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!

 

777

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.

682

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.

565

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.

567

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!

473497

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.

506519520535495

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.

17681789

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.