“I could stay in Vienna for the next 5 years!” I told a journalist at the Wienbibliothek im Rathaus, after describing my delight in using the archive, and my interest in cultural history. In fact, those words, which encapsulate the excitement I felt during my Fulbright stay, became the title of my scholarly profile, “Im Lesesaal” (In the Reading Room), posted on the library website. I am grateful to Fulbright-Austria for granting me four glorious months in Vienna, an imperial city of wonder. Honored as an IFK-Fulbright Senior Fellow, I engaged actively in the city’s rich intellectual and cultural life while affiliated with the Research Institute for Cultural Studies (IFK).
Now that I am back in the US—still on sabbatical leave—I have had time to reflect upon my Austrian adventure. I marvel at the unparalleled experience I enjoyed. During the days, when I wasn’t in the archive, or sitting in my well-placed office overlooking the Votivkirche, I explored the city’s museums and coffee houses, sampling tortes and strudels. From autumn through winter, my husband and I took long weekend walks in the Prater under the chestnut trees, watching the leaves fall and then disappear, treating ourselves to a meal or dessert at the Lusthaus. Sometimes in the evenings, I went to the theatre, or to a concert, often to restaurants. And I attended large-scale events at the Rathaus. I had the privilege of participating in two memorable occasions there, bringing me together with hundreds of researchers, scientists, and professionals: I was asked to deliver opening remarks at a cocktail reception for more than 600 international researchers and guests, hosted by the Mayor’s office on the evening after the December presidential election. I remember that I spoke about the need for openness and international exchange. About seven weeks later, I returned to the Rathaus for the formal “Ball der Wissenschaften.” One of the ball’s founders, President Alexander van der Bellen, attended as a special guest. Two days earlier, I attended the TU-Ball at the Hofburg, courtesy of the Fulbright Alumni Association. I delighted in taking part in the longstanding historical and cultural tradition of Viennese formal ball season.
I am now officially a Fulbright alumna. But even before my Fulbright fellowship, I believed strongly in the core goal of the Fulbright program to foster international exchange and education. Yet my commitment to these ideals has deepened and strengthened after my experience living and conducting research in Austria. I recognize more fully the inestimable value of the Fulbright programs whose dedication to cross-cultural understanding may help us during these trying times in Europe and the US. In The Price of Empire (1967), Senator Fulbright described the significance of intercultural education as “the acquisition of empathy—the ability to see the role as others see it, and to allow for the possibility that others may see something we have failed to see.” Empathy is also vital to theatre, connecting audience members to the actors and to the stories they enact on stage, stories that we grasp may reflect aspects of our own lives. During my fellowship, I launched an important part of my research that relies, in part, on archival work at libraries like the Wienbibliothek. Significantly, the comparative project draws on the lives and work of Austrian theatre-makers in the direct aftermath of WWII, under the Quadripartite occupation. In tracing the careers of a sampling of artists, I learned about their travails and triumphs, in exile, or in Vienna during the war and in its direct aftermath. I want to trace the connection between these micro-histories and the greater historical and cultural narrative that emerged in the Second Republic. By understanding another culture, especially one in a crisis mode, under war and occupation, I will be in a better position to advance the Fulbright purpose: to promote intercultural exchange, while being receptive to another nation’s history. The Fulbright award has given me an important launch into my new research project and extended my professional network. I learned a great deal about Austria and Vienna, in particular, and about my own culture. Senator Fulbright referred to the program he founded as an “avenue of hope” in lieu of a panacea. Fifty years after he wrote those words, I would like to think that I now travel on that avenue. I hope that by passing on my story to others, and by publishing my scholarly research, I may bring fellow travelers along a double path of discovery.
Rebecca Rovit is an associate professor of theatre at the University of Kansas and was the Fulbright-IFK Senior Fellow in Cultural Studies in 2016–17. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Kromus (www.alexandra-kromus.at /email@example.com);l. to r., Vienna Executive City Councillor for Cultural Affairs (and a Fulbright alumnus of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna) Andreas Mailath-Porkorny, Rovit, Johnson