Liam’s 3rd birthday

To my darling Liam —
Wow!  You’re 3!  What a big guy you are, and what a wonderful year we’ve had together — another chapter in your great adventure!  I love you so much, and I feel so fortunate to get to watch you grow and learn every day.  You are such a happy, loving, enthusiastic, bright and snuggly boy — I’m so glad I’m your mom!

013You’ve grown up a lot in this past year.  You’ve become quite an articulate talker, explaining everything you see and think.  (You aren’t always very patient with us when we don’t understand, though.)  You are fast and strong and sometimes a little too brave — you like to climb and jump, and you’ve got a lot of confidence that you’ll be fine when you land (or that I will catch you).  You’re a strong-willed little guy, too, and you test every boundary we set for you, just to make sure we mean it and to find out exactly what will happen if you try it.  This time last year, you were still working on leaving babyhood behind — you still carried your pacifier around with you almost everywhere — but in the past year, you’ve really become quite a little boy (although you’ll always be my baby).  I love to watch you grow.

Just recently, you started school, and you’ve done an amazing job getting adjusted.  You love your teacher, and you already have friends at school.  You *really* like that you get to go to school with Benjamin.  Each morning, when I drop you off, you happily go to play in your class — I don’t always even get a hug and a kiss before you’re off.  You are happy to go to school in the morning, and so happy to come home in the afternoon.  I love hearing about your day.

You learn so quickly.  You count, and read your numbers, and you remember things so well.  In just the first few weeks of school, you’ve learned so many new things, thoroughly charmed the teachers, and come home singing several new songs (in German)!  And you are very clever — you love to make a joke or say something silly, just so you can burst out in your loud laugh or watch us all giggle (you especially love to make Benjamin laugh).

You are just an amazing brother to Benjamin.  The two of you are so sweet together, always thinking of each other and wanting to play together (when you’re not driving each other crazy, which does happen, too).  At school, the two of you play in the garden together every day.  You love to do things together, and you’re usually quite happy to play by the rules Benjamin decides on.  As long as you’re with your big brother, you’re happy.

One of my favorite things about you is how much you like to cuddle.  You love to be held and to snuggle, and I love to snuggle with you, too.  I am so glad I get to hold you and kiss you every day.

If there was one thing that I think of when I think of you, though, it is the joyful enthusiasm with which you tackle each day.  You are a happy guy, and though you know what you want, and you’re never shy about taking care of yourself (nor quiet about letting us know what you need — which I also love), you are just generally so cheerful.  You love to play, and you will happily make a game of anything, anywhere we are.  You are a good sport, a good traveller, a good team player and just a great guy.  I am inspired by your optimism and willingness to choose happiness in almost every circumstance.

I love you, my Liam.  You are my sweet baby, and I feel so grateful to be your mom.  Having you in my life is a wonderful privilege.  I love you so entirely.  I love your enthusiasm, your humor, your sweetness and the strength of your opinions.  I love your big smile and your big laugh.  I love your clever mind and your loving heart.  You are an awesome 3 year old kid, and I am a lucky mom.  Happy birthday, wonderful boy.


Happy birthday to me!  Yesterday, I turned 37.  I had a great birthday, with cake, presents, my favorite olive bread, and cards made for me by my boys.  It’s been a wonderful year.  We’re finally feeling settled here, everyone is happy and healthy, and I’ve gotten to travel to some of my favorite destinations ever.  I miss home, I miss my family and friends, but I love Austria, and we’ve really found our place here, and it, too, feels like another home to us.

And, the year to come is going to be a great one, too!  We have more travel planned (mostly back to some of those places we’ve already been but liked so much that we want to go back) and, by this time next year, we will most likely be back home, living in the States.

I’m so grateful for this past year.  I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunities I’ve had, and to be living the adventure I’m living, with a wonderful family, great friends and amazing kids.  36 was wonderful.  37 will be too.  It’s going to be a great year.  Life is good!

