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.

Back at it

Getting back into the swing of things after a long vacation is always hard.  We’ve just recently done it once (getting back from our summer vacation, which I have yet to write about) and we’re facing our next round of it (because school starts in less than 2 weeks, which is a bummer).  But it’s worse when the whole family is battling jet lag, as we were after our trip home over Christmas.  Making matters even worse was that we had a really short turn-around before getting back to our usual routine.

We had planned to have the boys skip school for the first two days after we got back, returning to Vienna on Wednesday but not sending the boys back to school until the following Monday.  But B ended up sick for large parts of November and December, and he missed so much school that we were worried about him missing more than is allowed, so we lost the option of keeping him home for any extra days.  So instead, we left the US on Tuesday, arrived in Vienna on Wednesday, and B went back to school on Thursday.  (L, who is still in preschool, can miss pretty much as much as we want, so he did stay home until the following Monday.)

We were all exhausted and felt totally dysfunctional.

The frist night we were back, L woke up 3 times overnight.  The first time, I had no idea where I was and was worried I was going to wake my mom . . . who was still awake, because she was at home in Maryland.  At 1:10 in the morning, B got up, out of bed, on his own (which is odd for him in any circumstances — he usually waits for us to come and tell him it’s time to get up), went through the entirely dark house to the living room, turned on all the lights, scared himself with thoughts of a giant, sinister snowman, and came running into our room crying.  It took 2 hours to get him back to sleep.

After that charming night’s sleep, I found I had forgotten how to do EVERYTHING.  I couldn’t remember how to pack B’s snack for school.  I couldn’t remember how to get the boys dressed and out the door in any reasonable kind of time.  I couldn’t remember what time I needed to leave the house to pick B up on time.  And I certainly couldn’t remember how to communicate in German.  My first attempt at post-vacation German resulted in the coffee guy immediately failing over to English despite my continued attempts to communicate in German.

It’s always a bumpy road back to “normal” after a long trip away.  And sleep deprivation never helped anyone adjust any faster.  Next time, I will do whatever I can to NOT have us jump right back into things as soon as we get back!

Another visit ends

1752All good things must come to an end, and so it was with our trip home for Christmas last year.  Just like the year before, we got treated to a significant snowstorm the morning of our flight out, but unlike last year, I was mentally prepared for the possibility, so I was able to enjoy it a bit with the kids instead if just stressing about how wet everyone’s snow pants were getting.  (Good thing, too, because we had another disappointing snow year in Vienna this past winter, so it was nice to get some kind of chance to play in the snow together.)  And again, our flight was delayed (though not as badly as the previous year), but before too long we were trekking through the snow to the airport to return to Vienna.

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I hate leaving.  Every time.  Doing it repeatedly does not make it easier.  Our time here has gotten long — longer than any of us counted on — so leaving is hard, because part of me feels like we shouldn’t be leaving at all.  But we did.  With help from our family, clear and safe roads, and our boys, we collected up our things and prepared for another transatlantic journey.

Because of a different seating configuration on the plane, we sat differently than we usually do.  Whenever possible, we sit in the middle of the plane, 4 across.  When that isn’t possible, we sit 3 across at the window with one on the neighboring aisle.  This particular plane had only 2 seats near the window, though, so Dan & B sat there, and L and I sat across the aisle in the middle section.  No problem.

Except that it was a red-eye, and when it came time for sleeping, we had a problem.  It’s never easy to do a red-eye with kids.  No one ever enjoys sleeping on a plane, and kids can get progressively less adaptable as they get more tired.  When my guys are a bit older, they might think it’s fun to stay up all night and watch movies as we fly over the ocean, but not yet.  B leaned up against the window and fell asleep.  Dan dozed next to him.  Liam, with no window to lean on and no family member to bookend the other side of him, could just not get comfortable.  We tried putting him on the aisle with me in the middle seat, and we tried me on the aisle and him in the middle.  Whatever we tried, he ended up either sticking an appendage into the aisle or kicking the woman sitting next to him (the one that wasn’t me).  He was so tired.  He cried.  He tried to lay on the floor of the plane.  He could not get comfortable and he could not sleep.  He finally dozed off, laying across me, for maybe 20 minutes when it was nearly “morning” (meaning it was still very much the middle of the night for us).  I didn’t sleep at all.  It was a rough flight.

But, it was at least fast.  We didn’t know why at the time, but despite taking off about 15 minutes late, we landed in London over an hour early.  (We later discovered that our flight was able to take advantage of unusually strong upper level tail winds — we were traveling at over 700 mph!)  Arriving early in London wasn’t as much of a benefit as it might have been, though — we were to have had a 5 hour layover at Heathrow, which would now be over 6.  With a very tired family, it was a bit of a daunting proposition.

