My latest post was actually a guest post on a fellow expat bloggers site. Check it out here.
It’s that time of year again, when, with a flurry of paperwork and many cups of coffee, I (and many others) sit down to tackle the family taxes. It’s not a task I love, but really, we have a pretty good situation here, so I can’t complain. In fact, we’re amazingly lucky when it comes to our tax bill. Because we’re US citizens and (I think?) because the IAEA and the UN have a special situation worked out with Austria, we pay US taxes, but not Austrian taxes. AND, we’re exempt from large chunks of our typical US tax bill because we’re not living IN the States. In short, we pay a fractional part of our US tax bill while enjoying so much of what the high tax bills of Austria pay for. It’s a fantastic deal. We get all the free preschool and clean streets we can handle, and we don’t have to pay for it. (Of course, there are things back at home that we’re paying for but not using, but still, we’re on the winning end of this deal from a tax perspective, no question.)
But although the pain of actually PAYING our tax bill is seriously mitigated by our situation, the relative pain of FILING our taxes is generally greater here than in the States. Not only do I have to check a remarkable number of the “this situation is not common” boxes on Turbo Tax, but there’s no handy H&R Block or anything similar down the street that I could go to for safety’s sake. Luckily, since we sold our house in the US during our first year here, the situation is somewhat simpler than it used to be. Still, it’s pretty darn complicated, and there are tons of paperwork and lots of calculations to be put together each year. (Plus I have to keep track of which numbers are in Euros and which are in dollars, and if anything ends up messing me up, that’s going to be the thing.)
Fine, though. That’s life as an American, at home or abroad. As April 15 approaches, we panic a little, dust off our calculators and start scribbling numbers down on a little scraps of paper that will soon find a home in a shoebox. That’s what I was doing this morning, when I realized that I’m probably not going to be done by tomorrow, thus missing the deadline. Except, that as a US citizen living abroad, I get an automatic extension to file until June. And I *just* found out, just today (this is the 3rd year I’ve filed while living abroad, and I’m just figuring this out) that we *also* don’t have to PAY until June 15. No kidding. (I thought the automatic extension was just like a regular extension, where you get extra time to file but the money is still due on April 15. Nope. If you’ve overseas, you don’t even have to pay until June, with no penalty.)
So, instead of spending the next 36 hours panicking about getting my taxes paid, I get to relax and get them done in a leisurely fashion between now and June. Except that what will REALLY happen is that I’ll put it off, I won’t get it done, and on June 13 I’ll be freaking out all over again . . . and then I won’t have anyone to commiserate with.
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.
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.
You know you’ve lived in Vienna for a while when . . .
. . . you fully expect to be able to order organic apple juice anywhere . . . including McDonald’s
. . . although you’ve never understood it, prune paste no longer surprises you as a pastry filling
. . . you will never eat a donut from anywhere else again
. . . the Christmas season has an official beginning (St. Martin’s Day) and it doesn’t bother you that it’s in mid-November
. . . Socialism is not a dirty word
. . . you fear the Krampus (even as an adult)
. . . you know what those Nordic walking poles are for. (Kind of.)
. . . someone hands you free produce in a train station and you don’t find it odd
. . . you’ve forgotten what a “snow day” is
. . . “God’s greetings” is a normal way of saying hello
. . . you always stop to chat with the neighbors, but never smile at strangers
. . . you have a spring coat and a fall coat in addition to a winter coat
. . . you look for lost gloves and hats on fence posts, not on the ground
. . . you know it’s always ok to complain about the weather, no matter how nice it is
(More to come!)
Ok, I had so much fun with yesterday’s post, here are some more.
You know you’ve lived in Vienna for a while when . . .
. . . you have no idea how (or why) people survive without 6 weeks of vacation, plus sick time, plus maternity and paternity leave
. . . you’ve almost gotten used to writing your dates “backwards”
. . . whenever you refer to “home”, you have to specify where you mean
. . . you think in Celsius
. . . “hot” and “cold” weather now mean very different things (both colder than they used to)
. . . half of your English has become British English, just because it’s easier
. . . you have an accent that no one can place
. . . you’ve become very, very punctual — you apologize for being even 2 minutes late
. . . you cringe when people from home mix up Austria and Germany
. . . you aren’t surprised to see a dog anywhere
. . . Lederhosen kind of make sense and Dirndls seem appropriate for any occasion
. . . it seems perfectly normal that it should take over 2 hours to wash a load of laundry
. . . you know that the customs line at the airport is only for tourists
. . . you fully expect that shop hours will be religiously adhered to, but the opening hours of anything administrative are only a vague suggestion
(More to come!)
As an American expat living in Vienna, there are a lot of things that seemed strange to me 2 1/2 years ago that don’t anymore. I’ve changed, I’ve adjusted, I’ve gotten used to a lot of what used to be odd about living here. I imagine that this progression is pretty common among expats who find themselves newly at home in Vienna (not just those of us from America). And, so, I present . . .
You know you’ve lived in Vienna for a while when . . .
. . . you can say the number six without giggling in your head
. . . vanilla ice cream that tastes like lemons seems normal to you
. . . you carry an umbrella everywhere
. . . you never trust a weather report . . . not even one that is just reporting the current weather
. . . you know to walk well away from building overhangs in the winter (Achtung! Dachlawine!)
