Arriving in Austria at first felt no different than landing in any airport in Canada—there was a coffee shop in the terminal and even a McCafé in the middle of the arrivals lobby. The ubiquitous German didn’t faze me; it was the language my mother used on the phone while talking to my grandparents, meaning it is the language that I am most accustomed to not understanding.
The most unusual sensation when walking around Vienna was the realization that I looked like everyone else. By that I don’t mean “white people”, though there was certainly a marked lack of visible minorities—I’m fairly sure there are proportionally more visible minorities in Tokyo than there are in Austria—but rather people with a similar facial structure to my own.
People of German, Austrian and Russian heritage weren’t exactly the most welcome immigrants to North America in the early 1950s, and the handful of second-gen kids I’d encountered in Canada looked nothing like me. Vienna, however, was a whole city full of strikingly familiar-looking faces. I was even able to tell that the German soccer fans weren’t locals. (My sister, on the other hand, looked more like people in Innsbruck—though she may disagree). My only problem was that I kept refusing to act like a tourist, and instead of admitting my inability with the language, I repeatedly pulled out my five phrases of German to be greeted by responses that I couldn’t understand at all.
Contextual German was fun, though. At the train stations, I would hear a voice over the loudspeaker pleasantly announce, “Achtung, Bahnsteig vier.” Growing up with Hollywood movies, I had never heard “achtung” said calmly. More often it was followed by “Schnell! Schnell!” and a reference to something troublesome being done by a Jones.
Maybe it was the energy right before the Austria-Germany soccer match, but the city of Vienna had a great vibe to it. It was history intermingled with modernity, cathedrals on the left with gelato on the right, palaces and opera houses a few paces from stands selling pizza, kebabs and hot dogs, elaborate graffiti only a stone’s throw from centuries-old beauty. I started to wonder if it would be possible to try to live here for a few years.
When I mentioned the thought to my great aunt and uncle, they gave me a German-English dictionary and told me to get cracking.
Throughout Austria, I saw a fair number of active people in wheelchairs. When you see a Japanese person in a wheelchair, he or she usually has a significant disability that requires someone else along for support, or they’re like my friend Yoshihiro, whose activity is limited because he has difficulty moving one side of his body. Most of the guys I saw in Austria looked like they were ready to wheel straight up a mountain. There were also quite a few people, particularly in Innsbruck, moving about quickly on forearm crutches.
In Innsbruck I finally understood why so many characters in 19th-century fiction were advised to “go abroad for the air”. The air in Innsbruck is clear, dry and crisp, and you get the sense that everyone in the city climbs a mountain at least once every week. Looking at the vista from the top of the Alps, it’s the kind of beauty that makes you want to start a religion.
Most people in Austria seem to be tanned and fit, and in Innsbruck in particular, I felt clean just walking on the streets. Going back to Tokyo humidity was like being hit in the face with a greasy rag.
The sense I got from all the historical exhibits at castles, cathedrals and palaces was that Austria was a sort of underdog superpower—an empire, but a tenuous one. The emperors built great palaces, but they had to bring all the furniture from one to another when they travelled, because they couldn’t afford two sets. They were always working assiduously just to maintain what they had, be it by war or by marriage.
The reigning monoculturalism was strange. Perhaps it’s common in Europe, but I would only occasionally spot someone from Africa, and even more rarely see someone from Asia who wasn’t part of a tour group (the big groups of tourists were mostly Chinese and Korean; the Japanese tourists seemed to prefer keeping in pairs). Austria does have a large Muslim minority, however, mainly from Turkey and Bosnia.
Before the Second World War, the city of Vienna was also home to some 200,000 Jews—10% of the population. The number nationally is now 8,100. 65,000 were killed in the Holocaust. There's a Holocost Memorial in Vienna listing the sites of the camps in which they died. It’s seldom mentioned, but 40% of the staff at Nazi death camps were Austrians.
It's hard to think about the past sometimes. But for some things, it's also unavoidable.