After an extra long stay at home over Christmas, I was more than ready to finally come and experience Vienna. Despite a new environment, I felt like I could handle daily life fairly easily — I speak German with enough fluency to exist and ask strangers for help, I am used to going to school in a big city, and I had been to central Europe previously.
That being said, in just a week, I have learned plenty of lessons.
Practical Lessons for Existing in Vienna
1. At restaurants and cafés, you have to ask the waiter for the check. Had I not dined originally with Helga, an angel who Georgetown pays to take care of its students in Vienna, I would not have immediately realized this. Some customers will even get up from the table to find the waiter to pay if they can’t get the waiter’s attention. My Southern/American notions of how waiter/customer interactions work prevent me from ever getting up to find the waiter. I would rather sit for hours waiting for the waiter to notice me than getting up to bother them.
2. You have to push the button on the doors of buses/trains/streetcars to alert the driver you’re getting off/for the door to open. I am aware this is true in **most** cities with public transportation. However, I waited embarrassingly long to get onto a streetcar (Straßenbahn) on my first try since I did not know this, and I appreciate the random Austrian woman who hit the button for me, likely wondering why I was too stupid to get into the Straßenbahn. I blame the fact that the DC Metro doors open every time for every stop, and that I grew up in the suburbs and only have a loose understanding of public transit (öffentliches Verkehrsmittel). That being said, Vienna has spoiled me and I’m going to go ahead and say they have the best public transit in the world.
3. If you’re studying abroad in Europe, chances are your university has a partner with ERASMUS, which is technically for European exchange students. They offer welcome dinners, parties, events, discounts, and trips to other cities to help exchange students get used to their new home and meet other exchange students. No one will care that you are not European, so participate in everything they have to offer! In just my first week, I got subsidized Schnitzel at a welcome dinner and got to hang out with new people and get to know some of the people from my intensive language course better.
4. All of your subscribed podcasts will still be available. (See previous blog post.) NPR’s “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” and NYT’s “The Daily” are how I keep up with news back home.
5. Carry cash at all times. I am immediately picked out as an American not always because of my accent, but rather because I charged 3,50 Euros to a credit card. Some places that aren’t heavily populated with tourists may not even have card readers.
6. If you’re like me and your native language is English, never take for granted again that your language is the world’s lingua franca. In a group of international students with half a dozen native languages, the conversation typically defaults to English, and your brain does not have to work very hard to fully participate in the conversation. Also if documents exist in non-German languages, often English is the only translated version.
Lessons for Being ***The Only Hoya or Person You Know in the Country/Time Zone***
Do not be afraid! I was terrified coming to an enormous city without a built-in friend/family support network like I have in DC. But if my time at Georgetown has taught me anything, it’s how to network. I went from thinking that my first week would be slow and boring since I had no one to hang out with, to having a pretty eventful week thanks to a few quick tricks.
1. Take a language course before the semester starts if your University abroad offers one. University of Vienna (Uni Wien) offers three-week intensive courses for all language levels at the Sprachenzentrum, and being a full-time student the coming semester even entitles you to a nice rebate upon successful completion of the course. After eight years of German, I wasn’t too worried about my language skill, I took the course to meet other exchange students. My class has fifteen people in it, and we made a group chat and hung out over the weekend with more plans in the works. I was surprised to be the only American in the class, but I have had a lot of fun getting to know my new friends from Norway, Belgium, Australia, Ukraine, and the Netherlands to name a few. It’s surprising how differently all of our countries work, and we have had lots of interesting conversations comparing our cultures, languages, daily life, and governments.
2. Ignore every millennial instinct you have when you are in a new group of people. Don’t know anyone in the room and there’s a break? Chances are good your first instinct (like mine) is to pull out your phone and scroll through Facebook and ignore everyone in the room. There’s a pretty distinctive break in my language class of the people during break who sit on their phones in the classroom and the people who hang out and chat in the hallway. Whether it’s an orientation session, class, whatever — talk to as many people as possible. Keeping my phone in my bag has opened me up to have some really amazing conversations with people I never would have otherwise met.
3. Insert yourself. The first day of the language class, people went out and talked in the hallway during break and I felt very uncomfortable not knowing anyone. It only took a minute to click that in a setting like that no one knows each other and everyone wants to get to know people. So even though a group had already formed in the hall, I just stood there too and participated in the conversation, and it worked. Before college, I probably would have sat in the room on my phone or felt too awkward to join in to a group already talking amongst themselves. But thanks to a little desperation and a fear of being alone, I now have a small support network of other equally lost exchange students.
4. Network like you’re trying to land an internship at Goldman Sachs. I am so grateful for Helga, and my Georgetown-paid tutor Jakob, as Vienna natives, without whom I would probably still be lost on the train coming from the airport. But I also wanted to make friends my own age. I have a small network of friends from Georgetown studying abroad in Europe this semester, but no one in Vienna. Tell as many people at home as possible where you’re studying abroad. Many of the people I have met this week are friends of friends from home who are in Vienna for whatever reason — from studying abroad themselves to Fulbright years. Does it feel weird to randomly Facebook message people you don’t know (but your friends do)? Yes. But reaching out to these people has dramatically improved my study abroad experience thus far and has made things a lot less lonely. Also, the people I have reached out to have all been in Vienna much longer than me and have taken me to some awesome places I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.
Studying abroad in a city where you are the only Hoya is intimidating. And it’s even more intimidating to go somewhere and take classes in a foreign language. I highly recommend doing both things anyway. After a week in Vienna, I am obsessed. I went from panicky and scared on day one (and the weeks preceding) to never wanting to leave. Vienna is the most beautiful place I have ever seen, and I consider myself absolutely blessed to live in this city at a weird crossroads of history and modernity. I say that because I heard a string quartet play Beethoven and Mozart in a Baroque church next door to a Burger King, and I have seen more than one street musician play “Despacito” on a classical instrument.
I can’t wait to see what next week brings!