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Seriously America? We didn’t manage one city in the top 10?!

For the 7th consecutive year in the row, Vienna has been voted number one city in a quality of life survey of folks who work and live abroad. It doesn’t surprise me. I’ve written many a post about Vienna and her virtues and even one about her selection to this supreme place of honor but given the current climate in the US primaries, I think now is the perfect opportunity to delve a bit deeper.

Why? Because the city voted world’s most livable is the capital of a…wait for it…wait for it… social democratic country. Yep. There’s that word again.

Austria 101 in three paragraphs

First a bit of a background so that you don’t get any wrong ideas. John Oliver can attest to the fact that many of my fellow Americans are woefully ignorant in geography. In fact John Oliver might say something like, “Austria, that country in the Alps somewhere with raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and Terminator.”

Following WWII Austria found itself geopolitically situated as a neutral nation wedged between the countries of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. For decades Austria negotiated its precarious stance between two highly belligerent neighbors with diplomatic grace and finesse. Unlike Germany, after WWII Austria was spared a division of the country into east and west. It also managed to escape, unlike its neighbors to the north and east, decades of occupation by foreign powers. Unlike Switzerland, its likewise neutral neighbor to the west, Austria has become an active member of the European Union. Austria is a place where Russians, Americans, Israelis and Saudi Arabians can bump elbows at the Park Plaza buffet table and politely engage in chit chat. (

Austria is not capitalist, communist, socialist or corporatist (shops here are still closed on Sundays and I have come to believe that that’s something positive). It is a social democracy and has been since the end of WWII (that’s over 70 years).

Social democrats and social democracy have become buzz words lately and since I currently live in a place organized under these principles, I thought I would share some firsthand, frontline thoughts about what that means exactly.

Yes, taxes in Austria are high but…quality of life is too.

Life in the USA as Harry and Louise 

I don’t know about you but my name isn’t Walton, Koch, Goldman, Rothschild or Bush. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon dangling from pouty lips and though I loved my high school green and gold, the sports fields were baseball and football, not rugby and tennis.

My father grew up in a part of Pittsburgh where every man either worked for the steel mill or joined the military to escape it. Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and John Cougar Melloncamp – those were the guys who sang from the soul of my roots – roots that could be like those of Harry and Louise.

Life in a Social Democracy as Harry and Louise

So what will you, Harry and Louise, find in a social democratic city?

Universal public health insurance – this means that you are not one cancer diagnosis away from personal bankruptcy or uninsurability. People search for jobs based on salary and job satisfaction, not benefits. No deductible payments for treatment and no exorbitant fees for medications (I think I pay a flat fee of about 5 bucks per prescription here).

Private health insurance: Don’t like sharing a hospital room with a snoring neighbor who has fifty relatives visit a day? Want to have a posh hospital with display cases of swords donated by former patients who happened to be sheikhs? No worries, Harry and Louise. You can get that here too. No one is going to forbid you from buying private insurance coverage.

Sick leave: Austrian law forbids firing an employee because of illness – a novel idea – you get sick or have an accident and don’t have to worry that it could also be a financial death sentence for you and your loved ones.

Maternity Leave: a year or more of paid maternity leave and what is becoming more and more common is that mom and dad split the “time off” so both get the joys of diaper changes and “Mein Pipihendl” rounds. And what does that look like back home in the US? John Oliver on Paid Family Leave.

Five weeks paid vacation by law for everyone: I swear it’s true, even for the “wage slaves” (more details here:

Affordable housing so well planned that there are no ghettos because

Hundertwasser housing in Vienna's 3rd district

Hundertwasser housing in Vienna’s 3rd district

subsidized housing complexes have been strategically spread throughout the city in all districts – some have even been designed by some of the city’s most famous architects – functional and livable – check out Hundertwasser’s housing for example.

