Stir crazy

Tomorrow will be the end of the second week of our “summer break”.  We’re keeping B home from school during July and August to give us all a break from the lengthy back and forth commute to school, and to spend some fun summer time together.  Of course, it hasn’t gone like that at all yet, because from the day before our first day of summer break, Liam has been sick.

When he first got sick, I was sure it was strep — actually, I was sure it was scarlet fever, because his sore throat and high fever were accompanied by an all-over rash.  Turns out it was “just” a virus — he recovered from the sore throat and fever within a few days, but even though today is the 11th day of his illness, the rash has stuck around.  I think we probably *could* go out and do stuff.  The pediatrician assures me he is no longer contagious, but I feel like if he still has a rash that resulted from an immune reaction, then he’s probably still having the immune reaction on some level, and it probably won’t hurt anything (other than my sanity) to take a few extra quiet resting days at home.  Plus, Benjamin’s birthday party is on Saturday, and I want the boys to be able to enjoy it, rather than being miserable from being sick.

So, we’ve been housebound for ALL of summer vacation so far.  The weather has been beautiful (if a little warm some days), and with both kids feeling relatively well for the past week or so (not counting the rash) we’ve all been itching (pun intended) to get out of the house.  But, no luck so far.  Keeping the kids happy and occupied over the past couple of weeks has been a challenge.  It’s like being snowed in, except that it’s tantalizingly beautiful outside.  We’ve watched every movie we have about a million times, and I recently resorted to putting on TV shows that they don’t like very much, because the ones they don’t like they haven’t seen them in a while, so they’re still relatively interested in what happens.  We’ve built about 1000 Lego cars, put together every puzzle we own, colored, painted, and gone out onto the terrace to blow bubbles.  We’ve staged indoor basketball, soccer and football competitions, and we assemble the Matchbox cars for a daily “car party” each morning.

We’re actually having a pretty great time, considering we’re confined to the house during such a perfect time of year to be outside, but really, we all just want to go out and play.

Meditations on a bad day as a mom

The logical part of my brain knows that I’m not the only mom who has bad days.  I don’t mean “the kids watched TV all day and the dishes didn’t get done” bad days, but “I fell apart/cried/screamed at my kids today” bad days or “I feel like a failure as a mother” bad days or “how could I have said that to my kids” bad days.  It stands to reason that if I, a kind, loving, caring, attentive, semi-organized, thoughtful mother can have days like that, then most likely the other moms I know who are also kind, loving, caring, attentive, semi-organized and thoughtful must have days like that, too.  At least, most of them.

Or maybe it’s only a few.  Maybe I’m actually the only one.  Although my wiser mind tells me that I can’t be, the fearful part of my brain tells me that I might be.  I might be the only one.  I might be the only one who doesn’t handle the stress gracefully.  The only one who gets overwhelmed.  The only one who has ever taken out anger and frustration meant for someone else in the direction of one of my kids.  The only one who has ever said anything to one of my kids which shocked me and reduced me to tears.  Maybe it’s just me.

But in case it’s not, on this day, which was a tough one for me — on a day when I let my irritation that came from dealing with grown up things come out towards my kids, on a day when I cried when I should have been comforting and when I growled when I should have been patient — I’m going to share some of the things that help me on days like these.  I didn’t write them down with the intention of sharing them, I wrote them down with the intention of remembering them.  I don’t usually remember these things until after — after I’ve gotten angry, or snapped at the kids, or raised my voice, or imposed an unreasonable consequence, or broken down in tears, or issued a threat instead of choice.

  • I am a good mom.
  • I am doing the best I can, and so are my kids.
  • There is nothing more important than being kind.
  • I have to do WHATEVER IT TAKES to keep a good attitude.
  • I am almost never actually angry with the kids.  I’m probably actually exhausted/stressed/irritated/frustrated/angry at something else entirely.
  • This (whatever it is) is only going to last for a moment.
  • Don’t ruin all the good moments with one crappy one.
  • NOTHING IS MORE IMPORTANT than taking good care of my kids.  Not chores.  Not exercise.  Not Dan.  Not my to do list.  Not philosophy or discipline.  Not keeping my temper or behaving “properly” towards other adults.  NOTHING.
  • Whatever I’m in the middle of, I can take a breath and count to 10.  Or eat a piece of chocolate.  Or drink a cup of coffee.  Whatever “it” is will still be there.
  • Hugs and kisses help almost any situation.
  • If I keep calm, there might be space for a learning moment here, but if I fall apart, there probably isn’t.

