What are THOSE?!?

Raising kids abroad is full of funny experiences.  There are so many ways in which their world view and mine differ fundamentally, because they are growing up in a different time, country and culture than I did.  And so many times, I don’t even realize how differently we see things until one of them points it out.  Language is one of the places that this is the most obvious — just this morning on the way to school, Liam noticed that “someone dropped their ‘schnuller’ on the ground”.  Yes, they had — a ‘schnuller’ is a pacifier.  Although, back when he was using them, we called them pacifiers or binkies, but he doesn’t remember that.  He knows the word from the kids at school who still have them, and it’s become his only word for it.  When Benjamin asked what Liam had said, I responded with, “Someone dropped their pacifier” and Liam got very angry at me for telling Benjamin the wrong thing.  He literally has no idea what “pacifier” means.  That kind of thing happens every so often — I say something, and they respond with a blank stare while I rewind what I said in my head and realize that I just used an English word for something we usually say in German (like pacifier, fire department, grocery store or playground).  We’re developing quite the odd little Germenglish patois around here.

But there are other funny ways that the cultural divide within my own house comes out.  Just before Easter, I was preparing eggs to dye.  Then we were interrupted by calamity, which is why I forgot to tell this particular story back then.  But once everything calmed down and we got ready to color our eggs, the boys happily climbed up to the table, took one look at the cartons of eggs I had boiled for them, and looked at me in disgust and surprise.

“WHAT are THOSE?!?” asked Benjamin.

“They’re eggs.

“But . . . why are they WHITE?”

Yep, although I was completely unaware of it, it seems that my kids have been 3+ years without seeing a white egg.  This was the first year that we found white eggs available at the supermarket, special for coloring for Easter.  (It’s the only time I’ve ever seen them, and they no longer have any — it really was just for Easter.)  I was so excited to buy them, because I’d always wanted to find white eggs to dye for Easter, but (as Benjamin demonstrated) white eggs are not the norm here.

And thus, I discovered another way in which I am raising poor, confused American-Austrian children who didn’t know that eggs come in white.

5 reasons I’m glad my kids speak English and German

Since before we arrived in Austria, nearly 3 years ago, we have been determined that learning German (reasonably well, at least) would be an important piece of our time spent abroad.  We chose to enroll our kids in a Viennese, German-only preschool when they each reached 3 years of age.  For my older son, this means that he has had 2 1/2 years of school entirely in German, while my younger son is most of the way through his first year.  It’s been a great experience.  They’ve learned a tremendous amount of German, and having them enrolled in an Austrian school has provided most of my motivation for continuing to learn German, as well (B’s main teacher does not speak any English, and I need to be able to communicate with her).

Participating in Amanda’s blog link up again this week, here are 5 reasons I’m glad my kids speak English and German.

1.  They have the knowledge that they CAN learn another language, so hopefully the next one will be easier and less intimidating.  If there is one skill I wish I had that I don’t, it is the ability to learn languages easily.  I studied French for 7 years in school and learned a fair bit, but it was ways a struggle.  I’ve lived here for nearly 3 years and my German is just becoming passable.  Throughout my life, I’ve been so intimidated by the struggle of learning a new langauge that I don’t really try to (even when I have the opportunity).  I sincerely hope that having learned German at such a young age, my kids will have a lifelong confidence with which to tackle other languages.

2.  Confidence moving through the world.  I don’t think anything is more off-putting about the thought of travel than not being able to speak the local language.  Whether it’s the fear of getting lost and being helpless, or just worry over looking foolish for not being able to communicate, lack of language skills makes travel intimidating when it should be exciting.  German is spoken in wide areas of Europe, and I hope that their skills in speaking it will give my kids a sense of freedom to travel within those areas (at least) without any worry throughout their lives.