A fondant adventure

Last summer, while we were on vacation in England, Benjamin picked out and purchased a book about Angry Birds.  This is not surprising, since he loves the games and the birds.  In the book, among other things, there are many very helpful ideas provided for throwing a bird-tacular (or something like that) Angry Birds birthday party.  Included in these pages are instructions for baking and decorating an Angry Bird cake.  Ever since he first saw it, back in September, B has wanted that cake.  Not a cake like it — the exact one in the book.

073Last weekend, we threw a pretty fantastic Angry Bird themed birthday party for him.  It was a cultural adventure, but it went great.  In anticipation of the party, and with full awareness of my middling baking skills, we opted to purchase a lovely cake.  It was, of course, Angry Bird themed, and even included an entire spherical Angry Bird (made of cake!) perched on top.  And it was tasty, too!

And, although he loved the cake, this did nothing to reduce his determination to have “the cake from the book” for his *actual* birthday this year.  It also gave me a very tough act to follow.

I believe in the power of being the birthday boy.  I think that all reasonable requests on and for a birthday should be honored when possible.  And so, with many disclaimers about how I am not much of a baker, and that I’ve never made a cake like that before (I’ve never worked with fondant before at all) I told him I would make my best effort at creating “the cake from the book”.

This is what I was going for:


Ever since I committed to this plan, about a month ago, I’ve been wondering if I made a huge mistake.  I had visions of my efforts ending up, at worst, with a barely edible disaster, and, at best, with a grotesque project worthy of the “Cake Wrecks” site.  Nonetheless, he wanted the Angry Bird cake from the book, and I figured I could at least try.  After all, it’s cake!  How bad could it be?  I ordered the requisite fondant ahead of time (I was pretty grateful to learn I didn’t have to make it, especially since they don’t seem to sell food coloring in Austria, and I had no idea how I would tint homemade fondant).  Part of me was hoping it wouldn’t all arrive in time, but it did.

The night before the big day, we made the cake (from a mix).  After it cooled, I frosted it (with “strawberry” frosting — another request from the birthday boy, which I’m pretty sure is not actually advisable to ingest).  Problem 1 — I haven’t made a layer cake in a while, and I didn’t stack the cakes the “right” way — instead of putting the flat sides together in the center, I put the top cake, convex side down, on top of the other one.  Instant instability.  Well, whatever.  It would still be (relatively) edible.  I put the cake in the fridge overnight because although I am crazy enough to try to make an Angry Bird cake, I am not crazy enough to try to do it at 1:00 in the morning.

Yesterday was the big birthday!  5 years old!  Yay!  While he played with some of his new presents, I set about preparing the fondant for my very first attempt at this.  Following some very helpful advice I found online, I spread confectioner’s sugar on my work surface and added some shortening to the fondant.  To make things even more complicated, the first one I needed to use was the red (no chance at practicing on something simple, like white).  I kneaded it for a while (and took a guess on the desired consistency) and set about rolling it out.  Problem 2 — Although the rolling went ok, I didn’t use enough fondant the first time, so I had to start over with more.  Oops.  Now I had confectioners sugar liberally mixed through my red fondant.  Actually, though, after I got done with it, and put it on the cake, it didn’t look awful.  For the first time, I felt hope:


I continued to follow the instructions.  I trimmed it up, and then used the white . . .


. . . then the orange . . .


. . . and finally, the black fondant.  And, after all was said and done, I have to say, I’m pretty proud of the result:


It may not have been a culinary masterpiece, but I’m pretty proud of it, and B was very satisfied.  And Dan, who has been chuckling in my direction since I decided to undertake this project, had to admit he was impressed, too.  The cake was a successful piece in a wonderful birthday.  Not too bad for my first fondant adventure.

Benjamin’s 5th birthday

To my sweet 5 year old boy —
Benjamin!  You are 5!  Happy birthday, wonderful, darling child of mine.  What an amazing guy you are, and I am so excited to be celebrating your 5th birthday.  Every single day, I enjoy being with you.  You are a great kid, and I love you so very much.

