Kinderwagen culture

At this point, both of my kids have pretty well outgrown the need for a stroller.  Liam rode in one until sometime during this past winter, when I finally decided that the inconvenience and physical strain of pushing him around outweighed the extra bit of comfort and convenience for him.  (He really still needs a nap most days, and the stroller was functional because it would allow him to doze while we made the daily 90+ minute round-trip to pick up B at school.  Now, without the stroller, he misses a nap most days, but my back is happier.  It’s not ideal, but it’s currently the best compromise.)

I was recently chatting with a friend about our shift away from using the stroller, and in explaining the pros and cons, I was surprised at how many had never occurred to her.  There were whole experiences that I consider commonplace that she had never had, and observations I’ve made about Vienna and the people here that she had never made.  Also, compared to my experience of having kids in the US, living in this city (or maybe it would be the same in any city) with children and without a car is vastly different than what it was like to move my kids around mostly by car, as I did in the States.  I’m not sure that many of the pitfalls and challenges of being dependant on a stroller would ever have occurred to me if I hadn’t experienced them firsthand.  After all, I did use a stroller in the States, but it was purely a convenience.  I almost never NEEDED it, and when I encountered circumstances that made its use tricky or inconvenient, I’d just skip it.  Here, our strollers have been essential pieces of urban child-rearing survival gear, making life simpler and safer for all of us.  (We’re on our third stroller since moving to Vienna.  The first two were used until they fell apart.)

Having little kids in Vienna means being part of a whole sub-culture of stroller-pushers.  If you’re not part of it, you frequently see and encounter those of us who are … but you don’t really know what it’s like.  So I’m going to offer a small guide to the less obvious aspects of raising small (stroller-bound) kids in Vienna.

Austrians have a weird thing about elevators.  It is incredibly common for able-bodied-looking people to speed walk past fully functional escalators to push in front of people in wheelchairs, with crutches, or with strollers, just to get a spot on an incredibly crowded, slow (and often smelly) elevator.  It’s posted on signs that priority on elevators is supposed to go to strollers, people with luggage, and people with handicaps (and Austrians are pretty rule-abiding in general), but, for reasons unknown, no one seems to care about the rules in an elevator.  It’s a mystery, but it happens all the time and it used to drive me crazy.

Taking a stroller on an escalator is really not a great idea.  Sometimes, out of ignorance, laziness, or actual need (like when an elevator is broken) parents will put a stroller, with a kid inside, onto an escalator to get upstairs or downstairs.  In general, this is not really a great practice, but sometimes, we do what we have to do.  Unfortunately, the fact that people sometimes do this contributes to the belief that it’s a perfectly fine thing to do, and thus complete strangers will suggest that I put my stroller on the escalator while they take the elevator.  Sorry, no.  I’ll wait.

033“But, when you’re out with a stroller, it must be so nice to have special spots on the trains and buses!”  Ha ha ha ha ha!  Well, it might be, if people actually made those spaces available for a stroller.  If trains or buses are even slightly crowded, people often don’t move aside for a stroller to park in a designated spot, leaving stroller-pushing parents having to park the strollers in less than ideal (and very much in the way) spaces, making everyone’s life a little more difficult.  Most of the time, if you see a stroller parked in an awful spot on public transport, it’s not because the parent thinks it would be fun to be in everyone’s way, but because they had no other option.  Also — what is it with people trying to get ON the train or bus before people have gotten OFF?  Wherever you are, this makes no sense.  And when trying to get out of a train with a stroller (and, as in my case, with another child in tow) things get especially crazy if people insist on getting in before we get out.  In general, the public transportation in Vienna is excellent, but it’s significantly more difficult to use (and requires a lot more pre-planning) when using a stroller.

On the other hand, Austrians are incredibly helpful with doors, stairs and getting into trains.  When I was out and about with the stroller, people would regularly hold doors for me, offer to help me lift the stroller into trains, even go completely out of their way to help me carry the stroller up or down stairs if there was no other alternative.  It was amazing, and so consistent that mothers with strollers can count on having someone help them if they’re in need.