Other than rare occasions when we get a direct flight to the US, we usually connect through Heathrow or Charles du Gaulle.  I don’t love either option.  Both are huge airports which require commuting between distant terminals for international connections.  I don’t mind flying TO those airports, but I don’t like flying THROUGH either one.  This time, though, I learned to love Heathrow a little more.

We were lucky to discover that in the terminal we’d be flying out of (some 6+ hours after we arrived) there was a “Family Lounge”.  We didn’t know exactly what that meant, but we decided to find out.  It turns out that it was a spacious set of rooms outfitted for kids of all ages, and only accessible to people actually travelling with children.  They had comfy places to sit, an indoor play area (full of foam-rubber covered obstacles to play on), a nap/quiet room and a game room with TV and foosball (for older kids).  There was also a coffee machine for the grown ups.  It was EXACTLY what we needed.  Not only were the kids able to both run around and rest as they needed, but we were free from the typical airport worry that we were bothering any of the other travellers.

1830The kids started out by running around, climbing on the equipment and playing with the other kids who were waiting.  Eventually, Liam layed down in the nap room for some much needed rest, and we were able to charge our phones, connect to the wi-fi, and let the kids play games on the iPad while we waited.  It gave us some peace and relaxation during a very long day of travel (and has bumped Heathrow up to my most favorite airport to connect through).

The best part about flying back to Vienna from the States is that by the time we get on that second flight back to Vienna, we’re almost home.  That last little flight feels so short in the overall scheme of the entire trip, so it’s not so daunting.  It was another long day of travel, with another transatlantic journey accomplished, but we made it back “home” from another great trip Home.

I (actually don’t) hate Legoland

I am not a huge fan of amusement parks.

When I was 17, I went to Disney World for the first time.  It was every bit as magical as I had hoped it would be, even as a skeptical teenager who was worried that I was already too old to appreciate it.  I had a fantastic time.  And, after college, I took a trip with friends to ride roller coasters in Ohio, and I loved that, too.  In fact, going to amusement parks generally seemed like good fun when I was younger, even though each trip left me sunburned and vaguely ill.  But, now, as a grouchy old adult, my enthusiasm has waned somewhat.  Most of the time, when faced with the prospect of an amusement park trip, I struggle to get beyond the expense, effort, endless lines, crush of sweaty humanity, hours in the burning sun, general uncleanliness and near certainty that at least one of us will get sick after (or during) the visit.  It’s just not really my thing these days.

347That being said, it’s not really about me anymore.  As a mom, I try to embrace my kids’ enthusiasm for such places.  With one set of grandparents who live in central Florida, a visit to Disney was inevitable.  We went a few summers ago, and it was EXACTLY as I imagined it would be: hot, crowded and a test of patience.  I spent the day feeling like I was enduring something rather than enjoying it, and, I thought, based on the numerous tears and tantrums, that the kids felt the same way.  Surprisingly, though, the boys came out of it feeling like they’d had a great day and with seemingly no memory of the misery that we experienced while we were there.  (I vaguely suspect that the chicken nuggets may be laced with whatever brain chemical it is that makes mothers forget the pain of childbirth.)  Regardless, my boys were left feeling like they’d had a great day, and honestly, that’s more than good enough for me.

Even so, when my in-laws suggested a trip to Legoland this past December, my enthusiasm was all for the sake of the family.  I could not get the episode of “The Simpsons” where they visit “Blockoland” out of my mind.  I could not imagine what Legoland had to offer that would be better than Disney.  I anticipated a life-sized hours-long ad for everything Lego and not much more.  I was not excited.  But, I’d take one for the team.  However, after the projected 90 minute drive turned into more that twice that, with a nightmare of a parking situation (whatever my gripes against Disney, they do know how to park cars), I was 100% ready to go home before we got through the gates.  I was hot, grouchy and already over Legoland.

1109After waiting in a long line for the bathroom and an another long line for tickets, I was not happier.  Plus, the very first thing the boys saw when they went into the park was a giant Lego sculpture … which was not fenced off but was not meant to be touched.  Being told off by the guard assigned to protect it and then wrestling a sweaty, exhausted 4 year old off of it, I was ready to run for the hills, but we persevered.  By 3:30, we had ridden on the (admittedly cool) merry-go-round (with giant Lego horses!) and had an awful $80 lunch.  By 4:00, we’d ridden a water ride that got us completely soaked and had Liam in tears.  I decided I hated Legoland.

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But then . . . we discovered The Dragon.

The Dragon is a roller coaster, designed for small kids, and everyone else, too.  My previous experience with kid-friendly roller coasters was restricted to tiny, carnival-type roller coasters which have not been a lot of fun (for anyone).  This wasn’t tiny, and it wasn’t rickety.  It was a real roller coaster, just set up to be safe and functional for little kids (as well as adults).  I was skeptical at first, imagining waiting through the 45 minute long line only to have one (or both) of the kids chicken out at the end, or, worse, getting them on and having them hysterically beg to get off after it was too late to do so.  The boys were absolutely determined to ride it, though, and so we did.

