Quirky Shops

In the centre of the historic first district of Vienna there is a small shop. It sits on a narrow and dimly-lit side-street not frequented by many tourists, or locals, and cars are either not allowed or simply don’t want to drive along the uneven cobbles. There is no shop sign outside, and the layer of dust on the items in the display window looks older than I am.

I must have walked along this street quite a few times before I stopped and read the yellowed piece of paper hanging in the window: a price list from 2009. Lightbulbs seemed to be their main product, along with some other electronic odds and ends. I assumed it had closed years earlier, but then saw a man coming out the door. As he left, I caught a glimpse of a woman, at least 70 years old, behind the counter.

Since then I’ve been wondering: How does a shop like this survive? Selling a couple of lightbulbs each day can’t even cover the electricity needed for their own lightbulbs!

I mention this because it’s not an isolated incident. All over Vienna I’ve come across shops which seem to be from an earlier time, from before the pressures of modern capitalism. Few products, fewer customers, and yet open and staffed every day. For example, it’s not uncommon to find a second-hand bookstore taking up a prime piece of real estate. What’s stopping these shops closing and turning into the next trendy coffee bar or estate agents or souvenir stall? Surely all these would be more profitable?

There’s a more ruthless feeling about the shops in London. If it’s not a big hit within 6 months, it’s going to close down and turn into something else. Repeat ad infinitum, unless something sticks. (This has even become a “feature” of quite a lot of shops, who only sign a 6-month lease and call themselves “pop-up” in an attempt to generate excitement.) Unfortunately, what sticks is often a supermarket or chain store.

There are exceptions to this of course, even in London. For a while I lived near a place called “The Egg Shop”, which only sold eggs. For 35 years! But, sadly, it recently closed down. And it’s that kind of harsh economic reality that I keep expecting to befall the strange shops of Vienna.

 

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Sweating in the Vienna Heat

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It’s been a hot Summer in Vienna, and it’s not finished yet. This week temperatures hit 31C. My (still) pale skin has been fried once again, and I feel like I’m overdosing on Vitamin D. I’m still not used to this climate.

In London the average temperature in Winter is 7C and in Summer 18C. In Vienna it’s about 0C and 20C, respectively. That means I’ve moved from a 11C yearly difference to 20C – about twice as much. When living in London it’s usually possible to wear jeans and trainers the whole year and then add a raincoat or remove a jumper to get through the different seasons. No need for any fancy specialised clothing.

Since moving to Vienna I’ve found that for the first time I need a “Winter wardrobe” and a “Summer wardrobe”. So for Summer I now have shorts(!) and flip-flops(!!), and for Winter I have a proper winter coat and hat and scarf. I even have winter shoes and summer shoes. Twice a year, in Spring and in Autumn, there’s a ritualistic changing of the wardrobe, where clothing gets pulled out of suitcases hidden under the bed.

In a few weeks it should be that time of year again, but at the moment it really doesn’t feel like it. Summer’s still in full swing.

Honesty Boxes

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Are people in Vienna more honest than people in London? Who knows. Honesty is a tough metric to measure, and besides, I think it depends more on the circumstances people find themselves in than their values. (So thefts of bread in one city would likely be higher if that city has more starving people, but that doesn’t show that people are less honest, just more desperate.) I hear tales of rampant bike thieving in both places. So maybe things are roughly equal.

A related question is: does Vienna trust its citizens more than London? Hanging throughout Vienna are newspapers attached to lampposts. People are supposed to place the right amount of money into the honesty boxes when they take one. However, there’s nothing stopping you taking one, or all of them, without paying, except your conscience. I don’t know if people follow the rules when they use these (obviously I do!), but it’s a nice sign that people can be trusted.

It reminded me of the absolute RELISH with which some crappy parts of the UK press (warning: Daily Mail link) reported last year on honesty boxes being removed from Newsagents in London because of misuse. Maybe things aren’t that different in Vienna. Maybe they just don’t have the Daily Mail.

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Sind die Londoner ehrlicher als die Wiener? Keine Ahnung. Ehrlichkeit ist schwer zu messen und außerdem glaube ich, dass es mehr auf Umstände ankommt als Parameter. (Diebstähle von Brot wären zum Beispiel häufiger in einer Stadt, wenn es mehr hungernde Leute geben würde. Aber das zeigt nicht, dass Leute unehrlicher sind, sie sind nur verzweifelter.) Ich habe schon Geschichten über Raddiebstäle in beiden Städten gehört, also ist die Anzahl an Diebstählen wahrscheinlich ähnlich.

Eine verbindende Frage ist: Vertraut Wien seinen Bewohnern mehr als in London? Überall in Wien hängen Zeitungen zum Verkauf an Laternenpfählen. Die Leute sollten den richtigen Betrag in eine Kasse legen, wenn sie eine Zeitung nehmen. Allerdings kann man es nicht verhindern, dass manche Leute eine Zeitung ohne Bezahlung nehmen (sie werden aber hoffentlich ein schlechtes Gewissen haben). Ich weiß nicht, ob jeder diese Regeln einhält und den richtigen Betrag bezahlt (offensichtlich tu ich es!). Aber es ist ein gutes Zeichen, dass man Leuten vertrauen kann. 