These are the things that I wish I could remember BEFORE.  I never think of them until after, and they don’t help as much then.  Today was a rough day.  I wasn’t the mom that I am capable of being.  Tomorrow I’ll get up and try again.  Maybe having written them down will help me next time, or maybe it’ll help another mom who has bad days.

Living in the present

“My name is Emily.  I live in Vienna.  I have two children.  I come from the USA.  I like to travel, read, ride horses and dance.  I go to the cafe and sit outside.  Good morning.  Good evening.  Thank you.  Please.  You’re welcome.  Goodbye.”

Until now, that’s the rough equivalent of most of my spoken German.  Most notably, up until yesterday, I had no way of speaking in anything other than the present tense, which has, at times, caused a fair bit of confusion for whoever is unfortunate enough to have to attempt to decipher my rough attempts to communicate.  I recently had a very circuitous and confusing conversation with one of Benjamin’s teachers.  She was asking me to pay a fee for a field trip that’d I’d already paid to the other teacher, but I couldn’t say anything other than “I am paying”, at which point she looked at me expectantly.  I finally thought to add, “I am paying yesterday”, but that seemed to confuse things more because she thoughts i was trying to say, “I will pay tomorrow” and just butchering it.  We finally had to resort to bringing in an English speaking teacher to clarify.  (I also don’t have the future tense, which means I always end up saying roughly, “Benjamin is not at school in two weeks because we are on holiday.”  But that’s ok — it seems to work.)

It seems like kind of a silly thing, but I am really quite excited about starting to add a past tense to my repertoire.  80% of the time, I get by just fine with broken, present tense German and a lot of patience from the people around me.  But it’s nice to be learning how to say things (a little bit more) properly.

Buying bread

One of my favorite things to eat is grilled cheese with tomato and tomato soup.  My mom offered to make it earlier in the week, but it has been a little too warm for that kind of meal.  Yesterday, however, was a little cooler, and rainy, so she offered again, and I accepted.  We had purchased everything we needed, except for bread — the bread here has so few preservatives that it won’t last more than a day or so.

So, after getting Benjamin down for a nap, and giving up on getting one for Liam, I left my mom to supervise the kids and I went down to the bakery to purchase some bread.  This isn’t as easy as it was at home.  I don’t know what kind of bread I want, there are a dozen or so options, and they’re all back behind the counter, so I can’t get a really good look or squeeze or smell them — and even if I could, I struggle with pronouncing the names.  I contemplated the options for a moment, and then gave up and decided to try my luck with English.  It actually worked out — the guy behind the counter spoke excellent English and was kind enough to use it, and to make a recommendation on “something dark and good for sandwiches”.  He thoughtfully chose a loaf for me, and I nodded gratefully, and then asked, with accompanying pantomime, if he would be able to slice it for me.  (I may not learn a lot of German while I’m here, but I will be great at charades by the time I go home.)

He turned around, sliced the bread and told me the amount, I paid, got the bread and went to leave.  But my bag felt a little light . . . and on second thought, shouldn’t it have been more expensive?  Upon examining the contents of my bag, I realized that he hadn’t sliced the bread — he had cut the loaf in half.  Bummer.  Now I didn’t have enough for grilled cheese sandwiches.  What to do?  Should I interrupt the customer after me (now placing their order) to correct my mistake?  Wait in the line of about 12 people (I swear, I’ve never seen so many people in this bakery, ever before) to fix it?

Nope.  I’m neither that brave or that humble.  I walked down to the next bakery and bought another whole loaf of bread.  Afraid to make the same mistake twice, I didn’t even ask them to slice it.

And that’s the story of how I ended up with a loaf and a half of bread for sandwiches yesterday.

Language traffic jam spoken here

When we first moved here, we found ourselves paralyzed when it came to language — the prospect of trying to communicate at all when we knew so little prevented us from even trying most of the time.  Shortly after arriving here, I had an experience of being so traumatized when it came to communication that I even had trouble speaking English to another native speaker.  One of Dan’s friends described the experience as “a language traffic jam in your head”.  That’s exactly what it’s like — the brain processes dealing with language become so overloaded that even simple communication becomes difficult, slow and stressful.

