By Zoe Scheuerman ’24
I’m writing this sitting in a traditional Viennese Coffeehouse. Think red and/or green velvet upholstery that manages to invoke opulence and not Christmas, baroque ceilings, mirrors perfect for adjusting hair and ties, portraits of unnamed but presumably important dead people, and a menu of coffee drinks you’ve never heard of. Hint: A “mocha” here doesn’t have anything to do with chocolate. Here, you can order an espresso and read the newspaper, debate politics, catch up with a friend, or write your study abroad update at the last minute (Sorry, Words staff!) completely uninterrupted for as long as you want. Coffeehouses in the Austrian capital have traditionally been bourgeois haunts, especially in the exclusive first district, so you’ll see plenty of older Austrians in suits or pearls. But I’ve also never been made to feel unwelcome when I wander in wearing ripped jeans, ratty Converse, and a Vans t-shirt.
My program started on New Year’s day, but I’ve been in Austria for about a month. Before that, the rest of my program compatriots and I spent two months at a language school in Berlin, brushing up on our German skills before getting thrown into the deep end at the University of Vienna. As a German heritage speaker, intensive German classes were both very affirming and disorienting at different points in the program, but even during frustrating moments, I loved building lasting friendships with awesome students from all over the world. Berlin is also a singular, insane city. We tried to do as much as possible in eight weeks, but you would need at least eighty years to explore even half of what the city has to offer. It’s also hedonistic (don’t ask me how many times we went to the techno clubs on a Tuesday night) and very intimidating. Not in the sense that people are unfriendly, because that common complaint about the city mostly applies to bouncers and tired service workers, but because you can feel the scars that a rich but often grim history has left on its collective psyche. As an English major, I hate admitting that I can’t describe something well, but there’s just something in the air. It’s a traumatized city.
In contrast, Vienna, although it shares some of the same history, doesn’t have the same (increasingly gentrified) grit. When the sun shines on the imperial palace’s gold accents, I feel like I’m moving through honey, everything dictated by the Viennese High Culture aesthetic of elegance, classical west European art, wealth, and conservatism. That said, the traditionally, stylistically conservative theaters frequented by the wealthy are sustained by the same subsidy system that the historically socialist “Red Vienna” government puts toward avant-garde communist theater groups and high quality, beautiful public housing complexes. And, to be honest, Berlin’s club scene can be just as pretentious as the Austrian National Opera.
My main research interests are nationalism and nation-building. My proposed honors project, along with the International Studies capstone I wrote last semester, explore the futures of nationhood and national belonging. So, every day on this program, I’m fascinated to sit in the shadows of states that no longer exist. In Berlin, that meant the DDR, whose crumbing wall I could see from my window. In Vienna, it’s the Austro-Hungarian empire, of which elaborate cakes named after nobles remind tourists and residents alike. My program’s group trip to Bosnia was fascinating for similar reasons. I’m also a German major who’s interested in translation and regionalisms, so exploring the different German dialects across countries and cities has been one of the highlights of my study abroad experience so far. My improved slang vocabulary proves that, contrary to one of my Berlin teacher’s opinions, language has no one authority or “correct” version. I expect my experiences to shape my honors project, creative works, and German capstone, and I’m very excited to see how they influence me!
My program is rare among Mac student’s programs in that it’s Macalester run, so most of my programmates are Mac students. However, I didn’t know everyone very well before the program, so I’ve enjoyed building relationships that I can hopefully continue and strengthen in the coming months and back at Mac. We also have a few students who aren’t Macalester students, and it’s really awesome to break out of the Mac bubble and get to know them, too! I miss all of my friends at Mac and the English Department community, but I’ve also enjoyed taking my time to travel and reflect on my long-term priorities. Sending lots of love, and see you all in the fall!
Thank you for sharing this with us Zoe! We’re so looking forward to welcoming you back as a Senior Newsletter Editor next fall!