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.)

Girls’ weekend in London

I interrupt my heartfelt reminiscing about our Christmas at home … with a trip to London!  This evening I’ll be flying over to meet a friend for a girls’ weekend.  We’re going to see a show, take in as many sights as we can, do the Harry Potter tour and probably have a pint in an actual pub (though Pam will probably opt for a glass of wine).

It is my very first time doing anything like this since I’ve been a mom.  It will be the first time I’ve ever spent the night away from Liam, and the first time I’ve ever been away from either of them overnight just for fun (I came to Vienna from the US for a weekend before we decided to move here — before Liam was born — and was away from B overnight when Liam was born).  So this is really strange for me.

I’m half thrilled and half anxious.  I’m struggling to comprehend traveling on my own and am already feeling how much I’m going to miss my boys.  I can’t wait to see my good friend and explore an exciting city together and I’m hoping the boys have so much fun having their guys’ weekend with Dan that they barely notice I’m gone.  This all feels very grown up and sophisticated.  There’s really no way to say, “I’m meeting a girlfriend in London for the weekend” without sounding very fancy.  But I don’t *feel* more grown up or fancier than usual, so it does seem a bit strange.

It’s a little weird to me that I’m going so far away for my first weekend away.  But I think that’s because it’s an international flight — really, though, it’s only a 2 1/2 hour trip.  I’m not actually going that far.  In a way, it’s probably good that there’s a plane ride between me and my boys — it will help to discourage any middle of the night urges to just go home (though I do expect that the desire will still surface).

The boys keep asking who is coming to stay with them.  We keep reassuring them that Dan will be here the whole time.  At first, I thought they were confused (why would Mommy go and Daddy stay?) but I got the impression today at lunch that they understand just fine that it’s only me who is going — they just want to know who ELSE is coming to take care of them.  They keep asking if our downstairs neighbor (our regular babysitter) is coming over to take care of them (which came from a conversation where Dan & I were discussing that she’s offered to be “on call” in case he needs help at any point).  They just can’t seem to quite accept that it’s going to be JUST them and Daddy this weekend.  (That’s ok — I’m not sure I can quite accept it either!)

So off I go to live it up for 62 hours in London.  I’m sure we’re going to have a great time and make some fantastic memories.  I guess it’s the consequence of being a mom, but some of the things I’m looking forward to the most are some of the simplest — sleeping all night (maybe even sleeping past 7:00 in the morning!) and being able to choose restaurants based on what I want to eat.  That, plus spending time with a good friend, should make it an excellent weekend.  (It remains to be seen whether I’ll be able to relax, or if I’ll spend the majority of the time worrying about what’s happening at home!)

R’s house

Although I’m an introvert, I like to talk to people.  It’s fun getting to know new people, hearing their stories, finding out what life is like for them.  It’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed about all of our travels, and one of the (very many) things I’ve loved so much about visiting England, Scotland and Ireland — since I speak English, connecting with the people we’ve met there has been the easiest and the most rewarding.  On our first trip, we met lots of new people, and this last time (back in July and August of this year), especially since we went back to some of the same places, we made some good friends.

Our single favorite place to stay has been Littletown Farm, where the food is amazing, the rooms are cozy, the scenery is stunning and the company is warm and charming.  Besides, one of the Beatrix Potter stories I grew up with was actually set at the farm.  (What’s not to love?)

Along with our wonderful hosts there, Rob and Sarah, are their children.  Their youngest, R (he’s not my child, so I’m not putting his name on the Internet!), is only a few months younger than Benjamin, and on our first visit, the two of them instantly bonded over a love of Lightning McQueen.  Ever since that first trip, Littletown has been known as “R’s house” in our family, and both of my boys would often ask when we were going back to “visit our friend R”.  (In fact, everyone we met on our entire trip to the UK who asked the boys what we were doing on our vacation was told that “we’re visiting our friends in England”.)

My boys were so happy to be reunited with their friend on this most recent trip.  Each morning, and after every meal, the constant question was, “Where’s R?”, and Benjamin explored all over the property seeking him out to play.  (I think R enjoyed it too — he apparently talked in his sleep about playing with Benjamin, too.)  B even got to explore some parts of the farm usually off-limits to guests, since he was escorted by R.

My boys loved playing with R.  They started asking about our next visit to R’s house before we got back to Austria.  I’m so happy to see my kids making new friends as we travel, too.  And I’m sure we’ll make it back to R’s house again.

Vienna Masters 2013, part 1

20130919-151341.jpgIt’s back again! The Vienna Masters horse show, with world-class jumping and dressage competitions, is here in Vienna. And, like last year, it’s right at Vienna’s Rathaus, and this only a few blocks’ quick walk for me.

