Language barriers, boredom, and giant floating heads: My experience as an expat in Austria

Guest post by Cass
The red roofs of Graz.
The red roofs of Graz.

In the fall of 2012, my husband surprised me with news: his graduate adviser proposed an opportunity for him to live and work for six months in Austria as part of his PhD research. This announcement came shortly after my first ever trip to Europe, where we attended a research conference in France. My husband was thrilled because he would be able to keep on course with his school work and travel Europe, a huge goal he has had the entire seven years we have known each other.

I was excited for him but nervous about the timing. I was in my last semester of law school and all of my thoughts were focused on passing the Bar exam. Luckily my husband’s start day for work was flexible, so we managed to schedule his start day about one week after I would take the Bar exam. But this opportunity was something that would greatly help my husband’s career. And so without school obligations or kids, we took the plunge to move to Europe for six months.

Getting our travel visas was a fairly painless process but required a lot of planning. The Austrian embassy in Chicago was really helpful and they have very clear lists for the documentation we needed to provide. We communicated by email mostly, though the actual visa application had to be made in person at the embassy. We knew that we had to get all the paperwork right the first time, because the trip to Chicago meant a minimum five hour drive each way and an overnight hotel stay — in the middle of my studying for the Bar exam. I was submitting papers for a visitor’s visa, and my husband was submitting for a working visa.

Two to three weeks, one Bar exam, and one packed up apartment later, we were in Chicago to pick up our visas, then we took our flight to Vienna.

Austria is an idyllic country in the foothills of the Alps. We moved into a dorm room in Graz, the country’s second largest city with about 300,000 residents.

Living situation

The change from a large two bedroom apartment in the US to moving back into student dorms as a married couple was a huge change! My husband and I are both fiercely independent and savor our space and alone time. Negotiating such a small space has really helped us grow in our marriage. (Pro-tip: invest in noise blocking headphones.)


Austria is a predominantly conservative Roman Catholic country in the EU and Eurozone. Cities are nestled between the mountains and large cities are usually centered around a main fort or clock tower, smaller cities may be centered around a church. Graz is a UNESCO city of design and nicknamed the “Red Roof City.” Austrians are generally insular, preferring something local to anything else. This may be perceived as xenophobia, but it feels more like the tradition of supporting its own communities.

Language barrier

Its main language is a German dialect, which is completely different from High German. My husband luckily learned German in high school and continued into college. Unfortunately, my languages were French and Spanish, so I was facing a large language barrier. Modernly, all Austrian students must take English classes before finishing high school. What we discovered is that there is huge variation in young people’s comfort with speaking in English, and people older than 30 were completely unwilling to converse in anything other than German. We didn’t have enough money for me to take a German course while we were here (language teachers are paid at a remarkably high rate). So between my husband’s encouragement and YouTube videos, I slowly learned German words and phrases.

In six months I have gotten to the point where I can do many common errands in German, like using public transportation, buying groceries, ordering at restaurants, and going to the bank.


Another hurdle for me has been staving off boredom. I moved to Austria without a plan to work, without knowing anyone, without knowing the language and facing the days by myself while my husband was at work. It became quickly apparent that I needed something to fill my days with other than television and books. My husband’s Austrian university had an international student office. Through our contact with that office, I was able to get a volunteer internship with a human rights research organization. Because of my visa restrictions, I could not do any work to make money.

Over time I was able to make some friends of my own, and I was even invited to attend classes with some of the students I met in the dorm. Eventually it became easier to find things to fill my days and the struggle to stave off boredom wasn’t nearly as consuming.

Keeping in touch

Being an expat also comes with the challenge of staying in touch with family and friends from back home. I found that a combination of Facebook, email, and Skype helped me keep in touch with home.

While we were here my Bar results were released, one of my sisters had her baby shower and then had her baby, and my grandparents had their 60th wedding anniversary. My family is quite tech-savvy and I was able to attend my sister’s baby shower and my grandparents’ anniversary party through Skype. At my grandparents’ party, they connected my Skype conference to the screen projector in the hotel ballroom — I was projected up for everyone to see like the Wizard’s head in The Wizard of Oz! During dinner everyone came up one-by-one to say “Hi” to me and chat. It is a priceless memory for me, and I feel really grateful that I was able to attend from half a world away (even if I had to wake up at 2am to call in).

We are now at the end of our time here in Austria. It has been such an amazing, and hard, and rewarding experience. I am sad to leave, excited to go back home, and I vow to come back again some day soon.