Public transportation for less than a dollar a day (365 Euros a year!) that will allow you to ride all of the city’s public transportation (buses, subways, trams) and will get you anywhere you want to go in a timely and reliable manner. Like to party on the weekends? No worries about drinking and driving because the Wiener Linien always picks the short straw and will happily play designated driver and see you home safe and sound. Public transit is so popular that in 2015, 700,000 annual tickets were sold. In fact people are so in love with public transportation here that a woman from Manchester, England wrote the Vienna Public Transit a love letter when she moved away from Vienna complaining about the overpriced and unreliable transit system back in her hometown in England: Thank you for a fantastic, affordable public transport system. I miss you every day and I know someday we’ll meet again.

Free Higher Education: Can you imagine graduating from college with absolutely no debt? None? Zip? Zero? Or changing your major without having to consider the financial consequences? Vienna might not be completely made of milk and honey but this really, truly exists here. Seriously. But hey! If you want to pay and ensure that special one-on-one professor mentoring time – there are Private Universities here too. Don’t believe Harry and Louise if they try to tell you otherwise.

Pedestrian Shopping Zones: no cars and in the warm months – outdoor cafes, dining areas and plenty of room for street artists to do their thing. Because there is more to quality of life than money.

Karmeliter Market

Every Saturday you will find young and old shopping at the second district open air market, Karmeliter Market.

Parks, green areas, flowers, trees: Yes, all here. Vienna is a very “green” city.

Museums free for those 18 and under: culture and education for the kids – something we could only wish for with our 9/11 Memorial Museum.


Minimum Assistance

(Mindestsicherung) – people who don’t have more than about 4000 USD to their name and can’t work because they are disabled or too old are automatically insured and entitled to financial help from the government – about 800 USD a month total. The idea is to catch disadvantaged members of society in a social net before they fall into extreme poverty. It’s called brotherly (or sisterly) love, Harry and Louise, so deal with it.

Required civil or military service: giving back to Uncle Sam (or Onkel Franz?) 6 months military or 9 months civil service. Young, able men serve their country after graduating from high school. It’s a few months in which all male members of society are equalized – regardless of the pedigree of your background. Where and when do we have that in the US? And let’s face it, many 18-year-olds could benefit from a year of figuring out what they really want to do with their futures before diving head first into the next (often expensive in the US) chapters of their lives.

Services for the elderly and disabled: transportation to the hospital for treatment, food delivery, as well as care and workshops for the mentally disabled.

Humane prisons with lower prison terms and strict regulations regarding length of solitary confinement and conditions of cells and fewer prisoners. Prisons here are not privatized because let’s face it – should someone be increasing his or her wealth based on the number of people we lock up and how long they are kept there? Kind of a scary, Orwellian idea that a rational person may have been tempted to believe would have ended with the “Cash for Kids” scandal in 2009. And one last question on this – are we truly, seriously convinced that we have the most misbehaved, criminal human beings in the entire world who would justify us having the highest number of our own citizens locked up behind bars (followed by China and Russia)? Or is $omething $eriously amiss? And don’t just take my word for it, check out the World Prison Brief numbers for the extremely depressingly, dismal reality.

High life expectancy (higher than US) (

Water so Good it’s Constitutionally Protected

Private property – you can certainly own land, houses and apartments here but many folks choose to rent because rent prices are highly regulated and therefore renting is an affordable option.

Private businesses – your can found and run your own business here too

Life in a Social Democracy as a Property Mogul


High quality of life doesn’t have to be about money

I am not going to lie to you. I don’t know whether or not a Donald Trump could have made his billions here (though Richard Lugner apparently managed). At the same time, and I’m going to quote The Guardian for this: “In the mid-90s the property mogul hoped eminent domain would help move out a widow who stood in the way of a planned limousine parking lot.” Said property mogul would have not  harbored such hopes in a country where the rights of the so-called “little people” carry equal weight as their wealthier fellow countrymen.

Worth here is not based on wealth. And who of us normal mortals really believes it should be?  It would be like saying Ebenezer Scrooge in the beginning of the Christmas Carol is a far more worthy individual than Bob and Timothy Cratchit.

Worth based on honest values is a sentiment I could swear would appeal to all my freedom-loving, flag-carrying American compatriots who’ve heard the story of Abraham Lincoln’s humble beginnings since the time they could pledge allegiance to the flag. It’s what is preached in the churches that are still overflowing in the small towns every Sunday from sea to shining sea.

