My “reverse expat bucket list”

Living abroad, I am very aware of my limitations.  I am reminded, constantly, of how poorly I speak the language and how unfamiliar I am with the customs here.  Every day I have thoughts of how I wish I were doing better, learning faster and moving through the world more easily.  I think it’s perfectly understandable that I so often focus on my challenges and shortcomings, because I see them all the time.

It’s easy to overlook how much I’ve accomplished, how far I’ve come, and how many things that I’ve done and seen.  Amanda at Expat Life with a Double Buggy is hosting a blog link up today, encouraging expats to celebrate what we have already done and accomplished in our adventures.  So, here is my “reverse bucket list” — I’m taking a moment to celebrate what I’ve done so far.

In the past 3 years, I have:

  • Travelled to England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Italy, Vatican City and Germany
  • Survived 3 round trip transatlantic flights with preschool aged kids (and never even had anything thrown at me … by anyone other than my kids)
  • Been sledding in the Alps
  • Visited the highest point in Germany
  • Took the overnight train to Italy
  • Eaten pasta and gelato in Italy, baguettes and macaroons in France, and fish & chips and shepherd’s pie in England
  • Visited some astoundingly beautiful places in Austria139
  • Seen a mountain goat in its natural habitat
  • Visited at least 4 different castles
  • Been to a ball at a palace (twice!)
  • Seen a couple of glaciers
  • Shopped for groceries … and didn’t hold up the checkout line
  • Learned a bit about Austrian history
  • Learned a bit of German
  • Renewed my (expired) passport
  • Completed entire shopping transactions entirely in German
  • Got to know the Krampus
  • Swum in both sides of the Atlantic
  • Become pretty much an expert on traveling with kids — either across town or between continents
  • Written over 900 blog posts
  • Been in several of the grandest cathedrals in Europe
  • Learned to love Lanternenfest1072
  • Had a flying lesson
  • Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower
  • Ridden in a gondola
  • Been to at least 7 different museums in 4 different countries
  • Made new friends, including actual Austrian friends
  • Become a connoisseur of Austrian Christmas markets
  • Saw Shakespeare performed in England
  • Learned to let go of being a perfectionist (more or less) and become much more flexible
  • Let go of judgement (of myself and others)
  • Turned over a new leaf in terms of my health

When I write it down like that, it DOES seem something to be proud of (especially since I’ve probably forgotten to include many things). These past 3 years have been a remarkable adventure. I’ve seen and done things I didn’t expect I ever would, and I’ve become a different person in small but important ways. Whatever the future holds for me, these experiences will never leave me, and I hope they serve to inspire many further adventures.

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

Judgypants — My Messy Beautiful

We’ve been living abroad, here in Vienna, Austria, for 3 years now, but there are still SO MANY little day-to-day things that can be a challenge.  It’s these little everyday things that can trip me up the most.  My mom has always told me, “You don’t trip over Mt. Everest”, and she’s right — I am usually prepared to handle big things, but the little things can easily make or break my day.

I think, as with so much that I’ve learned while living abroad, this has always been true, I’m just more aware of it now.  These days, we so often get by on little kindnesses — someone being patient with our awkward German or smiling at us as we blunder through an unfamiliar social interaction — and our fragile comfort zone can be so easily damaged by the opposite — impatience, unkindness or a lack of understanding.

Last April, I had one of these not-so-great interactions with an Austrian.  (Though most of our interactions with the locals here have been overwhelmingly positive.)  I had just taken the kids to get their latest set of vaccines.  We’d had to skip nap time to make the appointment, and I was happily surprised and quite relieved that both boys had handled themselves so well.  We were on the tram, headed home, and enjoying the ride — talking to each other, commenting on what we saw out the window, asking and answering questions.  Normal mom stuff with a 2 year old and a 4 year old.  I was truly present in the moment, enjoying my kids, and we were all happy to be headed home.

Here they are, waiting for the tram. So sweet!

And then, quite suddenly, an older man near the front of the tram car stood up and started shouting at us.  It would have been unsettling regardless, but since Austrians are typically exceedingly quiet on trams and trains, it was particularly shocking.  The entire tram car fell silent and stared as he told us off, in irate German (extra angry-sounding points for that) for making entirely too much noise, before departing the train at the next stop, shouting as he went.

