Thursday, November 17, 2011

Cuing Up and Saving Spots

Let's get right down to it. We all know, by now, that I love Vienna (with the exception of the MA 35). But, like in any good "love affair", the honeymoon phase must come to an end and some of your "lover's" quirky qualities begin to surface.
The other night, after the Ambassador's Reception for us Fulbright grantees (which, by the way, was great!), some of us grantees went for a little post-reception celebration, where we got to talking about cultural differences...and things that drove us crazy about Austrian culture. By now, we have all had different experiences with our host culture, but there were some things we could all relate to.
So, this posting is dedicated to two, let's say.... 'habits', to put it neutrally, that I have been able to observe. And, if any Austrian is reading this, please take it all with a grain of salt--I am sure you could write a laundry list of things people find odd about the U.S..... :) And might I add, as a student of cultural studies, I am aware of how many culturally insensitive, objectifying, essentializing comments I am about to make about my immediate "Other." :)

I am pretty sure that Austrians hate standing in line. That's not to say that any other culture genuinely enjoys standing in line, but the Austrians make it very known that they find lines absurd--this is often signaled by sighing, clucking their tongue, rolling their eyes, crowding up against you from behind, making audible comments about the wait. You might think I am exaggerating here, but this has happened to me on numerous occasions. If I am standing in line for the U-Bahn, people will come up from behind and crowd in front of me as I'm getting on. Or as Greg's recent experience at "Potato Jim's" at the Weihnachtsmarkt (oops, sorry, Christkindlmarkt--there's the language thing again...) proves, its nearly impossible to push yourself to the front of a waiting "crowd"--which is the only way I can think to describe it. Getting a double stuffed potato with Käse und Schinken here is more difficult than getting a 3 ft. flat screen TV at Walmart on Black Friday in the U.S. And my friend Carolyn, who also lived in Vienna for a year, pointed out to me that successfully getting through the check-out line at the grocery store is a learned skill (she suspects Austrians have a special class somewhere along the way that makes them experts in simultaneously loading and unloading (no baggers here, folks! And bring your own, because every plastic bag costs 9 cents!) on the teeny tiny convey belt, while also managing to dig out exact change to pay with and juggling your wallet, bag and basket all at once.)
But nowhere else does this 'waiting crowd' seem more absurd than during mass. In any mass in the U.S., when it is time to go up for communion, you have ushers who graciously and kindly escort the pews, row by row, up front. You sit, calmly, wait your turn, and cue up in an orderly fashion. And if there are no ushers, somehow we manage to cue up, single file, without anyone getting left out. What? The little old lady next to you is having difficulty stumbling over the kneelers in the aisle? No worries, you let her take her time--maybe even offer her a helpful hand. After all, you are in church.
In Austria, when its time for communion, everyone essentially gets up at once and crowds into the middle aisle of the church. If you're too slow, you're out of luck because you'll be pressed hard to find someone to let you in. When I witnessed this the first time, I couldn't believe my eyes. I mean, come on people, you are headed up for a holy sacrament! The least you could do is let the person waiting next to you go ahead of you. Poor Greg--the first time he went up for communion he was one of the last people back to his seat, even though we were sitting pretty far up, because he was being too darn nice and letting everyone go in front of him (hence, also, his defeat in the epic battle at Potato Joe's).
Greg and I have incredulously marveled at this seeming incompetence on the Austrians' part to cue up. We have asked ourselves: Did we practice too many fire drills in school in the US ("single file, children!")? Are we just too nice? Aren't Austrians supposed to be orderly and efficient?
I personally have this theory that Austrians view lines as a sign of inefficiency and have found ways to get around them--think of all the places where you can pull a number and sit down in a group until your number is called? So, it might not be that they hate waiting... they just hate waiting in lines and seek more efficient ways around them.

