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Four Years at the Mount

The Graduate

Cultural (Dis) connection

Nicole Jones
Class of 2014

(7/2014) "Wo shlafen sie?"

"Um…Nicole! Sorry, ma’am, we don’t speak German."

I was hiding a few feet away from the group with whom I have been traveling through Salzburg, Austria, not wanting to be forced into an awkward translating situation. Alas, the inevitable happened. I nervously teetered up to the elderly lady who was trying to talk to the group of oblivious Americans. I was one of three people in the group who knew any German, even then my knowledge was rudimentary.

"Sprichst du?" the lady asked me. Do you speak German?

I tell her I can speak a little German, but not very well, "Ich spreche ein bischen Deutsche, aber nicht sehr gut."

She tosses her hands in the air a little, showing excitement that someone finally understands more than Danke and Bitte – please and thank you.

She repeats her question, "Where are you all staying?" Wo shlafen sie? It takes a minute for my brain to unfreeze. Shlafen, shlafen? Come on brain, you know what that word means. To sleep! Right, where are we sleeping!

"Marienbad," I name the little private school off of Moosstrasse that serves as my group’s hotel for the month.

"Oh, in Salzburg," she confirms her suspicions. "Singen sie?" She must have thought we were a choir or something. I explained that we didn’t sing, but that we were students, Studieren. I think perhaps I misheard her, because she repeated her question before asking which bus we were riding back to school.

"Einundzwanzig," I tell her 21 is our bus. She shouts something to a friend waiting further away. I don’t understand what she says, bracing myself for the next question she’s going to direct towards me. A bus pulls up, zweiundzwanzig, 22. It’s her bus. She energetically waves and bids us farewell, "Auf wiedersehen, bitte!"

The group looks at me, eyes wide. I had officially earned my keep among my comrades. A functional translator for a drop of English speaking students trapped in a sea of confusing, guttural German. It’s a quick way to make friends.

By the time you read this, I will have spent a month in Austria, mostly in Salzburg, but also visiting Vienna and even Bolzano, Italy. A group of 26 Mounties, students, alumni, and professors alike, sacrificed a month of American comfort for the unique opportunity to explore the history and culture of Salzburg, the city of Mozart.

The country is both familiar and unfamiliar. I have been surprised by the similarities and have eagerly explored the minute differences in an attempt to blend into the culture. Musical similarities struck me first. From the airport, our group took a three hour bus ride to Marienbad. Along the way, I nodded in and out of consciousness, exhausted from the flight. Initially, a peculiar mix of guitars, children’s voices, and a masculine German growl came through the speakers in the form of what I can only assume was Austrian pop music. I was surprised when the radio personalities announced One Republic and Brave New World as the next artists. I listened to them at home. I had only been in Austria for an hour, and I already had a connection with its people.

Street performers littered the shady alcoves of the city. Throughout the day Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah" could be heard echoing around St. Peter’s Cathedral, reverberating from guitars, keyboards, and violins. A group of violinists clogged the main street as I sought out my favorite gelato shop. Fifteen Euros later, I owned their CD and was surprised to find Frank Sinatra’s "My Way" as the tenth song.

Similarities in music blended into religion as I walked across the balcony of St. Peter’s during a Sunday mass. The voices of over a thousand people raised in unison, shaking the building in worship to the Lord. There is an immeasurable beauty and solace in knowing that the same songs and traditions you observe at home are practiced across the world, a sense of unity stretching from Emmitsburg to Salzburg.

Of course there are also nuances that are foreign to me. For instance, if a store’s door is closed, the store is closed, even if there is someone sitting there, even if the store’s hours claim otherwise. I made the mistake of wandering into a glass works store. The artist was there working on a new vase. I thought nothing of having to open the door into the shop, but the man promptly turned and asked in a clipped accent, "Can I help you?"

"Oh, no, I’m just looking, thank you," I respond, oblivious to the tone of his voice. He was trying to be polite, but he was slightly annoyed.

"Just looking…Right now iz not a gut time for me," he stared at me through work goggles.

"Oh! I’m sorry!" Finally getting the hint, I scrambled out of the shop. Lesson one complete.

Austria is a much quieter culture. It is taboo to be loud on public transportation or in restaurants. It appears only pubs, concerts, sports games, and playgrounds are acceptable venues for rambunctiousness. Following this guideline, you can always pick out the Americans on a bus. They are loud. They enter and exit the bus from any open door when they are supposed to enter from the front and exit from the back. Austrians sit stoically, praying we get off at the next stop.