I was mortified.  I was also genuinely surprised and immediately defensive.  My kids had not been particularly loud (seriously, by American standards we were using almost library volume voices) and this man had been sitting dozens of feet away from us.  What was his problem?!?  My fellow tram riders gave me sympathetic looks and glared after him in commiseration, but still, behind my embarrassment and bruised ego, I felt entirely defeated.  Here, in this moment which I’d thought had been going so well, I felt suddenly reminded of how out of place we were, of how easy it was for us to be inappropriate, and of how poorly we were fitting in.  I felt so judged, and like such a failure.

In truth, I was also pretty pissed.  My kids were behaving, being happy, and no louder than the ambient noise on the strassenbahn, which creaks and squeaks as it makes its way through the streets.  If my German had been better, I would have told HIM off in return.  (So there!)  How dare he!  He doesn’t know us or our situation.  I immediately started creating dramatic scenarios we could be suffering through (but weren’t) that fueled my feelings of indignation.  What if this were my first time out with my kids alone ever?  What if one of us suffered from agoraphobia or social anxiety and just being on the strassenbahn was a victory?  What if we had suffered some kind of trauma or loss and it was our first happy conversation in months?  None of those things are true in our case, but it IS true that being out with both kids, on public transportation, in a country where I am an outsider and have trouble communicating is a major challenge.  Keeping both kids relatively quiet and happy is a major achievement, and he had just crapped on it.  I was hurt, I was angry, and I was instantly critical him for not being more thoughtful before he opened his big, angry mouth.  I put on a brave face for the kids, who were looking to me to see how to react.  I shrugged it off and went back to discussing things outside the window, but in my head, I fantasized about all of the nasty things I wished I could have said.

And then, as I obsessed over it, I was suddenly struck by a realization – I was judging him, too.  Maybe *he* has trouble being out in public.  Maybe *he* recently suffered a loss.  Maybe he is old and bitter and alone and the sound of children laughing is like nails on a chalkboard to him.  Maybe he once lost a child, or a grandchild, and my children being happy was painful for him.  Or maybe not.  Maybe he was having a bad day.  Maybe he got some bad news, or was in bad health, or was exhausted from taking care of someone or stressed about his finances.  I don’t know.  Any or all of those could be true.  (Or he could just be a big, old, Austrian grumpypants.)

Regardless, it’s no more my place to judge him or to lash out in anger than it was appropriate for him to shush us out of his own personal frustrations or issues.  And yet . . . I pass judgement on others all the time (both good and bad):  I like her hair, I think he’s fat, I wonder what she was thinking when she put that outfit on this morning, I think that dad is clueless because he’s letting his kid get away with something.  I judge, ALL THE TIME.

I don’t know anyone else’s situation.  And, sitting on that tram, I realized that not only is passing judgement on others thoughtless and unkind, it absolutely bounces back and ends up hurting me, too.  When I judge someone else positively, I will feel (today, or one day in the future, maybe on a day when I don’t have it all together … like most of the days) like I don’t measure up to that standard I judged them against.  When I judge someone harshly, I will feel inadequate and ashamed later when I find myself failing to live up to that same standard.  Even the judgements I feel the most entitled to don’t serve any good purpose in my life.  We all have tough days.  MANY of my days over the past 3 years have been tough, and I’ve failed against all kinds of personal standards in ways I thought I would never allow to happen.  Things change.  Life is hard.  Nobody is perfect.

I think it’s part of why I carry so much guilt as a parent — because before I was a parent, I passed judgements about other parents.  I *knew* what I would do or say or how I would handle certain situations or behaviors.  I would *never* do this, that, or the other and would *always* do something else.  And then, when it was my turn, and ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WENT HOW I EXPECTED, I constantly heard my own voice echoing in my head, judging and criticizing my choices.  And I naturally assume that everyone else is constantly thinking those things too.