Glock sign

You can get a Glock in the land that makes them but you will have to undergo a psychological test first and store it under lock and key. So I can’t lie that it boggles my mind that in the US, we as a people can nod and hail “hallelujahs” as our preachers, ministers, and priests instruct us to love-our-fellow-man while we don our WWJD bracelets with the same hand clutching the 45 special under the pew, just in case that brotherly love takes a temporary hiatus.

There was a time in history when only the off-spring of the privileged elite could afford tutors and thus receive an education; a time when we packed up our undesirables and shipped them to distant shores and unknown futures; a time when where you sat on the bus or at a coffee shop depended on the color of your skin; a time when your right to vote was determined by the M or F on your birth certificate. Thank God those days are behind us.

We’ve moved to a better place since then and ensured more rights for more people. Let’s not stop now.

Part of the reason so many people fear “social democracy” is that they don’t understand what it means in day-to-day life. Fear-mongering media outlets funded by companies holding big-billed self-interests inundate the public with opinion-swaying “Harry and Louise” ( ads that skew the real issues. It’s simple. Should health care be a profit-oriented business? Are profit-oriented businesses the ultimate means to create a civil, socially humane nation? Do we want to live in a society where money just doesn’t talk, it talks the loudest and mutes all others from even having a voice? Is that the kind of democracy we think of when we proudly wave the stars and stripes?

As Americans isn’t it time we pause long enough from the selfies to soul-search and ask ourselves: why are so many others in the world living such a high quality of life and none of our cities have even managed the top 10 (despite our bagels, pulled porks and reubens)? Yes, let’s come together (and stop bickering) and make America great again. But let’s not do it based on hot air and empty promises. Let’s start by seeing how others have obviously managed it elsewhere.

And one last thing: Dear Harry and Louise, When you go to vote, vote based on what’s best for you and Larry and Marlene next door and your parents, and your kids and your kids’ kids, not the property moguls, bankers and opportunistic politicians whose greatest objective is to park their limos in what used to be the sweet-old-widow-down-the-street’s living room.

What the US could Learn from a Place like Austria:

Mercer Website with Survey Results:

Wiener Linien (Vienna Public Transportation):

The Guardian article about Donald Trump’s Eminent Domain Battle:

Forbes list of America’s Richest Families:

Super Pacs undressed: New York Times article (“The Families Funding the 2016 Presidential Elections”) on the 158 families who are funding half of the US political campaigns in the early stages: “They are overwhelmingly white, rich, older and male.” Read it and weep for our American “democratic” system:

Article from the New York Times in Oct 2001 about Bin Ladens liquidating their holdings in the Carlyle Group (where Pres Bush worked as an adviser and former Sec of State James Baker as a partner) so as not to give the appearance that they would be profiting from the War on Terrorism that would ensue after 9/11:

In case you missed the link above: Economist article from 2003 (!) about the Bush family and their link to the Carlyle Group – “At a time when America is aggressively promoting democracy and capitalism abroad, including by military means, it would be helpful if its politicians and businesses were regarded as cleaner than clean. Shrouded in secrecy, Carlyle calls capitalism into question.”

Private vs. Public – what is good for the general population is not always good for private industry – let us not forget history and why many US cities no longer have the public transportation options that a city like Vienna does:
Documentary Taken for a Ride Part 1, Taken for a Ride Part 2

Schoenbrunn Park in Vienna

Schönbrunn Park in Vienna




Austrian word of the Week – Spirit Annihilation Asylum

“We don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control. No dark sarcasm in the classroom.” —  Pink Floyd, Another Brick in the Wall

Print This PostGeistesvernichtungsanstalt: As I write, thousands of Austrian students who are nearing graduation are being subjected to one last round of tests – four written, and three or four oral. They fail? Tough luck, you don’t graduate. And you thought fixing the tassel on your funny cardboard hat was a lot of pressure at the end senior year. And maybe that’s why Austrian novelist, Thomas Bernhard, referred to schools as Geistesvernichtungsanstalten.  “Geist” is the mind or spirit — you might be familiar with the German (and English) term “Zeitgeist” – meaning the “spirit of the times.” “Vernichtung” means annihiliation – yes total destruction – Bernhard was never an author known for holding back or softening the blow. And an “Anstalt” is an institution – but more along the lines of an asylum. So what’s a spirit annihilating asylum? A school.

