How to Survive in Austria

Moving to another country is never easy. While it is ultimately sure to be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life, you are bound to encounter some surprising cultural differences and bumps along the way. After writing Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting a few weeks ago, I’ve decided to resurface another ten tips, ten tips for surviving in Austria. These tips are meant to (humorously) help my fellow-Americans to deal with the slight culture shock of living in the wonderful land of Alps, schnitzel, lederhosen and schnaps: 


1. When someone asks “How are you?” say “Thank you.” And nothing else.

I’ve asked many a coworker in Salzburg how they are doing. A normal question, in my American mind. When posing this inquiry into their well-being, I expect to hear a normal “good”, “fine”, “hanging in there”, etc.  In Austria, alas, these expectations go unanswered, with a conversation going something like this:

Me: How are you, Sabine?

Sabine: Thank you.

Me: Oh. (awkward silence)

To this day, I still don’t know how many of my friends and colleagues in Austria are faring. At least they are polite.

2. Get in people’s personal space. And stay there.

Austrians stand about a half a foot closer to each other than we do in America. If you try to back away, they will just come closer again. And again. And again. So you might as well just stay there, ignoring the urge to run for the door.

3. Invite people to come to your birthday dinner with caution.

If it is your birthday in Austria,  your friends will not take you out for dinner and buy you food and drinks. Instead of treating you, the honored birthday girl or boy, showering you with free schnitzel and schnaps, the “kind friends and family” expect you to pay for them and the rest of your birthday guests. And yet Austria is one of the happiest countries in the world…


4. Never, ever go shoeless inside. 

When you go into a stranger’s house, they will expect you to take your shoes off (as they don’t want street dirt in their house – even students are required to wear slippers at school). However, they would never expect you to be entirely shoeless. At the door, most Austrians have a basket of slippers (house shoes) for this very occasion.  I sometimes went around my own apartment wearing just socks, and my Austrian roommate commented “Oh yes, I notice you do that sometimes. Interesting.”

5. Awkward silence? No problem!

Austrians don’t care about the awkward silence. Apparently this is an American thing. Many a conversation in Austria just comes to a halt and no one will say anything for a never-ending, time-standing-still minute. This usually results in me babbling in German about totally unimportant, usually embarrassing things to stop my feelings of discomfort. Which then results in another awkward silence when no one knows how to respond to what I said.

6. Open the windows. All the windows. And the colder it is outside, the better.

Austrians love fresh air. Great, who doesn’t? But they love fresh air when its -20 degrees outside with three feet of snow on the ground. No need for a warm, cozy apartment with a fire in the fireplace – the air is much too stuffy. How Americans can leave windows closed in the depths of an icy winter, they simply cannot understand.


7. Do not casually inquire about a person’s life.

In America, when we see a person we’ve lost touch with over the years, we get excited to see them and say “Hey! How’s life?” We then proceed to tell them about the main aspects of our life from the last few years. Case in point: I was at the baseball game with my Austrian now-husband. I ran into a girl who I had known at my university a few years before, and the following conversation ensued:

Me: “Hey! How’s life?!

Her: “Oh, it’s good, I just graduated. I’m going to Florida next week and will be going to grad school to be an eye doctor in the fall. How’s life for you?”

Me: “Oh, it’s good. I just got my Masters in German, am also going on vacation next week, and am moving back to Austria in August. I’m going to be teaching English there.”

Her: “Cool, good to see you!”

Me: “You too!”

I turned to my Austrian husband to see if he was ready to keep walking, only to see him standing there, shocked, with his mouth wide open. “What?” I asked. “You guys just told each other about your whole lives in two minutes.” Me: “So?” Him: “That’s really strange.”

Two months later in Austria, I saw why this was strange for him. He ran into a friend he hadn’t seen in two years. They saw each other, and said “Hi.” “Hi.” (At this point, I was all ready for the normal “How’s life?” question).

My husband: The weather’s horrible.

His friend: Yes, it is.

My husband: Well, see you later.

Friend: Bye.

