Das Problem für jeden Wiener: Man kann es in Wien nicht mehr aushalten, aber woanders auch nicht.
(The problem of every Wiener: We can’t stand it any longer in Vienna, but we can’t stand it anywhere else either.)
Helmut Qualtinger, Austrian actor, writer and cabaretist (1928-1986)
I like to observe the transition newcomers go through as they adjust to life in Vienna. It tends to follow a pattern. In quality-of-life, Vienna ranks high: sound infrastructure, affordable housing, pristine tap water, rich cultural offerings, and the like. But one downside never changes, and often lingers as they struggle to reconcile their vision with their daily reality.
“Vienna is great—if it weren’t for the. . . people.”
This caveat comes up consistently, especially among Anglo/American émigres, who feel particularly challenged by the Viennese tendency to be “grantig”: grumpy, grouchy, grinchy. In a survey done by the expat network InterNations, Austria ranks high in all the usual categories. but not in “Personal Happiness” or “Ease of Settling In”. Here Vienna ranks way below average.
When I first arrived in Vienna, this didn’t seem to bother me. Wiener would marvel at my acquiescence to their grey, gloomy settings. “Ich bin auch grantig!” “I’m also grouchy”, I would state proudly, having always been a bit cantankerous myself next to my cheery American friends.
But I soon learned that every cultural disposition has its unique flavor, and even though misery loves company, it’s a different story in a foreign language.
It’s not only about a language barrier — as my German improved, and I reached a new level of awareness, I started to understand the words being yammered in this abrasive vernacular. Even those who try to isolate themselves in their little expat bubble have to venture out for their daily chores — doing the shopping, dealing with bureaucracy, taking advantage of the excellent healthcare system. All of these require interaction with the locals, and therein lies the challenge.
The Viennese will certainly not dispute their admirable efficiency. But they also won’t hesitate to find a way to wallow and whinge; it’s basically a given. And a cheerful, optimistic foreigner often comes across as an idiot.
The big question is, why, oh why? Can’t we just be thankful for our good fortune? Even Mayor Michael Häupl finds this frustrating: “Egal was man tut, die Wiener raunzen,” (“Whatever you do, the Viennese will complain!”) he said at a reception in an unguarded moment.
So what is it about this “paradise” that breeds nit-picking and fault-finding?
A comment by my 15-year-old niece last Christmas was a classic example. As we snuggled around a warm, glowing hearth in a snowbound Almhütte in the mountains, she muttered:
“How can we sit here gorging on chocolates, when there are less fortunate children in the world starving and dying as we speak?” She then stuck her head back into the book she was reading on the evils of fascism while the rest of us, downed another Lebkuchen and took a long gulp of our warm Punsch.
She had a point. Perfection comes with a price. When your home runs seamlessly and everything is in its place, there’s nothing left but run your finger under the mantle to find those few last specks of dust. The tiniest flaw becomes a glaring imperfection. The slightest aberration threatens your sanctuary.
In the end, there is a hell of a lot to complain about as chaos lurks in every undusted corner. So what do we have to moan about? We’ll find something.
PS: Although faced with the real problem of the flood of refugees arriving in Vienna’s Central Station, the city’s residents rose to the occasion, with food, clothing, comfort and time. So maybe they just needed a real problem after all.