Return to Austria

Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria


Tomorrow I will board the plane to return back to Austria for about three weeks. I have not been there for about three and a half years now, and would be really curious to know how much has changed since I departed from there.

For one thing, the prices for public transportation have been increasingly relentlessly along with the cost of living. The cost for being caught without a valid bus ticket has increased from 60 Euros to about 103 Euros. In the US, riding with public transportation it is practically not possible to ride without a bus ticket, because you can only enter the bus via the front door, and the bus driver usually has a machine, where you pay for the ticket. If you ride the subway, there is a person, who sits behind a bulletproof glass counter, and you give him the money, so he lets you pass through the blockade.

In Vienna, you can enter the train, bus, subway anywhere you want, and there is no person, who forces you to make payments when hopping on the vehicle. Only occasionally, the transit authority would dispatch an employee, who would go through the vehicle and ask for valid tickets. Only if you don’t carry a valid ticket with you, and you are caught, you have to pay. During my school days, I have encountered perhaps one dozen ticket conductors, and that was for more than ten years of schooling. You will not often see them, but they are there, and they can make riding on a daily basis pretty uncomfortable if you don’t want to purchase the ticket.

Luckily, the system functions because most people in Vienna do purchase a ticket, and this may be testament to the honesty that exists in Austria. I would not make such a big deal out of Austrian honesty, except to remark that such general honesty may only be possible in a relatively affluent society. In a relatively poor society, like in India, bribes are fairly common, as my relatives there, who have to pay off police officers to avoid harassment, know all too well.

It may also be that honesty and a high level of trust are the precondition for wealth, which is an argument that Acemoglu and Robinson (2012) made. There is no doubt that if there is insufficient trust in the institutions that there will be very little formal business, and that indicates a lack of development. But it is not easy to adjudicate this dispute, and it might be best to understand this issue dialectically. Honesty and wealth creation are arrows pointing at each other, and are mutually reinforcing.

But surely, there are more things about Austria that I miss other than the public transportation system. For one thing, I certainly miss out on the food, especially the Austrian dishes (Wiener Schnitzel, Tafelspitz, Leberkase Semmel), the Turkish dishes (Doner Kebab) and the Italian dishes (Italian pizza, not the cheap American copy). I also miss the original tap water in Vienna, which leaves behind a slightly sweet and clear taste in your mouth when drinking it. Then there is Praterstern, which is kind of an amusement park. I fondly drove the race carts, and would like to check them out again.

Close by is the Danube Island, which was built in the 1970s as a form of flood protection. The city government of Vienna had carved out some land to divert the powerful river stream and prevent floods. The resulting island was then used for recreational activities, and the annual Donauinselfest, where many musicians come to the island every year to perform their sings. Families would come to the island, eat good food (langos, or fried flatbread), drink beer, listen to the music, collect small gift items from the event organizers, listen to the music performances, and enjoy the great weather. On this occasion, I was able to meet Vienna’s mayor, Michael Haupl, and shook his hand, while he was standing inside a tent.

During the rest of the year, the island would be a good ground for skating, cycling, jogging, and hanging out. One peculiarity is the existence of so-called FKK zones, which means places, where it was legal to lay around naked. This would be very much criminalized in the puritan US, but is practiced among quite some people in Vienna. The only downside is that most of the FKK people are old, so hunting young women will probably not be fruitful.

It woill also be interesting to meet some of my old friends from school and military. The military was a particularly stimulating time period for me. Even though I had only spent about half a year there, the level of comradeship that you receive in the army is enormous. I would not recommend anybody to join the army just for fun. And I certainly did it only because it was required as part of a national draft. Once you join it, there is a significant amount of personal discipline that is required of you, but there is something to this equality. While we were there, everyone wore the same uniform and engaged in the same activity. I can still remember, when we lined up to go home in our civilian clothing for the weekend, there were comrades, who had asked me whether I was going to a wedding, because I wore my usual dress shirt and dress pants.

A lot of interesting conversations also emerged out of the time in the military. I have met one comrade and one non-commissioned officer even in private. One of my fondest memories was that due to temporary problems with my ear in the second week of my basic training I was assigned to home duty, while my other comrades were going out on a march with their 10kg back pag and full-gear uniform. They didn’t come back for about 3 or 4 hours. The small group that stayed in the barracks, including myself, would sweep the rooms, clean the gun, and then hang out in the room. I was very eager to hide in the room, because the two non-commissioned officers that were assigned to oversee what we were doing would certainly make us do the other work. While we were in the room, I chatted with two other comrades. It was not very intellectually challenging what they were interested in. The topic was X-Jam, which was the post high school graduation party, where the whole class went to Mallorca for one week to drink alcohol on the beach, have sex and have fun. As an American high school graduate, I did not participate in this futile activity, but it was entertaining listening to it.