And I’m so glad.

It was great fun.  It was exciting enough to be scary, but not so scary as to not be fun.  There was no moment when I was worried that the kids were going to fly out or get hurt, but it had enough drops and turns to count as an actual roller coaster.  The kids loved it.  We all loved it.  It was the beginning of turning our day at Legoland around.

The boys had such a blast that we ran around and got straight back in the line.  We rode The Dragon several times (even dragging my reluctant in-laws on it) and had a great time each time.

1213After that, and some face painting, we wandered down to “Miniland” which recreates well-known sights and cities from around the world (extra credit because we got to see a lot of places we’ve actually been to).  We didn’t get down that way until dusk was falling, and I think it would have been even more impressive in the daylight (though it was well-lit at night), but we all enjoyed looking at the Lego recreations of the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the monuments and museums of Washington, DC (which is quite near where we’re originally from).

 

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We all would have liked to have spent more time exploring the scenes in Minland, but it was almost time for fireworks, which the boys really wanted to see.  On our way to the stadium to see the fireworks, though, one of us had a brilliant idea . . . why go see the fireworks from the stadium when we could try to go see them from The Dragon?!

1291And so we did.  We ran back up the hill and through the park and into the line, hoping that our idea wouldn’t be one that everyone else in the park had already had.  We were completely in luck.  We climbed aboard and started our ride, holding our special Lego glasses on our faces while we rode The Dragon (again).  And we were lucky enough to have an amazing view of part of the fireworks show while riding our favorite ride in the park.  (The special Lego glasses made the fireworks appear to be made of Lego bricks, which is also pretty cool.)

After that, we repeated our run around to the line again . . . and again . . . and again.  In all, we rode The Dragon 8 or 9 times total (including an extra bonus ride at the end of the night, where the ride operators let us all go one last time before they shut the ride down).

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So, I admit it.  I was wrong.  I thought I was going to hate Legoland, but I actually didn’t.  We had a great time, enjoyed the park, and spent some really fun time together.  The park didn’t end up being just a giant Lego ad (though there were plenty of places to shop for Legos, too).  In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I’d like to go again, and I’ve already started looking into the other things in the park that we didn’t get to do our first time (like Lego jousting — only for kids, though).  I was pleased with the number of things they had for the little ones to do (though we did end up doing the same thing over and over again — they had other stuff) and the members of the staff that we interacted with were all friendly and pleasant.  Instead of having an awful day, we had a great one.  I was impressed, and we will go back.  (Or, possibly, we may go to Legoland Germany instead, which all of B’s school friends have been to.  They all think it’s weird that he’s been to one in Florida.  I hear they have their own version of The Dragon!)

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My favorite gifts

(Yep, still writing about last Christmas.  I ought to be done sometime before this coming Christmas.)

This year, when I was shopping for Christmas gifts for the boys, I wanted to find a small way to incorporate more of the idea of “giving” into their holiday.  Not by giving gifts to loved ones (which we already do), but something a bit wider-minded — something beyond their immediate sphere.  I thought a lot about how best to do that in a gentle, positive way.  I considered Heifer International, where you can buy a cow or a goat or a rabbit for an impoverished family in another country, but I worried the concept might be a bit advanced and the gift too intangible for the boys to really understand.  I thought that just opening an envelope about a donation of a goat would get completely swallowed up in all the STUFF they would be focused on Christmas morning.  So, maybe one day, but not yet.  But I liked the idea — of taking the money I would have spent on a gift for them, and doing something charitable with it instead … without it seeming like a punishment or deprivation in any way.  (My kids are certainly not deprived of anything, but the idea was to encourage charitable giving, not make it seem like a rotten idea.)

Despite my best intentions, when Christmas comes around at our house, my kids are overwhelmingly focused on the presents.  (Though I get the feeling that this is pretty normal.)  One unintended consequence of being able to provide so much for our kids is that they take so much of what they have for granted.  And though I understand that Christmas (even for those of us who celebrate it culturally, rather than religiously) is about family, togetherness, kindness, charity and peace, somehow, for my kids, it’s really almost entirely about the presents (and also a little about visiting our family, which is a good thing).  I think it’s hard for intangible themes of peace, charity and time spent together to compete with boxes of brightly-colored plastic and flashing lights packed up under the tree.

But I wanted to do a little something small to start to make a shift.

