Monday, 2 February 2015

Ten things we could learn from the Austrians

Last week I went to a work meeting in Vienna. I was a bit gobsmacked as it made me realise that many things we put up with as normal in England aren't necessary at all, and that many of the things we struggle with, they've actually managed to fix. Some of these solutions looked pretty radical to me, which is weird as Austria has a reputation as a conservative country. If you asked an Austrian, I think they'd say they do these things because they're traditional, and because they don't like change, rather than because they do. It's all in the perception, I guess.

1) How to run a city transport system
Vienna's public transport system is amazing. Things link up, so tram lines in radial spokes meet underground lines, which go around in circles. Where streets are too narrow for trams, dinky emission-free buses pootle around. Because public transport is so good, there are fewer cars, which spend less time in jams. Because public transport is cheap, only richer people own cars, which means more BMWs and Audis than coughing old bangers. However, even the BMWs make way for trams and pedestrians. Outside my hotel, the tram platform was the car lane (raised to floor level so you could wheel a pram/wheelchair out). When the tram stopped, the cars stopped behind the ramp, while the passengers got in and out. I didn't see one driver huffing or revving their engine: while everything seemed to move slower than in a British city, they actually got there a lot faster.

Viennese traffic lights also have more signals (same colours). When a light for cars is about to change from green, it flashes twice, goes green for about three seconds, then starts to change to yellow. This warning means the ability of cars to shoot lights is reduced, and makes crossing the road feel safer. Pedestrian crossing lights turn green as usual, and for the last few seconds flash, so you can decide to make a run for it, or wait, if you're slower moving. There is also a mechanism for visually impaired people that makes a clicking noise to signal the crossing.

All kinds of public transport run off one ticket, €16 for 3 days. You check this once, and there are no more barriers, so people flow off and on far quicker than here. The entire system is built with the goal of keeping people and traffic moving, rather than ensuring everyone pays. The result is that moving around the city (and breathing) is a pleasant, stress-free experience.

2) Safety and security isn't about oppressing people
At Bristol airport, security went through all my belongings, even my underwear, and the books in my bag, flicking through pages in case I had concealed an old shopping list. I waited at the departure gate with Sky News on a big screen, showing all the latest terrorism news in endless rotation. Next to me, a young man of mixed race, who, judging from the amount of designer labels he was sporting, must have been either a footballer or a fashion model, was visibly trying not to look nervous in case anyone noticed he looked nervous and shot him pre-emptively. It was terrible, like someone had read a dystopian novel and thought it was a how-to manual, not a satire.

Spot the security precautions
In Vienna, I wandered down a picturesque alleyway, and found I'd just walked under the Foreign Ministry. Not a policeman in sight. None outside the parliament building; one outside the president's office, looking sleepy in the sunlight. I did see police, driving around in converted VW camper van type things with sirens that make pathetic farty noises instead of the stress-inducing shrieking of the US-style ones. Maybe because its actually very easy to drive through Viennese traffic, or because it's pointless trying to shove a tram out of the way, I don't know. I know its hideously politically incorrect but I did find myself wondering – how did we end up with a more fascist security state than a country that once voluntarily elected the Nazis? Something's gone a bit wrong, I think.

It's not just the police - in Vienna no-one checks your transport ticket, either. Presumably you can get busted for travelling without one, but generally the abiding assumption – whether buying coffee, travelling, or paying for your dinner, is that people are law-abiding. I felt extremely safe, not just from the big things that politicians like to scare us with, but from the little things that grind you down. I felt safe on my own, in bars, in the street, on the transport, at any time of day or night. I felt that there was an expectation that it was safe, and because of that generalised understanding, if something bad had happened, then that would have have been a failure and an embarrassment for everyone, not for me. In Britain, I tend to feel the expectation that if something bad happens, I would be considered at fault. I know this is chicken and egg, but – don't people act more trustworthy when they're trusted?

