The "Refugee Crisis" And Choosing Love

Austria has been in the news a lot lately. There is no way I can write a new blog post without addressing the stories that have brought the word "Austria" to far more people's lips than could ever identify it on a map. 

It is a hard thing for me to talk about the "Refugee Crisis" in a forum like a blog, partly because I think these conversations are best held in-person, but mostly because I feel extremely under-informed on the topic as a whole. Yes, I have read countless news stories, I have seen the refugees with my own eyes, I have scrolled through people's opinions on either side of the issue. But have I immersed myself into the story, studying the issues from every side, examining the policy and politicians, weighing their claims, and interviewing the refugees themselves? No, although I would like to. 

Two of the many, many signs displaying public support for the refugees arriving in Europe. 

Two of the many, many signs displaying public support for the refugees arriving in Europe. 

There are three things in regards to this situation that I can confidently state however: 

1.) Vienna has traditionally stood on the boundary of East and West, an epicenter of world-changing history. It is this pivotal and influential positioning that made Vienna so crucial in WWII, in the Cold War, and now as a major UN and NGO hub. My Grandparents, living in Vienna in the late 60's, witnessed the Prague Spring of 1968, where Czech refugees poured over the borders into Austria. My father remembers his school, the American International School of Vienna, being temporarily shut down and repurposed to house refugees. My point is, this isn't a new story. It is the repetition of an old story, stories that have shaped nations and shifted perspectives. I, for one, am grateful that I get to see it firsthand and be a part of history in the making. 

2.) When you boil down all the arguments for or against the refugees, you end up with one of two things: fear or love. In the end, all of the decisions we make, the actions we take, the things we choose to believe, about anything, are born out of either fear or love.

Cots lined up ready to receive weary refugees in the Salzburg train station. 

Cots lined up ready to receive weary refugees in the Salzburg train station. 

Many are afraid of the impact such an influx of people will make on the economy, housing, infrastructure, culture, public safety, etc. These are understandable concerns, and not ones to be taken lightly. I don't know the answers to those concerns and I am certainly grateful I am not in charge of making those decisions. My prayers for wisdom are with those that are. But in the little I know, and the little I have seen firsthand, I am so proud to see my city overwhelmingly choose to love every refugee who comes our way instead of fearing them.

So many Viennese have volunteered their time that new volunteers have been turned away from the train stations and camps. So instead, those people go shopping, coming back with bags of clothes, toiletries, and other items the refugees need.

The day the borders opened I was on a train from Salzburg to Vienna. I disembarked the train onto a platform crowded with thousands of refugees - it took nearly 10 minutes just to inch off the platform. Standing on a low wall near the front were some young refugee men, holding signs saying, "Thank you Austria, with my whole heart, love Iran"..."love Syria". I was so proud to be able to shake that man's hand and welcome him, to let him know that we were glad he was here. 

Volunteers waiting with food and water in the Salzburg train station for the next wave of refugees to arrive. 

Volunteers waiting with food and water in the Salzburg train station for the next wave of refugees to arrive. 

3.) I am continually struck by the fact that 70-odd years ago Europe had their own mass exodus of refugees fleeing war. I was so touched to see Germany be the first to open their borders, the first to welcome those whose lives had been torn apart. The shadow and shame of WWII still hangs heavy over many, but oh! What beautiful redemption, that they can now open their arms to those in need.     

So, to conclude. If I have been given the gift of seeing history-in-the-making firsthand, how do I make sure I don't waste it? I have no idea. I am still trying to figure that out. But I do know that, no matter what, I am choosing to love. 

Medical aid workers prepping their work site. 

Medical aid workers prepping their work site. 

Austrian First World Problems

On the grand scale of world problems, Austria has relatively few. The land is fertile, the streets are safe, the public transportation abundant, the food affordable, and the tap water is not just drinkable, but also quite good. As many articles have taken the time to point out, Vienna is a great place to be, frequently ranked among the top ten "most livable" cities in the world. Austria may not be flowing with milk and honey, but it certainly is flowing with beer and mustard.  

That being said, living in Austria is not without it's dangers, frustrations, and first world problems. 

Pedestrians

1. Spatial awareness of pedestrians

Take a moment to imagine, I mean really envision, what it would be like to herd a large group of cats... 

... ... ... ...

...It's stunning how quickly it all falls apart. 

Some of them respond to you, a few moving momentarily in the proper direction before stopping abruptly and hissing at you when you step on their tail. Others run off in the opposite direction, moving directly across or diagonal to the flow of traffic. Those moving in a uniform direction will weave in and out like they are running a slalom, only to slow and stop, distracted or confused, just as they step off the escalator. A small enclave moving at a slower pace will stretch out in solidarity, shoulder to shoulder with their companions, a languorously moving wall. The few moving quickly with hackles up, duck, run, leap around the others, claws extended and chaos in their eyes. They leave a wake of the traumatized shivering and bruised behind them, checking their shoved purses for stolen wallets. 

