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Study Abroad

The Wacky, Wild, and Wonderful World of Wien

28 March 1994
edited 10 June 1994

"Gruess Gott!"

Some thoughts and comments on money, housing, travel and classes, as well as some general impressions, which will hopefully be of some use to future participants in the Austria-Illinois program:

First things first - money! I think the estimate of about $5000 for spending money over the course of two semesters is pretty accurate, though it will certainly depend on the individual and his or her tastes. Off the top of my head, I calculate that I have spent about $3000 total thus far, with the year about 2/3 over. That includes travels to Greece, Turkey and Spain over semester break and shorter trips to Prague and Bratislava (twice each). In Vienna, though, I tend to be on the frugal side, not eating out much and so on - I imagine some other people may have spent a good deal more than I have, for better or worse. It's important, I think, to find a good balance, which will almost surely come with a little time here and getting used to prices. When I first arrived I went through some "sticker shock" at the high prices and didn't eat much or really go out. But while it is pretty expensive here - some things seem outrageous compared to what we would pay in the US (for example postage, laundry, beverages in restaurants, cigarettes, some groceries) - an attitude like I had at first is really counterproductive; it's hard to enjoy much of anything or "experience the culture" if you're always worried about how much you're spending. You have to see that play or try that pastry every once in a while. After all, that sort of thing is at least in part why we came, right? And indeed, I have become more relaxed and enjoyed myself more as time has gone on. Like I say, there seem to be some people who have a lot less of a problem than I do when it comes to being willing to spend money. :) So some of the above might not be all that applicable. But by the same token, I believe that especially if one is going to be here for the whole year, one can't treat it like a big vacation and throw around money accordingly, especially since it is rather expensive. Be reasonable and find what works for you and your budget, essentially.

As for the logistics of money, the method set up for depositing and withdrawing at the Volksbank seems to work well. Bank hours are pretty limited - weekdays 8-12:30 and 1:30-3:00, with afternoon hours extended to 5:30 on Thursdays - but if one gets a Bankomat (ATM) card for a fairly nominal fee, the hours should not be a problem. The bank is only a couple blocks from the Wirschaftsuniversitaet anyway. Bankomat machines are easy to find, and one shouldn't need to make deposits very often, especially since a commission is charged each time. I've only made two deposits all year; others do it once a month or so. It is, of course, useful to pay attention to fluctuations in the exchange rate when making a deposit, especially for large amounts. Another advantage of the Bankomat card, besides cash around the clock, is that it is an easy and economical (no or minimal exchange fees) way of getting cash in many other European countries. Traveler's checks are also pretty good for trips, though not essential if one has a Bankomat card or another way of getting cash - be wary of the occasional high commission. Credit cards are very rarely accepted in Vienna, exceptions including souvenir/tourist shops, at least some ticket agencies and the train station (but not travel agencies). Plunking down the plastic seems to be much easier in other countries, though.

Housing can vary in terms of the location, quality and general situation. No one seems hugely dissatisfied, though, except for one person who moved at the semester because he and his landlady did not get along. Some people are in student dorms, which seems especially common among folks who came just for the spring semester; some are in apartments with Austrians who rent rooms on the side (thus essentially living with their landlords); and some, like me, are simply in apartments with one or more roommate(s), who could be from the AIEP as well. It's pretty much luck (or lack thereof?) of the draw. Overall, I personally am happy with the place (I share it with another program participant). It is a one-bedroom apartment that also has a fold-out couch in the living room. There is ample closet and other storage space, and kitchen supplies (silverware, plates, glasses, some pans) as well as sheets and blankets were all provided - in some cases even more than we need. There is even a small washing machine in the apartment, which is very nice in terms of both convenience and saving money, even though there is no dryer. However, ours was also about the only place that did not come with a phone - the wiring and such was already there but for some reason our landlord did not want to provide a phone. We eventually decided to get one, though the process was typically Viennese - bureaucratic and expensive. Just to get the phone and hookup was 1650 schillings, and that doesn't even take into account monthly fees and charges for individual calls (which accumulate by the minute). But it's still better than being more or less isolated. I like the location of our place too - in a pretty quiet residential neighborhood on the north side of the city, right on a streetcar line so that the woods and quiet paths in one direction and downtown in the other are both within fairly easy reach. It takes me about 25 minutes to get to class in the morning (a streetcar ride and a short walk) and about the same to ride the streetcar to the "ring" surrounding the center of the city.

