“Smells like cows!” Markus and I said at – at precisely the same time – as we stepped off the plane in Salzburg. I’m not really sure why the airport lot smells like cows, but it didn’t matter. As we looked up at Untersberg Mountain and breathed in the air that – although cow-smelling – felt so much fresher in our lungs than the air back home, we looked at each other and smiled – we were back.
For the first time in five years, Markus and I were getting to live in Salzburg again. Sure, since moving away in 2014, we had come back to visit his family once a year , but only for 10 days at a time. Now we were back for two entire months.
So what did I notice about Austria after returning for the first time in five years? Read on to find out:
I did at least get to meet one of the smelly cows while we were there.
1. The Sense of Belonging
When I was little, I used to dread hearing the Cheers theme song. Sometimes you want to go…where everybody knows your name seeping through my bedroom door from the living room was my signal that it was 10:00 p.m. – meaning I’d now been lying in bed, unable to fall asleep, for two whole hours. It stressed my nine-year-old self out.
But I’m no longer nine, and I no longer have sleeping problems – so I can now appreciate how true those words really are. Feeling like you belong, like you are a part of a community, is such an important aspect of being human. And I would never have imagined that I’d feel this sense of belonging in a small Alpine town across the ocean.
Dressing like the locals helps me feel like I belong for sure!
After arriving in Salzburg that first evening and settling into our apartment, Markus and I decided to go for a walk along the river. We’d been walking about five minutes when all of a sudden, I heard, “Katie? Is that you?” I turned, and sure enough, it was a woman I knew – we had both tutored children from the same Austrian family seven years before. Seeing her and being recognized within five minutes of arriving in Salzburg made me feel like I had never left (and it made me feel cool, I’ll be honest)
And it didn’t stop there. Out with friends one night, walking through the old town, I ran into one of my fellow gymnastics coaches from where I used to teach gymnastics. Surprised and happy to see me, she told me that I should come to one of the open gyms our gym offered. Never one to turn down gymnastics, I went a few days later, only to find that my picture was still up on the gym’s photo wall! I loved all my years teaching gymnastics in Salzburg, so you can imagine how happy I was to see that they still thought of me from time to time as well. Or perhaps just hadn’t gotten around to changing the pictures, but I’m going to go with the first option…
Me with some of the girls I coached in 2013 or so – now teenagers!
By the time we left Salzburg, I had also run into a number of other people, including teachers from one of the schools I taught at. Through gymnastics, teaching, and tutoring, I had built up a small community during my time in Salzburg, and it made me so happy to know that even though I was gone, my community was still there. Having people “know my name” during our two months in Salzburg really meant the world to me.
2. The Conversation Style
We absolutely loved our coworking space we worked at during our time there – Coworking Salzburg. A ten-minute-bike ride from our apartment (and a beautiful bike ride, at that – along the river, with a view of the castle and the Alps as we pedaled along), the location was perfect. Markus and I had been to many coworking spaces on our previous travels, so we thought we knew what to expect. You go in, you work, maybe you talk to a few people, then you go home.
Coworking Salzburg was not like that. On our first day, Romy, the owner, took us around to each desk and personally introduced us to each and every person there. Everyone was incredibly welcoming, making us feel like part of the group from the day one.
Our favorite part about the coworking space, however, was that everyone ate lunch together. At every other coworking space we’d been to, Markus and I would always eat lunch by ourselves – which is what all the other people did as well. But in Salzburg, around noon, someone would say, “Lunch?” and everyone would stop their work, and go grab food from the nearby cafeteria or food trucks. And then we would all sit around a big table, ready to eat and talk. And this is where a cultural difference (I find them so fascinating!) came into play.
One day, we all planned a barbecue for lunch – so much fun!
When eating lunch with a group in America – at least in my experience – it’s a question free-for-all. “What did you do this weekend?”, “What are you up to after work?”, “How’s your sister doing?” are typical conversation starters. The answer comes, and then it’s the other person’s turn to reciprocate the question. Everything is very personal and very “you”-directed.
Not so in Austria. Especially among acquaintances, Austrians are not so much into the personal questions. This especially became obvious to me in 2012. Markus and I were in Abu Dhabi, and we happened to meet another Austrian on our desert sand dune tour (side note: not recommended if you get car sick). I wasn’t sure if I should address this Austrian stranger (a formal case) who was only maybe a few years older than us (so informal?) with the formal or informal German word for “you”. I therefore decided to let Markus take the lead, listening carefully to see which form of the German “you” he would use – du or Sie.
Well. Neither he or the other Austrian used the word “you” one time in twenty minutes. They had an entire conversation without asking each other a question. I was shocked.
And that’s because in Austria, when you don’t know someone well, you tend to talk about things. Or events. Every lunch at the coworking space, I felt like I had been transported to nineteenth high-society England, intelligently discussing new inventions, state affairs, politics. It all felt so educated. And then there’d be me, the happy-go-lucky American girl, asking all my new friends personal questions about what they did over the weekend. I knew it was different, but I just didn’t know how to have a conversation about things only. Luckily, all our new coworking-friends were very nice, and I don’t think they minded my personal questions too much….and maybe it even sped up our friendship a bit! (See Are You A Coconut or A Peach: Austrian vs. American Friendship for more information on this fascinating phenomenon.)
