Eugene Quinn, a British national living in Vienna, thinks it is the best city in the world to live in. In a city with many international institutions and a mixed crowd, Eugene experienced, however, the difficulties of mingling with locals. As a rebellious optimist, he started to organize Vienna coffeehouse conversations to disrupt the social dynamics of Vienna by opening up a dialogue among locals and foreigners. Those conversations power a democratic city.
In Vienna there has always been room for everybody; quite often unusual people who also happen to make great art. A diverse crowd of people can find ground in this city. However, for all those foreigners arriving to the city, getting in touch with locals is a big challenge.
‘Small talk is not a Viennese speciality’, explains Eugene. Deep conversations are what is on the menu. Once a month strangers meet in a typical Vienna coffeehouse and go face-to-face over a menu of unusual questions thanks to the organization of Eugene and space and place.
People of different nationalities and backgrounds encounter Viennese locals in a relaxed atmosphere. Eugene’s friendly introduction to the evening makes things flow smoothly.
But can these questions open up a city? In cities public spaces like parks or public transport are crucial for democracy because diverse people informally meet at one place opening up any kind of social encounters. Best democratic cities offer opportunities to facilitate those encounters that reinforce mutual understanding and bring down boundaries among citizens.
Eugene’s coffeehouse conversations contribute to that purpose. Why open up to a stranger? In an era of online tweeting and posting, thoughtful face-to-face conversations are scarce, especially with someone with whom you disagree.
These conversations in Vienna contribute to change a perception or judgment towards a particular culture, behaviour or person’s view.
As European Elections are approaching, the Financial Times is teaming up with 16 European news organisations to spark face-to-face discussions between readers who see the world differently. This initiative aims at connecting thousands of people in conversation in a cross-border experiment called Europe Talks in the hope of fostering greater mutual understanding.
Cities function on mutual understanding. In fact, the great thing about urban life is that the city offers great opportunities to foster interaction between anonymous urban dwellers that one should not miss.
Vienna has been ranked as the best city to live in by the Economist Intelligence Unit as well as one of the most liveable cities by the Monocle Magazine. Behind its international institutional image, Vienna hides a diverse and extraordinarily engaged crowd of people that makes the city unusually creative. Democracy lives in its citizens’ conversations.
The photo in the cover is courtesy of Quentin Schulz.