Speaking of public transportation, the system of streetcars, subways, buses and commuter trains is clean, comprehensive and reliable. Monthly passes for unlimited use are paid for in program fees and purchased for us. It is not difficult to familiarize oneself with the system, especially within the areas that one normally frequents, though a good city map that shows transportation lines as well will certainly be invaluable. The only drawbacks to the system is that it still always seems to take longer than you expect to get wherever you're going (at least for someone like me who is used to getting around in a relatively small city) and most lines shut down around midnight, so that if you want to go out you either come home early or stay out until 5 or 6 am when things start running again. There are night buses, but they have a 25 schilling fee even with the monthly passes and only run every half hour.

There is plenty of opportunity to travel elsewhere in terms of both time and location. Austria being a Catholic country, holidays are fairly frequent, and vacations include three weeks at Christmas, five weeks between semesters (February) AND three weeks at Easter. Salzburg is three hours away, Bratislava one hour, Budapest three hours, Prague five, Munich 4-5, Warsaw and Florence about eight each, etc. Train tickets to Eastern countries, at least right now, are quite reasonable; Western ones can be quite a bit more. The train network is quite comprehensive, though. Plane fares can also be economical; watch for special deals, especially in winter. I flew to Athens and Madrid for about $200 each in February - both were very interesting trips.

Oh yeah, classes... :) I had had the impression that program classes were required, which is not the case. If one is a German major, though, especially at the University of Illinois, they can be quite useful in terms of fulfilling requirements (and maybe even learning something in the process :) ). I also found they offer a sense of familiarity in terms of being structured more like what we're used to in terms of tests and day-to-day work and in being geared to our ability level. They also offer an easy way to keep in contact with other program members - it's nice to see familiar faces. Even if we didn't necessarily come here to meet other Americans, it is very good - for some, like me, probably even invaluable - to have the support of the program and to have the chance to develop friendships with the other members. One can certainly take other classes as well at the Wirtschaftsuniversitaet and/or University of Vienna. The two are about 15 minutes apart, connected directly by a streetcar line, so it's convenient to get from one to the other (though I am only taking classes at the WU this semester, in part because I didn't feel like making that trip downtown. so I'm lazy :) ). A number of business-type classes are offered in English at the WU. Taking classes in German is also quite feasible, though it can be somewhat frustrating - I was rather overwhelmed the first time I attended a lecture in German, though it certainly got better over the course of the semester (and now in the second semester I find it easier still, though of course the difficulty of comprehending the material in such a class also depends on the professor and the material itself). Lecture-type classes have just one test at the end, if they have one at all - though professors seem to be understanding of foreign students and their needs - whereas proseminars and seminars focus on more specific topics and often require group presentations and/or papers and a good deal of research, it seems to me. In general, the system (outside of program classes) is much looser in that classes only meet once a week and little day-to-day (or week-to-week) work is specifically required. However, students are usually expected to keep up with readings independently. Registration is not required for lectures - one can simply show up and drop out at any time. The downside of being looser, though, is that it is quite difficult to get information on classes outside of simply showing up the first one or two times - if one manages to find a department's office, much less within their office hours, usually nothing is printed up on individual classes. So it seems quite possible to be 2-3 weeks into the semester and not yet have a firm schedule of classes.

