25 February 2011

Austrian Gemütlichkeit

It's hard for me to believe that with so many great words in the German language, I've yet to devote an entire post to explaining one word.  But here goes:

Like many useful German words, gemütlichkeit has no real equivalent in English.  It refers to a lifestyle that is some combination of comfort, coziness, relaxation, sociability, and enjoyment, mixed, perhaps, with a touch of laziness.  Overall it's a very foreign idea to Americans, who tend to value things like work, stress, meritocracy, very short lunch breaks, and insanely large cups of coffee.

Living in Austria has sapped some of my motivation, except
when it comes to blogging and napping.
To me, gemütlichkeit is one of the defining characteristics of Austrian culture; it also constitutes a major difference between Austria and a certain larger, less-Catholic German-speaking country in the neighborhood.  In fact, Austria is like a much snowier version of Spain, with many Austrian shops and businesses closing for several hours in the middle of the day for employees to take a break (although ritualistic napping is much less prevalent here).  Even some smaller cafes in Waidhofen close their doors between twelve and three in the afternoon, which you don't need to be an associate at the Boston Consulting Group to realize is not the best business strategy for a lunch place.

Then again, maximizing profits is not as emphasized in Austria as in the US - one Viennese entrepreneur named Richard Lugner, most famous for bringing hot American celebrities to the annual Opera Ball, appears to be the only Austrian who realizes or even cares how much money you could make be increasing the opening hours of shopping centers and grocery stores.  The Austrian Catholic Church, trade unions, and 81% of the Austrian population want nothing to do with commerce on Sundays.

Gemütlichkeit is also an especially pervasive attitude in the schools where I work.  Teachers are known for being >5 minutes late to their own classes ("I had to finish my coffee, it's not healthy to chug...") and students tend to be mysteriously ill on days when they are meant to make presentations.  Overall schools here are much more relaxed than in America, as I am frequently reminded on days when my classes are canceled because the students have unexpectedly all gone to the movies or are off on a multi-day ski trip.     

What's remarkable about Austria's gemütlichkeit is that, despite the fact that all employees enjoys a bare minimum of five weeks paid vacation per year (unvorstellbar in America!), plus thirteen paid public holidays, society still runs smoothly.  Unlike in Greece or Italy, trains are on time, garbage is picked up regularly, and even the employees at the tax office are helpful (assuming you visit them during the 25 hours per week that they're actually open).  Relaxation, apparently, does not impair efficiency.  Nor does drinking 13 liters of pure alcohol per year or retiring at age 58    

Austria proves that a society's quality of life can be extremely high, despite stress levels that are significantly lower than in America, where recent college grads have been known to to work 70 hours per week without any days off for several months unpaid for the sake of "experience."*  In fact, this stress differential may be why Austrians can eat so much fried food, cured meat, and saturated fat, yet still have a much lower incidence of heart disease than Americans.  Just a theory...

*q.v. Gabbi Greenfield's life           

23 February 2011

Sample Dialogue #6

Two quotes of note from the classroom today.  In English.

Scott: So what does it mean if the president is "impeached" in America? 
Student: It's like when the president is arrested.
Scott: Sort of, do you know who the last president to be impeached was?
Student: Gaddafi?

Scott: Do you like the snow? [context: it's snowing today]
Student: Not really.  I want spring to come.
Scott: When does spring begin in Austria?
Other Student: Every year.

putschen - to revolt

21 February 2011

Sample Dialogue #5

In my apartment, shortly after the invasion of Jackie the cat.  In German.

Landlord: Scott, have you seen Jackie?
Scott: Yeah, he just ran in here.  He´s hiding under the couch.
Landlord: Oh Jackie´s so curious.
Scott: Well, as we say, curiosity killed the cat.
Landlord: We don´t say that.
Scott: Oh...

das Katzenklo - litter box (literally, "cat toilet")

15 February 2011

Ljubljana - Not Just for Spelling Bees

After returning from Greece, I also made a short jaunt to Slovenia and Croatia, which thanks to the breakup of Yugoslavia twenty years ago means I get to add two countries to the list of places I've been (lifetime total up to fourteen, from just four one year ago).  Slovenia being one of Austria's neighbors, I also got one step closer to my arbitrary ambition of visiting all eight of its bordering countries (6/8=75%).  I look forward to being done with that list so I can cross it off my list of lists to cross off.  "Obsessive tendencies" remains on my list of character flaws to work on.   

Like many small cities in Austria,
Ljublana is almost to cute to function.
Well as for the trip, I had fantastic weather and a fantastic time.  In just one day in Slovenia I learned what the capital city is called (Ljubljana), how to pronounce it (loo-bee-lanja), and even a few words of Slovene (Hvala = hello).  An interesting note about the Slovenian language, which by the by is not the same as Croatian, is that its one of very few languages that have different declensions for the singular, plural, and dual forms of nouns.  Ordering beer in Slovenian is good practice: pivo = 1 beer, pivi = 2 beers, piva ≥ 3 beers. 

But outside of that boring stuff, Ljubljana is really purty (see right).

The hostel/former prison where I did
not stay.
Whilst there I met two Slovenians at a Slovenia v. Albania soccer match party who introduced me to a Ljublana hotspot they claimed was the world's most famous hostel - Hostel Celica - on the grounds of a former Yugoslavian prison.  This area of the city was like a city in itself, with >10 bars, people who appeared to live in said bars, other squatters, artist workshops, etc.

I also made friends with an itinerant Australian (they seem to be everywhere here), with whom I travelled to my next destination: Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.  He hitch-hiked while I shelled out for the train, but I think it goes without saying that I won that race.