Now see if you can say the 26-letter word really fast, three times and KC will give you a gold star.

Nie mehr Schule… keine Schule mehr…

More Words of the Week

Beuschlreißer: Lung Ripper

Blechtrottel: Tin Idiot


Eierbär: Eggsbear

Eifersucht, Frühlingsmüdigkeit, Hungerlohn, Torschlusspanik, Schadenfreude, Weltschmerz, Katzenjammer, Freitod, Holzpyjama, Lebensmüde, Fernweh

Fetzenschädel: Rags Skull

Geistesvernichtungsanstalt: Spirit Annihilation Asylum


Häuslpapierfladerer: House Paper Thief


Krautwacher: Cabbage Guard

Putzgretl: Cleaning Gretl

Saubär: Pig Bear

Treppenwitz: Stair Joke

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Wappler swearing in Austria

Der Kleine Wappler – How to swear and bad mouth in Austria

Delve more into the Austrian creative side with their rant words: “Der Kleine Wappler” by Astrid Wintersberger, Residenz Verlag — book is completely in Austrian language.

Website of Austrian Dialect:



AUF DER WALZ – Becoming A Master (Seton Hill University 2013 Commencement Speech)

…it is an odd fact about our chosen trade and quite ironic that we engage in long hours of being alone, in order to connect with others.

I had the great honor of being asked to speak on behalf of my fellow classmates at Seton Hill University during our commencement this past June 2013. I have decided to post this speech to remind myself and my fellow classmates and anyone else out there suffering through the writer’s struggle on the writer’s journey the importance of not giving up. Here it is from start to finish – Commencement Speech from June 2013, Seton Hill University, MFA Class of 2013:

Nail with tag from 1892

Nail with tag from 1892

I begin with a thank you to my fellow classmates for this honor. During my first residency Professor Scott Johnson asked, “Cool accent, where you from?” and I responded, “Level Green, PA.” I live in Austria now but I grew up just a few miles away from here, my high school, Penn Trafford High, played football games against Greensburg Salem and my mom managed a bank less than 3 minutes up the road. In fact, as a girl, I attended a wedding on this very campus. So this opportunity means an awful lot to me. Because at age 16, I left for Europe and from then on I was out and about only coming back for brief visits. And to my very supportive critique partner here at Seton Hill who followed up the email about my being commencement speaker with 4 the supportive words – “DON’T SCREW THIS UP!”

I would like to say, I will give it my very best.

As I mentioned, I now live in Vienna, Austria where I have been living for a total of over 16 years. This may explain the accent and the reason why I always started off the program-wide chats with “Good morning,” because, Dr. Wendland, 9 pm Greensburg time is 3 am Vienna time. Vienna has become a second home to me and I love it there. It has centuries of stories to tell.

In the first district in the middle of the city is St. Stephan’s cathedral – Vienna’s most beloved landmark. And about 100 steps from the cathedral’s doors is a glass case at a place called Stock-im -Eisen. No one ever stops to look at it. I doubt you would even find it in the travel guides. It’s in a pedestrian zone. A busy thoroughfare of shoppers and tourists bustle past every day at every hour. But it is there snuggled up next to a building on the corner.

Very unnoticeable.

But if you really look, you will see what stands inside the glass case. It is a dark-colored mid-section of a tree-trunk about 7 feet tall and 10 inches wide which dates back to the middle ages. It is held up by an iron band that bears the date 1575 with the initials of the guy who put it there. And if you strain your eyes even more, you will see many metal things sticking into that tree. The Viennese call it the Nagelbaum, or nail tree. It is called that because it bears hundreds of nails, the first one was pounded in about 1440.