20130718-181008.jpgIt is so wonderful to watch you learn and grow.  I swear that you get taller every day — I feel like every time I look at you, you can reach new things.  You are so fast, too!  And you are developing amazing skills — even at 5, there are quite a few things you can do better than I can.  You learn new things all the time.  You’ve always been eloquent and precise in your speech, but this year, your sentences have become longer, more detailed and increasingly polite (very impressive!).  You’ve always been a pleasure to talk to, but, amazingly, I find that I enjoy our conversations more and more.  You say amazing things — you notice so much of the world around you, you take in so much information, and then you ask the BEST questions about what you see.  You are so thoughtful and insightful, and you are so genuinely interested in learning more and solving the puzzles in your mind.  (Although I am surprised by how often — VERY often — you ask questions that I can’t answer simply.)  And you are so brave!  As you grow up more and more, I see your enthusiasm and willingness to try new things, and to persevere at old things that pose a challenge.

And as you learn new stuff and conquer new challenges, you are still, without question, the wonderful YOU that you have always been.  You are, as always, such a kind and sweet kid.  I see this most in the amazing love you have for Liam.  You a fantastic big brother.  And while you guys may not always get along perfectly, you are always thinking of him, concerned for him, and (usually) happy to share with him.  You guys are great friends, and you take really good care of him.  It is my most favorite thing as a parent to see the love and fondness the two of you have for each other.  And it’s not just with Liam that I see your kindness.  There are so many ways that I get to see your awareness of others.  You care about the younger kids in your class at school, you always look out for Bailey, and you always think about everyone in your family and everyone around you.  You love to be in touch with your friends and family, you think about how actions or events might affect people or creatures in the world, you empathize with the characters in books and movies.  You are a truly sweet kid.

This year has been a great one.  We’ve travelled a lot, seen many new things and met lots of new people.  I love to hear about your favorite places in the world to visit, and your favorite memories of each destination.  You’ve also had a wonderful year at school, making great friends and learning so much.  And this coming year, you are so excited to be one of the Vorschule Kinder!  How grown up!  I am so excited for you.  You are starting to be able to recognize words and “read” just a little, and you’ve been working on your writing, too.  Your drawings have become really neat this year — I love to see the detail and thought in the pictures you make.  It is just fantastic to see what you’ve accomplished this year.

I am so grateful that I get to be your mommy.  I really feel like I have the best luck of any parent in the world to get to have you in my life.  I’m also glad that although you’re getting bigger, stronger, faster and smarter all the time, you’re still not too big to snuggle with.  I love to give you hugs, to hold you in my lap, and to cuddle with you.  No matter how grown up you get, you will always be my baby, and I will love you forever and ever and for always, no matter what.  You are a truly lovely person, and a wonderful kid.  You are so big and strong and smart and kind and brave and loving — wow, that’s a lot of great things!

Benjamin, I love you so much.  Thanks for being my guy.  Happy birthday, sweet boy.

Birthday party, international style

009We did it!  Benjamin’s birthday party went very well on Saturday.  We had 11 kids and 9 adults — 2 kids who hadn’t RSVPed (including 1 we didn’t actually invite, the older brother of an invitee . . . but if we’d known he had an older brother, we would have invited him), 1 child who said he was coming but didn’t, 1 set of twins whose parents dropped them off and left (which surprised me, but as one of my friends observed, it was 2 fewer people to entertain), 2 kids and 1 parent who spoke absolutely no English, 2 kids who barely spoke English, and 4 different nationalities represented (and no other Americans, aside from us).

012It was great.  The kids all seemed to have a good time, including, most importantly, the birthday boy.  The whole party was Angry Birds themed, just like B wanted — cake, decorations, games, and all.  I think it ended up being quite festive.  I was able to visit with each of the adults a little (and thus even practice my German a bit!), and play a lot with the kids.  We played games, had cake (which was beautiful, tasty and plenty big enough) and ice cream, and even opened presents.  (I had planned to skip opening presents, but was persuaded to do it.  I’m glad we did — it was fun for everyone.)


