It is now going on twelve years that I have been living in Austria (mainly in Vienna, but during the summer months, in the Alps) and have to say that this country never ceases to amaze me. A friend/colleague (with Austrian roots) from southern California is here now and last Sunday we went to some Serbian friends of mine for a late-lunch. We left around 3:15 in the afternoon and took the UBahn (underground) out to my friends’ place.
Our car in the UBahn was relatively empty and I had with me my Rucksack (small backpack) in which I had stashed a good bottle of Scotch for my friends. Because the Rücksack was a touch heavy with the bottle of Scotch, I took it off and laid it on the empty place next to me. When the UBahn came to our stop, I departed the UBahn minus backpack!
Horror. Not so much the €60 or so that was in my wallet, not even the superb bottle of Scotch, but the fact that all of my important cards were in my wallet. Austrian driver’s license, US debit card, Austrian VISA card, auto club card, year-round pass to all public transportation in Vienna, Austrian bank cards, etc. (have now learned my lesson about carrying non-essential cards).
It took all of two minutes to realize my error. Explaining what had happened on arrival at my friends place, all present launched into action. A phone call was made to Wienerlinien (the public transportation system) and we were directed to go at once to the end station in the direction we were travelling.
I waited in the car while my friend went in and spoke with a man who said that nothing had thus far been turned in. He told us that he would contact the person at the station on the other end to see if something turns up there and gave us another number of another station that we should check. He told us that we should wait so as to give time for the train to reach the station at the other end. After half-an-hour of waiting in the car, my friend went back in and was told that nothing had turned up at the other end station and that we should give the other number a try.
While in the car, I realized that the only immediate danger was the Austrian VISA card. Fortunately I carry my cell phone and house keys separately, and so I located the VISA call number and proceeded to phone them. Not able to get beyond recorded messages.
We returned back to the friend’s apartment with me feeling rather despondent, knowing that it would be hard to enjoy what had promised to be a wonderful evening with great food and Serbian quince schnapps. I was already figuring that I would have to wait until the central lost and found office opened Monday morning at 8 a.m.
I returned once again to trying to reach Austrian VISA, to no avail and then proceeded to phone a friend of mine who works at Bank Austria (as VISA and other credit cards are all attached to Austrian bank accounts). My Austrian friend gave me the 24/7 Bank Austria emergency number, when suddenly the old phone that I had loaned to my California friend rang.
It was the police in Auhof (outer district of Vienna) to say that they had just received a backpack found on the UBahn. So off we went again, now to the police station in Auhof. Once I had identified myself (with my dog’s name “Benny” which was inscribed on his muzzle), the backpack was turned over to me and I searched its contents to gleefully discover that all – including bottle of Scotch and cash – was intact!
I asked the police if they had the name and contact information of the person who delivered the backpack and they handed me a slip of paper with the name “Stephan” and a phone number. Stephan it turns out is a sixteen-year old Austrian boy who declined my offer to meet to give him something in thanks (though I will phone him back and insist).
So, then, to recapitulate some key points, which somehow sum up much of my Austrian experience, going on twelve years.
Austrian and Serbian friends gathered at my friends’ place immediately took matters into their own hands without my even asking, realizing at once my shocked state. I was told to just sit down and sit back and a small glass of Serbian quince Schnapps was immediately placed before me with the admonition to “drink”.
Once the course of action was identified, my Serbian friend rushed me to the car and when we reached our destination asked that I stay in the car and that he would take care of everything. He did all that could be done before we returned back to his apartment. Once the police phoned and the location of the backpack was ascertained, he zipped me off again to retrieve it.
Everyone gladly waited for the situation to be resolved as far as possible before sitting down to eat. Everyone was relaxed, super helpful and everyone took part first in my feelings of being upset and then in being elated over the finding of the backpack. When all was finally resolved, everyone was in a mood to celebrate. It was understood that we were celebrating being in Austria!
Not only did a young Austrian take the time to pick up a lone backpack in the underground car; he made the added effort to locate the local police station and hand deliver the backpack.
The police then took the time to go through a lot of stuff in the backpack to find a phone number, albeit an outdated one; and then, they went so far as to phone me to inform me that they had my backpack.
It is truly extraordinary that all of the above happened within the space of 1 ½ hour. A lost backpack in a major city containing some value, returned intact within an exceedingly short space of time.
But this was actually not an isolated experience of mine in Vienna/Austria. A few years ago, a friend from Los Angeles was visiting and dropped her wallet in a tram. The next morning, her wallet, absent only the money was waiting for her at the central lost and found.
I have had many similar experiences in Austria. Two weeks ago, a friend of mine and I were leaving our table at an Italian restaurant in Klosterneuburg (a beautiful town along the Danube twenty-five minutes from Vienna). I left my iPad on the seat where I had been sitting and as we were walking away, the woman who was sitting next to where I sat, called out to ask us whether the iPad sitting there belonged to us.
Many times, I have left objects behind on buses, trams, etc. only to have people rushing to the door with the item in hand and calling out to me. I have noticed a missing glove more than once while walking on the street, retraced my steps and always discovered that someone had carefully placed the lost glove on a ledge or some place where it would be easily noticed.
Related to the above are countless other instances where something happens on the street or somewhere in public, where you trip and fall down or something else unexpected happens. But in Austria, of one thing you can be certain. Whatever happens, within seconds there will always be someone, and more often than not, several people there who come to the rescue. To help you up, to ask if they should phone someone for help or whatever they think may be required.
But, how does one explain this very nice point about Austria?
As is so often the case in life, an “upside” comes with a “downside.”
Already within months of living in Austria, I realized that this is a place where in public, everyone (or let’s just say, “many”) are often in everyone else’s business. If you do not pick up after your dog, if you discard something anywhere in public, there is always someone nearby to point that out to you. People here are super tuned in, it seems, to what all are doing around them and many are quick to notice and react whether that reaction be help or admonition.
In my first year of living in Austria, I found myself getting irritated at being constantly observed and on occasion being curtly advised to do or not do this or that. Until I realized the upside, which is that all these people who are so quick to admonish are equally quick when it comes to lending a helping hand, helping to avert disaster, protecting their public spaces or whatever.
I’ll conclude then with my ultimate Austrian experience that has had such an enormous impact on my life that I will never be able to live outside this country because of this alone.
I was returning from a visit to Bregenz on the western border of Austria. I travelled with my dog, Benny across Austria on the train and from the Westbahnhof (train station), I took the UBahn to get home. It was late afternoon and the UBahn was extremely crowded. I had Benny on one of those stretchy leashes with my other hand on the handle of my small suitcase. At one of the stops I failed to recognize with all the people crowded together that Benny had exited the train without me (this was my lesson in danger of stretchy leashes!). The door closed with Benny outside, but immediately somebody was shouting “Hund, Hund, Hund!” A man immediately ran to the emergency lever next to the door and pulled it down, preventing the train from going anywhere.
The door to the train opened and I ran out to get my little pooch. I was shaking so hard (and so was Benny), that I decided to get off at the next stop and we walked home. I did not stop shaking for several days and could not let Benny out of my sight for even a minute.
Benny is now thirteen and has been diagnosed with a possible tumor. I went for a second opinion and found a most wonderful homeopathic doctor who is helping to give me hope that Benny may still have some (and hopefully, many) good days before him. So, we are at the moment living a day at a time, with always the thought that because of Austria and because of the Austrians, I am still lucky to have Benny with me here today. And, I will never leave Austria, though I do entertain the faint hope that perhaps one day, Austria will leave the EU.