Austria, Graz – Chris North – 2006-2007

Before my Erasmus year abroad, I would have classified myself as a student with the stereotypical view that England was the heart of Europe and that the further into Eastern Europe one travelled, the less developed the countries would be. Now I can’t believe how misinformed I was.

I arrived in Graz, Austria, with the pamphlets my university had given me, all about how I had made a great choice by being an Erasmus student. One that really caught my eye was the pictures of Graz, frankly nothing like what I had expected, and heralding the fact that this city was the cultural capital in 2004.

My first impression of Graz was the efficiency of the transport system. On arriving at the Airport, I took a bus directly into the city centre. Travel within the city itself is not only incredibly easy, hopping on and off the efficient Straßenbahn (Tram) system, but also extremely cheap, with unlimited travel available using a 24hr ticket.

Graz lies in a valley enclosed by mountains. It is a vibrant modern city, on the one hand young and innovative, whilst on the other, steeped in tradition. Wide pedestrianised streets, spotlessly clean, are flanked by tall majestic buildings displaying red clay coloured roofs, and dominated by the castle, with its tall clock tower being a focal point. It is not just a beautiful city, it is unexpectedly wealthy too.

The city also has a rich tradition which is paired with the Germanic aptitude for engineering. A perfect example of this is the castle in Graz, which is located about 150 feet on a hill above the city. The history is that in 1809 Napoleon had wanted to destroy the clock tower and the castle, but his army had been repelled by the Austrian local forces a fraction of the size. A monument of a lion has been built to commemorate this. Access to the Schloßberg is provided by a high tech elevator that whisks you straight to the top, and not just a restaurant but also a garden of roses have been built which highlights the view.

Graz has also 2 rather distinct but nevertheless unique tourist attractions. The first is a museum called the Kunsthaus, built in the shape of an alien spacecraft, located about a 3 minute walk from the town hall. The exhibitions vary between months with set themes, mostly modern art. The more I travelled around Austria, the more I noticed that modern art seemed very popular and prevalent in all areas, attracting attention from all age groups.

The second building that was erected in 2004 is a steel dome resting in the middle of the river with walkways on either side, called the “Mur Insel”. After reading about it I thought it would be unsightly, but actually proved to be quite appealing. Inside this dome is a café, a children’s climbing frame, and a small amphitheatre designed for small concerts. It signified to me that Graz wanted to progress but at the same time retain some of its heritage.

As a city, Graz has one of the highest number of foreigners, boasting over 2000 Erasmus students every year, and their influence creating a vibrant, cosmopolitan atmosphere. Coincidently I got the impression that cities in Austria tended to be quite closed, definitely a lot less multicultural than England, and in a way I appreciated the ability of seeing a culture without being swamped by outside influence.

I made a very conscience effort to have friends both in the local and Erasmus scenes. The differences were very extreme, in every lifestyle aspect. Karl Franzens Universität did a really amazing job at organising parties and meetings for Erasmus students, and naturally this is the best way to meet new people. However this does not reflect the traditional way of life in Austria, and this was something I was keen to explore.

I lived the majority of my year in a state of the art flat with 2 Austrians, a Bosnian and a Lithuanian, and of course this resulted in a great improvement in my German speaking. I arrived having done the top level of German from the foreign language centre in Exeter, only to find myself in the class just above the beginners. A little demoralizing to say the least. However by the end of the year I was taking all my classes in German and understanding the teachers, some of whom had strong Styrian accents.

It was during the classes that the real hard work ethic was shown, and at first I struggled to keep up, in particular trying to adapt to the rigidity of the Austrian system. I had been given the impression that Erasmus would be an easy year abroad, but in reality I have never worked so hard in my life. In a comical way it proved more difficult to register for the courses than taking them. I remember a stressful 4 hours on the computer trying to find courses to apply for, each with different registration windows and timetables. Any clashes simply were not taken into consideration, and perhaps worst of all, every degree program, whether a masters, doctorate or bachelor, were all mixed together. I unfortunately found this out the hard way when I discovered my Financial Instruments course was for master students. In spite of this, the majority of class were taught to a very high level and were clear and understandable. Personally, the luxury of being able to choose my own courses benefited my understanding, as I found them a lot more interesting.

I was lucky enough to experience a lot of Austrian cuisine, a diet which is heavily concentrated on meat and which would be a nightmare for a vegetarian. The famous “schnitzels” were available in nearly every pub, but there were other delicacies such as roasted conkers and “Glühwein”, which is similar to our mulled wine but with a mixture of herbs and more alcoholic. Coffee shops were prevalent, frequented by students locals and tourists.

Also noticeable was the prices in Graz. Despite it being a wealthy city, Graz also had a huge variance of shop classes. Shops such as H&M were right beside high class makes like Hugo Boss and Marco Polo. All supermarkets had high quality food at extremely reasonable prices, which made it easy as a student to eat healthily, and restaurants were notoriously cheap too.

One of the greatest benefits of choosing Austria is its location with regard to Europe. This is coupled with a cheap rail system, which allows travel from Graz to any major city (even as far as Barcelona) for 20 euros. Austria actually boarders 7 countries, and cities such as Milan, Prague or Zagreb are only a few hours away. This made me realize how isolated England was as an island.

One of the most important features of Austria is its dependency on income from tourism. In fact it has some of the best ski resorts in the world and an abundance of breathtaking scenery. During my year abroad I ended up spending as many weekends as possible visiting neighbouring resorts, and honestly it is something I miss a lot as a returning student. Last winter the weather in Austria was uncharacteristically mild, and therefore tourism suffered. The blame was solely placed upon global warming, and, especially in the months of December and January, television was bombarded with environmental commercials. The green party has always had a reasonable amount of backing in Austria, but when people’s income is at risk, it receives a justified increase in attention. Living with Austrians made me realise how seriously recycling is taken, and it took me a while to adjust to four separate bins, for metal, plastic, paper and bio respectively.

Admittedly there was one serious negative aspect of my year abroad, and this is the outstanding level of bureaucracy in Graz. Whether it is for a mobile phone contract, housing contract, or even opening a bank account, at least 2 types of non English identification are required. For a foreigner this is virtually impossible. Regarding the university, everything needed a stamp, tick or signature and it can be very tedious and annoying.

It really goes without saying that Graz has had a great impact on my life. Living on your own in university is one thing, but adapting to another culture is perhaps the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. The whole Erasmus experience has been an amazing eye opener for me, especially with the opportunity to meet people for a variety of economical, social and cultural backgrounds. The knowledge that your homeland is just 2 hours away and so different is sometimes difficult to take in. I realise that although a lot of people say that the world is getting smaller, and that globalisation will inevitably affect every culture, you do not need to travel to the other side of the world to experience something new and fresh, it can be right on your doorstep.

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