatoes so quickly I could not catch all of what he was saying. Unsure if he was mad or happy, my RA came to my rescue, conveying that I was supposed to get a kilo of potatoes, but did not have that much in my bag, and that the man was worried I would not get my moneys worth. Instead, he gave me a 50% discount, such a sweet and thoughtful thing to do.
So far Vienna has been full of contrasts, hard to pin down in its diversity of influences. I am excited to continue to explore and learn more about this city these next few weeks. For all the foodies out there, look out for my next blog post (I’ll post bi-weekly) where I’ll focus a little more on Viennese cuisine. Tschüss for now!