Sunday, April 21, 2013

Always learning: Austria edition, part 1!

Do you ever have one of those moments where you learn a new thing, and immediately realize "Duh, that was obvious... Everyone else probably already knew that... lol"

If you find experiences as entertaining as I do, then I recommend learning new languages and visiting new countries!  And if you read the title of this post, you're probably thinking "Well, Austria isn't that exotic..." -- which is what makes it all the more amusingly ridiculous to discover my own misconceptions!

Here's an example:  Before I moved to a German-speaking region (five years ago), I didn't know what "schnitzel" is.  I'd heard of "wiener schnitzel" and I knew that "schnitzel with noodles" was one of the von Trapp children's favorite things.  Now, everybody knows that wieners are, like, hot dogs. So, if I thought about it at all, I guess I assumed that schnitzel was a dish somehow involving wieners and pasta.

(Note: It was only maybe fifteen years ago that I learned what "pesto" is, same for "wasabi" -- and Germanic cuisine is simply not as popular as Italian or Japanese.  My dad likes to tell tales of his first encounters with that crazy new foreign dish called pizza.)

Imagine my surprise when I learned (a few years ago) that schnitzel is, in fact, a thin slab of meat, generally served breaded!  Then one day, in a German class, the teacher asked the students to give an example of a dish that is typically German.  One student piped up with "Wiener schnitzel."  This response surprised the teacher, and she explained that wiener schnitzel is typically Austrian, hence the name.

"Wiener" = from Wien, where Wien is the German name for Vienna (that is, it's what the people in Vienna call their city).  This was a duh! moment for me because I'd always known that hamburgers and frankfurters were named after Hamburg and Frankfurt respectively, and I even knew about "Berliners" (thanks to a famous JFK speech).  But I somehow had never made the connection that "wiener" isn't just a random word for sausages, it means "from Vienna."  This is probably mostly because I had no idea it was called "Wien" until I recently started learning German.  (I like "Vienna" better anyway -- sounds more elegant, don't you think?)

And I learned a bunch of other silly stuff during my recent visit to Austria, which I will tell you about in upcoming posts! :D

Back when I was still living in France, I came up with this theory:

learning a new culture tends to merely increase your mental "us" category, but doesn't stop you from stereotyping other other groups. It helps, but learning a new culture doesn't automatically confer some sort of blanket enlightenment.

And now that I'm learning another other culture, I realize how right I was.  By learning to be French, I kind of thought I was learning Europe in general, and I was right to some degree.  But it's also true that I was learning the culture and history and tradition and trends and attitudes of the francophone world -- and learning German has been like opening a window on a whole additional, unfamiliar world; making it no longer foreign to me.

In Austria, we had one dinner one night with my husband's German colleague (the person we were there to see), and we got to talking about how in both Switzerland and Austria the locals are perhaps even more hostile to immigration from Germany than they are towards non-German-speaking immigration, for fear of cultural imperialism (or something) from their big, powerful neighbor to the North.  (See here, for example.)  The colleague explained that, since Germany is so much more populous than Switzerland and Austria, naturally, as people move around, there will be a lot higher proportion of Germans in Switzerland and Austria than there will be Austrians and Swiss in Germany.  (If you assume that, say, 1/3 of the residents of each German-speaking city came from some other randomly-chosen German-speaking city, the Hamburgers will perhaps hardly notice the presence of so many Frankfurters, whereas the Wieners are sure to notice that so many of these new residents are not Austrian.)

He's right, yet I found his assumption quite interesting -- that among the major German-speaking cities/regions of Europe, there's obviously going to be a lot of mobility, and that moving across a national boundary is ordinary, whereas crossing a language boundary isn't.  I totally agree -- not just from having done it myself, twice, but also from hearing from French-speaking Swiss people who have moved to this side of the Röstigraben.

(Next up:  tales of my trip to Austria!  Stay tuned!)

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