Vienna: The city that loves to grumble
- 24 May 2012
- From the section Magazine
For a number of years Vienna has scored top marks in international surveys for safety, cleanliness and public services, but while many Viennese are fiercely proud of their city, there is also an unexpectedly strong tradition of discontent and complaint.
The Volksgarten in central Vienna is a particularly beautiful spot.
The public garden, with its fountains and shady chestnut trees, is surrounded by some of Vienna's most magnificent buildings: the neo-Gothic town hall, parliament with its classical columns, and the baroque splendours of the Hofburg Palace, once home to the Habsburg Emperors.
And in May and June, its formal flowerbeds are filled to bursting with a riotous display of multi-coloured roses.
Once, as I was wandering through the rose garden, I fell in step behind a couple of elderly Viennese ladies, who were taking their two small dogs for a walk.
There had been a storm the night before and the grass was scattered with rose petals, although most of the flowers had survived well.
But one of the ladies shook her head dismally.
"Look," she said in strong Viennese dialect, "Alles schon vorbei." "It is all over now."
Her companion sighed. "Ja, ja, leider." "Unfortunately."
The Viennese tendency not to look on the bright side of life still catches me by surprise.
Perhaps it is a sign that I am still a foreigner - even after living here for more than 10 years.
To be discontented is, of course, human - the motor, some would say, of progress.
But in Vienna, many people seem to cultivate and even wallow in their dissatisfaction.
They have a special word for it, "raunzen" - which roughly translates as to grumble, moan or whinge.
It is all the more remarkable to an outsider - when you consider how good life is for most people here - not just for the city's wealthy and middle-class, but for its poorer citizens as well.
Vienna is one of the best-run cities I know.
It is, in comparison to many other European capitals, a safe place. Most of my female friends think nothing of walking home alone late at night.
Decades of Socialist-led administrations have brought in generous and affordable housing and other public services.
Turn on the tap, and you get mountain spring water, piped in from the Alps.
But to hear some Viennese, it would be easy to come away with the impression that the place is going steadily downhill. "Nix ist wie frueher," "Nothing's the way it used to be," is a constant refrain at the sausage stands and bars.
This month, while much of Europe is in the grip of austerity measures, Vienna permanently lowered the price of an annual ticket on its clean and efficient public transport system, from 449 euros (£371) to 365 euros - basically a euro a day. Thousands of extra yearly passes have now been sold.
However, this being Vienna, it did not take long for the complaints to start.
Some are upset because the price of individual journeys has now gone up. And over the past few weeks, I have been told time and again, that the underground will now be insufferably crowded - and no one will ever get a seat on a tram again.
"You mustn't take all this moaning too seriously," a friend told me as we sat on a tram on the Ring Boulevard. "It is just a way of letting off steam."
But another Viennese was not so sure. "Deep down, some of them do mean it," he said. "If you live here all the time, you have nothing to compare it to - and you don't know how good you've got it."
It is a bit of a problem for the Social Democrats, he told me. They have been losing ground to the far right in recent years.
He looked up from his coffee cup, smiling wryly. "It's hard for them because the one thing you must never do when someone is 'raunzing' is to tell them how well off they really are."
A few years ago, I arrived back in Vienna after spending a couple of months reporting from a conflict zone in the Middle East.
At the airport, I caught a taxi home. For the next 30 minutes, the driver told me in vivid detail how dreadful life in Vienna had become, how dirty, how crowded, how expensive, how rude.
Perhaps it was because I was tired - but I snapped.
"You have no idea how lucky you are to live in this place," I said fiercely. "It's beautiful, things work here, you have great hospitals, it's clean and it's safe!"
The driver did not bother to reply. He just snorted.
And I knew exactly what the snort meant: "Bloody foreigner!"
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