‘No one speak English to him!’

The Local talks to Ben Connor, an Australian baritone who moved to Austria to study and perform music.

'No one speak English to him!'
Photo: Sonia Connor

Ben Connor is a 26-year-old Australian baritone who has spent two seasons with the Young Ensemble at Theatre an der Wien. This summer he is in the Tyrol, performing the role of Freddy in a German production of My Fair Lady, and in September he joins the Volksoper in Vienna.

1.  When did you move to Austria and why?

I moved to Vienna in October 2010 to study at the University of Music and Performing Arts. Having finished my Masters degree at the Australian National University in Canberra, my wife and I decided that we had to move to either Sydney, Melbourne or abroad, and we thought abroad was a much smarter decision because we'd have to learn a language.

2.  Had you studied German before you arrived in Austria?

A little bit. I'd done a year as part of my undergraduate degree, which gave me some basics, but it's the equivalent of what you learn in a month studying here in Austria. The university said, "You've got four months to get your B2 certificate" and that was it. My first semester here, I was doing three hours of German every morning and then rehearsing in German on the stage in the afternoon, so my head at night was totally dead. You learn very quickly!

3. What do you think is the best way for an English-speaker to improve their skills?

English is a hard one. It's an international language and especially somewhere like Vienna, most people will not only speak it, they will want to practise their skills, so you've got to be really persistent about speaking German with them.

I don't know how many times I'd introduce myself to someone in German and then they would switch to English and we'd have this conversation for about two minutes with them continuing on in English and me continuing on in German, until they would eventually bow down and speak German back to me.

Like any language, the best way to learn is to be immersed. My head lecturer at uni basically said, "He has to pass the exam – no one can speak English to him for the next 3 months!", which was very fortunate for me.

4.  What is the most surprising thing you've discovered about living in Vienna?

That it's very much a paperwork society. As Australians in Austria, we generally have to get residency permits, but I must say the good thing about the Austrian system is that if you fit the criteria and your paperwork is in order, there is no "oh, we'll think about it", it's stamped, thank you very much, have a nice day.

I have friends who've attempted the equivalent in Australia, and even if you fit the criteria and submit all the paperwork, you have to wait three months for it to clear and you're still not guaranteed a spot.

5.  What are your favourite aspects of life in Vienna?

The biggest reason we came to Vienna is that culturally and artistically there is something going on all the time. And it really is. Vienna is also, of course, an incredibly liveable city. I mean, the public transport system, my God – nothing in Australia even comes close! Coming from a lifestyle where I've had a car since I was 17, and living in Vienna without one, but never once feeling like I actually need one, is amazing.

6.  When friends visit you in Vienna, what are your Top 3 must-do things?

Café Central is always on our list. The coffee and cakes are fantastic there, not to mention the ambience. For Sonia and I, we love our food, so we always go places where the food is good. In summer, the Schweizerhaus in the Prater, with their Stelzen [Schweinestelze: pig's thigh] and half-litre beers – fantastic. And we somehow always end up going to Hundertwasserhaus, we think that's kind of a must-see. Because it's outrageous but also very cool that people live in there. It's a functional building.

7.   What do you miss most from Australia?

Oh, the food. Without a doubt, the food. In Australia, you take for granted that you can eat out and get excellent food of any style very easily. We're very lucky in Australia in that we have quite authentic Asian cuisine, because of our population. There are only a few places in Vienna that serve something close to what we would call authentic and you've really got to search for them. That's a big thing. That, and the quality of things like meat in Australia is so much higher, as a general rule. Typical, thinking with my stomach.

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Poking fun at our foibles through stand-up

Patrick Lamb was born and grew up in Sheffield in the UK and now lives in Vienna where he works as a stand-up comedian. He spoke to The Local about life as an English language comic in the Austrian capital.

Poking fun at our foibles through stand-up
Patrick Lamb. Photo: Stefan Nützel

What brought you to Vienna?

I came to Vienna in 1999. My older brother had done a year of his language degree here, fallen in love with the place and returned after graduation. I had then just completed my studies as an illustrator in the USA and returned to Sheffield, uncertain of my next steps. When he called and suggested I come out to join him, I assented.

To begin with, Vienna seemed very much like paradise. It was June, everybody was outside, laughing – in Vienna's lighter, summer mode. I was very impressed by all the architecture, culture and by how jovial and relaxed everybody seemed. This turned to shock that October, when the population donned funereal black and switched into their determinedly miserable, winter mode. This is much less extreme now, but back then it was almost ubiquitous.

How well did you adapt to life in your new home?

To begin with I found the Austrian mentality very difficult to deal with, very exhausting. This was partly because I had spent the preceding three years just outside New York, where the people have a dynamism that is the polar opposite to Viennese 'Gemütlichkeit'. Everything is possible and the mentality is one of “Yes, you can do it!” rather than a grumpy “das wird eh nicht gehen…”

I was also, I admit, a very bad fit back then. I wanted everything and I wanted it yesterday. Now I am much happier living here. I have adapted to life here to some extent and have met people who have been kind enough to open doors for me or help me to see some for myself.


How would you describe the Viennese sense of humour?

The Viennese sense of humour shares certain similarities with the English sense of humour, though it seems to me several shades darker and less obviously self-deprecating. I am in the process of getting to know the local comedy and Kabarett scene better, though much of it is very culture-specific and therefore inaccessible to people who haven't grown up here, steeped in Austrian and Central European culture and history.

I grew up watching classics of British comedy like Blackadder, Fawlty Towers, the Python films, A Bit of Fry and Laurie etc., all of which influenced my own sense of humour and outlook on life. I don't really see any direct link between other comedians and what I do, really. For me they are very much on some separate, more rarefied level. I am happy telling my stories and laughing with people about our universal foibles.

What’s your idea of a good night out?

One of the things I love most of all is spending an evening with a group of friends in the pub, laughing and sharing good jokes with one another. Something magical happens. The outside world recedes for a few hours, left outside the door. The world's problems and one's own problems are forgotten for a short time. A group of people bond through shared laughter. It is an illusion, but one absolutely necessary for our survival, I think.

My decision to work as a comedian is an outgrowth of that. I love laughing with people, sharing that wonderful silliness, poking fun at our foibles and thus, I hope, making them more bearable.

There are successful comedians who are much harsher than I aspire to be, excoriating hecklers and crucifying 'the great and the good'. The best of them are necessary, because many of our public figures so deserve the crucifixion of public ridicule and these comedians execute their task with great skill and accuracy. I'm not sure I would be able to do that, even if I wanted to. I doubt I have the malice.

See Patrick's English language stand-up show WTF? on February 26th at Kabarett Vindobona, Wallensteinplatz 6, 1200 Vienna. It covers relationships, gender differences, dating, sex, the EU, languages and national stereotypes, the Vikings and furniture.

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