Opera!

I think the most iconic experience I could have here in Vienna is going to the opera.  (One could argue that going to the ball or visiting a Christmas market might be pretty close, but I don’t think they rise to the level of the opera.)  It’s the thing I’m asked most about by friends back home, and, until this past spring, I had to constantly inform people that I hadn’t yet been.

This was often met with some level of incredulity — we’ve been here 4 years, how can we NOT have been to the opera (especially when most people make it their first priority when they come here)?!?  Well, it’s pretty simple.  The opera isn’t the most kid-friendly proposition, and we’ve opted to use our rare babysitter times on other things (like going to the ball).  Seriously, Dan and I probably go out on average twice a year without the kids — once for the ball, and once for our anniversary (though our first year, and this year, we didn’t go out for our anniversary at all, so maybe we don’t even quite average twice a year).  We really should have made it happen when Jo was here with us a few years ago, but we didn’t.  C’est la vie.

But I’ve finally been to the opera!  (Dan still hasn’t, though.)  This past March, a friend of mine had a birthday, and to celebrate, her husband bought her tickets for her and a friend to attend the opera.  I got to be that friend.

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I know next to nothing about opera.  I like music, and I like theater, so it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch that I’d enjoy opera, but I’ve never really been exposed to it, so it remained a big question mark in my life experience.  That said, there was no way I was going to miss out on a chance to experience it!  And, we were lucky enough to go see La Traviata, which is one of the most famous operas of all.  And, frankly, even if I didn’t enjoy the show, I figured it would be a worthwhile experience to get fancied up and enjoy an evening out with a friend, at least!

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It was great fun to have a reason to get dressed up, and we were so excited.  Just going inside the opera house and seeing the elaborate interior (the chandeliers!) was a treat.  It’s a beautiful building.  We had box seats, and just getting to find and explore the seating area was exciting, too.  We felt very fancy.

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917We wandered around a bit, enjoyed a pre-show glass of champagne, and got ready for some opera.

It wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was wonderful.  I expected something closer to musical theater, where there are songs and spoken words intermixed throughout, but that was not the case.  With the exception of about a half dozen spoken words, the entire production was sung.  There was a small screen in front of me that provided a translation, and though I referred to it often, I didn’t really need it to get the broad strokes of the story.

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Everyone was amazing.  My reaction was overwhelmingly, “Wow”.  The orchestra was fantastic, the actors/singers were stunning — at one point, the lead actress was lying on the floor, “dying”, and singing operatically in her full voice!  (How does THAT work????)  I thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience.

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I felt very fancy and grown up being at the opera.  And also very international — the performance was in Italian, set in Paris, and I was sitting in Vienna watching it.  It was a wonderful experience, and I’m so glad I got to do it.  And I got to check something else off of my “must-do” Vienna experience list.

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Bailey

Bailey1On March 3, we said goodbye to Bailey, our Welsh Corgi.  We’d had him since he was a tiny cute ball of puppy fluff, way back in the fall of 2000.  He was clever, patient, loving, forgiving, trusting, sweet, funny, fast, and, always, hungry.  He was Dan’s wedding gift to me.  He was our “kid” for a long time before we had kids — before we even knew we wanted to have kids.  He was with us through ups and downs, 3 homes, 8 jobs, 2 babies and 2 continents.  He was the best dog I have ever known.  He was a member of our family.  We all loved him very, very much.

Bailey Agility (jump)Corgi Fun Fair5/12/2001In his younger years, Bailey had a constant reserve of energy.  He would run around our apartment like crazy, snapping at imaginary butterflies and chasing his “tail”.  He would walk (and even sometimes run) with me all around the neighborhood.  In fact, he was my running companion when I first discovered running (we both have short legs, so it worked out).  He was an excellent student to everything I tried to teach him, and he let me think it was my talent as a dog trainer that was behind it all.  He chased sheep.  He slept on my feet.  He ate everything that didn’t move faster than he did.

