Living in Vienna for a week

With love and gratitude for Illia

So my good friend lives in Vienna. I was planning to go visit him for ages. And being back from China for two months, felt like as good a reason as any to finally make it happen.

Strangely enough, with EU across the street from Ukraine, it was my first fully-fledged European experience. And the plan was to see if I want to live there and if I’d feel at least kind of in the right place. As you can see, unlike my trips to the USA and China, I decided to do some scouting first.

I booked the plane tickets, synced up our schedules, got hyped, and got going.

It was my first trip this far where no one took care of all the transfers for me. So I had to pull myself together, turn on my attentive side and take on responsibility for not getting lost in the big world where you take care of yourself.

Before actually embarking on a journey, getting there looked like a big undertaking. Too many moving pieces and things that needed to work out exactly as planned. The train, the express to the airport that constantly breaks down, the airlines that wanted my backpack to be smaller than 40x20x30cm, the plane, the bus which leaves an hour after the plane lands. But step by step it just worked.

Looks like it was meant to be. But also, it appears that traveling isn’t rocket science after all.

Being thankful and relieved as I am for the fact that the road went exactly as planned, the thing that impressed me most was passing the customs in Bratislava as easily. It really felt as if I’m a worthy citizen. And not just of Ukraine but of the world. When you don’t need to go through lengthy checks and no one questions your reasons for coming or the fact that you have money (I’m looking at you USA), you really feel like a decent human being with rights, not just responsibilities.

Long story short, at exactly 00:40 my bus arrived and I made it to Vienna, Austria. My friend was waiting for me at the bus stop which was a huge relief since my roaming internet didn’t work and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to find his dorm myself. We hugged it out and the exploration of Vienna began with a 15-minute stroll of a rural area of the city.

And here are the most important things I felt about Vienna after living and working there remotely for a week.

People

Of course, a week is nothing. And yes, my way of blending in by means of working full-time from my friend’s dorm room isn’t equal to actually living in Vienna. But I think I managed to bring it as close as I could to feeling as if I relocated there. And the thing I liked most about Vienna were its people.

It feels like the city isn’t in a hurry. Like the people just live, without the neverending rush, without the ever-present hectic run towards the paycheck. The number of clear, intellectual and calm faces even in the subway was off the charts. And it may be just the impression I got, but it felt like in Vienna there’s no judgment of those who are just looking for themselves, who haven’t got life figured out.

I felt like no one actually cared about one’s profession or great deeds in something not important (like marketing). I felt that the people are far more focused on your intellectual and cultural capabilities rather than the particular area you apply them in.

I wasn’t able to let go of my cemented but unnatural values in the short week I’ve spent there. But I did see how liberating it may be – to not be defined by your choice of a career. First and foremost when it comes to not pushing yourself and beating yourself up for not being the best at something you don’t care about.

Culture

I’m not that big of a fan of architecture and landmarks. I feel like all the old cities are pretty much just a rearranged version of something you saw before in another old city. And even though Vienna is clean and can boast quite a few nice buildings, I didn’t pay that much attention to them separately. At the same time, they did give a strong feeling of a wholesome ensemble conveying stability and, you know, calmness. The city growing and modernizing yet staying true to its original style.

Overall, the feeling you get from Vienna is what you’d imagine the old Europe to be in the 21st century. Leftist students demanding more liberal laws (not knowing what exactly they are unhappy with),  grownups feeling safe (being calm and sure about their future), people enjoying the culture that survived centuries and isn’t going anywhere, a ton of expats really trying to blend in and live happily and thankfully to the country that took them.

Relaxing

As I was saying, I didn’t feel that people in Vienna are as obsessed with the productivity bullshit we often become slaves to. When you can afford to live a decent life working 20 hours a week and you don’t feel like upgrading your car is something that will strengthen your social standing, you can kind of let go.

I had a few chances to observe the students who can easily be considered grownups in my world and it felt like they just aren’t in that much hurry to become adults. Yes, they study hard, at least some of them, but they don’t give away the last 2-3 years of youth to work more hours than they need to afford the life that they want.

Prices

Whew, the prices in Vienna, my, oh, my. You better stop converting them to your local currency in your head right from the start.

