An analys, attempted
The half-full glass of the average town
The more normal a face is, the more attractive it is – that's what experiments show. The more faces you superimpose over each other, the more appealing the end product seems. Can this finding be transposed to places?
Do we believe that an average city offers an enhanced quality of life? Statistics can't provide the answer – the average face doesn't exist, no more than the average town. In Austria, the equation might theoretically look like this: Vienna has two million inhabitants. Hardegg, situated in the south, is the smallest true town around. Does the most average city in Austria lie halfway between them? The problem is, there is no city with one million and forty inhabitants. That's the drawback with statistics: normality is a construct that does not exist in reality. Then again, a normal city does exist, namely the city in Illinois called "Normal." This boasts a population of 55,000, making it the 25th largest city in the state, which is itself the fifth most populous in the United States. Places bearing the name "Normal" also exist in Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. In Austria, "Normal" would be the ninth largest city, ranking right after Wels. So does this mean that Wels, the eighth largest city, is the most normal city in our country? Well, I believe it is.
Smack-dab in the middle
Wels is the most average city in Austria: you sense it when you're on site. Nothing is unusual, nothing exceptional happens; records are set elsewhere. Wels, the second largest city in Upper Austria, is mediocrity masquerading as a municipiality. Once you've tasted its tediousness, you feel underchallenged in other places: it takes more courage to face this pedestrian pulchritude than to brave the extremes of global capitals like Berlin or Vienna. Wels (along with Austria's Lauterach and Pöchlarn, and even Germany's Passau and Nuremberg) is smack-dab in the middle in every sense. People speak neither a dialect nor High German; they live neither in a big city nor in some backwater; they are neither anonymous nor comfortably embedded; they enjoy neither the rugged rockfaces of the Alps nor the bleak expanses of the plains. They breathe neither the arrogant intellectualism of the arts nor the austere appeal of the industrial wasteland. Wels boasts one shopping boulevard and one soccer team. The natives are friendlier than in Vienna, but more reserved than in homey hamlets. And, wherever you go, you are surrounded by self-appointed law enforcers and pedantic pedagogues. Then again, that applies to all of German-speaking Europe.
I had the privilege of living in Wels for three months, holding the medieval-sounding post of town scribe, i.e. resident writer. Despite having been born a mere 10 minutes away by train, namely in Linz, prior to my scribe stint I had only been in Wels three times. And who could blame me? But being there in that special function was a grand adventure. I have been living in Vienna for many years and it was a great pleasure to spend an appreciable amount of time in my home region, a place at once alien and familiar, and to hear and speak (somewhat rustily) the language of my youth. When, once, I took the short train hop to Linz, it was a true homecoming. Riding the street car on the way to the main square, from my vantage point as an arrogant resident of the country's capital, I realized just how obvious it was that Linz was merely the capital of a federal state, notwithstanding its new opera house, new trams, and the same shops lining the pedestrian precinct that one finds in every other city in the western world, indeed across the planet. So this was supposed to be my home? But what is truly home? Authors love to wax lyrical on this topic; their spiritual home is literature, language. That said, the German spoken in Linz by those young people with their disfiguring hairstyles had nothing to do with me (Did the 1980s never stop in Linz? Or had I simply not noticed their resurrection?). Did I talk that way too when I was in school? Back in Vienna I had been under the impression that I still spoke with an Upper Austrian accent, but compared to the stuttering and stammering around me I enunciated like someone performing at Vienna's majestic Burgtheater. That was not my home. Perhaps such things really did only exist in literature. So I traveled back to Wels where I had been assigned a room of my own – to write literature.
