Those who believe that Vienna is not the best place to learn German are right. This is not only true because the Austrian variant of German is different from the German language itself, but also because Austrians make fun of Germans a lot and get offended if somebody calls them Germans.
The thing is that Vienna speaks all the languages so whenever you cannot find the right word in German you will still find a way to explain yourself somehow. The ability of “speaking all the languages” doesn’t come from the future which is with multiculturalism and globalization. Instead, it originates from the colonial past.
Because Vienna is still the capital. I don’t mean the banal fact from geography textbooks that Vienna is the capital of Austria. Because everyone who has been here at least once could have felt that this country is too small for such a magnificent capital. Austria is the country of many villages and beautiful little towns, so Vienna doesn’t fit into it at all. It is too spacious and luxurious for the country that seeks drowsy calmness and neutrality. Vienna is imperial, ambitious, insolent and pompous. This city is still the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
I’ve spent two spring months at the residency for writers in the very center of Vienna in the MuseumsQuartier. And I must admit that, once you immerse yourself deeper into this metropolis, you begin to notice how Vienna still attracts the inhabitants of the former provinces of the Habsburg Monarchy. There are a lot of representatives of other countries here, but first and foremost it is full of Hungarians, Czechs, Poles, Croats and Bosnians, Slovaks and Ukrainians, Romanians and Italians.
As a matter of fact, it was difficult for me to start speaking German because I came across the Slavs wherever I went. There was a particularly amusing situation where after I had rejected one of the products at the checkout counter in the supermarket, a Croat quietly cursed me out in his native language not knowing that I understood Croatian. Noteworthy is the fact that the majority of Ukrainians in Vienna are Ukrainian-speakers. They come from the former Crown lands of the empire. I’ve even met the Ukrainian emigrant from Kherson region who was Russian-speaking at home and started to speak Ukrainian in Vienna owing to the positive influence of the local diaspora.
However, the Austrian capital is not entirely exceptional in this context. As it turned out at the public lecture of a geopolitical practitioner, philosopher, and the former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Istanbul has to shoulder the similar imperial legacy. You can still hear voices of all the colonies the Ottoman Empire used to control in the Balkans. And as the former Prime Minister admitted, there are still more Georgians and Armenians living in Turkey than in Georgia and Armenia today. That’s not to mention the Kurds and the fact that the majority of researchers consider the data of the Turkish census of the population to be inaccurate and manipulative, if not to say false.
One has to pay for the imperial past for a very long time. The Poles have a wise proverb: “The straw sticks out of the shoes even in the third generation”. It seems impossible to become a true intellectual, for your peasant or proletarian origin will definitely come out. It is precisely the same as the colonial heritage: claustrophobic mood prevails among the Austrians today. They want to shut the world and migrants out, but they cannot. Because there are some migrants who vociferously claim the right to Vienna, their former capital. Walk through the streets of this city and you’ll agree with me because the former provinces of the empire are heard and seen at every turn here. One can recognize them in the language of passers-by and workers as well as in monuments and memorial plaques. For example, I came across the plaque of the most prominent Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik and Hungarian composer Béla Bartók on my way to the Ukrainian embassy in Vienna. They lived and worked here, this is also their city, their capital. Or, go to the train station and see that most trains go in the directions of the former Crown lands. Surely because the infrastructure was built at that time, and a network of rail connections remained the same since then.
So the main impression I made after my two-month stay in Vienna is quite paradoxical. Because Vienna is still the capital. But not the Austrian one. It is the capital of Austria-Hungary!