Ich erinnere mich an letztes Jahr, als viele Zeitungen der UK Presse (Achtung: Daily Mail link) darüber berichtet haben, die Vertrauenskassen in den Zeitungsläden in London wegen Missbrauchs zu entfernen. Vielleicht sind die Dinge nicht so anders hier. Vielleicht haben sie nur kein Daily Mail.

Social Housing (Part 1)

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Housing is possibly the biggest difference between London and Vienna. It’s such a complicated topic that I don’t think I can do it justice, but I’ll have a stab. I may write several more posts on this theme. Researching takes a while because there’s so much information to sift through. To start with I’ll try to lay out the huge gulf in social housing between these two cities.

Vienna: There are 2m people in Vienna. 25% of them rent Gemeindewohnungen, which are estates of flats built and owned by the State. Who can live in Gemeindewohnungen? Anyone who has lived in the city for more than 2 years. (There is a maximum salary you can have in order to apply, but it’s very high: €44,000 net for 1 person, €65,000 net for 2 people). Register online, choose which area of the city you’d like to live in, and wait for one to become available.  They were designed and built largely between 1918 and 1960, with the help of the leading architects of the time. Quite a few of them have saunas, and one even has swimming pools on its roof. The buildings are dotted all over the city and the flats are generally seen as desirable places to live. Given the number of them and their availability to a large section of the residents of Vienna, they keep a lid on the rents in the private sector also.

There’s a friendly website for people to register their interest.

London: There are over 8m people. Around 25% live in social housing as well. A lot of the council estates were built during the 1960s to low standards. They have a (quite possibly unfair) reputation for gangs, crime, and danger. Therefore people who don’t live there generally stay away. This sense of them being bad places can be seen everywhere, for example in the media where every rags to riches story starts out with the person growing up on a council estate. (Eg: “Lewis Hamilton: The Formula One Champion who grew up on a Stevenage Council Estate”). It’s always as if to say: “wow, that person did well, for someone who grew up on a council estate.”

There’s a very unfriendly website to apply for social housing in London (which you have a do by borough/Bezirk, it’s not a joined up system across the city). For example here’s an excerpt from the Greenwich Council website:

“There are more people looking for council and housing association homes in Royal Greenwich than there are properties available. As a result, you may experience a long wait before we are able to assist you.

We would therefore encourage you to consider other housing options.”

Advertising

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Now, this may partly because I don’t understand many of the adverts plastered around Vienna, but there feels to be a lot less advertising here than in London. Sure, Vienna isn’t without posters and billboards and video ads, but there’s something about London’s approach to advertising that made me at times feel more like a consumer than a resident.

Everything is up for sale in London. For example, if you’re a company and you want your name on the London Underground map, then for the right price you can do it. (£36 million for 10 years – Emirates Air Line). The city’s biggest new tourist attraction is M&Ms World. The (few) bins in the City of London all have video screens embedded into them, to show you a quick ad while you discard your rubbish. Some were also tracking people’s mobile phones until last year.

Everything is “sponsored”. And while each sponsorship is a little cost saving for the city, in total they add up to seeing company and brand names everywhere.

Vienna does have its own quirks. there are lots of posters on the streets and the Vienna cycle hire scheme is sponsored like the London one. And I was surprised to see a giant Coca Cola advert across the front of one of the city’s main churches:

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Part of the reason I find advertising in London to be more wearisome is that it often isn’t selling anything. It’s just raising brand awareness, repeating the same words over and over trying to get stuck in your head. In contrast, a lot of the posters on the streets of Vienna are for upcoming concerts.

Maybe when my German has improved I’ll learn to dislike Viennese advertising as much as London’s. Until then, I’m happy to be faced with slightly fewer recognisable slogans and logos each day here.

Lunch

London is designed for lunch. Hundreds of thousands of people commute into the centre each day, and the majority buy lunch. It makes grab-and-go meals an incredibly large and competitive industry in the city. Lots of chains have been established to offer everything you could want (sandwiches, soups, pasta, salads, sushi, curry…) and almost everything is made fresh on the day. They are set up for speed, quality and not too ridiculous pricing. 

Vienna doesn’t have the same army of suited workers like London. The bakery chains offer sandwiches, but there isn’t much else available if you’re in a hurry. 

Vienna’s cafes serve a range of cheap dishes over lunchtime, which are nice if you’ve got the time for table service.

It’s another feature of the city that subtly encourages life at a slightly slower pace. 

Weekend Word

I like that words in German can be so literal and logical. For example, once you know that shoes in German are “Schuhe”:

Gloves are shoes for the hands and therefore are “Handschuhe”.

Slippers are shoes for in the house and therefore are “Hausschuhe”.