The Viennese seem to really like children to be seen and (almost) not heard.  It is amazing to me the level of quiet that the locals here expect (and get!) from kids in public places.  Parks and playgrounds are, of course, free zones for loudness, but in all forms of public transportation, restaurants or other public spaces, the expectation is that children will keep themselves to near the level of adult conversation.  If you’re an American, and reading this, and thinking, “yeah, sure, that’s just common courtesy”, you don’t understand.  An adult Austrian having a public conversation would count as a whisper in the States.  Normal American dinner table conversation volume is out of place, incredibly noticeable and considered rude.  Having a conversation at a “normal” (American) volume guarantees you’ll be the loudest person on a train, and means you’ll probably be glared at, if not actually shushed by a stranger.  I’m amazed not only at the expectation, but at how well Austrian children seems to adhere to it (the occasional tantrum aside — those are universal).

045Want a kids’ menu?  Nope.  Viennese kids mostly eat smaller portions of adult foods here.  There are no macaroni and cheese or chicken nuggets on the menu (though one could argue that a chicken schnitzel really is just a giant chicken nugget).  Though this took me some getting used to, my kids don’t mind it, and I actually now kind of like that they’re not accustomed to ordering from a special list of tailored choices.  Though in other places, where I never would have expected it, there are likely to be special accommodations for kids (like on the regional and long-distance trains, which often have children’s areas and sometimes even family-friendly train cars).  And, at least when it comes to feeding babies, things are pretty easy here — no one has hangups about breastfeeding here.  Have a hungry baby?  Feed it.  No one cares how, where, or how much effort you make to conceal what you’re doing.

574The playgrounds here are amazing.  Even if you don’t have kids, stop by a Viennese playground if you ever get the chance.  They’re more challenging and less protective than what I was used to, and they very often incorporate water and other natural features (dirt, rocks, sand).  There are a lot more ways in which kids could potentially get hurt at these playgrounds, but there are also a lot more ways for them to challenge themselves.  And the parents “hover” less than I was used to at home, too.  When we first got here, I was definitely the most hovering parent at the playground.  These days, I’m more likely to hang back with the other parents (though I still hover more than is typical).  They also don’t lavish praise on (or “encourage”) their kids like we do in the States.  I’m usually the only mom at the playground saying, “Great job, guys!” (and not just because the other parents are speaking German).

232Austrians apparently own the entire sidewalk.  Walking anywhere here, you’ll encounter people walking the opposite way who will very happily crash right into you, or walk you right out into the street, rather than move over a few inches to make a space for you.  On even a very narrow sidewalk, two people will walk abreast rather than move to single file to allow foot traffic in the opposite direction to pass.  This is even true if you’re walking with a small child, or pushing a stroller.  Nobody is moving over.  I’m pretty sure this is why Austrians have the habit of walking in front of their kids, single file, instead of with their kids, holding hands (which is what I’m used to).  When I first saw this, I was horrified, because it looks like they’re just walking off without their kids.  Now I get it, though — sometimes there’s no other practical option.

Adults holding cigarettes inadvertently carry them at a child’s face height.  And Austria has the highest smoking rate in Europe.  Thus, I’m constantly freaked out about my kids getting burned in the face by a distracted person holding a cigarette.  I suspect this makes me much more aware of the number of people smoking around me than the average person.

Though a lot of this kind of came out as a list of grievances, by and large we’ve found Vienna to be a FANTASTIC place to raise our kids.  The culture, history, environment and education here are excellent and we love enjoying and exploring this city with our boys.  But there are definitely a few elements to life in Vienna that I’m not sure I would ever have seen so clearly if I hadn’t parented my very small kids here.  “Vienna”, and “Vienna — with kids”, can feel like two different places.


118As they say, sometimes it’s the little differences that are the most surprising when you’re living abroad.  Not that the big stuff doesn’t throw you for a loop (it does) but the biggest differences are ones you adjust to, or at least come to accept, pretty quickly (because you really have to).

