WARNING! THIS BLOG POST HAS NO PICTURES!
In Vienna there are two expatriate websites which I know about: Virtual Vienna and Vienna Expats. The websites, like many around the world, have broadly the same function. Namely, as a hub of information about life here and a forum where (mostly) non-Austrians can exchange important info about living and working, slag off Vienna and share experiences good, bad and the questionable. In comparison to Virtual Vienna, Vienna Expats, always seemed the more laid-back of the two, a little more radical and with a hint of underlying irony that might suggest, “You think you got it bad. What about that poor kid born in London recently?”
I joined Virtual Vienna quite early on (I was in the first twenty to register) and largely enjoyed using it. I was quite new to the forum game and it was fun to interact with other English speaking expats, because up till that point I had been locked away in a cellar and only let out to work and pay tribute to the ruling mantra of Stadtwien.
Both websites were and are a fantastic and fast resource for the non-German speaker when information is hard to come by without local language knowledge. For example, paperwork issues, residence issues or the best place to drown disappointments as the day-to-day pressures of living abroad accumulated. In turn, I was an enthusiastic contributor and it seemed the perfect way to share my modest knowledge and maintain a notional sense of “community”.
I lost interest in Virtual Vienna, eventually, after reading too many postings from some members about how much they disliked the capital (and Austria). I almost never read that Vienna (Austria) lacked political freedom, or Vienna suppressed free speech, or Vienna abused my human rights, or Vienna toutured my physical and mental well-being (except with the continued presence of Armin Assinger on television). Nope, sadly, much of this cartoonish whinging was superficial, trivial and contextually benign: the customer service was bad, smoking was terrible, people were unfriendly, no shops open on Sunday, people were impolite, the trees weren’t the right kind of green, the water tasted too pure, the winters were too long but the summers too hot, people were
xenophobes, people didn’t smile, and so on, and on.
In any case, much of these idle and lazy observations could be swatted away with boyish insouciance, either with a few well chosen words of glib sympathy (my speciality) or the chant of the true defensive Viennese convert of: “Well, if you don’t like it, fuck off back home, ya miserable gadge!” (I tended truthfully to come somewhere in the middle).
Such sentiments of treacherous villainy are tough to bear, though, because they challenge the confirmation bias in us all. In expatriate immigrant terms we need soothing words of comfort, a metaphorical hand stroking our rapidly balding heads, reassuring us that Vienna is better than somewhere else. Moreover, moving to another country, all strange and terrifying with shadowy faces in shadowy doorways, is bad enough without some disaffected and enervated incomer having a moan, pointing out all the foibles of our chosen home.
But this means when we make a decision we need constant support that we have made the right choice (in this case a country and a city). Mostly this is achieved by our friends or contemporaries mirroring our behaviour or complementing on our good taste or abundance of foresight, confirming that we have made the right selection in life – and friends (although this can spectacularly misfire under the influence of hormones and tequila). Yet, it is a reminder that even in the number one city, one person’s utopia is another person’s IKEA. And this is fine, indeed normal. One of humanities greatest triumphs is our diversity and tolerance although this does not explain why we all wear blue jeans and drive cars which are black, grey or silver. However, reasons are reasons and you just have to accept them with a Viennese shrug and philosophical, Na ja.
But sometimes these online soliloquies would take a more insidious turn in the form of a depressing litany of negativity attacking the physical and mental traits of the Viennese, using the language of the tired and desperate bigot. Often this was dressed up as objective comment with pathetic appeals to the right to freedom of speech (billed by hard-pressed and under valued moderators as “venting”). But really most of it was / is borderline racist and would be equally unacceptable if one labelled the people of country X prone to corruption and dishonesty, or the citizens of country Y pushy, rule driven and humourless (no names, now). An example might be: “All Austrians hate foreigners!” Which my usual reply was: “How do you know? Have you met them all?” What they meant to say was “Some Austrians, like every other nation and race in the world, hate foreigners.” And immediately we get some limited yet essential qualification and perspective, hopefully followed by an example or better, a funny story. But no, Austrians hate foreigners. And you argue persuasively and intelligently that this might not be the case but ultimately it is like debating with a radical Christian and, with a heavy heart, you then reach for the schnapps.
I still mooch around Vienna Expats occasionally and in spite of my resolve not to I have, after all these years, become inexplicably enthroned in the tentative stages of what seems to be another online joust with a fellow forum member who seems to think it is acceptable to label a nation. Some juicy examples:
“Austrians have delusions of grandeur..” “Austrians are very cliquish like tribal people and don’t really like outsiders…”Norwegians, Swedes, Dutch and many other others accept English as the international language and so many of them speak it and Austrians have a problem with that…”
And as is always the case, the comments are often bookended by the seemingly innocent qualification and disclaimer of either “I have many Austrian (Viennese) friends”, or “I am married to an Viennese” or in this case “I’ve lived here for 31 years and I know what I am talking about” as if this suddenly legitimises what is technically called, a crock of shit.
Anyhow, I am not going to indulge in such shenanigans any more. It is tiring, ultimately meaningless and I have grass to cut. But it got me thinking about what truly can put people off Vienna, or at least knock it off its perch, and if there is one thing RJ Barrat lives for, it is perch knocking. Constructing a list of objective reasons why Vienna might be a great place to live, political freedom, rule of law, safety, fresh drinking water, social system and more – see my post on Vienna, is easy and importantly not unusual in MANY cities or nations. But trying to compile a cogent list why it might not be, without sounding ironic and crucially subjective is proving rather more problematic. But that is my challenge as I set course for adventure and go on holiday. I shall have a think about it and get back to you. Until then, see you in the forums.
© RJ Barratt 2013