first impressions in vienna

by erinohsays


it is my first time in europe since i lived in the netherlands when i was 20 years old. i am now 28 years old and in a cultural exchange program called cisv (children’s international summer village) that was started in the 1950s as a way to build world peace through intercultural understanding. i travelled here with 6 incredible 12 year olds, for whom i have legal guardianship for the next 2 weeks. these 12 year olds are each staying with their own host family, and each host family also has a 12 year old child who has been paired with one of our US children.

i am staying with isabelle in the 13th district of vienna, in a flat nestled at the foot of a green mountain range. isabelle is a 24 year old student in a master of social work program who nannies 2 and 3 year old siblings, does promotions for the local erasmus student exchange network, and works part time in a chocolate store. her flat has large glass windows that open up to a small balcony overlooking the neighborhood. today at 5am this is where i currently sit, unable to sleep, writing this entry.

yesterday was my first day in vienna. i woke up around 8am short of breath, achy, and with a horrible cough. my first thought was pneumonia! i have pneumonia! i need antibiotics! so into the neighborhood i went, in search of a doctor.

i wandered into a pharmacy just one block away and asked where the nearest doctor was. i said i was worried that i might have pneumonia and that this cold had been getting worse over the last 2 weeks. the pharmacist at first said, “the closest hospital is 500 meters down the street” but when i asked what they would charge a foreigner, she said, “one moment, i’ll be right back” and disappeared into the rear of the shop. when she returned, she said, “come with me, there is a doctor here who will see you for free.”

in the waiting room i chatted with a woman who was wearing a purse with a large yellow kangaroo and the words “no kangaroos in austria.” she explained that it is common for foreigners to confuse austria with australia. i agreed with her, “before i came on this trip,” i said, “co-workers and neighbors were asking what i would be doing in australia!” she said that she even had people from the south of italy (a country which borders austria) who did not know the difference between australia and austria.

after seeing the doctor (who diagnosed me with bronchitis and prescribed me a decongestant) i wandered back into the streets of the 13th district to find a store where i could buy some toiletries and breakfast goods.

the things that interest me most when visiting a new place are often the most basic, common things. here, i notice how the street signs are bolted to the sides of apartment buildings, not on stand-alone posts on the sidewalk. cars actually stop when a pedestrian enters the crosswalk. manual transmission micro cars halt to a stop then sputter back into action before zipping down the street. also public bathrooms! on every other block. of course there are public bathrooms! what else are you supposed to do when nature calls?

large public bins for recycling on every street corner. no need to stash all of that recycling away in your apartment until the recycling truck comes to you. and old people! old people everywhere! walking around unassisted, carrying their groceries, bicycling with their grandchild, shopping, walking, getting around quite easily on these flat, walkable streets.

after purchasing my necessities, i began to feel achy, feverish, and weak. i considered stopping for a coffee at a busy cafe but the thought of espresso in my stomach made me nauseous. instead i hurried home to meet isabelle.