Mostly, I’m glad that Benjamin had a good time.  It was his first time hosting his school friends at his house, and since we hadn’t hosted a play date at home in a while at all, having a house full of friends was a real treat.  Liam had a great time playing with everyone, too.  He also gets credit for the sweetest mistake of the party — he misheard Leonie’s name as Lambie, has been persistently asking when “Lambie” is coming back to visit again.  We all had a great time, and I think we managed to be reasonably decent hosts.  At the very least, we didn’t create any kind of international incident.  It was a success.









Party prep

So, this is it — 24 hours from now, my house will have been full of 2-6 year olds and accompanying parents for several hours, and, probably, they’ll all already be headed home.  How many will be here is still a mystery, although we have gotten 2 more “yes” RSVPs and one more “no” since last week.  I checked with some Austrian friends (a grand total of 2), and they report that I shouldn’t put too much stock in the RSVPs I have or have not gotten — people who have not responded will probably show up, and it’s equally possible that people who have said they’ll be here won’t come.  So, we’ll see.  We could end up with 5 kids here, or we could end up with 15.  I’ll know tomorrow.  (Note for the next party I throw in Austria — inviting fewer people makes things much simpler.)

Right now, coming down to the wire, I feel like I should be more stressed than I am.  An unknown number of people are coming to my house tomorrow.  Many of them may be people I’ve never met before (parents of B’s classmates) and I may not be able to communicate with all of them.  We’re crossing a lot of cultures, and I truly have no idea what kinds of expectations people might have of a 5 year old’s birthday party in Austria.  (I’ve only been to one birthday party since I’ve been here.)

036But I’m actually feeling ok.  It will be whatever it will be, and if I break every Austrian etiquette rule, well, I’ll continue to play the “not from around here” card.  Actually, recognizing how out of my element I am is incredibly liberating.  It’s another one of those moments when I accept the probable imperfection of the situation, which allows me to relax and focus on what’s really important.  Do we have balloons?  Check.  Cake?  Not yet, but Austria is the land of cake, so even if something goes awry with our ordered-and-to-be-dropped-off-tomorrow cake, we’ll be able to figure something out.  Will there be kids here?  I think so.  Do we have enough snacks and drinks?  Close enough, I think.  Will Benjamin have a good time?  Most likely, and that’s what really matters.

We’re all really working together to make this party happen, which is making it fun just even to prepare.  We spent much of last weekend getting the house ready — cleaning, mostly — so that we would have less to do today and tomorrow and might have enough energy and good cheer left to actually enjoy the party.  The boys have been amazing at helping me get ready.  (Really.)  We’ve been working together on the decorations and the games we’re going to play:  Angry Bird basketball (regular basketball, but using Angry Bird stuffed animals as the ball), Angry Bird bowling (rolling/throwing stuffed Angry Birds at paper “bowling pins” with pictures of pigs on them) and a wall of repurposed cardboard boxes, at which we’re going to throw stuffed Angry Birds, thus knocking down the blocks.  The boys have done most of the “artwork” for the game supplies, and Benjamin came up with the idea we’re using to make the paper bowling pins keep their cylindrical shape.  They have also been entirely in charge of deciding which toys go in the “off-limits” room — the door will stay closed and no one will be able to play with anything inside — and for actually putting them away in there.  It’s been pretty amazing.

We’ve still got a fair bit to do this evening and tomorrow morning, but it’s not overwhelming.  I’m pretty sure we’ll be ready in time for our first guest’s arrival (which, considering this is Austria, will probably be very prompt).  In some ways, it really does feel like a lot of pressure — hosting a party for so many people, including so many that I don’t know, and having truly no idea what people will be expecting or how it’s going to go.  But, really, we can do what we want.  We’re the foreigners here, so whatever we do, we get to make it truly ours.  We can let go of anyone else’s expectations, and do it the way we want.  My greatest hope is that we allow ourselves to enjoy the day.  (I hope that Benjamin has a great time, of course, but I can’t guarantee that, either — it’s hard to know what expectations might still lurk in the mind of an almost 5 year old.)  We’ll see!


