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Published:November 28th, 2006 08:10 EST
Where You're as Good as Your Word

Where You're as Good as Your Word

By Colleen Wright

The vendor is nowhere in sight, but his handmade sweaters and glass ornaments still hang from a rack in the middle of the cobblestone street. A young couple stops to finger the cut glass. They linger at the stand and lift a few star and globe-shaped ornaments off the hooks. On the other side of the stand, a mother holds a sweater up against her son and stretches the cuff of the sleeve to his wrist. It’s a perfect match. She checks the price and then glances about for the vendor who still hasn’t appeared.

Perhaps he’s gone for a bite to eat at the café around the corner, or has decided to pass his lunch break with family at home as many locals do. Wherever he may be, his goods remain here, and these customers want them.

Reluctantly, the mother hangs the sweater in its original place and takes the boy’s hand. She says something in German to the young couple, and they shake their heads no. They place the ornaments back on the stand before walking away. Other passers-by don’t give the abandoned stand a second glance. The sight would look strange in many parts of the world, but not in Innsbruck, Austria, where the public buses continue to run on the honor system and shoppers are free to stash their purchases in book bags and purses before they buy them. Just that morning, two schoolgirls in matching plaid skirts jumped into the bus and wove their way past the driver and down the aisle into empty seats. They were about 10 year’s old and chatted away, un-chapperoned and at ease. The bus tickets that were presumably tucked into their pockets remained unchecked.

At the grocery store, shoppers slide packages of cheese, beer and pasta into their bags as they browse the aisles, and then unload them right before checking out; some don’t even bother to unload. At the front of the checkout line, a man hands a beer to the cashier and points to his book bag. “Sieben,” he says, letting her know that there are seven more bottles hidden in his bag. She nods her head and punches the price into the register.

It’s not surprising that the country’s capital, Vienna, was ranked as having the world’s fourth highest quality of life in Mercer’s 2006 survey, which is based on an evaluation of 39 criteria, including political, social, economic and environmental factors, personal safety and health, education, transport, and other public services.

After a day in the city center, the time when a person was as good as his word and front doors were left unlocked doesn’t seem so long gone. The center of town itself, or alt stadt (old city),  has remained very much like it was 400 years ago, including a 15th-century city tower 148 steps high and the Triumphal Arch, built in 1765 to commemorate the death of one emperor and the marriage of an emperor-to-be.

Take a close look at the bikes that line the narrow pathways nearby, and find that several of them are, of course, unlocked.