Austria is a funny place. In many ways, I think Austrians are very similar to British people – shy, even cold at first, and very polite, but incredibly friendly and welcoming later on. Both cultures love to have a drink and a laugh and I think the food is similar too, though the Austrians would disagree and would be offended by the comparison. Both nations love sport (even though we tend to be bad at it) and we both have a chip on our shoulder from the big brother nation that we’re unfairly overshadowed by – in our case, America and in their case, Germany.
However, there are some ways in which we are very, very different. Here are a few of the things that have stood out to me about Austrian culture since my arrival.
The reign of the Hausschuhe. Hausschuhe, meaning ‘house shoes’, can be anything from sandals to slippers to crocs and they are, as the name so well describes, shoes that you wear in the house (or inside anywhere). This rule also extends to school – there are changing rooms at the entrance of the school for students and teachers to change out of their coats and outside shoes and into their Hausschuhe. This isn’t optional – it is heavily enforced for the students and also observed by most teachers (not me, though. Crocs are like, social suicide). On arriving at the Austrian houses I’ve been to, I have been presented with Hausschuhe at the front door – most Austrians keep a basket of them specially for guests who come to their houses, whilst others keep theirs with them in their bags at all times in case they should have to go inside somewhere unexpectedly.
Perhaps the one thing they’re more obsessed with than Hausschuhe is recycling. I’ve honestly never seen anything like it. I thought we were good at recycling at home – we had a paper bin, a bin for tins and glass, a bin for plastics and even a compost bin for vegetable peelings and tea bags.
Austria takes recycling to a whole new level. Eva has no less than 11 different recycling and compost bins and drawers that are sorted into categories such as paper, compost, soft plastic, hard plastic, aluminium, plastic wrapping, yoghurt pots, milk cartons, glass and finally one bin that is for ‘the rest’ and basically contains only dust from the hoover. Every house is like this, and so is the school. Some of my students have miniature plastic dustbins that they keep on their desks and take to the recycling bins at the end of the day to sort their pencil shavings from their sweet wrappers. It’s insane – and we could probably all do with taking a leaf out of Austria’s book.
Let me take you on a tour…
Having lovely houses
Not much to say here, because I haven’t quite had the nerve to sneakily take photos of the Austrian houses I’ve been in to put on the internet. That’s called being a massive creep – but you can take my word for it, all the houses are beautiful. They’re tidy, modern and so stylish. Every house I’ve been to has started with a proud tour of the rooms, nearly always complete with fireplace, corner sofa, island in the kitchen, balcony and swimming pool. If this experience has taught me anything, it’s that I want an Austrian to design my house.
Tracht: dirndls and lederhosen
You thought it was a joke, didn’t you? A funny stereotype that couldn’t possibly be true? I joked with my mum that I would turn up on my first day of school in a dirndl and insist that I thought that’s how everyone dressed. In reality, turning up to school in a dirndl would go relatively un-commented on. Everyone has a dirndl or lederhosen – most people have more than one. They’ve even developed hotpants lederhosen for girls. I’m not joking. This kind of dress is usually worn for special occasions and is the uniform for the waiters and waitresses in traditional restaurants, but I’ve seen people before doing their grocery shopping in them at the supermarket and nobody bats an eyelid.
Obviously, I bought one in Munich after one too many beers.
That’s another thing we all thought was a joke, right? All the Austrians do is skip around in the hills, yodelling? Well, they don’t all yodel, and they don’t all skip – but they do all hike up and down hills all the livelong day. It’s not hard to see why – it’s beautiful here – but when I learnt that Wandertagen are an actual thing that exists where the whole school is closed for a day so that they can go on a hike together, it’s fair to say I stopped laughing at stereotypes. Everything you imagine Austria to be is exactly what it’s like.
Perhaps to counteract the fact that their national dish is Schnitzel (and yes, they eat a lot of it) and that they also consume an unholy amount of sausages, beer and various sweets (see Sachertorte, Kaiserschmarnn and Keks), the Austrians are also obsessed with their health. There are ‘bio’ sections in every supermarket and whole shops dedicated to organic products. There is vegan ice cream at the local Spar, which I’ve never found in the Sainsbury’s in Camden. Every time I’ve been for dinner with an Austrian, they’ve asked me what I do and don’t eat as par for the course – whereas I’ve never been asked about dietary requirements in England because it’s always assumed you eat everything unless you say otherwise. They love riding their bikes, walking and working out as well – but contradict themselves with…
The teachers’ changing room stinks of smoke. It’s grim. There technically is a smoking ban in Austria which means that you can’t smoke inside, but nobody observes this law and those who do lose business fast. Woe betide the foolish girl who wears her nice coat out to a bar – she’ll be airing it for weeks trying to get the stench of smoke out of the hood.
(That girl would be me.)
In Rohrbach news, this week I was treated to a very interesting production of MacBeth at the theatre which is weirdly connected to the school through a series of underground tunnels (bizarre). The whole play was performed in an hour by four actors, in a mixture of Shakespearian and modern English that didn’t make an awful lot of sense. I think they may have put the poor kids off Shakespeare forever.
Later in the week, afternoon lessons were cancelled for what we thought was going to be a showing of Sister Act, but turned out to be the soundcheck. I have never seen a more confused cast or audience than during those 45 minutes, with the students expecting a show and the cast surprised to see a hall full of 300 expectant faces looking up at them.
It was at this performance that one of my students came up to me, told me she had a photo of me and proceeded to produce the selfie that I took with some random teenagers who gave me a beer on the train. Turns out, they’re friends of her boyfriend and put the selfie straight in the group chat. Note to self: Austria is a small place. Also, don’t get drunk with kids on a train.
(Or do. It was funny.)
The rest of this week has involved making pizza from scratch at the flat of one of the other English teachers…
…and a trip to Linz with Marina where I met some of her lovely friends and ate a vast amount of food in an African restaurant.
3 Spaniards, an Italian, a French girl and an English girl walk into an African restaurant in Austria…
Emma and I got the chance to make a trip to Hallstatt, a tiny weeny and incredibly beautiful Austrian village.
It was also Thanksgiving, and, not being American, I was super excited to celebrate for the first time ever with actual Americans. Emma, Bryony and I got together to roast vegetables and make brownies which we brought along as our contribution to the feast, along with two bottles of gin (natürlich). We had such a good evening and again ate a metric shitton of food – I really got into the spirit and managed to snap my fork from over-zealous shovelling.
We also had an ice skating lesson, which was great fun. Our teacher must be about 60 years old and has a proper beer belly, yet on the ice he’s as graceful as a swan. Juxtapose this with him skating alongside us, telling us stories about an English girl he ‘had’ once with no trousers and it all gets a bit strange – but there you go. He had us doing twists, twirls, skating backwards and on one leg, which I thought was all a bit ambitious considering I can barely skate forwards and haven’t really got the hang of stopping yet, but after just one lesson I’m pretty confident that you can all expect to see an Emma/Annie/Bryony figure skating trio representing the UK at the Winter Olympics 2018.
That’s all for this week, so until next time – auf Wiederschauen!