118As they say, sometimes it’s the little differences that are the most surprising when you’re living abroad.  Not that the big stuff doesn’t throw you for a loop (it does) but the biggest differences are ones you adjust to, or at least come to accept, pretty quickly (because you really have to).

This past Halloween (yep, still writing about last October) was our most successful trick-or-treat experience yet.  There were no tears during the dressing up process (though we did have a last minute costume change), we arrived at a reasonable (early) hour (before the slightly rowdy Austrian teens arrived and coated everything with silly string), we found our way on the first try, we had some very fun and friendly stops at a couple of super festive houses, we met a lovely Corgi named Wellington, and we met up with some friends … which gave us a good excuse to wander back through the neighborhood a second time.  Both boys had an excellent time and kept up their manners and enthusiasm for the whole event (which was a first).  It was a great evening, and the most I’ve been reminded of a true US Halloween since we’ve been here.

With one little exception.


On average, the costumes here are very much like what you’d see in the US, but skewed slightly less scary — more princesses and fewer witches, more Spider-Men and fewer mummies — I think at least partly owing to the fact that Halloween is just becoming a thing here, while Faschings (aka Carnival), is very popular and has children dressing up in fun but non-scary costumes, and many kids just wear their Faschings costumes for Halloween.


My spooky family

And, as often happens, kids’ costumes sometimes require props — wands, swords, lightsabers, broomsticks, etc.  Several of the kids (mostly boys) were carrying realistic looking guns and weapons with their costumes.  And that was the difference.  Some kids, dressed as cowboys, police officers, or bandits, were carrying realistic looking toy guns.  And I, with my American cultural background, was absolutely shocked.  Actually a bit horrified.  Here were young kids and teenagers carrying realistic looking weapons.  Didn’t their parents know how dangerous that could be???  Weren’t they worried that someone might think the guns were real and, just maybe, hurt their kids?!?

And, in that horrified contemplation, I truly looked at my own perspective and realized what I was thinking.  No, the parents here don’t “know” that those toys might be dangerous, and, no, they weren’t worried.  Because they don’t imagine that anyone would mistake the weapons as real in a child’s hand, and that, even if they did, no one here is going to shoot their kid.  There actually isn’t anything dangerous about those kids carrying toy guns with their Halloween costumes.  NO ONE HERE IS GOING TO SHOOT A CHILD FOR PLAYING WITH A TOY.  And sadly, that’s just not true where I am from.

Kürbisfest for the fourth time

It is our longest running tradition here in Vienna, and we look forward to it every year.  The annual pumpkin festival is one of the few nearly Halloween-like celebrations here, and it reminds me so much of the decades of pumpkin picking and carving I’ve done back in the US.


545Over the years, we’ve gotten better at the whole thing.  The first few times, it took us hours longer to get ready and get ourselves there than it should have, and we always ended up out there either very much over or under dressed.  But now, we’re getting it.  We know how to get there, we come prepared with warm clothes and big bags with which to carry home our pumpkins.  We made it out there in the foggy morning (with the help of B, who acted as our navigator since he was learning about maps at school).  We had faces painted, enjoyed our favorite Lángos and pumpkin soup, chose and carved our pumpkins, and played on the recently renovated playground (still daring, even by Austrian standards).  And this year, we brought friends.




Elaine and Phil had been here nearly two years at the time (more than 2 years now), but this was their first pumpkin festival.  They were amazingly good sports in enduring the speed (or lack thereof) and attention spans (or lack thereof) of the kids while we shopped, enjoyed and explored.  We introduced them to Lángos, shopped together for pumpkin seed pesto and chose pumpkins.  Then we all sat down to carve them together — it was Elaine’s first time!  We finished out the day with some playground time (for us) and a warm drink around the fire (for Phil and Elaine).  It was a great day.


