The Hills are Alive…

A change of scene from Vienna…

I recently made a very shocking discovery. Nobody (and I really mean nobody) from Austria has seen ‘The Sound of Music’; when you mention it, they are either perplexed or they roll their eyes. Before coming to Vienna for my year abroad, quite literally the only impression I had to go on of this relatively small country was the film that no one living here even knows the vague storyline of. I can’t offer any particularly good reasons for this, but perhaps the fact that it’s in English and incorporates themes touching on Austria’s slightly dubious twentieth century history will have to do for now.

The reason I find it so shocking, however, that nobody has seen Julie Andrews’ finest work is because of something that happened to me this weekend. As you may or may not know, I work in a Children’s Theatre. The children (under our supervision) put on plays and generally sing and dance and act and have a jolly good hurrah together. It’s relatively SoM-centric.

My boss is very keen on instilling old-fashioned values into these children and for this reason we travelled to a small village in Steiermark (one of Austria’s federal states) where a free performance was given to the villagers and the children from the theatre got to spend the weekend in the countryside, something much appreciated by these Viennese city kids.

They stayed in a farmhouse up in the hills, surrounded by cows and fields; the house didn’t even have a fridge and there was a loo outside that everybody found rather amusing because two people are able to tinkle simultaneously. Oh, Austria!

What I found most exciting, however, was how everybody was kitted out in the Austrian national dress; Dirndls (the milkmaid-esque dress and blouse combination) and Lederhosen. Quite literally everybody seemed to own one or the other, and it definitely fulfilled my ‘Sound of Music’ fantasies to see people in a rural environment prancing around in them. Just picture the dresses and dungarees that Maria makes out of the ugly curtains and you will have an almost spot-on image of what we were up to.

All of this got me thinking about differences between Austrian and UK dress codes. I’m not particularly into fashion, but there have been a few contrasts between how people dress here and in Britain, as well as the varying significance we assign to appearances that stand out even to me. I was so excited to discover that the aforementioned outfits are actually nothing out of the ordinary. On Feiertags (bank holidays), and especially when Oktoberfest gets going, the Viennese like to gad about town in national dress. I am sort of sad we don’t do this, but then I’m not exactly sure what British national dress would be… perhaps tweed in some form.

Delving slightly deeper into this appearance theme, I have begun to notice the skin-deep differences between the British and the Austrian/German/Germanophonic (for want of a better term) approaches to clothing. For example, women here wear next to no makeup. It is positively envy-inducing because as a result the natural-but-chic look is a common occurrence. In addition, practicality vs. trendiness, for example, has a very different result over here. I recently had the joyous experience of searching for a winter coat and first move was to go to H&M and pick out a nice, bright, flimsy jacket that wouldn’t look out of place in Durham. It was lovely but then I remembered how cold it supposedly gets in a country so far inland, and opted for what I can only describe as a sleeping bag that you can walk around in. I showed my dad on Skype and he supportively commented, “Well… it doesn’t look very English.” However, since it can apparently plummet to -20°C at the height of winter, I think I made a wise choice, although this one might not be making an appearance back at home.

On a slightly less superficial note, another HUGE difference I noticed (and this is one that I do think the Austrians have got right) is how clothing doesn’t serve the additional purpose of revealing one’s place in society. From affluent city dwellers to the modest country children we met recently, they all own dirndls and the like, and furthermore can’t be that easily distinguished by their everyday-wear. We all know about the discussed-to-death various personas found on the streets of Britain, and how whether you wear Uggs or trainers, a gilet or a sportsjacket, backcombed or gelled hair says a lot about where you come from and, sadly, where you might be headed.

One thing here that struck me immediately is how, even when distinguishing between immigrants and natives, clothing is one factor that reveals almost nothing. You might think this is because I haven’t been brought up in an Austrian household and am therefore not conditioned to notice such finer details, but when I questioned my Austrian friends about this they all agreed with me. There is virtually no difference in attire between students and young people who work or even those from less affluent families. It seems that fashion plays a much smaller role in grouping people into cultural stereotypes, which sort of makes a pleasant change. Going on conversations I’ve had here, we’re as famous for the division in our society as the Austrians are for singing nuns and Nazis in a pastoral mountain setting, with the only difference being the fact that we’re more painfully aware of our image. This will hopefully change when I whip out “The Sound of Music” and get everybody hooked on having noodles with their schnitzel.

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