One of the most daunting things we were warned about in going on a Year Abroad was Culture Shock. As one professor so encouragingly phrased it in our introductory talk on studying and working away from Durham, “The first two weeks will be hell.” This sentence struck fear into the heart of every Modern Languages student and ensured that we all went through at least one (sometimes per day) panic attack regarding the Big Move from the Bubble. Breaking down in the supermarket when I couldn’t find a satisfactory Austrian brand of milk, banging my head against the surprisingly clean wall of a tube carriage as I struggled with a completely new transport system, curling up in the foetal position and shivering in the middle of the street when it became apparent that I was no longer in the UK… these were the images that plagued my dreams for the months before going abroad. What we never realised, however, is that Culture Shock doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.
I moved to Vienna, Austria, just over one month ago. The first week was hell, not because of the shock of a new lifestyle, but because the average temperature was 1000+ degrees Celsius and I am only accustomed to room temperature at the best of times before I break into a sweat/get burnt. This was actually one of the best things that could have happened, because as I ran around the city like a headless chicken trying to sort out a bank account, mobile phone and, worst of all, somewhere to live, my poor German skills and ignorance about how things are done here were overshadowed, nay, paled in comparison to the suffering induced by the ridiculous heat.
There were, however, some things to get used to after those initial hellish seven days, as every Year Abroad-er will have experienced. These things have proved at some time or another exasperating, bewildering, exhilarating and, more often than not, interesting. For example, the lack of routine ‘small talk’ in Austria is more than a little exasperating; feigning polite interest in someone else’s business is regarded as fake amongst many here, yet I still can’t begin a conversation without asking how someone is. On the other hand, forgetting to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ also doesn’t make people think you’re rude and, moreover, over-apologising (as we British apparently do) has made me seem more thoughtful than I probably am. Even so, these petty conventions barely scrape the surface of Culture Shock. I could talk about the differences between a Kaiserkräne and cheesy chips, or Newkie Brown versus Gösser, but these minor details may bore those not enthralled with Viennese life, as I myself have become.
Living in a country where you are regarded as a foreigner is very, very different to life in Durham, where you can barely step outside of your front door before seeing someone you know. Durham is a place of comfort, routine and familiarity; where you have to try quite hard to get lost and can wander around in your pyjamas because it really does feel like one big home.
Vienna, where I am doing a work placement at a Children’s Theatre, is not exactly like Durham. It has been roughly five weeks and only yesterday did I have the pleasure of bumping into someone completely at random. I was sitting waiting for the tube, when across the tracks I saw a child who I’d been working with at the theatre. I was so flabbergasted that somehow, in this vast metropolis (I exaggerate, Vienna has less than a third of London’s population, although it does feel like a metropolis in comparison with Duz) probability had allowed me the coincidence of a familiar face. I waved and smiled, he, being a ten-year old Austrian with a lust for the stage, moon-walked down the platform and then hid behind a pillar. It hasn’t happened to me since, and I don’t really expect it to again, especially not like that.
The nice thing about Vienna is that you can wander around the city for hours and it doesn’t feel like you’re lost, because everything is so beautiful. The Main University’s building, for example, looks like the palace at the end of Beauty and the Beast; I don’t think I can go back to Elvet Riverside after this.
That said, although it is easy to make friends because English-speakers wanting to broaden their linguistic horizons are all too often (and in my opinion, unjustly) regarded as a novelty, mainland Europe is not the most hospitable environment for building up a close group of friends who enjoy undertaking group activities wherever possible. I have had my fun and made some friends, but in a city where the university does not offer societies and sometimes people seem a little too chic to get up to the kind of fun we’re used to in Durham (midday spooning and Sporcle, anyone?), life can get a little lonely. Before I came here I couldn’t wait for the freedom of living abroad, getting to know new people and maybe even buying a beret to match my new European identity (I know berets are French but this is irrelevant). In my first few weeks I sadly felt the absence of halls, a house with my friends, a college bar where I knew that, no matter what time of day, I could turn up and see someone I knew. Making friends abroad takes time, patience, and luck. Many of my new friends are people I met at random and most of them don’t know each other. But that is what this year is for; meeting people, seeing things, new experiences and, most importantly, realising that there is life beyond university that may be more worthwhile.
I will definitely miss Durham’s insularity this year, but a little independence is better than the “hell” we were promised.