Think about that for a minute – 1440. Now a bunch of us here today are writers not mathematicians so I’ll do the math for you quickly – that’s 573 years ago. Five hundred and seventy three years! Just imagine the class of 2013 abandoning the cheese platters and lemonade after this ceremony to race to the front of Cecilian Hall and pound our pencils, our pens, our iPads into Sister Charity’s oak tree to the rhythm of Professor Arzen’s devious laughter claiming, “I always knew those WPFers were bad news! This wouldn’t have happened with literary students”. Then in the year 2586 – 573 years from now – our sci fi writers could describe it better – some SHU grads zooming around the quad discover that tree with those items. Besides Prof Arzen’s Schadenfreude and the fact that Prof. Wendland would be in some serious trouble, think about it.

What would provoke someone to do such a thing? Many someones. For centuries! Many legends surround the tree – stories like the kinds that we like to write here – fantasies about a magical grove that gave birth to the city, romances about a young man trying to win the favor of a beautiful maiden and even horror stories about punishment and the devil. But one story in particular comes to mind when I think of our ceremony here today and the path we started several years ago here at SHU. This is the tale of the Nail Tree in Vienna and craftsmen embarking on their Walz. You see, in the past, the Craftsmen Guild of Europe in the middle ages required their members to travel to become a master. Young men wanting to be stonemasons, carpenters, roofers or furniture-makers left home 2 -3 years to work under the supervision of a master of his chosen craft to perform at first menial work for very little money.

And you thought the one week residencies were long? But the menial work for very little money sounds vaguely familiar to the writers amongst us, doesn’t it? But it’s not the money I want to talk about, it’s the journey — the path to become a master and the four important groups who accompany us on the way. Now the first is perhaps the most obvious – those masters already practicing the trade. That is who the craftsmen set out to learn from. Walking – they were required to walks weeks – at least 50 km from their homes — to get to a village with a master craftsman, from whom they could learn their trade. Not unlike those of us here today.

Traveling from all corners of the United States, all corners of the globe, to come under the direction of these masters sitting before you – men and women who know their trade – who have pitched to agents, negotiated contracts, debated with editors and gracefully ignored negative reviews they have done it all and… they have learned to become better writers and masters of their craft and have taken us under their wings to share their expertise so we may do the same. They’ve helped us to purge all adverbs, pick up the pace, and push forward. They look unassuming and yet – they are the masters amongst us.

Now the second group of our journey are those we knew before embarking on our journey, the ones we leave behind – family and friends. In the middle ages, someone who was married, could not go on the Walz. The fellow – and it had to be a fellow – had to be under the age of thirty and single and have accumulated no debt. I think that last point there has just about disqualified about every single one of us graduates. But I think the real point is that they had to leave everything behind and go out into the world. And we too have left many of you behind. Quite literally when we boarded the planes to come here to Seton Hill every 6 months.

But our passion for writing has demanded that we leave you time and time again in other ways as well. Whether that be by entering the next room and closing the door to edit a draft or by zoning out for a few minutes to our own little made up worlds of people and dialogues. We have left you to emerge ourselves in long periods of self-inflicted isolation. And you, through virtue of your presence here today, continue to demonstrate your support of our journey and I think I can speak on behalf of my fellow graduates and say that we thank you and are very grateful. Because I am also convinced there is a good reason these fellows had to be single – and that is because it is hard to be attached to someone on such a journey. And so we thank you for helping to make this possible. And it is an odd fact about our chosen trade and quite ironic that we engage in long hours of being alone, in order to connect with others. There is a saying about Viennese coffeehouses – they are places where people like to go to be alone in the company of others and I think this is true about the writing community and the connections we’ve made at Seton Hill.

Which brings me to the third important group in our journey. Now I joked about the encouraging email from my Mantasy writer critique partner stating, “Don’t screw this up.” Though he writes thrillers and loves ninjas and I write historical fiction and love horse-drawn carriages, we share a love of great storytelling. And we share this love with every single person graduating today and all those who will graduate tomorrow. And there is nothing quite so refreshing along the long hard road on a chosen journey as meeting a fellow traveler – the campfire burning and waiting for our arrival – surrounded by others who are weary with travel but eager and willing to share tips, advice and encouragement to keep us moving along our paths.