This past Halloween (yep, still writing about last October) was our most successful trick-or-treat experience yet.  There were no tears during the dressing up process (though we did have a last minute costume change), we arrived at a reasonable (early) hour (before the slightly rowdy Austrian teens arrived and coated everything with silly string), we found our way on the first try, we had some very fun and friendly stops at a couple of super festive houses, we met a lovely Corgi named Wellington, and we met up with some friends … which gave us a good excuse to wander back through the neighborhood a second time.  Both boys had an excellent time and kept up their manners and enthusiasm for the whole event (which was a first).  It was a great evening, and the most I’ve been reminded of a true US Halloween since we’ve been here.

With one little exception.


On average, the costumes here are very much like what you’d see in the US, but skewed slightly less scary — more princesses and fewer witches, more Spider-Men and fewer mummies — I think at least partly owing to the fact that Halloween is just becoming a thing here, while Faschings (aka Carnival), is very popular and has children dressing up in fun but non-scary costumes, and many kids just wear their Faschings costumes for Halloween.


My spooky family

And, as often happens, kids’ costumes sometimes require props — wands, swords, lightsabers, broomsticks, etc.  Several of the kids (mostly boys) were carrying realistic looking guns and weapons with their costumes.  And that was the difference.  Some kids, dressed as cowboys, police officers, or bandits, were carrying realistic looking toy guns.  And I, with my American cultural background, was absolutely shocked.  Actually a bit horrified.  Here were young kids and teenagers carrying realistic looking weapons.  Didn’t their parents know how dangerous that could be???  Weren’t they worried that someone might think the guns were real and, just maybe, hurt their kids?!?

And, in that horrified contemplation, I truly looked at my own perspective and realized what I was thinking.  No, the parents here don’t “know” that those toys might be dangerous, and, no, they weren’t worried.  Because they don’t imagine that anyone would mistake the weapons as real in a child’s hand, and that, even if they did, no one here is going to shoot their kid.  There actually isn’t anything dangerous about those kids carrying toy guns with their Halloween costumes.  NO ONE HERE IS GOING TO SHOOT A CHILD FOR PLAYING WITH A TOY.  And sadly, that’s just not true where I am from.


Before I moved to Austria, I had only ever lived in a single culture.  As such, I believed the rules of etiquette to be fairly ironclad.  Allowing for differences between generations, and different class and social backgrounds, there are certain customs and behaviors that I just believed to be GOOD, RIGHT, and POLITE, in an absolute sense, and those that were not.

It’s been an uncomfortable adjustment to realize that’s not true.

The issues that a society emphasizes as polite are pretty arbitrary.  Well, probably not entirely arbitrary, because I’m sure they have a history and come from something, but they are incredibly subjective.  Things that at home would be incredibly rude, like cutting in line or spitting on the sidewalk, are commonplace here, while things we take for granted in the US as acceptable, like running late for an appointment or wearing yoga pants to the grocery store, are gauche in Vienna.

The little things like that you adjust to quickly (I haven’t worn my yoga pants outside of the house in years — not even to walk the dog), but there are other things that are tremendously difficult to let go of, even though I know they make me weird.

For example, earlier this month, B was invited to a birthday party by a kid in his class.  Liam was not.  We RSVPed that B would be there (which is weird enough — Austrians don’t really RSVP, and if they do, they don’t feel bound by it, nor any obligation to inform you if their answer changes either way), but didn’t mention Liam, because he wasn’t invited.  The party was for the child who last year came to B’s birthday party … unexpectedly (to me) accompanied by his older brother who we had never met.  Part of me really wanted to assume that this probably meant that Liam was supposed to be invited to this party, too, but I just couldn’t.  Though by Austrian standards, it was probably a safe assumption, I just couldn’t let go of my deeply ingrained reverence for the intention of an invitation.  The issue became irrelevant when Liam busted his lip open the day before the party, because he certainly couldn’t attend a McDonald’s birthday party an open wound on his mouth.