Me: Um, what??? Don’t you want to know how his life is?

Husband: No, not really.

Well, ok then.

8. Greet the room.

I always thought Americans were polite, but in some ways, Austrians have got us beat. In any waiting room, be it a doctor’s office, a dentist’s office, etc., when a new person enters into the waiting area, she does not simply sit down and wait her turn, staring at her cell phone or reading a book. Instead, as soon as she enters, she greets the entire room, belting out a hearty “Grüß Gott!” (Austrian form of hello) to her fellow waiters. Everyone replies to this newcomer with their own enthused “Grüß Gott!”, happy to have the monotony of waiting broken up by a new person. And then this same phenomenon occurs again later. Instead of simply checking out and going on their way, the Austrian patient, finished with her appointment, calls out to the entire room “Auf wiederschauen” (goodbye), as if they were her own friends and she must take her leave of them. Although I find this very nice, it left me quite confused the first few times, wondering if I knew the strangers saying hello to me.


9. Know how to waltz.

Most Austrians can waltz, which I think is wonderful. However, since they all grow up learning how to dance, they think that everyone in the world has this “basic” skill. Case in point: I was once at a wedding in the countryside around Salzburg when the song “YMCA” came on. All ready to go with my groovy alphabetic arm movements, I moved on to the dance floor, only to realize that people were waltzing to this 1970’s hit! Sensing my awkwardness, a middle-age Austrian man who I had perhaps spoken to once came over to take me for his dancing partner. Mortified, I tried my best to keep up with his 1-2-3, 1-2-3 foot movements (all while not really believing I was waltzing to the YMCA song). I thought I did semi-decent job, but I was sadly mistaken. The next day, an e-mail showed up in my inbox from my Austrian dancing partner, complete with a  lengthy Youtube video outlining the proper way to waltz. Point taken.


10. Go to the grocery store prepared for battle. 

You never realize how spoiled we are in America that we have someone who bags our groceries for us. In Austria, you, and you alone, are responsible for this daunting task. Can it really be that difficult, you ask? Well, picture this. You have a week’s worth of groceries. One environmentally friendly grocery bag. There are 6 impatient real-life Austrians waiting in line behind you. The cashier then rings up your groceries at a crazy pace, faster than humanly possible. You have just finagled the oddly shaped egg carton into your bag while your other rung-up groceries are flying toward you at lightning speed, one after the other, when Josef, the friendly cashier, says “30 euro 33 cent”. You then have to STOP putting your eggs in the bag, wasting valuable time to pull your wallet out of the depths of your purse. The clock is ticking as you dig for the correct coins, and then keep trying to put the eggs and milk in the bag before Josef can give you your change. But Josef is an experienced cashier, and before you can put your milk away, he is trying to put the change in your hand. While you appreciate getting money back, you are stressed out about having to completely stop putting your fruit in the bag in order to put the coins in your wallet. Only three items out of 15 are in your bag, and the rest are still all over the counter. Without warning,  the next person’s eggs, milk, cereal, bread start flying on top of your groceries, and the Austrian behind you is coming into your personal space as they so like to do. It’s a challenge that simply can’t be overcome.

Person under crumpled pile of papers with hand holding a help sign


Now back in America, I miss Austria greatly – the mountains, the slower pace of life, the people, the food, the countless outdoor opportunities, and yes, even these little cultural differences that actually grew on me over the years (I, too, now open the windows in the winter!). Although we are different, it is our differences that make the world interesting, and visiting another country opens up our eyes to our own culture, allowing us to learn more about ourselves and the world. Vielen Dank, Austria, for all you have given me. Bis bald!


Image Credit:


Happy Badger Day: What Could Have Been


For as long as I can remember, I, along with my fellow Americans, have anxiously awaited Punxsutawney Phil’s all-knowing weather prediction every February 2nd. Will we suffer through six more weeks of winter or is a beautiful spring finally on the horizon?