In less than 2 weeks, B turns 5.  Aside from the mingled feelings of shock and pride I feel about this, I’m also experiencing the frenetic anticipation of putting together B’s birthday party, which will be next Saturday.  He had a pretty big party when he turned 1, but he was too little to have much opinion in the matter, and I had a lot of help from my mom.  For his second birthday, we had a party, too — he was also too little to vote much, and I also had help.  His third birthday was party-less (aside from Dan, Liam & I), and last year we were at the beach with family, so we had a party, but pressure was minimal and help was plentiful.

This year is different.  This year B really wanted to have a party, with his friends, and he has lots of ideas about what it should entail.  He has very strong opinions, but he isn’t able to articulate some of them until I suggest something counter to his idea and he gets very frustrated with me for not (psychically) understanding.

He wanted to invite his whole class at school (20 kids) in addition to his other friends.  I vetoed, and said he could choose 8 from school (which evolved into 11 once we accounted for their siblings).  Add to this the complication of having at least 5 different first languages represented amongst the invitees, and I think we’ll have our hands full as it is.

This is where crossing cultures becomes an adventure.  The invitations said RSVP, and I provided both my phone number and email (in case there was anyone who didn’t want to attempt English but didn’t trust my German), but although B’s party is next weekend, I currently have no idea how many kids will be there.  Of the 17 invitations we gave out for his birthday party, we only heard back from 5 of the kids.  We were able to contact 3 more to find out their plans, but for the other 9, kids from B’s school for whom we don’t have contact info, we have no idea if they’re coming, and, unless they decide to call, we won’t.

I’ve always heard that the rule of thumb is that most people who don’t RSVP won’t come — people who know they can be there let you know, people who can’t, or who aren’t sure, don’t feel as motivated about getting back in touch.  But the thing is, in a different culture, in a different country, I can’t really make that assumption.  Maybe RSVP doesn’t mean anything in German (I mean, it’s an abbreviation for a French phrase, so it doesn’t technically mean anything in English either).  Maybe, culturally, a “regrets only” mentality is typical, so I ought to take their silence as a yes.  Maybe we caught people just as they were leaving for summer holidays, and everyone is gone (in a country where 2-4 week summer vacations are common, a lot of people are gone for a lot of the summer).  Maybe everyone is just really busy and I’ll get a bunch of responses this coming week.  Or maybe they never got the invitations at all (they were left in the kids’ cubbies at school).  I just don’t know, but I can’t make too many assumptions.

So, at this point, we know we’ll have somewhere between 6 and 15 kids here for the party, plus parents.  That’s a bit of a wide range for planning purposes (somewhere between 12 and 35 people, I’m guessing, because of course, for the non-RSVPers, we have no clue how many adults might come, too).

It’ll be fine.  In fact, it’ll be great.  It’s 3 hours out of everyone’s life, and the only person whose opinion really counts is Benjamin, and he certainly isn’t going to care if we run out of paper cups or if there aren’t enough places for everyone to sit.  He’s going to have (I hope) a great time no matter what.  He’s excited to celebrate with his friends, and that he shall do.  I’m excited, too.

Surprise party

Benjamin has a summer birthday, which is a mixed blessing. I have a July birthday, too, and I know how it is. While it’s fantastic to never, ever have to go to school on your birthday, you also never get to experience the fun of having your birthday celebrated at school. And although it’s great that pool parties are always an option, and sometimes you get to have your birthday on vacation, everyone ELSE is always on vacation, too, so often many of your closest friends can’t be there to celebrate with you.

