Within this review section former exchange students to Vienna share their stories, experiences and opinions with you.
Make sure you read this experience report by an Australian exchange student before starting your term at the University of Vienna!
Wien und Wein
a cultured experience
So you´re thinking of going to Vienna? Well if you´re not, you certainly should be. Why would you want to go anywhere else? Sure it might not sound as exciting as Berlin or lavish as Paris, but you´ll be pleasantly surprised. I am so enormously happy I was able to exchange to Vienna and unless you´re about as much fun as a blood test you´ll have a blast too. Lots of this information you will get through other means, such as the useful guide prepared by the International Office at the University of Vienna, but sometimes its nice just to have someone confirm things.
Ok, so first things first: knowing German helps. That´s certainly not to say that it can´t be done otherwise. A great number of words you will encounter in Vienna, as with any European city, are in English. There are courses in German from a very basic level, everyone speaks English to some degree and you can even find some non-language classes in English (particularly law courses). It can be done. Having said that, on paper I have a German degree and yet there were times trying to speak to people like train ticket-sellers where I wanted to cry with frustration because my command of the language was so bad and they were certainly not going to come to the party by speaking English. It also doesn´t help that the Viennese dialect is a little hard to understand. My cleaner and I had major troubles, though I really don´t think she was even speaking German. When I first arrived I would just nod and smile. But you get used to it. Personally, I kind of wish that I had attempted to speak German more. As an exchange student you kind of get into the habit of mixing with other exchangers and so only speak English. At one point I was walking down the street after a long day with my English speaking friends and was surprised when I heard people speaking German. I had totally forgotten where I was. At uni I did law units and all were in English. I would have liked to have done some classes in German but the ones that interested me most all happened to be in English – and that fact had other benefits of course; the lecturers were certainly not going to correct my English as they had on every other student´s work. I would have corrected their´s right back.
There are a few little differences between the two unis but fundamentally they´re very similar. If you are doing law courses, they will generally be Seminars or Lectures. Courses are in-between. In seminars you meet irregularly and it is all personal research towards a paper and presentation at the end. I hate assignments so I avoided these like the plague, but some people prefer to get things over and done with and these would be good for them. Lectures are the same as at the ANU with no attached tutorial feature. You just go, take notes and then take the exam at the end. Exams are either written or oral, which is just like an interview. Courses vary widely. Some are just like lectures but others involve presentations or class participation as well as an exam at the end. Judging from my results compared to effort I think the courses are a little easier than at the ANU, but that´s probably because you have to take more of them. Peculiarities are the knocking on the desk at the end of a lecture out of respect to the lecturer. The first time they did this it scared me senseless. Lectures (unless stated otherwise) always start 15 minutes after the indicated time and end 15 minuted early. A little bonus. The enrolment process is a little scary and it is my advice to research your classes thoroughly on the internet and take as many classes as you can in the first weeks, sign up with the lecturer at the first meeting and then just keep dropping out until you have your 30ects covered. I intended to take an extra class just in case, but laziness got the better of me in the end. Helga Kahofer (and everyone else) at the International Office is an absolute gem and will sort out all of your other enrolment procedures. Everything is made very simple for you in every aspect but course selection – that´s your job.
The enrolment forms that you send off while in Canberra work wonders and make sure you fill out the housing form because it gets you accommodation. I´m sure you could reject it later if need be, but I didn´t realise they organised housing for you and I applied for heaps of places before leaving Canberra and had no luck so I was very grateful for this fact. When you receive your acceptance package it will have what accommodation has been allocated to you. These forms also include the “Bestaetigung” that you´ll need to get your visa. The visa information is all on the Austrian Embassy´s website and it´s all pretty simple. The most annoying thing to get is the police check for which you need cash and patience for down at the Civic Police Station (or any other). It can take weeks to arrive. Your visa should only take a few days by post or less in person. Once in Vienna you need to take your passport down to the Magistratisches Bezirksamt for your area to register. You also have to deregister before leaving. If you happen to be living in the 8th Bezirk the office is in the 1st Bezirk on Wipplingerstr. The 9th Bezirk´s office is on Waehringerstr. For others, ask your student home office when you get them to sign your form. You also need to pay your student fee when you arrive. I recommend paying at the post office – I always found the staff friendlier than at the bank. ANU Insurance was fine for me, but if you are extra concerned you can also take the local student insurance. The only drawback of ANU´s policy in Austria is that you´ll have to pay upfront if you ever need to see a doctor and then claim afterwards. The receptionist may also look at you funny for not having the normal form. Other useful things to do when you arrive are get a Vorteilscard from a major train station if you ever intend to travel in Austria. It´s an instant 50% off all train fares for an upfront 20 euros. At the beginning of the semester you can buy the student ticket for Vienna´s public transport system. It covers all travel in Vienna for the semester and costs under 120 euros. Although I never saw a ticket inspector on any train, tram or bus in Vienna (excluding the airport line which your ticket doesn´t cover anyway) I bought the semester ticket for peace of mind. If you are less of a scaredycat than I you could easily get by without ever paying for a ticket. I think you´d need to get caught 2 or 3 times without a ticket for the semester ticket to earn its value. But if you are into abiding by the law the semester ticket is certainly better than buying tickets everyday and you will want to use the transport system everyday because it is really efficient and reliable.