For the first few days, they have a few events each morning with free admission. Today was the first day, and I brought along my friend Elaine (also an American living here in Vienna). It’s a fantastic event — beautiful horses, entries from around the world, and the thrill of competition, all in a stunning venue.

We had a great morning. The day started with a little rain, but by the time we arrived, it had turned sunny and cool. We watched two show jumping classes and did a little window shopping. The horses and riders put on a great show, and we even got to celebrate the victory of an American rider. We got to hear the Star Spangled Banner played here in Vienna, which was a little weird, but pretty great.

20130919-151420.jpgI wonder, though, watching dozens of riders, some of whom have travelled across thousands of miles WITH their horses — how do they do it? The big-name riders who compete in the evenings do this professionally, so that I understand, but what about the riders we saw today? Are they professionals? Do they take time off from work to fly their horses around the world to participate in events like this one? And what about the pony events? Are there parents who fly their children’s ponies to Europe for the weekend? Does that really happen?!? (I really don’t know. Although I used to compete, quite enthusiastically, in my younger days, competition at this level is foreign to me.)

It was a beautiful day, spent with great company, watching beautiful horses. I’m going back tomorrow to see one of the evening events, and I think we’ll take the boys over on Saturday for the free admission program (which includes the pony jumpers). I’m so happy to have this event so close by and to have some free time to be able to enjoy it. But all of it reminds me of how much I truly miss riding (and my horses at home).

A friend from home

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to get to spend most of my day with a dear friend from home, Carrie.  She’s here in Vienna for a business conference, but had some free time yesterday, so we met up, I played a bit of a tour guide, and we got to hang out.  It was so lovely to see her, to visit and catch up, and to get to show her a little bit of Vienna.

Carrie and I have been friends for a long time — over 30 years.  She’s my oldest friend (no, not like THAT).  We met in kindergarten, when we were just 5.  Not only is it amazingly fantastic that I am lucky enough to have had a great friend like her for that long, but there is something particularly special about the fact that she got to visit yesterday with Benjamin, who is now also 5.  How great is that?!?  32 years ago, we met in Ms. Gill’s kindergarten class at Sherwood Elementary, and now, here we are, in Vienna, Austria, and she spent the day with me and my little boys.  How many people get to have an experience like that?  (I feel very fortunate that I do!)  And, as in the wonderful way of good friends, hanging out with her yesterday felt as comfortable and familiar as it would have if we’d had to drive only a few minutes to see each other, instead of her having to fly overnight to get here.

Carrie has two little boys, too, and one of the (many) things that continues to excite me about moving home again is that, once we’re there, our kids will have the chance to become good friends, too, and they might even have the good fortune of creating friendships that could, truly, last their whole lives.



So, we made it.  I got through 44 hours-ish, just me & the kids.  (Which doesn’t sound as impressive now as it felt when I was doing it.)  My worries were pretty much for nothing.  We had a really nice time and the boys were great — helpful, cooperative and patient with the inherent slowness that comes from having one parent do the work of two.  We ate a lot of pizza and leftover spaghetti, read stories in my bed (which is something I think we ought to do more often) and B missed a day of school.  Success!

Of course, I didn’t “do” everything.  It was only two days, so I let a lot of things slide.  Bailey went to the dog-sitter so I wouldn’t have to take him out 4 times per day (no yard here) or worry about what to do if he needed to go out after the boys were sleeping.  Because it was only two days, I didn’t have to do a big grocery shopping trip, run any errands, keep any appointments, or even take out the trash or recycling.  Really, I had it pretty easy . . . but I’m still grateful that it went well.

In fact, I think the two days before the trip were more stressful than the actual time that Dan was away — that’s when I was worrying about what COULD go wrong.  As it turns out, I had only one truly legitimate worry while Dan was away — making sure to not get hurt.

It occurred to me before the trip, and came to mind again and again while Dan was gone — I had to make absolutely sure I took good care of myself, since I was the only one home with the kids.  Playing outside on the terrace, when the floor got very slippery, I took great care not to slip.  Hurrying to take a shower as quickly as possible, I had to remind myself not to be TOO quick, because I didn’t want to risk falling.  Preparing our meals, I was extra careful and cautious to not burn or cut myself.  Any of those things, on a normal day, would be bad, but while Dan was gone, it would have been awful.  At the least, it could have meant having to drag both kids to the emergency room to tend to an injury of mine, at worst it could have meant being incapacitated, leaving the kids without care or supervision and/or having to take care of me in some way.  Not to be overly dramatic, but any of that really could have been horrible.