BaileyPony Swim7/25/2001As he got older, he slowed down a bit, but it was gradual.  He still ran and played, but not for as long as he had before.  And then we brought one, and then another, baby home.  Bailey accepted them instantly.  We were worried, since he was nearly 8 when B was born, and had had us to himself for a long time, that he would be jealous or inflexible.  He was not.  He would follow us around when we walked with the boys, he would sleep under their swings while they slept, he would urge me along if I was too slow to respond to their cries.

And he became an excellent playmate.  Dan, who had a retriever as a child, tried unsuccessfully for years to teach Bailey to fetch.  Bailey let B teach him, when B was not yet 2.  Bailey endured over-enthusiastic petting, became the landing spot for a few early and awkward walking attempts, and learned to adeptly dodge poorly controlled tricycle, bicycle and scooter trajectories through the house.

1863He handled our transition here with ease.  As an old dog (he was already 10), it could have been hard on him, but he was just happy to be here with us (though he never learned to love public transportation).  He got to go with us more places than he had before, but not as much as we would have liked — he slowed down a lot and his health began to deteriorate after a few years here.  First there was a heart condition, but good medication let him bounce back from that (though it would never go away completely), but then, in his last year, he began to lose the use of his back legs, and the strain began to show on his front legs as well.  Eventually, though he never lost his kindness or patience, we knew he had been trying long enough.

Though we knew we were doing the best thing for him, the end was hard.  Dan and I made the decision, along with our vet, that we had done all we could and that it was time.  We waited for a few days to tell the kids, and I spent much of those days darting into the kitchen or hiding in the bathroom so they wouldn’t see me crying.  I knew it was right.  He was so, so tired.  But my heart was broken.

When it came time to tell the boys, I didn’t know what to say.  I had tried, but failed, to come up with a plan or script to work from.  My brain wouldn’t process or hold on to the words I wanted to use, so I just opened up my mouth and spoke.  I don’t know what I said.  I know that I cried.  And I know that I avoided the euphemisms that can scare kids — “put to sleep”, “going away”, “moving on”.  I know I was clear.  Bailey was going to die.

At first, B tried to come up with alternatives.  Maybe there was another medicine.  We could carry him everywhere.  We could take him to the vet again.  When he finally understood there were no more options, he broke down and sobbed.

And then the boys collected up all of their stuffed animals (starting with the dogs) and surrounded Bailey with them.

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1725When Bailey had had enough of that (he was very patient) and wandered away, I heard a terrible scraping sound coming through the apartment.  The boys had gone to get Bailey’s huge, plastic, air travel crate, and were dragging it into the dining room for Bailey.  To protect him.  After coercing him into the crate, they covered it with stuffed animals and got out their foam swords, so they could stand guard over him.

Those moments were very sad, but also very sweet.  B told stories and memories of Bailey.  He commented on how Bailey was “the only person he knew who was never, ever angry”.  (He’s right.)

And then we finished up the emotional turmoil of the day with Liam bonking his head on a drawer knob and needing a trip to the ER.  (Never a dull moment.)

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1835We told the boys on a Saturday, and over the next few days many of Bailey’s friends came to see him.  The boys decided that Bailey should have one last birthday party, and so they threw him one, complete with hats.  Though we were always strict with Bailey about his diet (which is why he is one of the only Corgis I’ve ever known who was not fat), in his last few days we relaxed the rules.  On his last evening, I shared a krapfen (like a doughnut) with him.

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Though Bailey usually slept in his crate in our room (it was his preference), he spent his last few nights sleeping in with the boys, and on his last night, he slept in front of the boys’ door, all night.

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105The last day was surreal.  We all knew what was happening, but I could not entirely accept it.  I spent as much time as I could with him that last day, but it passed by so quickly.

We all went together with him to the vet, and we were all there when he died (we gave the boys the option of being there, and they wanted to be).  It was awful, and it was crushingly sad, but it was peaceful.  The vet was very kind, and she gave us all the time we needed to be with him.

We went home (where I almost immediately got another piece of devastating news) and it was immediately strange that he was gone.  Over the days and weeks that followed, I gradually less often thought I heard or saw him.  Less often jumped up in a panic thinking I’d forgotten to take him out.  (Though, late at night, I still OFTEN think I hear him roll over in his crate.  Make of that what you will.)