But, as it turns out, he WAS “secretly” invited.  Well, secret from my perspective.  The hosts asked where he was and had a goody bag ready for him.  I’m quite certain that an Austrian mom would have read the situation correctly (and, if she hadn’t, no one would have really cared, because while bringing an uninvited child to a birthday party in the US would be a faux pas, it just isn’t a big deal here).

Another example came up this week.  It was B’s last week of school, and after 3 years in the same class, I wanted to do something special to thank the teachers.  I agonized over gifts (Dan finally helped me think of something good) and spent at least an hour composing heartfelt notes to each teacher in German.  But … I don’t think they really do that here.  B’s teachers have kind of gotten used to me with the Christmas gifts and the year-end thank you gifts, but I’ve definitely gotten the impression that, although the gesture is appreciated, the strangeness of it makes it a little uncomfortable for them.  I’ve checked, and it’s not forbidden or anything that they receive gifts from the parents . . . they just generally don’t.

I give the gifts anyway.  I know it’s odd the way I do things, and it’s certainly not my desire to be weird or to make anyone uncomfortable, but I can’t let it go — it’s all I have.  I know (reasonably well) how to be polite and gracious as an American.  I have very little idea of how to be a polite Austrian.  So if I were to stop doing my weird American things, I would JUST be a slightly rude person by Austrian standards.  This way, I’m STILL slightly rude by Austrian standards, but I at least get comfort by being reasonably polite by American standards, even if no one else here really gets it.


Last Wednesday, the kids were finally better.  They’d taken turns over the past week being sick with “Hand, foot and mouth disease” — high fevers, low energy, general malaise.  Liam woke up at 1:00 a.m. on Friday with a fever of 102 which went up and stayed up for almost 24 hours.  He gradually got better and was finally fever free on Sunday.  B woke up at 11:00 Sunday night with his own high fever (though his didn’t last as long).  Liam went back to school on Tuesday, and B joined him Wednesday.  It was my first morning on my own in a few days, and Dan offered to take the boys in to school so I could have a little extra time to run and then start to reclaim order in the household after several days of prioritizing other things.

I made it through breakfast.  I had just finished eating and had gone to change my clothes for a run when my phone rang.  It was the school.  I immediately sighed, assuming one of the kids (probably B) had gotten his fever back and needed to be picked up.  So much for reclaiming order in the house.

Instead, it was Liam’s teacher.  Liam had had an “accident” and was going to the hospital.  She spoke in English, but it took me a moment to process what she’d said . I could hear Liam screaming in the background.  I started to panic and shake a little as she explained that he’d been pushed by another child and had hit his face on the bathroom sink, splitting his lip.  She said it wasn’t “serious”, but I figured it was serious ENOUGH if they were headed to the hospital.  I tried to parse her heavily accented English well enough to write down the hospital’s name and her cell number so we could stay in touch.

Up until that day, I’d only been familiar with two hospitals in Vienna, and this wasn’t either of those.  I called Dan (who, at work, was much closer to where we were headed) and tried to figure out where we were going.  I threw on some clothes and left to get a cab.  Never have I so wished we had our own car.

After a brief debate with the cabbie (in German) over where I was going (the teacher had given me mildly conflicting information), I was off.  In morning rush hour traffic, it took me an agonizingly long time to get there.  Dan arrived first … but couldn’t find them.  (He was initially sent to the children’s department.  We eventually ended up at the accident department … which is not the same as the emergency department.  We’re still struggling to sort out which kinds of things belong in which.)

045We found Liam and his teacher.  He had split his lip inside and out pretty badly and was wearing a fair bit of his own blood.  His teacher, who later admitted she couldn’t stand the sight of blood, had taken good care of him.

Liam’s teacher had given him a teddy bear to hold before they left the school for the ER. It was for him to cuddle on the way.  He wanted nothing to do with it.  (He has since softened his position.)  When I asked him about it, he said, “I asked for my mom and dad, and she gave me the bear.  I didn’t want the bear.  I wanted you.”  My poor guy.