To be honest, I’ve never given much thought to where this tradition came from. I’ve simply accepted it as a quirky little holiday and gone about my business. Needless to say, I was a little surprised when I found out that it was German immigrants who brought this tradition to America. But, here’s the twist — the groundhog was not their first choice of weatherman.

A little background information: in Europe, February 2nd was known as Candlemas Day, a day that celebrated Mary’s purification forty days after the birth of Jesus. Candlemas had also been seen as an important day for weather, as this was the time that sun reached the mid-point between the solstice and the equinox. Due to certain superstitions, some Europeans believed that the weather six weeks from Candlemas Day would be the exact opposite of the current situation. So, if February 2nd was cloudy and the sun was nowhere to be seen, a beautiful spring was on the horizon, but if it was a sunny day with blue skies, there would be six more weeks of cold, cloudy winter:

“If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.” (

Where does the groundhog come in, you ask? Well, due to traditions passed on by the ancient Romans, certain animals were believed to have weather-predicting capabilities in various European countries. In Germany, this animal was a badger. From medieval times, people had believed that the animal awoke from his hibernation to make the weather prediction for the farmers. If the badger didn’t see his shadow when he came out, it was a good time to begin the planting, but if the badger did see his shadow, the cold would prevent farming for the next several weeks.

Moving on to 19th-century America… badgers apparently weren’t very common where the German immigrants lived in Pennsylvania. The groundhog, however, was quite popular, so the German settlers simply decided to assign the impressive weather powers of the badger to the local groundhog. Why not? As the groundhog was all the rage at the time, Groundhog Day took off, celebrated for the first time on February 2, 1887. The popularity of the groundhog is described below:

“In the 1880s … groundhog was the cuisine of choice at the Punxsutawney Elks Lodge. Devotees later formed the Groundhog Club, which hosted both the annual Groundhog Day ceremony and a summertime groundhog hunt followed by a picnic featuring a variety of groundhog dishes and a “groundhog punch” that sounds equally appetizing — a combination of vodka, milk, eggs, orange juice “and other ingredients[.]” (

So, leaving you with the recipe for groundhog punch, I wish you all a Happy Groundhog and a Happy Badger Day!





St. Nicholas Day in Austria: The Terrifying Krampus

As December 6th approaches, many American children happily await jolly Old St. Nick, leaving their shoes or stockings out in anticipation of the candy and gifts they will receive. It is a sort of pre-Christmas, a day filled with laughter and joy. In Austria, however, things are a little different.

In Austria, St. Nicholas does not come alone. Instead, he brings his shadowy companion, the Krampus, with him. What is Krampus, you may ask? A krampus is a horned, furry alpine monster, meant to punish or even take away children who have misbehaved (some carry a basket on their backs for this very purpose). He wears giant cow bells and carries a birch whip. When Austrian children are little, St. Nick and Krampus come to their house, reading the child’s good deeds and bad deeds from St. Nick’s all-knowing book. If a child, say, has hit his little brother, St. Nick will read this out loud, and the Krampus will flick his whip at the child threateningly. A little scarier than a lump of coal!


On December 5th, St. Nicholas Day Eve, there are hundreds of “Krampus parades” throughout the country. Multitudes of teenage boys, complete with their hideous horned masks, matted fur, cow bells and whips, roam the streets of cities, jumping, chasing and even hitting the strangely excited, sometimes terrified onlookers.  If you run away, they see it as an exciting challenge, racing after you with their bells jingling menacingly until they have successfully whipped one of your legs. Bruises are not uncommon. Neither is “girl-napping” – I once had a particularly short friend get picked up by a Krampus and thrown over its shoulder, only to be dropped off somewhere else in the (luckily small) city.

394130_745577624662_687374750_n               1917800_580505126272_114276_n

While it does sound terrifying, all in all it is meant in good fun. Police patrol the bigger cities, making sure things don’t get out of hand during the Krampus parades. If you go into the villages nestled far up in the mountains, however, you may be on your own…

Side note: Krampus is slowly becoming more and more known in American culture. Check it out:

Jimmy Fallon

Krampus Movie