Saltanat, 26, Student, Vienna, Austria


“Centuries of letters of complaint and there are simply no uncomfortable chairs left here.”

My Viennese story began at the moment when all my limits were reached. I was suffocating, felt confined, and I was very-very sad. I had a condition of permanent hysteria and was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Twenty year old I was standing in the kitchen in my grandmother’s apartment in Almaty and was making tea for E., a very close friend of mine. Behind the kitchen wall my grandmother had been slowly dying in her bed. Cancer. Two years ago I moved in with her after the sudden death of my mom, my only parent and my best friend.

I was rushing around the kitchen looking for sweets for the tea, nervously slamming doors of cupboards and refrigerator, clanging with the dishes, and dropping everything out of my hands.

Taking a sip of tea E. said:

– I’m going to Vienna, are you with me?

– I am, – I said, and everything went quiet.

One year after this conversation, we were sitting on a plane from Almaty to Vienna. I had no idea what Vienna was like. The only thing I did was google the pictures of it and read a couple of articles about the city, which slipped from my memory immediately after reading. The plane could have been heading off to the moon, and my feelings would have been the same. My travel experience at that time was limited to several CIS countries and a two-week stay in Canada. I also had been lucky to study for one year in St. Petersburg, just after finishing the school. Everything I knew about Europe came from TV and books, and at the time I had a kind of geographical hierarchy in my mind: first there was Kazakhstan then Russia, followed by the USA, and on the top of it all was Europe. The rest of the world in my mind resembled dark waters of outer space. I had about 1,500 Euros along and an invitation from the University, confirming my admission to the Department of Art History. My German was a messy mix of hastily taken language courses.

Four years later, I can say that the set of hierarchies in my head had collapsed, and that Europe is not the moon. Yes, it is quite different from Kazakhstan, but people are still the same as anywhere, subject to the peculiarities of the local mentality. I don’t like to generalize, but let me draw a portrait of a typical Austrian – how I see it. A typical Mr. Austrian is very polite and nice. Sit him on an uncomfortable chair and he will pull a face, but will continue sitting on it despite the lack of comfort. He will grumble and wrinkle his forehead, but would never go into a direct confrontation. Once he is at home, he will write a complaint according to conventions and including all the proper titles.

Dear. Mr. Holder-of-the-Uncomfortable-Chair, 

… 

Best cordial regards, 

Dr. Magister Bachelor Mr. Austrian 

He is deprived of passions, he lacks the interest in and excitement for new things. He is not greedy nor hungry for new faces, experiences, food. He is happy with the existing order of things, that has been established in his grandfather’s time. That’s why Vienna is such a comfortable and a thought through city. Centuries of letters of complaint and there are simply no uncomfortable chairs left. At the same time, Vienna is quite a social city where one can fully live even while struggling with money. You can easily get everything having quite little in your pockets. You want the opera? There is a standing ticket for only three euros, and nobody will mind your torn jeans, just enjoy the music. No money for food? There are dozens of places where you can eat for free. Do you like sport? Hundreds of programs just for thirty euros per semester are available. Vienna’s structured, almost pre-natal comfort has healed my hysteria. I matured and found my inner peace.

People often say to me, “You will always feel there like a foreigner, you will never feel at home.” My generation was the last to study Soviet textbooks at schools, at least during the first four grades. In those textbooks we read about the greatness of the country which no longer existed. This made me a part of an “ideology-free” generation. At the same time the question of nationality has always been controversial for me. As a half-Armenian, despite my very Kazakh name and surname, owing to my looks, I constantly evoked questions about my ethnicity. It was also compounded by the fact that I didn’t speak Kazakh. Not that I ever felt uncomfortable while living in my hometown Almaty, never. But, to feel in some way a foreigner is not novel for me.

Moreover, what does it take to make a place your home? For me, it’s a presence of like-minded people. Old good Vienna hasn’t let me down on this one. I found a wonderful circle of friends. Together we go to sports, travel, cook, taste wine, and discover new music, art and books. We are also engaged in charity work and are trying to understand how social entrepreneurship in Europe works and how we can apply such practices in Kazakhstan.

Four years later, I can say that I’m happy. The snarl of German in my head has began to unravel – one of those tasks that will last a lifetime. Very soon I will have my Bachelor’s degree in Art History, and then I will peruse a Master program. I don’t know whether it will take place in Vienna or not, after all, the nomad genes still flow in my blood. The only thing I know, it is important to see places and make the whole world my home.

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