We went back to be seen very shortly.  But unlike our other hospital experiences in Vienna, at the more centrally located hospitals, the nurses here spoke no English.  Not a bit.  We did fine at the beginning, because Liam’s teacher helped with translating, but eventually they said she and Dan had to step out and I was left to manage on my own.  They took a pretty quick look at it (reopening the wound in the process) . . . and decided that it didn’t need any treatment.  I was so prepared for him to get stitches (or at least that glue that Benjamin got when he hurt his chin a few years ago) that I was absolutely sure I’d misheard them.  But no, no treatment.

It took a while for me to understand what the nurse was explaining in terms of home care.  “Nothing hot, nothing spicy, nothing salty.”  I manged all of that.  But she kept saying something else that I just could not understand.  She finally tried “Like Wiener Schnitzel!” and I realized she’d been saying “nothing with crumbs”.  “It will be fine”, she told me.  “It won’t be his only accident!”  So, in a little bit of disbelief and with a still-bleeding Liam, I went home.  (We took the train.  We should have taken another cab.  I certainly felt odd . . . and very conspicuous . . . carrying an obviously injured and still bleeding child on the subway.)

055I wasn’t convinced, though, that everything was ok.  Although the doctors and nurses at the hospital seemed very kind and quite certain about their advice, I wasn’t so sure.  Things are just so different here, and I really longed for American medical practitioners.  In general, I’ve really enjoyed the difference in Austrian beauty standards.  I like that there is much less emphasis on physical perfection here.  There is less plastic surgery, less makeup, and less of a fight against the aging process.  But, on the other hand, you do see more people with obvious scars and physical impairments.  Which is fine . . . until I was contemplating the consequences for MY child.  Medical care here is excellent.  The standards of care and medical education are very high.  I just didn’t trust the Austrian aesthetic opinion of “It’s going to be fine.”  By what standard?  I was really, really, wishing I could be back in good, old, superficial, perfection-minded America, where if an ER pediatrician said, “It’ll be fine”, I’d know, more or less, what that meant.  Here, I didn’t feel like I knew, and I didn’t know if their “fine” would really be good enough.

So, we consulted our pediatrician.  She’s an American/Austrian with two small kids of her own.  She looked at the pictures we sent her by text, and agreed that it didn’t need treatment.  When she said that if it were her kids, she wouldn’t stitch it, I felt sufficiently convinced.

And, I have to say that we’ve been pleasantly surprised, bordering on shocked, actually, at how well and how quickly he has healed.  The ER gave him clearance to go back to school the next day, but I kept him home the rest of last week (out of an abundance of caution, and because I was worried he’d reopen or reinjure himself playing with the other kids again).  It’s a week later, and looking at him now, it is so much better.  The interior part of his mouth is completely healed (that actually only took about 48 hours, which was amazing, given the original injury).  The outside is still healing, but it’s no longer an impressive wound.  Our pediatrician said she expected it to heal without a scar, and I think it’s going to turn out that she’s completely right.  He looks great.

So, all’s well that ends well.  But this stuff is hard.  THIS is the really, truly hard stuff about living abroad.  Not just not knowing where to go when your kid gets hurt.  Not just not being able to communicate well enough to find him right away at the hospital.  Not just having to resort to creative explanations to understand how best to take care of him.  But fundamentally, basically being outside of what you know and expect and take for granted.  Not being able to trust the answers you get because the people you’re talking to are speaking from a completely different frame of reference.  Any urgent trip to the ER with a child is stressful and scary, no question.  But this is a whole different ballgame.  These are the moments I most wish I could teleport back home.