. . . you know to always check both ways, even when crossing a one way street
. . . you know that you can smell a horse a block away (or further)
. . . you know that deodorant is optional for far too many people
. . . you start to be more surprised by children who wear swimming suits than by those who don’t
. . . nudity at the pool or the lake seems perfectly normal
. . . you know that stocking up on milk and bread has to happen on Saturday morning . . . along with everyone else in Vienna
. . . you only vaguely remember what it is like to wait in an orderly line
. . . you can tell the time by the church bells near your house
. . . 24 hour time seems normal
. . . so does crossing your sevens
(More to come!)
Having some time on my own is wonderful. I’ve already stopped calling it “free time” because it’s been very busy time, mostly full of very exciting things like folding laundry and sweeping the floor. I actually am having trouble figuring out how to fit all of the things I want to do with this time into the time that I have. My to-do list is longer than the hours I have available. Eventually, I’ll figure out what is important enough to get my attention and what will need to be put off (but it’s a little overwhelming while I figure it out, because everything feels like IT MUST GET DONE).
Oddly, though, I am feeling overwhelmed and aimless at the same time. While I have a ton of stuff to do, some exciting, some mundane, some essential, there’s also an odd sensation of drifting. I have lots to do, but I’m totally on my own while I do it. Instead of weaving every moment of my day around the whims, tantrums and snack schedules of two little people, I’m independent. That’s liberating, but also lacking in definition and direction.
While it’s nice having time to myself, it’s also lonely, and it feels a little . . . useless, maybe? After being “on” as a mom every minute, and filling my time with menial but important tasks like folding laundry and changing diapers, running errands at the mall or sitting down for a solitary coffee feels pleasant (in that there’s less poop involved) but a little . . . superfluous. It’s a strange sensation. I’m not working, I’m not taking care of the kids, I’m not devoting every minute to the household . . . so what AM I doing?
So, I think I’m starting to get it. I think this is what I’ve heard other expat “trailing spouses” talk about. There is some sadness, a slight loneliness, a vague panic of being on my own. It’s not being “alone” — after 5 years of almost never having solitude, I find the alone part of it very peaceful. It’s a kind of pressure, an expectation. Now that I actually have time to myself, what am I going to make of it? What am I going to do? I have no excuses for not squeezing every bit out of being here now … but what does that even mean?
So, I’m a little overwhelmed. On the one hand, I don’t want to spend every minute that the kids are in school folding laundry and going to the grocery store. On the other hand, I want to feel useful. This is a whole new world for me. I think it’s going to take a while to sort it all out.
Our experience here feels so BIG. The struggles and challenges feel massive, the discoveries wonderful, the perfect moments stunningly delightful. The highs are so high and the lows can be very low. Before we came, we were told it would be like this. We’ve told others, who have come since, the same thing: “Be prepared. It’s a rollercoaster.”
And it is. And it’s worth it. For all of the tough moments, all of the frustrations, all of the roadblocks and the loneliness, we’re glad we’re here. Because the good moments are so very good and we know that life will never be quite like this again. We know that we will never be the same again. Being here, living it, it’s overwhelming and all-encompassing. It’s a huge, mentally monopolizing experience, in that it changes us constantly and it occupies so much of our time and mental energy just to plan and execute daily life.
It’s sometimes shocking to me, then, how different the experience of other people in a similar situation can be. I don’t get a lot of time to do so (see the “overwhelming” and “monopolizing” comments above) but I sometimes get to read what other American expats in Austria experience, or (even more rarely) actually talk so some of them about it.
Their experiences, while as massive and entirely consuming as ours, are completely different. Some of them have experiences, regularly, that they define their time in Vienna by — at coffee houses, bars, clubs, art museums — that we have barely seen, if at all. Some of their favorite places are places I’ve never heard of, let alone been to, and the images, captured in words or pictures, of “their” Vienna seems as foreign to me as mine do to most of my friends at home.
So I wonder, sometimes, am I missing something? How many of the essential, quintessential Viennese experiences will I never have? Not just because I’m a mom, and I’m busy with my little ones, but also because of my own tastes and preferences, my own prejudices and perspective. What will I miss? What will I never see? What am I not experiencing that “is* Vienna to someone else?
Because there’s a pressure that comes with living abroad, a feeling that I ought to really get to know Vienna while I”m here. That I ought to really see and experience it. That I should go home knowing certain things and having experienced particular aspects of this city, this country, this continent. And I don’t know if I’m having the Austrian or Viennese experience.
Actually, I know, in so many ways, that I’m not. We haven’t been to the Opera. We’ve only eaten once at a “fancy” restaurant. We don’t shop (except for shoes for the kids and once, regrettably, for a ballgown). I don’t spend lazy mornings at a coffee house or evenings drinking wine and people-watching. Our days are spent with playgrounds and kindergarten drop-offs and our evenings are usually full of baths and stories. I’d wager I’ve seen more parks than an average American expat in Vienna, but haven’t been to many art museums. I’ve mastered getting around the Christmas markets with a stroller, but haven’t been to the Naschmarkt. Some days I feel a little proud of the way my experience here has differed from “the norm”, and some days I’m frustrated by it.
The pressure and expectation to have a certain kind of experience come, I know, from me, not from the outside. I hear about the things other people are doing, and I think, “Am I supposed to be doing that? Is that what this is about?”
We’ve entered into the final year of our time in Vienna, and I think that makes me feel the pressure more acutely, because the window is closing, this fleeting opportunity is finite and will be over soon. There’s so much still to see and do, and I want to be sure to hit the highlights while I can.