Luckily, that first phase was temporary — we’re doing a lot better now.  We have some German we’re pretty comfortable using (“excuse me”, “I’m sorry”, words used in restaurants and grocery stores and various other words and phrases we’ve picked up) and we’re getting less embarrassed about resorting to English when we need to.  Dan will use Spanish when both English and German fail, and I’ll throw in some of the French I know.  Usually, between all those options, something will work out, and when it doesn’t, improvised sign language will.

Tonight, we tried a new restaurant near our house — an Italian place.  We had an Italian waiter who spoke less German than we do, and no English.  That threw us, a bit, at first.  We’ve gotten to the point of being really comfortable reading menus and ordering in German (even though many places offer English menus, we won’t always request one) and I think this is the first time we’ve failed with both German and English.  After a couple of failed attempts, Dan ended up using Spanish, and although we understood very little of what the waiter said, he apparently understood enough Spanish to make things work.

041Over the course of the meal, we chatted a bit (really) and learned that he’s been here as long as we have and that he, also, has two little kids (although his kids are a little older than ours, and he’s a little younger than we are).

At one point, watching this scene where our Italian waiter, Austrian hostess, Dan, myself and the kids were all interacting, I realized how far we’ve come in terms of communication, and very little of it is because we’re getting better at German.  We’re being more confident and less self-conscious, and ever more aware of the benefit that we can get just from putting ourselves out there a little.  This is quite an adventure, and it’s changing us.

Helping a stay at home mom

When you stay at home with your kids, lots of things are different than if you work outside the home.  There’s the obvious stuff:  your job follows you 24/7 (including on vacation), you rarely get to use the bathroom by yourself, the concept of a coffee break is foreign to you, and you get to work in your pajamas.  Also, you truly become the CEO of your household.  You can manage your kids, your home, the errands, and the dog, all at the same time, and all by yourself for 8 or 10 or 12 hours a day.  So, when someone shows up and offers to “help”, however well meaning, it often doesn’t work.  It’s not because you’re controlling or because you’re overly particular.  It’s because you can juggle everything by yourself, so having a novice step in and try to help you just doesn’t:  it messes up your regular rhythm and requires extra accommodation on your part (showing them what to do, explaining why, working around what they’re doing).

Maybe this isn’t specific to stay-at-home-moms:  maybe this is just something that happens with whichever member of the family is the one who calls most of the shots and executes most of the plays (I just know it didn’t really show up in my life until I became a stay-at-home-mom).

Whether it’s friends or family, people want to help, which I can appreciate.  They want to help around the house, or help with the kids, but 99% of the time, they’re doing a job you don’t mind doing (because no one offers to help with the ones you’d really rather not be doing), they aren’t doing it as well as you would on your own and often, they’re unintentionally creating additional collateral damage that you’ll just have to rectify at some point.  I get that they want to help anyway, and it often is actually helpful, but sometimes it isn’t, particularly when they’re insistent on helping with a particular thing or in a particular way.  There’s usually no graceful way to turn down even the worst “help”, so you suck it up and accept it anyway and fix everything later.  But then they’re offended that you didn’t appreciate their help enough.  Why don’t people understand this?

I actually think I know.  My dad used to be a professional house painter.  I’ve helped him paint before, and when you start, you start with the inside of a closet.  Why?  Because your mistakes won’t show, you won’t be in his way and he won’t have to redo your work.  Instead of being a stay at home mom, imagine I was a cook at a busy restaurant.  Would anyone unfamiliar with that business, or even with that particular restaurant, assume they could walk in and actually take some of my load off on the first day?  Or would they understand that maybe, after a few weeks of training, they could begin to actually be helpful?  The first few days would inevitably be more work for me — telling them what to do and how we do it, explaining my methods and demonstrating my rhythm.  What if I were a brain surgeon?  Or an air traffic controller?  Would just anyone think they could come in and help me do my job that I do every day without their help?

I don’t think they would.  I think that, sadly, when people believe they can “help” a stay-at-home-mom without any training or experience, it’s really a form of condescension.  (And by “experience”, I don’t mean just having kids, I mean being a stay-at-home-primary-caregiver.)  They would never assume to be able to help a “professional” with their work without any training or practice, but they think they can help “just” a mom.  It’s an overt demonstration of an internal feeling that a mom’s job is actually so easy that anyone can do it.

Well, it isn’t.  I’m good at what I do, and it took years of sweat, tears and exhaustion to learn what works, what doesn’t, and the best way to take care of everyone and get everything done.  If you want to help, sincerely, ask me what you can do and actually listen to the answers.  You may not understand, but there is a method to my madness and a reason for everything I do.  I’m happy to explain it, when I have the time.  You may have to paint in the closet at the beginning — try not to be offended.  This job is harder than it looks.