Summer vacation plans

I talk a lot about how great our experience has been with our preschool here in Vienna.  I think we got exceptionally lucky when we signed B up for school that first year.  We didn’t yet know where we’d be living, so we requested a place near Dan’s work (which has turned out to be far less convenient than we imagined it would be) but the 40 minute commute each way is completely worth the level of instruction and kindness the kids have received at their school.  Vienna runs many preschools throughout the city, all free or at very low cost (if the kids eat meals at school, there is a charge), and all run on the Montessori model (more or less — we’ve heard that this varies greatly).  It’s pretty much the Shangri-La of preschools around here.  Putting our kids into preschools of this caliber most likely would not have been possible for us in the US — and certainly not without me going back to work.  We’re incredibly grateful for the opportunity that we’ve had here in terms of the kids and school.

But then … we have some interesting situations pop up, that I don’t think we ever would have encountered back at home.

Late last month, the teachers sent home the annual summer vacation forms.  The idea is for parents to fill them out to let the school know which weeks the kids will be at school or on vacation so that they can plan staffing for the summer months when many families are away.  Makes sense, especially given that vacations here in the summer are almost always at least 2 weeks long, and often as much as 6-8 weeks.  We know quite a few people who leave Vienna in late June and don’t come back until late August.

We’d been thinking that we would probably be home in the US (permanently) by summer vacation time this year, so we hadn’t given our summer plans a lot of thought (even though it’s becoming increasingly likely that we’ll be here for a while yet).  Getting the vacation form was a bit of a wake up call that we needed to plan for a summer still spent in Austria.  So, we sat down, came up with a rough idea, and returned our forms to the school.  Our plan was to take a few weeks of vacation in July (to see some of Austria that we haven’t yet seen … and to see some of our favorite parts again), then to send the kids to school for a few weeks mid-summer (to give me some summer time without the kids to enjoy Vienna, to keep them from getting entirely out of the habit of going to school, and to give B a few more leisurely weeks of preschool before “real” school starts in the fall), and then take a few more weeks off mid-August (to take a break before getting back into the swing of things at school again).  It was a little different than anything we’ve done before — because Liam was previously always home with me, we took previous summers as a chance to take a break from the 40-minute-each-way commute every weekday and kept both boys home together with me all summer.  And although I’ve loved that, I was looking forward to being able to do it differently this year — our only chance to do it this way, because next summer, and all subsequent summers, B will have regular summer school holidays, so he’ll be home and we’ll probably keep Liam home as well.

Then, just yesterday, they told us no.

No, the boys can’t come in for a few weeks mid-summer — could we please keep them home all summer instead?  We said that of course they could stay home, but because this was in German and Dan didn’t completely understand, we didn’t really understand why.  As it turns out, they’re going to be very short-staffed for those weeks, so they’ve asked that all of the families that have at least one stay-at-home parent to keep their kids home.  And though I don’t mind, I can’t help but find the whole situation a little funny … and I don’t think it’s something we’d be as likely to run into back in the States.

So, new plan for the summer: as of June 27, the boys will be home with me until B starts elementary school in late August.  And I am truly and sincerely happy to have them.  We’ll have a great time, just like we have our other summers here.

Stranger danger

Life in Vienna is very, very safe.  Even though it is a major capital city, crime here is minimal.  Bikes get stolen a lot.  Homes get broken into when people are away on vacation.  Pick-pocketing is not unheard of (but not as frequent as the legions of reverse-backpacking-wearing tourists seem to fear).  And that’s pretty much it.  Muggings, assaults and other violent crimes are very nearly unheard of.  Children take public transportation alone, often as young as about 8 years old.  Groups of young girls walk dark streets safely late at night.  I’ve never been in a situation in Vienna where I feared for my safety.

Coming from the US, this was a complete culture shock for me.  Even living in an affluent suburb of Washington, DC, I always made sure to park under a street light and check my surroundings before getting out of my car and walking the few yards to my front door.  So I still have to remind myself to not be horrified when I see a little boy, barely older than Benjamin, get on an U-Bahn completely alone.  I’m softening, living in Vienna, though.  I don’t worry much about which neighborhood we venture into at night, and I could be pick-pocketed in a heartbeat if someone tried.  (Visiting Rome and Paris were both very stressful for me because I’ve gotten out of the habit of being constantly vigilant, and we really had to be while we were there.)