But you look around and see where all this money goes to. All the infrastructure, all the things that wouldn’t be free back home, the quality of life and the onwards and upwards trajectory of the country. It all costs money. So I guess paying enormous taxes and getting coffee for € 5 may not suck as much when you live in such a great place.

How cool was coming back home and what it means

I spent the week in Vienna with one of my closest friends. We had a great time talking, eating, playing games, drinking, exploring the city, and soaking in Therme Wien. I loved pretty much all the aspects of the city and culture I got to see. Despite all that, coming home still felt great.

Travelling is awesome. Meeting new people, exploring new cultures, pushing your limits – you should do all that. But it feels so much better when you have somewhere to come back to.

Making drastic changes in life

I recently saw a big flaw in my attitude towards big life decisions. Once again.

I used to think that the jobs I had were the defining parts of my life in which I should find the reason for being. And I just didn’t get why I wasn’t happy, why none of them gave me full satisfaction and the feeling of living the complete life I felt I could have. Only after a long search, I started seeing that even though our profession is the go-to response to the identity questions, that’s not really a good answer. Because saying “I’m a marketer” is a huge understatement of who and what you are.

And that’s not to say that we shouldn’t work hard whatever we do.  Because we should. But at the same time, our generation has the most freedom to do whatever the fuck we want at any given moment. And we should use this freedom. At least till we turn into family people and get limited by commitments and responsibilities to the point where we can’t just flip everything off and try something radically new.

At the same time, I’m all for taking on responsibilities in general. But only the ones that make you more whole and happy in return, not blindly grabbing all those the society says you should have at your age. Because the standards change. And if 40 is the new 30, then 25 is the new 15.

One of the big reasons for my depression was the fact that I didn’t see any substantial meaning in being a marketer and in devoting the whole of myself to it. I felt that there’s so much more happening on the inside that wasn’t utilized by simply doing my job as good as I could. But I would stubbornly concentrate all my energy on work, neglecting relationships, friendships and all the other things I was lucky enough to have. Even though I was physically there for the people I loved, I kept thinking about work, constantly digging a deeper hole of insufficient meaning for myself.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a ton of meaning in honest work, in growing, in becoming the best possible professional version of you. But this doesn’t require all the immense energy sources your body and mind are producing for love, socialization, creativity, etc.

I learned it the hard way.

A couple of months ago I thought that marketing as a profession wasn’t fulfilling for me, even though on paper it’s kind if the perfect fit. So I put that career on hold and decided to go to China to become a coach. I always thought that coaching is kind of cool, so my logic at the time could be condensed to “why not, I’m unhappy anyway”. And so, feeling courageous and slightly judged for irresponsibility, I came to China.

Imagine my shock and despair when after a month in a completely new culture, with a completely new social circle and a completely new career I felt the same things I felt at all my previous jobs. Unfulfillment, boredom.

I clearly saw that yeah, I can do this, and yeah, I can be successful in it. But what’s the point? Where does this path bring me? Is it the best way to use up my time? Do I feel that my life is or will be meaningful here, far from all the loved ones?

I’ll level with you, I got really scared for a little while. I felt that this was just the way I am: unhappy, emptied and burned out. And the only choices I saw were:

1. To force myself to do something I saw no point whatsoever in doing.

2. To live in constant stress of getting used to new challenges.

And then it struck me. What if the meaning of life isn’t only in work? What if the spheres I neglected are just as (if not more) important than getting to the top of a corporate ladder?

You probably think that this was also the moment I felt sorry for going to China and for changing everything in my life so drastically and so quickly.

Well, not really.

I felt good. I felt relaxed. All the resources I poured into this trip were justified that very second since I’m not sure I would have realized the same things have I kept on going down my old path.

Catch my drift?  Would I have stayed, I would’ve been miserable for who knows how much longer. Which brings me to the main point I want to make in this text.

Even when you’re young it’s very easy to settle down and get used to stuff. A job that pays well, a city you don’t like that much, okay people. It’s easy to start telling yourself one or several points of the following:

  • If I change everything it can get worse
  • It’s just a normal life
  • Many people are far less happy
  • Many people live like this so that’s fine
  • I have invested a ton of time into this so I can’t quit

For some people, it works. But I also know for a fact that many people like me try to convince themselves that everything’s fine but don’t believe it.

And guess what it means.

It means that you’re not in the right place. It means that you can and should look for a way out, for a drastic change, for a new route to take. It means that all the reasons listed above that feel like concrete walls you can’t break – are just in your head.