3.  German is less likely to be taught on their American schools later, so now may be the only chance.  When I was growing up, we were required to study a foreign language in school, and the choices were French, Spanish and German.  I have no idea if my children will take compulsory foreign language in school, but I do know that the German programs were on the verge of being cut when I was in high school (20 years ago) so I don’t imagine that many of them have survived the past 2 decades.  One day, my kids will be in American schools, and I will encourage them to learn a language (even if they don’t have to).  But that will be the time to pick up French or Spanish — this may be their only chance to learn German.

4.  German is really cool.  As with any language, there are particular words and idioms that are uniquely perfect within a language, and I love some of the ones I’ve learned in German.  I love that the German word for strawberry (Erdbeere) literally means “earth berry” or “ground berry” (because they grow so close to the ground).  I love the word “raunen”, which is the word for the sound the wind makes.  I love that the root of the word for speed (geschwindigkeit) is the word for windy (windig) so that it literally translates to something like wind-making-ness.  I just found out yesterday that the word for staple remover is the same as the word for mother-in-law … because both separate things that are together.  (Ha!)  Besides, nothing beats telling someone off in German for sheer intimidation factor.  German is cool.

5.  A common language is not required to make a connection to others (but it helps).  As they get older and more confident (and as they accumulate more miles travelled around Europe) I see my kids reach out to other children that they encounter, regardless of whether or not they can communicate well with them.  My boys have attempted French and Spanish when German and English have failed them.  But certainly, they have the easiest time (and the most luck) making friends when they can communicate together well.  Watching them chat and be silly with their friends and teachers at school is heartwarming and inspiring.  They simply could not have done that 3 years ago.  Learning the language has made the difference.

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

Bad words

Benjamin’s German is better than mine at this point.  He certainly understands more, and though our vocabulary is focused in quite different areas, I would guess that he speaks more German than I do (and his pronunciation is certainly better).

This leads to some very particular challenges that I imagine are faced by parents of bi-lingual (or nearly bi-lingual) children everywhere.  I don’t always know what the boys are saying when they speak German, and more specifically, I think B is saying things that he shouldn’t be, but I can’t be sure.  Add to this the fact that B’s best friend at school is a native Spanish speaker, and everything gets more complicated.

I know the “big” swears in German (the same ones everyone knows if they’ve watched enough WWI movies) but I don’t know anything about the ones a kindergartener might use.  He and his friends had a fondness for one that was an amalgamation of Spanish and German and roughly translated into “poop death” (it took me FOREVER to parse what he was saying) and he’s recently added one that I don’t recognize at all, but the mischievous giggle that comes with it makes me pretty suspicious.

I think my best strategy at this point may be to make a video of him saying it and then to distribute it to my Austrian (and maybe Spanish speaking) friends for analysis.  In the meantime, it may just be that getting away with a little naughtiness is one of the perks of living abroad when you’re 5.

I used to be afraid

My natural state is one of efficiency.  I like to do things “on the way”, “kill two birds with one stone”, put in a little effort now to save myself a great effort later.  When I had kids, I had to learn to put that tendency aside — kids don’t always work that way.  Sometimes I have to make two trips to the same shop to prevent turning a single trip into a massive meltdown, or walk right past a shop where I have to run an errand in order to get everyone home in time for lunch.  That’s just life as a parent.  Sometimes we sacrifice efficiency for everyone’s greater good.

But there’s another way in which I’ve abandoned efficiency since I’ve moved abroad, and it’s less noble.  It’s because I was afraid.

I used to go into a shop and always plan out exactly what I needed to say before it was my turn.  If I found the person behind the counter was hard to communicate with, or impatient, I might leave without everything I needed.  I might go to another shop around the corner, come back another time, or simply do without what I needed.  If I had a coupon that I wanted to use, I would plan to ONLY but the thing the coupon was for so as not to complicate my transaction.  I would add up the total and have exact change waiting so I didn’t have to understand what the cashier said.  I was in a constant state of strategizing what I REALLY needed in order to make things overly simple.  I was afraid of trying to do too much, and of getting things wrong.  It made my life harder than it needed to be.