667The Kürbisfest remains one of my favorite annual Vienna traditions.  It reminds me of home, yet is also distinctly Austrian.  It celebrates autumn and helps us prepare for Halloween.  It is a wonderful day spent in the countryside with a marvelous view of Vienna.  And, getting to introduce friends to our much-loved tradition made it even more special this year.


A foreigner’s Halloween in Vienna

005More or less, we’ve found a place for ourselves here in Vienna.  We know our neighbors, we have friends, the boys attend a great school, we’re learning the customs and the language.  In the more than 2 1/2 years that we’ve been here, we’ve learned how to make ourselves comfortable here.  And while the internal sense of “otherness” never really goes away, I don’t walk around feeling constantly out of place (anymore).  We’re not locals, but we’re not tourists.  We live here, we’re not just visiting.

So it’s been a while since I felt really “foreign” here in Vienna.  But nothing will remind you of being from elsewhere more than celebrating a holiday that doesn’t really exist where you now live.

016That’s how Halloween felt for us this year — almost like we were having our own little celebration of it.  Halloween is catching on here, but slowly, and only with certain demographics — mostly older school children, teenagers and college students (who don’t need much excuse to celebrate anything).  There are a few painted pumpkins for sale at the grocery store, and a few gift and flower shops have a few black and orange items for sale, but mostly, Halloween is only vaguely thought of in Vienna.


Undaunted, and wanting to bring my kids along in some of my favorite family traditions, we decorated, had costumes sent over by Grandma, and planned to trick-or-treat again.  Halloween morning, the boys chose their favorite Halloween shirts to wear to 027school, and when we arrived, we reminded the teachers that it was Halloween.  As the only Americans at the entire school, my kids were the only festive ones, which was a little weird.  I really wanted to enjoy Halloween to the fullest, though, so after I dropped the boys off at school, I stopped by our local toy store to ask them if they would fill up some Halloween balloons (bought on Amazon — no such thing in Vienna) with helium.  They were happy to help, and actually had a small but good selection of costumes and Halloween items.  I picked up a bag of fake spiderwebs (and spiders!) and a battery-operated flashing jack-o-lantern (since our actual jack-o-lanterns were already beginning to fall apart).  Surprisingly, for such a non-holiday here in Austria, they were having a bit of a 032run on Halloween items at the toy store, and my balloons caught a lot of interest.  The shop keeper insisted that I come back next year to do my Halloween shopping, instead of shopping on Amazon — “We will have lots of things next year!” she assured me.  So it looks like it may actually be catching on more and more.

We celebrated this year, again, by getting in our costumes (Liam, who had been practicing in his earlier in the week around the house, happily refused to wear his on the big night) and heading out to the “American area” of Vienna, out near the American school on the western edges of the city.  For the first time, we didn’t get lost getting out there, and even met a young woman on the bus who emigrated here 037from McLean, VA (just like us) the same year that we arrived.  Our trick-or-treat experience was almost identical to last year.  We visited about a dozen houses before the kids got worn out.  Some of the houses were spooky and festive, while some were so plain and quiet that we wouldn’t have known to stop by unless we’d seen other kids there before us.  Again, the average age of a trick-or-treater was very high, and we only saw a few little (elementary school aged) kids, and only one other as young as Liam.  Also, like last year, the older, Austrian kids did not do a good job of waiting and being patient with the little ones, and they again demonstrated a penchant for showering the neighborhood with shaving cream and silly string.  And, again, there was very little parental supervision of the older 040children (American and Austrian alike — not surprising, as kids over the age of 8 or 9 here typically travel all over the city on their own).  And that is all fine, just different.  We had a really nice time.  We visited friendly people who chatted with the boys about their costumes, and we spent the entire evening speaking entirely in English (which was a fun change for an outing).  We met one group of Americans that had set up a bonfire and a table of hot cider and soup for trick-or-treaters and their parents.  It was, definitely, a different experience than we would have had in the States, but a very fun and pleasant one.

