Nate Minor

Bratislava, Vienna’s Slovakian cousin

Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia, is just an hour away from Vienna by train. It’s a charming city on a hill, though a bit rougher around the edges than its Austrian neighbor.

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Why knowing German is important to feeling at home in Austria

Don't know German? In touristy places in Vienna like this pedestrian mall, that doesn't matter. If you actually want to get to know someone on the other hand, doing it auf Deutsch is the way to go.Don’t know German? In touristy places in Vienna like this pedestrian mall, that doesn’t matter. If you actually want to get to know someone on the other hand, doing it auf Deutsch is the way to go.

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.

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Photos: A 60-year-old love and more from my weekend in Prague

While living in Vienna for the next five weeks or so, I have weekends free. So why not take the bus to Prague for a few days? The Czech city’s medieval past are much more apparent than in Vienna. It was explained to me that because it wasn’t a seat of power for a few hundred years, there was little investment in its ancient buildings.

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Merkel’s victory: Closer to American election style than European

Angela Merkel - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2011Angela Merkel photo by World Economic Forum on Flickr

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s victory last night is the big news in Europe today. Reading through the day-after coverage though, how the election played out strikes me as being the exact opposite of what I expected from European politics.

In preparing for my time in Austria, I did my due diligence and educated myself on the main differences between European and American politics. In a nut shell, those are the coalitions between competing parties and the importance of party over personality.

And indeed, that’s true in Austria. Elections here are less than a week away. And while election posters feature politicians’ faces, media coverage centers more on parties rather than the personalities that may lead them. (A notable exception would obviously be Austrian-Canadian political newcomer Frank Stronach.)

In Germany though, last night’s election is seen as a victory for Merkel herself. Heribert Prantl, a Süddeutsche Zeitung columnist, wrote that “Her election victory was not just a victory, but a triumph. It is her triumph, not that of her party.” (Thanks to the Guardian for the translation.)

Deutsche Welle’s Ute Schaeffer sums it up this way:

The successes of the center-right coalition have clearly been attributed to Angela Merkel as a person. Germany has the lowest unemployment rate in Europe, its economy is growing solidly, and its debt level is low. Most Germans haven’t had to face any serious cutbacks. And that was what convinced German voters. They want continuity, stability and security – which Angela Merkel stands for.

The governing coalition of the last four years was center-right on paper. But in reality, it adopted Social Democratic and sometimes even Green positions in many fields of politics. That degree of pragmatism is Merkel’s strategy – and it’s immensely popular.

Merkel’s strategy combines maintaining a strong personality, like American politicians strive to do, and European-style bi-partisan cooperation. But from there, trans-Atlantic comparisons fall apart. It’s expected that Merkel’s CDU party will enter a grand coalition with the rival SPD, a set-up far more likely to produce meaningful legislation than the currently deadlocked U.S. Congress.

This post also appears on my An American in Vienna blog for the Wiener Zeitung.

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When Americans admire Europe’s history, why don’t they know their own?

Roman ruins in Michaelerplatz in Vienna's first district. In the background is the entrance to the Hofburg Palace.

Roman ruins in Michaelerplatz in Vienna’s first district. In the background is the entrance to the Hofburg Palace.

I arrived in Vienna last week for another journalism fellowship (thank you, ICFJ!) — this one will have me at the Wiener Zeitung (literally the Vienna Newspaper) until the end of October. They asked me to blog about the city, through an American’s eyes. So here we go.

Other than a few visits to Istanbul, this is my first experience in Europe. Others had told me that one of the most striking things for American tourists is just how much history surrounds European daily life. And that’s certainly true. The Ringstraße that surrounds Vienna’s core is a major street that replaced the old city walls, dating back to the 13th century. The city was originally a Roman settlement, and traces of that past are still visible as you can see in my photo above.

A recent discussion on Reddit hit on this point. A few choice snippets:

• I remember visiting a pub in England, and they had a little blurb about the history of the place. I remember the shock of realizing I was in a pub that was older than my whole damn country. (I’m from the US)

• An American tourist was once looking at the Oxford university library. He thought it was amazing and asked a man who worked there, “Excuse me, is this building pre-war?” The man replied “Sir, this building is pre-America.”

But there’s a problem here. If you are aware of it or not, America has a history that pre-dates the Declaration of Independence. And in Minnesota, it’s not as if our history started when Europeans reached it via Lake Superior in the 1650s (Or, if you believe the Kensington Runestone, when Norse explorers visited in the 14th century). As the state of Minnesota’s Indian Affairs website puts it: “Minnesota, the place where the water reflects the sky, is the place of Dakota origin. The Dakota have thrived in this area since time immemorial.”

Dakota have been in Minnesota the longest, but they are of course not the only tribe. So why don’t we commemorate and celebrate our state’s first inhabitants the same way Europeans do? Part of the reason, argues a blogger on indigenous issues from northeastern Wisconsin, is that we aren’t taught North American history the same way we learn European history in school.

If your textbook of North American history goes into the details of the Middle Ages, the Reformation and Renaissance, the Silk Road, and European monarchies, and you don’t include equal description of the Mississippian coalescence and dispersal, Haudenosaunee-Algonquian relations, the Woodlands, trans-plains, and southwestern trade systems, the Mexica conquests and the Fifth Sun ideology with explicit naming of various places and leaders, then your textbook is inadequate.

Why do you include those “pre-contact” European things? Because they explain the motivations and reasons for what Europeans did. But people largely imagine North America as this timeless place and don’t recognize that pre-contact American history had just as much of an effect on post-contact history because it provides explanations of the motivations and reasonings behind indigenous peoples’ actions.

But of course, that would require people to recognize that indigenous people had their own histories and agendas and agency that affected the course of history rather than making them a passive recipient of European historical force.

That said, there are Indian historical sites across the state. At Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis, there’s a mask where people can look “through the eyes” of Chief Little Crow. (I must admit though, I’ve been to that park many times and have never seen it.) Up the North Shore in Grand Portage there’s the Ojibwe heritage center.

But I’d argue that visitors to these sites who lack historical knowledge aren’t able to make connections from the past to themselves; they can’t appreciate what they are seeing. I know I can’t. Which is a pity, because that would go a long way toward realizing that our history runs just as deep as Europe’s.

This post also appears on my An American in Vienna blog for the Wiener Zeitung.

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