271 miles: schnitzel to spaghetti

Alicia Bones

The distance between Vienna, Austria and Venice, Italy is 271 miles. That’s about the distance from Milwaukee to Minneapolis. In this short distance, Europeans can go from quiet to loud, from schnitzel to spaghetti carbonara, from Austrian stares to hearty “buongiornos!” All Americans can do in that distance is travel from a state whose citizens say “bubbler” to one whose citizens say “drinking fountain.” This ease in travel affords Europeans amazing opportunities for expanding their cultural horizons, but also must highlight their sometimes extreme cultural differences.
Some of these differences were blatant in traveling from Vienna to Venice. Venice is loud. Each artistically crumbling building is painted red or green or some equally bold color. Gondoliers yell as they turn canal corners and croon Italian love songs as they steer. Vienna is austere. The pristine buildings are intimidating and stately in their white marble. The subway cars are always silent.
Venetians are more outwardly aggressive than the Viennese. Waiters in water-side restaurants get right up into potential patrons’ faces and yell the specials of the day. Viennese waiters, picturesque in their three-piece tuxes, deign to deliver patrons’ fancy coffees on silver trays. Venetians smile when passing others on the street. At our study-abroad program introduction, Americans were warned not to smile “our happy American smiles” at the Viennese, lest they think we want to sleep with them.
Americans have even more trouble in Europe because we are familiar with few cultural nuances in European culture. In Venice, for example, I was taken aback by the hand gesture of slamming a closed fist into the open other hand. In America, this translates to “I want to punch you out!” but in Italy it means “Now I remember!” In Venice, I picked out a gold and white carnival mask so I could be a bird for Halloween. In fact, my ornately decorated mask was of a “medico della peste,” or plague doctor, and was a version of what doctors wore during the Black Plague to prevent themselves from catching it — the nose was stuffed with a filter of salts and rosemary, garlic and juniper plants.
I’m equally surprised at the cultural differences in Austria, as well. Austria has a well-documented requirement of punctuality and even being one minute late is met with the dreaded Austrian stare — acquired by all Austrians at birth. It’s an unsmiling, cold stare that makes the unlucky recipient drop dead, or want to.
A distance of only 271 miles can mean a huge cultural divide in Europe, and sometimes it’s nice to live in the U.S. where 271 miles usually only means a slight regional difference. Eccentrics in Wisconsin celebrate Elm Farm Ollie, a mustard festival, while kooky Minnesotans celebrate the SpamtownUSA Festival. They go so well together — SPAM and mustard, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The distance doesn’t mean much.
Sometimes, however, culture within the USA is as disconnected as cultures within Europe. For example, the cover page of The Mississippi Press from Pascagoula, Miss. Nov. 5 features only Halloween costume and no mention of President-Elect Obama besides a crabby footnote about the happiness at the election’s end. Compare that to nearly every other paper with jubilant headlines, often accompanied with an exclamation point. Sometimes, American culture, if we have such a thing, is as variable as the culture from Austria to Italy.
With my cultural fumbles, I have never felt so excited to see Americans. Americans are loud — we gawk at the Eiffel tower, we laugh at our foreign language mistakes, we wail at the poor exchange rate of the dollar. Americans abroad have a charming, unfashionable loss of inhibition when seeing the sights of Europe that the Europeans, with their ease in getting from place to place and their sophistication, often seem to take for granted.