Sometimes, in rare moments of retrospection, I look back to the summer of 1989, in the months before I started university and ultimately left home, never to return, as a time when the only difficult decision I had to make was whether to go to the pub on Friday or Saturday night. In truth, it was almost always both, and most Thursdays, and sometimes Wednesday depending on who I had met on Friday or Saturday. And of course Monday for half-price night.
Perversely, this state of blissful contentment was made possible because my responsibilities and commitments were greatly restricted by lack of responsibilities and commitments. Moreover, I had very little money to buy stuff. Only the essential elements of existence could be serviced – food, beer and jazz mags – and thus meant I was rarely juxtaposed with the demands and disappointments of buying extraneous things (or worse, services) which would ultimately let me down and push me, since about the 2006, to cry myself to sleep and intermittently question my sanity.
I mention this because in spite of living in the number 1 city in the world, my indefatigable self seems to be enveloped by a series of events at the moment related one way or another to the acquisition of the things Marx warned would corrupt my soul, inspire revolution and provoke the overthrow of people with soft hands wearing red jeans (Marx was clever but he didn’t have the ability to convey his ideas in a concise and lucid manner like me.) These nefarious agents of liberal capitalism include: a boiler, a car, some issues with property (stolen from the proletariat), a new window, and a two-stroke scooter which fat men in leather with moustaches straight out of the Blue Oyster Bar eye scornfully.
And I blame all of this on the unassailable life quality of Vienna. It is double-crossing me with its utopian façade, winking alluringly and tricking me into thinking everything will be all right if I keep paying. In other words, I am seemingly trapped in the bottomless pit of the Vienna version of customer services, and I am becoming increasingly vexed.
But to derive a more rounded appreciation of my consumerist impotence we need first to delve into the murky world of philosophy / socio-linguistics and ask ourselves if it possible to truly feel an emotion or understand a cultural experience when there is no word for this experience or emotion, or even thing, in your own native language? In other words, does a nation’s language reflect its culture and psychology and limit its capacity for thought and if so how? What I am really trying to say is, can you really understand, for example, the meaning of Angst, when the English translation for Angst is, angst? Some philosophical commentators might have us believe this, but I remain sanguine.
So what about the evidence? One of the most cited examples in the Anglo-German world is Schadenfreude which can be explained partly in English in the form of gloating. But does gloating really capture the underlying Teutonic nastiness of Schadenfreude? (Important note: Austrians do not use Schadenfreude.) We Brits unquestionably possess a highly developed sense of feeling pleasure at the misfortune of others, but probably don’t admit to it. However, our buttoned up reserved and stiffness (I have other stereotypes) can still appreciate the experienced emotion of abject failure in others (just watch any sport as an English fan). But is this really gloating?
Another example might be the more Austrian German Gemütlichkeit which partly communicates the idea of being cosy and welcoming which we Brits are brilliant at, especially when gloating. Yet if you delve deeper, the word itself conveys much more complex sentiments which a dictionary definition can rarely encapsulate and a translation can’t quite convey. This is why words will transfer between languages, or are “borrowed”, children. They simply do a better job and if they are popular enough they become the de facto (derived from the English) word and quietly appropriated.
My third example is the elusive Vienna Schmäh – a word broadly evoking a spirit somewhere between melancholic humour mixed with affectionate joshing and British style piss-taking (all, perhaps, with an underlying hint of: I really, really don’t like you). The Viennese employ it, quite successfully, against uppity Germans who generally have no idea what is really being communicated, although it is the same language (every nation will have a language linguistic adversary or whipping boy of some kind, even Amazonian tribes, although I am not sure who the Italians bully).
Which brings me to my last example: the mental injustice to my well-being in the relentless pursuit of the money I have left once I concede 40 % to the state in return for free healthcare, free kindergartens, first class public transport, clean streets, a functioning civic infrastructure and law and order. I speak of Deppensteuer and to explain this is the key to my angst. To do so, however, we must first first consider another fairy tale.
Contrary to the popular myth, perpetuated most likely by disaffected Germans and homesick Americans, customer service in Vienna can surprise you (in the sense you are surprised if there is any). Yes there are, like the face of Jeannine Schiller or the singing of Conchita Wurst, the horror stories. Yet I have witnessed countless examples of companies big and small showing a real sense of putting the customer first (admittedly, being a political party member buys one a certain amount of influence and privilege in such organisations).
Nevertheless, as I mentioned before, this year I am seemingly trapped by various diseases of malcontent reaped by unwanted contact as a customer with a group of companies which excel in the noble 21st century art of obfuscation: no one will answer a question directly, no one will make a decision, and no one will take responsibility unless you push them with a sarky and damming letter to the CEO (I consider myself one of Europe’s preeminent experts in this field). Failing that you can, at the risk of ridicule and scorn, raise your voice. But be warned; in another language you just sound like an effeminate parrot.
And thus Deppensteuer is born. It is a feeling of foreboding; a crushing, insidious sense that you are paying over the odds, yet feel paralysed to stop because you disregarded the small print. Or paying for something only to find it cheaper elsewhere five minutes later. Or paying once and then shelling out again because you are a gullible fool and thought you were saving money the first time. Or simply wasting money on something that does not work even though you instinctively knew beforehand that it wouldn’t work. Or paying for something with no hope of a return (playing the lottery or going to the Prater). Or it could just be that you were impulsive, oblivious or too greedy. In short, you are and feel like a plonker (or Depp) and you have just paid Deppensteuer. Is there a word or phrase in English for this? Probably, but even when not, any speaker of English, or any language that matter, will identify with the sentiment – unless you are a banker. And you only have yourself to blame.
So there you have it. What started with a fleeting reference to the allure of the second summer of acid house, ends with the precarious embers of a serious treatise on human modes of transaction in middle Europe. We have been slowly corrupted by the lure of “services” (by we I mean me) and in Vienna you now know what to expect even if you can’t speak the language: unhurried smiles, subversive humour and gloating, all underpinned by a faintly menacing expectation that tragically, although unavoidably, you will have to pay again, you Depp. With these four words you begin to understand my predicament. Now eat your Coney Island.
(C) Uni. Prof. Dr. Dr. Mag. RJ Barratt MBA 2013