Shortly after losing Bailey, I read the phrase, “not all sacred moments are pleasant“.  That pretty much sums it all up.  This experience of saying goodbye to him was not pleasant.  It was heartbreaking and unbelievably sad, but it did feel sacred.  It was important, and heavy, and I think we did right by him.

His things are still where they were.  Dan put his water dish away at one point, to try to tidy up the bathroom, but B asked that we put it back.  A few months later, I heard about a dog that was up for adoption, and was surprised to find myself already excited about the idea of another dog.  Dan was up for it, but the boys said it was too soon for them.  (And I think they were right.)

From time to time, we still get sad.  We miss him, though it is getting easier.  At one point, when B and I were sharing a cry about it, L said, “I’m not sad.  I think about Bailey, and all I think about is loving him, so I’m not sad.”  I’m so glad that he feels that way, and as time goes on, I’m able to feel that way more and more.  It’s amazing to me how quickly my mind is deleting the memories of him near the end — tired, hurting, unable to get around.  I superimpose older memories, of him young, energetic, and enthusiastic onto more recent times.  I have to constantly remind myself of how hard he had it near the end.  But I’m glad that I remember him as happy and vibrant.

He would have been 15 years old today.  I miss him tremendously.  He is probably the best and most loved dog I will ever own.  I told him, before he died, that he had ruined me for all other dogs, and I think that’s probably true.  I do not regret a moment of the time I got to spend with him.  But our time together was too short.

Finally Faschings, more or less correctly

Faschingsfest is one of those things that was entirely new to us when we got here.  If you’re not from this part of the world, you most likely have no idea what Faschingsfest is (I even had one friend who thought, when she read it on my blog, that I was swearing particularly colorfully).  It is the German name for a Carnivale or Mardi Gras celebration.  It’s much more common and widespread here, but significantly less . . . rowdy . . . than a typical American Mardi Gras celebration.  In fact, a lot of the celebration of Faschings is for children.

Since it was new to us when we arrived, it took us a while to “get” it.  I really had no idea what was expected in terms of celebrating Faschings.  I was told that kids dressed up in costumes — that it is a lot like Halloween back at home, but without trick-or-treating, and then everyone ate krapfen.  Yeah . . . it’s not really like that.

I mean, it IS, in that kids DO dress up in costumes.  But Faschings costumes are happy and bright, and not at all scary.  Every Faschings costume I’ve ever seen is also store-bought, and usually directly based on a TV show or popular character.  Butterflies, Spider-Man, pirates and princesses are very big (pirates were very, very popular this year), but ghosts and skeletons are a no go.  Our first year, we had no idea what to do, but B solved that problem by being sick and missing his class party.  Our second year, B dressed as an Ewok, which I thought would be perfect — cute, cuddly, not scary, suitably commercial and store-bought — ta da!  Nope, it was a bit to esoteric for his school.  The fact that no one knew exactly what he was made them look at us very oddly.  The following year, L insisted on wearing B’s old Ewok costume (even though I knew it wouldn’t be quite right) but B dressed as a Brazilian soccer player, which had the advantage of being recognizable and very popular among kids his age, but the detriment of not being very costume-like.  Still, we were getting close.

557I think we got it this year.  B’s school, being an international school, and not an Austrian school, did not celebrate Faschings at all (nor did they celebrate Halloween, which was a bummer), but for his own class celebration, L dressed as a knight, and I think it was just right.  (He also brought a foam sword with him, and though we probably would have been severely chastised for bringing a “weapon” had we been in the US, it was not noteworthy here — when he got too enthusiastic with it, they simply put it away until it was time for him to go home.)

L was a charming and gallant knight for Faschings, and it seems that a good time was had by all.  It’s nice to not feel quite so much like a fish out of water when it comes to these things — it’s only taken us 4 years to catch on!

Missing tooth

B’s first grade teacher is notoriously less than thrilled about wobbly teeth.  Even less so when they actually fall out.  (An unfortunate issue for a first grade teacher to have!)  But, I imagine, that regardless of how much she doesn’t like it, it’s something she probably has to deal with fairly frequently.  We added to the problem when one of B’s front teeth fell out at school one day in February.  It was a surprise to pick up my little guy from school to find him looking significantly different than he had when I dropped him off!