There really is something to shirking duty if that was at all possible. There were always some comrades, who were very little motivated to work really hard, and those people definitely influenced how hard you would work by yourself. My lazy roommates made the case that it was not worth it to exert oneself, because one would be paid the same rate no matter whether one worked hard or not. I guess socialism can provide disincentives for work. But we should consider that these were conscripts, and not devoted military professionals, who have every reason to work hard and become promoted.

My first memory going into the military was standing in line to check out all of the equipment. At the beginning, I was really enthusiastic about it, because I always wanted to have that military gear. But when we were halfway through the line, the bag, which we filled with the stuff that military personnel handed out to us, became fuller and fuller, and I became outright anxious. When would this end? When we finally got through the line I had the entire equipment on my body, i.e. two big backpags, and one small handbag, that came on top of my own private handbag. That afternoon I sweated like I never did before, carrying one backpag on my back, one backpag on my chest, and one handbag in each of my hands. I was so exhausted about this exercise, and was not really looking forward to the military drill that awaited me. Another experience was the first night when we collectively took a shower, I have never seen so many naked men in my life. I quickly got used to it, but it certainly was no pleasant experience.

The best thing about the military experience besides the solidarity and collegiality was the food. That was usually the one thing that recruits loved to complain about. There is this character trait peculiar to Austrians, which they call “raunzen” (or complaining). There really is something to it, and I never understood why they would not appreciate the good food that they had to offer. But then I was also one of those persons that enjoyed the canned Gulasch. The only thing that I did not like during the training phase was that we never had enough time to eat our meals. We had maybe 25 minutes of eating time, and I always filled my plate to the brim (main plate with bread, salad and soup), such that I had to rush down the food. We had time to socialize a little bit, but my mentality is that if I had to pick one activity then eating was definitely more important. After finishing the food, we had to immediately start exercising again (which meant to stand on the spot, and practice movements and turns, because I was assigned to the guard unit). I always hated that.

The officers were usually very serious and would regularly shout at us, though they would only target those, who were explicitly insubordinate. One of the fun experiences was when we went camping. One of my biggest concerns was that we would not have access to bathrooms during camping, and having bowel movement between trees was not really an appealing prospect. I was thinking about stealing some toilet paper before taking off, and I had a final bowel movement before we took off. But it turned out that my fears were unnecessary, because we camped right next to the building on the grass hill within the barrack compound. It was only for one night, and what was even more laughable was that when several recruits noted their need for bowel movement in the evening after setting up the tents, the officer relented and let the recruits go back to the building to relieve themselves. Sleeping in the tent itself was not even very uncomfortable, and I did enjoy this brief “wilderness” experience.

After four weeks of basic training the recruits were assigned to the final unit, where they would spend the remainder of their time in the military. Because I did not perform to full satisfaction, because I had earned a reputation for being the slowest man in the group, I was assigned to the barrack guard unit, manning the barrack entrances, rather than the more prestigious regular guard unit, that dressed in nice uniforms to greet foreign officials coming to Austria. I was by no means disappointed by this move, because I had heard that the guard unit had to exercise all day long, and stand even longer hours than during the basic training. In addition, some guards were exercising so hard with the gun that they were hurting their pelvis.

We were assigned to another barrack close to the Hungarian border for four days. It was the beginning of August, and the sweltering sun produced a hot and somewhat humid atmosphere, and dusk always meant an army full of mosquito’s. What was even worse was that my blood attracted these mosquitos particularly, and I had to wear my sleeves down, wear gloves and a mosquito net around my face and neck, which made the humid experience even worse. We were patrolling in 8 hour increments in three different posts. I was lucky enough to be assigned to the first duty for the foot patrol, where we spent 3 hours. I was briefly at the barrack entrance, and finally on a convoy transport, carrying food. We literally only had to sit on the vehicle and display our StG 77. As if some criminals on the road were going to come, and rob our breakfast!

