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Clothes to nudity: The biggest culture shocks for foreigners in Austria

To live in Austria is to have constant access to Schnitzel and Sachertorte and enjoy trips to the lakes and mountains. But what are the weird things that you never knew about before moving to this beautiful Alpine state?

   Traditional Dirndl dresses have made a comeback in Austria in recent years.  (Photo by Christof STACHE / AFP)
Women in traditional Bavarian Dirndl dresses look on as cows walk through the streets of Pfronten, southern Germany, during the so-called Allgaeuer Viehscheid cattle drive on September 8, 2018. - Farmers lead their cattle from their mountain pastures to the valley of the Allgaeu mountains in southern Germany. Photo: Christof Stache/AFP

People dressed in traditional clothes

In recent years, Austrian traditional clothing such as Lederhosen and Dirndls have been becoming increasingly popular with younger people seeking to reconnect with their Austrian heritage. 

Although in past years Austrian traditional clothing (Tracht) was worn by many as a symbol of Austrian pride and nationalism, hipsters began wearing traditional clothing again a few years ago . Now irony has turned to enthusiasm for many Austrians. One commonly heard mantra is that every woman can look good in a Dirndl regardless of age or physique.

Don’t be surprised if you get on a tram or are out walking in the hills and find yourself standing with a group of people dressed in Dirndls and Lederhosen, particularly during the wine harvest season.

READ MORE: 11 Austrian life hacks that will make you feel like a local

No shops open on Sunday

Weekends in Austria can feel like going back in time, as almost all its supermarkets and shops close on Sundays. Living in Austria means remembering to make sure you’ve stocked up on essentials the day before, bearing in mind many shops close early on Saturday too. Sundays are left free for church, sports, culture and relaxation. 

There’s no need to go without freshly baked bread or flowers as you can always find bakeries and flower shops open on Sunday mornings. Also, museums, galleries, cafes and restaurants are normally open on Sunday.

Nobody wants to be that person in a mile-long queue at Praterstern Billa in Vienna (one of the few stores open on Sundays), because you forgot some essential item. 

Alcohol: any place, anywhere and at any outdoor temperature

Drinking alcohol is allowed almost anywhere, and happens at any time, with many cafes offering sparkling wine with brunch or people enjoying a quick beer with breakfast. It’s also fine to bring wine and drink it in a park with your picnic. Cold weather is no deterrent for thousands of Austrians who love sipping winter Punsch (hot spiced wine) outside at Christmas markets despite freezing temperatures.

Austria is also very fond of the ‘Wegbier’, which is the beer you drink when you are on your way somewhere. 

One drink you have to try in Austria in autumn is Sturm, a fermented drink which falls somewhere between grape juice and wine. It is alcoholic, ranging from 4 – 10 percent, sweet and slightly fizzy. You can buy both red and white Sturm and it’s best drunk out of a mug in a vineyard during the autumn wine harvest. 

There are other unusual aspects to the drinking culture in Austria. Don’t be surprised to find yourself out of pocket if you invite your colleagues for a drink after work – that means you are buying all the rounds. Look deep into people’s eyes when you clink glasses and say “Prost” (“cheers” in German). Failure to do so means you will have bad sex, or that you’ve poisoned your drinking partner’s drink (depending on who you ask). 

READ MORE: Is it legal to drink in public in Austria?

Formal titles

The Coronavirus pandemic has put a stop to the obligatory handshaking (or cheek-kissing in Vienna) when you are in a professional or friendly encounter with people from Austria. However, the obsession with academic titles remains in Austria – ignore at your peril. There are many professional titles such as Dipl. Ing., Mag., MSc, MA, Dr. and they are used on almost all documents, (for example loyalty cards) and correspondence.

It’s also a minefield trying to work out when you can address someone with the formal “you” (Sie) and the informal “you” (du). One tip – when you are in the mountains, everyone calls each other by the informal “du”. Above a certain altitude (around 1000m), formality no longer exists. 

Naked stand up paddleboarding (not pictured) can also often be seen on the Danube in Vienna. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

I see naked people 

Nudity is accepted far more in Austria than in countries such as Britain, and certainly more than the US. Freikörperkultur (FKK) or nudism is still pretty popular. It’s quite normal to encounter a naked sunbathing area when going to a swimming pool, or at a river beach along the Danube.

Naked people can be spotted SUPing, cycling and playing volleyball all over the palace in Vienna.  Doctors are unlikely to give you a blanket to cover up if you go in for a checkup, but just expect you to strip off for your annual physical.

