In the Land of Schnitzel, Coffee and Newspaper Bags

By Katharina Moser | 4 December 2013

To quote this document: Katharina Moser, “In the Land of Schnitzel, Coffee and Newspaper Bags”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Wednesday 4 December 2013, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1758, displayed on 24 March 2019

Postcard-pictures of crispy brown Schnitzels and majestically dressed empress “Sissi” have circled the globe so many times that they have become the first images popping up in everyone’s mind when thinking of Austria. But what do you find when you dig a bit deeper, from the well known clichés to the real ‘typical’ traits of Austria? 130 young Europeans gave their answers. 

The Hills Are Alive…

Take a snowy mountain somewhere in the middle of Europe. Add a beer-bellied man in “Lederhosen”, skiing down the slope yodelling “Sound of Music” songs. Let there be the smell of Schnitzel and apple strudel evaporating from the next hut. Make him love Mozart (and the delicious little chocolate balls of the same name…), dance the waltz on New Year’s eve, and let him try to hide the fact that one of his infamous historical ancestors - with an outstandingly bad taste in moustaches - was also Austrian. There you go: Welcome to the land of unrecognisable dialects that pretend to be German, constant grumpy behaviour that is sold as “imperial politeness” and sweet cakes that will make you throw away your scales – welcome to Austria!

The first things that Europeans associate with Austria are of course stereotypes. But looking a bit closer at what really seems to be “typically Austrian”, the everyday experience becomes far more interesting than dwelling on that dusty, black and white picture full of clichés.

Snapshot: Which smell do you associate with Austria?
Sausages. (Georgia, Greece) 
Dust. The Viennese coffehouses are always really dusty. (Natascha, Denmark)
Horse dung. (Annick, Luxembourg)
The smell of a bakery and freshly made cakes. (Elina, Latvia)
Fresh water. (Alberto, Spain)
The smell of old trams. (Fanny, France)
Fresh, cold mountain air. (Ilaria, Italy)
In winter: hot wine punch (Tanja, Bulgaria)

Doctor Who?

Asking around 130 young Europeans who have lived in Austria for a few months reveals some rather unexpected impressions of that little Alpine country. Clearly, the things that stick out are mainly the ones that differ the most from what people know from their own cultural backgrounds. Whilst a Spaniard starts feeling the first signs of appetite at seven in the evening, Austrians have already digested their Sacher cake, heading off to bed. And when in Luxembourg you are forced to wait 20 minutes until the next bus arrives, the frequency of Viennese tubes makes you chant out a “glorious halleluja”.

But even taking those different backgrounds into consideration, there are a few things that seem to be agreed on as quite typical in the old Habsburgian land: The fact that you can find Evian-like-quality-water at every petrol station toilette in the middle of nowhere, for instance. Or the rather absurd obsession with academic titles that Austrians show in the most unglamorous of situations – no waiting room session at the dentist’s without an announcement, disturbing your gossip-magazine-reading, calling for “Honorary Consul, Professor Dr. Dr. Hans Josef Mayer… please procede to room A!”

Snapshot: Which sound do you associate with Austria?
The crunching snow beneath my shoes. (Natassja, Luxembourg)
Echo. (Ula Marija, Lithuania)
The sound of a coffee machine. (Anna, Poland)
The ticking sound of the machines for blind people at the traffic light crossings. (Zsófi, Hungary)
The hooves of horses clattering over the cobble stone pavement in the centre of Vienna. (Caroline, Great Britain)
The sound of a tube approaching the station. (Hugo, Spain)
Applause. (Helge, Germany)

Law and Order in the “Island of Bliss”

You think that’s odd? Some Europeans have spotted even stranger habits, like Joris from Netherlands who was completely baffled when he first saw plastic bags full of freshly printed newspaper appearing on every street corner each Sunday morning: “I couldn’t believe it - those newspaper bags with their little money-boxes! Of course, most people won’t pay when they take out a newspaper, but still, they only take one! In Holland, the bags would be torn down or burnt after ten minutes and there would definitely be someone passing by thinking: ‘Oh great, let’s just take them all!’”

True, the Austrians do have a rather strict sense of discipline. However, this might also be too much for some people's taste, as John from Great Britain stated: “Their constant sticking-to-the-rules-mentality is really getting on my nerves. Whenever I’m riding my bike and I dare to get anywhere near a pedestrian area, you can be sure there’ll be someone yelling immediately: ‘This is the paaavement!!’”

Snapshot: Which 3 words describe Austria best?
Quiet, patriotic, economical. (Katerina, Bulgaria)
Full of culture, educated, comfortable. (Kristyna, Czech Republic)
Pretentious, endearing, grumpy. (Helge, Germany)
Mountainous, discontent, small. (Dimitrios, Greece)
Relaxing, full of life, central. (Hugo, Spain)
Clean, expensive, well organised. (Ilaria, Italy)
Conservative, addicted to culture, dynamic. (David, Ireland)
Funny, beautiful, cold. (Diane, Netherlands) 

Mind Your Manners

Anyway, just take it as a friendly notice. Austrians simply seem to love to point out all those little banalities of everyday life to one another. On another occasion, it took Sam from Great Britain quite some time to get used to the fact that, when sitting together at a table full of tasty looking dishes and everyone reaching out for the first bites… Austrians can’t just start eating. “Mahlzeit!” they have to call out in unison first, before anyone feels free to grab their forks. “Mealtime” is in all honesty pretty much stating the obvious: that now it is time to eat. Good to know, it could have slipped your mind otherwise.

What a good example for one of those bizarre but rather crucial little details that you ought to know in a foreign country in order to avoid awkward situations. The foremost classic: how to greet correctly. Against all odds, Austrians aren’t actually as stiff and cold as their reputation might paint them. On the contrary, they get even slightly too intimate - at least according to the taste of Kristyna from the Czech Republic: “The worst are those constant kisses! That’s seriously disgusting. I simply find it unhygienic. Shaking hands is ok, but that “kiss, kiss” is actually a bit perverse. I see it a hundred times every day: they greet each other - “kiss, kiss”, they say good bye again - “kiss, kiss”! Horrible!”

Don’t Mind the Gap

However, there are no reported incidents of people having been forced to kiss an Austrian, so in the end - depending on your own cultural background - a cold handshake might just be as accepted as a big warm hug, when it comes to greeting an Austrian. After all, Austrians have proven before, in history, that they are rather adaptable...

In this spirit, simply take your knowledge about Austria and use even those stereotypes for what they are useful : as a little bridge that sparks interest in a country that is full of traits and peculiarities that you might only see coming from another country. Or to say it with the words of one of the most famous Austrians, whose quote went down in film history forever: “Hasta la vista, baby!” - and in good old Austrian German: Auf Wiedersehen! 

Further Reading

On Nouvelle Europe

To Read

  • MOSER, K. (2009), Servus, Bussi und Baba und was Europäer sonst noch typisch österreichisch finden..., Wien: Ueberreuter

Illustration credits: Thomas Wizany

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