Needless to say, none of that happened.  But that was the big, consistent worry in my mind, and the only real stress I had to handle.  And, in that way, Dan being out of town while we’re here, in Austria, so far away from so many family and friends, is vastly different than him being out of town when we were at home in the States.  At home, I probably would have had my mom staying with me, or at least stopping by regularly.  As it was, she (and Dan) checked in on me regularly by text and email . . . but what would anyone have *done* if I had gone a long time without responding?  At home, my family and friends were only a phone call and a short drive away.  At home, even if I’d been stuck and posted a desperate “help!” message on Facebook, someone I know would have been able to come to my rescue.  Here, I really am much more on my own, which did give the two days without Dan more of a “wilderness survival show” feel than I expected.

Regardless, we made it.  In fact, we had fun.  I really enjoyed putting aside my to-do list and just focusing on the boys.  I proved to be perfectly capable of taking care of everything (everything important, at least) for almost 48 hours on my own.  (But I think next time I may ask some neighbors to check in on us or at least put some of my Vienna friends on speed dial before Dan goes.  I think it would be more fun if it *didn’t* feel like an episode of a survival show.)

Up all night

So, I was hoping that my post yesterday would make it sound like tons of fun to be here and maybe inspire more of our friends to come visit.  (Maybe?  Hopefully?)  Well, don’t book those tickets yet, because our health track record during friend visits is turning out to be pretty poor (oddly, that has not been true during family visits, when we’ve been healthy the vast majority of the time).  Last night, Liam was up all night, sick.  (Thus, so were we, although not sick ourselves.)  At first, he was just fussy and uncomfortable, but around 4:30/5:00 (who can remember after a night like that) he got a fever and got really miserable.  After a dose of ibuprofen, he finally got to sleep.  At 6:30 this morning.  Of course.

I don’t think we kept the entire household up all night or anything, but I don’t think anyone here got a full, restful night’s sleep, either.  We’ve certainly experienced the joys of sick kids on vacation, as well, but there’s something particularly unfortunate about our kids getting sick, seemingly whenever anyone with kids tries to come and visit us.

For now, Liam’s staying happy with medicine at regular intervals, but given that nap time today didn’t go any better than last night did, we may be in for a multi-day stretch of wakeful, miserable children (and parents), which, unfortunately, doesn’t make for a very fun time for our visiting friends.  I’m hoping that we haven’t gotten Eva sick, at least.  That won’t be a good way for them to remember their visit here (just ask Pam and Joshua).  And if anyone else plans to visit, I promise to do my best to keep the kids healthy.

Vienna with friends

We haven’t had many of our friends take us up on our standing offer to play host here in Vienna, but we’ve had a memorable time on each occasion that someone has.  We’ve hosted my mom, two of my sisters, Dan’s parents, Dan’s uncle, our friends Pam and Joshua, and now our friends Fotis, Claudia and Eva.  We love it, each time.  Of course, it’s wonderful to get to spend so much time hanging out and catching up with friends and family (the sensation of feeling like we’re picking up just where we left off is marvelous) but it also gives us a new appreciation for how fantastic Vienna is.  We get to see it through fresh eyes each time someone comes to see us.

After two years, we’ve established a pretty good repertoire of sightseeing stops and tours.  We always suggest that everyone goes to see St. Stephen’s, the Hofburg, the Volksgarten, the Rathaus, the Graben, Michaelerplatz and Schönbrunn.  We love to help everyone make the most of the amazing public transportation system.  We love sharing all of our favorite sights along the ring.  And, of course, we have our very favorite authentic-but-not-too-touristy restaurants, and our must have local bakery items.

And each time that we share those things with our friends, we appreciate them a little bit more.  It’s surprising to realize it, but after two years of living in Austria, there are parts of it — some of our favorite, most wonderful parts — that we’ve stopped appreciating as much as we ought to.  We take a lot of this lifestyle for granted these days.  Sharing it with friends and family reminds us to be amazed and inspired all over again.


The best laid plans

A good friend of mine, Krishana, who we haven’t seen in a while, texted me today.  She was going to be in our neighborhood (literally across the street) this afternoon and wanted to know if we wanted to meet up while she was there.  She was planning to arrive right in the middle of the boys’ nap time, but she graciously offered to change her plans to be able to see us, so we made a plan to get together after nap time.  Perfect!

First, I made the mistake of *telling* the boys that we were going to meet her after nap time.  Their tandem response was, “Krishana! We love her!”  Note: never tell your kids ANYTHING exciting that is going to happen after nap time, because it will take forever to get them down and the nap will last 5 minutes.  And that’s exactly what happened.  The kids are usually great about taking (typically short) naps — they lay down willingly and stay down quietly for about an hour (sometimes longer).  Today, it took me 45 minutes to get them to sleep and Benjamin wanted to get up literally 5 minutes after he closed his eyes.