Although Zagreb is a lovely city with plenty of culture, history, Dalmatian chard, bargain beer, nice architecture, and Eastern Bloc architecture, I think I would have preferred a trip to the Croatian coast, which I hear is absolutely lovely.  Another downside of my trip to the city was my narrow, harrowing escape from a 200 kuna ($40) fine for black riding on the Zagreb tram system.  Not speaking a word of Croatian helped.      

13 February 2011

Greece is the Word

Birthplace of the  Modern Olympics.
Rocky-style workouts were sadly
forbidden by stadium edict.

Semesterferien (term break) is over and I have just returned from my trips to Croatia, Slovenia, and, my favorite, Greece.  Outside of the public restrooms - where a mysterious and malevolent injunction against flushing toilet paper down the commode leaves you with a rather unpleasant alternative - I found Greece to be a tremendously agreeable place.  In fact, I think February was the perfect time to visit, as the weather was warm enough to wade in the Aegean, but cool enough that the cafes did not necessarily double as Turkish baths.  Plus it was even possible to wander about the Acropolis without swimming through a sea of fanny-packed tourists with substandard walking skills.

Acropolis with the calorie-burning
Lycabettus Hill in the background.

During my stay in Athens I hiked up Lycabettus Hill, met with hunger-striking refugees, and ate about a kilo of feta - atop salads, in gyros, on crepes, and straight out of the package.  I enjoyed other culinary delights, including olives, ouzo, tyropita, and Mythos beer.  Although I highly recommend sampling all of these things, I caution that the thick Greek coffee requires an unusual amount of chewing, which makes sense as it is often all that the Greeks have for breakfast.  

I suspect that Greek coffee may be
responsible for the short stature of Greek men,
which was quite obvious from my
conspicuous perch at 1.93 meters.
I left Athens one day to visit Sounion, a remarkably beautiful cliffside that hosts the ruins of a temple to Poseidon that was once tagged by the English poet Lord Byron in a vandalistic fit of enthusiam.  Later that day I also got to sit in on college application interviews with two Greek-Americans aspiring to the class of 2015 thanks to my host and fellow Brown alum George.  Then, sadly, I had to leave Greece with just a jar of honey and a bottle of olive oil to remind me of my stay in Hellas.

Fortunately, the Athens metro workers held off their inevitable daily strike until after I had reached the airport.  The Greeks, it turns out, really like their strikes. 


04 February 2011


I have had the pleasure last weekend to attend the ball of the business academy where I teach in Waidhofen.  Austrian balls are similar to American proms, but with the following differences:

 Everybody waltzes.  To be more clear, the students waltz exactly once, during a sort of ceremonial display of choreographed Austrianness, then take off their white gloves and move on to a less ritualistic, but more overtly amorous type of dancing in the smokey club-type area.  Teachers and other hangers-on continue to waltz to the live band, regardless of the style or time signature of the music being played.  Being, in age, not quite a teacher and not quite a student, I engaged in both types of activities.

Kicking the evening off with
a waltz

Dinner is not served.  Students appear to enjoy a liquid dinner instead.

That alcohol is served is perhaps the biggest difference, especially considering the extremely draconian methods American principals have come up with to keep alcohol out of proms (breathlyzers, diploma-related threats, armed chaperones, etc.).  As a result of alcohol being served Austrian balls last until 3 or 4 am, while their American counterparts tend to fizzle out by 11, when students choose to stop dancing with whatever brave teachers are out on the dance floor and go to either the school-sponsored, snack-fueled bowling alley afterparty or someplace more conducive to drinking and embarrassing themselves. 

The Mittersnachteinlage,
which my students would
most likely not want on my blog,
but hopefully they don't read it
and thus won't find out.

Another notably difference is that the graduating class gets together at midnight to perform a lipsyncing/dancing extravaganza known as the Mitternachtseinlage.  Everybody gets together to watch the show and the students dance with considerably less shame than would American eighteen year-olds put in a similar position.  The midnight medley at another ball I attended included, to my delight, a recreation of the climactic scene from Dirty Dancing, which Austrians have a total thing for.

The ball was hosted in a very classy hotel and convention center type place overlooking the Ybbs River.  It hosted not one, not two, but four floors of balling, two dance floors, tables for people too shy or old to dance, and a lounge area called "New York, New York" that had remarkably little to do with New York.  Despite the overwhelming smokiness of the venue, it was, overall, a totally prima evening. 

Also today is the beginning of another vacation for me, semester break, so I'm headed to Athens this afternoon to meet a friend from Brown.  I may also check out Croatia, Slovenia, and other Balkan locations, but more on that later.  In any case, I will probably not blog anything for about a week and a half.  Bis dann!

01 February 2011

Very Austrian Things That I've Done So Far

Since arriving in September, I've...

-Waltzed to a live performance of the Baywatch Theme Song.  (The blatant lack of appropriate time signature does not deter Austrians from waltzing.)
Alpenhütte party atop nearby Prochenberg
-Enjoyed three-hour lunch breaks.
-Screamed at a stranger for failing to stand right, walk left on an U-Bahn escalator in Vienna.  I'm not normally this unfriendly, but I could not miss that train. 
-Hiked up a mountain, discovered an Alpenhütte (mountain hut) party, drank a beer, hiked back.
-Hiked a different mountain with Maggie, discovered a Gasthaus (guesthouse/inn), drank a beer, hiked back.  We also played a wooden glockenspiel on said mountain.
-Judged people for mentioning The Sound of Music.
-Demanded, with near immediate success, that a DJ play the #1 International Superhit Barbara Streisand.
-Bagged my own groceries every time.
-AND stayed in one cafe for a period of time so lengthy that I would have almost certainly been suspected of homelessness in the US.