Parenting is hard.  Nothing in my life has taken me so quickly off of my high horse of “always” and “never” than having a child (except maybe for having the second one).  Living in a foreign country is hard, too.  And people ARE judging me.  I get stuff wrong all the time.  As a parent, as an expat, as a human being.  I make mistakes ALL THE TIME.  Like EVERY day.  And what I’ve learned in 5+ years as a parent and 3+ years as an expat is that every single thing I do is going to be “wrong” in someone’s eyes.  EVERY SINGLE THING.  People didn’t like that we used disposable diapers and others wouldn’t have liked it if we’d used cloth diapers.  To some people, it was wrong for me to breastfeed my kids in public and to others it was wrong when I would choose not to (it’s also wrong to not cover up and wrong if I did).  There are people who think that moving abroad was the best choice ever and people who think we’re heartlessly selfish for subjecting our kids to this.  Everything I do, from what I feed my kids to what I dress them in to what time I put them to bed to what I let them watch (or don’t) on tv will be wrong to someone.  I have gotten crap for taking my kids shopping in the stroller because it makes the store too crowded, but if I don’t bring the stroller, someone will be upset because one of the kids touched something they shouldn’t have or sat down in the aisle and refused to walk another step.  People roll their eyes when one of my kids is crying on the train and they roll their eyes when I give them a cracker to stave off the crying.  There is just no way to “win” the judgement game, except to choose not to play.

And, like the grumpy guy on the strassenbhan, the judgements people pass on me are ALWAYS a reflection of their own personal story, not of mine.  So, thanks, angry strassenbahn man from a year ago.  You gave me some much needed perspective.  It was an unexpected gift that I’m not sure you meant to give.  (Thanks anyway, though.)


This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, CLICK HERE!


5 lessons I have learned from the Austrians

I love this week’s topic for Amanda’s blog link up … except that I really struggled to choose just 5 things!  I have learned so much from the Austrians, and I am so grateful for these lessons.  They’ve changed my outlook, my priorities, and (I hope) helped me to become a happier and more relaxed person.

1.  Public transportation can be VERY functional
The Viennese public transportation system, made up of buses, subway trains and trams is truly impressive.  (The nationwide and local rail services are equally noteworthy.)  The system is clean, safe and reliable.  They’ve obviously invested a lot in the system — not just in its purchase, but in its maintenance, as well.  The people who use the system take a lot of pride in it, too — outside of a bit of graffiti, everyone takes good care of it, and the public transport system will take you wherever you want to go in Vienna.  We don’t have a car, and honestly don’t need one.


2.  Play should include actual challenges
I’ve remarked on this again and again, ever since my earliest days in Vienna.  The playgrounds here are significantly less safe here than in the US — full of hard surfaces, high things to climb, pinching hazards, and actual wood, metal and rocks — and that’s a GOOD thing.  Since moving to Vienna, my kids have learned to push themselves, to conquer challenges, and to dust themselves off when they fail.  As an American mother, I didn’t appreciate how overprotective I was being before.

And this practice of not protecting people from everything (including their own poor decisions) exists everywhere here.  “Personal responsibility” is very much expected (and thus is the norm).


3.  We all need to get over how we look (and how everyone else looks)
In America, we have a nationwide love/hate relationship with food and our bodies.  We are obsessed about eating, and yet we are filled with shame about what we eat and judgement over what other people eat.  We are obsessed with fitness and the pursuit of physical perfection while being the most obese nation in the world.  We have a collective national eating disorder, and we don’t even see it.

Living in Austria, I’ve learned that food is for eating (yes, both fat and skinny people have to eat).  I’ve also learned that neat and tidy presentation of our personal appearance is important, but that we look how we look — trying to create physical perfection is as absurd as ignoring our health.  No one is perfect.  People in Austria also get less worked up about nudity and scant clothing — not every bit of nakedness is something to get excited about.

4.  Free time is so important
I love the Austrian attitude about vacation.  They get a lot of time off from work each year … and they use it.  5-6 weeks of vacation time is typical, and that’s in addition to the numerous holidays and nearly unlimited sick time.  It is simply an expected part of the culture that people must take time off to spend with family and to relax.  There’s no guilt about it from the employee and no stinginess about it from the employer.

Along with this is the Austrian cultural attitude that evenings and Sunday are for rest and for family, instead of time to get errands run.  I love it, and I hope to never forget it.

