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How to spot an Austrian abroad

The Local · 2 Oct 2015, 08:49

Published: 02 Oct 2015 08:49 GMT+02:00

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Austrian journalist Nikolai Atefie is currently based in Malmö, Sweden, and finds that there are three things that come up again and again when he mentions his nationality  - kangaroos, Mozart and Hitler. But there's more to it than that - here's his guide for how to spot (and make friends with) an Austrian abroad.

We love titles

Working as a journalist, living in Sweden and being Austrian, I often feel caught between two worlds. Especially when it comes to formalities. For me it’s difficult to find the right level of politeness when meeting new people or sending formal emails.

Sweden’s grammar was recently reformed so that now there’s only one way of addressing people and social distance is minimised. However, formalities are still extremely important in Austria. Austrian university professors don't like to be greeted with "what's up, Peter", as is common in Scandinavia, but expect to be greeted with "Good morning Mr. Prof. Dr. Müller". The Austrian point of view is that the professor worked hard for his title, and deserves to be addressed accordingly.

Austria is still quite stiff and conservative, so don’t be surprised if Austrians you meet abroad initially keep their distance - and expect you to be very formal when you don’t know them well.

The gift of charm

The age of chivalry is not dead. Photo: Christian Rödel

Viennese coffee house culture, with its excellent home-blend coffee and arrogant, cynical waiters is famous all around the globe. But the image of the grumpy Austrian is not necessary true, we can be charming as well. Yes, Austria is home to many charming gentlemen. In earlier times it used to be impolite to shake a woman’s hand. Some of the older generation Austrian men still keep up the tradition of ‘hand-kissing’.

It might seem strange to other cultures but we kiss hands and it’s cool. It works like this: If a man meets a woman he deeply respects he would say "Küss die Hand" (kiss your hand). He then bends forward (or even bends his knee), takes the woman’s hand and mimes a kiss to show his appreciation of her. Watch carefully, it’s only done correctly if his lips don’t touch the woman’s hand. Otherwise, it’s seen to be rude.

We hate being mistaken for Germans

Most of us have a thick German accent when we speak English so usually people guess that we’re Germans. And admittedly, there are ten times more Germans than Austrians in the world. But we don’t like being mistaken for Germans, because in our eyes, Austria is as different to Germany as it is to Iceland.

We have a great food culture, we speak a pleasant language (well, dialect) and we’re good in skiing - not something Germans can boast about. But the biggest rivalry is for sure the language. Since our largest group of immigrants are Germans, our language or rather the Austrian dialect is slowly disappearing from everyday life. It’s true that for decades Austrian kids watched German TV and our bartenders in the après-ski pubs were also Germans. But if you don’t want to get into trouble: don’t call us Germans, we won’t call you one either. It’s a silly inferiority complex, but most Austrians will feel offended.

We need to climb that hill

Toplitzsee. Photo: Renate Dodell/Flickr

Austria has one of the most spectacular landscapes in Western Europe. Hiking and skiing are important elements of national culture. And if Austrians abroad complain about their host country it will often be because of the flat landscape.

What Swedes call a mountain would not even be worth a mention in Austria - or would be mockingly referred to as a "small hill". You can bet that all Austrians abroad will have climbed or at least tried to climb every mountain and hill they know of in their host country. And then they'll draw the conclusion that they need to plan a hiking holiday in Austria. There’s just nothing comparable to the Austrian Alps.

Don't mention the war

Often when I introduce myself to strangers and mention my nationality, instead of being greeted with ‘Hi!’ people think it's hilarious to say ‘Heil!’, and then start laughing. Shockingly, these people are mostly well educated as those who are less studied think that Hitler was German (which of course he wasn't).

Yes, Hitler was one of the most terrible dictators and mass murderers in modern history. We certainly don’t joke about it. The majority of our history lessons in High School are spent talking about the Holocaust. Many students will visit concentration camps where you can still see the hair that was shaved from the heads' of the Nazis' victims. We are painfully aware of this dark part of Austrian history.

So if you want to small talk with an Austrian do not start with a Hitler joke, we don’t think it’s funny - at all. And if you do we might respond by saying Hitler was German and swiftly move on to another topic. People we’re really proud of are Sigmund Freud (the father of psychoanalysis), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (a famous composer), and some even praise Arnold Schwarzenegger (the body builder, actor, and former governor of California).

Green oil in our veins

Photo: Sharan West

Whenever I invite friends over for dinner I make sure to serve a side salad, Austrian style. Whatever vegetables I use, the salad is always dressed with a dark green substance which usually elicits a sceptical look from my guest. The secret is pumpkin seed oil from Styria.

In Styria (the regional capital is Graz), people even drink shots of this green power liquid because of its healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids. It’s made of roasted and pressed pumpkin seeds and adds a delicious nutty flavour to salads, soups and even vanilla ice cream. Of all the Austrians I know abroad, most have a bottle of Austrian pumpkin seed oil in their fridge.

We don't all wear Lederhosen

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It used to be quite normal to wear Lederhosen and traditional Austrian skirts (Dirndls) for important occasions. Nowadays it’s something you'll only see in the countryside or at yearly dress-up events, like a folk-themed fête.

In cities like Vienna, it’s seen as nationalistic and right-wing to wear Lederhosen in everyday life. But many expat Austrians enjoy bringing their Lederhosen to their host country as they can wear them without being seen as racists. Lederhosen are not particularly comfortable but they are a good choice to wear when paying a visit to the Austrian embassy, going to a fancy evening event, and of course entertaining friends.

And we can't all dance

A friend recently asked me if every Austrian learns how to waltz in school. No, not all of us learn how to waltz - just as very few Brits learn how to make fish and chips in school!

You can usually spot the Austrian on a night out, because they will be standing at the bar drinking beer instead of getting their groove on on the dance floor. Yes, even if the DJ starts playing waltz music. But if Falco's Rock me Amadeus is played in a club, watch the Austrians go wild. It’s the only song from an Austrian musician to ever climb to the top of the US charts. And remarkably it’s still popular in '80s clubs around the world.

Clueless about The Sound of Music

Aside from Hitler (see my previous point), and kangaroos (sadly, there are no kangaroos in Austria), people abroad love to ask me about a movie called The Sound Of Music. It’s famous all over the world for its romantic story set in the Austrian Alps but none of us has ever watched it. In our eyes The Sound of Music is a great song from our national hero, pop singer Falco (see above), and nothing else…

Follow Nikolai Atefie on Twitter @NikolaiAtefie

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