046Truly, though, I miss home and my family on Halloween.  Decorating the house in preparation for my boys’ arrival at home made me wish they could be around my mom, and my sister, and my entire family on Halloween.  My family really does Halloween very enthusiastically.  I felt like I was channeling a bit of that with my spooky decorations (which the kids just loved).  I wish we could trick-or-treat with family, stopping by the houses of people we know and love, or hand out candy to other dressed up little ones.  I wish the boys’ school had a parade or a party.  I wish that most of the other kids trick-or-treating were little, like they are, and that everyone was in costume.  I wish they could see the fantastic, over-the-top way that someone always decorates their house.  I miss Halloween at home.

008I really was reminded of being “from somewhere else” on Halloween, but there were so many little things that were so nice.  Finding the cobwebs and spiders at the store, having the shop owner help me out by filling the balloons, the teachers at school making a point of wishing the boys “Happy Halloween!”, the jack-o-lanterns and spooky decorations at the houses we visited, the warm, inclusive feeling of being among other Americans (even if they were strangers, it didn’t feel like it) on this very American holiday.  And we were lucky to have great trick-or-treating weather on top of it all (no snow this year!).  Halloween is a day I miss home, most certainly, but we had a great, and festive, holiday here this year, as well.

Christmas comes early

Halloween is barely celebrated here, and Thanksgiving doesn’t exist.  There have been beautiful advent calendars and Christmas sweaters in the shop windows for weeks, and preparations are well underway for the extensive Christmas markets that will soon be open.  Unlike at home, no one is embarrassed or exasperated about it — without Halloween and Thanksgiving, there’s really no reason NOT to start the celebration of Christmas.

As if on cue, the weather here today felt like something out of Dickens (minus the snow).  This evening in Vienna was cold, foggy and damp.  Walking through Michaelerplatz, watching the horse drawn carriages go by, I could easily imagine the opening scenes to “A Christmas Carol”.

Our Halloween pumpkins are still in good form, but soon, it’ll be time to deck our halls, too.  I’m very excited about Christmas — it’s the time of year I’m most looking forward to experiencing in Vienna.  Culturally, Christmas is bound to be very different here — I suspect Austria will celebrate more religiously than I’m used to at home.  And the secular icons are different, as well — they have Saint Nicholas here, rather than Santa Claus, and the Christmas tree tradition is executed differently.

I’d better find out the salient differences, because with Benjamin being in school, he’s going to hear about them.  He’s has already started his mental Christmas list for Santa — and one for Liam, too — and he told me this evening that he’s concerned that Santa will be able to get in to our house, but maybe not out again.  He’s planning ahead.  Me too.

Halloween, Austria style


I love Halloween.  I have so many memories of it from my childhood — picking and carving pumpkins, dressing up and going trick-or-treating, going to creepy houses, on spooky hayrides, or through haunted forests, or just staying home and giving out candy.  I like it 023all.  Benjamin has experiencesd enough of Halloweens at this point to remember it, and to look forward to it this year.  So, although we really didn’t know how Austriants celebrated Hallloween, it was important to me that we do something to make the occassion.

Benjamin really wanted to go trick-or-treating, but after our first investigations, the prospects looked pretty dim.  This time of year in Austria is much more about celebating fall than it is about celebrating Halloween.  But, we persisted, and finally found out (through an American coworker of Dan’s) about a little bit of trick-or-treating done in Vienna.  It took a while to get the details, but we finally found out exactly where to go.

IMG_2124So, we set about making things happen.  We made treat bags for the kids (as our treat pumpkins are apparently in storage at home) and dug out costumes.  Dan came home a bit early from work, and we got everyone dressed and ready and headed out.  We took the tram, then took the same tram again (got a little lost), hopped on a bus, rode it out to the end, and trekked up a really big hill.

