5 Reasons I’m Glad my Children Are American & Austrian*

* more or less

(I’ll start off by qualifying my response — I don’t really consider my kids to be Austrian.  With two American parents and a plan to return to the US, I think of them as expats, and as third culture kids, but not as Austrian.

That said, in the spirit of Amanda’s blog link up, I will share the ways in which my kids are both American and Austrian-influenced that I am the most glad of.)

1.  German/English
I’d be surprised if this doesn’t make everyone’s list.  My kids, at 5 and 3, have already had an immersive exposure to a second language.  Benjamin is nearing fluency, and Liam has spent very nearly his entire life surrounded by German.  With both of them attending an Austrian public kindergarten (entirely in German) my hope is that however long our time in Austria, they will have a strong foundation on which to build competency in whichever language they might choose to learn in the future.  (And certainly I expect that they will have no fear of the prospect of learning another language.)

2.  It’s a small world/and they are bold enough to explore it
Living in Europe, we are constantly reminded of how small the world is.  We live in a country that is roughly the size of US state of South Carolina, and we could be in another country in less than an hour.  (We once almost accidentally took a train to the Czech Republic — so glad we didn’t, as we didn’t have our passports with us!)  People who live in Europe are so accustomed to travel between countries that it’s sometimes done without really noticing.  And if you don’t really think about leaving your own country, then the world is truly more open to you.  What, really, is the difference between flying to Paris or to Istanbul?  Between taking the train to Rome or to Zagreb?  My kids have had that barrier broken — they know how to travel and they enjoy it.  (Plus, I hope they learn from the Austrians that vacation time is important and to be used.)

But yet, I often hear from my Austrian friends that we travel more than they do.  And that’s the part I hope they take from being American — the fearlessness and the spirit of adventure.  I want them to grow up feeling that travel is worthwhile and that any destination they might dream of is open to them.

0643.  I’m learning to let go … except where it’s really important to me
Kids here have more freedom — A LOT more freedom — than I’m used to.  They are less hovered over, less protected and more independent at earlier ages than American children.  Elementary school aged children routinely go to and from school unescorted, and travel across the city on public transportation to do so.  Children in preschool learn to use knives for cooking and scissors for crafts, and they carry around candlelit lanterns every fall.  I’ve learned a lot about loosening my apron strings with my kids from living here and seeing the Austrian example.  But, I also hold on to the boundaries that I brought with me when I feel like they’re important.  I don’t plan to adopt the Austrian custom of sending my elementary school aged kids to school alone on the train, and you’ll never see me walking down the sidewalk of a busy street with my kids trailing several yards behind me.  Living in Austria has taught me that I was being an overprotective parent before, but I feel like being from the US taught me some wise ways in which to be careful.


4.  Mountains/beach
I had not seen a proper mountain until I was 12, and I hadn’t truly been on a decent one until I moved here.  Living in the mid-Atlantic region of the US, we had “mountains” and went “skiing” … but only because I didn’t really understand what either of those things truly meant.  My vacation experience as a child was almost exclusively connected to the beach.  That’s what I grew up with, and what I knew.  Only recently have I discovered the rugged beauty and wild peacefulness of time spent in the mountains.  My kids, however, already know both.  They’re as likely to ask for a summer trip to the Alps outside of Salzburg as they are to ask for a week at the beach in Delaware.  As purely east coast Americans, they wouldn’t know about the mountains, and as Austrians they wouldn’t be likely to have experienced the ocean.  I’m grateful that they’ve done both.

5.  Formality/flexibility
Austrians are generally good citizens.  People here respect the rules, law and order, and each other.  They keep their trains clean and public conversations rarely rise above the volume of a loud whisper.  But I don’t think anyone in the world queues like Americans.  We might be loud, rude, confrontational and brash, but we can wait our turn in a line with amazing patience.  (We’re really, truly, very good about it.)

I hope my kids learn Austrian manners — to shake hands and look someone in the eye, to always greet everyone and to say goodbye, to be punctual and take pride in their appearance.  But I hope for them to also learn the warmth of an American — to smile, to be kind even to strangers, to open themselves to small connections and interactions throughout the day.

There are so many great things for my boys to learn from each of the cultures that shape them.  I hope they can choose the best pieces from each and use that new perspective to see the world in a unique way.

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.

photo 1

Night terrors

Liam gets night terrors.  From time to time, he starts screaming in the middle of the night.  Sometimes he just screams, sometimes he cries, sometimes he calls out for us.  We rush in and find him, still asleep, but appearing to be in awful pain and torment.  He thrashes around, grabs at his legs, claws at his arms, wrings his hands.  To witness it, you’d be certain that he is at least in the throes of a terrible nightmare, and at worst, suffering an onslaught of pain from a horrible illness.

