Even though I grew up in the countryside, I always considered myself a city person. I went to university in Vienna and later on moved abroad, where I have lived in some of the biggest cities in the world. City life is convenient – the best restaurants are around the corner, it is easy to get around, the arts and culture scene is bustling. I enjoy the anonymity. I can be whoever I want to be and nobody judges me.
Since the lockdown, I have been spending my time in the countryside. I do head to Vienna regularly but particularly during the lockdown, I stayed at home, went for walks out in the nature and went shopping at the local supermarket or at the farmers. It forced me to rediscover my hometown and reconnect with the countryside. I saw deer, rabbits, pheasants, squirrels and woodpeckers. I walked along the most beautiful sunflower fields and through the forest. It made me reassess my attitude towards the countryside. I think I will always love the city, but there are some nice and some peculiarly funny things about living in the countryside.
Firstly, there is no such thing as “data protection” or “privacy” – everyone knows everything. If you wore an “extravagant” outfit or have a new boyfriend, you will be the talk of town. And word travels fast. If there is a birthday, a rumour, a wedding, a major banking scandal (yes, also happens in the middle of nowhere) or a death, you will know within minutes. Especially about the latter. The church has a small bell which only rings when a member of the parish died. Immediately after the bell rings, the phones will be ringing with rumours about who just died.
This also means that on days you really want to be left alone, local supermarket trips have to be planned wisely. Despite the masks (occasionally combined with sunglasses), you can be sure that you will be identified. Most people mean it in a nice way. They are excited to share their life, their worries and complaints. (Austrians love to complain.) And of course they want to talk about your life and get some gossip. And if it’s not about the most recent gossip, someone will complain about the weather. (In this case, we are similar to the Brits.)
It is considered rude to not greet if you meet someone on the street – even if you do not know the person. I still find it strange when my neighbours in the city ignore me when I greet them in the lift or when they try to look away in the hallway. Yes, I am the weirdo who wants to know their neighbours. In the countryside, it is completely normal to chat with your neighbours, help each other out and exchange gossip.
One of the places to connect and chat is our gardens. Gardens are very important and they have evolved overtime. What used to be a neat garden in front and in the back of your house has now become the front of a fortress. The front garden used to be equally important as the private backyard – what would passers-by think if your front garden was messy? Some still take it very seriously and show off beautiful roses or their garden gnomes. However, the neat front gardens have now made way to ridiculously high Thuja plants or, the newest trend, steel frames filled with stones. What used to be a lush lawn or pretty flower bed is now a “stone field” without any greenery surrounded by stone walls. It means less work I guess, but also heat…
If you count on public transport in the countryside, you are doomed. There are buses in two-hour intervals to the next town with a train connection to Vienna. When I grew up, we had all the daily necessities in the town – there was a baker, a butcher, a supermarket, a bank, some small shops, cafés and restaurants. Some have survived, but many of them have closed and supermarkets have moved from the town centres towards their outskirts due to cheaper rents and bigger space. It is now necessary to have a car for most people to even do the basic shopping. During the lockdown, however, the local farmers saw increased demand in their products. In Austria, you can pick up some products directly at the farms: eggs, milk, fruits, vegetables or meat. Many locals started to buy regionally again.
As many families have the same surname, the profession is added for clarity. One example may be “Moser-Lehrer” – Mr Moser who is a teacher. Speaking of professions and names: Last week I went to the local vegetable farmer who we call “Gärtner-Hans” (Hans, the gardener/vegetable farmer). As I said, everyone knows everything about everyone. Hence, it is no surprise that Hans knows that I spend a lot of time in Asia. We briefly talked about the reasons why I am stuck in Austria. After I left, he ran after me with a special type of chili. “This type of chili was grown by my grandfather and is over 100 years old. It’s called “Elephant Trunk. You must miss Thailand. Now you have a piece of Thailand here in Austria.”, he said.
It is these small acts of kindness that make up for the non-existent “data-protection” in the countryside I guess.