Getting to Know Home From Afar

After just passing the benchmark one month mark of living in Vienna, I can already say the notion of home has been cropping up and evolving frequently. The first few weeks I was here, and even now I constantly mentally compare the smallest minutiae of everyday life to what it would be like back in Massachusetts or California. I recently went on a trip to Germany and Poland with my study abroad program, and after a whole bus of 45 or so kids unloaded at a rest stop somewhere in the Czech Republic and promptly formed a 40 person-line for the bathroom someone said, “Here you have to pay for it all—the water you drink and the bathroom after.” And this is true, the lack of tap water at restaurants and in cities can be quite frustrating to those not interested in dropping 3 euros on water, or those (me) who think paying for water is silly and instead opt for less healthy options like soda consistently while eating out.

But these small things are inconsequential when compared to the larger concepts of culture—the identity of Austrians, of Americans, of home and the self. When I first got here I did not want to come across as not fitting in. I tried to blend as best I could—when riding the U-bahn (metro) or walking the city with fellow Americans, I tried to speak as little as possible when within earshot of locals, for fear of not belonging. I kept interactions at stores or restaurants to the minimum—a greeting, asking what I wanted, paying and going my own way in as succinct a form as possible. Near the IES center where my classes are is St. Stephan’s Cathedral, a famous cathedral in the heart of Vienna. Men in fancy, frilly 19th century-style coats stand outside and swoop upon unsuspecting tourists offering concert tickets with hefty price tags. When these men do not call out to you in English, you’ve succeeded in blending as Viennese, or so the conventional wisdom goes. And you would not believe how hard I tried the first week to stop those greetings. I replied “Nein, danke” (no thanks) as fast as I could, and later adopted strategies from avoiding this nuisance altogether. I went so far as to speak in German to my American peers here (or at them, depending on their level of German) when walking by, or carrying a German newspaper with me.

All these antics, which were getting more and more ridiculous, made me question just why I wanted to fit in so badly. Moving beyond the “it’s annoying to be pestered by men wearing trousers and ascots” answer, I think I reacted negatively against my identity as a U.S. citizen. It is quite easy to be harsh on your home culture while abroad, when the host culture does things differently, and in some seemingly better ways. For example, there are indented and slightly raised 3D lines on the running up and down sidewalks to better aid the blind, and public transportation is exceedingly affordable, user-friendly, and runs like clockwork. People here are more blunt, which at first I disliked and was offended by, but now seems so common-sense it makes the US stuffy politeness and dancing around feelings seem frivolous. And some of these things really are better. Some of them I wish the US had (oreo-flavored Swiss milk chocolate bars, yes please.) But the US also has some great things to offer. Thoug impossible to pin down any culture, especially one as diverse as the US, I have found that my culture is overall more openly friendly than what I have experienced here. I naturally react with smiles rather than stares when looking at others, even strangers. The stereotype of Americans being boisterous and loud at times may be true, but we are also talkative and personable. Strangely enough, it has taken living outside of the U.S. for an extended period of time to really appreciate the nuances of my own culture. Previously I could not tell you what American culture was. I read about it and watched videos all pointing towards an amalgamation of diverse cultures and peoples coming together and amounting to no definite culture. But we do have a culture—it just took stepping back to see it. We do not have the same drilled-in efficiency of grocery stores here, where you must bag your food as quickly as you can while fumbling for change in your purse and getting out of the next customer’s way. We have an attitude of customer is king, waiters cater to diners for tips, store people greet you at Macy’s or your local boutique asking you if they can help you find something. Here not so much. A little sure, but waiters do their own thing, are polite but not over the top. Salespeople say hello, but let you mind your own business. One culture is not better than the other, but differences exist. For me, the previously secret prospect of American culture is being unveiled. I am more appreciative of the country I come from, while appreciating the country I am in. But now, when I am on the U-bahn with fellow American students I am quite comfortable speaking English to them, and being labeled, quite correctly, as American.

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