That had better not be an oncoming train

There is light at the end of the tunnel.  We’re getting there.  No, we’re not getting our stuff, but we probably are moving in to our new place.  Dan sent out a pleading email today (it contained the phrase, “my wife is going crazy”) to his new coworkers asking for help in getting the things we absolutely must have to move out of here and into “our” apartment:  a crib for Liam, a mattress for Benjamin and some plates and utensils (he also asked for some things we don’t need but which would be nice, like a changing table, a baby bath, blankets, sheets and an air mattress for Dan & I).  Thankfully, these people have all been there — the nice thing about the UN is that everyone is from somewhere else — so people inundated Dan today with offers to help.

We’re being loaned a portacrib for Liam, a mattress for Benjamin, a changing pad and a baby bath (at least).  Two coworkers are taking their lunch tomorrow to help Dan collect the items and move items into our new place.  I can’t get everything in this place together by noon tomorrow, so we won’t *actually* move until Saturday, but we could theoretically spend tomorrow night in our new place if we want to.  I am so grateful for everyone’s generosity.

There are some down sides.  Principally, we won’t have internet (which we’ve been relying on heavily since arriving) and there aren’t curtains on the windows (that, at least, needs to be addressed pretty immediately, or no one will be getting much sleep).  We also have access to a washer/dryer here (only one for the whole building, but still) and we won’t at “home”.  I don’t think it’s really going to feel like “home” until we get at least some of our things, but at least we won’t be financially supporting three apartments (our condo in VA, our temporary place and “our” place that we’re moving in to).

Frankly, the whole “camping” thing has really lost its lustre for me — it was a fun part of this adventure for the first few days, but camping for a month, especially when it isn’t on purpose, is just being homeless.  This time last month we were at the airport, getting checked in and heading to our flight.  We’re still going to be “roughing it” at the new place, but at least we can be actively moving towards setting it up as a home, rather than continuing to be in limbo.  For now, this seems like progress (but check with me again next week).

We’re moving tomorrow . . . and I’m not sure to where

Our stay in our first temporary apartment is coming to an end.  We have to leave by 10:00 tomorrow morning.  It’s been great.  Super-IKEA-ified, really comfortable, really clean, safe for the kids, and the location is super convenient.  It has served us well for our first 10 days here.  (I can’t believe we’ve been here for 10 days.)

So now, it’s on to the next place.  But until 3 hours ago, we didn’t have a “next place”.  (I’m still not sure we really do.)  This past week, we’ve been mostly focused on finding a place for permanent housing (and we’d been kind of hoping we might get that settled fast enough to not have to find a second temporary apartment) so we let the search for tomorrow’s apartment go until way too late.  We do have a favorite permanent place picked out, but we won’t even see a lease on it until Monday, so we need a place for the next little while.

We were being really flexible on location, price and size, so we didn’t figure it would be too hard to find a place.  Well, it turns out that finding a place equipped for kids (we need a porta-crib for Liam), walking distance to the U and which would allow Bailey wasn’t that easy after all.  Also, most temporary apartments in Vienna are listed with multiple agencies, so three times now we have had places promised to us which are not actually available.  Also, the Vienna City Marathon is this weekend, and is apparently really popular, so finding a place has been really challenging.

But, we have a place.  At least, I think we do.  It’s not ideal — it’s very small, no tub, only one bedroom.  And hopefully a porta-crib.  Ok, so it’s very not ideal.  Sigh.  Looks like I’m off to do more hotel/apartment searches . . . there has to be something out there that will work for us.

Red tape

I mentioned, in a previous post, that the pace of things is just slower here.  Although Vienna is a bustling city, the vibe is just different than home.  That’s fine.  I actually think that I will come to really appreciate this about our experience here, and it’s something I’m already getting used to.  Dan & I were talking today about going back to look at our two favorite housing options.  My first instinct was, “Email them now so maybe we can go see the places tomorrow!”, but then I realized that no matter how quickly we contact them, we’re not going to go look at those apartments tomorrow.  That just isn’t how it works.  We’ll email them today, talk about it tomorrow and go see them Monday or Tuesday (because very little happens here on the weekends — I guess apartment shopping might turn out to be an exception).