B had already lost his two bottom front teeth last year, and it was vaguely traumatizing for both of us (for him because anytime part of you disconnects from your body, it’s a little weird; for me because how is it really possible that he’s big enough for that already?!?).  But him losing his top front tooth (followed very shortly afterwards by him losing the other one, creating a perfect storm of little boy cuteness which lasted most of the summer) made me again all too aware of how quickly time is rushing past.

And then, there’s the fact that now, just a few short months later, he has two big, grown-up front teeth, and it’s stopped being strange to me that he does.

I love that B is growing up.  I am so happy that he is strong and healthy and getting bigger every day, just as he should.  But it’s all just happening SO FAST.  I can’t believe how quickly my little guy is turning into a big guy.

Once again, to the ball

743This year was our fourth February here, and we got the chance to go to the IAEA ball for the third time (we missed last year because we had no one to watch the boys).  And, of all of our visits, this one was our best so far.  I think we’re finally figuring out how to make it work.  (I think the secret is a combination of good preparation, being there with great friends, and having reasonable expectations — it’s easy to get carried away when you’re going to a BALL at the PALACE.)

First, our favorite babysitter (and neighbor) came over to watch the boys.  She brought games and face paints, and I don’t think the kids were the slightest bit upset that we were going out.  For simplicity’s sake, I wore the same dress as last time, so there were no surprises there.  And so, amid fierce lions and dragons, we got ready to go and headed out to the ball.

774Once there, we knew better what to expect this time, too.  We met up with friends, chatted and relaxed, and danced a bit.  Then we chatted and danced some more, and then explored the palace with some of our friends.  We listened to a few different bands (at least one of which was great), and danced even more.

With good friends, lots of music, and a beautiful palace as a setting, it was a fantastic evening.  (This time with no dress drama or any other complications!)  All in all, it was another great night at the ball!

 

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Monet in Vienna

I have very little aesthetic sense.  I studied Aesthetics as a Philosophy major in college, and I was pretty much terrified the entire time.  My professor once said that my aesthetic sense was only evolved as far as, “me likey; me no likey”.  She was absolutely right.  I enjoy art, but I don’t understand it.  I can’t explain why I like one piece and dislike another one — I just do.  I have no appreciation for technique or sophistication.  And I can’t even begin to differentiate “good” art from “bad” art, nor can I have a reasonable conversation about whether or not that’s even a valid distinction to make.  That being said, there are pieces of art that I enjoy, and artists whose work I admire.  As all art is well beyond my own ability, I can appreciate all of it as an impressive demonstration of a skill I will never have.

Like many of the uncultured art appreciators of the world, my “favorite” artists are the best known.  I like Monet, Van Gogh, Rembrandt and (some) Picasso.  Living in Vienna, and visiting some amazing places that truly appreciate great art (like Rome and Paris), I’ve had the opportunity to see a lot of art that I enjoy, and a lot of art that is relatively famous.  I’m grateful to have had that opportunity, and I’m trying to make a point of seeing more art when I get the chance.  I don’t get the chance all that often.  Between the boys’ school schedule, pickups, drop offs, errands, and everything else in life, I don’t often get to see a lot of art.

But, when the Belvedere hosted a Monet exhibit this past winter, I convinced a friend to join me and we went to see it.

I’ve always loved Monet.  The colors are beautiful, and his art just makes a lot of sense to me (my theory is that because my vision is pretty poor, his art looks how everything looks to me).  I know that his waterlilies are among his most famous paintings, but I’ve always been more enthusiastic about his London paintings (they were some of the first paintings I ever really loved).  We were lucky enough to get to see two of them in person, which was really fantastic.  The exhibit also showed some of his seascapes, and a bit of work by other artists who were inspired by Monet.  I thoroughly enjoyed (most) of it.