Walking through the metro station is like herding cats. 

 

2. Unpredictable store hours

To find stores closed on Sundays is commonplace throughout Europe. What has surprised us however, is the unpredictability of store and restaurant hours in general. Phil Coffee house doesn't open until 5:00 PM during the week, while Delicious Monster (gourmet hamburgers - the new Viennese food trend) is only open for lunch between 11:30 and 2:00 pm. Curry Up restaurant, on the other hand, is open for dinner only on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday, although on Thursday they do offer lunch. 

Far more perplexing than the restaurants however is the non-chain stores. Each has a set of entirely bizarre hours, and seemingly never have customers. Who is going to buy a €300 avant-garde stool from a store the size of a closet that is only open between 11-3 pm on weekdays that contain the letter "u"?

Furthermore, if no one is ever in the store, let alone able to sort out when it is open, how do these stores stay in business? Are they all fronts for the mafia? How do they afford their rent?

We may never know. 

Restaurant

3. Telephone and Internet Providers

At this moment our internet and telephone services are functioning properly on a month to month basis - but that has not always been the case. Interacting with the telephone and internet service providers has been an exercise in misinformation given and hopeless mistakes made by very friendly and accommodating salespeople. They truly are unfailingly nice. But the amount of mistakes made during our brief period of interaction has been remarkable. Take, for example, our most recent experience in a growing list of "face-palm" moments. 

Our internet had expired for the month so we went to the internet store to purchase credit for the next month. Purchasing the credit is a simple process of providing the internet SIM card number and receiving a voucher code that re-enables the service. "No problem", the friendly salesperson told us, "I'll put the code in for you and by the time you get home your internet will be back on." How wonderful! Thank you so much kind salesperson. 

He walked away from his computer to print out our receipt and voucher code. During the moment he was gone another salesperson jumped onto his computer to do something. Our man returned, shoo'd the other salesperson away, and input the voucher code for us. 

When we returned home, we did not have internet. An hour later... still no internet. Beginning to think, Oh no, not again, I called the customer service hotline, and miraculously, the one person in the office who spoke English picked up the phone. "Hmm...", she said, "it says that the internet is working right now." I double check a internet browser. Nope, not working. "Ok, let me double check the SIM-card number - is 0699... correct?" 

No. 0699 is not correct. We don't have any 0699 numbers. 

Then it dawned on me. The salesperson who jumped onto our guy's computer must have pulled up another phone number for another customer. When our salesperson returned to input the voucher code, he must have entered it to the wrong phone number. We had just paid for a month of internet for someone else. 

Informing this to the friendly lady on the phone, she shared her empathy by dropping  F-bombs profusely. Apparently, she agreed that this was a ridiculous situation, and very kindly credited us enough to cover a month and a half of internet service. Success!

Now, we should be ok as long as we can avoid interaction with the salespeople. 


Chestnuts

4. Chestnut season

Marroni season is just beginning in Austria, when vendors will set up metal-drum style coal fires to sell freshly roasted chestnuts in paper cones. Chestnut trees also litter the city, the trees dropping their fruit from the husks in large, shiny nuts. Come chestnut season, beware walking these parks, and prepare to duck for cover when you hear the trees rattle. There is a reason these things are called "Conkers" in England - they can make for a nasty unexpected whack on the head.

Appalled by the prices of chestnuts in stores, Jacob and I collected a purse-full of nuts from the park for roasting at home. We were feeling quite smug about it. How smart were we to capitalize on the natural resources at hand? Plus, we had been informed that these types of chestnuts were called "Buckeyes" in the states, and perfectly safe to eat. 

That evening we prepared to roast our chestnuts for dessert. Jacob looked up directions online for roasting. 

"CAUTION: NOT ALL CHESTNUT VARIETIES ARE EDIBLE"

Hmm...it might be good to double check that. 

"Poisonous chestnuts come from husks that are less spiky".

Well, I don't really remember what the husks looked like.

"Poisonous chestnuts do not have the characteristic pointed tip of edible chestnuts"

Well, it was a bit of a stretch of the imagination, but was that a tip?

"Poisonous chestnuts come from trees that are planted in rows (such as in parks), unlike the solitary trees of edible chestnuts. 

Uh oh. 

"The reason you find so many on the ground is that even the animals won't eat them. Consumption leads to severe vomiting and occasional temporary paralysis."

The internet saved our lives! No more unattended foraging for us. 

European Shopping and Photographing Strangers

Wonderful as it is, adjustment to a European pace of living isn't without it's challenges. 

Recently Jacob and I realized that in it's current state, our apartment looked a bit like it was being inhabited by squatters (albeit squatters who own a bed and couch). Piles of papers and tools had begun to accumulate on every available surface, and re-appeared on said surfaces no matter how many times I attempted cleaning up. It was time for another Ikea run. 

