Not cool!

Driving a convertible car while listening to loud Haddaway songs stopped being cool in 1996. But apparently not in Vienna, especially for middle-aged gentlemen. :D

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30% less cars in my neighborhood

Yesterday was the first day when the “blue zone” (the restricted parking zone, for which you need a paid permit) was extended to several districts in Vienna, including mine. The whole thing was organized in the purest Saxon style:

  • The Mayor of Vienna, representing the “red-green alliance” (socialistst + ecologist parties) sent everyone a letter 1 week before the event, explaining the reasons why this needs to be done, the major argument being “to increase mobility” through the use of public transportation, bycicles and alternative ways of transport.
  • 1 day before the deadline, employees were already marking the spots on the streets where the blue zone signs would be painted.
  • On the 1st of October, all signs got painted.
  • Today, the streets had 30-40% less cars parked on the sideways, and a policeman was patrolling and writing fines. :)

Of course, it’s not all that simple and straightforward. The whole matter was debated for over 1 year, and the parking permits actually became cheaper and can now also be obtained online, to encourage people to “become legit”. I get the feeling that the current “red-green alliance” is not to everyone’s liking, but in general I like their moves and projects, as they resonate with many of my personal values: a clean city, integration of immigrants, less traffic. Now, they’re debating whether Mariahilferstrasse (the main shopping street in Vienna) should become a pedestrian zone, instead.

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Sargfrabrik, a socialist dream come true

Sargfabrik, which can be literally translated as a “Coffin factory”, is  the biggest self-governing community in West Vienna, containing several living “maisonette”, spaces for workshops, a concert hall, an underground swimming pool open 24h, a kindergarten, a roof-top terrace and many other smaller gardens and playgrounds, and a bar&restaurant.

I discovered the place quite late after moving here, despite living just a few meters away from it, as it is quite secluded from public transit. (as any other Hof or inner courtyard in Vienna, actually). As it turns out, they even have a fish market every Thursday, and organize quite a few concerts every month, mostly from with “world music” (ethnic influences, but also a lot of local artists).

The concept of the building is definitely not something new to Vienna, as other similar places have emerged recently (Kabelwerk is another example), and could actually be traced back to the Rotes Wien period (which I will write about in a future blog post). Yes, many will say there is no connection between this artsy place, the Karl Mark Hof, and the post-capitalist Kabelwerk, but I beg to differ. :)

In any case, the concept and the architecture are quite interesting, and you can find out more about similar projects elsewhere in the world on this website.

Finally, in case you are left wondering why it’s called “Sargfabrik”, the explanation is simple: the place was built on the ground of an old coffin factory. They still kept the furnace  tower (not really sure why you would need a furnace in a coffin factory, though).

By looking at the place from Google Maps, it looks like there is still place to extend the complex, as there is empty ground left after demolishing the factory.

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The oldest operating cinema in the world is in Vienna

It turns out that the oldest cinema in the world that is still running, the Breitenseer Lichtspiele (literally, “Light show from Breitensee”), is right here in Vienna, just a couple hundreds meters from my house.ImageThe cinema was opened in 1905, and it still runs. This movie tells the story of the place (in German):

I haven’t been there yet, but definitely plan to go. To my shame, I haven’t been to any movie in a cinema in Austria, but then again, free time has proven to be quite expensive. Anyway, in case you want to visit it and maybe watch a movie, the address is Breitenseer Straße 21, in the 14th district of Vienna.

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Berlin versus Vienna

I read this little anecdote in an old German book called “Humor in deutscher Sprache”. If your German is not so good, try using Google Translate to read it.

Ein Berliner besuchte einmal die schöne alte Stadt Wien. Er nahm eine Droschke und fuhr durch die Stadt. Hie und da stellte er an den Kutscher eine Frage, was das für Bauten seien, wie lange man daran gearbeitet have usw. Der Kutscher antwortete ihm, aber er ärgerte sich über seinen Gast, der nichts von dem Gesehenen lobte. Im Gegenteil, dieser fand alles zu klein, zu unbedeutend. Als der Kutscher ihm erzählte, daß nab am Opernhaus fünf Jahre lang gebaut habe, sagte der Berliner:

- In Berlin hätte man an so einem Häuschen nicht länger als ein paar Wochen gebaut!

Endlich kamen sie bei Stephansdom vorbei. Da fragte der Berliner:

- Was ist denn das für eine Kapelle?

Das war zu viel, und der Kutscher antwortete:

- Ich weiß es selber nicht, mein Herr. Als ich vor einer Stunde da vorbeifuhr, stand sie noch nicht da!

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Renting an apartment: a few cultural differences

I wanted to share a few thoughts on the differences between the Viennese and the Romanian real estate markets, since I am a “mieter” (renter) in Vienna, but an owner of two properties in Bucharest. I’ve been offering properties for rent in Bucharest for the past 3 years now, and my experiences so far have been frustrating. So here is how things happen in the two cities.