I’m still ignorant when it comes to art, but I’m really glad we went to see the exhibit.  (I feel very slightly less uncultured now.)  We finished up our morning with a stroll around the frozen gardens of the Belvedere Palace.  It was a great day, and an enriching experience, regardless of my lack of aesthetic.

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Protests

Vienna is an incredibly safe place to live.  The crime rate here is incredibly low, and what crime there is is almost always non-violent and non-confrontational — muggings are extremely rare, but pick-pocketing is not; home break-ins are not unusual, but almost never when the occupants are home; the most common crime of all seems to be bicycle theft, and then almost always when a bike isn’t locked.  I feel very, very safe here (even after our neighbor had a break-in last winter).

That being said, Vienna is a major city, and it’s not impossible for tumultuous (and sometimes scary) things to happen here.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on Austrian politics, but I can say that the politics here average pretty close to what would be considered the “left” back home.  They have many more mainstream political parties here than we have in the U.S., and I don’t understand all of the differences between them.  From time to time, there are political protests in Vienna — some big, some small, many peaceful, others … not so much.  In the past, the only protests we’ve had to take particular notice of have been an annual student protest (which has always been peaceful, but also massive and disruptive) and an annual protest that (as I understand it) revolves against the Nazi party hosting a ball at the Hofburg palace, and all of the people who believe that this either should or should not be allowed to continue (this one has the potential to get nasty).  The UN is incredibly helpful, and always sends out messages telling employees when these protests are going to happen and how to avoid them.  So, it’s never been a major problem, just an inconvenience.

But this year, things got a little bit more interesting for us.

This year, the far-right had their ball at the end of January, amid the usual protests.  But, unlike in previous years, the days that followed saw further protests (having to do, I think, with an anti-Islam political party attempting to get a foothold in Vienna) some of which were quite contentious and MUCH larger than law enforcement had predicted.  And several of which were right outside of our house.

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One afternoon, the boys and I had to go through a police barricade to get to the front door of our building.  I watched 23 police vans (full of police officers dressed in riot gear), drive down our street while we waited for the train near our apartment.  The tension and escalated police presence lasted for days.  It’s not a situation I’d ever want to be in (though everything was ok and we were never in any danger), but it’s particularly scary happening in a foreign country.  Generally, getting caught in a violent protest is a bad idea.  But getting caught in a violent right-wing protest when you’re a foreigner who barely speaks the language is a REALLY bad idea.

All was well, and we didn’t even see or hear anything scary happening, but it was still a little more excitement than I generally like outside my front door.

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Ice skating and the tower

417It’s become a fun family tradition — every January and February find us strapping on our skates and enjoying the ice rinks over at the Rathaus.  I don’t know that our minimal amount of time on the ice has made us any better at skating, but I think we’ve gotten better at the process of GOING skating over the years.  While we used to find the process of getting the kids in their winter gear, walking over to the Rathaus (which isn’t far), renting the skates, inevitably returning them because something didn’t fit properly, and finally waddling over to the ice so completely overwhelming that often, by the time we got ON to the ice, we were all nearly ready to go home.

We’ve gotten better at it.

We’ve grown accustomed to outfitting the kids in their winter gear — we do it every day.  The walk over to the Rathaus no longer seems arduous — we walk further in our winter gear all the time.  We’ve gotten better at figuring out skate and helmet sizes, plus we’ve gotten a lot better at communicating our needs in German.  We’re accomplished at inching across the wooden floorboards over to the ice.  And, I think we probably HAVE gotten better on the ice (at least on average) because though Liam still needs a “penguin” to be able to skate, Benjamin no longer needs one (though he still sometimes enjoys one).  We can skate around the children’s area pretty skillfully (without falling down, most of the time) and I even make the journey around the more advanced area from time to time without causing any major catastrophes.

459This year, Benjamin and I went over together one morning when he had a day off from school, and we even managed to go around the advanced area together, which was a first for B, and a lot of fun for both of us (though a little scary for me).

