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.

Party prep

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

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

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

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

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

The awkwardness of gift-giving in another culture

I’ve mentioned before that living abroad really emphasizes my uncoolness.  But, since moving to Austria, I’m not sure I’ve encountered anything that makes me feel more like crawling under a rock than giving gifts.

Honestly, it’s not something I was very good at in the States, either.  But at home, I kind of knew the conventions — what kinds of gifts are typically given and who should receive them.  (At pre-school, that would probably be the teachers, assistants, maybe a secretary and a principal.  If I was feeling super generous, I might include teachers from another class, particularly if they had helped us out and/or connected with my child.  At least, I think so — like I said, I’m pretty bad at this.)

Today, I brought Christmas gifts we had gotten for B’s teachers at school.  I know who B’s two main teachers are, and the principal, but after that I’m not entirely clear on the hierarchy and organization.  At the door to his classroom, there is a sign listing two assistants associated with his class, but the assistants from all 3 classes seem to switch around a lot and go where they’re needed, so it’s hard to keep track.

And then there’s the actual etiquette of presenting the gift — I have no idea.  Should I present them personally?  Leave them with one of the teachers to present?  Is it worth interrupting them in the middle of something?  (Can you tell I have a tendency to over think EVERYTHING?!?)  Seriously, I had never given a moment’s thought to it before moving here, but every bit of gift-giving custom and etiquette is part of a cultural social construct.  There’s no way to “just know” what to do, and it’s not covered in German class (and it’s certainly not in the guidebooks).

Benjamin couldn’t have cared less if I gave gifts to the assistant teachers or the principal, but he was definite that we should get a gift for his old teacher (who left to have her baby last spring), and, of course, to his two teachers.

I ended up deciding to give gifts to B’s two main teachers, the two assistants listed as being associated with his class, the principal, and B’s old teacher.  But, the actual presentation was an awful and awkward proposition — at the time that I dropped B at school this morning, there was an assistant in his classroom who usually isn’t, and I had to hunt down one of the “right” assistants in another classroom, and the other in the kitchen, and give them their gifts in front of other teachers.  I felt totally lame.  (One of his current teachers did say she could deliver the gift to the old teacher, which was a relief — I didn’t know if anyone would be able to.)

It can’t have been too bad — both of B’s teachers gave me a hug in thanks (and Austrians aren’t generally huggy people).  I know the spirit of the season and the thought behind the gifts got through the awkwardness.

But, I also know I didn’t get it “right”.  As with so many other things, I have to accept that that just isn’t possible right now.  It’s incredibly unlikely that I managed to stumble on to the exact right set of decisions.  But, I think I did better than last year.  I’ll keep learning. I’ll keep doing better.  And I don’t think I’ll ever find it so intimidating again — especially when I’m back in the U.S. (and I at least know which rules I’m breaking).

Austrians and elevators

On the whole, Austrians are courteous, helpful and generally polite when I encounter them out in public.  People seem to generally do what they’re supposed to do (throw their trash in the trash cans, sit where they should on the train, give up their seat to someone older or less able than themselves, hold doors, cross at crosswalks, etc.).

The example I get to experience, frequently, is how helpful they can be with a stroller.  The trains are generally set up to work well with strollers — there’s designated stroller parking areas on the trains, and doors that are marked which are stroller accessible (generally, but not always, they’ll even accommodate our double stroller) and all of the underground trains are accessible by elevator.

Every so often, though, an elevator might be out of service.  And although I prefer to travel up and down by elevator, I will use an escalator in a pinch — but not every station has an escalator going down, and often the staircase is too long to try to manage a stroller on my own down a flight of stairs (what’s possible isn’t always safe).  And some of the trams and out-of-town trains have several steps up to get inside.  Both can be difficult, if not impossible, to manage with a stroller.  100% of the time that I’ve run in to a difficult situation I have had one or more complete strangers offer to assist by helping me carry the stroller up or down the stairs, helping us on or off the tram or helping us carry excess stuff that isn’t easy to manage on an escalator.  (I had one particularly memorable situation where I had Liam in the stroller, B on his bike and the elevator was broken.  I had no idea what I was going to do — I simply didn’t have enough hands to get everyone safely up the escalator.  But then a woman who had just come down the escalator I was trying to go up stopped and offered to help.  She carried the bike while I managed the stroller and Benjamin — and she even missed her train to do it.)  This kind of kindness is a normal part of daily life here in Vienna.  I’m still a little surprised when it happens, but people generally count on it, and it is incredibly reliable.  I am incredibly grateful for this help when I need it, and truly impressed by the culture of responsibility and thoughtfulness that has created it.

But this leaves me all the more perplexed by the behavior I see regarding Austrians and elevators.  Every single day, I see people go out of their way to walk to take an elevator when they could, more easily and more quickly, have taken an escalator or the stairs.  They will wait for the elevator to come (the elevators here aren’t usually very fast) and pack themselves in.  There are signs on the elevators stating that priority is to be given to strollers, people in wheelchairs, and the elderly, but no one seems to care.  I have, on several occasions, been pushed aside so that seemingly fit people can take the elevator that they had to walk out of their way to get to.  (I’ve seen wheelchairs pushed aside, too.)  Generally, the people here don’t shrink away from physical activity, and the sense of courtesy and responsibility seems so strong that I just can’t make sense of this one weird little thing.  It just seems so out of character based on everything else I experience here, but it’s also remarkably pervasive.  (I wonder if it’s related to the dislike of waiting in lines that seems to be common here, too.)

I am impressed and amazed by the amount of kindness and help I’ve gotten here when I need it — it’s part of what made my mind up to move here when the opportunity came up.  The strangeness with the elevators doesn’t undo that — it’s just a piece of the puzzle that I don’t understand yet (and there are still a lot of those).