He is almost impossible to wake from this state.  Trying to pick him up intensifies his anguish.  Trying to hug or kiss him incites him to lash out violently.  Saying his name, turning on the lights, even clapping our hands, all serve no purpose except to upset him even more.  When we finally do wake him, he is still upset, but more at being rudely awoken in the middle of the night than anything else — he doesn’t remember being frightened or crying out.  Night terrors are apparently completely normal in a child of his age, and he most likely has no idea why, to his mind, his parents randomly wake him some nights full of stress and concern.  These night terrors can last 10-20 minutes (although it always feels like hours), but once it’s over, he is usually peacefully asleep again within minutes.

When this first started happening, we were terrified and overwhelmed.  We had a screaming, tormented toddler in the middle of the night with nothing we could do to fix him.  (We’ve since learned that it’s better NOT to wake him, so we don’t, but it goes against every instinct that I have.)  Of course, we went through all the normal parenting worries: is there something wrong with him, is he sick or suffering in some way, how do we help him???  And, honestly, the stress was amplified by the fact that we live in an apartment and we worry about whether we’re waking all of our neighbors when this happens.  Knowing that this is a developmentally normal thing (and that there’s nothing we can do about it) allays most of our fears.  But I still feel bad about what we’re inflicting on our neighbors.

We don’t have any idea how this affects our neighbors, because no one has ever said anything.  No one has ever asked us about it, or complained, but we can’t imagine that they haven’t noticed or that they don’t know which apartment it’s coming from (as an American family with small kids living in a country of exceptionally quiet people, we make more noise than the rest of our building’s residents combined).  Since I don’t know what anyone thinks about it (are they quietly seething or patiently understanding?) I worry.  I worry that they don’t understand, and one day the Austrian version of child services is going to show up and demand to know what torture we’re inflicting on our kid at 1 in the morning.  (And all of this is made worse in the summer months because no one here has air conditioning and everyone sleeps with their windows open.)

It’s another area where cultural norms are different, and it makes them hard to navigate.  I hope that my neighbors understand, or even better, that by some trick of architectural acoustics they aren’t particularly bothered by it.  But I wonder how I would ever even know what they think about it (and I wonder how Austrian parents would handle the same situation).

Silver medal

Living outside of the US during the Olympics is a very different experience.  This time, we aren’t able to watch most of the events at all (we no longer have cable, so we get all of out TV through iTunes, which is great for everything except live sporting events) so we’re getting most of our information about how things are going from the internet and from the newspapers.

Most of the internet news I read is from the UK, and for newspapers I tend to peruse the headlines and main pictures in the Austrian papers.  In both cases, I’ve learned a lot, and I’m much more aware of how skewed of a perspective American Olympic coverage can give.

It was easy to get caught up in the idea of American Olympic dominance when I lived in the US and watched US news coverage of the games.  But, that’s in large part because the sports that are focused on are those where Americans are expected to excel.  And then, within those sports, the coverage emphasizes American athletes.  Back when we had it, we learned that Austrian news coverage focuses on completely different sports.  You almost wouldn’t know that figure skating and hockey exist, but the downhill skiing events might as well be the Super Bowl.  And when the sports are broadcast on Austrian TV, they generally cover the ENTIRE event.  I was surprised to learn how MANY athletes compete in some of the events.  The way I’m used to seeing things, it felt like there were a dozen or two athletes competing … not 70-100 (or more).  When we would watch the coverage of Men’s Downhill Alpine Skiing, for example, we would watch ALL of the competitors do their runs . . . and then come back for the second run.  It would take hours to watch the entire thing — a very different experience from the pieced-together news coverage we were used to seeing at home.

But by far my favorite piece of living in Austria during the Olympics has to do with the way that all of the achievements of the athletes are celebrated.  The other day, the top story in the newspaper was of a silver medal won at the Olympics.  The very biggest newspaper headline of the day — a silver medal.  I like it.  I think it’s great that each accomplishment gets its own moment.

(But I really do miss the access to the variety of sports, and the numerous hours of coverage that we had access to in the States.  I wish we were getting to watch it!)

Snow envy

I live in Austria.  AUSTRIA.  Generally, there are two things that come to mind when I tell people I live here: “The Sound of Music” and snow covered mountains.  Vienna, however, is not in the mountains.  It’s a relatively hilly city, and we can often SEE snow covered mountains off to the west, but Vienna itself is not mountainous.