If your being asks for change, it will get it. No matter how much you struggle to fight it, you can’t win in a fight against yourself. Some part of you loses either way. So why not trust yourself and at least consider the way your subconscious hints you at.

I think it’s worth completely changing surroundings when you feel stuck. When you find yourself in a new place with people you just met and doing stuff you’re not that good at, some survival mechanisms kick in and you start growing like crazy. And in this pumped up adrenaline-filled state, you have a decent chance to jump over several steps on a ladder which you were trying to conquer for years before that.

The truth is that some people never find ecstatic happiness. Some people do just live okay lives in okay cities with okay people. And for some people it’s fine. But imagine how sorry you’ll feel if you don’t try and see if you happen to be one of the lucky ones.

What if your fulfilled life was around the corner and you decided that the job you don’t like that much pays well for now?

You know what’s the scariest thing that can happen really if you find the strength to do what you want?

I will tell you cause it happened to me. You will start over. That easy. But this time with the new insights you gained, new experiences you had, and a ton of stories to tell.

What I learned my first 2 weeks in China

It’s been slightly over 2 weeks since I’m in the People’s Republic of China. I’ll share some of the things I would have wanted to know before coming here.

Cuisine

  1. There are literal millions of places to eat, ranging from pompous restaurants to ugly dirty holes in the windows and scooters with boxes of food on top of them. The rule of thumb generally is to try and eat in the places with the most locals. And even there it feels like a lottery on whether or not you’ll get sick. Often it’s a place you’d never eat in if you were just listening to your understanding of hygiene, but it’s accepted that the food there is okay. And even though there’s plenty of places to go to and you can find some food at every corner, you just risk less when you eat at the same places as the Chinese.
  2. As I’m not a big fan of eating in dirty places, no matter how authentic they are. And for a while, I didn’t have a kitchen to cook for myself. So the choice kind of boiled down to eating at international chains like McDonald’s, getting ready-made meals at stores or just getting by on bananas and dairy products. That sucks. Make sure that you do have a kitchen ASAP if you’re moving here.
  3. There’s drastically less meat than we’re used to in everything. If feels like you’re punishing your body for something by eating carbs all the time. Noodles, rice, sauces, some weird stuff you can’t identify. And the weird thing is that you get used to the carbs so you keep on eating them which isn’t all that good for you. So you better start cooking for yourself soon.
  4. If you’ve eaten Chinese food before, you won’t get shocked or really even surprised by the food here. It’s the Chinese cuisine you know. And pretty soon you’ll get tired of it. Try eating Chinese for a couple of days straight where you live. It gets old really quick, it’s not for everyone.
  5. It’s rather cheap to eat out but it’s still even cheaper to cook for yourself. Don’t worry you won’t be missing anything groundbreaking from the local chefs.

People

  1. Beijing is the capital, so generally, people are here to make money. Everyone’s in a hurry, on bikes, on cars, or bicycles, on foot, you name it.
  2. People don’t really lift their heads from their phones. They may be driving a school bus or crossing an extremely busy road, it doesn’t matter. They are always on the phone. Playing stupid games, watching tv shows with full volume on in a public place, they don’t care. The phone here really became a part of the body. Without a phone and internet connection you’re lost, without any money, means to contact anyone, without directions, transport, translator, etc.
  3. People don’t speak English. Very-very rarely can you find someone who’ll understand the very simplified sentences. Of course, there are people who have great English, but they are so rare that you’ll feel almost like they don’t exist at all. But then again, if you’re coming to a sphere like IT, it’ll probably be okay.
  4. People are very open to communication and some will want to take pictures with you. Kids will look at you in wonder. It’s fun.
  5. People sleep wherever and whenever they feel like it. When we have a lunch break, Chinese coaches just lay down and sleep for a solid hour on a football field with people running around and yelling. I have no idea how they do it.