We’d been told that the houses participating in trick-or-treating would be decorated and easy to find.  The first house we tried — no one home.  But, we continued up the hill and came upon an entire neighborhood of homes decorated in pumpkin lights or jack-o-lanterns.  By the second house, Benjamin was bounding up to the door shouting, “Trick or treat!” before the door was even opened.  By the time we were through the one neighborhood, we had successfully visited about a half dozen IMG_2136houses.  Benjamin had a fantastic time, and Liam, who was enjoying his first trick-or-treat (he slept through last year) had a great time and kept his costume on the entire time.  We walked back down the hill, got on the bus, walked for a bit, got on the same bus again (not lost this time), got on the tram and came home.  Then, we lit the pumpkins and had the boys try out their trick-or-treat skills here at home.  It was a successful evening.

Trick-or-treating defintely seems to be an American thing:  every house we went to was inhabited by Americans, and most of the trick-or-treaters we came across were English speaking.  But it’s catching on here — we saw a few groups of German-speaking kids going from house to house, and a few of the houses we went to this evening had run out of candy (before 8:00), so I’m guessing that they had more people come by their houses than they IMG_2146did last year.  We saw a few costumed kids on the way back, as well (including one little girl with quite a bucket full of treats).  The Austrian kids seem to be as in to the “tricks” as the “treats” — we encountered “silly string” and shaving cream all along our route.

We didn’t really experience an Austrian Halloween — we experienced an American Halloween transplanted here.  Mostly, we want to try to experience local culture while we’re here, but for today, my kids got to have their Halloween, and so did I.  I’m happy we did it, even if it was a little American.  We all had a good time, but Halloween is definitely something I miss about home.



005Today we took the train to a very small town called Retz, which is apparently world famous for its Pumpkin Festival.  It was a long train ride which took us well beyond Vienna — we were about 5 km from the Czech border when we arrived at the Retz train station.  We had a great time at the Am Himmel festival last weekend, so we thought we’d give this one (which was supposed to be bigger) a try as well.  From Retz, we took a shuttle bus (three fully loaded tour buses ran every hour) to Obermarkersdorf.

It was certainly bigger.  There were nearly 60 shops, kiosks and food stands, several marching bands, a couple of regular bands, floats, a carousel, a bouncy house (actually, a bouncy fire station), a pumpkin maze and (according to the brochure) over 1000 carved jack-o-lanterns (I think that’s a very conservative estimate).

011The town is darling.  It’s the epitome of a little Austrian town, with narrow winding streets, cute little homes and a stream running through the middle, crossed by several footbridges.  In this case, the front yard and windows of each home was adorned with a pumpkin scene.  The theme this year is “around the world” so each home chose a country or region of the world and decorated based on that theme.  Some of the displays were stunningly elaborate.  We saw the North Pole, the Orient Express (accompanied by pumpkin Japanese Lanterns), the Loch Ness (Pumpkin) Monster, a bull and a matador, the Eiffel Tower, a pumpkin blacksmith who was actually moving, a massive pumpkin pyramid, a very long pumpkin train, and a pumpkin gondolier along with his pumpkin customers — all of whom were actually in a gondola, floating in a pond.

016We met up with some friends on the way, and some more when we got there, and together (and separately) tried a variety of fun (and, in most cases, pumpkin inspired) dishes.  My favorites from today were small apple/pumpkin fritters, coated in powdered sugar, and also the pumpkin cappuccino.  We also successfully scoured the festival for another jar of pumpkin seed pesto (because the jar we purchased last weekend is already gone).

Benjamin and I took part in several of the kid’s activities — we got through the pumpkin maze (actually a hay bale maze with pumpkins) easily and then decorated a glass lantern which we then lit and carried through the festival, hanging from the stroller.  (Yet a few more for the long list of things you’d never do in the States:  decorate a glass lantern with a 3 year old, light a lantern for a 3 year old, attach said lantern to the stroller and walk 060through a festival crowded with people.)  Decorating the lantern with B was fun (he opted for lantern making over pumpkin carving) and we’ll be keeping it to use for trick or treat . . . or just late night trips in the wagon.  (Liam, unfortunately, chose the time when we were in the kid’s section to sleep, so he missed out on that part.)