Snow on the mountins, off to the west of Vienna (but not here)

It’s also just not very snowy here.  Vienna, being on the leeward side of the Alps (which are big and stick up way into the sky) is quite a dry place.  All the rain and snow fall on the other side of the mountains (or on top of them).  Considering all forms of precipitation (frozen or otherwise) we get just over half as much as my hometown in the US on average throughout the year.

We get plenty of cold here, but not a lot of moisture, which means that Vienna is not the snow-covered winter wonderland that many imagine.  This year, we’ve gotten only a few snowy days, and only one of those added up to an inch of snow accumulation.  Back at home, meanwhile, they’ve been absolutely inundated, which leaves me in the surprising situation of living in Austria and pining for a Washington, DC winter.

My friends from home think I’m crazy.  But I love the snow, and, living here, we’re pretty much immune to any potential negative consequences of it — we don’t have anything to shovel, we don’t have to clear off a car, we don’t have to drive anywhere.  For us, living in Vienna, snow just makes everything prettier and gives the kids a chance to play and sled with their friends at school.  It would be nice to have at least ONE nice, snowy day this winter.

So far, the only real snow we’ve experienced this year was while we were home in Maryland over Christmas.  Everyone at home is pretty well sick of snow while we’re here waiting for our first real snow of the season . . . and waiting, and waiting . . .

Our Austrian Valentine’s Days

Growing up, I was never a big Valentine’s Day person.  As a little kid, I liked making the “mailboxes” to collect our Valentines at school, but being a perfectionist, it never quite turned out the way I wanted.  As a teenager, I was a perennially grouchy person on Valentine’s Days, because I was always full of unrequited affection for someone or another.  Then, as a young adult, even when I was coupled up mid-February, I never quite lost my vestigial semi-bitterness and residual disdain for Valentine’s Day.

Like so many things, I didn’t really start to like it until I was a parent, and then only because I made a choice and an intellectual effort to not pass on this anti-Valentine’s issue to my kids.

ValentineSince becoming a mom, I’ve been completely turned around on Valentine’s Day.  I actually quite like it now.  Since Benjamin’s very first Valentine’s Day, I’ve done a little something for the kids each year — a card, some decorations, or maybe a special treat.  Nothing major, just something fun and little to mark the day and say “I love you.”  I love doing it for them, and I love seeing them look forward to these little things, and then, by extension, to see them look for sweet little kindnesses to do for us or for each other on Valentine’s Day.  They always do.  They draw pictures for us or for each other, share their special treats, give extra hugs and kisses, share their toys with more willingness.  It’s truly heartwarming, and has completely won me over.

Beyond that, though, Valentine’s Day is not really a children’s holiday here.  There are no school parties, no heart shaped cookies, no glittery Valentines handed out, no paper hearts on the walls or windows, no classrooms full of kids wearing red and pink.  Absolutely none of it.  Adults celebrate Valentine’s Day here — with flowers, chocolates or a dinner out — but it’s really only for grown ups (and even then, not a particularly big deal).  My guys were dressed in red for school today, but if anyone else was, it was purely a coincidence.  I suspect that will be a bit of culture shock for my boys when we move home — the concept of celebrating Valentine’s Day at school will be weird to them, I expect (much how they feel about dressing up for Halloween at school — when I mentioned that tradition to them the other day, they reacted with skepticism and surprise).

But, as much as all of that would be (and will be) sweet, I’m ok with the way things are here.  Valentine’s Day here is very nearly (as far as my kids know) something that only our family does.  Our traditions shape the whole of their idea of the day.  They see Daddy bring flowers for Mommy, so they want to bring me some, too.  They look forward to their homemade cards in the morning, and they draw us hearts and pictures at school.  They come home to fresh cookies, and they share them with each other.  We all get lots of extra hugs and kisses today, because it’s Valentine’s Day.  And I’m very happy about all of it.

Semester break

It’s our third winter here, and for the first time, we’re going to be taking advantage of the Austrian “semester break”.  Semester break is just that — a break between school semesters.  Here in Austria, it’s a whole week, typically in early February.  All of the school children are out of school at the same time, and it’s traditionally a popular time for the whole family to take a week’s skiing holiday in the mountains.

The boys’ preschool stays open during this time, so our first two winters here we never knew it was coming until it was already happening.  At some point in February we would turn up to drop B off at school and be confused about where so many of his classmates had gone.  It was no big deal, though — B would have a small class for the week, and we went on with life as usual (and if we wanted to go skiing, we just went whenever we wanted to).