3) How to not have a toxic food environment
It was amazing to be somewhere where food was dished out like nobody'd even heard of calories. There was meat, there was cheese, there was soup with cream and wine. There was strudel and cake and slatherings of fruit, with cream. Washed down with pickles and beer and wine and coffee and liqueurs. What there wasn't, was junk food. There were very few burger or chip places, most places sold Austrian food. This food would horrify the average dieter or health food freak, but they'd have to be horrified and hungry because I didn't see any 'diet' or weird fad foods at all. Judging from the restaurant menus nobody seemed to have heard of food allergies either. I can't help thinking there's a connection.

4) How to not get fat, while still eating ridiculous cakes
Because of the food, you might expect the Austrians to be a nation of fat bastards. Annoyingly, people are much slimmer than in England. I've a number of theories on this. Firstly I think this may be because they're just enjoying their food, instead of obsessing about it in a binge/guilt cycle. Also because they're running for the tram in the cold instead of fuming in a traffic jam, drinking bucket-sized lattes. Because most shops close at 6pm, supermarkets 8pm, and restaurants stop serving food at 10, actual access to food is reduced. But mainly because they eat a balanced diet made up of proper meals, enjoy it, and don't endlessly snack on crap.
I didn't intentionally take this photo in pornographic soft focus. Honest.
5) It's Ok to eat gherkins with every meal.
Look, for all I know this may be the secret to No4, above.

6) The proper size for a coffee is about the same as a teacup.
Who thought half-litres of crappy, milk-foamed coffee were a good idea, anyway?

7) How to keep capitalism in its place
After my first day wandering around, I thought I hadn't seen any billboards. On the second day, I counted, and confirmed a shocking total of Nil. There are shopfront signs and ads, but plastered on massive boards across the city? Nope. None, so I concluded it must be illegal. I normally don't think about ads much, but I started to think it made a massive difference to the general feeling and ethos of the city. People didn't look stressed because they weren't constantly having stuff thrown at them that they should want, and anyway, if they did want stuff - the shops were probably shut, thus forcing them to undertake non-shopping leisure activities, instead.

For example, this poor lad has been forced to march up and down with a trombone, instead of hanging out in a mall.

8) How not to care that you're uncool.
I'm not quite sure if this is a result of the previous thing, but the Viennese are without doubt the uncoolest people I've ever laid eyes on. They like classical music. They like dressing up in traditional dress which involves lederhosen and frills. They like churches. They like flowers and statues and icing-cake frontages, and gilt and floral decorations and gilded floral decorations and floral gilded decorations and cake and bookshops and hats with feathers in. They like accordions. They don't like all this ironically. They don't even know what ironic means. They have never heard of kitsch, over-the-top-ness, or hipsterism. The tube maps are incomprehensible, because all the graphic designers have fled, screaming, from the unironic gilded floral decorations, and gone somewhere they can get buckets of hideous coffee at 3am.

9) How not to fix things that ain't broken
'One every 30 years'
You might think that I'm describing a very very rich place, and that everything is swish and fancy. Austria is a rich country, similar to Germany, but there was none of the oceans of money washing around in Vienna that there is London. Some things, though originally very grand, had been allowed to become quite shabby. What I did notice is that instead of tearing things down and building new ones, they love bodging things together, and fixing stuff. They still have repair shops. I saw several buildings that had been slapped back together after the war and since they were holding together fine they'd just been left like that. Some of the trams look 50 years old. The platform arrangement I described, would, in Britain, have been ripped out and replaced, expensively. Instead, the bodge-job solution worked both technically and socially. A lady in a clothes shop showed me a traditional man's coat (cost €800-€1000) and said, quite calmly, 'Men generally buy one about every 30 years.'

10) Inequality really does make life less pleasant. 
Austria has a Gini coefficient of 26.3. The UK has Gini coefficient of 32.8. That's a measure of how equal or unequal your society is. I.e. their society is much more equal than ours. It sounds like something very academic, but the fact is, more equality makes life more pleasant from the moment you step out the door.

And finally...

Three things we couldn't learn from the Austrians

1) How to put the teabag in before the water.
Guys. This is basic.

2) Benches in public places are a good thing.
My back is still hurting.

3) How to deal with difficult things in your history.
Don't even get me started on this one.

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