But at some point, I got over that.  I don’t know when or how it changed.  But I went into a shop today, and I didn’t plan out what I was going to say beforehand.  When the cashier asked for my order, I unashamedly asked for a moment to decide.  I added something to my order after she had rung it up, and then remembered a coupon I wanted to use for just part of my purchase.  In short, I had a totally normal transaction which didn’t require stress, strategy or pre-planning.

This wasn’t the first time — I’m sure I’ve been in this mode for a while now.  But it was the first time I was really aware of how nonchalant I’ve become.  I can go into a bakery or a deli or a grocery store and act just exactly like the slightly distracted, moderately disorganized mom that I am.  And, apparently, I can now do it in German.

Double Eltern Abend

Last week we had our third Eltern Abend (literally: “Parents Evening”, think: “Back to School Night”) at the boys’ school.  It’s a chance to meet the teachers, learn about the program, write down the important dates, find out each teacher’s preferences and way of doing things, and ask our own questions.  It’s great to get the opportunity to do all of these things … but the catch is that it’s done ENTIRELY in German.  At the end there’s always some time for individual questions, which can be asked and answered in English, but up until that point, it’s roughly 2 hours of important information, all in Deutsch.  It’s intense.

To add to the intensity, this time I had to split my time between two classes.  We had planned to have a sitter come be with the kids so that Dan and I could both go and each sit in a class, but Liam was still quite sick, so Dan stayed with the boys and I went on my own.

I opted to go to Liam’s class first, since I already know B’s teachers and how his class generally works.  And I’m proud to say that the whole thing went pretty well.  In Liam’s class, there were at least three other sets of parents who don’t really speak German (and I think there are seven kids in Liam’s class — including him — for whom German is not their first language).  I think I understood better than the non-German speakers and I was even able to translate a bit for some of the others.  I understood every single word that the principal said (might be the first time I ever managed that) and I got at least the main ideas from the teachers.

I did the first hour in Liam’s class and then switched to B’s, and then went back to see Liam’s teacher for follow-up questions.  She was impressed at how much I got from the presentation, and she very patiently explained the parts I had missed.

Overall, it was really a great success.  I was able to participate in the parent exercises for both classes, and I feel great about the classes, the teachers and the school.  I’m even starting to know some of the other parents.  It was a nice feeling to come in and get greeted and waved to — that didn’t happen for the first few years (and Austrians aren’t really casually friendly to people they don’t know, so it felt a little lonely the first few times).  This was a nice change, and it felt like a success all around.  I feel prepared (or at least as much as possible) for the year, and I’m glad I was able to be there, and to understand most of it, for the boys.

(And then, when I got home, while Dan put the boys in the bath, I baked a cake for Liam’s birthday, which was the next day.  I pretty much felt like Super Mom after that!)


I think I may have mentioned it about 1,000 times so far, but I really love the weather here in Vienna.  I love how it’s generally pretty cool (not counting July and August), I love that rain is just a fact of life (pretty much everyone carries an umbrella everywhere, all the time), I love the snow in the winter, I even like how cold it is, and for how long, once winter arrives.  (I’d much rather be cold than hot, and bundling up to be outside makes it even nicer to come back into a cozy house.)  And although I miss thunderstorms (they’re pretty rare here — we get only a few per year), I do really love the wind.

Vienna gets very, very windy.  Often.  The wind whips right down out of the mountains and across Vienna.  It rattles the windows, and howls through the window frames and under the doors.  (It really does.  I’m not being poetic.  And I love the German word for the sound the wind makes — raunen.  It’s perfect.)

We had another very windy night, the night before last.  Even with only a few windows in the house cracked open a bit, the doors around the inside of the house blew closed in the night, the wind moaned outside and the rain splattered the windows.  It was a great night to be snuggled up at home.  It’s just the middle of September, but fall is definitely here and winter is already on its way.  (The high temperature here yesterday was only about 55, and that happened around 7 this morning.)  I love it.

