Walking around the new Wien Mitte mall in Central Vienna, I was shocked to see that it contained a new Spar convenience store, open till 11pm, every day of the week. This was amazing, I thought, truly amazing, the future is here. After that I suddenly got very depressed about how such a small thing could possibly make such a big difference to my life. To get a few things straight, Vienna doesn’t do convenience stores: supermarkets close at 7:30pm, and the vast, vast majority of those are closed on Sundays. Therefore the existence of a store such as this Spar which breaks all of these rules, and located just three U-Bahn stops from my door, and on my way home from work is, rather depressingly, a big deal.
Although I have lived in Vienna for over a year, and previously in other European countries with a similar system, I am still aligned to the convenience-culture which is prevalent in the English speaking world and also much of Asia. I am not content unless there is a convenience store on my street where I can buy food at ungodly hours, any day of the week. As a result of this, I often feel a slave to the opening hours of supermarkets in Vienna, rushing home to the local Billa before 19:30 if I want to do such a simple thing as prepare a meal at home that evening. This is worse on Saturdays, as all supermarkets close at 6pm, and do not reopen until Monday. I know all of these difficulties are mostly related to my own deeply-rooted psychological problems and procrastination issues, however this has rarely stopped me ranting here before.
I have travelled around Western Europe a lot and spent extended periods in Italy, the Netherlands and most recently Austria. What has generally struck me about these countries is that they are a lot less obsessed with capitalism than the English-speaking countries in particular. The early closing times of supermarkets is just a symptom of this. Ireland was growing rich while I was growing up, and I saw the change from respecting the Sabbath day to Sundays becoming the Official Shopping Day of the entire country. Chains of convenience stores emerged, followed by 24-hour Tesco’s up and down the land. Commercial trading is done differently on the continent. Though not overtly religious, many European countries have laws preventing stores from opening on Sundays. There are exceptions, most notably at major train stations such as Wien Mitte/Landstrasse. Due to the lack of similar convenience stores around, I assume a problem is that trade licences that permit later opening hours are much more expensive than the normal licenses with state-prescribed opening hours. The innocence of the capitalist forces involved in opening this new Spar is shown in that normal supermarket prices are charged for all items. In Ireland, convenience stores charge a hefty premium, even with much competition. The Spar at Wien Mitte has no competitors for miles.
Christmas in mainland European countries is also a pleasant, non-commercial experience which contrasts greatly with the bombardment of pressure and gimmickry which those in the English-speaking world are presented with every year. While locals here still complain about the commercialisation of the festive season, it really does not compare with the yearly competition to buy as much food, gifts and everything else which defines the modern Christmas in Ireland, at least. Not that I am complaining about this of course, as since I grew up with the “Commercial Christmas”, it is that version of the holiday which I yearn for. It has to be said that a big part of my idealising of the European version could be that I am not susceptible to Austrian media and advertising in the run-up to Christmas. I do not watch Austrian television or listen to radio here, while at home in Ireland this would not be the case.
Another, more city-specific point to be made here is that while Vienna is a major capital city, it is not a major economic centre. Vienna is a very affluent city, but for different reasons than most. Vienna thrives through its tourist industry and also its designation as a major hub for international organisations. While the rush-hour commute frustrates and depresses, workers from London, New York and even Dublin would laugh at what we in Vienna must brave every morning and evening. There is no dramatic urgency with every step, there is no grabbing a coffee as quickly as possible, and there is no pushing people out of the way in order to catch that train even though there is one two minutes later. Viennese life is not fast-paced; it is structured and careful. I attribute this to the absence of a major financial sector and the presence in its stead of large-scale international institutions, however that is a story for a different day. Back to the issue, Vienna is not stressful, most of its workers enjoy predictable, steady working hours and therefore do not have much need for late opening hours or convenience stores. Everyone who works here is busy and earns a decent wage, but no one is overtly stressed. This point is also a large factor in why Vienna is so often ranked highly in indexes of attractive places to live in the world.
As is predictable, I would obviously favour a system similar to that of my homeland, with generous supermarket opening hours combined with ubiquitous convenience stores. A 24 hour system is probably not good for society, as I am always reminded of Chris Rock’s point about the merits of 24 hour banking. Similarly, most who wish to shop at 3am should probably be offered some sort of counselling at the checkout. The mainland European system of capitalism is charming and it almost takes us cynical expats back to a bygone era in our own home countries. However, anyone in Vienna who has ever visited one of those supermarkets in the vast, vast minority that are open on Sundays will know that the system cannot last forever. A few Billas in Vienna open on Sundays, and on this day all are absolutely crammed with people to the point of unpleasantness. I work beside one of these Billa’s, and know that it is only like this on Sundays.
With demand like this, and with more uncertain economic times ahead which are sure to eventually hit Austria, it is all but inevitable that the commercial trading restrictions I rant about now will be relaxed. Walking around the new Wien Mitte mall today, I couldn’t help but think of the adjacent street, Landstrasse Hauptstrasse, which contains all one could possibly want from a suburban shopping street, albeit stretched out over several hundred metres. When winter finally comes, this street will suffer due to the existence of the new centrally-heated Mall, and shops there may be forced to close. They will leave behind them valuable retail space which perhaps only major international brands can afford, and also the incentive to lobby the government for relaxed commercial trading laws. It is a shame, of course, but that is capitalism, and unfortunately right now we can’t even imagine a world without it.