Technology

  1. Be ready that the second you put in a Chinese sim card into your phone it will get significantly slower. I don’t know why that’s just how it is.
  2. There are cameras everywhere. Literally, no matter where you stand, if you look around, you’ll be able to find at least one camera. On the one hand, it makes you feel safe and you can be rather relaxed even in crowded places like subway, but on the other hand it’s very “black mirrory” and shows us exactly where the whole civilization is headed in terms of mass surveillance.
  3. UX, UI and user flows in apps and in other digital products are very different and unintuitive if you’re used to the way they do it in the West.
  4. The vast majority of vitally important online products and services aren’t localized for English speaking users.
  5. Beijing is extremely digitalized. Even the smallest stores and business owners prefer to get paid through WeChat and each has their own QR code printed out and ready to be used. And it really does make life much easier. At the same time, if something happens to the phones or the electricity in a big city, it will be paralyzed.

Ecology

  1. I’m no scientist and it’s hard for me to gauge how bad the air here is, but it’s obvious that even on sunny days with a clear sky, you can see that the skyscrapers in the city center are kind of in a fog. It’s not that dense, but it’s definitely there and you’re breathing it. At the same time, relatively few people wear face masks. I hear they don’t help all the much, so maybe that’s the reason.
  2. There are many parks and the air there is much better, at least it feels like it. Overall, I expected Beijing to have fewer trees while in reality, you can tell that the authorities make an effort to have more things producing oxygen.

Communication

  1. People are friendly and ready to help. But the problem is that the language barrier happens to be too high to ignore it. So you may try and try to explain something simple using your body and hands but it just isn’t enough. But then you can always turn to a translator app on your phone and it will all be all right. There’s even something comforting and humbling in surfing through millions of people, who are not just complete strangers but even won’t understand you if you use your communication instruments.
  2. If you meet someone who looks white or hear your native tongue somewhere in the crowd, it’s completely normal to come closer and meet the new people. Honestly, in 2 weeks here, I’ve met 10 times as many new cool people as I did in the last several years in Ukraine. Meeting Europeans or Americans or Mexicans, you instantly feel like they’re a member of your social group and it’s a pleasure to talk proper English or Russian. I have even met a guy from Ivano Frankivsk with whom I can speak Ukrainian. It’s extremely heartwarming when you’re that far from home.

Transport

  1. Beijing subway is very intuitive and developed, so even if it’s your first big city, you will be able to find your way from one station to another. The signs with directions are everywhere and if you have your phone with the map in your hand at all times you may even feel relaxed there. Even though the subway is really fast, it still takes a ton of time to get anywhere.
  2. There are thousands of bikes for rent laying around the public spots. You unlock them through, (once again) your WeChat and go anywhere you want. It’s really cheap and given that your destination might be an hour walk from the subway, they are extremely helpful. It feels though as if the rules don’t apply to people on bikes and bicycles. They can be riding in the middle of a highway, on the sidewalk, in the bike lane. So you got to always be aware of the possibility of some biker looking in their phone, driving directly at you and not paying any attention.
  3. People who know they are settling in Beijing get themselves electric bikes that for now don’t require a driver’s license. At the same time, you can go up to 70km on a fully charged battery and that’s more than enough for a regular working day. I’m not sure what they do in winter though.
  4. I haven’t had a chance to ride on a bus here yet, but they should also be just fine. Just like buses in any other developed country.
  5. If you’re going somewhere and can split a cab ride, it will be really cheap, but keep in mind that distances here can get out of hand, so make sure to ask or check the price beforehand.

The Regime

  1. You really feel that big brother is watching you at all times. And as long as you know that you operate in the legal field it’s fine. But if the authorities do want to find you or learn more about you for some reason, they have access to all the possible information. They know where you eat, where you sleep, what subway stations you enter and exit, where you work and who you’re talking to.
  2. Communist propaganda isn’t too aggressive here. You can see a red flag or some Soviet attributes here and there, but it doesn’t really catch the eye. The reason being that at the same time you’re surrounded by an immense spectacle showcasing all the capitalistic achievements of the world.
  3. From what I hear, to the government, Chinese people come first. So if a foreigner gets in a fight or even touches a local in a wrong way, they will be found guilty. And there are examples of people who spend time in prison for a minor misbehavior not even getting a chance to be deported. So that’s that. That’s why you want to avoid any kind of drama and conflicts here.

Final thoughts

Even though I don’t like big cities and love Ukraine, I really like it here. From the first day, it felt right and interesting. Spending some time here is definitely a perspective-shifting experience that will stick with you for a long long time, if not for life. But be ready to face at the same time a very different and very similar reality. Completely digital yet very personal, hectic but relaxed.