I´ll share a little about my situation here just in case you find yourself in the same boat. I lived at Pfeilheim which is a student home in the 8th district and houses an enormous number of students. Coming from Fenner Hall I was quite comfortable with this. It is split into 3 sections and I was in 3a which is the best. I got a single room with its own bathroom and my rent was less than I pay in Canberra (260 euros per calendar month). Most other student homes in Vienna are only twin share rooms (including one section of Pfeilheim). I loved having my own bathroom and I would not have been a very good sharer. Kitchen facilities were shared and had everything you´d need, but my kitchen was ruled by my Spanish neighbours so I ate out a lot. It helped there was a Mensa downstairs (a student café where hearty meals are only 3,50 euros). You need to provide linen (excluding pillow and doona) and cooking utensils and these are available at the shops around Pfeilheim. Just take a long walk around the 7th Bezirk or otherwise catch the U1 to Kagran (last stop) and there is a large shopping centre there. I strongly recommend bringing a laptop if you can as Pfeilheim has free unlimited highspeed internet access and my computer became my best friend. It also helps uni-wise as you normally have to line-up to use the computer labs which are located in the large NIG building on Universitaetsstr behind the main university building.
The Erasmus network is a social organisation run for European students on exchange and the Viennese group are very active and I highly recommend going to their events, even though you will be the token antipodean. This is especially useful in the first few weeks when everyone is desperately looking for friends. I had some long conversations with some pretty weird people in those first few weeks. Another bonus is that English is the lingua franca, unlike at the student parties you´ll hear about elsewhere. Kitchens and other common areas are useful places to make friends if you are at a student home, though that was not the case for me. The main forum for my friend-making drive was the orientation session for joint-study students where I met all the other Australians and we became pretty tight. Through them I met lots of British students who wanted to be able to speak English to people other than Americans. The minimal nightclub experience I had in Vienna was pretty sad, but I´m sure if you try hard you could find something good. That really isn´t my scene though. It is certainly a drinkers´ paradise and alcohol (especially beer) is available on every corner. Besides the “kebap” and “wurstl” stands that are everywhere, there are plenty of “beisls” to duck into and have quiet drink at. Besides alcohol, Vienna´s social scene revolves around the famous coffeehouses. Here the drinks are ridiculously expensive and the service cold but they expect you to sit around all afternoon without ordering anything else. A good one is Café Central which was a hang-out for many Viennese notables of times past (including a man who tried to sell postcards for many years in Vienna before making it big politically in Germany). One thing you can´t miss in Vienna is the theatre. You literally can´t miss them – they´re everywhere. Hundreds of them. Although Vienna is famous for its opera, that is just one aspect of the city´s theatre scene. There are any number of comedies, musicals, dramas and avant-garde multimedia spectacles occurring every night in Vienna. And with a student card they all become extremely affordable. For example, standing room tickets at the Volksoper cost only 1,50 euros or for 7,50 euros and a student card you can rock up half an hour before showtime and snap up an unsold ticket right at the front. The Staatsoper is similar though you cannot pre-purchase standing tickets and have to line up for between 1 and 3 hours before the show to get a ticket and then push lots of people out of the way to get a good spot. Although I have always loved musicals, I didn´t fall in love with opera during my stay, though I did become a big ballet fan. If Elisabeth is playing at Theater an der Wien while you are in Vienna I command you to see it. Not only is it about Austria´s most famous royal and performed in the theatre where Beethoven lived but it is fantastic by international standards and you can get a standing room ticket for only 2,50 euros.
The uni timetable isn´t really hectic so you should be able to find some time to travel. Train is of course a very good way to travel, but these days planes are too and some good cheap airlines that leave from Vienna or nearby Bratislava are Air Berlin and Sky Europe. Ryanair also service Austrian towns further afield such as Linz and Graz. Since May 1 2004 Australians no longer need a visa for any of the Eastern European countries near Vienna. Considering the cheaper prices for food and accommodation in these countries they make a good travel option. I personally recommend seeing Prague, Czech Republic and Krakow, Poland. They both have Jewish history, Socialist history, a beautiful old town and lots of cheap food and souvenirs. Krakow also has Auschwitz nearby and a fascinating salt mine. Prague has lots of tourists. With the Vorteilscard you should get some discount on international train fares and another transport option is eurolines bus service which has good cheap connections to neighbouring countries (see www.eurolines.at). Travelling around also has the advantage of making you appreciate Vienna. It is just so clean and safe and pretty compared to the rest of Europe. All in all I just know you are going to have the time of your life. I now consider Vienna my second home and was reduced to sobbing as I walked through the Heldenplatz for the last time. Oh… Vienna! Have a blast.
Oh, and make sure you check out the Heurigen in Ottakring and more famous areas – it´s a great way to get your Wien and Wein together.
Joseph from Australia