Living Between Turkey and Austria

Vienna is a large, multifaceted city, whose diversity is especially vivid at the countless restaurants, cafes and food stalls that serve food from around the world. 

For Turkish cuisine, however, there are two hotspots: The Brunnenmarkt in the 16th district and – if you can call such a large area a “spot” – the entire 10th district of Favoriten, that refer to as “Little Istanbul.” 

This term is also used more and more by outsiders familiar with the lifestyle and atmosphere of the neighborhood. But for a person of Turkish origin, it has everything – or almost everything, from Turkish organizations, cafes, restaurants and supermarkets to mosques, carpet stores, bookstores, furniture stores, cell phone companies and much more. Year by year the number of stores in this quarter keeps increasing, the streets ever more alive.

Shall We Stay or Shall We Go?

Here is the clearest proof that the Turkish community has taken root in Austria.  This was not so clear issue in the past. “Shall we go or shall we stay?” Turkish migrant family members would ask themselves. Indeed, the Turkish community often felt neglected, and people left on their own. Back then, integration wasn’t an important topic, as it is today. But today, this discussion is often instrumentalized in an effort to push people towards assimilation. The needs of the community were high and correspondingly over the years, the services on offer have grown.

As most people know, the Turkish community in general is very hospitable. If you go shopping in a Turkish supermarket and you are missing one Euro, the cashier might tell you you can bring the money later. When you buy a piece of furniture, you may be able to negotiate an additional discount. And in a Turkish restaurant, the tea is often served for free and is not calculated on the bill. 

But the warm hospitality that the Turks are familiar with from their own culture was often not reciprocated in Austria in the way they had wished. 

There was no real welcoming culture for guest workers in the 1960s and ’70s. Once the migrants realized that they were going to stay in Austria – because they had already built their lives here, whether they intended to or not – there was resistance from the Austrian public. Unfortunately, this is still visible in the growing strength of right-wing scene and far-right politics.

The Meaning of Gurbet

There is a term in Turkish that says a lot but cannot be translated very well: “Gurbet.” This is the experience and feeling of living between two worlds. Especially for Turkish immigrants, the word gurbet is also linked with longing, pain, and separation. A person knows where he comes from, she knows her origin, but lives in another part of the world. 

So you end up feeling like a foreigner everywhere. You are a foreigner in your country of birth – one of the “Almanci” the Germans (now the general term to describe Turks who live abroad.)  And a foreigner in Austria, where a welcoming culture was sadly missing.  Turkish guest workers, just like many others, were not welcomed nor accepted into the society and were only here to work. 

But now things have changed. Austria became our home place, Vienna our hometown.

A Feeling of Home

That’s why the Turkish community is trying to establish a little bit of a “home feeling” for themselves.  A place where you feel comfortable and experience a little bit of culture. Ordering in Turkish at the restaurant, eating your usual pide (flatbread) for Ramadan fresh from the bakery, or buying the spices and ingredients you need to cook the food that you love to eat in Turkey.

My mother often mentioned that there were not as many choices in the early years as there are today. We sometimes had to drive long distances to find a Turkish store at all. We used to travel to Turkey very often by car. It was the cheapest way to take the family on vacation. It was also practical because you were able to visit family dispersed across the country. But there was also another advantage. There were no luggage limits and certain special things could be easily brought along. 

We used to bring fresh grape leaves from my grandmother’s garden. As a result, we always had an overfilled trunk on the return ride back to Austria. That’s why we took so much with us – we didn’t have a lot of things here back then. Now, for me it is normal to buy these things here. 

I must also honestly admit that I am sometimes surprised when Turkish families from the Austrian countryside find it so exciting in Vienna. The achievements of the Turkish community, especially in Vienna, are really praiseworthy, but we tend to take it for granted. 

Yes, since the ’60s, the Turks have helped to build Austria. But not only the nation; they also held the Turkish community together. Over the years, they have worked and created opportunities that it seems natural to us, the next generations, that such opportunities exist for us to live and embrace our culture anywhere.