This year, though, B is allowed a limited number of days off, and although that number (3 weeks . . . not including sick days, 2 weeks for Christmas vacation, a week for Easter and a week for the semester break) seems generous in comparison to the number of vacation days an American child could take, this restriction has kind of hindered our holiday planning this year.  So this year, we decided to take full advantage of the “free” days off he’s allowed during semester break — though the school is open, he isn’t required to be there, and these days off won’t count towards his 3 week limit of days off — and we’ve planned to “go on holiday” (my kids “go on holiday” now, they don’t “take a vacation”).

So, we’re taking a week, starting today.  We have no specific plans, but lots of good ideas.  With the busy pace of the holiday season, we thought we’d take a week and just relax, and maybe enjoy some of Vienna.  We may go skating, go to the zoo, take a day trip out of the city for some skiing … or maybe not.  We might just snuggle up on the couch, watch movies and play video games.  Whatever we do, I’m looking forward to the week spent together, doing whatever fun stuff we might choose.  (And yes, we’ve been totally converted to the European attitude towards time off — more is definitely better.)

Something cinnamony

(I think everything is going to be out of sequence for a while — since I still have things to post from our *last* UK trip back in September, everything is obviously out of order — so, for now, back to Christmas!)

There are some insights you just can’t have about your own culture until you’ve stepped outside of it.  Being home for Christmas was wonderful.  Spending the holiday with family and getting to see a few friends was incredibly special.  I was so happy to be home.

But, it’s also uncomfortable to feel like a stranger in my own country, to feel awkward and out of place in my hometown (especially because I spend all of my time in my new culture feeling awkward and out of place, too).  But that’s the reality.  I’ve forgotten how to do things in the US.  Grocery shopping feels weird.  I can’t exist normally in a coffee shop (I glare at the other patrons and feel compelled to greet and say farewell to the employees . . . at least I don’t do it in German) and I didn’t even attempt to drive.  I look like I should fit, it seems like I should fit, but I just don’t.  It’s ok — it comes with the territory.

This feeling extended to my social interactions — even those with my closest friends.  On one occasion, I was making plans with a friend for a playdate.  Our plans were coming together at the last minute — late on Saturday evening for early Sunday morning.  As we finalized everything, I asked if I could bring anything along the next day, and when she responded, “Something cinnamony”, I panicked a little.  I panicked because I was still in an Austrian mentality — and my first instinct was that since it was late on a Saturday and we didn’t have anything “cinnamony” in the house, that I wouldn’t be able to acquire anything.  I instantly started thinking of what I could cobble together.  I’m so accustomed to the Austrian shopping schedule, where the shops close at 6 on Saturday and don’t open until Monday morning.  I was worried I wouldn’t be able to accommodate such a specific request.

After realizing that I was in the US, and that the shops are open all the time, I realized that getting something “cinnamony” (or anything else) would be a simple task.  Regardless of how specific the request was, I’d probably have been able to manage it.

But then I started to wonder what I should get.  What the right “cinnamony” thing would be.  Whether this or that particular confection would be the best choice.  And I started to freak out again, because the pressure of getting it right started to mount immediately.  And although I *know* that it’s silly — this is one of my best and oldest friends, and I know that her enjoyment of our visit would have absolutely nothing to do with whether I brought the *right* thing to breakfast — I went from 0 to perfectionism in about 1 minute.

Because, since basically all the stores are open, all the time, there comes a kind of obligation.  Since the stores ARE open, and since I COULD get just the right thing . . . shouldn’t I?  Isn’t that the “right” thing to do?  I felt a near-immediate return to so many of my perfectionist tendencies that I’ve worked so hard to let go of.

In Austria, things work differently.  Because the availability of commerce is more limited (shops close down by 6 in the evening, and are closed on Sundays . . . some have very limited hours on Saturdays, too) the pressure to purchase the “right” thing is so much less, at least in part because it might not be possible.  If I was going to a Sunday morning playdate, and my host requested “something cinnamony”, I’d either have something like that already in my house, or I wouldn’t.  And if I did, it would likely be a partial package of cinnamon graham crackers, which I would happily bring along.  And that would be completely ok.

But in the US, the opportunity to find just the right thing leads, I think, to an obligation to find just the right thing.  Because the stores are open, we can use them, and therefore we should.  And I think it creates a higher expectation all around.

The truth is, I’m sure my friend couldn’t have cared less.  Just as I couldn’t have cared less whether she would have coffee for us when we arrived.  But, just as I instantly snapped into a sense of perfectionism and obligation, I wondered (and worried) that she might, too.  Since we were coming over, did they feel obligated to run out to the store (at 9:00 on a Saturday night) to make sure they had the things in the house that we might like to have when we arrived on Sunday morning?  I certainly hoped they didn’t.  It hadn’t been at all my intention to create any sense of pressure or obligation, but I knew, since I had just experienced it myself, that it might.