The problem is that without a car (as much as we love car-free living), Ikea is a problem. We can take a train to a bus to a station walking distance of Ikea, but that does not mean we would be successful in carting a carpet, coat rack, and bookshelf back our apartment by the same means. Thankfully, a friend with a car came to the rescue, and we were so excited by the amount of trunk space available that we went positively crazy (by our frugal standards) at Ikea (we came home with four potted plants and a mini Ficus tree on top of everything else). 

Naschmarkt - the place to go if you want to purchase a overpriced tchotchke. 

Naschmarkt - the place to go if you want to purchase a overpriced tchotchke. 

Sundays require careful planning. Nearly all of the shops are closed, meaning that if you conveniently run out of food, or say, laundry detergent, that mountain of dirty laundry isn't going anywhere until the shops re-open on Monday morning. Welcome to a day of creative dressing and eating. What is there to eat in the house? Not much other than food coloring and mayonnaise.  

Our refrigerator (a convenience we were blessed to have accompany the apartment in the first place) is half size, roughly the capacity of a college dorm mini-fridge. It's ok, we justified to ourselves, in Europe it is normal to shop frequently - you buy food in smaller quantities. That may be true, but I still believe the small stature of our refrigerator would appall most food-loving Austrians. The only reason we have survived thus far is that Jacob and I never made a habit of packing our refrigerator full. Whereas many people I know could last a month in a zombie apocalypse, subsisting off the contents of their refrigerator alone, Jacob and I would last less than a week. 

Grocery shopping has become a game unlike any of our American shopping excursions. We have always been fairly strategic in our shopping methods, frequenting a couple of stores that we knew offered the best prices for produce, meat, etc. In Europe however, there isn't much that resembles a "one stop shop." Those establishments that do offer this oh-so-American convenience also offer a much higher price tag. In an effort to keep our expenses down, we currently visit over five stores on a regular basis, each for different items. Hofer offers staples and frequent sales. The Turkish Market (a good trek away) has the best produce and possibly the cheapest prices if you do an accurate price comparison between all the stalls. You will only be able to find your toiletries and household items at Bipa, so don't bother looking at a normal grocery store. Anything in the realm of "ethnic food" (ie: Soy sauce, curry paste, salsa, etc.) comes from Billa, whereas last minute purchases are sourced from the Spar Gourmet just on the corner. 

photo (3).JPG

We try and be savvy about the prices - where can we logically find this item for the cheapest price without first tag-checking in each store individually? It made sense that potted herbs could come from the Turkish market. We came home with Mint and Parsley happily in hand, only to have the plants die in less than 12 hours (I literally didn't have time to kill it. I am so confused), and find that Spar Gourmet sells potted herbs for less. One day I am sure, we will have the stores so well memorized that we will become price consultants on exactly where to find the cheapest food coloring and mayonnaise. 

This past weekend Jacob and I were waiting at the subway platform for our train Just as the train arrived I saw a young man inside hold up his camera, pointed straight at me, and snap a picture. 

Hmm. Well, I know how he feels, I take pictures of strangers all the time and hope they don't notice. For some reason however, I was feeling gutsy, and when we boarded the train, I approached the man and asked him in German, "was it a good picture?

He responded that he didn't speak German, which was good. Neither do I really - not yet at least. He showed me the picture and we got to talking - where he was from (Croatia), and what he was doing in Vienna (on assignment for the Vienna Fashion Shows). Oh really? Yes, he said, "I'm here working for Cosmopolitan Croatia". And he snapped a picture of me. I hope I wasn't making a weird face. He gave me his card and said if I emailed him he would send me the picture. As soon as I have it I promise I will share, no matter how silly the face I am making. 

A New Adventure

Hi, and welcome to Where You Wander! 

NimesCanal

For those of you who followed our blog back when Jacob and I were traveling, this site is the snazzy revamped version for our new adventure. What is that new adventure you ask?

Jacob and I are moving to Vienna, Austria!

As of August 6th, Jacob and I will be leaving California to continue our life adventure as we move to Vienna, Austria. Throughout our 6 months of travel in Europe we had "scouted" for a place we may want to settle down (for however long). Though we stayed in Vienna for the shortest time of any place we visited, the city instantly made an impression on both of us - one we haven't been able to shake in the two years since. 

State Opera in Vienna, Austria
Belvedere Palace Gardens in Vienna, Austria

The idea of moving to Vienna has loitered obstinately in the back of our minds, a leap of faith that I am both thrilled and terrified to make. If our past travels taught me anything however, it's that the risks that make me want to hide under a rock are the ones that are most worth taking. (Unless, of course, that risk is bungee jumping.)

Karlsplatz in Vienna, Austria

In the meantime, Where You Wander is our new cyber-home - a mix of all the things I love, and love to share: travel, food, and good stories. Bookmark this page, and check back regularly (daily!) for news, blog posts, travel tips, featured stories, and recipes. 

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I am looking forward to sharing our experiences and stories with you, and hope you will join us for what promises to be an incredible journey!