As American as pumpkin pie

Living here is a constant adventure (as I think I may have mentioned once or twice).  We are trying new things, seeing new places, and challenging ourselves to learn and grow – constantly.  A lot of it is amazing and wonderful.  I’ve crossed a lifetime’s worth of experiences and travel destinations off of my wish list in the four years we’ve been here, and living in Europe is undeniably cool and enriching beyond what I could have imagined.  But, being far from home, away from our loved ones and outside of our familiar communities can also be intensely hard.  It’s usually worst around the holidays … and even more so when those holidays don’t exist here.  Christmas and Easter and beautiful, fun and festive here.  Thanksgiving and July 4th, not so much.  It causes us to bond strongly, and sometimes strangely, with our fellow Americans.

Anytime I meet an American here — tourist, ex-pat or immigrant — I feel immediately connected to them.  From the first moment, we have so much in common — language, social cues, cultural framework.  It’s just so easy to interact with another American.  We instantly “get” each other (in a way I always took for granted before).  When it’s someone I get to know a bit better, over time, the person is likely to feel like a friend, even if I only know them professionally.

With our pediatrician, who is not only American (and Austrian), but also roughly my age (she’s younger) and the mom to two small kids (her twins are nearly exactly between my boys in age), I have a particular tendency to accidentally sometimes treat her friend-ish, rather than doctor-ish.

But it’s not just down to me and my tendency to treat everyone I see a lot as a friend (which I do).  The nature of living abroad can sometimes change the situation and increase the blurriness between friends and professional acquaintances.  Which is how our pediatrician helped me make pumpkin cheesecake for Thanksgiving this year.

The boys and I were in her office in mid-November, because B had been having some asthma-like reactions to a nasty head cold that just wouldn’t go away (everything turned out fine, ultimately).  While I was paying the bill at the end of our visit (which, here, happens directly to the doctor, because most of them do not have receptionists, nurses, or office staff) we chatted about Thanksgiving, and lamented the difficulty of finding good Thanksgiving supplies so far from home.  Thanksgiving is so very American, and so many of the foods we eat for it are uncommon in Europe.  Sweet potatoes?  Good luck.  Turkey?  No way — besides, it won’t fit in the oven.  Graham cracker crust?  Better start smashing some graham crackers!  Pumpkin pie spice?  Ha ha ha ha — make your own.  And, in the course of chatting, I told her how I’d learned to roast my own pumpkin in order to make my own pumpkin purée for a pumpkin cheesecake I made for Halloween, but that it was kind of a pain, and that I was just going to skip it for Thanksgiving.  We both agreed (surprisingly enough, for Americans) that we weren’t really huge fans of pumpkin pie.  And then she remembered that she had, sitting on a shelf in her pantry, a can of pumpkin pie filling that she was not going to use.

And that’s how I ended up, the following Sunday evening, texting her to remember to bring it to the office, which she did, and B & I picked it up the next morning at his follow up appointment.  And so, our pediatrician helped us have the stuff to make pumpkin cheesecake for Thanksgiving — an Austrian Thanksgiving surprise.

Bus problems

Generally, public transportation in Vienna is functional and pleasant.  Everything runs mostly on time, and is quite clean.  People usually board and disembark in an orderly fashion, vocal volume is low, people (more or less) make way for the elderly and disabled, and strollers are managed without too much trouble.  We don’t have a car, and we’ve gotten around Vienna (and beyond) very well using public transport these past 3 years.  If you can think of a piece of common sense when it comes to public transportation, it probably happens here (except that Austrians don’t queue properly, ever, and many will go out of their way to wait for an elevator).

Sure, there are always exceptions — groups of rowdy teenagers, drunk people, self-absorbed individuals.  But Austrians are a reliably orderly lot in general.

