When we moved to Salzburg a year ago, I was warned that Austrians occasionally scold strangers in public. They have, I was told, great respect for order and discipline, and it would not be unusual for a old woman, for instance, to upbraid someone for riding a bike on the wrong side of the road or crossing the street against the light.
As it turned out, I’ve found Austrians to be more relaxed and accepting than those warnings suggested. There is a certain reserve, certainly, but there’s also much warmth, willingness to help and a great sense of fun.
We’ve also seen disorder we didn’t expect. Firecrackers and rockets have been exploding in the night from fields around us since well before Christmas. With Fasching – Carnival – reaching its climax, I expect it will continue for a few more days.
Silvester – New Year’s Eve – in the centre of Salzburg was nearly riotous. Every third person, it seemed, had an arsenal of large rockets. They exploded around us, bursting overhead without stop. When the official fireworks started, they were dulled by a pall of smoke and hard to distinguish from the private rockets still filling the sky.
And it’s every man for himself when it comes to queues in supermarkets or other public places. We’ve learned to push our way through and be vigilant about holding our place in line, because it’s likely that someone will try to jump ahead, given the chance.
But generally there is a great deal of decorum about public life. I notice it particularly on the buses, where riders are quiet and polite. Even when the buses are full of passengers, they are not noisy. Teenagers and school kids, boarding in bunches, joke and laugh, teasing each other. But they don’t shriek or shove. Loud conversations – whether face to face or on mobiles – are unusual. You see no litter, no graffiti or vandalism. There is no undercurrent of threat or intimidation. All seems orderly and safe.
Last week I boarded a bus right as the bells ringing at noon. Around me were knots of school children on their way home for lunch. Two boys about eight years old were sitting in the front seats. Sitting about six or seven row behind them, I saw that one of them was slapping other's head, playfully, I thought. Not paying too much attention, I was conscious only of a repeated motion, dark gloved hand against dark soft cap, a slight distraction as I looked out the window.
A small man of about 75 wearing a traditional stiff felt hat was sitting two rows behind the kids. Suddenly he stood, reached over the head of the woman in front of him and walloped the kid doing the slapping. After striking the kid on the back of the head, he said something sharp and brief. Then he sat down and looked at the woman in the seat facing him, saying something with a smile and a quick little nod.
A little farther along the street, the two boys stood up and, with subdued faces, moved to the back of the bus. Obviously, they didn't know the man, nor do I think the man knew the woman.
I think I had just witnessed my first instance of a stranger doing his part to protect the public order.