So, I kept looking, and found out that through The Sierra Club, you can “adopt an animal” at a U.S. National Park.  You get a certificate, a little booklet and a stuffed animal to represent your adoptee, and the money goes towards conservation efforts across North America.  It was perfect.  It would accomplish the goal of giving, but still give the kids a tangible THING to focus on.  My hope was that reading the booklet and playing with the stuffed animal would keep the gift in their minds beyond just the moment that I told them about it.

And, it worked.  The kids loved the stuffies when they opened them, but they were even more fascinated by the idea that they had “adopted” a real, actual wild animal in a park somewhere.  They wanted to learn more about the animals (a fox for L and a wolf for B), and more about where they live.  They learned a bit more about US geography, too, which is something they don’t know enough of yet (because my kids know where the Alps are, but not the Rockies).  They are absolutely set on visiting the parks (Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks) to see “their” animals.  And we were able to talk about conservation and the environment and the way the animals’ survival depends on people taking care of the planet.

I’m really happy.  My plan worked!  I know it’s not much — we’re not saving the rainforests or ending homelessness — but it was a tiny step in the right direction that we hadn’t taken before.  They were my favorite gifts to give this year.

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Exactly as it was

I have a natural tendency to get worked up about things.  I worry.  I stress.  I fret.  I am, by nature, an anxious person.  It doesn’t serve me well.  Though I believe, in the deep and rarely examined recesses of my mind, that my worry and anxiety will ultimately benefit me, they don’t.  Somewhere along the line, I became convinced that conceiving of, and preparing for, every eventuality would give me some influence or control over situations.  It doesn’t.  I read once that  “Worry doesn’t rob tomorrow of its problems, it robs today of its joy.”  That pretty much sums up the reality, but still, somewhere in my mind, I equate worry with control and control with happiness.  Thus, I somehow think that worrying will make me happy, even though it never, ever has.

I’m also a perfectionist.  (Being a perfectionist might not mean what you think.  It doesn’t mean “doing everything perfectly”.  It means “not being able to let go of the idea of doing everything perfectly”.  Which is crazy-making, because no matter how well you ever do anything, you can always find a way that it isn’t “perfect”.)  If I don’t work on it, I naturally revert to a state where I am constantly anxious about how I can make things perfect.  So, I basically make myself miserable pursuing an impossible goal.  And perfection isn’t even a good goal!  Again, in some back room in my mind, I got the idea that perfect = happy.  Also, not true.  Trying to be perfect, at everything, all the time, is actually a pretty great way to NOT be happy.

I’m working on this in myself, and I’ve made good progress.  I can now see that somewhere in my mind I think that worry = happy, and I can see the nonsense of that idea.  I can also see that my life is actually happier when I don’t worry about anything being “perfect”.  Which is great.  But I’m not totally immune to it yet.

When I was preparing to go home for Christmas this year (yes, back in December), amongst sick kids, sick me, a break-in across the hall and all the usual frenzy of the Christmas season, I slipped back into this thinking.  I spent a lot of time in the weeks before my trip home contemplating (aka worrying about) all the things I could do to make the holiday at home with my family go perfectly.  I worried about what I would pack.  I wanted to make sure we all had the right sweaters, the perfect pajamas, the best outfits that we could for our weeks at home.  I tied myself in mental knots trying to figure out how to maximize every moment of our time at home so that we could see all of the people we wanted to see and do all the things we wanted to do in order to ensure a perfect holiday.  I stayed up late doing laundry, wrote up complicated planning calendars of people and events, and lost sleep over things like whether or not I had packed all of the most perfectly appropriate socks.

Before I made myself sick, crazy or miserable, I got things straightened out, though.  A few days before we left, in the midst of the chaos of that week, I realized that the only thing that truly mattered is that we were going home.  We were travelling across the ocean to see our family and our friends.  We would spend time with people that we love.  We would do fun things.  We would also not get to see everyone we wanted to, because time is finite, the holidays are busy and kids have a limit on how much activity they can handle happily.  No one would care if we had our best Christmas sweaters or the best possible collection of socks on hand.  Whether or not we made the connections on our flights was not going to make or break our trip.  None of the stuff I was agonizing over was going to make the difference between having a wonderful holiday and not.  What was going to make the difference was me NOT trying to make it be perfect.  In trying to make it be perfect, I was going to miss the fact that it was going to be absolutely wonderful regardless.  I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy it as well, and in not enjoying it, I would have gradually eroded the enjoyment of the people around me.  In reality, it didn’t have to be anything different than exactly what it was to be a happy holiday.

In the end, it wasn’t perfect.  We didn’t get to see everyone we wanted, and we didn’t get to see anyone for as much time as we wanted.  There were tons of things we wanted to do that we didn’t (there always are when we go home).  There were peaceful moments, busy moments, quiet moments, festive moments and lots and lots of love and fun.  It didn’t have to be any different.  It was exactly right as it was.

(I mean, really — how could we have improved on this?)

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