Come On Vienna Smile On Your Brother

Everyone come together to love one another.

After 5 years living in Vienna as an Australian expat there are many wonderful things I can say about this country. The culture , the arts, the socialism. The access to reasonably priced organic seasonal food and so many more fantastic reasons to love this city.  We have all read those reports Vienna Austria has topped Mercer’s list of cities offering the highest quality of life year after year.

Truly apart from the long winters which is no ones fault apart from some geographical bad luck Vienna is truly a great place to live, to raise a family & to grow old in.

But…… If I could change one thing about Vienna it would be society’s approach to people. People on the streets. People in the shops. On the trams. In the bars.

More specifically people you don’t know. Strangers.

I was raised on the ethos that a stranger is a friend you haven’t met. Here in Austria all strangers seem to be considered enemies you don’t know or just people who don’t seem to exist.

Don’t get me wrong the Viennese are among some of the nicest people I have ever met. But the word met is the operative word in this sentence. For a local to embrace or entertain you without wary and a level of caution it is usually by the way of introduction. Then you are welcomed. And then as people the Vienese are exceptionally kind and very gracious. But as far as walking into a bar or strolling in your neighbourhood and meeting someone new – you will be always be held  at an arm’s length by a Viennese person.

When I first arrived in Vienna I was overjoyed. Happy to be in a new country with the man I love & full of excitement at the start of a new adventure. I smiled at everyone and everything around me. In the post office line, at the supermarket & in cute coffee houses.  Basically everywhere I went.  Eventually my Austrian boyfriend cautioned me to perhaps stop smiling at everyone. Explaining smiling can makes Austrians think you are hitting on them or perhaps you could be seen as intellectually a little disabled. Or even worse your smile makes them uncomfortable.  At first I thought he was crazy and killing my buzz. No one had ever told me to stop smiling except when i was a child getting in trouble and wasnt taking the matter seriously enough. But it turns out he was right. 

I once did a small experiment of my own I was traveling from one side of the city to the other for a teaching gig on the Vienna subway. Which is amazing by the way. I smiled at every single person who crossed my path. Most looked away. Some people looked at me in shock and then distasteful. Some looked at me like I was crazy and some men took it as a sexual invitation. But not one Viennese adult smiled genuinely back at me. The only people to return an easy smile were all the children. They werent old enough to have become cynical and wary but were just little open-hearted creatures.

Why the fear Vienna?

Is it a remnant from your war-torn history? Which I in no way pretend to understand. What’s to be afraid of – a young woman in broad daylight smiling and saying a hello to a stranger? 

Eventually I adapted to the Austrian way. Quiet subways. My head down as I strolled briskly on the streets. Eventually those 1.8 million Vienna strangers surrounding me in this beautiful city slowly stopped existing to me. Like shadows on a street. I tried my hardest to accept and respect the local customs. Telling myself the old age adage when in Rome do as the Romans do. 

Until 2 years into my Austrian expat life I found myself feeling anxious, depressed and isolated. Even though I lived in a new country and culture with a different language I wasn’t learning anything and despite a great group of friends & a supportive loving partner.  I felt desolate and less like myself than I ever had.

And one day it hit me like a ton of bricks. It wasnt the incredibly long winters. Although it’s not my favourite.  I missed the sun in winter but more strongly I missed the sunshine in my soul that I always loved sharing with the world around me. Being warm to others.

I missed smiling at strangers.

Not just that I missed desperately connecting with people on the very base level of perhaps chatting to an old lady on the bus. Cracking a joke with the barrista. Not meeting or connecting with anyone I wouldn’t normally meet outside my close social circle left me feeling more lonely than missing even my own family.

And isn’t that what humanity is Vienna? That connection collectively to other humans? Not just those you have known since grade school?

Humanity means to me the kindness of strangers. Chance meetings with other people. Smiling at someone who looks sad. Asking someone who is upset if they are ok.

Giving someone you dont know a complimet. Or receiving one. A compliment from a stranger can cheer up even the worst day. Not a compliment from someone who loves you enough to feel obligated to give one. But just a random person on the street telling you they like your outfit because they think its truly bitching. Or something as simple as being told to have a great day.

I know what you want to say Vienna in defence. I’ve been told by many. You can see that this is something sadly missing in your culture. But isnt this a better approach than the American school of over gregarious phony friendliness? Which the Vienese  have a big no time for. My reply is that no one is asking you to jump up and down on a couch Tom Cruise style. All I am asking from you is a tiny little smile.

So after this realisation I decided to not do as the Romans do. And do what the Australians do and just talk the ear off anyone. And just be myself. I am a super friendly and curious person. I am also self deprecating and I love to make people laugh. And what makes me feel the best about myself is connecting to everything & everone around me. Even the grumpiest of Vienese old ladies.

So I started smiling. Not caring what  faces reflected back at me. I started to say hello to people in my neighbourhood. I made it my personal mission to make the supermarket employees laugh. I danced jigs in grocery stores. I asked people that looked distraught if they were ok. I started patting every dog I met and asking the owners what their names are. I told mothers their babies were adorable. I played peek a boo with todddlers on the tram. And it made me happy.

I didnt feel the need to conform. I didnt want to contribute to propergate the fear of unknown people as something to be scared or stay away from.

And slowly I felt like myself.

If I could have one wish for this beautiful city it’s for all Vienna to smile on their brother. Talk to a stranger. Meet someone on the street and learn something you would have never learnt in your circle. Smile more. Be kind to people. Recognise that sometimes it’s not the love of those we already have that we need. It’s a greater love between humans that is the connection we all seek.

So I implore you Vienna open up your arms a little wider. Trust in people a little deeper. Nothing bad will happen except that just maybe you may end up feeling  a little happier and alot more connected.

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