We had a great time.  We saw lots of fun things, we ate good food, we hung out with fun friends, we did fun activities . . . and then it was time to go home.  We caught the shuttle bus back to the train station . . . and then discovered that we had over an hour wait for our train.  In the cold.  With two kids.  Who didn’t get real naps today.  And were hungry.

065But, amazingly, we finished our day with a great hour in the train station and a nice ride home.  At the train station, Benjamin made a few friends (some adults and another kid), showed off his speed and spinning ability, and challenged the other little boy to several races back and forth.  Liam practiced his walking.  Once on the train, Liam took a good nap with Dan while Benjamin and I talked about our day and looked at the pictures we took.  In all seriousness, the grumpiest person at the end of the day was me.  My kids were amazing.  They enjoyed the day enthusiastically and kept their good spirits throughout.  I am amazed and impressed by them.

Retz’s renown for putting on a good Pumpkin Festival is well deserved.  We all had a lovely day in the Austrian countryside and we’re all feeling thoroughly festive and geared up for Halloween.

Kurbis Fest

We’re not exactly sure how they celebrate Halloween here in Austria, but it’s definitely different than back at home.  We’ve had pumpkins available to buy in the grocery stores for weeks now (just like at home) but they come pre-painted.  There are a lot of pumpkin and scarecrow decorations to be found around, but very little else — no black cats, ghosts or witches, no vampires, bats, mummies or monsters.  There aren’t bushels of trick-or-treat Halloween candy for sale at the stores.  The focus seems to be on the harvest, on pumpkins, on the season.  It isn’t a bad thing, just different.

We don’t know what to expect as we come up to Halloween.  Benjamin is old enough to look forward to it, so we’ve been trying to come up with our own way to celebrate (we’ve heard rumors that there are neighborhoods that do host trick-or-treating, but we don’t know for sure, and we also want there to be a “season” to it, not just a night of candy-induced hysteria).  It’s actually been a little hard to do — at home,  you’d be able to go pumpkin or apple picking from mid-September, go on hay rides, shop and plan for Halloween costumes.  We can’t find costumes anywhere (my mom is sending over some of mine and my brothers’ from when we were kids) and we haven’t been able to find any “Halloweeny” activities to participate in at all . . . until this weekend.

This weekend was the first of two Kurbis (Pumpkin) Festivals in Vienna.  (There may be more, but my semi-extensive internet research got me information on two.)  First thing this morning, we headed out on the Strassenbahn, and then the (very crowded) bus, up to the top of one of the hills overlooking Vienna, up to Am Himmel.  It was chilly, and we got lost on the way.  But it was FANTASTIC.

006It was everything we’d been missing about celebrating fall.  It was sunny, cool and beautiful.  Benjamin chose pumpkins for himself and Liam — we could have carved them there at the festival (they had specialized scooping and cutting tools and everything) but Benjamin wanted to wait until we got home (and honestly, they were cleaner and easier to transport whole).  Benjamin and I built and flew a kite together (with help from a VERY kind assistant who translated the German instructions for us).  We drank cider, ate pumpkin soup and fresh bread, sampled pumpkin cream liquor, selected some local ham, ate langos (a kind of fried bread with pumpkin seed pesto and a lot of garlic) and enjoyed some warm apple wine.  Benjamin played on an extensive playground, Liam practiced his walking (he’s not so good off road yet — he kept getting hay wrapped around his legs and trying to fall down).


022Enjoying all that autumn had to offer, I couldn’t help but miss my family a lot.  We all really enjoy the fall and preparing for Halloween, and I wish we could have all been together today.  (Although I did feel very connected with them all — especially my Dad while building the kite — throughout the day.)  We enjoyed the beautiful day, we played and ate and drank outside, and then, chilly and a little chapped from the wind, we walked back down the hill, climbed onto the bus and headed back home.  It was a good day.  And next week, if we want to, we can try another kurbis fest.  Hooray for fall!


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