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 American exchange student before starting your trip to Vienna!
A very special Vienna experience
It is a fascinating moment when the unknown becomes known, when we first recognize that formerly alien landscapes have become a part of us and we a part of them. Such a moment can occur on a small scale- feeling entirely at home for the first time in a circle of friends, for instance- or in a more striking way, like realizing that we have come to love and accept another culture as our own. Whatever the situation, these epiphanies are arrived at through openness, empathy, and a willingness to reach beyond what is merely comfortable or convenient. They often arise at unexpected times, or only after long periods of inhibition and uneasiness, but when we experience that first rush of understanding, that great expansion of perspective and sense of belonging, we are forever changed.
In late August I arrived in Vienna, Austria for the semester- jet-lagged into a stupor, attempting to carry my own bodyweight in luggage, battling off the remnants of a stomach flu, and possessing a knowledge of approximately seventeen German words. It was not a glorious entrance. In fact, I was on the verge of tears as I stumbled into my hostel for the night. It had taken me hours to find the place, hours of deciphering maps and squinting at street signs and asking unfriendly strangers for directions in sheepish English. Now my arms ached, my head ached, and I wanted to go home.
Frenetic questions began to flash through my mind. Why, exactly, had I decided to do this? I was perfectly happy at my home university; I had fantastic friends there and I’d been making great progress in my major (piano performance). So why had I elected to temporarily uproot it all, to rip myself away from a secure environment in which I had been thriving? Why had I chosen a country in which I had no proficiency in the language? Why did I have such a compulsion to seek out the new and the challenging? Why couldn’t I just quit while I was ahead?
The racing thoughts stopped abruptly as exhaustion set in. You’ll be fine, said a soothing voice in the back of my head. You’ll adjust. Things will get better.
I was slightly alarmed when, at least for a while, they didn’t. The sense of utter disorientation continued well into my first few weeks of the semester as I tried to navigate my way around this foreign city, settle into new living arrangements, reach out to an unfamiliar peer group, and cultivate some vaguely intelligible version of the German language. It was hard work. I had always thought of myself as a fairly flexible person, but now every minor setback, every inconvenient situation would topple me into a state of high-strung vulnerability. City traffic kept me awake at night; surly waiters would reduce me to a gibbering mess with a few curt sentences. Practice facilities were located a half hour’s train ride from my apartment, and the Viennese public transportation system proved a mystery for quite some time (that is, until I made the crucial discovery that one of the major downtown streets was not linear but in fact cut a giant circle around the inner city).
Throughout these bewildering initial weeks, I felt stricken with longing for my old life and routines. I felt guilty. This was the fabled “semester abroad in Europe,” after all, and I was privileged to have had the opportunity to come. Every day I was being introduced to amazing and eye-opening aspects of a spectacular culture, but it was too much to process all at once. My underlying anxieties and constant pangs for the familiarity of college life prevented me from embracing the totality of the experience. Friends from the U.S. wrote enviously, the emails all relaying some version of, “I’m so jealous- you must be having the time of your life,” but I could only reply back with, “Adjusting has been a little rough. I really miss you guys.”
However, not for the first time in my life, music became an anchor of support when all else was tumultuous and confusing. I enrolled in intensive music history courses, dove into playing chamber literature with my peers, and began taking private piano lessons with a professor at the Vienna University of Music and Performing Arts. This teacher had lived in Austria for thirty years but in fact was an American who had only come to Europe after graduate school. With this background, she simultaneously empathized with me as a stranger in a strange land and provided a fascinating insider’s view of the local music scene. I brought her my interpretations of Mozart and Brahms; she rapidly picked my playing apart and helped me to reconstruct the pieces in a manner that was more stylistically appropriate – “Viennese,” if you will. After a few lessons, she deemed that I was ready to attend weekly studio class.
This struck mild terror in my heart, as the purpose of the class was to comment constructively on other students’ playing and in turn be critiqued by them… all “auf Deutsch.” Fortunately my bilingual teacher could act as a go-between, at once keeping me abreast of what was being said and supplementing my infant German prose for the sake of the other students. But as the semester progressed, I began to pick up some phrases that were specific to music. My remarks grew in sophistication from, “It was very pretty,” to, “You can be more expressive in the middle section- bring out the long phrases in the top voice and keep the left hand quiet.” Additionally, the responses that I got from the other students were overwhelmingly positive. Even as my feelings of incompetence in their culture persisted, I was reassured that these fellow pianists seemed to respect me as a musician and that we could communicate on this level.
In short, my state of mind gradually improved. I can pinpoint a single experience, however, which tipped the scales of my study-abroad experience from “interesting, enriching, a good thing to have done” to “profoundly enlightening, it changed my life.”
My piano teacher had a wealthy friend who put on a private benefit concert every year featuring pianists from my studio; I was astonished when my teacher asked me to play. “Really? Me?” I asked. “Of course,” she replied. “You’re a part of our studio now, and you’re sounding polished these days. Play your Mozart sonata! Oh, and guess which piano you’ll be performing on?” I waited. “Arthur Rubinstein’s old Steinway! My friend is renting it for the night.” My jaw essentially hit the floor. I couldn’t believe that I was being offered such an opportunity.
On the night of the performance, my teacher drove me and another student, Sigrid, to her friend’s beautiful turn-of-the-century house. Siggi and I waited nervously to try out the piano, and in the meantime we discussed our disparate upbringings, the positive and negative aspects of both American and Austrian cultures, and the status of classical music in the world today. It was an incredibly illuminating conversation- conducted haphazardly, half in German, half in English, with an intense curiosity emanating from both sides.
The guests arrived, looking debonair, and it was time to play. I was the first on the program. I teetered on my heels to the piano, where I shakily announced my piece in German and then sat down to perform. All fears disappeared, however, as soon as the music took over. The cherished instrument responded to my subtlest motions, resounding brightly to the contrapuntal passage work of the sonata. It lent a richness of tone to the aria-like slow movement, a gossamer delicacy to the ornamentation. For the first time in years, I felt completely absorbed in a piece of music, as though I were connecting with the still-present spirit of Mozart and sharing it with this warmly receptive audience.
After we had all played, my piano teacher kissed me on the cheek and told me that I had played Mozart like a true Viennese. Then the gracious host invited us to join in a reception. Perhaps it was the thrill of having given a good performance, or maybe it was the sense of camaraderie that I felt with my fellow pianists, or it might have been the effects of the delicious wine that the waiters kept pouring me, but suddenly the anxiety and homesickness that had been lodged in my throat for the past few months vanished and I felt a wave of pure elation. My inhibitions gone, I discovered I had somehow attained a decent mastery over the German language in the past months, and I was even able to engage with an erudite patron of the arts in a conversation about Schubert’s youth. Then, as a live swing band struck up, I abandoned the Schubert conversation, grabbed Siggi by the hands, and began to dance. “Do you know this song?” she called out over the brass. “Yes!” I replied, and spun her. “It’s ‘The Way You Look Tonight!’ I grew up listening to this!” At that moment, in this radiant night suffused with timeless music from sonata to Sinatra, it seemed as though our cultures crossed a deep chasm of doubt and came to understand one another.
From that day forth, I felt a great affection for Vienna and a new ease in the environment. As I trotted to class along now-familiar streets, as I nestled into an armchair at my favorite café with my nose in a symphony score, as I explained to tourists how to navigate the standing-room ticket queue at the opera house, I looked back on the fragile, self-conscious girl that I had been only a few months before. She was gone, a transitory stage of my development. Here I was in her place, the finished version- joyous, ebullient, arms wide open to the richness of this culture and the human experience. I was home.
Alana from Indiana, USA