Comments on Language barriers, boredom, and giant floating heads: My experience as an expat in Austria

  1. I’m glad you’re having a great time in Austria! It’s an amazing country and it’s a great base for getting out and exploring Europe (assuming you have a Schengen-friendly visa). I’m a British expat in Germany (4 and a half years…and counting) and being an expat can be very tough, even if you know the language before you move.
    Just a word of advice: don’t be alarmed if you find the move back difficult. The ‘reverse culture shock’ really does exist and can really catch you off-guard. Take loads of photos before you go as well 🙂

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience! I have often toyed with the idea of relocating abroad, but have worried that my husband might suffer as he doesn’t have the same level of language skills. (Plus, getting a visa in France was a nightmare as a student, so I can only imagine trying to do it for a longer stay.)

    It’s great that your family was able to find a way to include you in all of the special events. That would be something I would most regret–not being able to be a part of different family occasions.

  3. Thank you for sharing your story! Many of the same difficulties you faced figured into our own decision-making process last year. I went to France for the year as part of my Ph.D., and my husband stayed home in the US. Doing a year apart was the right decision for us, but it is really nice to see that short-term international moves can be really beneficial for both partners.

    • I don’t know if my story adequately explains the language-learning part.
      I tried several times to sign up for classes, and it just didn’t materialize for many different reasons. I was getting by with mostly English, so I didn’t have a huge incentive to really learn German. When I needed to do something on my own, I used the app on my phone and did pretty well. And with my base in linguistics, I was curious about learning a language “organically” by immersion, versus taking a class. I supplemented this with Girls4Teaching German videos on Youtube – they’re really good and I learned much of my grammar this way.

  4. I know it’s totally irrelevant to your story, but did you pass the Bar?! I would be stressing out that I had failed and I’d have to study for it again while in another country.

    • I DID pass the Bar.
      And you’re exactly right that it was stressful not knowing what I may have to do if I didn’t pass. I was in a good position because I used an online Bar review course, which offered free re-takes if I did not happen to pass. So I would have been able to start studying right away if I had to. But I would have had to return to the US early, and wouldn’t have been able to go back because we didn’t have the money for me to take another inter-continental plane trip.
      So I feel very lucky to have passed and not have to worry about the logistics past that.

      • Just curious, Cass: are you still in Graz? If so, maybe we could get together over coffee?

        Also, thank you for sharing your experience! I’ve lived abroad in a number of countries and can relate to what you say. I’ve also found that putting yourself out there and finding something to do makes it easier to make friends.

        • I’ve since moved back to America since writing this post.
          While I was there I always tried to say “yes” to an offer to spend time with people. I made quite a few friends this way 🙂

          • Ahhh.. too bad, I was hoping to be able to finally meet someone else who reads the OBE 🙂

            yes, I agree, going out and meeting people, and for me, regular stuff such as a weekly gym thing or volunteering or taking a dance class helped with boredom and with meeting and getting to know new people.

  5. What an entertaining educational experience learning about another country for both of you and also us. Seeing it through your eyes via pictures and comments was really enjoyable. Also keeping in touch using facebook and Skype.
    Thanks for sharing.

  6. Glad to hear you enjoyed Austria =)
    I spent almost two years in Vienna and can relate to many of the things you say, although I was the one who moved there for work reasons and my partner did not join me…Since then I have moved to Belgium and I must say that I do miss it a bit!

  7. My biggest tip (from six months of living in Metz, France, knowing no French) is: Couchsurfing is AMAZING. Join the website. Fill out your profile really well. Use Google Translate for the local language and your native language to invite other local CS users out to a bar/show/café/museum/whatever (or join in on their monthly bar hangout!). The combination of locals, ex-pats, and people passing through is not only good for people to socialize with but also has a lovely hivemind for things like: free local French courses, weekly foreign language practice sessions, where to go for horseback riding lessons and yes-of-course-we’d-be-happy-to-come-with-you-your-first-time-and-translate. Plus then if you get a chance to travel, you can find new friends wherever you’re travelling as well!

    (Seriously, I am not a paid shill. But Couchsurfing + Cass’s rule of “always accept an invitation if possible” saved my two-depressive-people household’s collective ass during the incredibly grey, isolating French winter.)

  8. Thanks for this Cass! I am moving to Salzburg next month with my husband who is doing a post doc. The timing of this article is impeccable! I’m definitely interested in volunteering there, since I won’t be able to work. Thanks for this!

  9. Thanks for sharing your experience, very interesting! And I’m seriously impressed you managed to get by without any German lessons, especially in Austria! I’m Berlin so it’s much easier to scrape by just on English..but I really didn’t have that much luck teaching myself and I have to admit to having felt a bit isolated not speaking German at all. A good school helps tons, I was at Speakeasy if anyone happens to be in Berlin reading this (on the web if you want to check them out btw). I mean, bad schools are a dime a dozen, so I like to pass info about a good one on, hehe. Living abroad is a cool experience though, even when it’s not always that easy!

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