Austria is not a country known for churning out heaps of funky, jazzy, souley type of musicians and one of its nine provinces names Salzburg with the province capital with the same name possibly even less so.
As it happens, this is were I was born…When I was a little whipper snapper I slowly started to understand that this town was known for it classical music heritage and apparently world famous classical music festivals – birthplace of the infamous Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (who really knew how to write a good tune or two:-) and Herbert von Karajan, a conductor with some international notoriety.
Also, this town is very well known for the Hollywood classic ‘The Sound Of Music’ of which many peers of my generation had little knowledge, other than heaps of tourists cuing up at a stall with the same name on one of the town squares to be carted around the ‘Sound of Music’ sights in a sing-along bus. I personally saw the film for the first time in the US in my mid-twenties, quiet an education to see how the world outside looks into this place. I guess I preferred watching concerts of Weather Report with Austrian Joe Zawinul on keys.
The town of Salzburg has a church or imposing building on what seems every street corner; towering over the town is a massive castle and its history is steeped in the catholic church, its bishops and being a wealthy spot as it is in the middle of a fruitful valley and it historic trade in salt, which is reflected in the name ‘Salzach’ (i.e.’river of salt’), the river that runs through town, dividing it into the old and new town. The countryside around the town of Salzburg is near picture book perfect and attracts heaps of tourists to this region packed with historical and natural sights every year.
Altogether a spectacular place and a wealthy place…this is the beauty part of my story.
The other part of this story is one particular fact that annoys me more than anything else’s in this town – and this fact applies to other pockets of Austria as a whole but the town of Salzburg in particular – its inherent snobbery!
Walking into into a shoe store in the middle of town to get trainers, into a newspaper stand to get a stamp or even sitting down at a ‘Heuriger’ to have a glass of wine, the condescending attitude of the people is beyond belief. Continental Europe is known for their love for ‘etiquette’, all the codes on how to dress and behave and converse… hundreds of years of the Habsburg Empire and its rulers has left this strong strand of etiquette and formal behavior inside the cultural fabric of the Austrians. And you will notice this very simply as people really stare and check you out – what you wear and how you speak, etc. You get the impression that you are judged at all times…not a relaxing environment.
Trying to buy said trainers it was only with great reluctance that the shoe lady grabbed the right sizes, made an underhand remark that my sneakers were not quiet up to standard, that their wares where more upmarket and was slightly put out by the fact that I was not just after a bargain that lured me into the place in first place. She looked at me and made a judgement call that I surely could not afford a descent trainer beyond their sales item anyway. Well, I agree I do not run around in designer clothes and have the latest and most expensive brand labels stuck to my shoes, trousers, shirts, etc. but this is hardly the point. Making a judgement call on people’s buying powers and intent purely on their clothes is just dumb.
Furthermore, I walked in their to give her business, i.e. pay for her to have a job to sell shoes… this simple fact did simply not compute… needless to say I did not buy anything as I can’t stand for this type of rudeness. Sadly, this was not a singular incident at the shoe store as I recalled the same thing happen a few years before with another shoe seller (clearly this was the last time for me as I like to give establishments and their personal the benefit of the doubt).
Moving on to try to get stamp for a postcard to the US in a newsstand. I was felt like it was an audacity to ask for it. I was greeted with the reply (after asking if they please, if they could be so absolutely generous and good willing to perhaps look if they might have a stamp for me): ‘Maybe, I would have to have a look for it’? Wow, this was interesting. Maybe I should have kneeled down and begged to get a stamp worth €1.70. The condescending behavior was ridiculous. It felt like a feudal peasant in the middle ages and the henchmen of the local count have just come to let me know that they will take my first born, enslave my wife, kill everybody else and burn down my fields. Ok, slight exaggeration there, I agree, but hopefully you get my point.
Finally, for the piece of resistance on the same day, I went to a ‘Heuriger’ a wine local in the middle of town to have a simple glass of Austrian wine (which tends to be delicious admittedly) chill out and debrief the day. It was a little late so I felt a big peckish. I sat down at a table and as I saw no food menu I got up and grabbed a mini chalk board from a bar table made from an old beer barrel.
When the patron of this wonderful establishment came to my table to, what I thought, was take my wine order, she greeted me with a rather brusk ‘Where did you take this menu from’ to which I sheepishly replied ‘From over there on the beer table as I was hoping I might able to order some food’. Well, this did not go down well. She, in no uncertain terms reprimanded me that no-one is allowed to move menus from table to table and either way their kitchen was closed now’. Whoa!
It was not so much what she said but how she said it. I have not felt that told off by anyone in a long time. It completely took me by surprise and all I could muster was ‘It is OK, no worries’ to which a provocative reaction alluded to the fact that of course it is ok as this was, after all, her establishment which she clearly wanted to rule supremely.
There I was back at primary school and my school teacher telling me off for having played a prank on someone or not having practiced my dreadful recorder…(I guess the recorder itself was not dreadful, rather it was me making dreadful sounds with it based on my lack of love for the sound it can produce even in the hands of a master:)
Just to clarify, I don’t think I’m a rude person and I think it is fair to say that generally I can blend with anyone well and also have the ability to diffuse tension. And also for the benefit of the doubt, maybe these three ladies had a particular hard and hot day that day and it is all a coincidence. Sadly, I must add, this behavior reminds me of the my childhood and many more incidences like this in the town of Salzburg. This intrinsic behavior of ‘being a better person’ or a person of ‘higher standing’ than the unassuming tourist (like myself) now is ridiculous, uninviting, arrogant and generally completely unnecessary. This creates an uneasy atmosphere and a strong and inflexible sense of order and rules over basic humanity and natural relationships. There is not attempt in making you feel welcome…funny for a place that prides itself for its ‘Gastfreundschaft’, i.e. being friendly to its guests.
For this matter I for one will avoid interactions with the town of Salzburg as much as I can. I rather spend time in the county of Salzburg, packed with rich farmers, who are very confident in knowing who they are, rather than the chattering townsfolk who want to present themselves with an air that is betraying their social and financial reality. Pretense as a life style choice must be rather exhausting!
For sure, I will keep on running around and meet people, one by one, and make my judgement on an individual basis. However, I have not been to a single place on this planet where I had to encounter that many arrogant and unpleasant people driven by snobbery as in the old town of Salzburg. I guess this behavior pattern keeps on being repeated and recycled and it must be very hard for locals to break out of it with all best intentions. We are after all a product of our environment and generally adapt so brilliantly. Shame this model for adaption has such a bitter flavor to me, unlike my beloved Austrian ‘Appfelstrudel’:-)