Lanternfest . . . or not

515I’ve often said that of all the new traditions we’ve discovered in Vienna, Lanternfest is my favorite.  I love watching the kids with their homemade lanterns out in the autumn evening, I love their songs, I love the story of St. Martin and the moral of charity and kindness.  I’m a fan.  Benjamin got to do Lanternfest all 3 years he was in preschool, and last year the boys got to do it together (which I particularly loved).

Because it happens in the dark, it can be tough to see — especially for the kids, who are holding lanterns, it’s hard for them to pick out the faces of their parents beyond the glow of their own lanterns.  So, even though the school practices for a few weeks leading up to it (but only in the daytime), there are always a few of the little ones who dissolve into tears once the parade and singing start.

518It happened to Benjamin his first year — he got freaked out by not being able to find us in the dark.  One of his teachers brought him to us (because, in the dark, it was equally impossible for us to tell that he was the one who was upset) and he was able to finish up the performance, just holding my hand.  After that first year, he was fine.

With Liam, we were lucky, since he had the advantage of having seen the whole thing several times by the time it was his turn to do it.  He was finally getting his wish and was up there with the “big kids”, so he was more excited than worried!  Besides, Benjamin was participating too, so he wasn’t there alone (not that any of them is there alone — there are 60+ kids at the school, plus teachers and parents, but a lot of the kids still experience it as being “alone”).  He did great last year.

527So this year, our collective fourth Lanternfest, and Liam’s second as a participant, we expected smooth sailing.  B was a little sad to not be involved, so we dug out his old lantern from last year and he brought that along to hold while he watched.  We took Liam to his class, dropped him off with his teacher and went to find a good spot to watch the show.

Liam didn’t make it to the show, though.  For reasons I don’t entirely understand, Liam freaked out before it was even time for the kids to line up.  He was so upset that his teachers simply brought him out to us, where we were waiting in the dark.  He was too freaked out to participate.  Last year, we dropped Benjamin off first, so he was unfazed by us dropping him at his class.  This year, I guess the thought of us leaving him inside while we all went out just worried or upset him.  I offered to walk with him, or to stand by him.  I tried (repeatedly) to convince him to rejoin his class.  I reminded him of how much he’d been 551looking forward to it and how much he’d enjoyed it the year before.  He declined.  I was surprised, but he was firm.  So, rather than walking and singing with his lantern, Liam stood with us and watched.

For the second part, where the kids and parents go on a stroll around the block, he was happy to join in.  We all took a walk together and shared a kipferl (kind of a hard croissant) at the end, as is traditional.  Liam was clingy, but happy.  Benjamin was wistful, but also happy.  It was another good Lanternfest, and I’ve officially decided to quit thinking that I have any idea of how these things are going to go from one year to the next.


Vienna by night

In Vienna, in the winter, so much of our time is spent in the dark, and in the summer, so little of it is.  From sometime in November until early February, Dan and Benjamin are almost never home during daylight hours.  From early in May until mid-August, my kids hardly ever experience darkness — they wake up and go to bed completely in daylight, for months on end.

The transitions to Daylight Saving Time and back happen at a different time here than at home, too.  Not only does that give me two weeks in the spring and one week in the fall where I have no idea what time it is anywhere, but it means we have 3 weeks more of dark evenings than we had at home.  This year, the Monday after the time change in October was a holiday (Austrian National Day) and we celebrated the fact that the whole family had a day off together by spending it at the swimming pool.

We were out most of the afternoon, and when we started to head home, it was already dark, thanks to the time change the day before.  I found it particularly odd and a little disconcerting, in large part because, strange as it may seem, I am pretty much never out in Vienna at nighttime between April and October.  Stepping out of the brightly lit swimming facility into the dusky evening was like suddenly stepping out into an unfamiliar city.  It happens every year, but it always takes me a little time to get used to experiencing Vienna in the dark … and then once I get used to it, I get to spend months getting REALLY used to it.

Just last week, I picked B up from school and we arrived home with enough daylight that we didn’t immediately have to turn on all the lights — for the first time in nearly 3 months.  It’s the first sign that we’re on our way back to seeing Vienna only by day and likely forgetting, once again, what it’s like here in the dark.