So, instead of the kids being well-rested and having half an hour or so to wake up and get ready to meet our friend, they woke up at pretty much the exact moment we needed to start getting ready to get out the door if we were going to be on time.  And they were cranky.  Benjamin was grumpy.  Liam cried whenever I tried to touch him.  Bravely, I continued onward — I told them we’d need to start getting dressed in 2 minutes in order to get out the door on time.  More crying.  More grumpiness.  I was getting stressed and frustrated.  I didn’t want to be late, but I also didn’t want the kids to be miserable.

And then, I looked at the boys, imagined the amount of accommodation they would have to make, for my sake, to make the plans work, and realized, “It’s just not going to happen today.”  As much as I wanted to see Krishana, to catch up and hang out, I was also very aware that getting to see her wouldn’t be as great — for anyone — if the boys were crying and miserable.

So, against all of my perfectionist mommy instincts, ignoring my internal self-scolding for blowing her off after she adjusted her plans around *our* schedule, I cancelled.  That is so not me.

But, it was really pretty functional.  Although I was disappointed and a little wistful that she was so close by, but we were unable to see her, I knew it was the right decision.  The kids were tired, cranky and frazzled.  I was in my overly rigid mommy mind where everything HAS to go a certain way and I get critical of myself and the kids when things go a bit off the rails.  I get like that sometimes — more focused on how it “has” to be, instead of on how to make the best of the current situation — and I’m starting to learn to see that as a warning that I’m really not seeing things the right way.

I was bummed.  So were the boys.  (And, I’m guessing, so was Krishana.)  But, we were all being taken care of in the way we needed to.  I wasn’t asking more of the boys than they were really capable of in that moment.  And I wasn’t asking superhuman things of myself — getting grumpy kids dressed and out the door in a few moments, all while trying to keep my patience and remember that we were supposed to be having a good time.

So, it didn’t go the way we wanted.  My boys took their time waking up, got themselves together, and we had a good afternoon.  No lost tempers, no hurt feelings, no unrealistic expectations.  We’ll see Krishana again soon, and, in the mean time, we had a peaceful day.

Even introverted mommies need a social life

I try not to spend time on self-pity — not just in terms of writing, but, more importantly, in terms of what I allow to inhabit space in my mind.  I try to focus on what I have (which is a lot) instead of what I don’t.  But, the truth is that living abroad can sometimes be an incredibly lonely experience.

Of course, I have my family.  My children are wonderful, but I’m the mom, and they’re the kids, and they aren’t here to be my companions.  I have Dan, but he’s out of the house for about 55 hours each week, and the vast majority of the rest of the time is taken up by wall-to-wall parenting and sleep (if we’re lucky).  Jo is here, which has been wonderful in terms of giving me tons of opportunities for adult conversation, but in the hours where she isn’t cooking or watching Liam so I can get something done, she takes advantage of the opportunity (as she should) to explore the city unencumbered by kids, to rest and catch up with people at home, and even, on occasion, to be social with new friends.

The schedule of managing the household, keeping both kids on their schedules and getting B back and forth to school each day, plus having only made a few friends here (and they are almost all moms, and are balancing busy schedules themselves) means that I have almost no social interaction outside of my (not quite) weekly dates with Dan.  I go out on my own, twice a week, for an hour each time, but always alone.  I have coffee alone.  I go for walks alone.  I go ice skating alone.

And it’s been getting to me.

I am missing my friends at home very badly.  I am missing play dates with other mom friends, dinner get-togethers with friends with kids, weekend days spent with my family, afternoons at the barn, and, most of all, girl nights where I could hang out with a friend or two or seven, and just be me, instead of being me-as-a-mom.

A few days ago, I met up with a friend of mine for a run.  She had her little one (Liam’s age) with her and I had Liam with me (B was at school).  We’d been trying to arrange to meet up for a run for weeks, but stuff kept getting in the way — the weather was awful, Liam was sick, her son was sick, Liam was sick again, it snowed again.  But, finally, we had a day when everyone was healthy and the weather was agreeable, so we met up and went running for an hour.

It was fantastic.  It was just what I needed.  I hadn’t seen them in months, and it was so nice to chat (besides, she runs faster that I do, so it was also inspiring for my running speed).  It was lovely to see them again, and it was great to just have a little friend time.

I think it’s pretty well expected that someone in my situation — a stay-at-home mom, in a new country, where I don’t speak the language — would feel this way from time to time.  So it’s not a surprise.  But still, sometimes, it isn’t fun.  I’m starting to understand why people who had been through relocations like this strongly encouraged me to get involved in “mom groups” when I arrived . . . which I didn’t do, because they really aren’t my thing.  But it’s been hard to make friends on my own, and, more importantly, to make strong connections in this environment of having so little common ground with many of the people who I meet, and not being able to communicate well, even if I did.

As a basically introverted person, I’m not overly bothered by not having a lot of social connection . . . most of the time.  Most of the time, I find my solitary hours peaceful and centering, rather than lonely.  But sometimes, it’s really nice to have some friend time.