Last year, as B enjoyed celebrating all of the other kids’ birthdays throughout the year at school, I worried whether he’d get to celebrate his, and how he’d feel if he didn’t. Luckily, they make a point to celebrate the summer birthdays all together before (most of) the kids leave for their summer holidays, and he was so excited to have his school birthday party. (And, since we were home in the States for his actual birthday last year, we took the opportunity to celebrate a bit at home that day, as well.) This year, we assumed they’d do the same thing, and we asked, last month, if they knew when they’d be celebrating the summer birthdays. They assured us that they planned to, but they weren’t yet sure of the date. Not a problem, but as we’ve been approaching the unofficial end of the year (because it’s daycare, as well as preschool, the year doesn’t really end, per se, but many of the kids are absent for most or all of July and August) I’d been starting to worry that maybe it had gotten forgotten in the crazy busy times of the end of the year, but I was also hesitant to pester his teachers, because I knew they had a lot going on.

Yesterday, I decided I needed to ask. If it had been forgotten, I needed to make sure that they had time to plan something (if they wanted to). As it turned out, Dan took B to school, but he was running late, so he didn’t get a chance to ask in the morning. The mystery was solved when Dan picked him up, though, because the teachers had told him he’d be having his party . . . today! And although that came as a bit of a surprise, it was definitely a pleasant one.

20130612-160958.jpgSo B went to sleep last night excited about his birthday, and woke up (bright and early!) even more excited. And it sounds like he had a wonderful day. They had pizza, cake and ice cream, everyone sang for him, he got to wear a crown, and he even got a gift (a towel decorated as a snail). All of his best friends were there, and they all got to play in the garden, too. I think it was a great day, and he is a very, very happy boy (although he was insisting, this afternoon, that he is now 5, and I’m insisting, just emphatically, that he really isn’t quite yet).

Because we only found out about this yesterday, we weren’t able to do much in terms of a celebration here at home (which is really ok, because we’re planning an actual birthday party with his friends in July) but we did pick up some cookies and ice cream as a special treat. I am so very glad that he got to enjoy a wonderful birthday celebration at school, and I am beyond grateful to his teachers for making a fuss over each and every child (even the summer birthdays!). It’s great to see my special guy have his special day.

Kindermuseum, revisited

Last year, for Liam’s birthday, we took a trip to Vienna’s Zoom children’s museum.  We had a great time, and we meant to go back, but we never did.  But, when Liam’s birthday came around again, we thought, “Aha!  Let’s go back!”  What a great way to celebrate (again).

And, we had a great time when we went back yesterday.  Again, the kids ran themselves into happy exhaustion (B’s comment was, “Whew!  This place is tiring!”).  The boys got to have a lot of freedom, and really enjoyed it.

But, last year we went on a weekday, and this year we went on a Saturday.  It was a lot more crowded.  We had to supervise them a bit more closely (although that was also, in part, because they’re bigger and I wanted to make sure they weren’t knocking toddlers over as they ran around), there wasn’t an opportunity for them to try each thing, and they didn’t spend as much time playing together (they split up at the beginning, and the crowd was such that they didn’t reconnect for a while).

Still, we had great fun, and it was a fun way to celebrate Liam’s second birthday.  But it’s even more special during the week.

The return of the pirate ship balloon

The day before Liam’s birthday, Benjamin and I purchased a pirate ship balloon that, rather than sailing home with us, sailed away, up into the clouds, on our way home.  Benjamin was heartbroken.  I was pretty upset myself.  I walked all the way back to the shop to see if they had another (they didn’t).

But, I didn’t give up.  What to do when you’re trying to find something elusive?  To the internet!  I found it on Amazon (uninflated, of course) and with a little translation, was able to find it on Amazon Germany, as well.  We bought two — just in case.

003They arrived today, and Dan took the boys down to the toy shop to see if they would inflate one of them for us.  They did.  (And now we have another — just in case this one flies out the window, or something, or for some time in the future.)

Benjamin is thrilled.  Liam loves it.  I feel great about being able to fix my mistake (I’m the one who let the balloon go, accidentally).  Dan got to help by getting the new balloon filled.  The whole family is happy.  I am so grateful we were able to do it.

I know it’s just a little thing.  I don’t want my kids growing up thinking that the THING is what’s important.  I hope they see the love behind the actions — the effort we went to in order to fix the mistake, and to help Benjamin give his thoughtful gift to Liam.  I hope they see the love in the pirate ship balloon.  I do.