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2004-04-06

Austria, a short stroll along the borders 

It is not as if we sit in nutshells that float next to each other on the surface of Europe. But today I also don't want to contribute to an overly serious discussion about the big new, alternative metaphors. I only want to invite you to trace a few of these borders, to see whether they have any merit in defining something that lies inbetween.

We start in Vienna, drive past the oil refinery (core of OMV, one of the biggest Austrian companies, which operates a highly profitable oil and gas network across much of Eastern Europe) and past Vienna airport to reach, just behind the border at kilometer 60, the capital of another EU state - Bratislava. 15 years after the fall of the iron curtain there is still no high-speed train link between the two "twin towns", yet the Viennese don't mind the hussle to reach cheap Slovak shopping malls under familiar logos, or to fly to London and Paris for EUR 25 from Bratislava airport. In return, it's a rather cool thing to rent a flat in Bratislava and commute to Vienna for an Austrian IT salary, as some Slovaks I know do. Of course, finding a loop-hole in the draconian labor laws to do this is not easy.

Just a few kilometres to the south of Bratislava we enter a third EU-state - Hungary, and the border where the iron curtain fell first (applause) to enable easier cycling around the big muddy lake along the border. From a Vienna perspective, cheap dental surgery in the Hungarian border town of Sopron is yet another popular economiser for strained household budgets. Hungarians usually speak German or English, so language is no problem either, and culturally - well, to spot a difference is hard. Some of the worthiest highlights of Austrian cuisine are actually Hungarian (most of the others are from the Balkans and the Czech/Slovak republics). On the Austrian side of this border we find Roma, Sinti, and, guess, Croatian minorities (although we will not encounter a border to Croatia along this little walk).

Slowly, as we reach the southern frontiers, the going gets a bit tough, that is first hilly, then mountaineous, and equally the border folk become a bit, shall we say, needy of benevolent interpretation of their attitudes to the other side. When we're talking about politics in the southernmost province of Carinthia, famously governed by Jörg Haider, it must be said that the outside of the Austrian border (EU-member Slovenia) seems more familiar and likeable than the inside, and maybe some Carinthians might want to consider taking their millenial defense of the Germanic cradle against the massive onslaught of a few thousand minority Slovenians to a more appropriate place, like, say, the moon (I hear the Chinese are accepting seat reservations for single fare tickets in 2025).

Of course, attitudes are quite different as soon as we reach the Italian border, which has always been welcomed by worldly Carinthians as an opportunity to get development aid in fashion and life-style, and to nudge their inferiority complex. Mountains over mountains, we reach the two separated Austrian parts of Tyrol. The missing middle part is in Italy since WWI and houses a significant German-speaking population, equally successful in promoting the tourism industry as their Austrian relatives.

And then it's Switzerland, and a Schengen-border which I think is passed only by tourists and economic refugees from starving Western Austria. Let's not forget Liechtenstein, Austro-Swiss no-man's-land with a population of 20,000, but much fatter numbers in the offshore banking industry. All this is a bit confusing, all the more since the people living in these regions are somewhere between Swiss and Austrian, and their allegiance to Austria rather than Switzerland is more by force than by desire (after WWI, a clear majority would have preferred to switch over).

More Austrian inferiority complexes along the German border, but let's focus on the niceties, for example the Austrian valley which cannot be accessed by road other than from Germany, prints its own stamps and is almost extraterritorial. Germany in this case is actually Bavaria, which makes the neighborship easier and harder at the same time. For example, Tyroleans like to make fun of the catholicism and corruption of Bavarians politics, as if they were any different? Then there is the Austrian border town of Salzburg. I have my doubts about this town in many respects, but I cannot sum them up in five words. It's a place that seems to breed either genius (Mozart, tralalalala) or madness, to put it simply. Or both at the same time. And a place for doing your shopping in Germany, as if it was cheaper there - Nova says it really is. No 3G telephony here, because the radiation kills like nowhere else.

Again the road becomes a bit rough, we pass through woods and very old mountains, jealousy among neighbors. It has often been observed that the relationship between the Austrians and the Czechs is so stormy and at times rupturous (three words: nuclear power plants) because they see themselves in each other, and don't like what they see. From a short trip to Prague, we take the road to the Wild East, and ultimately return to Vienna where the beer is worse, but the dumplings (Knödel not knedlicky) seem to be just as good as the original.

I should mention that in 2003, Austria was a fertile nation. 75,000 babies were born, while a slightly larger number of people will have died. But 45,000 residents were awarded the Austrian citizenship, delivering a robust national demographic plus, and ensuring that many South-Eastern European cultures will continue to enrich this nation from within, in this case without the need for borderstones and crossings.


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