Oh, the curse of looking like a native. Most people I talk to around Vienna — a waiter or a cashier at the grocery story, for example – usually glance at me and say something like “Grüß Gott. Kann ich Ihnen helfen?”
I can usually get by if the transaction is simple – a few semesters of college German taught me at least that much. It’s when the conversation veers into uncharted territory that I have to capitulate. “Ich spreche nur ein bisschen Deutsch. Sprechen Sie English?”
Most often, whomever I’m speaking with bashfully says their English is terrible – and then we go on to have a near-perfect conversation in English. While this helps me complete the task at hand, it does nothing to help me feel like a part of the city. And doing just that is an important part of why I’m here.
Additionally, there are plenty of people who don’t speak much English – especially when you get away from the shops and restaurants catering to American and European tourists to areas frequented by the locals. And as a journalist, those are the areas that interest me the most.
And though the following example isn’t from Vienna, I think it supports my point. I was in Prague last weekend with a Czech friend from the U.S. With his help, we spoke with an elderly couple in a park and I took this photograph. There’s no way I could’ve done that alone.
So even though I’ll be leaving Austria at the end of next month, I’ve enrolled in an evening German language course. Obviously, I’m not going to become a local in the short amount of time I have here. But at least I’ll be able to talk to them a little bit more.
This post also appears on my An American in Vienna blog for the Wiener Zeitung.