Through both conversation-styles, Austrian and American, we all became good friends, and Markus and I were very sad to leave everybody behind!
3. The Stressors
I love Austria. If it weren’t for my friends and family here, I would live there again in a heartbeat. But, for the purpose of honesty, there are two things that do stress me out when I am there:
So many Austrians smoke. The entire country is about 20 years behind the times in regards to the smoking culture. Cafes still provide ashtrays for guests on the tables outside. There are actual cigarette vending machines on the streets. People will smoke right next to you, not even noticing that they are blowing cigarette smoke right in your face. And until November 1, 2019, it is still allowed to smoke inside (!) many restaurants.
I hate smoke with a passion. It makes my throat hurt and my eyes itch, and I can’t stand the smell. My dad had a smoking allergy, and I would venture a guess that I have one as well. But many Austrians, even those who don’t smoke, are used to their country’s smoking culture (not all, of course – there are many Austrians who are excited about the upcoming smoking ban as well).
Even this picture stresses me out.
So, with as much as I hate smoke, this was a major stressor for me during our time in Austria. Every time we’d make plans to go to a restaurant, we’d have to try and research to see if they allowed smoking or not. If we were sitting outside, we’d have to hope that no one next to us was smoking. I’ll admit I wasn’t the easiest person to go to dinner with, which was a bit of a stressful situation for anyone going with me (sorry!). So I am very excited for the next time we return, and the smoking in restaurants will have been eliminated! Bring on the smoking ban of November 1!
This is something that is hard for people who haven’t experienced it to understand, so bear with me. Imagine yourself a German language lover, brand new to Austria and excited to finally practice your language skills in a country where there are actual native speakers. But you are working as the English teaching assistant at a high school. You of course expected that you would be speaking English when you teach the kids, but thought that, as you were working in an actual Austrian school, you would speak German with all your Austrian colleagues – who, after all, speak German with one another.
This is not the case. So many teachers at the school simply see you as a walking opportunity to practice their English. Every time you try to speak German with them, they answer you in English. As you have traveled halfway around the world to improve your German by living in the country, this is extremely frustrating. It also feels condescending in a way as well, as you are starting the conversation in German, and you feel stupid when people don’t reply in kind. (Disclaimer: I did have a great time at all my schools I taught at, and great relationships with all the teachers, whether they ended up being German or English relationships – this language battle was just a recurring theme that was frustrating for all American and British teaching assistants in Austria – it became everyone’s number one complaint!).
So, after a few years of that experience, I became very sensitive to people answering me in English if I spoke to them in German. It became a major pet peeve. One, because it meant that somehow my accent wasn’t perfect enough, and they recognized that I wasn’t a native speaker. It made me feel like my German was lacking (I got much better at disguising my American accent as time went on, however…since then I’ve gotten Sweden, Latvia, Spain…and a few Austria’s here and there). Or two, if they knew I was American ahead of time, it just made me feel different from everyone else if they insisted on speaking to me in English. The whole group was speaking German, I was perfectly fluent in German, and it felt like they were constantly marking me as an outsider if they spoke only to me in English. I just wanted to belong.
This is such a common thing that German-speakers do that they’ve even made a comic about it!
I explained it to Markus like this: Imagine that you are a big baseball-lover. You spend all your life in Austria watching baseball, reading baseball stats, learning everything there is to know about the sport. And then you finally get to go to America – the baseball capital of the world. You get there. You try to talk to the locals about baseball, but no one will have a conversation with you about the topic. Every time you bring up baseball, the baseball-experts only answer you with a story about European soccer, since that’s where you come from and that’s all they want to talk about. And it’s not just one person, but almost every person you meet….Great analogy, right? I thought so. 🙂
Yet it’s hard to stay annoyed with Austria with views like this, which brings me to my next point…
4. The Great Outdoors
But let’s end things on a happy note, shall we? I really love Austria and the above stressors are the only two things that bother me – plus, with the smoking ban coming soon, maybe the English ban will be next? 🙂
But in all serious, everything else in Austria is absolutely amazing. Besides our family and friends there, my favorite aspect of Austria is the outdoors (or “the nature”, as the Austrians say). I went running a few times while there, and eight minutes after leaving our apartment, I was up on top of a small mountain, running through the forest, gazing out at the majestic Alps as I jogged by. In eight minutes! It just felt so good for my soul. “The nature” will do that.
View on my run
I also love how connected all the Austrians themselves are to nature. Everyone – from three-year-olds to ninety-year-olds – rides their bikes as a main means of transportation, and it’s so refreshing to see. We even got in a bike traffic jam one time on our way to a lake!
We rode our bikes down the river a few afternoons after work!
Great little adventures just a 15-minute bike ride away
And speaking of lakes, we got to visit a lot of those as well. Salzburg is surrounded by gorgeous Alpine lakes, and we’d often go visit one after work. I was very proud of myself that I actually jumped in one this time – normally I avoid being in the water, because it is ice cold – it comes from a glacier!
In conclusion, it was a fascinating culture experiment to live in Austria again after so much time away (and just plain fun as well). I feel so lucky to have a home away from home, and such a beautiful one at that. To all our family and friends there – old and new-, thank you for making our summer there so special. We will never forget it – bis zum nächsten Mal!