Naturally, there are many cultural differences between Americans and Austrians. Austrians are generally more orderly than Americans. They are more careful about disposing of their garbage (and recycling, all of which is separated at the point of disposal here — i.e., there are separate bins for trash, paper, plastic and glass, even in the subway stations). The bus and train systems here operate on nearly an honor system, which is rarely checked (although highly fined for violators). On the other hand, Austrians hate to wait in lines and they almost never form an organized queue for anything. Customer service here is nothing like what we’re used to in the US. And although Austrians greet people in shops by habit and always stop to talk to neighbors and people they know, they almost never smile at or speak to strangers.
One of the most striking differences has to do with personal volume. When in a public space in Austria, tourists and new arrivals stick out because they’re loud. Really loud. Obnoxiously loud. Even speaking at what we consider to be normal conversational volume, we’re likely to be the loudest people around, in almost any setting. I’ve gotten used to this, but it’s still a striking enough contrast to catch my attention. Sitting at Starbucks, having a German lesson, I sometimes have to strain to hear my teacher. She’s not unusually quiet, she’s just Austrian, and they have a cultural habit of keeping the noise down.
Yesterday morning, on the train with Benjamin, I was reminded of this again. We were on the train, packed — standing room only — with morning commuters. Benjamin and I were lucky enough to get a seat, and he was sitting on my lap and playing with a new toy. His new toy is a little robotic fish that flaps its tail fin if you push a button. It’s a quiet, mechanical noise, quieter than clicking the tip of a pen in and out. It was, by far, the loudest sound on the train. People who were talking were doing it in a near whisper, and headphones were quiet enough to be heard only by the wearer. No one was bothered by Benjamin (kids are generally given a lot of allowances here for that kind of thing) but I was reminded of how different things are here. The volume on this crowded morning train was more like that of a library than of a segment of public transportation. That’s just what it’s like here. That’s just Vienna.