Kürbisfest for the fourth time

It is our longest running tradition here in Vienna, and we look forward to it every year.  The annual pumpkin festival is one of the few nearly Halloween-like celebrations here, and it reminds me so much of the decades of pumpkin picking and carving I’ve done back in the US.


545Over the years, we’ve gotten better at the whole thing.  The first few times, it took us hours longer to get ready and get ourselves there than it should have, and we always ended up out there either very much over or under dressed.  But now, we’re getting it.  We know how to get there, we come prepared with warm clothes and big bags with which to carry home our pumpkins.  We made it out there in the foggy morning (with the help of B, who acted as our navigator since he was learning about maps at school).  We had faces painted, enjoyed our favorite Lángos and pumpkin soup, chose and carved our pumpkins, and played on the recently renovated playground (still daring, even by Austrian standards).  And this year, we brought friends.




Elaine and Phil had been here nearly two years at the time (more than 2 years now), but this was their first pumpkin festival.  They were amazingly good sports in enduring the speed (or lack thereof) and attention spans (or lack thereof) of the kids while we shopped, enjoyed and explored.  We introduced them to Lángos, shopped together for pumpkin seed pesto and chose pumpkins.  Then we all sat down to carve them together — it was Elaine’s first time!  We finished out the day with some playground time (for us) and a warm drink around the fire (for Phil and Elaine).  It was a great day.


667The Kürbisfest remains one of my favorite annual Vienna traditions.  It reminds me of home, yet is also distinctly Austrian.  It celebrates autumn and helps us prepare for Halloween.  It is a wonderful day spent in the countryside with a marvelous view of Vienna.  And, getting to introduce friends to our much-loved tradition made it even more special this year.


Kürbisfest, again

005We love Kürbisfest.  This is the third year that we went to the one just outside of Vienna at Am Himmel, which this year was held the last weekend of October.  (Our first October, we also made the trek to Retz for the Kürbisfest there, and we planned to go back last year but got rained out.  This year, we kept it simple and just went to Am Himmel.)  Each time, it’s been just lovely, and now, after having been 3 times, we feel like we’re starting to master the art of attending this particular Kürbisfest.

011In German, a Kürbis is a pumpkin, so Kürbisfest is, principally, a pumpkin festival.  It’s more than that, too, though.  Besides the crates of pumpkins and gourds, the long tables set out for pumpkin carving, the pumpkin soup, pumpkin seed oil, pumpkin bread, pumpkin sausage and pumpkin seed pesto, there are all kinds of other vendors selling apples, grapes, candles, knit items, juices, ciders, wines and meats.  There are polka bands, face painting and kite-making tents.  There’s certainly a lot to do with pumpkins, but it’s really a celebration of everything autumnal from in and around Vienna.  And it’s pretty fantastic.


This year, the day started cool and foggy, so we bundled up in the morning.  By the time we got out to the hills beyond Vienna, though, the fog had started to burn off and it got really quite warm.  We walked through the festival, and took in all of our favorite parts.  024The boys chose pumpkins.  Benjamin got his face painted (he went for an orange dragon this year — Liam opted out).  We all had some of our favorite Lángos (made fresh, and covered with garlic and pumpkin seed pesto) and some pumpkin soup.  We scooped and carved the pumpkins we had bought.  We shopped for Styrian ham and pumpkin seed sausage, as well as pumpkin seed pesto (which is my absolute favorite).  We sampled some fresh apple and grape juices while listening to live polka music and finally finished up with a stop at the playground, and then dragged ourselves back to the center of the city, exhausted but very happy with our day, and feeling very seasonally appropriate.

040This year, for the first time, we started to feel like we’d figured out some important things.  We went first thing in the morning (always our goal, but this year we actually managed it).  We made the playground the last stop in our day, not the first, so the kids weren’t worn out until it was time to leave.  We brought a backpack and a shopping bag to carry our purchases, and we hollowed out our pumpkins before carrying them home.  All important lessons, learned over the years!

This year, we truly had another great time.  It was a great day, and going to the Kürbisfest has become one of my favorite Vienna traditions.

Contemplating Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one week from today — in the US.  Austria doesn’t have Thanksgiving, so far as I know, and it certainly doesn’t have it next week.  Next Thursday is just a normal day here.

The most important thing to me about Thanksgiving has always been getting together with my family.  The food is good, and football is always fun, but the real reason to celebrate is that everyone is off of work and able to be together.  This year, we won’t be there.

