Vienna, Austria Report of what it's like to live there - 05/12/13
Personal Experiences from Vienna, Austria
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
La Paz, Guatemala, Lusaka, San Salvador, Prague.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
DC. There are direct flights on Austrian Airways to Dulles---about seven hours.
3. How long have you lived here?
Since June 2011.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Spouse of U.S. State Department employee.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing is spread all over the city, in part because there are three US missions here. It is mostly pretty good, although our first apartment had some serious problems. Fortunately, we were granted a move by the housing board. Viennese families are small, and housing is also on the small (but expensive) side. The embassy definitely seems to have some trouble accommodating large families. We love our downtown apartment because of the location, but it's a good thing we aren't packrats! If you have a chance to put some items in storage before coming here, do so. And expect a trip to Ikea, because there are few, if any closets (none in our current apartment). Housing out in the 19th district, near the American school, is larger, but not nearly as convenient.
Housing in Vienna is not designed with hot weather in mind. Many houses and apartments become uncomfortably (even miserably) hot during summer months. You will be told that the heat lasts "just a couple of weeks." Maybe in 1982 it did, but now these stretches are considerably longer. Be very cautious about accepting any housing assignment that does not include some form or air conditioning!
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Expensive! Crazy expensive! But the quality is generally good. You can find just about anything, but you might have to try more than one small grocery store in the process. There are also some specialty Asian grocery stores. I order some items online just to save money and trouble but I could find them here if I really wanted to.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
With the DPO and pouch available, I can't really think of much I would ship. The embassy furniture pool is nothing to write home about--we all have the old, ratty Drexel here--so stuff to cover it up? Also, I would ship (or buy locally at Ikea) any home office furniture.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Tons of restaurants, though the selection is more limited than in DC, for example. The Viennese do great Central European food--goulashes, sausages, schnitzel, etc.--and good Italian food, but you have to look harder for other cuisines. Austrians are scared to death of anything spicy, and are terrible about over-salting food. There are good Thai, Indian, and Mediterannean restaurants, though, you just have to read the reviews online first to find them, or you may end up with a plate full of greasy, salty noodles. All that said, with a little research, we eat very well here! The cost of eating out is higher than DC, but not as much more as you might expect given the overall cost of living here. Oh, and there is McDonalds and Burger King, of course :)
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
No serious problems, but the Viennese do not put screens on their windows, so you can get a lot of flies in the house.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We have DPO and pouch. Austrian mail is also good, and not too expensive.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
People do have cleaning ladies (mostly Filipina), but they pay a lot for the privilege.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes. We belong to a very nice gym. Very clean, tons of equipment. The only problem is that it is not air conditioned--it doesn't even have fans. So, it can get pretty miserable in the summer. (Yes, this is insane.)
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
My USAA credit card runs into problems sometimes because it doesn't have this special chip that European cards do. It works fine at ATMs though, so I just operate on a cash basis. Not all places here take credit cards, anyway. Most embassy personnel have a local bank account because many service providers insist on payment by bank transfer!
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Yes, but we don't attend, so I can't comment.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
We don't have satellite TV, just AFN and a Roku for internet TV. There are English newspapers and news sites available.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
I really think it helps a LOT to have at least some German. Many people here speak English, but many do not. And, nearly all signage etc. is in German only. To really enjoy living here, it helps to at least be able to understand menus, labels, tram announcements, etc. The embassy has a pretty good language program and I also know lots of people who have taken month-long intensive courses at one of the local language institutes. German is a tough language to speak well, but it is not too difficult to acquire some basic vocabulary, numbers, greetings, etc. I get by quite nicely with my minimal ability, picked up on the fly and in weekly conversation classes.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
It would be difficult. I toured around with my elderly grandmother, and while people are very nice and accommodating, there is a lot of walking required to get anywhere. Not all public transportation is handicapped accessible. Many buildings are not--mostly because they are so old. Streets are uneven, and some sidewalks downtown are not wide enough for a wheelchair.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Absolutely. You can buy an annual pass that allows you to hop on and off wherever you like. it's pretty wonderful.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
I would not bring a huge vehicle because streets, parking spaces and garages are small. I have a small SUV that barely fits in our garage. Otherwise, bring whatever you like.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
If by "high-speed" you mean, "better than dial-up" then yes. But internet service is surprisingly slow and unreliable for an otherwise modern country. That said, I successfully work at home, mostly online with minimal disruptions.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
This is a complicated subject. There are dozens of plans, and pay-as-you-go is also available. One thing to be careful about is roaming charges. Make sure the plan you choose allows for some kind of inexpensive roaming arrangement. I pay 20 Euros a week flat fee for roaming and data when traveling with my T-Mobile phone.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
We have a great vet, and she is cheaper than our US vet. The Viennese are crazy about their pets, and every possible pet service or product is available here.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
