“My ‘Full and Bright’ year of 1951–52 was spent at the University of Vienna, where I was fortunate to be a member of the very first group of Fulbrighters to go to Austria. Most of us had been warned by well-meaning neighbors, friends, or family members that it was downright foolhardy to put ourselves in the middle of a Soviet Russian Zone when the 'conflict’ was taking place in Korea and the Soviets seemed (to apprehensive Western eyes) to be poised for a swift push to take over the rest of Europe. But what young person who was offered an all-expenses paid year to attend a distinguished foreign university just to be a good-will ambassador would not throw all caution to the winds and run, not walk, to the next ship across the Atlantic? With the typical exuberance of youth, we knew that nothing could possibly happen to us!
A ship was the way to go in those days, and most of the group was together on the S.S. Independence. We took the southern route across the Atlantic. The crossing was perfect and we soon found friends who remained friends for the year - and even beyond. Before landing in Genoa we stopped in Naples and visited Pompeii, an unexpected treat. In Genoa we boarded a train for the long trip to Vienna, and there we met Dr. Wilhelm Schlag (Willy) from the Fulbright Commission in Vienna.
Willy was our leader, our guide, our friend, our main contact with everything and everyone for our entire year. He really wasn’t that much older than we were, but he looked older and was definitely much more experienced. He had been in the Wehrmacht, was a prisoner of war in Nebraska, where he discovered and maintained a love for America and Americans. His new position was the perfect job for him. I will forever be grateful to Willy and am glad I kept at least a Christmas card bond with him. We visited him once or twice in the coming years, and I was very saddened when I recently learned of his death. He was all important for our wonderful year.
Official arrival for us was at Wien Westbahnhof - the main station of Vienna and a dangerous obstacle course to get through because of all the rebuilding being done to the heavily bombed area. Leaving the station we saw what modern war does to cities. But even after that revelation, who could stay somber in Vienna for long?
Our entire group of professors and students numbering about 50 was now gathered for a week of fabulous orientation. We toured museums and historical sites, viewed scenic spots, attended banquets in palaces and concerts in grand halls, listened to informative lectures by dignitaries, and were treated royally everywhere. We realized that as the first group of Fulbrighters to Austria, they just didn’t know how to deal with us. The consequence was that they probably overdid it, and we benefited.
Grace Helms (now Hagedorn) and I decided to room together and we found a nice room in a not very large apartment with an older single woman. With the streetcar right outside our building we were in easy reach of anywhere we needed to go. Registering for the 'Uni’ was challenging, but since a large group of us went together, it wasn’t too formidable.
The University, located on the Ringstrasse, was one of the impressive late 19th century buildings constructed in the Austro-Hungarian Golden Years. Lots of marble, a few sweeping staircases, loggias lined with the busts of famous scholars, many rooms that were lecture halls in the sloping style of theaters. We registered as Ausserordentliche Studenten, not regular ones. Attending classes was often a shock, as there were few good Austrian professors. Before the war, many of the best professors were Jewish and had been forced to leave the country or had died in concentration camps; most of the remaining professors had either left for ideological reasons, or were Nazis and could not be employed in post-war Austria. Who was left? The ancient and/or the not very good, who were called back to fill up the spaces until some new blood could fill out the faculty ranks. There were a few younger ones who were mustered out of the Wehrmacht and were slowly fitting back into civilian life, but they were still a minority.
When we realized that the history and literature departments were not good, those of us who had expected to enroll in those classes started searching elsewhere. We had been told not to work for degrees, but to be ambassadors from America. That left us free to try all kinds of classes. The Commission encouraged us, and now a wonderful world opened up. The political science lecturer on political conditions in the Danubian region was outstanding; a visiting lecturer from the University of London on British theatre was most interesting; a theatre director from Denmark had us spellbound as he lectured on Hans Christian Andersen.
But the most significant of all my classes was the one I took because of my interest in costumes. I saw under Volkskunde (Folk Culture), a class entitled Volkstracht (ethnic costume). I was a little early for the 2nd meeting of the class and so started to write a letter to my parents. One of the other students looked over my shoulder and said to me in English, “Bet I know what language that’s in.” Not a great sleuthing job, as I was wearing saddle shoes and bobby sox. He introduced himself as Norbert Riedl, just returned from a year as a Smith-Mundt Exchange Scholar at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. We talked and talked and he walked me home. Bert told me that people in America had been so nice and generous and helpful to him that he would like to reciprocate by taking care of me during my stay and showing me Austria. I didn’t refuse.
Now I saw Vienna and Austria from quite a different viewpoint. My stay was enriched by doing things the Austrian students did and meeting so many more of them than I had up to this point. Yes, we went to the opera and theater and movies, but now I was sitting in the cheaper seats and I was eating where students were eating. In reality, this suited my Scottish upbringing. I couldn’t meet the Riedl family in Eisenstadt, Burgenland, because it was Russian occupied territory and Americans couldn’t get permission to travel there. But my year was filled to the brim with amazing and wonderful events and people, and opened a world for me that I would never have known otherwise. Of course Grace and I traveled to other places in Europe, and we saw things that most Americans could never even imagine. We were in the Cold War and sometimes wondered if those neighbors with their warnings might be right, but youth is just the right time for such situations.
Yes, my Fulbright year was different for many reasons - the time, the world situation, my good fortune in taking a certain class, but I think and hope I fulfilled the hopes of Senator Fulbright in being that good ambassador. I left Austria in late summer 1952 and because of my experiences I was hired as the Assistant Foreign Student Advisor at Northwestern University. It was the perfect spot for me. After 3 years of corresponding, I returned to Vienna and became Mrs. Norbert Franz Riedl. We came to America and after several years in Princeton, New Jersey we moved to Knoxville, Tennessee in 1962 where my husband was a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee until his untimely death in 1975. Most of my fellow Fulbrighters are gone, but I still am in touch with Grace H. Hagedorn and we reminisce whenever we write or talk or when she comes to Knoxville.
My sincerest wish is that many more young Americans will have the Fulbright opportunity.
Joan Nicoll Riedl is a graduate of Grinnell College and studied German as a US Fulbright Student in 1951–52. Story originally published by Fulbright Ireland and shared with permission.