The second quirk I have recently witnessed was in the National Bibliothek. I went there on Tuesday to do some reading for my current dissertation chapter. Now speaking of efficiency, planning your day at the Bibliothek is, in and of itself, an ordeal--and I am sure I have some readers who can relate. You cannot check out books there, so if you have a specific book in mind, you need to order it ahead of time online so that it is ready to pick up when you arrive. You must leave your bag, coat and any food/drink in lockers located outside of the security checkpoint and then bring everything you might need with you in a little plastic, see-through bag. It takes a few trips, but eventually you get the hang of it...
Anyway, so when I arrived on Tuesday, the library was fuller than usual--and I found out later from a girl I was talking to during my very brief and well-timed lunch break (more to that later) that its midterms for the law and business students (explains all the popped collars, pearls and cable-knit sweaters I spotted...). Luckily, I managed to find a coveted spot at a large table that I shared with about 9 other students. At one point--I was totally engrossed and furiously taking notes so I didn't catch the beginning of this episode--I hear people giggling and see a guard walk by with a laptop and pile of books. I couldn't figure out why people were laughing, but just shrugged my shoulders and got back to work. Some time later, two guards approach the spots where two girls had been studying directly next to me. I had no idea how long they had been gone (engrossed as I was in my note-taking). Suddenly, the guards ask me whether any of that stuff belonged to me, and when I said no--they swiftly packed up all these girls' things and carried them off!!!
It turns out, you can't leave your spot vacant for more than 30 minutes at a time--if you do, you forfeit your spot and they carry off your things to a mysterious secret keeping. Now, I am not sure how you would feel, but I would be a bit outraged if someone carried off my stuff--and I think there is something intrinsic about American culture that your property is... well, your property. And its always seen as a pretty bold move to remove someone else's belonging (remember your mother's words: "Don't touch, that doesn't belong to you"?). I have to admit, I was enthralled by this whole drama unrolling in front of me and fascinated by the whole procedure.
So, you might ask yourself, are there any signs posted anywhere, any notices or warnings not to leave your stuff unattended for more than 30 minutes or else they will remove your things and you forfeit your right to, er, study? Nope. None. Nothing at all. How did I find out? I eavesdropped on a young guy who asked a guard about the policy, after watching, 3 laptops get carried away in the span of about an hour. Apparently I was not the only one clueless here.
When I started to watch more closely though, I noticed that the guards were slowing stalking the aisles, pacing back and forth every fifteen minutes or so, taking meticulous notes in the mini-notebooks, ready at any moment to pounce upon abandoned Macs, pencils, notes and books.

The real jaw-dropping moment was this though: of course the two girls returned, dismayed that their things had been taken. And me, the ever-helpful American, butted in, willing to help. Our conversation went like this:
Me: "The guards took your things..."
Girls: "But we were only gone for 15 minutes!"
Me: nodding in sympathy...
Girls, wide-eyed: "Where did they take our stuff?"
Me: "I have no idea..."
Girls: "Well can you save us this spot? We'll be right back after we find our stuff!"

So I put down one of my books and a girl across the table offers her another one for the second spot. I think the situation has been resolved when not 30 second laters, a third girl walks up and plunks down her things. I look up at her and stutter something about saving the spots--but she doesn't even let me finish. She must have witnessed the whole thing and stated, cooly, that these spots are now free. That she's sorry, but its just a fact and that they are vacant. Period. End of discussion. She tosses back her long blonde hair and shrugs her shoulders, while settling into her new spot.

I turned back to my laptop, hot-faced and sorry I had butted into the whole thing in the first place. When the two girls came back, they saw the cool, blonde in their spot--I caught their eyes and shrugged, indicating I did what I could. They nodded, and sighed, throwing one more slightly begrudging look at the cool blonde in their former spot. She remained focused on her work, ignoring the whole scene, likely gloating over a fact that she had successfully secured her spot--after all she had probably been waiting in line...


  1. Spot on, Tessa--in spite of your cultural essentializing, but we, of the academy, will look past your flaws...this time.

  2. To join in on your anecdotes--for a city that seems to have a firm grasp for the "Rechts stehen" on die Rolltreppe, Vienna seems to not do as well with the rule of allowing people off the UBahn before people get on. Several times I have had to force my way off the UBahn, in spite of the fact that I was standing already in the middle of the doorway, had pushed both doors open and had already turned my shoulder to get as much of a head-start exiting as possible AS the door opened...only to hit a human wall doing the opposite. Having lived in Athens, I sometimes relished the crudeness of getting on a bus--as my roommate once said, "A bus is only full if you give up." Here, I find myself more times fighting to get off an UBahn than to get on. Probably because I know there will actually be another one, a luxury that the Greek public transit did not always afford...

    And, yes! I love your comment about the passive-aggressive speaking out loud that people do in lines--while quaint, I have to stop it from triggering the same instinct that leads me to slow down on the highway when some assclown is weaving in and out of traffic and flashes their hi-beams repeatedly...