Even after three months in Wels I still chuckled about the fact that "Ring Road" was actually a straight street. The sign on the "Media & Arts Building" (Medien Kultur Haus) built by Fellner & Helmer, the Habsburg monarchy's most influential theater architects, proclaimed it was a bank (Sparkasse), but then it was renamed Museum; inside is the municipal gallery (Galerie der Stadt Wels) – which is wonderful, but the curious signage was the reason I walked past without noticing it during my first visit. The movie theater is simply called "Movie Theater," and in its afterlife the top hotel in town, Hotel Greif, had become a youth hostel, but that had recently been demolished. The liveliest place in the city was also a scene of death: Schlachthof, a former slaughterhouse, now a fantastic event venue. You only register these minor absurdities if you're from out of town. Which is why I enjoyed slowly immersing myself in my surroundings and gradually familiarizing myself with them. The biggest advantage of a small place is that you can walk everywhere. (This has apparently escaped the good folk of Wels, who race around in circles like maniacs in their bewildering labyrinth of one-way streets.)
A city is not made up of the roads that crisscross it and the buildings that line them, but rather of the men and women who inhabit these edifices. For weeks I met with all kinds of people and talked to them about Wels, trying to find out what it was like to live here, what joys and fears filled their days. But whenever people asked me what they were like, those Welsers, I was always stumped for a satisfactory answer. "You can't just subsume them all as Welsers; they're all different, each one is an individual," was one of my hapless responses in a panel discussion, uttered in the vain hope that my implicit message might hit home, namely that you can't lump people together as "the Turks" or "foreigners."
A certain equanimity
So what is Wels really like? Based on size, it would be the 14th largest district in Vienna. That doesn't exactly knock your socks off. Let's try this on a global scale: What do Wels, Dortmund, Leeds, Nantes, Florence, and San Diego have in common? The answer is: each is the eighth largest city in its respective country. "Wels, the Florence of Austria" – now wouldn't that look great on tourism brochures? Be that as it may, it would be worth investigating whether all of these eighth largest cities represent the median in their countries. And if the 14 million inhabitants of Chengdu, the eighth largest city in China, have the feeling they're living in a small town. Wels could easily be Austria's Bordeaux, namely the seventh largest city in France; it only needs 500 souls to overtake Villach, the current number seven. If truth be told, however, Wels seems to be lacking the drive that would take it in this direction. It has no ambitions whatsoever. That said, a lack of ambition is basically an agreeable trait, and a lack of striving for never-ending growth reveals a healthy anticapitalist attitude, rooted most likely in a certain equanimity that dwells in Wels. I actually experienced that equanimity myself, especially in the summer months. You sit on the terrace at Café Strassmair or stand outside Caffé da Mika and watch the world go by. Like in any other city you'll see busy businesspeople, exhausted parents, fadisized teens, animated groups of friends, and homeless people hunting for cigarette butts. Whereas in New York, Rio or Tokyo you could anonymously observe these comings and goings for days on end, after a mere three months it's already impossible here. In the space of a few minutes it's, "Hey Stefan! What are you up to?" And, with that, your solitude abruptly ends. I thoroughly enjoyed that in this average place. You're constantly running into people you can converse with for a few minutes; agreeing on a time to meet is never a struggle. I knew exactly where to find the people I got to know during my short sojourn. Passing their time at the staid Café Urbann, enjoying their midday strudel at Strassmaier, attending inspiring events at the Slaughterhouse, watching wonderful productions in the city's impressive theater. Here you have the best of both worlds: the diversity of a major metropolis paired with the intimacy of small-town life: just as you would expect in a normal city. But normality can also be disturbing. Recently I read on a T-shirt, "Normal people scare me." I don't think the woman meant the inhabitants of an American city named Normal. More likely this referred to people like the men and women of Wels who are constantly fighting to have their hometown taken seriously, and worse: combatting its image as a parochial purgatory. Wels shares this fate with many other provincial capitals around the world. But why are we so afraid of being average? It could, after all, be a happy medium. Norms are far removed from extremes, and that is exactly why they appeal to everyone. You recognize yourself in them – or at least part of yourself – and feel entitled to voice an opinion. A small place like this is both urban and rural – or neither one nor the other. Wels – and all other small cities like it – will always be somewhere in between, like a half full glass that could be half empty as well, depending on your perspective. If you live in one of these places, you are largely left to your own devices, having to fend for yourself, and that actually requires a great deal of courage. After all, you are the one who decides whether to live in paradise or in hell.
Stefan Kutzenberger was born in 1971 in Linz and is a freelance author and literary critic who lives in Vienna.