The interesting thing to me is that I’m not sure I would ever have had the awareness of the pressure I felt to provide the perfect thing if I had never lived without it.  Or, at least, I never would have questioned it.  Living in a culture with fewer hours of access to shopping inevitably lowers the bar when it comes to these kinds of expectations — sometimes the “perfect” thing isn’t available, so you have to make do with what’s convenient, and that’s completely acceptable.  While in the States, I feel like I existed in a space where the availability of resources created an obligation to use them . . . and I wasn’t even aware of it.

I started thinking about other ways that this pressure exists in the US.  Since the gym is always open, don’t we feel like we have no excuse if we don’t work out?  Since the mall is open late and on the weekends, don’t we feel an obligation to purchase a perfect gift?  Since the activities for the kids run all evening and all weekend, don’t we feel obligated to take advantage of them?  I don’t think the availability of shopping creates this pressure on its own . . . the incredibly long store hours may instead be a reflection of the cultural requirement to have the perfect thing and to fit ALL THE STUFF into every 24 hours.  I wonder if we haven’t convenienced ourselves into insanity.

What I know is that this pressure does not exist here.  The feelings of “good enough” instead of “perfect”, of “making do” instead of “making it right”, are much more comfortable to me.  Thinking of things in the “you CAN so you MUST” way makes me go a little crazy.  I like that I can see it, because it allows me to opt out.  I hope I can hold onto this perspective — it’s something I’d like to carry with me when we come home again.

(As it turns out, we stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts for cinnamon donuts to take to my friend’s house . . . and chocolate donuts . . . and coffee . . . all at 8:00 in the morning, which was pretty fantastic.)

The day the sun didn’t rise

Living at a more northern latitude this time of year really messes with you.  The sun rises after we’ve all gotten up for the day and sets well before Dan is home from work.  If he didn’t bring the kids home at lunchtime, Dan would never see our apartment in the daylight during the week.  It’s even worse for the kids, who still take mid-day naps.  They wake up twice every day, in the morning and in the afternoon, but both times in complete darkness.  It does a number on their body clocks.  The other day, Liam woke up at 4:00 a.m., ready to go for the day — this from a kid that I have to pull out of bed at 7:00 every morning.

Yesterday was a profoundly cloudy day.  There were heavy, gray clouds with intermittent rain all day.  Liam woke up after nap time (in the dark), and asked, as he often does this time of year, if it was morning or night.  I told him it was night (B corrected me and told me it was evening) and Liam asked me, a little sadly, “Why didn’t the sun come up today?”

I get it.  That’s totally how it feels.  Living here is very dark in the winter, and the days when the sun doesn’t come up at all are a bit of a bummer.  We’re in to the darkest two weeks of the year now, though, and then things will be getting a little brighter.  (Another plus to going home for Christmas — we’ll spend two weeks of the darkest month of the year much further south, with more daylight!)


003Of all of the new holidays we’ve experienced since we came to Vienna, St. Nikolaus’ Day is the one we’ve adopted the most whole-heartedly.  At school, St. Nikolaus’ Day is built up and celebrated well, so, of course we’ve followed suit at home.

On the night of the 5th of December, children organize and set out their shoes, and while they sleep, St. Nikolaus comes and fills them with treats and small toys.  It’s a tradition much like Santa Claus filling stockings (though in Austria, it is the Christ child who brings the tree and gifts on Christmas Eve).  For naughty children, St. Nikolaus does not come (or leaves only sticks), but instead there is the worry that the Krampus (a kind of demon) 022might come and carry them off instead.  (We don’t talk much about Krampus, and the school doesn’t mention him at all, as far as I can tell.)  I kind of picture St. Nikolaus’ Day as a pre-Christmas report card — are you doing well enough to get a visit from St. Nikolaus, or will it be the Krampus instead? — while there’s still time to make a change before Christmas.  (We don’t use it that way, though — no threats of Krampus.)

The kids love it, and so do I.  They wake up to a little bit of chocolate and a small toy or two, then go to school for a big party and another visit from Nikolaus (he brings chocolate, fruit and nuts to school).  It’s a magical day for them, and a part of the fun and enthusiasm of 037the way Austria celebrates Advent.  So much of the holidays here are not about Christmas Day, but about the whole season, and that’s a change we really enjoy.  We’ve explained to the kids that St. Nikolaus pretty much only visits the children who life in Europe (which is why their friends and family in the US don’t know too much about it) but I suspect that he’ll make a special exception to visit our house, even after we’re living in the States again.