Graben

In my previous post I talked about my daily breakfast during my semester abroad in Vienna. I also made mention of my “meal plan” – a paltry five bucks a day to cover lunch and dinner. Let me tell you, that measly amount forced you to make some very clever choices.

The money came to you in one lump sum each week. A hungry college sophomore with $35 in their hot little hands could lead to disaster, if you weren’t careful. Yes, there would be splurging; perhaps a meal out or a slice of Sacher torte. But the remainder would be squirreled away and spent very wisely. At least for me.

At first we would visit little local eateries, but it was near to impossible to stay within the $5 limit that way. Even eating at McDonald’s took you over your limit. So we had to get creative.

We talked to our director, who spoke to the folks who ran the Pension, and they set us up a makeshift kitchen. This consisted of a hot plate and a few pots, pans and utensils in a room the size of a broom closet. It was on the floor below ours which meant carrying your supplies down one flight and your finished meal back up again. There were two burners for close to 20 students…that kitchen saw lots of action.

With no refrigerators, we began eating mostly rice and pasta. I think I ate close to 17 pounds of rice seasoned with nothing more than soy sauce over those 3 months. After we became weary of dry goods, we figured out a way to keep some cold cuts, cheese & yogurt.

Our windows were of the variety that swung both in and out – there was a set that swung into the room, and a second set that swung out to the street and could be attached to the exterior of the building. Between the two windows was a space about 4 inches deep. That was our fridge.

A trip to the Billa (Vienna’s answer to Food Lion) on Singerstraße could net ham, rolls, rice, yogurt and beer for way less than our $5 limit. We might spend a third of our weekly allowance, but be able to eat 3/4 of our meals from that one shopping excursion. The rest of the money was earmarked for other stuff. Mainly Beer. Most weekends I hung out at this club called “The Atrium” where I drank liters of Pilsner and danced to every song from  “Thriller” and Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long.” Aah, the 80’s…

But I also had to save some of my food money for other things, like shampoo and tampons and film. See, most of the kids that were on the trip with me were from families who could easily afford the journey. Not me – I was a on a strict budget. My dad supplied me with money for my spring break trip to Switzerland, and money to give my relatives when I went to Czechoslovakia after the semester was done.

Somehow I managed to make it stretch. That $35 bucks a week got me 2 not so square meals each day, plus tickets for the subway (when I actually bought one), an occasional würst from the stand outside Steffl’s department store on the Karntnerstraße, and the most wonderful gelato, always hazelnut, that I have ever had in my entire life. I even managed a weekend trip to Rome without having to dip into my savings too much.

When I got home with a surplus of cash, I remember my dad sort of scolding me for not having spent more of the money he had sent me over with. I don’t know, I figured him sending me to Vienna was payment enough – I could rough it a little. It taught me how to economize and stretch a dollar. Plus, I came home an absolute rail.

Not eating will do that to you.

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