School exchange to the USA. “Can you lend me your laptop for a few minutes? I just want to email my parents,” says a pupil visiting Los Angeles from Vienna. “What?” asks the son of the host family, “Have you got Internet in Austria too?” Indeed we have got Internet here in the alpine country of Austria — and have had since 1990. In many cases, clichés about countries are firmly imprinted on people’s minds. The name alone is often enough to conjure up specific images. Someone who comes to the “Alpine Republic” for a skiing holiday is likely to gain a very different impression of the country than city tourists in Vienna or Mozart fans in Salzburg. The Finnish word for Austria is “Itävalta”, which roughly translated means “eastern empire” or “eastern power”.
Because of the name, some Fins may be misled into assuming that Austria is an Eastern Bloc country and be surprised to discover how modern it actually is here — high time to change the stereotyped image of Austria!
Forget the Edelweiss
On the subject of things being modern, it is a popular cliché to depict Austria as a country of mountains. Admittedly, a large part of the country lies in the Alps. But contrary to the impression conveyed by the typical Heimatfilm, not all the country’s inhabitants live in idyllic mountainous surroundings. One of the world’s best-known portrayals of Austria is “The Sound of Music”. If you mention the film to an Austrian, you’re likely to get a puzzled response. The Sound of Music? Never seen it. In the USA, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone unfamiliar with the musical about the Trapp family. In this country, the film is generally only famous for its clichés about Austria. Very few Austrians have actually seen it. Tourists should therefore refrain from singing “Edelweiss” as a means of flaunting their knowledge of the country.
Anyone who bases his expectations of Austria on the musical is likely to be disappointed: Not all Austrians spend their time strolling across Alpine meadows wearing a Dirndl or Lederhosen and yodeling to their heart’s content. Hipster culture has long since caught on in Austria, particularly in urban regions. Instead of donning Lederhosen in the spring, modern-day Austrians are rolling up their trouser legs to their ankles. And yoga rather than hiking is all the rage with young people.
The joys of swimming amid a nation of skiers
Winter sports have a long tradition in Austria, and skiing is still a popular pastime. Around one third of the Austrian population heads for the slopes at least once a year. Needless to say, we are proud of our national skiers who regularly bring home gold medals in various disciplines. But that doesn’t mean to say that we only move around on skis — least of all in the east of the country, where even Austria is relatively flat. The bicycle is a more popular form of transport here.
There is also some confusion about the climate. In Ireland, for example, people planning a holiday in Austria are often presented with thermal underwear by friends and relatives concerned about the prospect of them freezing to death. These garments well be practical for a skiing holiday, but anyone visiting Vienna, where the average annual temperature is 10.5 degrees Celsius, is likely to break out in a sweat. It can get extremely hot in the summer. If you’re wondering where everybody disappears to in July, here’s the answer: The inhabitants of Vienna take off to the Donauinsel (Danube Island) for a barbecue and cool down in the Strandbad (natural swimming pool).
Fancy a Schnitzel?
No thanks, I’m vegan!
Austria’s culinary specialities are also popular with tourists. If the guidebooks are to be believed, the Viennese are among the world’s most enthusiastic bakers. The assortment of cakes and biscuits in the coffee house windows seems endless: There’s something for everyone with a sweet tooth — from Sachertorte to Kaiserschmarrn and Apple Strudel. In restaurants and wine bars, on the other hand, hearty savoury dishes are the order of the day: menus include anything from Wiener Schnitzel, to roast pork with dumplings, and bread and dripping.
However, not all Austrians are overweight thanks to the fact that the catering trade has long since reinvented itself, especially in urban areas. For many people, traditional fare is something they only get “at grandma’s”. The current trend is towards vegetarian and vegan restaurants, especially in the districts close to Vienna’s city centre. There is also a booming counter-trend towards American-style steak and burger restaurants. Vienna’s restaurant scene is very cosmopolitan, as evident from the Naschmarkt. For many years now, the traditional
“coffee houses” have been facing competition from small coffee shops and large chains.
A great place for music lovers
Composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn have made Austria a popular destination with music lovers. But when you’re out on the town in Vienna, it’s not classical music you’re likely to hear: Austria has some interesting modern-day musicians as well. The band “Bilderbuch” has now achieved fame beyond Austria’s borders, and the DJ Parov Stelar has gained international recognition for his electro swing music. The past is often romanticised in Austria — partially to promote tourism. Mozart, Sisi and the Lipizzan horses attract visitors from all over the world. Although this image is good for tourism, it also has a disadvantage: The country is only perceived as having limited potential as a business location. According to the location ranking list compiled by the Lausanne Business School (IMD) in 2016, Austria is rated a mediocre business location. It’s time the country’s image reflected the present.
Some well-known inventions and distinguished intellectuals have emanated from Austria in the past. Karl Landsteiner, for example, discovered blood groups, and Sigmund Freud revolutionised psychoanalysis. Even today, Austria continues to generate innovations. The physicist Anton Zeilinger is best known for his experiments in the field of quantum teleportation. He is one of Austria’s most distinguished scientists. His work on the fundamental principles of quantum physics was pioneering.
Four young men from the province of Upper Austria have made a name for themselves in the field of start-ups: their Runtastic app has conquered the world of sport in double-quick time. It was the sale of the app to Adidas for 220 million Euros that ultimately led to the running aid becoming a household name.
A collective sigh of relief
Politics also plays an important role in determining how Austria is perceived abroad. Here our image is marked by right-wing populism. In the year 2000, America’s “Time Magazine” pictured Jörg Haider and posed the question: “Should Europe Fear This Man?” Last year, the presidential candidate, Norbert Hofer, and Heinz-Christian Strache, chairman of the far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ), appeared on the front page with the caption: “The New Faces of the Right”. According to the magazine, Austria was on the brink of becoming the first Western European country to elect a right-wing extremist president since the Second World War. However, by electing Alexander Van der Bellen to the office of Federal President, Austria has broken with its previous image.