Junior translator

Shortly after we moved here, we got a well-loved, hand-me-down copy of “Blue Hat, Green Hat”.  B loved it.  He loved the silly antics of the turkey, and really took to the simple pattern of the story.  Soon after we started reading it, he started “reading” along with us, and shortly after that, he started “reading” it on his own.

He got tired of it after a while, but I brought it back out again recently, mostly because I figured Liam was just about the right age for it.  Liam loves it as much as B once did.  Now B has started spelling and reading the words in the book, and Liam “reads” it to us, too.

Last night, after Liam took a turn “reading” it aloud, B picked it up.  Instead of just reading it, he translated the whole thing into German.  No kidding.

It might just be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen him do (so far).

Hello, I Liam!

Last week, on one of the few spring-like days we’ve had (and that was back when it was actually still winter), Liam and I went to the playground while B was at school.  We were happy and excited to be outdoors, playing in the sunshine and fresh air.  It was a relief for the cabin fever I hadn’t even realized we’d been feeling.

We definitely weren’t alone in that idea — the playground was overrun with kids.  There were a few mothers there with their little ones, but there were also two separate kindergarten classes there to play.  It was a zoo.  Kids everywhere, running, climbing, screaming, playing, falling down.

009Liam took it in stride and leapt into the fray.  He didn’t hesitate, just climbed the ladder to the slide, investigated the status of the baby swing (occupied), and ran off to play on some of the bouncing/rocking animals.

One little girl, a few years older than Liam (also probably older than B) saw him and wanted to play.  She followed him for a moment, and then invited him to ride on the seesaw with her.  He did.  They both smiled.  He grinned and said, “Hi!  I Liam!”  She giggled and looked at me, so I encouraged him to introduce himself in German, so he smiled again and turned to her to say, “Heisse Liam!”

010She didn’t respond, but they smiled and giggled and played for a few minutes, until she ran off to join another friend from her school group.  We wandered off to swing in the baby swing (now unoccupied) until we had to go home.

I am always so thrilled to experience Liam’s enthusiasm for life, his boldness, his confidence.  He is so brave, so open and easygoing.  He loves to connect with people, and is unfazed by bumps in the road.  It’s shocking and amazing to see him use German, although he’s yet to actually be taught.  (He seems to absorb it straight out of the air, by osmosis, although I imagine it’s more likely true that he’s picking it up from Benjamin . . . which is actually equally cool.)  He’s such a great little guy.  He inspires me.  I learn from him to embrace more and worry less . . . except when I’m worrying exactly about him being so fearless.

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.

Language barriers

I think that living in a new culture is hard for nearly everyone who tries it, and it’s an extra challenge when the local language is different from yours . . . even worse if it’s entirely new to you. Even now, nearly 2 years in to our adventure here, I struggle with the language. I haven’t practiced enough, and English is fairly commonly spoken here, so I get away with it.

I resist learning German. Much more than I ought to. Part of that is because I find it challenging (although easier and more intuitive than other languages). But mostly, I stick to English because I love it. I love English — not because it’s English, but because I’m such a fanatic for knowing it well. I express myself in English, so my identity is wrapped up in the words I use to define and describe myself. I love to write, and I only know how to write in English. Whatever I need or want to use words for — to be friendly, kind, helpful, clever, interesting, disinterested, warm or distant — I know which to choose and how to use them. Without English, I have no tools. I have no way to place myself into the world, except by just being (and that’s hard, awkward and uncomfortable).

The English language is my medium, like paint or musical composition might be for someone else. I use it to give myself context in social interactions, the way other people use their clothes, hair and makeup. I weigh and evaluate words to feel out the social landscape the way a more savvy person might use body language or social cues. It is how I make sense of my life and express my inner self to the world. Every day, I have to use another medium, one in which I’m a novice. It’s frustrating. It’s isolating. I can’t express ME in German.

So, when I have the option, I use English. It’s a bad habit that I have so much trouble getting over. Most importantly because, in using English, I put those I interact with in the same awkward position that I’m trying to avoid — they can’t really express themselves, either.