So, if Austria doesn’t mark Thanksgiving, and the reason we care about Thanksgiving is entirely on the other side of the Atlantic, what does that mean for us?  We’ve debated.  We were going to take a long weekend and travel away from Vienna — go and see another part of Austria, maybe Salzburg, maybe the mountains.  I thought it would be a good chance to take advantage of it being a festive time for us, but without any additional “holiday” charges at the hotels, and without having to worry about what would be open or not.  Good idea, but I didn’t get it together to actually make any plans.

Our next plan was to do nothing — just have Dan go to work as usual, have B go to school as usual, maybe do dinner out somewhere on Thursday, but otherwise, not really do anything and save our vacation time for another time (maybe when I actually *did* get it together to plan an excursion).

But that didn’t really feel right.  The thought of basically ignoring Thanksgiving, although it made some logical sense, was just a bummer.  So, we’re going with “plan C”.  Dan’s going to take Thursday and Friday off, and we’re going to do some fun things around Vienna as a family — go to dinner (we’ll look for turkey, but everyone is serving goose here now, and that’s probably close enough), explore some Christmas markets, try and sleep in, maybe go to the zoo, and see if we can find some Christmas movies, or maybe even the Macy’s parade, on TV or online.  And we’re definitely going to try to Skype our family at home so that we can be a part of Thanksgiving there, too.

It’s certainly not our usual Thanksgiving itinerary, but I’m looking forward to it.  I think it’ll be fun, festive and relaxing, which sounds perfect.

It’s also going to give us a little taste of what Christmas will be like.  Of course, Christmas is enthusiastically celebrated here, so it won’t be a “non-event”.  But, it’s going to be really strange to be away from home, and away from our family’s celebration, for Christmas.  I’m really glad we’ve decided not to ignore Thanksgiving — it’s a chance for us to take what’s familiar from home and tweak it to fit our current surroundings.  At Christmas, in particular, it’s going to be so important for us to do that — to mix the familiar and the new — so I’m glad we’re going to practice a little.

Keeping warm

It’s Vienna, it’s nearly winter.  It’s cold — that isn’t exactly shocking.  The temperature does different things here than I’m used to, though — for example, the high temperature for the day here is usually very late in the day (often just after sunset) and then the temperature plummets, often dropping several degrees an hour.  It’s not unusual to go out, in the late afternoon or early evening to nearly 50 degrees, only to come back, just a few hours later, absolutely frozen.  It’s also very common for the temperature to very widely in different parts of the city — I can leave the house very comfortable and step out into frigid conditions when I get off the train to pick Benjamin up at school.  And none of this is made easier by the fact that the weather forecast often lists a temperature as much as 15 degrees off from what we really experience.


We’re getting used to it, though.  If we go out, pretty much anywhere, I carry with me a bag of extra cold weather accessories:  hats and mittens, scarves and gloves, plus a warm blanket for the stroller.  The boys have warm winter coats, and Liam also has a IMG_2627few buntings to choose from (or rather, for me to choose from — I don’t trust his judgement yet, he still likes to eat chalk).  I also recently did some shopping for myself — I bought some new gloves and a cape/cloak/poncho (I have no idea what it really is, and makes me sound like I’m trying to be a superhero/a wizard/a Mexican depending on what I call it).  Even when it feels REALLY cold outside (below freezing, with a breeze), when I put on my new, woolly things, the cold doesn’t get to me too much.

We’re starting to get used to the cold here.  I know it’s only going to get colder — winter is just around the corner.  I hope we can stay well equipped as the temperatures drop — it’s nice to stay warm and cozy.

Turning on the lights


Took this at 12:13 pm

I think it’s the dark of winter that gets to people, more so than the cold.  At a latitude as far north as Vienna, the days are short and the sunlight we get is very indirect — walking to pick up B from school today, at noon, the sun was at an angle that makes me think of late afternoon.  The evening comes early.  Even now, with over a month of shortening days to come, my boys typically wake from their naps in the dark of the evening, groggy and a little disoriented.  Benjamin gets up for school in the dark, and he wakes from his nap in the dark, so he seems to be having trouble separating nap time from bed time — he often wakes from his nap asking me if it’s time to go to school.  (His body isn’t fooled, though, as evidenced by the fact that he sleeps for 10 hours at night and 2 during the day.)I love the symbolism and ritual of using light, in the winter, to push back the darkness, to bring brightness into the night.  We do it at Halloween with jack-o-lanterns, and we do it at Christmas with candles in the windows and lights on our trees.  Vienna is already using its lights to push back on the darkness.  The horse drawn carriages still roll down the streets, illuminated by lanterns.  The cafe windows all glow with warm coziness.  And the lights of the Christmas decorations have begun to be turned on.  The huge Christmas trees at the markets are lit with white lights, and on one street near our house, huge, cylindrical chandeliers of lights have been hung.

