I am on my way back to the US after spending some nice days over Christmas with my family in Vienna. While I was there and especially now, heading back to the US, I am reflecting on my decisions that led me to a life on the West Coast of the United States of America.
When I am in Austria, which is, these days, only once a year for Christmas, usually one of the first questions I get from relatives is “So how do you like it there?”, which is the obvious conversation opener. But they save the real important question for later “When are you coming back?”.
“Not any time soon”, is usually what I respond.
Taking public transport and walking around in the city, I had some time to think about what it is that really makes me look forward to coming back to the US. I am trying to collect these thoughts and put them into meaningful writing in the following paragraphs. One could write a book about these issues (and most likely someone already has), but I am not trying to be scientific here. I am just speaking from the point of view of someone who, unlike what the average Austrian would do, left his home town, to, first, go to London and then taking an even bigger leap to move to the United States to seek a better job and, in a sense, a better life and a better future.
After the second world war and gaining sovereignty in 1955, Austria prospered due to an immense effort being put into rebuilding the country after much of it was destroyed in the war. The social democratic party in power was more worried about creating a social infrastructure and safety net than about who will be responsible for the debt that incurred in those years. Fast forward, Austria grew to become one of the richest countries in the world, not at least for its key geographical location for economic ties to Eastern Europe and Russia, and joined the European Union in 1995.
Tourism contributed its fair share to this incline. Austria, and especially Vienna, is incredibly rich when it comes to history and culture. Tourists love this city for its magnificent old buildings, artifacts of a former large empire. According to several studies, Vienna continuously ranks high among the most livable cities.
Stuck the past?
However, I see some truth in the lyrics of Rainhard Fendrich, a Vienna-born “Austropop” musician. In his unofficial Austrian anthem “I am from Austria”, he writes “Dei Hohezeit is lang vorueber”, which essentially translates to: “Your best time is behind you” (referring to Austria, the country). I never paid much attention to that line in the lyrics, but it started to make more sense to me viewing my native country from the distance.
Everyday life in Vienna is influenced heavily by its past, but unfortunately not so much by the present and the future. I am trying to identify a few key distinct issues:
- Materialism, jealousy and titles. Americans like to show their wealth, no doubt about that, but the difference is that people in Vienna look at other peoples wealth with jealousy more often, they frown upon others driving bigger, more expensive cars, have a bigger house or a better job, attributing it to luck, a win in the lottery or just “knowing the right people” (which, actually, might be justified in many cases). Nowhere else I have seen people bragging about having as many as 5 different titles, even engraved on their grave stone. It screams of “look what I have achieved, look at me!”
- Thinking outside the box. Not. It is widely known that very few Americans own a passport and very few actually know what the world outside the US really looks like. To the contrary, lots of Austrians have a passport, they use it for traveling to popular beach vacation destinations in e.g. Italy and Greece. However, only a minority would consider moving abroad for even a limited amount of time to leave their comfort zone and experience life in a different culture, city and country.
- “We have always done things this way”. Viennese (I can’t really speak for all of Austria here) are afraid of change. Too often people choose certain career paths because its the socially accepted way to do and will lead to prestige, a nice big (German) car and a house in the countryside. Entrepreneurship is, so it seems to me, more discouraged than encouraged. In the US, however, I feel you can become whatever you want, and nobody will look at you in disgust if you “out” yourself as a musician or a painter. Questioning things, risk-taking and exploring new ways (of thinking) are not necessarily strengths of the Viennese.
One particular problem that has always been an issue in the past decade (and even before that), but became more prevalent recently is immigration. Austria was always known, not at least from the civil war in Yugoslavia, to take on refugees and giving them shelter and social care. Its geographical location, bordering so many other countries, also makes Austria the ideal destination for people fleeing from corruption, poverty and economic distress in Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, it seems that this over-welcoming hospitality is growing into an ever increasing problem that, when not dealt with, might put the whole social system and, subsequently, society in danger. People are being accepted into the country that don’t contribute anything to either the Austrian society, nor economy but rather exploit the social security system for their own (and their families) benefit. Resulting in an ever growing financial burden for society. No wonder that right-wing parties like the FPÖ (formerly headed by Jörg Haider, now by Heinz-Christian Strache) are gaining more and more votes with each election.
You can have your own opinion about how the US handles immigration, a reform seems long overdue, but one thing remains true: The United States only (legally) accept people into the country, if these are willing to contribute to the economy. “You are a foreigner and out of a job? Get the hell back to where you came from!”.
This brings me back to probably the main reason why I feel that the US is the place for me: job opportunities. Working in the internet business, the place to be is still Silicon Valley. Yahoo! is, despite struggling to get back up, still a big player and a big name in the business and being able to work for such a company is an opportunity that I would never find in Austria. And even if things would some day not work out any longer between me and Yahoo!, there are plenty of other companies in the Valley that would provide equally or even more interesting jobs.
Of course this is a highly subjective analysis of my particular situation, my personal thoughts and opinions. Others might (and probably will) disagree with some statements I made here and that is perfectly fine. Others might see Austria or certain issues I noted here differently. Feel free to disagree.
Listening to my inner voice, it tells me that Austria is a dead end (or rather a country to retire in), but not a country of possibilities, that provides room and opportunity to change and grow. As of right now, the US is that country for me. Will it be that country forever? Maybe not. All I can do is live my life, listen to my inner voice and see what the future brings.