I don’t mind the slower pace of life.  I like the fact that at 5:00, people are generally unreachable by email or at their work number.  People don’t work into the evening here, or over the weekend (unless that’s typical of their job).  I like that, because we will soon benefit from that lifestyle, too.  Dan isn’t going to have a laptop to bring home from his new job.  He isn’t going to be expected to get anything accomplished between the close of business on Friday and when he arrives on Monday morning.  He’s not going to answer work calls at 7:00 in the evening or on a Sunday.  And if he’s sick, or on vacation, he’s simply out, and no one expects him to check in or do any work until he returns.  That sounds excellent.

The non-excellent part of this is the red tape part of it.  And it’s not exactly “part” of a slower pace of life, but it exists side by side with it.  We’ve been jumping through hoops since we got here, and we’re still finding it difficult to make any progress on very basic things.  Our journey through red tape began with shopping for cell phones.  After finding a place that carried the cell phones that we want, Dan went to purchase them.  At home, this would be as simple as producing a credit card and signing a contract.  Well, Dan had neglected to bring his passport, so he came home to get it.  I went with him, and brought mine, for good measure.  We got back to the cell phone place, only to be told that we need proof of employment, proof of residency and a bank account.  Ok.  So, we head back home.

Dan figures the easiest way to get proof of residency is to get his “legit” card (which is what you get here instead of a visa if you or a family member is working for the UN).  So, he contacts his work to get it.  Well, turns out that you can’t get your legit card until you’ve signed your contract for work . . . and you can’t sign your work contract until your first day of work.  Turns out you also need your legit card to recieve your items shipped from home.  This includes the stuff we had shipped over by air so we could receive it 10 to 14 days after departing.  Nice.  (The latest we were expecting to get that stuff was today.)  The people in HR that Dan was dealing with knew that we were planning to be here 3 weeks before he started work.  Did it really not occur to them that we might need phones, or our stuff, or even proof of residency in the first 3 weeks we lived here?  (Or, at least, to tell us that we wouldn’t be able to have those things?)  Turns out, this is a common problem — happens all the time.  It’s something that is an issue for most people starting work at the UN.  Thanks for letting us know BEFORE we got on the plane.

So, one of the ideas we had was that maybe Dan could start work a bit earlier.  We’ve made excellent progress with the house hunting, and if it’s going to make our lives easier and allow us to make progress in getting settled (which was the whole point of coming over 3 weeks early) then why not?  Well, it turns out, he can’t start early, because the paperwork is done and people are already planning on his start date.  Sigh.

But, they did give him proof of employment!.  Starting with that, Dan went on to get his Austrian bank account (that part was remarkably easy) and then went to talk to the people in the visa office about maybe moving the paperwork ahead to get his legit card, or at least helping us get our air shipment stuff (which has been here since the beginning of the week, but which we can’t get to).  They started working on it (not sure what they can do, but apparently they like a challenge) and one of the things Dan had to go was to get pictures taken for his card.  So he did that.  Well, the boys and I need legit cards, too, so today we trundled off (looking presentable) to the UN to get our pictures taken, too . . . only to show up and find out that the picture taking office closes an hour earlier than everything else there.  Seriously?

So, now back to the phones.  On one of Dan’s trips to try and buy the phones, he was told to come back if he had at least proof of employment (including contract duration) and a bank account.  Great!  We have that now!  So, we went back today (after our failed attempt at getting our pictures taken).  Turns out, no.  Didn’t work.  Still need the legit card.  Argh!

So, here we are.  No phones.  No stuff.  The ridiculousness and inefficiency of it is enough to drive me crazy if I think about it too long.  If it were me (read as, “If I were queen of the universe, which sometimes I really think I ought to be . . .”) there would be a straightforward checklist and procedure for every incoming UN employee to follow:  start at this office, sign this form, go here, produce this paperwork, take a picture, submit this form, the end.  (But apparently, no one asked me.)

But there’s really no harm done.  It’s just a delay.  (A frustrating delay!)  Lest anyone worry, we really do have the things we need.  At least this way, when we move to our next temporary home this Saturday, we only have to move the 5 suitcases we arrived with.  Since we haven’t gotten our air shipment, we don’t have to move it.  And we’re surviving without phones — that’s not easy, but it’s ok, too.  And, just today, we found out that Dan may be able to sign his contract early . . . whether that means other things will happen sooner, remains to be seen.  And I have no idea why something that was impossible a week ago is suddenly possible, but I promise not to complain.