20140326-153017.jpg5.  How to shift the focus of the holidays
Christmas is, of course, a religious holiday.  But additionally, Christmas is meant to be about being together with family and celebrating the magic of the season.  I’d always found myself, instead, stressed about shopping, rushing from one gathering to the next and looking forward to Christmas not just as a fantastic day spent with my loved ones but also as the finish line for the craziness of the holiday season.  The Austrian focus really IS on time together, on religious observation and enjoying the entire holiday season.  Advent is as much a part of Christmas as the day before and the day itself.  Shopping for gifts happens in a more modest manner, and often amidst the festivity of a neighborhood market.  Living in Austria, I’ve learned that the entire season IS the celebration, and that rather than rushing to complete my checklist by a deadline, the Christmas season can be about spending time preparing together — shopping, seeing the lights, baking, cooking and decorating — not just about THE DAY.  The holidays really are about celebrating, being together, and bringing light and wonder into the darkest part of the year.

I have learned so many things by being here these past few years, and there are so many ways in which I hope I have been permanently changed by the lessons that I’ve learned.  I have also so enjoyed participating in this blog link up, sharing my experiences and reading about others’.  (Thanks Amanda!)

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

5 reasons I’m glad my kids speak English and German

Since before we arrived in Austria, nearly 3 years ago, we have been determined that learning German (reasonably well, at least) would be an important piece of our time spent abroad.  We chose to enroll our kids in a Viennese, German-only preschool when they each reached 3 years of age.  For my older son, this means that he has had 2 1/2 years of school entirely in German, while my younger son is most of the way through his first year.  It’s been a great experience.  They’ve learned a tremendous amount of German, and having them enrolled in an Austrian school has provided most of my motivation for continuing to learn German, as well (B’s main teacher does not speak any English, and I need to be able to communicate with her).

Participating in Amanda’s blog link up again this week, here are 5 reasons I’m glad my kids speak English and German.

1.  They have the knowledge that they CAN learn another language, so hopefully the next one will be easier and less intimidating.  If there is one skill I wish I had that I don’t, it is the ability to learn languages easily.  I studied French for 7 years in school and learned a fair bit, but it was ways a struggle.  I’ve lived here for nearly 3 years and my German is just becoming passable.  Throughout my life, I’ve been so intimidated by the struggle of learning a new langauge that I don’t really try to (even when I have the opportunity).  I sincerely hope that having learned German at such a young age, my kids will have a lifelong confidence with which to tackle other languages.

2.  Confidence moving through the world.  I don’t think anything is more off-putting about the thought of travel than not being able to speak the local language.  Whether it’s the fear of getting lost and being helpless, or just worry over looking foolish for not being able to communicate, lack of language skills makes travel intimidating when it should be exciting.  German is spoken in wide areas of Europe, and I hope that their skills in speaking it will give my kids a sense of freedom to travel within those areas (at least) without any worry throughout their lives.

3.  German is less likely to be taught on their American schools later, so now may be the only chance.  When I was growing up, we were required to study a foreign language in school, and the choices were French, Spanish and German.  I have no idea if my children will take compulsory foreign language in school, but I do know that the German programs were on the verge of being cut when I was in high school (20 years ago) so I don’t imagine that many of them have survived the past 2 decades.  One day, my kids will be in American schools, and I will encourage them to learn a language (even if they don’t have to).  But that will be the time to pick up French or Spanish — this may be their only chance to learn German.

4.  German is really cool.  As with any language, there are particular words and idioms that are uniquely perfect within a language, and I love some of the ones I’ve learned in German.  I love that the German word for strawberry (Erdbeere) literally means “earth berry” or “ground berry” (because they grow so close to the ground).  I love the word “raunen”, which is the word for the sound the wind makes.  I love that the root of the word for speed (geschwindigkeit) is the word for windy (windig) so that it literally translates to something like wind-making-ness.  I just found out yesterday that the word for staple remover is the same as the word for mother-in-law … because both separate things that are together.  (Ha!)  Besides, nothing beats telling someone off in German for sheer intimidation factor.  German is cool.

5.  A common language is not required to make a connection to others (but it helps).  As they get older and more confident (and as they accumulate more miles travelled around Europe) I see my kids reach out to other children that they encounter, regardless of whether or not they can communicate well with them.  My boys have attempted French and Spanish when German and English have failed them.  But certainly, they have the easiest time (and the most luck) making friends when they can communicate together well.  Watching them chat and be silly with their friends and teachers at school is heartwarming and inspiring.  They simply could not have done that 3 years ago.  Learning the language has made the difference.

