What is most striking about Vienna, apart from the art, music, architecture and cake is the profound silence. No horns are honking. No people are yelling. The Viennese are a civilized, sedate bunch. I feel safe making that kind of generalization because I asked around and both Austrian and foreigner alike agreed with the assessment..
Understated is the attractive Austrian way, unlike other nations, as was demonstrated by an exciting clash of cultures one day at the height of the Christmas market season.
While inside the temporary Monet exhibition at the Belvedere Museum a group of women was wildly noisy. They were not speaking German and I could not discern their nationality. Suffice to say they were not Austrian. As the group got louder the museum workers reprimanded them. “Shhhhh” one of them blurted out. Several more stern “shhhhhs ” followed, which seemed a bit rude at first, but these women seemed steadfastly determined to ignore the Viennese code of quiet .
It is in bad taste to draw attention to yourself in Vienna so it is best to go along with the Austrian way because as many an Austrian will tell you, their customs make for such a well ordered society that, according to the Mercer 2014 Quality of Living ratings, the City of Vienna ranks number one in the world.
Austria’s capital city prides itself on it’s architecture, opera, music, art and coffee houses. It’s streets are spotless reflecting a Viennese character which is all at once tidy, dignified and rule abiding. You are warned not to jaywalk for instance. It is an offense punishable by a fine and perhaps broken bones if you are not careful. There are rules here and everyone is expected to obey them. Even the unwritten ones. These museum goers clearly never got the memo.
After having broken Austria’s self imposed quiet code the oldest woman in the group then does the unthinkable. An act, no museum in the world would think it necessary to restrict. She actually reaches out and puts her hands on the canvas of a Monet painting. The curator flipped out. “No, No, No,” she screamed, all the while darting between the woman and the masterpiece to protect it from another potential assault and then radioing for reinforcements. It was the most exciting event I had witnessed in this city, because as I have mentioned, it is fairly quiet there.
But really, I cannot imagine what that lady was thinking! Other females in the group quickly tried to communicate apologies to museum staff but to no avail as the female guard incredulously kept yelling, “That is a Monet !!!!” She made the comment in English rather than German but I could not be sure in what language the offender responded. What is absolutely clear is that some things are just wrong no matter what language you speak or what country you come from.
For the observers of this artistic transgression there was only horror and transfixation.. We could not take our eyes off the group and we were all simultaneously judgemental and then strangely disappointed as they finally made their exit from the the museum. There went our exotic entertainment for the day in a city that is more well known for Gustav Klimt’s then anti art behaviors.
Despite the transgression and chaos that ensued these women were remarkably unfazed. They continued to ignore the earlier noise warnings and chatted away like a pack of wild magpies. I wanted to scream “shut up” and did “shush” them several times as did other museum visitors. They just would not conform or care. When in Rome and all was completely lost on them.
Why are so many of us so loud. Why must we endure listening to strangers’ cell phone conversations ? Or the sounds of a well meaning parent reading aloud to their child on a airplane. Even luxurious restaurants are not immune to the callous disregard of some diners. On our last night in Vienna, my husband and I dined at the Michelin rated Steirereck Restaurant ranked 16th among the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants”.
Beside us, at the second best table in the place, sat two seemingly sophisticated couples whose conversation careened from human rights and charitable foundations to wine snobbery. “I love good wine, but I just want it served to me. I don’t want to fuss with its history” said one female diner in accented English which I assumed was the common language between them. I know all of this because they spoke so vibrantly that I could not concentrate on the conversation I was trying to have with my husband . After several plaintive looks in their direction went unnoticed (how could they engage their sense of sight while so preoccupied with their oral cavities) it became clear that they would never desist from their high volume dialogue. We asked to be moved from the best table to a quieter one at which point one man from the noisy group asked his fellow diners, “do you think we were too loud?” Ah, yaah !
But like the women from the museum they continued nattering at the same volume, which was now far enough away from us to be observed and wondered at but not so close to further disturb us.
Folks, we are not alone. Excessive noise is aural pollution. One-point-7-Million Austrians are acutely aware of this. And as with many cultures we can learn something from this one, like respecting each other’s right to quiet. Even in a crowd.