And don’t even think about wearing anything other than a towel in the sauna. 

READ MORE: The ten biggest culture shocks experienced by foreigners in Austria

Paragliding, shown by this athlete flying over the Grossglockner, is popular in Austria, along with other extreme sports.(Photo by JON NASH / RED BULL AIR RACE / AFP)

Relaxed attitude to health and safety

It’s not uncommon in Austria to see builders without protective gloves or hard hats, candles burning away in apartments with no smoke alarms and people (including children) cycling or scooting without helmets. Not to mention the popularity of smoking, “heart attack food” such as Leberkäse and Würst and drinking.

Perhaps it’s the nation’s predilection for extremely dangerous sports such as paragliding and skiing, or the Austrian libertarian streak, but there appears to be far less emphasis on ‘health and safety’ in Austria than in some other cultures.

Cold war sirens

A couple of times a year, the eerie noise of cold war sirens sound out wherever you live in Austria. Unlike neighbouring Germany, Austria has kept in place its early warning system from the cold war and has a nationwide, operational network of 8,212 sirens which are tested twice a year.

However, some experts are concerned that people do not understand what the sirens mean, and may just ignore them when they sound, according to broadcaster FM4. Basically, if the siren sounds for three minutes, you should switch your radio or TV to broadcaster ORF, or visit the website to await further instructions.

A test blast from a siren will only last 15 seconds.

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Austria’s civil defence alarm: What you should know about the warning siren system

Austria will carry out its annual civil defence test alarm on Saturday, October 1st. Here's what you need to know about it.

Austria's civil defence alarm: What you should know about the warning siren system

It’s going to be loud, but don’t get scared: the alarm sirens will ring all over Austria this weekend as part of the country’s yearly alarm check when it tests the alert system.

Every year, on the first Saturday of October, thousands of sirens sound alarms all over Austria. For those who live outside of Vienna, that may not be particularly eventful, as sirens get tested more often than in the capital city.

READ ALSO: What is Austria’s official emergency-warning phone app and do I need it?

However, the annual country-wide check also means that the federal government will sound all alarms in a 45-minute event to remind the population of the signals of warning and alert.

What happens during the civil protection test alarm?

When sirens are being tested, they ring for 15 seconds only – and this doesn’t happen everywhere in Austria. However, once a year, the tests take on a larger scale.

This Saturday, October 1st, all the sirens will be tested between 12 pm and 12:45 pm. In the Austria-wide event, they will sound alarms on four occasions so people can familiarise themselves with the different signals.

READ ALSO: The smartphone apps that make living in Austria easier

At around noon, the first test will start with a 15-second alarm. Then, at 12:15 pm, the warning signal, followed by the alarm signal at 12:30 pm and the “all clear” sign at 12:45 pm.

Additionally, the governments will test their app systems, including the KAT alert and the Stadt Wien app – so you should receive test notifications if you have any of these apps.

What is the Civil Protection System?

Austria has a comprehensive warning and alarm system with over 8,000 sirens (180 of them are in Vienna) spread throughout the country. It serves to alert the population in the “event of a disaster”, according to the Ministry of the Interior.

The federal government operates the system along with provincial governments. The signals can be triggered centrally by the Federal Warning Centre in the Federal Ministry of the Interior, the Provincial Warning Centres of the Federal Provinces, or the District Warning Centres, depending on the dangerous situation.

READ ALSO: Ten essential apps to download for living in Vienna

Different types of alarms mean different things:

  • TESTING (15 seconds continuous tone): A quick continuous tone to test if sirens are working correctly.
    What to do: don’t panic; this is only a test. You can check ORF on radio, TV or online to confirm this.

  • WARNING (3 minutes continuous tone): A constant continuous tone with a length of 3 minutes means “warning”. This signal is triggered when the population is warned of approaching danger.
    What to do: Switch on radio or TV on public broadcaster ORF, or check and follow the rules of conduct.

  • ALARM (1 minute rising and falling wailing tone): An ascending and descending wailing tone of at least 1-minute duration means “alarm” and alerts that the danger is imminent.
    What to do: Switch on radio or TV on public broadcaster ORF, or check and follow the rules of conduct. Look for protective areas or rooms.

  • ALL CLEAR (1-minute continuous tone): A constant continuous tone of 1 minute (only after the alarm signal) means “all clear”, i.e. end of danger.
    What to do: Continue to pay attention to the announcements on the radio, TV or ORF online, as there may be certain temporary restrictions.