I like winter.  I’m not bothered by the dark or the cold.  But part of the reason I’m not bothered, part of the reason I like this season so much, is that we find so much to enjoy in defying the dark and the cold.  I love the warmth and the light, the coziness and the brightness, of this season.  Vienna is full of light right now, and the depth of the darkness around us makes it all the more wonderful.

Christmas comes early

Halloween is barely celebrated here, and Thanksgiving doesn’t exist.  There have been beautiful advent calendars and Christmas sweaters in the shop windows for weeks, and preparations are well underway for the extensive Christmas markets that will soon be open.  Unlike at home, no one is embarrassed or exasperated about it — without Halloween and Thanksgiving, there’s really no reason NOT to start the celebration of Christmas.

As if on cue, the weather here today felt like something out of Dickens (minus the snow).  This evening in Vienna was cold, foggy and damp.  Walking through Michaelerplatz, watching the horse drawn carriages go by, I could easily imagine the opening scenes to “A Christmas Carol”.

Our Halloween pumpkins are still in good form, but soon, it’ll be time to deck our halls, too.  I’m very excited about Christmas — it’s the time of year I’m most looking forward to experiencing in Vienna.  Culturally, Christmas is bound to be very different here — I suspect Austria will celebrate more religiously than I’m used to at home.  And the secular icons are different, as well — they have Saint Nicholas here, rather than Santa Claus, and the Christmas tree tradition is executed differently.

I’d better find out the salient differences, because with Benjamin being in school, he’s going to hear about them.  He’s has already started his mental Christmas list for Santa — and one for Liam, too — and he told me this evening that he’s concerned that Santa will be able to get in to our house, but maybe not out again.  He’s planning ahead.  Me too.

Halloween, Austria style


I love Halloween.  I have so many memories of it from my childhood — picking and carving pumpkins, dressing up and going trick-or-treating, going to creepy houses, on spooky hayrides, or through haunted forests, or just staying home and giving out candy.  I like it 023all.  Benjamin has experiencesd enough of Halloweens at this point to remember it, and to look forward to it this year.  So, although we really didn’t know how Austriants celebrated Hallloween, it was important to me that we do something to make the occassion.

Benjamin really wanted to go trick-or-treating, but after our first investigations, the prospects looked pretty dim.  This time of year in Austria is much more about celebating fall than it is about celebrating Halloween.  But, we persisted, and finally found out (through an American coworker of Dan’s) about a little bit of trick-or-treating done in Vienna.  It took a while to get the details, but we finally found out exactly where to go.

IMG_2124So, we set about making things happen.  We made treat bags for the kids (as our treat pumpkins are apparently in storage at home) and dug out costumes.  Dan came home a bit early from work, and we got everyone dressed and ready and headed out.  We took the tram, then took the same tram again (got a little lost), hopped on a bus, rode it out to the end, and trekked up a really big hill.

We’d been told that the houses participating in trick-or-treating would be decorated and easy to find.  The first house we tried — no one home.  But, we continued up the hill and came upon an entire neighborhood of homes decorated in pumpkin lights or jack-o-lanterns.  By the second house, Benjamin was bounding up to the door shouting, “Trick or treat!” before the door was even opened.  By the time we were through the one neighborhood, we had successfully visited about a half dozen IMG_2136houses.  Benjamin had a fantastic time, and Liam, who was enjoying his first trick-or-treat (he slept through last year) had a great time and kept his costume on the entire time.  We walked back down the hill, got on the bus, walked for a bit, got on the same bus again (not lost this time), got on the tram and came home.  Then, we lit the pumpkins and had the boys try out their trick-or-treat skills here at home.  It was a successful evening.

