Tuesday, July 29, 2014

In defense of the Austrian village

Though my time as an English teaching assistant has come to an end after two years, city choice is still a topic that I see come up quite often with new teaching assistants. Most people coming to Austria want to live in the bigger cities like Vienna or Salzburg or Innsbruck; I don't blame them. I felt the same way when I first got that email that I had been accepted as a TA in Austria. I was so excited; it was my third attempt to go to Austria. Then I saw where I was to be located. Some obscure place called Bischofshofen that I had never heard of. I looked it up and saw that only 10,000 people lived there. Only 10,000 people! Super small by American standards. But I learned, that is not too small by Austrian standards.

For the past two years, I have lived in smaller town or villages. As mentioned previously, the first was Bischofshofen, about 10,000 people.. This past year, I lived in St. Pölten, the capital of Lower Austria. The population of St. Pölten is about 50,000. It is the 9th biggest city in Austria. One thing I tell new TAs to Austria, especially if they are placed in a smaller town or village, is that they need to rethink their definition of what small is. As one teacher said to me last year, "Austria is a bunch of villages and then Vienna." A very true description. Even the next biggest city after Vienna, Graz, is not that big in comparison to many American cities.

I want to defend all the smaller cities and villages in Austria. They have as just much to offer, if not more to the TAs that are placed there. I try really hard to show new TAs all the benefits of small town life and encourage them to live where their schools are located rather than the nearest big city. I'm not saying that I haven't experienced disappointment or loneliness or any other negative feelings in these two places, but overall, I am grateful for the experiences I have had.

The biggest thing that I have noticed is that people in villages tend to be much, much friendlier. Last year, in Bischofshofen, I was shocked that people would say hello to me on the street. I always thought that Europeans didn't smile and say hello to each other. Definitely not in small towns! This doesn't happen so much in St. Pölten, since it's a lot bigger, but in Bischofshofen, it happened all the time. I think some of the townsfolk even started to recognize me and one time, a man said hello to me when we were on opposite sides of the street. It's a nice feeling knowing that people recognize you!

I've been able to get to know the locals in my little towns. I’m sure you can do this in Vienna, but living in a smaller community puts you in closer contact with Austrians, and it prevents TAs from hanging out with only Americans. The tricky part is meeting an Austrian. But once you meet one, it can be a life-long friendship, and they will introduce you to all of their (Austrian) friends. They can expose you to Austrian culture and can explain things that are not in the dictionary or guidebook. When I went to the Christmas market in St. Pölten, I saw that there was a kind of food called "Feuerfleck." I never would have been able to guess what this was, but luckily, an Austrian friend explained it to me. By the way, it's local to the St. Pölten area and consists of flat bread served with a dip of sour cream mixed with chives.

Living in a smaller town allows you the opportunity to better know Austria and to really see authentic Austrian culture. I've had the chance to experience things in Austria that I probably wouldn't see in Vienna--from a Krampuslauf to authentic Heurigers, Again, not that "authentic" experiences don't exist in Vienna, but it's different when you are the only American at a Krampuslauf. Then you know it's not just a show for tourists, but something that the locals do for themselves. Recently, I was in another town in Lower Austria, Krems, and I got to see the local Trachten or traditional costumes of that region plus eat an amazing dish of Gulasch at a restaurant that I never would have found on my own. Though I have to recommend that Gulasch is definitely best eaten when it's cold outside. Not when it's hot!

It can be considerably cheaper! I have had very nice apartments that were much, much cheaper than anything in Salzburg or Vienna. My landlords in both Bischofshofen have been super nice. From making me a cake to allowing me to live at their property on short notice, I have appreciated how kind and helpful they have been.
And finally, Vienna is a beautiful city, no doubt, but when I think about Austria, I will always remember the mountains surrounding Bischofshofen and the terraced vineyards in Lower Austria. The landscape is so beautiful in Austria that it sometimes is like living in a fairytale. 

I highly encourage any new TAs in Austria to live where your schools are located, even if it is in a smaller town. You won't regret it!

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