Cultural Comparisons

Having previously lived in Vienna for a total of three years, and a year in France way back when, I've been able to adjust to Berlin without culture shock punching me in the gut. But it is an adjustment.

For most matters, my point of reference is Vienna. Tipping? Like Vienna. Buying a monthly transit pass? Like Vienna. Showing your transit pass when the undercover controllers descend on your subway car? Like Vienna. Registering your address with the local authorities? Like Vienna. Fumbling like a madman to pack your groceries, pay, and not annoy either the clerk or the people behind you in line? Like Vienna. Walking miles a day? Like Vienna. (A rough guess based on my pedometer is that I average five miles of walking a day.)

But there are differences, many of them subtle. Viennese German is marked by its politeness, or as some would say its quaintness. Berliners are more informal, a more ragtag bunch, and propriety throws them off. In Vienna I would end a phone call with "Auf Wiederhören" ("until the next time we speak"). Here, each time I do so, the person at the other end of the line is thrown off, and quickly replies "Tschüss," a generic German "bye."

The thing about "Tschüss" is that no self respecting Austrian would ever let such silliness pass his lips. A good, sturdy Austrian hello/goodbye is "Servus," which really means "I am at your service"--there's that Austrian politeness. When you say "Servus," you do so in a nice, deep baritone. A man can say "Servus" and feel manly. "Tschüss," however, is a word you can only say in a soprano voice. Imagine the stewardess Barbies saying "Buh-bye, buh-bye, buh-bye now" as you deplane. Even worse, there's "Tschüssi" (I may be off on the spelling. Just add a long e sound to the end of the word.) This abhorrent form of goodbye is pronounced in a falsetto, as if spoken by mice who've inhaled helium.

So whereas Austrian sounds sturdy and deep, Germans speaking German (Bundesdeutsch!) sound a bit like cartoon animals to me. And I miss being able to say things in a less preposterous way, though I know doing so would mark me as, probably, a south German.

I do spend a lot of time processing what words get used here that aren't the words I'm accustomed to. "Apfelschorle" instead of "Apfel gespritzt." "Trödelmarkt" instead of "Flohmarkt."

Just as I compare linguistic habits, I compare urban landscapes. It's actually not so easy to compare Berlin and Vienna. If I had to pick a city that most resembles Berlin I would probably pick New York. It is a vast city, spread out over a huge area. Despite the remarkably good transit network, it regularly takes an hour to get from point A to point B.

Vienna has a definite center (the first district) and all roads lead there. Berlin has no center whatsoever. I'm not sure if that's a function of its past as a divided city, or simply of its sheer breadth. Neighborhoods are self contained. The government buildings around the Reichstag form one center, Kudam another, Mitte another, Alexanderplatz another, Museum island another. Kreuzberg is its own world, as is Prenzlauerberg, as is... you get the idea.

Spend a day in Vienna, and you won't have gone inside everything, but you will have identified what is important to see. After a month, I still have only a dim idea what should be on my Berlin bucket list. I'm still finding my way around.

Berlin is surely an international city, but my impression is that it is less so than Vienna, and I think the reason for that is that Vienna is so thick with diplomats and people working for international organizations (the UN, OPEC, etc.). Berlin is international in a very different way, attracting twentysomethings in search of Bohemia. (Our bike tour guide was from far northwestern Canada.) For lack of diplomats, I think a lot less English is spoken here as well.

Restaurant culture is similar here: You order, you get what you ordered, and until you ask for the bill, nothing else happens. It's a culture that lends itself to sitting around and talking. But that's where that similarity ends. Viennese, the saying goes, want to be left alone, but need company to do so (which is why the Kaffeehaus is such an important part of Viennese life). I'm not at all so sure Berliners want to be left alone. They strike me as a chatty bunch, and their restaurant culture probably has more in common with a beach bar in Spain than a Kaffeehaus in Vienna.

Speaking of which, boy oh boy do they have beach culture here. There are numerous artificial beaches along the Spree, gigantic sandboxes for beach volleyball, and the like. It's as if it were some freak accident of geography that Berlin, which by rights ought to be somewhere on the Mediterranean coast, just happened to be plopped very much in the center of a landmass.

Austria is more of a wine culture. Germany is more of a beer culture. In either place, beer is cheaper than water.

Vienna has Viennese food, of which they are very proud, as well as imported cuisines to a lesser degree. Berlin has food. It's major food groups are: 1) Beer and pretzels 2) Turkish fast food 3) Vietnamese and Thai food. At a slightly fancy restaurant my lovely wife ordered Tafelspitz, which is, um, Viennese.

When you're living abroad, you can't help but spend your days comparing these things to those things, so you've probably not heard the last of this line of thinking.

P.S. I have thoughts about the Austrians and the Germans and their respective relationships to history, but that's another day's story.


Karina (OMA) said...

This is absolutely fantastic and oodles of fun to read. Continue to update this blog as much as possibl, its on my daily procrastination list as I avoid homework.

Post a Comment