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

5 things I love about my expat life

I’ve never done a “blog link up” before, but I’m feeling inspired by Amanda van Mulligan over at Life with a Double Buggy and I thought I’d participate.

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

There’s a lot to love about expat life (there’s also plenty to dislike, which at least keeps life interesting).  Here are some of the things I love most about my life as an expat.

1.  I have a new perspective on my homeland.  Back before my expat life, when I was living in the US, there were things I liked and things I didn’t, and I believe I always had enough sense to see through the “everything’s better here” mentality I often saw around me.  But it took stepping outside of my own culture to truly appreciate the things we actually do better than anyone else (hamburgers, milkshakes, the sheer variety of international food readily available, cheap yet quality clothing, delivery of everything, and a genuine willingness to attempt just about anything) and to understand the ways in which we generally don’t measure up to other places in the world (public transportation, ridiculous and unattainable standards of beauty, access to health care, and early childhood education).  I miss and appreciate the wonderful parts of America and can frankly question our failings.  And I also have the perspective to choose to opt out of many ways of thinking that I always took for granted, especially if I can now see that it does me a disservice.

2.  Learning that “doing” has a time and place (and it’s not evenings or Sundays).  America is a 24/7 country.  It feels like everything is open and available all the time, and this creates a pressure to constantly being “doing” more, checking more things off of the to-do list.  Living in Austria, where everything is closed evenings and Sundays, has changed my perspective completely.  It used to frustrate me to have to accomplish my errands during business hours, but now I truly appreciate the peace and sanity that comes from setting aside evenings and Sundays as time for friends, family and rest.

3.  I know that a true challenge can be good for my kids.  The mentality of over-protectiveness and “helicopter” parenting that pervaded my early years as a parent does not exist here.  At school and in the playgrounds, children here are given more opportunities to fail and they are less protected from the consequences of those failures.  Playgrounds are made of wood and metal with plenty of dirt and rocks.  Slides are tall and without safety rails.  At school, preschoolers handle knives and lit candles.  3 year olds go on field trips with their classes, and 9 year olds ride public transportation on their own.  These challenges and responsibilities allow the kids to stretch themselves physically and mentally.  They accomplish hard things, they learn to brush themselves off and try again when they fail, they learn to be cautious in order to stay safe, they learn to be responsible for their own actions.  Left within my own American culture, I doubt very seriously if I would ever have allowed my kids to take on some of the challenges they’ve tackled here.  And what a shame that would have been.

4.  Living a life less ordinary.  I don’t think of myself as a risk-taker.  This isn’t a path I ever thought I would choose.  I think of myself as much more typical, do-what-everyone-else does kind of person.  (Although I mentioned this to my husband the other day and he did remind me that not all that many people leave their lucrative careers as software engineers to become basically impoverished dance instructors, which we did several years before moving to Austria, so my mental image of myself may need some adjusting.)  But I am so profoundly grateful that this is what I’ve done.  Choosing to do things differently, choosing to take on the massive challenge of relocating our family overseas, choosing to let go of my own expectations for myself (and my perception of the expectations of other) has given me so many amazing benefits.  I’ve learned more about myself.  I’ve learned more about the world.  I’ve become a happier person.  I worry less.  I enjoy more.  I’m a better parent.  I’m more emotionally flexible and so much less judgemental.  Stepping outside of the “normal” path, and beyond my own perspective, is an amazing gift.  And, I love that my kids are growing up to truly be citizens of the world.  They will have a perspective about the world, and an ability to move through it, that will shape their entire world view for their entire lives.

5.  The confidence I’ve gained that I can handle anything.  Being an expat (especially, I think, an expat parent), I’ve experienced so many challenges.  From emergency hospital visits (in 3 different countries now, I think?), to enrolling our kids in a completely different kind of school than we had ever anticipated, to the daily slog of using a language at which I’m basically inept, life abroad with kids has forced me to push beyond my own limits.  I have dealt with difficult situations and people, I have taken care of myself and my family and, even in the face of some of our hardest moments, we have been able to find joy and peace.  I no longer fear being faced with a situation that is too hard for me.  Whatever it is, I know I will be able to meet the challenge.  I have a faith in myself that I”m not sure I would ever have gained any other way.

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