But the bus line I use to take the boys to school in the morning is a complete anomaly.  I’ve come to the conclusion that is the most dysfunctional piece of all of Vienna’s public transportation system.  The problem has nothing to do with the route itself, but with the passengers.  The regularity with which we encounter uncharacteristic dysfunction is kind of shocking.  There was the old lady who told me off for not making a space available for her (I was standing, my boys were sitting, the seats across from and behind us were free, but she wanted THAT ONE … but hadn’t asked), the time a mother left her unsecured stroller rolling around the center aisle of the bus while she looked on (no kid inside, thankfully) and the grown woman who pushed past Liam (coming close to knocking him down) to get the seat she wanted.  Every day, it’s a struggle to get off the bus while people refuse to make way and/or push past departing people to get in first.  Getting a stroller off is next to impossible with people being so impatient that they have to get on before you get it off.  (We’ve basically abandoned the idea of taking the stroller at all when we go to school.)  And, in the past week, two different people have actually sat down in Benjamin’s seat with him.  (I know he’s pretty small, but WHAT?!?)

You might think, from these descriptions, that this is a massively crowded bus line.  It’s not.  Although there are times that we’re packed in like sardines, the VAST majority of the time (including all of the specific incidents I mentioned) the bus is about half full or less.

For anyone local, the line is the 92A between Donaustadtbrücke and Kaisermühlen.  For anyone not local, this is not the city center, but the mostly residential outer section of Vienna.  I’ve been pondering the phenomenon of horrible behavior on this line, and I was perplexed.  No idea why it should be so bad.

My thought, all along, has been that people must just be markedly more rude during the morning rush hour.  But that just hasn’t been my experience when I travel in other parts of Vienna during rush hour.  After considering it for a while, and observing this behavior for almost 3 years now, I have come to an embarrassing conclusion: I think it’s us.  Not “us” our family, but “us” the Americans, or at least the foreigners.  This bus line, just 2 miles and 10 stops long, serves English-speaking Webster University (which seems to host a lot of rowdy and self-involved American teenagers and young adults) and the UN (which seems to host a lot of “important”, “busy” and hurried adults from around the world . . . including a lot of people that I know and like — I’m not saying it’s everyone).  A really high number of people foreign to Vienna travel through this part of the city every day.  So I wonder if we’ve broken the system.  I wonder if we outsiders have introduced so much impatience, dysfunction and selfishness into the system that we’ve brought out the inner “man for himself” in even the orderly, patient, local Austrians who use that line to commute every day.

Or maybe not.  Maybe it’s some other kind of bad luck that has turned that bus line into the “Lord of the Flies” of the Viennese public transportation system.

Being American

Living abroad, I thought I’d be a lot more embarrassed about being American (and more reluctant to admit it).  It turns out that (to my face, anyway) I haven’t encountered a lot of anti-American sentiment.  People are much more likely to react with interest, rather than derision, when they hear where I’m from.  (So far, the only people I’ve met who make me embarrassed to admit that I’m American are other Americans who are behaving badly — but that is the exception, rather than the rule, as well.)

At home, we’re all from someplace else.  As you are getting to know someone, it’s very common for them to identify themselves with another country/culture:  Italian, Irish, French, Puerto Rican, Indian, Chinese, etc., etc., etc.  Even people born in the US — even people whose parents and grandparents were born in the US — will identify themselves by their country/countries of heritage.  People have a lot of pride about where their family is from.  I’ve heard (and been involved in) arguments about how much of your family has to be from somewhere for it to “count”, and heard cultural/nationalistic stereotyping used both negatively and inclusively.  It’s part of the “mixing pot” mentality, I suppose — since we’re all from somewhere else, we find and share our common bonds.  There’s strength and tradition in identifying with our culture of origin, but it also creates divisions and can create discord and dislike.

At home, I’m Irish.  (Well, mostly.  More or less.  More than anything else.)  Dan is Colombian (that’s legit, though, as he was born there — but his family likes to point out that they’re really Spanish, by way of Colombia).  Our kids are Colombian/Irish/???.

When we first arrived here, we’d find ourselves equivocating, the way people do at home, about where we’re “from”.  Living in Austria, that just confuses people.  If you say you’re Irish, they expect you to have an Irish passport, to have been born there . . . or at least to have BEEN there sometime in your life.

Here, we’re just American — no further explanation required.  I find it ironic that I didn’t really identify myself that way until I left.