A wide variety of athletic classes are offered at different levels, giving one the chance to continue a favorite sport or to try something completely new. One has to pay extra for them, though usually not too much - about $13 per semester per class. They can also be in inconvenient locations, though sometimes enough sections are offered that one has a choice of where to go. Some classes are run much more loosely than others - in one basketball class I had we just chose up sides and played for an hour and a half each week, whereas other classes have more instruction. In any case, sports classes can be a fun thing to do and perhaps a way to meet some people in the process.

Computing facilities are, unfortunately, less than ideal. Actually, I should say that there is little wrong with the facilities themselves - there is a Macintosh lab and a PC lab in the main building of the Wirtschaftsuniversitaet, and from them one has full word-processing and e-mail capabilites, among other applications. Each student can receive an e-mail account shortly after enrollment, and one can also telnet to an account at home. The trouble is that there simply do not seem to be enough computers, especially as classes will frequently take up more than half of each lab - waiting 20-30 minutes for a computer during the middle of the day is not uncommon. And worse, the labs are only open until 9 pm weekdays and not at all on weekends. Still, with a little planning, one shouldn't be too hindered by the limited hours.

Finally, a few words of advice and random thoughts... what one gets out of being here and how much one enjoys it largely depends on the individual, his or her personality and how he or she reacts to new situations and adversity. So it is hard to say anything that would apply to everyone, especially since my personal experience seems to be fairly atypical. I would suggest, though, that one try to be reasonable and not set expectations too high - try to be honest with yourself and think about who you are and how you react to new people and places and unfamiliar situations, about whether this is really the right thing for you, personally, to do. I feel that there is a real tendency, conscious or not, to treat study abroad as something that is automatically wonderful, exotic, the chance of a lifetime etc. on the part of both those who promote study abroad programs and people in general. I don't blame anyone for that, but I can't help but feel a little misled. It's not a nine-month vacation and I think one will be pretty surprised if one goes into it thinking as such. I certainly recognize that many of my difficulties are a result of me and my own personality and attitudes, and I know I bought into the "myth" of study abroad when I should probably have been more reasonable about it. But maybe that's something I only could have found out by coming here. And, again, your mileage may vary, as they say. Everyone is going to be frustrated from time to time - with stores not being open, with understanding people and making oneself understood, with people being rude and unwilling to help, with bureacratic procedures, with the seemingly unending gray of winter, with expenses etc. - all the wonderful things that go along in trying to adapt to another culture and its way of doing things. Everyone is going to miss home and people there (though some certainly more than others). I really believe that those aspects need to be emphasized to future program participants as well as the opportunities that such a program offers - not to scare people away, but to be realistic. I had a very difficult time for the first couple months and even in January was thinking about going home after the semester ended. But things are better now - I still couldn't say I love it, but people really aren't kidding when they say it does get better as the year progresses. Maybe it's just taken me this long to get truly used to being here and to make some really good friends. But even I can't say I regret coming, and I can't deny that doing something like this offers opportunities that really can't be had otherwise - not just going to the opera and such, but in terms of personal development and challenges. Even if it is really rough at first, I too would have to agree that my time here has gotten considerably better and more enjoyable as I have gotten to know people better, come to appreciate the city more and become more confident about my German ability. Heck, even the gray, gloomy winter was replaced by a beautiful spring in this city that was suddenly full of parks and flowers tucked away. And even if you don't like it much of the time, study abroad is a valuable experience. Before coming I was told that much of what you learn is really about yourself, and that does seem to be true.

Again, I hope that this information has been halfway useful and interesting. I also hope that this letter has not focused too much on the negative aspects, for while there will definitely be obstacles and frustrations, there will also be plenty of memorable, educational and fun experiences. Where else could you in one weekend - as I did in June - enjoy a picnic along the Danube, ride the train through the beautiful Austrian countryside, visit a former concentration camp accompanied by a survivor of Buchenwald, go out for an evening of dancing, attend a rock concert and enjoy a drink with friends at a traditional wine garden? I would like to take this opportunity to thank Prof. Bruce Murray and Steve Wheat, the program director and assistant, for all their hard work in making it possible.

Good luck and "Alles Gute" -


Susan Pleck