But still.  I’m a mom, and I want to protect my kids.  And every so often you hear that someone tried to abduct a child or might have been trying to abduct a child or maybe was just talking to a child but you never know.  The way journalism works here compounds my lack of clarity over things like this.  Vienna has two free daily papers which I often find discarded on seats of the U-Bahn and which are just barely not tabloids and which do like to be as overly dramatic as possible (think “The Daily Mail”), an English language online newspaper that updates their headlines every few months (not joking), and other, more typical and respectable newspapers that I never see.  So it’s hard to tell.

We’ve talked some to B, and a very little to Liam, about “stranger danger”.  We felt like we had to have some kind of talk with them about it since they’ve been out in the city on field trips starting at 3 years old.  It’s so hard to talk with them about it.  Trying to instill the requisite caution without terrifying them or destroying all faith in humanity has been tricky, especially with B, who has always been sensitive.  (Liam’s response is usually that he’ll scream at/bite/kick/punch them if they try to talk to him.  And I believe him.)

So when I found out that B’s class was doing a unit this spring about “not going with strangers”, I was worried.  I thought he might come out of it totally freaked out about life and people.  But I also know that it’s important, and his teachers can give him something I can’t — good information about what to say and do In German.  If someone approaches him, I want him to scream, run, fight, WHATEVER, and I don’t want him to freeze because he gets stuck trying to respond in German and doesnt know what to say.

So, they started.  And I kept an eye out for signs of worry or trauma — sleepless nights, nightmares, general worry — and I was prepared to answer any questions he might have.  But none came.  He seemed fine.  Not worried or anxious.

The weeks went on, and I still saw no worry or stress in him.  I asked him about it, and he replied, very matter-of-factly, that they were learning to say “Stop!” if someone tried to get them to go anywhere, and that they shouldn’t go off with anyone, even if that person had a picture of a dog or said they knew their mom or dad (all good information).  He seemed to really be learning, and to not be freaked out at all.

Yesterday, B’s class hosted a party for all of their families, and, as part of it, they put on a series of skits to show us what they have learned about strangers.  We all went to watch.  Again, I was a little anxious that it would be scary or traumatic (to the kids or the parents), but it wasn’t.  The kids were very good at demonstrating what they’d learned, and so proud to show us all.  B played the part of a kid whose playmate gets dragged away by a stranger — it was his job to go tell the “mom” what happened.  The kids were very confident and full of smiles.  I don’t know how the teachers did it, but they managed to make the whole thing very positive and empowering.  I am truly impressed.  (And, of course, I think B was amazing and impressive.  I am so proud of him for how happily and confidently he exists at his school in a language he’s still just learning to speak!  He did GREAT!)

And then, after the performances, we all gathered for cake that the kids had made themselves.  We had a great and fun afternoon.  I am so proud of my boy for learning so much and for being so grown up, and I am infinitely grateful to his teachers and the magic they manage to work with these kids.

What are THOSE?!?

Raising kids abroad is full of funny experiences.  There are so many ways in which their world view and mine differ fundamentally, because they are growing up in a different time, country and culture than I did.  And so many times, I don’t even realize how differently we see things until one of them points it out.  Language is one of the places that this is the most obvious — just this morning on the way to school, Liam noticed that “someone dropped their ‘schnuller’ on the ground”.  Yes, they had — a ‘schnuller’ is a pacifier.  Although, back when he was using them, we called them pacifiers or binkies, but he doesn’t remember that.  He knows the word from the kids at school who still have them, and it’s become his only word for it.  When Benjamin asked what Liam had said, I responded with, “Someone dropped their pacifier” and Liam got very angry at me for telling Benjamin the wrong thing.  He literally has no idea what “pacifier” means.  That kind of thing happens every so often — I say something, and they respond with a blank stare while I rewind what I said in my head and realize that I just used an English word for something we usually say in German (like pacifier, fire department, grocery store or playground).  We’re developing quite the odd little Germenglish patois around here.

