During our first month in Salzburg, AIFS organized a cooking class for students who wanted to learn how to make traditional Austrian cuisine. The class took place at a local community college, where we were taught by one of the school’s instructors on how to make apple strudel, schnitzel, potato salad and parsley potatoes. We toasted bread crumbs, peeled potatoes, flipped dough, pounded out pork and pulled together a spread of a typical Austrian Sunday lunch.
Although learning how to cook like an Austrian was a valuable experience, what proved to be even more valuable was actually sharing the meal with one another and our instructor. While we ate, we asked our instructor about her work at the college. She explained that she mainly taught cooking to beginners of all ages, and that many of them were refugees who are required by the state to take certain classes while applying for asylum.
A few years ago, Austria opened its borders to refugees fleeing wars in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia — a decision that was widely supported by the public at the time. Quickly, though, the refugee camps filled up and the state could no longer support the overwhelming number of people entering the country, so the borders were closed. Because of this, Austria is currently in the midst of a “Refugee Crisis,” due to the lack of space and funds available for the refugees and the tension this has caused within the Austrian public.
While our instructor described the long and complicated process that her students must undertake to apply for asylum, we asked her what determined whether her students were granted protection or not. She stated bluntly, “They can only stay if they have no family left back in their country.”
Although the technical determinant involves many more factors than this, speaking with someone who spends so much of her time with people who often get sent back to war-torn countries was a humbling experience. It was one thing to laugh at one another as we fried schnitzel and tossed strudel dough in the kitchen, but it was another to sit down and share a communal meal and discuss the aspects of the country that we often do not experience as American students in a study abroad program.
As we passed around our home-cooked dishes and traded stories with one another, I felt that it was the closest I had been to real-world Austrian culture. After taking this cooking class, I went home not only with a recipe for some killer schnitzel, but also a better understanding of the country in which I am spending this semester.