We went on two shooting drills, and I was somewhat thrilled about this experience, but later immediately regretted it. During one shooting exercise, we had to hold up our loaded gun, unlock it, aim, fire, lock it, pull the gun down, pull the gun up, unlock it, aim, fire, and so forth for a total of 10 rounds per magazine and a total of 4 magazines. I lacked concentration during one shot, where I lifted up the gun, unlocked and fired at the same time. I saw the bullet hit the ground two meters in front of my foot, and a little shudder went through my spine. The officer, who stood right next to me, told me to be more careful, but told me to continue shooting. I finished the shooting without any more mistakes, but when I finished I knew from that moment on that I would never ever own a gun in my civilian life.

The excitement of the army experience died down quickly after the first six weeks, because we were assigned to the barracks where would serve the remainder of our duty. We had to be guards for a full 24 hour period, and then had exactly 48 hours of free time before we came back to the barracks to report to a new duty. We stood for six hours on the post, and the remaining 18 hours in the command post. There were three beds in the room right next to it, and I was assigned the 6pm to 10pm sleeping slot, which was, of course, completely impracticable. I often continued sleeping on the table from 10pm to 6am, and I had three or four cans of energy drink on the table.

What was nice was that the guard always had the first crack on the daily newspapers that came in as early as 5am before it was picked up by another recruit on behalf of the officers, who read it for breakfast at 7am. I eagerly devoured the newspaper. The most enjoyable part about being the guard is that I was able to read books again after being so busy during basic training, where we went from getting up to work to getting to bed exhausted. I devoured Tony Judt’s Postwar (2005), Volker Seitz Afrika wird armregiert, Ted Fishman’s China Inc. (2006), Joseph Stiglitz Freefall (2010), Robert Reich Aftershock (2010)Amartya Sen’s Argumentative Indian (2006),  Gusenbauer’s interview book Die Wege entstehen im Gehen (2008), a book on the history of Sweden and a book on Latin American politics. It could have been more if I had more time. I also found time to go jogging on my off day, and enjoyed the scenery of Vienna, while getting my bodily exercise.

Whether my guard duty would be relaxed or not hinged a lot on the permissiveness of the OvT, the officer in charge of the barrack for the day. The permissive ones rarely visited the guard command post, and if they did they had harmless chats. The stricter ones called often on us, and would demand us to do thorough clean-up duties. The strict ones also made sure that I would get into trouble and get shouted at by my commanding officer. During one incident, I allowed a recruit to enter the building, even though he came in late. I was supposed to report him to my guard commander, but instead I just waved him in. The commanding officer yelled at me afterwards, even though no one had told me previously that I had to report a late-coming recruit. There were tons of officers, who seem to come in whenever they felt like it. These were the sergeants and lieutenant colonels, who were already in their 50s and 60s, and worked as bureaucrats until retirement. Nobody had to report those big alpha animals.

On another occasion, I was shouted at by the OvT for letting in a truck without thoroughly checking their credentials to enter. But I found it questionable, whether a terrorist with a bomb was about to enter the barracks in the tenth district of Vienna. In any case, these experiences made me convinced that a job as a police officer, soldier or security personnel was not really possible for me, because I was psychologically and characteristically not suited for this position. My mind worked very laissez-faire, and I had always hated it to dictate what other people had to do or not do. Even in my childhood, I have fairly strict parents, who circumscribed my activities, and I thoroughly hated it, and thought that I could not subscribe to the same regime for my own children. I was sharply rebuked for my failure to enforce the regulations, but I objected to enforcement so long as there was no probable cause for suspicion.

For the last two months I was assigned to daily domestic duties, where I received a more regular five-day a week schedule and could sleep at home every night. Domestic duty was really small and stupid work, like bringing coffee to the officer, typing up the daily reports, cleaning the floor, picking up the leaves during autumn, and shoveling the snow in the winter. I was assigned with two other comrades, one of which was a computer nerd, who always worked excessively hard, and the other was a lazy guy, who let others do the work and hung out in the cafeteria for recruits, watching tv and drinking soda. I stuck with the hard worker, and was delighted to discuss politics and computer issues with him.

When my duty was over after six months, we returned all of the equipment back to the main barracks. We received the release paper, and I was simply glad that the service was over, though I felt the uncertain future in the US as I was to start community college that spring. My commanding officer had recommended me to open up a Chinese restaurant from which I could make a ton of money. I declined due to my lack of entreprenuerialism, but I thanked him for the suggestion. He did have some interesting insights, such as the tax avoidance schemes of small businesses, and the money laundering schemes of mafias operating pizza shops. One of the other recruits had remarked that we all had in common after ending our duty was being unemployed. What a great feeling!

Let us see what tomorrow’s flight will bring. I will take off from Philadelphia, land in Zurich and then go to Vienna on Friday morning.

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