I do not follow this closely because I already have a part-time job. But I do not know many spouses who are fully employed here. The language barrier is probably a major reason for that.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
More formal than the States, but not too fancy. Austrians dress pretty sensibly, like Germans.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
The city is very safe, with the exception of a lot of pickpockets in the tourist areas. Anyone with average foreign service street smarts should be able to deal with this. I have heard of some home burglaries occurring, but only when the occupants weren't home. It's not something people really worry about a lot, in my experience.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Health care is very good, but not all doctors, nurses, technicians, etc. speak English.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Excellent, except there is quite a bit of tree pollen in the spring. Many people have terrible allergy problems at that time of year.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
The winter here is very long and very, very gray. People who have never had winter blues before get them here. It is not Moscow-cold, but many days hover in the 20s or 30s with a biting wind. I have not met many fans of the Vienna winter! Summer is mostly very pleasant, but there are some stretches of 90+ temperatures that can get pretty uncomfortable because the city is not equipped for hot weather. And even when there is air conditioning, the Viennese don't like to use it---or to open windows! They don't like to use fans, either. This is truly bizarre. Trams and buses, in particular, can get really stifling hot. I have seen some elderly people looking like they are in danger of heat stroke. Summers are definitely getting hotter here, but these people simply don't know how to deal with hot weather. In short, overall, I would not count the weather as an advantage of living here.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
All three schools are IB and have pretty challenging programs at the high-school level. It is very important to establish which school your kids will be attending before you accept a housing assignment. The three major schools are in totally different parts of the city. If, for example, you are housed out by AIS by default, simply because you have school-aged kids, and if one or more of them attends one of the other schools, the commute would be really long---possibly an hour or more by public transportation or school bus. This was a major reason we asked for a new housing assignment.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
My son is mildly Asperger's (with no other special needs) and we had a terrible time finding a place for him in the schools here. We almost curtailed the assignment solely because of the school situation. He attends the Danube International School, which does the best job of the three international schools of accommodating special needs. The American International School basically does not accommodate special needs, no matter what they say. They rejected my son, and several people have told me that I am lucky they did! I do not know much about the Vienna International School, but they rejected my son.
All that said, my son is very well accommodated at DIS. Reviews of the other two schools are mixed in this regard, to say the least. Definitely assume nothing. Contact the schools directly well ahead of time--preferably before bidding--with an honest disclosure of your child's needs. Do not count on the CLO to help you very much with this. ***Do your own research***I have heard of at least two instances of people arriving with special needs kids and having to leave post because they could not be accommodated.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
All the families with young children that I know of send their kids to preschool. There seem to be a ton of options. Babysitting and nannies are widely available, but expensive.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
HUGE. The biggest I have ever experienced.
2. Morale among expats:
Generally good. A bit more mixed in the embassy community because there are a surprising number of people who have little to no overseas experience at this post. But all the corporate expats I have met are thrilled to be here.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
The embassy community is quite fragmented. It's not the kind of place you can expect to know everyone. People are off doing their own things. But that's OK, it's just different.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's a good city for anyone with money! The cost of living is high, but it is a lot of fun to live here (there is a COLA for US government employees.)
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Yes. Vienna itself is OK about this (though racial stereotypes abound in advertising etc., and I know of some people of color who have experienced minor hassles) but the rest of the country can be pretty weird. There is a major political party that is basically neo-Nazi and still blames Jews and immigrants for everything. I am not making this up. That said, the xenophobia here is probably less than in many other parts of Central and Eastern Europe.
It is a very Catholic culture, which can be odd when you are not used to it. All the major holidays are Catholic, and everything shuts down on Sundays and about two dozen saint's days scattered throughout the year.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Oh, tons. Everything from day trips to castles to longer trips to Italy, Croatia, the Czech Republic, etc. You will not be bored in Vienna.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
I am not that much of a shopper, but I do enjoy the flea markets and antique stores. I know other people who shop for clothes and such here, but I just think that's nuts. Crazy expensive and poor quality.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
It is extremely safe. Public transportation is the best in the world. Many embassy employees do not bother owning a car. There are activities to suit nearly every interest. We are not into opera or music, for example, but we love the museums, the hiking, and the travel opportunities.
11. Can you save money?
We do, but my husband is mid-level and I am cheap.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
3. But don't forget your:
Warm jammies and snow boots!
4. Do you have any other comments?
If you are used to smaller posts, Vienna may be a bit of a shock. There is not a lot of embassy togetherness going on. Everyone is very spread out geographically and many people travel a lot. I do not think I would want to spend our entire career in posts like this. But for three years, it is fine, and there is so much to do here outside of the tri-mission community. We are enjoying it a lot.
For information about Vienna, in English, check out our community website: Trivienna