Tuesday, July 28, 2009

in a waiting room

Okay, alright, after bringing in some documents and shelling out another 110 euros in my semi-annual visit to the immigration office, I'm legal again. I can live in Austria with my family for two more years--hooray!

MA 35--I know the place well. The young clerk with a dozen fotos of Elvis taped up above her desk; the harsh, barely understandable voice on the loudspeaker (' Did they call my name or was that a sneeze?'); the looks of desperation all around me. I'm usually sitting with lots of Turkish people, some Croatians, and one or two Indian or Thai people, all of them hoping for permission to stay in Vienna.

To me, the staff are usually kind. Bemused. I have to hack up the German language for the first few, lower-level employees, then for the first few minutes with one of their bosses. Then she will probably smile--in a strictly non-patronizing way--and start speaking English.

But God knows how they treat Turkish applicants, black applicants or anyone who doesn't speak any German.

I don't know if Austria ever thought of itself as an immigration country, but it needs to start. There is a certain tone that creeps into conversation and media and everyday life here which makes me think some Austrians still think of their country as some sort of imperial powerhouse, drawing people to it like moths to a flame. If I'm perceiving it correctly, some Austrians will continue to believe the country should be selective and elitist and xenophobic about immigration, perhaps in the belief that only the best of the best deserve what Austria has to give.

The New Yorker, and the American, in me thinks this is precisely the wrong approach. I think Austria (and the rest of Europe) is gonna have to get right with immigration. Make it easier. Accept it. That's the only way this fossilized old country will ever get any new ideas. That's the only way Vienna will be able to join the 21st century, to return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Otherwise, Austria is living in the past.


Ed Ward said...

Austria is famously retrograde, politically and socially, but Germany's not much better. (Nor, I hasten to add, is France).

In Germany now, you have to satisfy them that you have a working knowledge of German, though. This is a relatively new phenomenon, keyed to the rise of Merkel's party, the CDU, some factions of which are rabidly anti-immigration. Fail the test, and boom: you're gone.

Where France beats Germany out is, weirdly enough, a relic of colonialism. Residents of French colonies were considered to be French. Residents of the few German colonies were considered animals. So it's okay if black French people come here -- except if they're Muslim. Another thing being French means to the right wing is being Christian. They actually have no problem with Christian blacks. Not that there are a lot of those.

But Germany (and Switzerland and Austria) just can't handle what they started. I can't speak with authority about the other two, but Germany (as Tony Judt will tell you when you get there) invited a bunch of people to work jobs nobody else wanted to work, and, although the weather and the food sucked, the money was good enough that these people decided to stay. And Germany can't get rid of them. Nor will they integrate them beyond a grudging allowing them to stay: at long last, the Turks in Germany can vote, but that's a relatively recent development.

And in the Aufenthaltserlaubnis department, in Germany, Americans shared an office with Canadians, Israelis, non-EU Scandinavians like Norwegians, and the like. The Little Brown People had their own line and their own office to deal with them.

pat said...

Wow. I have wondered whether Germany was better or not. Thanks for the eyewitness report.

Jennifer said...

I hate to break it to you, but your experience in Vienna sounds remarkably familiar to my own (and others') experience in Israel, which is an immigration country. And I'm an Israeli citizen.

Of course, people will use any excuse to exercise power over another, no matter how petty or insignificant that power may be.

Xenophobia serves as an especially good pretext for the exertion of meaningless power over others since it includes within it the ever-popular justifications for feelings of superiority of religion and skin-color within it.

pat said...

Thanks, J. Yeah, I think Xenophobia is definitely in the Top Five of All Time Most Popular Hatreds. Me, I don't hate anything. Except Celine Dion and artificial cherry flavor.

Noel said...

I'm certainly no expert, but when I think of Austria, I think first of it's architecture, then of it's music and art. But the common thread to all of these is history. From a marketing & tourism perspective, Austria is all about it's history.

To that end, I'd be very surprised if anyone in the upper echelons of Austrian government was even remotely interested in overhauling Austria's image...it's their strong suit! Probably not good news for it's younger citizens, or for ex-pat's like you (wait...you're still Pat!), but I suspect they know what's buttering their bread, and I'd be surprised if they were terribly concerned with changing things, as long as rich tourists keep coming to Vienna for the reasons listed above.

Kim said...

I was sort of optimistically thinking the FPOe might lose steam with Haider's departure... So much for that. I was back in Vienna at Christmas and met a Wienerin with a real attitude about my accent. Argh! I got all steamed about it and hated being reminded of how bad that feels. Shouldn't I get points for being an American who speaks German??? Not with her for sure.

The Austrians have a great pride of culture and history and a wariness of changing it - which is fine to an extent. But immigration is a reality in our shrinking world and the sooner we embrace that idea (and each other) the better.

Really enjoy your blog!