Monday, January 21, 2008

Graz After A Year

It's be almost exactly a year since we arrived in Graz. This month, we'll be reapplying for our visa status, to allow us to stay here a while longer. Greg has signed a new contract with the university, for a further three years of research employment, and we're looking forward to having that time here. In contrast, here are some thoughts looking back on the last twelve months of living in Austria. We each wrote our thoughts out separately, so there is some overlap and repetition. Also, there are no pictures this time. The biggest adventure this month was hiring the services of an electrician to repair our stove before it burned the building down, and as interesting and European as the stove is, we're guessing you actually do not want to see pictures of the inside of it. We do have those pictures, though, so if you're really into the private interior life of an Indesit built-in model combination stove/oven appliance, just say the word...

Holly's Take
In some ways, it's been exactly what we expected. This is a gorgeous city in a gorgeous country, and the shine isn't really wearing off on that. The official language is, indeed, German. Things are more expensive here. There are only 4 television channels, two of which are showing dubbed American sitcoms at any given time. We are really, really happy to not have a car. Europeans have a very different fashion sense than Americans (Not necessarily better, mind you--just different). There are a lot more dogs in public spaces than in the U.S. (especially noticeable in cafes and on the buses and trains), and a correspondingly increased supply of dog crap (especially noticeable on shoes and sidewalks). Greg's job is what he expected, and my unemployment is more or less what I expected. The beer and baked goods are every bit as amazing as I'd been led to believe. Our appliances are tiny, and our shopping habits have changed to accommodate that.

But having your expectations met isn't the exact point of traveling and exploring, is it? It seems unlikely that when Apollo 11 got to the moon, all the astronauts rolled out the door, announced, "Yep, I thought so," and piled back into the lander so they could finish a round of canasta.

Some things have surprised me, certainly. I did not realize that the local accent and dialect would be so .... rugged, so challenging for me to understand. I did not expect it to take so long improve my language skills. I didn't expect to have re-learn the body language and etiquette of walking down the street, I got a tremendous amount of exercise this year doing the Eye Contact Shuffle, where each person tries unsuccessfully to clear the path of the other person. I did not expect the overwhelming popularity of riding boots. I didn't expect seasonal foods to be such a point of obsession here. I didn't expect the hochstuhl toilets. I didn't expect to feel so intimidated about traveling around Europe. (I suspect that is a result of having put so much energy into planning the move, and now feeling like planning a leisure trip is just Too Much. I think I'm starting to recover from that.) I didn't expect that Austrians would be really into decorating things, especially with flowers and plants. I didn't expect such a passive-aggressive character in the general populace. I didn't expect that people would have to *ask* to find out where I'm from (I thought everyone would hear my accent and just know. This is not the case.) I didn't expect it to be impossible to find shoes here. I was surprised to learn that spicy food isn't really a thing here. (I nearly cried with joy when I found a Thai restaurant in Vienna that served me some stir fry that could peel the paint off the walls.) I was genuinely surprised to discover that Stargate and Charmed are so, so popular. I didn't not know that so few films were actually produced in German, in the original, or that my hatred of dubbed films would render movie going very unpleasant. (I also did not expect to have to choose my seat assignments in the movie theater!) I didn't expect that I wouldn't be able to just order "coffee"--it never occurred to me that here, coffee is an ingredient, not an end product. I also did not expect it to be basically good weather all the time, and essentially free of snow.

Greg's Take

It's hard to believe that as of January 17th, it's already been a full year since we arrived in Austria. Some people, admittedly myself included, might have thought that us moving to Europe was a perpetual idle threat, but here we are looking back on the first year and ahead to the next three years. I guess this is a good time to talk about how the actual experience compared to my expectations and also how it compares to the thirty-two years I spent in the US.

Since I had already visited the German-speaking world a few times prior to coming here, I was not totally clueless of what to expect, but there is a significant difference between asking where the toilet is and trying to negotiate a rental agreement.

So from my experience over the last year, here is an overview of what I find to be advantageous and disadvantageous of living in Graz versus the US.

It is true that we pay a lot of taxes here. This is a common criticism that I hear from (usually Republican) politicians when someone suggests a social program of some sort. "Oh, if we had that, then we'd have cripplingly high taxes like Europe." How much do we actually pay in taxes, you ask? I have no idea really. I have never seen what I get paid before taxes. In fact when I signed the contract for my job it only ever mentioned what I get paid after taxes and deductions for benefits. What benefits, you ask? Well, we get universal healthcare and a pension mostly. I have also seen a lot of counter arguments to public healthcare in the US saying how it is a dumb idea and couldn't possibly work. They claim that sure we have it here in Europe but we have clunky old machines and are tremendously understaffed. That doesn't agree with my experience at all. Having had a bit of a medical adventure here last year, I can say the hospitals are well-staffed and they have completely modern facilities. When I had to spend the night in the hospital and get some tests, I only had to pay €16 (about $25). As for the pension plan, it works like this: Every year you get paid more money. When you retire, you continue to make the maximum income you've earned as long as you're alive. So I might pay a lot of taxes, but I don't have to think about it and I get something good for my money. It's not all being blown starting wars that I don't support. I don't have to fill out a tax form either unless I want to claim that the government should pay me something back. When all is said and done, I get payed a comfortable amount. I also don't have to think about sales taxes, because when I go to the store, the taxes are already included in the advertised price of every item.