And also for the first time this year, they constructed a massive “Vienna Skyliner” tower — an 80 meter tall rotating tower that lifted us up to the height of the Rathaus and gave us an amazing view of Vienna.  (It was an amazing structure for something temporary — it was only there for the duration of the skating at the Rathaus.)  It was created to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Ringstrasse — the road that runs around the center of Vienna.  From the top of the tower, we could see many of Vienna’s major landmarks — St. Stephen’s, the Hofburg, the Volksgarten, plus Dan’s work and our apartment.  We also got an amazing view of the top of the Rathaus — something I never expected to see at eye level!

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In the dark and cold and short days of winter in Vienna, I’ve come to really look forward to our annual trips to the skating rink.  It’s a particularly refreshing activity to think about right now, when we’re finishing up our fourth (or is it fifth?) week of 35+ degree temperatures (that’s 95+ish for everyone at home, and it’s very unusual for Vienna).  Thinking back to days of having to bundle up to enjoy the ice is somewhat comforting, because I know those days will come again.  And when they do, we’ll be back over at the Rathaus, enjoying the ice again.

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The 11th hour

Before we came here, we just naturally assumed that due to the nature of the work, the UN/IAEA would be really good at certain things.  Since they relocate people from all over the world to the various UN sites (New York, Geneva, Vienna, and more), we figured they’d be particularly practiced at getting people oriented, situated and settled in.

As we discovered, this was not the case.

We’ve been consistently surprised with not only our own difficult relocation experience, but the fact that our experience seems pretty standard, not unusual at all.

Likewise, since the UN/IAEA employees are on a variety of different contracts, varying from very short term (as little as a month) to many years, we assumed they’d be fantastic at arranging and taking care of getting the various contracts ironed out, followed through on, and, most importantly, SIGNED.

Alas, also not the case.  And, again, it’s not just us.

When we first came here, Dan was on a 2 year contract with a provisional period of 1 year.  Meaning, basically, that though the contract was for 2 years, they could let him go (and send us home) any time in the first 12 months.  Luckily, it didn’t come to that, because even in the early days here, when I was not entirely sold on being here, I did NOT want to get settled in just to turn around and leave.  After those first two years, he got another 2 year contract, which was set to end in mid-April of this year.

They wanted us to stay.  We were prepared to stay.  Everyone was in agreement on the fact that we were going to stay.  Without a contract extension, our ability to stay in the country (in any Schengen agreement country, actually) would have expired on Dan’s last day of work.  We literally would have had to have been on a plane before we went to bed that night.

So, you’d imagine that MONTHS before the end of his contract, all “t”s would be crossed, all “i”s would be dotted, and we’d be all squared away.

But again, no.

My personal comfort range was 3 months.  All through last fall, I repeatedly asked Dan to make sure that the contract stuff was getting figured out, because, as I reminded him, I needed at least 2-3 months to manage getting the household relocated if, by some fluke of paperwork or change of heart, we had to leave.  He agreed that January was a reasonable deadline for having the contract figured out, and assured me that would happen.

But again, no.

Mid-January (and the 3 month deadline) came and went.  Early February came and went.  Valentine’s Day and the IAEA Ball in mid-February.  Still, nothing.  Lots of assurances and personal guarantees that all would be well and that we wouldn’t be deported in mid-April, but no actual papers, and thus, very little peace of mind for me.

We finally had a contract for Dan to sign on February 18, just 2 months before we all turned into pumpkins and would have had to leave the party.

But even though the contract was READY didn’t mean it was done.

This contract was a new kind for Dan (I’ll spare everyone the details, but it switched him from a special kind of employee to a full staff position), so we (naturally) had questions.  There were changes to the retirement plan, questions about the other benefits, a lack of certainty over exactly how long it would be for, and there was a surprising pay cut attached to it.

Again, you’d think that with thousands of employees around the world, the UN/IAEA would be skilled at handling these fairly simple (and utterly predictable) questions.  But again, you’d be wrong.

It took us a further 6 weeks to get those questions answered.  In the end, the contract was finally signed on March 30, just 2 days before it went into effect.  (Did I mention that this contract was effective April 1, not April 25 as we expected?  No?  Neither did they.)

And so, though it happened nail-bitingly close to the deadline, we finally did get the contract signed, and so, here we (still) are.

