On my Year Abroad I thought a lot about communities – families, friends, social groups, political groups. Especially in the cold, dark, Viennese winter – I wanted to belong to a community, too. I tried life drawing, where I met cool intellectual, international types and drank wine and beer and then went home feeling uber-European. European – seems odd to write that, I’m not sure I’d ever identified as European before?
Working at a school, I constantly taught and planned lessons in English – teaching students about my culture, where I came from, what we did to celebrate certain events. I loved reflecting on why the UK was the way it was – I’d never thought much about wearing poppies in November, we just did it. Telling foreign people about British culture and customs brought me closer to the UK than I’d felt before. Which was strange, because I’d been abroad before, when I lived in Stuttgart – where I had lots of international friends and some local friends, too.
Teaching English was great – I became closer to my language. Why do we use the plural “sheep” but not sheeps for more than one? Why do we pronounce brought and taught the same way? And why, oh why do we expect foreigners who visit or work in our country be able to speak perfect English, when most of us can’t string together a sentence in French?
I became part of many communities, I ran, I swam, I drew – I went to art galleries with large paintings from the 18th Century and contemplated Brugel, Brecht and Belguim. I was in the centre of Europe! I could be in Bratislava in less than two hours and jog in the Schönbrunn palace gardens in less than 20 minutes. I had so much time on my hands – but what to do with it?
I went to libraries across the city, lots of them – the Hauptbücherei – main library – which looks like a ship from the outside, the local library in my Bezirk or district. Vienna has 23 districts – they begin with the first and go out like a snail – I was living in the 12th, Meidling, and teaching nearby. The buildings were incredible. Large, beautiful, spiralling yet not overbearing – each one like the next but somehow entirely different to the next. In Meidling there was a lot of Sozialbauwohnungen, social housing, built in the 70s when social housing was needed most.
I loved seeing it all and reading the transcriptions on the side of buildings – what might it mean and how long had it been there? I got buses and trams everyday through the winding streets, trying to make sense of where in the city I might have been today – north, south, east or west? I was terrified to cycle, like many locals did – for fear of getting hit by a passing van!
Once, on a bus to my house in Meidling, after I’d moved in with some friends, my boyfriend asked, “did the voice just announce “bless you””? I laughed – he was right, the bus’ final stop was Gesundheitszentrum Süd – The hospital in the south of Vienna. Gesundheit means health, but it also means “bless you!” When someone sneezed at work, it became a force of habit to say it back. When I visited people in Innsbruck, they told me they said “Servus!” too, which was a jolly greeting. Just like in Derbyshire when we say “ay up!”.
I made more friends as time went by – I went tours of the UN with my school. I was fascinated. I got to know more and more students and their ways of life. I met local Viennese people, people from around the region and people from neighbouring countries. I tried wines that were in season. I remember the first day at my school, a vocational college, well. I was given a tour of the grounds and the building. It was a great school – a pleasure to be part of. It was the only school in Vienna with its own vineyard. I couldn’t believe it! Where I went to school, in Belper, we did weekly food tech lessons. I’d never been passionate about cooking but have come to enjoy it as I’ve grown up.
Teaching was interesting because I wanted my students to understand British politics. I did several lessons on Brexit – I was honest, clear that I didn’t vote for it, but I tried to explain what had happened and why. The tables turned during the elections in Vienna when I got the opportunity to ask students and some teachers about their political views. It was refreshing to see so many young people engaged in a debate. In Austria, voting age is 16 and the students at my school were 14 – 19 years old (on some occasions older).
I wonder, being back in the UK – if the voting age was lowered, would we have a fairer say on all matters Brexit?
Now I’m back in the UK and studying for final year, I am embracing the communities I come across at Uni more than ever. Today I did a Park Run, which was full of a range of ages, ethnicities and different communities. Social groups, runners, first-timers, non-athletes. Running along with everyone I felt proud to belong to a Leeds community.
It’s important to stay engaged in conversations, now more than ever. I loved my Year Abroad – it was a challenge, perhaps one of the biggest and best yet. I received money from the ERASMUS scheme to do it, which funded everything from travel, studying, drinking (I promise I didn’t waste it all on booze!), taking part in a Gebärdensprache Kurs (Austrian sign language). Yes, the EU has it’s problems, it can be problematic at times. But the cultural learning I was able to experience in Vienna was einzigartig; one of a kind. I was able to learn and broaden by horizons. And all the while on public transport that cost me less than 50 pounds a semester. I’d hate for the next generations not to get that chance.
Please, please think about the younger generations in this election. The result will be pivotal to our future – not just Brexit, but the way we deal with the Climate Crisis, too.