NOTE: When I was directing Bowling Green State University’s study-abroad program in Salzburg, Austria, in 1998-99, I wrote a series of letters to the faculty list back at BGSU. I got wonderful responses, so I kept writing them! This is the first one, from September, 1998. It reflects on changes since my last previous stay, in 1993-94.
Dear Colleagues at BGSU,
Greetings from Salzburg, Austria. I am here for the third time now to
direct our Academic Year Abroad program for juniors and first-year
master’s students. It is a great opportunity for them to improve their
German and learn to live in a foreign culture. The program celebrated
its 30th anniversary this year and is well set up to provide the
students with a challenging but organized international experience.
This year 26 students will participate. I thought it might be nice
occasionally to send reports and impressions back to BGSU.
Goodbye to the Schilling
What has changed since I last left in 1994? Quite a bit, actually. I
showed my passport to enter Austria between planes in Brussels,
because for the past half year Austria has been a member of the
Schengen group of European Union countries, who have dropped their
interior borders. Austria joined the EU in 1995 and will participate
in the currency union that begins in January 1999, so we will soon (by
2002) say goodbye to the Schilling coin with its Edelweiss blossoms,
and Sigmund Freud on the 50-Schilling bill.
In 1990, it was impossible to shop on Saturday afternoons. In 1994,
the first Saturday of each month was a “long Saturday” with shops open
until 5 pm. Now, many stores stay open every Saturday until 4 or 5.
The Saturday-morning ritual of rushing to get your shopping done for
two days (stores are closed on Sundays) is past. Yet the Saturday afternoon
feeling that you can and should do something besides
contribute to the economy is also gone. Sundays still have that
feeling, but I can only predict that the dominance of economics and
convenience will expand and even Austria will see shopping 24-7, as
the saying goes.
The consequences of Austria’s shift toward convenience are immediately
visible. In the Old Town, the heart of Salzburg and the reason why
tourists come from all over Europe, Japan, and the US, there are many
empty storefronts. Why? It’s easier for people to go to the big
shopping centers on the outskirts of town and park easily and for free
than to brave the narrow, often cobblestoned streets and search for
tiny parking spots or pay to park in one of the garages carved out of
the rocky hills among which the city is nestled.
Imitations of imitations
As business hours expand (evening hours are also more liberal than
before), only big stores with lots of of overhead and large staffs
will be able to compete, and even more of the mom-and-pop stores
(called “Tante Emma Shops” here) will go under. Genuine quaintness—
butchers, bakers, grocers, stationers, and cafes that real people use
along with the tourists—will give way to subsidized attempts at being
a “real” old town.
This kind of thing is already in evidence. Across from Mozart’s
birthplace—although a museum, it’s really the house he was born in–
there is something called “Mozartland.” It is full of spin-off
merchandise based on cartoonized characters of young Mozart and his
family that are shameless Disney ripoffs, in other words, imitations
of imitations. The real Cafe Mozart–a classy, classic old
coffeeshop–is out of business, replaced by Mozartland’s “Mozart
Cafe,” designed solely to draw tourists.
Mozart’s birthplace, Getreidegasse, Salzburg, 1998. Photo by Adrian Pingstone. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
“Community”: support and cooperation within a group that cannot afford to avoid each other.
On the other hand, the reason Austrians used to live crowded in
cities, ride buses instead of driving private cars, and use specialty
shops instead of supermarkets is because they couldn’t afford anything
else, and women stayed at home to do all that daily shopping.
“Community” can be defined as support and cooperation within a group
that cannot afford to avoid each other.
Now the Austrians, with country houses, nice cars, and shopping
centers, can afford to can the quaintness. The trick is to keep people
thinking that you’re authentic even as you abandon authenticity for
reality. Otherwise the tourist trade might dry up, too, and there goes
the affluence that allowed you to be modern.
The specialization of space
It’s a dilemma that we don’t encounter as often in the US, because
long ago we made the choice for the horn of plenty. As a teenager I
experienced the death of my hometown downtown as the malls grew. The
specialization of space continues so that people live, shop, and work
in entirely separate worlds, and we are so eager to avoid each other
that we will use prime farm land (wrested by Anthony Wayne from the
Indians) for the purpose of putting space between us.
Occasionally there is a whimper from the other side of the question,
and we get an argument over whether to build a mall on the site of the
Battle of Fallen Timbers. I don’t think we should, but it will
certainly be a fitting tribute. Tecumseh (eventually) died so that we
can shop on Sundays.
Monuments and mementos
For the time being, though, when I come to Salzburg I still live where
people work and engage in commerce. I prefer to ride the bus, even
though we have a car, because all too often the convenience of
individual transportation means sitting through four lights just to
get through an intersection. On the bus at least you can hear the
people cursing at you.
I love the quality of food and drink whose main purposes are not to be
prepared as quickly as possible, to appeal to as many people as
possible, and to survive a 2000-mile ride in a semi truck. I also
enjoy being a tourist, having the old monuments and mementos all
around me, and I trust they’ll stay here as long as their ability to
attract foreign tourists exceeds their ability to frustrate native
Until next time,
(Written September 1998)