University of Wisconsin–Madison

Ciao Italia, Hallo Österreich

The second I arrived in Roma, I made it my goal to soak in as much of the Italian culture as possible. Weeks passed and I traveled to every corner of the country possible – I devoured cannolis and deciphered dialect in Sicilia, marveled over the leather and artwork of Firenze, and strolled along the car-less paths with masked figures in Venezia. But for the first time in almost 2 months of living abroad, I stepped out of my comfort zone and crossed the border into Austria.

A row of picturesque buildings in snowy Vienna.
A row of picturesque buildings in snowy Vienna.

Walking up to the front entrance of our hotel/hostel hybrid, an employee held the door open. I smiled, opened my mouth, and was struck with the realization that I had no clue how to say “Thank you”. Our Bus2Alps guides gave us a quick rundown when we all rushed to them in a panic – “Hallo is hi, auf wiedersehen is bye, and danke is thank you.” I muttered the phrases over and over again, cursing myself for being a German who never bothered to learn the basics of my ancestors’ language. Not that the repetition did anything – I still found myself muttering “si” and “grazie” every time we were out in public. What can I say? Old habits die hard.

We were led on a tour through the Austrian capital, taking in the smells of the open air market and marveling at the gorgeous architecture, all while trying to avoid the slush piles and snow banks that we’d forgotten all about while living in Rome.

An Italian restaurant at the Naschmarkt farmers’ market – you just can’t escape pasta (nor should you want to)
An Italian restaurant at the Naschmarkt farmers’ market – you just can’t escape pasta (nor should you want to)

Our tour guide, the kind Austrian man that he was, even helped gives us insider tips – like how to score €200 opera seats at the reasonable price of €3 (by purchasing standing tickets and racing to any of the unpurchased seats at intermission, when they become fair game), what foods and drinks to try before leaving the country (apple strudel, mélange, sachertorte, and wienerschnitzel), and where to rub elbows with the opera stars after curtain call (a little wienerschnitzel stand that stays open until 5am).

The front of the line for standing tickets, hidden along a side corridor of the State Opera House
The front of the line for standing tickets, hidden along a side corridor of the State Opera House
Schonbrunn’s great hall of mirrors. First this, then Versailles? Marie Antoinette must have really loved looking at herself
Schonbrunn’s great hall of mirrors. First this, then Versailles? Marie Antoinette must have really loved looking at herself

After a few shots at the historical Schnaps museum and a few illegal pictures at the Hapsburg summer palace, we boarded back on the bus and made our way through the Austrian Alps to Salzburg. You say you’ve never heard of Salzburg? Let me try to refresh your memory – rumor has it that the hills are alive with the sound of music.

Other than a few tour buses with Julie Andrews’ image plastered along its side, nothing about the town screamed “Do Re Mi” – in fact, if you ask a passing Austrian how to get to the Von Trapp’s mansion, their only response will be a confused cock of their head. Turns out the hills only sing to Americans – most Austrians have never even heard of the Sound of Music.  Nor should they have to, considering Salzburg is spectacular enough to hold its own without the help of the Von Trapps.

Why yes, that is a castle in the distance.
Why yes, that is a castle in the distance.

After strolling through the picturesque town, tucked between snowy slopes and sheer cliffs, we made our way to the greatest beer hall on the face of the earth (Okay, that may be a stretch, but it’s high up there on the list).

My iPod camera just didn’t do this place justice]
My iPod camera just didn’t do this place justice

Augustiner Bräustübl is a brewery tucked away in the basement of the church, which is a unique experience in itself. You can sit back in one of the 3 dining halls, order up some of the most delicious food imaginable, and down a liter (or two) of the greatest beer outside of the German boarders. The best part? It’s off the tourist radar, so the majority of the people are extremely friendly locals who love hearing about your lives and giving you some Austrian travel advice.

As refreshing as it was to leave the Italian boarders and experience more of what Europe had to offer, I found myself craving pasta and the familiar slur of the Italian language. Even with a pile of homework, a string of midterms, and a 12 hour bus ride to look forward to, I couldn’t wait to get back to the familiar streets of Trastevere. Traveling outside of my comfort zone not only allowed me to see more of what the world had to offer – it solidified the fact that I’d chosen the perfect place to call my home away from home.