Perhaps best described by a Seton Hill student who answered a question posed by the infamous Bill Braddock on our Facebook group. The question was, “What from Seton Hill has given you the most mileage?” And one person answered, “when that lightbulb went off and I realized, ‘Oh, these are my people. I’ve finally found them.’” The same people who cheer for Bill when he gets a contract, CBS buys his script and has it made  into a series and Permuted Press publishes his novel. And who, when someone else in our FB group posts in desperation that they have received a bad review falsely accusing of them of plagiarism – within seconds respond: “For the love of God, don’t respond.” Or when another  shares the news of a rejected query letter – and sadly – everyone here will go through that – 20 some folks respond to the message, “Send out the next ones RIGHT NOW”. Because as one of the speakers reminded us yesterday, no matter who we are in this field, there will be those disappointing moments.

Yes, as writers, even with a Masters of Fine Arts in our hands, our journey will forever continue and it is good knowing we have our people, our fellow writers. I am seriously trying not to “screw this up.” But even if I do, I know there will be 20 people here in front of me who will reach out, give me a hug and tell me I did a good job nevertheless. And the last group of the journey I want to mention is ourselves. Along the Walz we discover ourselves – not only the writer within us but that part of ourselves that will determine in the end whether or not that writer will ever be read. Someone else in the program, answered Bill’s most mileage question with a quote from our Professor, and my mentor, Barb Miller. She had said, “There will always be writers far worse than you being successfully published and celebrated and there will always be writers much better than you who will never get published.”

In the end, what will determine that difference? I am not sure. I am not yet published though several people in the graduating class before you here today are. I suppose luck is important. If we take a good look at that tree trunk in the middle of Vienna, you will see what makes it so incredible – hundreds of nails from every century since 1440 pounded into that trunk – the last one a nail from the workers of the subway that runs directly below the square. And those craftsmen pounded in those nails – an object of great value hundreds of years ago – for luck before they left on their journey. And we too will need a lot of luck to continue. Luck combined with patience, persistence and perseverance. Because let’s face it. If you have participated in this program with your ears and heart open, and a willingness to embrace critique, work hard and improve, then you will have written a manuscript worthy of publication. So it will come down to what we are made of and how much we want this.

Vienna's first district - subway stop Stephansplatz

Vienna’s first district – subway stop Stephansplatz

And in times of doubt and desperation we may weaken and start to listen too earnestly to those who say that it is just art and has no value. But I want you to always think back to that tree trunk on Stock-im-Eisen. And if you ever think about seriously giving up, come visit and we will go look at it together. Because most commencement speeches will advise you to make the most of this life while you are here. But art will allow us, every one of us, to do even more. With art, we will not just communicate to the person in the next room, across the street or in another time zone, with art, we can communicate with people in a whole other time — tomorrow, next week, two months from now, five hundred and seventy three years from now.

I ask you, all of you here today, what of ourselves will live on on this earth. Art, art will survive. Now more than ever before, at a time when e-books don’t have a shelf-life. So, no, the Master of Fine Arts we take home with us today was not amongst Forbes top 10 most lucrative master’s studies. And sadly, as Ms. Townsend gently reminded us yesterday: “None of us should get into this for the money. We’ll just be bound for disappointment.”

Our Masters that we take home today will probably not enable us to buy a bigger house or fancier car. But it is proof. Proof that we embarked on a journey to become better at what we do. We have followed a long tradition of people willing to leave the safe warmth of their four walls to venture into a scary and uncertain world. And we have done so all in the name of art. Art that may not span the great divide between poverty and wealth but will have the ability to span the even greater divide of life and death. And given that writers are judged by their worst work while living and their best when dead, the future can only get brighter. And so in closing, we, the class of 2013, want to thank all of you for giving us the time and space to write and become masters of our trade. Giving us the time and space, mentoring and support to embark on this journey. And most of all for believing in us and for believing in our art.

May our journey to write better books and become masters of our trade never end.

Hazard yet forward!

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