Breaking Down Language Barriers, One Schnitzel at a Time

I landed in Vienna shortly after noon, half-dragging my parents’ old suitcase behind me as I ran to catch the CAT into town. Moni had instructed me to take the train to Landstraße, where she and David would await my arrival at a globally recognizable meeting point: McDonalds. Once on the platform, I realized that I’d missed the train by four minutes and would need to wait another thirty to catch the next one.

I spent this time bent over my journal, trying to catch up on thoughts from England. There’s some strange aspect I love about the exhaustion that comes with too much travel; shivering on the bench waiting for the CAT, Vienna bright and momentarily out of reach, I embraced the weariness and the fact that I was in Austria. A new country.

Vienna’s city transport was blissfully European: prompt and efficient, it whisked me into Landstraße at precisely the right time – and there were Moni and David, leaning on the railing across from McDonalds. It was a quick greeting: Moni was off to work, and David would be taking me back to Moni’s flat via U-Bahn, another wonderfully reliable form of public transport.

We dumped my things at Moni’s very chic flat and strolled around to a quiet back corner where we could catch up over cappuccino. It’s worth mentioning here that this entire exchange had potential for extreme awkwardness: there’s the language barrier, the four years we’d spent poorly out of touch, and the fact that we’d probably only hung out about 10 times in BA.

I think David said there were cannons on here during WW2 or something.

I think David said there were cannons on here during WW2 or something.

Instead, we sipped coffee and talked about life. David is an interesting guy, beginning with the fact that he’s multilingual, speaking German, Spanish, and English fluently. In addition, he plays the sitar; he recently set up a blog for his father, a retired politician; and he and his girlfriend Mariana, whom he met in Buenos Aires, are Crossfitters. (Sidenote on the cult of Crossfit: It was this topic that somehow became the glue of our conversations, because Crossfitters love Crossfit and love talking about how awesome it is. And fair point. He said they’d tried badminton, joining a gym, yoga – and lost interest in all of them except Crossfit. I’ve got to drink the Kool-Aid. Since I don’t, I exploited my sister’s experience. Sorry, Allison.)

We spent the better part of the afternoon catching up and planned to meet later for dinner. Arriving back at Moni’s at close to 6, a late dinner sounded great. By the time Moni arrived at 8, I was half-asleep on the couch.

“I’m not coming with you to dinner,” she told me, lighting a cigarette. “But we will have a party when you come back from Salzburg. You should call David back, because he has been calling me.”

I was a little disappointed that Moni wasn’t joining us, especially when David came on the other end of the phone:

“Mariana has some friends in town too, so we’ll meet at the Restaurant Mill around 9. How is your Spanish?”

“Ha!” I replied, which translates roughly as: The last time I spoke Spanish, I called my maid a gnome.

Without Moni joining – who also speaks Spanish, of course – the dinner had suddenly mutated into a panel of erudite and attractive South Americans – and David – talking about tango and steak in mellifluous Spanish tones while I pointed at menu items and grunted.

Nevertheless, I pried myself off the couch and walked with Moni toward the train station where she directed me toward Restaurant Mill. (I’ll admit, I’m not so bold. I did contemplate “getting lost” and heading back to Moni’s.)

I found Restaurant Mill easily enough – a corner restaurant with wide glass windows and a dim and cozy interior. Everyone was there already: David, Mariana, Nicola, Neo, and Neo, three Argentinians and a Chilean. They paused their conversation to say hello, and then delved back into the menu in a frenzy of Spanish and German. I wasn’t sure what made me more anxious: the fact that I couldn’t speak either language or the fact that I’m so wowed by polyglots. In any case, I decided the best solution was a giant pint of Otterkringer. When in Austria, right?

Schnitzel

Schnitzel

David charitably aided me with my menu selection. I’d told him earlier that I wanted to try some authentic Austrian cuisine.

“You have to try schnitzel,” he’d said.

“I’m not seeing schnitzel on this menu,” I confided while his girlfriend expertly translated the menu for her friends.

“It’s right here,” he told me, pointing at a word that had both met and exceeded any reasonable amount of syllables. No wonder I hadn’t seen schnitzel: it was deftly hidden behind a slur of morphemes.

Schwinesweinerschnitzel,” David pronounced, which sounded at least six syllables shorter when he said it. At this, Nicola perked up and noted that the word “swine” means pig. Eager to bridge some dangerous language gaps, we all jumped in and talked about swine and pigs until the food arrived and it was time for another round of Otterkringer.

I’m not sure whether it was the jarring translations from English to Spanish to German to – kudos to Mariana – bits of Portuguese or the beer or what, but I quickly shed my anxiety and talked about food, Chilean schools, comfort food when abroad, South American restaurants in Vienna and Ciro, moving, national dishes, and matte. And Crossfit.

My schnitzel was very tasty. I was expecting a hot dog, so this was a nice surprise, and came with potato salad like my German friend Matthias makes. David and I talked about how we met, and Mariana talked about being a lawyer in Argentina and trying to work in the same field in Austria. (God this girl’s impressive. Did I mention she looks like Natalie Portman?)

We were about to leave when two Austrian/Vietnamese guys showed up with longboards. They knew Mariana and sat down with us for some beers and conversation that extended well past 12:30 in the morning. Walking back up Millerstraße, one of the Vietnamese guys and I got to talking about longboarding and his custom-made board from Venice Beach. No one else was out in the street, so I hopped on and rode it the rest of the way home, talking about North Vietnam and Austria and life with people I’d been afraid I wouldn’t understand.

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6 replies »

  1. Isn’t it wonderful when a night that begins with anxiety and uncertainty ends up being yummy (the food) and fun?! Glad you were off to a great start in Austria. And yes, I love that travel fatigue too… the best kind of fatigue around. Cheryl

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