The price of expat friendships

Expat friendships are kind of crazy.  Maybe it’s because so many of us are so far from home, and completely removed from our usual social circles that we have an overwhelming need for good friendships.  Maybe it’s because we’re outside of our own cultures and when we meet someone from our home country (or who at least shares a common mother tongue) we already have more in common than we do with 90% of the people we interact with every day.  Maybe it’s because our lives here tend to be a whirlwind, and contain challenges that other people don’t understand, that talking with someone who nods knowingly when you vent about the glare of the lady in the grocery store checkout line makes you feel like you’ve found a soul mate.  Maybe it’s all of those things.

I don’t entirely understand the WHY of it, but the evidence of it is without question.  I’ve formed the fastest, and some of the closest, friendships of my life in the 4 years that I’ve been here.  (The only experience that came even close in terms of the speed and depth of friendship formation was my early days at college, which, I guess, is actually a bit of a similar experience to being an expat.)

Even though I’ve experienced it, seen it happen, and heard others’ stories of going through the same thing, it’s still a bit strange to experience it.  If you click with someone you meet as an expat, you’re likely to skip right past all of the niceties, keeping each other at a distance, getting to know each other slowly, observing standard social practices.  You’re much more likely to share embarrassing anecdotes, offer to do something incredibly generous or invasive, and to go out of your way to see each other a ton of times in the early days of knowing each other.  I have made several very good friends since I’ve been in Vienna, and it’s always felt like an accelerated process.  These are people I feel like I could call on no matter what I needed, people I would go vastly out of my way for, people that I miss if it’s been too long since I’ve seen them, people I would share holidays, or hospital visits, or heartbreaks with.  They are people I’ve shared my fears, insecurities and least attractive qualities with.  In short, some of them are among my very best friends, and I think we’re essential to each other’s survival here.

This past January, I made a new good friend, and, as it had been in the past, I knew in the first day that we were going to be close.  (Except, because I’ve done this before, and I’m starting to get over the weirdness of it, I just considered her to be one of my good friends after the very first time we’d hung out.)  We’d corresponded via email for a few months before her arrival, but I didn’t know we were going to be friends until we met in person.  We’ve had great fun getting to know each other, and now it seems strange to me that I’ve known her and her family for less than a year . . . actually, for just over half a year.

The timing of her arrival was also incredibly beneficial to me.  I’d just gotten back from my trip to the States, and I had a “home hangover” worse than I’d ever had before.  Basically, I was unenthused about being back in Vienna.  I was tired of the grouchy people.  I was fed up with speaking German.  I wanted to be home with my family.  I was done with it being dark by mid-afternoon.  I was in a funk.

One of the many great things about friends is that they bring you out of yourself and can help to change your perspective.  And so it was with my new friend.  In getting to know her, sharing my Vienna stories and showing her around the city, I was able to see Vienna through fresh eyes, and it really helped me to remember so many of the things I genuinely love about living here.  Also, in hearing her stories about the initial challenges and frustrations of relocating, I was able to see how very far I really have come, and it snapped me back into having a little appreciation for how good I really do have it.  In short, while she may have felt I was helping her get acclimated to Vienna, really she was helping me find my joy about being here again.

There’s a downside to these intense, close, expat friendships, though, and it’s a big one.  The very things that cause us to cling together with these people, also rip us apart.  The expat life is volatile and turbulent.  People don’t stay in one place for very long, and I recently found out that another of my closest friends here in Vienna will be leaving soon.  Though I am supportive, and happy for her (because it’s a move she really wants) I am also heartbroken for myself.  My close friends are so woven into the fabric of my experience here that removing one of them is a massive blow.  I am really, truly happy for her, as I would be for any friend who was making a change that she was wonderfully excited about, but I feel more devastated and selfish about the whole thing than I think I ever would have if I had never left home.

But, if the pain of the loss is the cost of the friendships I have gained here, it is one I will gladly pay.  Though we may eventually be separated and spread around the world (that’s not hyperbole, but quite likely) I also know that the friendships I have made here are not flimsy enough to be damaged by time or distance.  My friends here have entered my inner circle, and like my close friends back home, we will continue to love and support each other, regardless of circumstance.