Biking is the norm here. Cars are of little value unless you live too far away for public transportation to be convenient. Everyone bikes, walks, or uses the bus. That’s not to say the city is overly developed and suffocating like New York. While it is indeed a city with its fair share of cement and tall buildings, there is still something extremely natural about it. It is, first of all, a very clean city. Austrians just do not seem to litter, and any mess left behind by the carriage horses is promptly cleaned up and the spot hosed down. Baskets of flowers grow in every window, colorful shutters let the breeze in, and the Salzach River offers a grassy bank to lounge on and escape from the heat. Jaywalking is extremely frowned upon, and you absolutely wait for the walking light to turn green. You say Danke and Bitte constantly and offer a welcoming Gruss Gott – God be with you – to passersby.

Oddly, Austria is a country that does not believe in vegetables. I find this slightly ironic as Salzburg holds a daily open air market with fresh fruits and nuts and breads. Almost daily, we buy an armful of berries, yet vegetables are scarce, only the occasional rhubarb or lettuce head gracing a farmer’s stand. Grocery stores help to supplement this need, but even they don’t have the selection I see back home.

I think what impresses me the most is how English-friendly the city is. All of my audiotours have had an English option, the museum labels are translated, most street signs too. I think it is rarer to run into an Austrian who doesn’t know some functional English than it is to run into one that only speaks German. Even then, some good choreographed miming can usually cross the language barrier.

Austrians also seem to have a great love of pets. Dogs are taken everywhere in the city. They are allowed on public transportation as long as they wear a leash and muzzle, they sit quietly at pubs, and they wait patiently outside the few stores that won’t allow them inside. Horses are a great aesthetic of the city, lined up in the squares waiting to give carriage rides. Their drivers hide them in the shade of buildings on hot days and cover them with blankets during cool ones, a consideration I never saw taken for carriage horses in New York City. Finally, of course, there is the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. Though these horses are rigorously trained, there is a definite tenderness and understanding between horse and trainer. When I was fortunate enough to watch a performance of the white stallions, one horse was clearly anxious. I watched as his trainer took him to the side of the ring, pat his neck, and offered him a treat. It was a relationship I, as a rider and horse owner, understood. It seems the relationship between animal and human is universal, even among the stoic Austrians.

Café culture on the other hand was something completely foreign to me. Austrians take great pride in their cafés. There is one on every corner and each offers its own set of traditional Austrian coffees and pastries. While visiting Vienna for the weekend, our group decided to do a café crawl, visiting three cafés consecutively. At each one, you seat yourself and are promptly expected to know what you want, as if you magically knew the menu. We always had to ask for more time to mull things over. Drinks are served very quickly, within several minutes of ordering. The way some of them come out, they look like masterpieces: whipped toppings, foam hearts, chocolate decorations. It is the epitome of gourmet. One drink I ordered, an eiskaffee – coffee and ice cream – came out covered with whipped topping, two wafer cookies, a garnish of red currants, and a decorative pinwheel! While not all cafés are as elaborate, it gives you some idea of how much pride they put in presentation. Every drink comes with a side of sugar, a napkin, and a small glass of water to cleanse your pallet. Sometimes they are even presented on a small silver tray that matches the silver sugar dish that is omnipresent on every café table.

The next key to café culture is to linger. You never drink your coffee and run; to always be in a rush is very American. Austrians mingle at their cafés, taking their time to catch up with their comrades or the local news. You never spend less than an hour, even if you only had one cup of coffee. When you are finally ready to leave, you are tasked with flagging down your long-lost waiter. Waiters do not hover here. They serve you and leave. Anything extra, it is the duty of the guest to hunt them down. It is a precise aloofness that is expected, almost a game of sorts. Often there is no paper check, but a memorized list in the waiter’s head. He does not have to run to the cash register to fetch your change, because he carries with him a large black wallet for all café transactions. You pay, you linger just a second longer, and you do not tip before you leave.

Now the majority of our group knows just enough German and just enough Austrian culture to blend in. Waiters at our favorite cafés have begun recognizing us, and we no longer mingle with the swarms of tourists to stare at the main monuments of the city. In a short time, Salzburg has become our European home away from home, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be happy to land at Dulles in July.

Read other articles by Nicole Jones