On a cold December day, I shyly entered an office building in the 3rd district for my first German-speaking job, a personal milestone after three years learning the language. “Brace yourself,” my inner voice whispered. “You are going to get fired today. They are about to realize that your German isn’t good enough.” I took a deep breath, adjusted my hair, tuned out my doubts, and reported to HR.
After some paperwork, I was sent to an office space with seven other people. The team leader is at a meeting, I should just wait, they told me. “What should I do in the meantime?” Nothing, they said. Just wait. Everything was square and properly spaced, eight big tables in one common area with clean white walls. There wasn’t much; barely any office supplies, just computers. A no-nonsens Austrian municipal office, without any trendy colorful furniture and workplace design so popular nowadays.
I am not a smoker, so I deal with anxiety by drinking tea. I looked for the kitchen. A friendly co-worker offered to show me, introducing himself as Lukas.
Once I was holding a warm cup in both hands, I dared to look for my desk. Everyone was super laid back – checking the news, drinking coffee and chatting with each other; I wasn’t the only one waiting for the team leader, I realized.
Although I am by no means an expert on German accents, I picked up on Johannes’s crisp diction, giving me a conversational in: “Are you from Germany?” “No,” he replied hastily, “I mean, my parents are, but I was born here… but many people think I’m German.” Germans are the largest immigrant group living in Vienna, I remarked, happy that I knew that.
“I was bullied for it in school,” he went on, “The guys wouldn’t let me play football with them, because I wasn’t Austrian.” I shared a couple of my own war stories; and we ended up sharing a grim laugh about kids’ cruelty. Still, he feels Austrian, and every time Austria plays Germany in football, Johannes is the only one in his family rooting for the home team. He even cried once after Austria lost – while the rest of his family laughed at him. You can’t win, can you?
Belonging, rather than fitting in
“I have to come out as Hungarian all the time – because visually I pass for Austrian, and I always feel weird about that,” I admitted as we were breaking the ice.
“See, I’ve never had that problem,” laughed Heidi. She first looked out from behind her monitor, then rolled near me on her office chair. Her beautiful, curly hair – inherited from her Egyptian parents – was in a masterful giant top knot, something Central European girls can only dream of. “I have to convince people that I am indeed an Austrian; people often make remarks about how I speak German so well.” She rolled her eyes. Her usual response is a sarcastic, “that’s probably because I was born and raised here!”
Baron, ursprünglich half Turkish, half Kurd, also joined our conversation. He speaks “only” Turkish fluently, he admitted. “That’s so cool,” Heidi said cheerfully. “No, it’s not cool,” Baron retorted; “English and French are cool, Turkish is …tolerated.”
Sadly, that’s exactly what the statistics show; multilingualism is seen as a treasure only if you speak a Western European language. That’s what makes you an expat, instead of an immigrant.
Not wanting to be left out, Lukas – whose accent, appearance, and attitude are very Austrian – suddenly confessed: “I am one quarter Slovenian.”
By the time our team leader entered the room, we were all sitting in a circle, loudly listing the languages we spoke. For a second, we didn’t even notice him observing us until he started addressing me. “I see you’ve met the team,” he grinned.
Later that day, I bonded with Samantha when we ordered pizza. Also born and raised here, she has Bengali parents. She asked me about missing my family, and we ended up talking about losing our grandmothers. “I knew my grandparents, but we were never really close; I’ve never had what my classmates had – lunch at Oma’s,” she said, while she fidgeted with a slice of pizza. Still, her grandmother’s death shook her. “It’s weird, even I was surprised.” You can mourn the lack of a relationship too.
So far, my first day confirmed exactly what I had read: Vienna is a colorful, multilingual city, where nearly half of the population has a Migrationshintergrund. And with that, my problems with integration were not so much solved, as dissolved. Perhaps I do not fit in yet, but I certainly felt as if I belonged.