Trick-or-treating defintely seems to be an American thing:  every house we went to was inhabited by Americans, and most of the trick-or-treaters we came across were English speaking.  But it’s catching on here — we saw a few groups of German-speaking kids going from house to house, and a few of the houses we went to this evening had run out of candy (before 8:00), so I’m guessing that they had more people come by their houses than they IMG_2146did last year.  We saw a few costumed kids on the way back, as well (including one little girl with quite a bucket full of treats).  The Austrian kids seem to be as in to the “tricks” as the “treats” — we encountered “silly string” and shaving cream all along our route.

We didn’t really experience an Austrian Halloween — we experienced an American Halloween transplanted here.  Mostly, we want to try to experience local culture while we’re here, but for today, my kids got to have their Halloween, and so did I.  I’m happy we did it, even if it was a little American.  We all had a good time, but Halloween is definitely something I miss about home.



005Today we took the train to a very small town called Retz, which is apparently world famous for its Pumpkin Festival.  It was a long train ride which took us well beyond Vienna — we were about 5 km from the Czech border when we arrived at the Retz train station.  We had a great time at the Am Himmel festival last weekend, so we thought we’d give this one (which was supposed to be bigger) a try as well.  From Retz, we took a shuttle bus (three fully loaded tour buses ran every hour) to Obermarkersdorf.

It was certainly bigger.  There were nearly 60 shops, kiosks and food stands, several marching bands, a couple of regular bands, floats, a carousel, a bouncy house (actually, a bouncy fire station), a pumpkin maze and (according to the brochure) over 1000 carved jack-o-lanterns (I think that’s a very conservative estimate).

011The town is darling.  It’s the epitome of a little Austrian town, with narrow winding streets, cute little homes and a stream running through the middle, crossed by several footbridges.  In this case, the front yard and windows of each home was adorned with a pumpkin scene.  The theme this year is “around the world” so each home chose a country or region of the world and decorated based on that theme.  Some of the displays were stunningly elaborate.  We saw the North Pole, the Orient Express (accompanied by pumpkin Japanese Lanterns), the Loch Ness (Pumpkin) Monster, a bull and a matador, the Eiffel Tower, a pumpkin blacksmith who was actually moving, a massive pumpkin pyramid, a very long pumpkin train, and a pumpkin gondolier along with his pumpkin customers — all of whom were actually in a gondola, floating in a pond.

016We met up with some friends on the way, and some more when we got there, and together (and separately) tried a variety of fun (and, in most cases, pumpkin inspired) dishes.  My favorites from today were small apple/pumpkin fritters, coated in powdered sugar, and also the pumpkin cappuccino.  We also successfully scoured the festival for another jar of pumpkin seed pesto (because the jar we purchased last weekend is already gone).

Benjamin and I took part in several of the kid’s activities — we got through the pumpkin maze (actually a hay bale maze with pumpkins) easily and then decorated a glass lantern which we then lit and carried through the festival, hanging from the stroller.  (Yet a few more for the long list of things you’d never do in the States:  decorate a glass lantern with a 3 year old, light a lantern for a 3 year old, attach said lantern to the stroller and walk 060through a festival crowded with people.)  Decorating the lantern with B was fun (he opted for lantern making over pumpkin carving) and we’ll be keeping it to use for trick or treat . . . or just late night trips in the wagon.  (Liam, unfortunately, chose the time when we were in the kid’s section to sleep, so he missed out on that part.)

We had a great time.  We saw lots of fun things, we ate good food, we hung out with fun friends, we did fun activities . . . and then it was time to go home.  We caught the shuttle bus back to the train station . . . and then discovered that we had over an hour wait for our train.  In the cold.  With two kids.  Who didn’t get real naps today.  And were hungry.

065But, amazingly, we finished our day with a great hour in the train station and a nice ride home.  At the train station, Benjamin made a few friends (some adults and another kid), showed off his speed and spinning ability, and challenged the other little boy to several races back and forth.  Liam practiced his walking.  Once on the train, Liam took a good nap with Dan while Benjamin and I talked about our day and looked at the pictures we took.  In all seriousness, the grumpiest person at the end of the day was me.  My kids were amazing.  They enjoyed the day enthusiastically and kept their good spirits throughout.  I am amazed and impressed by them.

Retz’s renown for putting on a good Pumpkin Festival is well deserved.  We all had a lovely day in the Austrian countryside and we’re all feeling thoroughly festive and geared up for Halloween.