But there are other funny ways that the cultural divide within my own house comes out.  Just before Easter, I was preparing eggs to dye.  Then we were interrupted by calamity, which is why I forgot to tell this particular story back then.  But once everything calmed down and we got ready to color our eggs, the boys happily climbed up to the table, took one look at the cartons of eggs I had boiled for them, and looked at me in disgust and surprise.

“WHAT are THOSE?!?” asked Benjamin.

“They’re eggs.

“But . . . why are they WHITE?”

Yep, although I was completely unaware of it, it seems that my kids have been 3+ years without seeing a white egg.  This was the first year that we found white eggs available at the supermarket, special for coloring for Easter.  (It’s the only time I’ve ever seen them, and they no longer have any — it really was just for Easter.)  I was so excited to buy them, because I’d always wanted to find white eggs to dye for Easter, but (as Benjamin demonstrated) white eggs are not the norm here.

And thus, I discovered another way in which I am raising poor, confused American-Austrian children who didn’t know that eggs come in white.

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!


Field trip

It took some getting used to, but I now accept the frequency and variety of Viennese Kindergarten (preschool) field trips as a matter of course.  I’ve never had a child in American preschool, but I suspect they don’t do quite as many outings via public transportation as Viennese children do (Liam has two field trips, both requiring several subways journeys, just this week, and B has one).  It’s entirely common to see a group of tiny children, shepherded by 3 or 4 teachers, riding the bus or subway or just walking down the street.  I’ve grown so accustomed to it that B doesn’t even seem particularly young to be doing such things anymore.

Upon learning, during B’s first year in school here, how common these trips were, I was excited — as a stay-at-home mom, I’d be able to go along on a lot of these trips, right?  It’s one of the benefits of staying home with my kids that I’d secretly been looking forward to the most.  I love the idea of getting to do fun things around Vienna with my boys and their classmates!  Alas, they don’t do the whole “parent chaperone” thing here.  When I first suggested it, B’s teachers reacted as though it was the strangest suggestion they had ever heard, commenting, “But it wouldn’t be fair to the children whose parents couldn’t come.”  Bummer.

In all, though, I’ve adjusted to the idea of these preschool field trips, and so have the kids.  They’ve generally been great successes, and the kids tend to come home happy and very tired.  Liam had one such outing today, to an Easter market quite close to our house.  (His school is not at all close to our house, so they had to make quite a trek to get here.)  He’s gotten good at these, and always behaves really well, so I’ve stopped worrying (overly) about it.  This time, though, I did ask Dan to mention that the class would literally be walking past our front door, so that in case Liam refused to walk any further or insisted on going inside, the teachers would at least have some idea of what was going on.  I was SO tempted to just “happen” to stop by the market, in the hopes of catching a glimpse of him and his classmates doing cute stuff, but I didn’t — I knew that there was a good chance of me upsetting him if he saw me, since I wouldn’t be able to actually tag along afterwards.

I did get a lovely surprise, though — when Dan dropped Liam off this morning, and explained to the teachers that they’d be going right past our house, Liam’s teacher asked if I’d like to meet them at the end of the trip and just pick him up right there.  Wonderful!  Not only would that save him a round trip to school and back, but I’d get to surprise my little guy on his field trip AND take him home with me at the end.  Yay!

So, that’s what we did.  Liam had a “great” time at the Easter market (apparently there were cookies and bunnies) and his teacher called me at the end.  I went straight downstairs and met them next door to our building.  (They were as cute as I’d imagined they would be, but I was so excited to see him that I didn’t get a picture.)  Liam was SO excited to see me, and SO thrilled when he asked if we could go home and I said yes.  He happily said goodbye to his friends and teachers and I took my littlest guy home to play, just the two of us, for an hour or so before Dan brought Benjamin home.  It was my favorite field trip so far.

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