Cultural Incidents: “Mahlzeit”

Flight delays, lost luggage, 36+ hours awake, and becoming sick—needless to say, my travel to Vienna was not the most glamorous transatlantic journey! However, my excitement and gratitude helped me endure these physically exhausting challenges with a positive mental state.

Upon arriving, I attended a staff meeting at the Zentrum Johannes Paul II (ZJP2); for many of the paid staff and volunteers, this meeting marked the first occasion in several months where all came together for a catch-up and a briefing of organizational matters. Already from my first impression of ZJP2 and its staff, I felt a sense of peace and purpose. The center has a young and exciting atmosphere, with many of the staff in their late twenties, who are tremendously welcoming, fun, and enthusiastic. Already, I know that this summer will develop me not only professionally and linguistically (with my German), but also spiritually. I have this intuition and deep knowledge that „big things“ will occur during my summer here—and already as I write this, numerous unexpected blessings, professional connections, and friendships have arisen.

Despite my turbulent arrival and falling ill, each day brought more familiarity and orientation to Vienna. In a way, the initial few days of exhaustion, sickness, and challenge shortened my “adjustment period” and presented a personal challenge to intentionally set the tone of how I would react to difficulty during these next two months.

However, on the cultural front, the most unexpected „Auseinandersetzung“ (something to reckon with) was my cultural knowledge of Germany and applying this knowledge to Austria, specifically in Vienna. Most of my prior experience and knowledge has stemmed from my time in Germany, both as a military kid growing up in Stuttgart and during my SLA last summer in Radolfzell.

For instance, I wrongly assumed that most, if not all, of the stores would be the same as in Germany—Kaufland, Lidl, DM, Aldi, Rewe, etc. This false expectation led me wandering around Vienna while sick to find a variety of necessities—like cold medicine—all offered at different stores at different times. Now looking back, it’s somewhat amusing, but in the moment, it was rather defeating and exhausting. But all the more was the triumph to simply find Ibuprofen, groceries, and clothes hangers!

Similarly disproving my expectations—several words or slang differ between Germans and Austrians, and the use of the “German” words immediately will mark you as a foreigner, often with a bit of disdain from locals. For instance, here just a few of the Austrian words I quickly picked up and substituted:

Bag: “die Tüte” → “ein Sackerl”
Bread: “Brötchen → Semmel”
Stairs/Staircase: “Treppe” → “Stiege”
Streetcar: “Straßenbahn” → “Bim”
Tomato: “die Tomate” → “der Paradeiser”

….And so on!

To illustrate the often overlooked and often comical differences between Austrians and Germans, I’ll offer a short story from my first day at the staff meeting. Some food (bread) was passed around, during which I told a fellow coworker “Guten Appetit,” the custom German phrase to wish someone a good meal. Up to this point, my coworker and I were happily chatting, but then the coworker’s expression immediately turned serious and he made a point of correcting me with “Mahlzeit,” the alternative Austrian phrase. Just as quickly, we returned to our joking and lighthearted conversation.

This small encounter encapsulates a bit of the friendly or not-so-friendly (depends on the Austrian you ask) tension between Austrians and Germans: although the standard language is the same, the cultures nevertheless significantly differ, which presents an adventure for me to learn and navigate. Nevertheless, after about a week or two of picking up these phrases and becoming more familiar with Vienna, I’ve been able to pass by as a local: the rewarding experience of simply blending in. With each day, I have felt increasingly “at home” in Vienna and at ZJP2, especially due to the Zentrum’s warm welcome to me.

These little everyday triumphs—navigating the city, interactions with locals, tackling unforeseen challenges—can be glossed over as familiarity and routine develop. However, it is still rewarding for me to note these “little triumphs” when they arise and reflect upon my growth in the past couple weeks, not taking my adjustment for granted.