One day I was dazedly doing my weekly grocery shopping as I mentally reviewed verb and article conjugations for my coming exam when I was jolted to reality due to the fact that my usual walking speed of zoom had slowed to a snail’s crawl. I was surrounded by a bunch of little old ladies and gents who were assisted by various walking apparatuses or dragging shopping carts behind them. Seeking the empty path through which to do what I call the ‘NY zigzag’ (you know, when you move from side to side on a crowded sidewalk, steadily accelerating in front of people who are strolling and lollygagging) , I noted that the entire store was full of pensioners. I shrugged it off with the thought that it was midday on a Friday when stores tend to start their weekend specials and who could blame the old dears for snagging a sale.
As I went about Vienna that week, the thought stuck with me that I hadn’t ever recalled seeing this many elderly persons about anywhere (not even NYC with their millions of folks clogging the sidewalks); so much so, I mentioned the experience to a friend (we’ll call her V – a British expat). I questioned whether she also found that Vienna seemed to be filled with senior citizens and she laughingly agreed that there was a fair amount of them and they just slayed her with their unique attitudes. V lives in the 13th district called Heitzing (it’s where Schönbrunn Palace – the spring/summer residence of the Hapsburgs – stands) and quarters the largest amount of elderly than the other 23 districts.
After doing a quick demographic population query, it turns out that I was right – there are more persons over 6o in Vienna (22.4%) than in New York City (13.5%), The Bahamas (6.3%), or The United Kingdom (16.5%). Now The Bahamas only has a population of 313,000 with no registerable migration rate (according to the CIA World Factbook); however, The United Kingdom boasts a population of 62.6 million with a migration rate of 2.6 per 1000 while New York City (just the city!!) boasts a population of 8.2 million with a migration percentage of 37% to Austria’s (the entire country) meager population of 8.2 million with a migration rate of 1.81 per 1000. This, of course, stirs up the question of why there are so many more older people in Austria but that will have to be another post. Hubby & V both say its due to the safety of the city – the safest in the world!
As I mentioned, V finds the Austrian aged to be fascinating. She loves their sense of style (honestly, coming from NY, I have to agree with her here) – the older generation has impeccable fashion sense, more so than the below 50 crowd, and are almost always nicely turned out. Often, they are perfectly coiffed/made-up/trimmed, their clothing are perfectly tailored, the quality of the fabrics are, more often than not, unequalled, and their shoes are spit-shined to a high sheen. And that is often where the fairytale ends for, in my opinion, they can be a tad unfriendly. V finds it humorous; P, S, (a couple of other expat girlfriends) and I find it down-right infuriating.
I know and believe they’ve earned and deserve the respect and allowances that comes with surviving more than half a century. Coming from The Bahamas, I was taught to respect my elders and learned my manners and etiquette at the knees (and sometimes on the knees) of my grandparents. Even so, these senior citizens (as we say in Bahamian colloquialism) “ain’ easy”! My greatest pet peeve, their habit of jumping lines. Now, I am the first to admit I am a nerd/geek and believe strongly in fairness, so I may be judging a bit harshly; but nothing drives me battier than when the little dears sidle up to the front of a long line without so much as a ‘by your leave’ and just take a spot to be served next. “Um, excuse you? Do you NOT see 10 people waiting here?!” And worse, they more often than not do it in front of foreigners (the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ attitude that pervades Vienna will also have to be a topic for another time). Now the first time it occurred to me, I didn’t have enough German to protest so I fumed and then fumed some more because nobody else behind me said anything either. The second time, I spoke up (in my ultra broken German) to which the lady slowly perused me from head to toe before turning her back and speaking with the cashier. I became even more livid, when she commented to the cashier ‘Why do Ausländer (foreigners) insist on mangling our language?’. The third time, I was polite, succinct, and standard German (also called hoch Deutsch – high German – the language of royalty) rolled easily and accent-lessly of my tongue. With a look of surprise, she acquiesced to my right. Later, I told hubby about the experiences and he commented that the older generation tends to take advantage of nonnatives who can not defend themselves. I’ve seen my darling Oma do this as well, I guess it’s a generational entitlement thing. (Note, this behavior does not trickle into the below 50 crowd – they just ignore migrants but that might also have a lot to do with the fact that many are migrants themselves).
The other oddity I’ve experienced with those in the 60+ club is the tendency to stare! I was taught (as a child in The Bahamas) not to stare or point; in New York, if someone catches you staring, you smile and look away; but here, there is never a smile or a look of embarrassment, just a pointblank continued inspection. It’s quite unnerving and I’d often comment to hubby about it to which he’d reply (just to make me feel better, I think), “You’re gorgeous, why wouldn’t they stare!” Now this might be one of the cultural variances that I keep discovering or because, more often than not, I’m the only ‘person of color’ in that establishment (as far as I’ve seen hence, I’m always the only one), or because I’m all dolled-up (as I mentioned, most younger folks here are turned out in sneakers, jeans, and tees while I tend to wear trousers, button-downs, and heels with fedoras and, now, overcoats). Whatever it is, it freaked me out at first until I just surrendered to the fact that this was a part of my new life. It still discomfits me but usually, I smile and go back to my life.
So far, I’m surviving, thriving, and still enjoying every moment of this journey. Will I ever adapt as fully into Austrian society as I did into New York City, I don’t know yet; but as I keep saying, “Aww, heck, it’s sure is a gag!”