What else do they do with all that tax money? Well, they support the educational system. Not only is are schools free like the public school are in the US, but the universities are very cheap. It costs only a few hundred Euros per year to attend. This is less than I spent on books when I was going through the university system in the US. Speaking of education, there are also plenty of continuing education options at a reasonable price. We are using these to further our language skills in the evenings.

Another thing that tax money is spent on is subsidizing the public transportation system. Although we frequently walk or bike anywhere we need to go because they have an excellent and extensive foot and bike path network which connects the town, it is good to know we can also take a bus or the tram. The bus/tram network covers most of town and it seems like it is going to be extended further in the immediate future. Not only can you get around town easily, but you can get to other cities easily as well as the train network is very much alive and well here unlike the scant token presence of the Northeast Express in the US. I recall one time we looked at trying to take a train from Albuquerque to Austin and were horrified to discover it was a three-day trip via Chicago (with two legs of the trip on local buses!) and cost over $1,000. Trains are simply a more economical and efficient way to move things than via cars and trucks or planes. Although I have only taken the train to Vienna and into Slovakia so far, I anticipate further use of it. Where else does tax money go? We have public bathrooms. It seems like not a big deal until you actually need one. I suppose the lack of them in the US helps fosters the rugged individualism of sneaking into fast food restaurant bathrooms or buying a token item to justify its use.

Working in the university is great here since universities are public institutions, it makes me a public servant. As such, it means I get higher interest rates on my savings account. We also get a five-week yearly allotment of vacation days at least twice as many holidays as the US. Additionally there is no notion of "sick days" per say. If you're sick, you stay home. If you miss more than three days, you get a doctor's note, end of story.

The local cuisine is fantastic. We're pretty sure that Austrian botanists have developed the technology to grow root vegetables directly in butter. It must help that there are many local farmers so getting farm fresh food is easy. There is at least one farm market open every day and others which are open at least twice a week. On the note of food, I feel it must be mentioned that the chocolate is top notch here and we have been eating lots of it for its.... medicinal properties. Our main complaint with the food here is that non-European cuisine is hard to get overall. Spicy food is effectively nonexistent. I admit I really miss green-chile based food and am frequently crying for enchiladas. Also cheddar cheese isn't a thing here.

Although communicating is difficult, there is at least a temporary advantage to abysmal language skills in that when someone says something really dumb or irritating, we don't notice, including when it was one of us who said it.

A couple more odds and ends: People are serious about recycling here. Recycling bins are ubiquitous in town and it is expected that you will separate plastic, metal, clear glass, colored glass, paper, and organic matter from the other trash. I don't know for sure, but I think we add to the landfill a lot less based on the fact that about 1/8 as much "miscellaneous trash" is simply dumped instead of recycled.

There is no WalMart in Austria. They had set up shop in Germany back in 1998 and had 85 stores until about a year and a half ago when they all closed. There isn't anything quite like it either. The closest thing we have is InterSPAR which is a very large grocery store that also sells some home items. Although you can buy most anything you want here, it should be mentioned that there are no 24 hour stores. Most grocery stores are open roughly from 7:30 to 7:00 on weekdays a slightly shorter day on Saturday and closed on Sunday. There is a single everyday store in the train station for people who planned poorly and the Turkish markets are open on Sunday.


Hiromi said...

Holly, what's a hochstuhl toilet?

As for the pension plan, it works like this: Every year you get paid more money. When you retire, you continue to make the maximum income you've earned as long as you're alive.


What's the highest tax bracket there?

Holly said...

Hmm, my mistake Hiromi, I actually mean hochspüler, a hochstuhl is a baby's high chair. A hochspüler toilet has a ceramic shelf, instead of a reservoir of water. So you can.... check.

I believe this explains pretty well how that works, plus it has a picture.

As far as the tax brackets, we don't actually know. In all seriousness, rental agreement legalese is a pretty serious test of our language skills--we're not ready to read the tax law. It seems like Greg's paying around 20%, but like he said, you don't feel it. Not only is it deducted without our having to do anything, we don't have to do any paperwork about it, and (this is key) he's getting paid enough to live on, without all that wistful "If only I didn't have to give the gubmint so much of my money"... I've always hated the US way of giving some, taking some back, giving some of THAT to you, and then maybe charging you interest on some part of it.

Rufus said...

Canada also takes a lot in taxes. But, the kicker is that when Claire was making more money than me, she was actually getting a larger refund and ultimately paying less in taxes. Where you actually notice the difference is when you buy things like gas. Otherwise, it's not noticeable in Canada either.

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