Renting a flat in Bucharest

  • A few things about the structure of the real estate situation in Romania:
    • 80% or more of the people own the property they live in, only 20% or less are forced to rent.
    • 90% of offers are likely posted by a real estate agent or agency, who will actually make the transaction more difficult, because he/she cannot offer almost any accurate information about the property, does not have the keys to the property, and basically acts as a highly payed human phone forwarding system between the renter and the owner. (obviously, some information will be lost in the forwarding)
    • real estate agents expect a commission equal to half the monthly rent from the owner. Some also expect an additional 1/2 rent from the renter.
  • Do not expect a contract. Legal contracts between the owner and the renter are somewhat of an eccentricity in Bucharest. Even if you do receive one, it usually has less than 2 pages and records a different sum of money than what you agreed on, because owners want to evade taxes. A common practice is to rent the apartment for 300-500 euros, but declare only 50-100 euro on paper, in order to pay smaller taxes.
  • Even if you do have a contract signed, don’t expect the renter (and often the owner) to honor it. It’s very common to end the contract abruptly, with hardly any notice, and with no way to legally enforce penalties or consequences. Basically, you can get a phone call from your renter saying: “Tomorrow we’re leaving! We found somewhere else cheaper! And we’re not paying the last rent, because you can deduct it from the warranty.” (Kaution) This usually leaves the owner with debts to the electricity or other public utility providers, because the “Kaution” in Romania is one-month’s worth of rent or less, which barely covers damages to the apartment (quite frequent, if you’re leasing to students), bills and unpaid rent.
  • People usually change apartments every 6-8 months. There are three reasons for that:
    • the vast majority of renters are students, who share the apartment among themselves. When they quarrel over some issue or begin a new academic year, they tend to look for a new place (with, usually, new roommates).
    • rents have been constantly decreasing since 2008, and continue to do so. Very few owners are likely to renegotiate or proactively reduce monthly rent, so renters tend to look for some other place cheaper to rent after a few months. (differences can be as high as 30% over an 8-month period)
    • there are no ways to enforce contracts (in the unlikely event that there is a contract in place). If you go to court, it can take 3-5 years and expenses will exceed anything you were hoping to get back from the breached contract.
  • Now, for some personal experiences as an owner, which explain why I consider this “business” frustrating:
    • People will try to negotiate the rent from the very first second, before and after they sign the contract. They will complain it’s too much, but as soon as the first few months are passed, they’ll request that they start paying less, because they cannot afford it. Reminding them that they have a contract they need to honor won’t help.
    • Despite complaining that they cannot afford to pay rent, it’s not uncommon that they will request an additional air conditioner or a plasma TV. Even as they negotiate rent, they will send the negotiation emails from an expensive smart phone such as iPhone or Blackberry. And I’m not talking about business people here, I’m talking about freshman students. If you don’t buy them a flat-screen plasma TV, they will eventually buy it themselves, and continue complaining about the high rent.
    • People think that warranty is actually “rent paid in advance”. They think it’s weird to demand money for protection of property or any damages done to the property. I’ve had one customer complaining about this, saying he has never heard of such a thing, and leaving the room completely pissed off. As a result, people will not pay their last rent before leaving the apartment, because they think they already paid one rent in advance. Demanding money for additional bills they should have paid or for damages done is like pulling teeth with your bare hands.

Renting a flat in Vienna

  • In Vienna, things are quite the opposite of Romania:
    • 80% of people rent, 20% own their flat/house.
    • a real estate agent wants at least 2-month’s rent commission from the renter. (usually, 2 months + VAT)
    • Kaution (or warranty deposit) is at least 3-months rent.
    • Contracts are the rule, rather than the exception. A contract has anything between 10-50 pages, with rules about anything and everything, from how you should throw away garbage, to whether you’re allowed to hang pictures on your walls or what happens if you leave earlier than the minimum contract period (which is usually 2 years).
  • So, when someone rents an average apartment for, say, 750 euro/month rent, they need to pay upfront around 4,500 euro. Compare this to 1 month rent + 1 month warranty + 1/2 rent commission in Bucharest, which totals about 875 euro for a 350-euro-rent apartment.
  • Rents usually include most of the “living expenses” (Betriebskosten), which makes payments much easier and reduces the likelihood of being scammed by the renters.
  • Most apartments are unfurnished or only partially furnished. This is, again, different from Romanian apartments.
  • When we moved, we visited 12 apartments, we liked 10 of them, we short-listed to 4, and finally decided on 1. The owner agreed instantly to make some necessary repairs to the apartment (a couple of walls were dirty and the sink was broken).
  • Payments for rent and bills are handled automatically, meaning the other party gets access to your bank account and withdraws the needed amount of money. (direct debit)

So that’s it! If you have other experiences you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.

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The beautiful clouds of Vienna

Vienna probably has the most beautiful clouds I have seen (maybe because there is not a lot of pollution/smog). Below are some shots I caught with my poor quality phone camera.

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