012I love Vienna at Christmas time.  I find that I am able to capture, here, pieces of the holidays that I’d been looking for but couldn’t always find at home.  I feel like the focus here is on family, on enjoyment and celebration, with frenetic shopping and consumerism replaced by evenings at the Christmas markets with family or friends.

If I paint an idealized picture, it only reflects how grateful I feel to Vienna.  My time here has reminded me what I want from the holidays and shown me what is possible.


014We spent a magical evening yesterday at, of all places, the Rathaus Christmas market here in Vienna.  The Rathaus market can be a bit touristy and gaudy, and in previous years, has not been one of my favorites.  I was won over last night, by taking the kids and seeing it through their eyes.

The trees are all lit up.  Not just a little, but with enthusiasm.  10 or so massive trees in the park around the Rathaus are decked out impressively, each in a different theme: hearts, snowmen, teddy bears, stars ….  It transforms the park into a wonderland, a larger-than-life fantasy world where 60 three-foot-tall tall teddy bears camp in a tree together.  Then there were pony rides with little fingers snuggled into fuzzy coats and a train ride that wove between the decorated 046trees.  Then we had to try the carousel and Santa’s sleigh, all beneath the festive trees and the impressive yet warm facade of the Rathaus itself.  The boys were so excited to be entrusted to deliver their tickets for the rides themselves, and I was immensely proud to hear their pleases and thank yous.

With the weather below freezing, we were nearly finished by that point, except for a stop at the market for each of us to choose a special treat.  Dan and I had the best hot chocolate in Vienna, while Benjamin insisted on a langos and Liam chose a bag of fruit gummies, which he happily gobbled down right in front of the market stall (to the amusement of the proprietor and several other customers).


We hurried home to get out of the cold, but it was a magical night.  Ponies, trains, trees full of light and all of us, together.  I hope it was a night that they’ll remember.  I hope they, too, can hold on to these beautiful moments of Christmas in Vienna.








It’s been a while since we’ve done this.  We travel a good bit as a family — in the past year we’ve taken the train to go skiing in the Alps and then the overnight train to Rome, flown to Paris and to the UK and Ireland, and driven to Salzburg and back.  The kids are seasoned travelers, and we’re experience travel-parents.  We’ve got a lot of miles under our collective belts.

But … we haven’t done this in a while.  We haven’t done the 9+ hours transatlantic flight in almost a year and a half, we’ve never done it with a 5 year old and a 3 year old, and we’ve never done it at Christmas.  Liam doesn’t even remember the last time we made this trip.  With all of my experience with this kind of thing, I’m surprised, but I feel a little unprepared.  I feel like I’ve forgotten how to do it.

What do I need in carry-on?  What do I need to be prepared for?  What do I need to tell the kids to prepare them?  How is it going to go?  Will they behave/sleep/scream/throw food/refuse to use the airplane toilet?  The wiser part of my mind tells me it will be what it will be and that this is one of the (many) experiences in parenting that I cannot truly control.  My experience tells me that this trip, like all of the others, will include good and bad elements, and that as long as we arrive safe & sound, all will be well and the less pleasant details of the journey will drift into the corners of my memory.  But still, I feel a little nervous.

But even with the nervousness, I also feel excited.  Not only are we flying home to see family and friends, but whatever happens, however it goes, I get to spend 9+ hours with my kids, with nothing else that we have to do.  Sure, it might end up being a grueling trip, but we get to be together.  With the boys in school now, a chance to be with them — to color and talk and read and watch videos, without having to think about running errands or keeping on our schedule — is pretty rare, and pretty exciting.

I’ve also discovered, in preparing for this trip, that packing for a Christmas trip is really a whole different undertaking than packing for a typical 2 week trip.  I set about doing most of the packing this morning — getting the clothes together, figuring out which luggage will work best, making piles of laundry still to be done.  After getting about 90% of our clothes packed into the suitcases (the rest is still to be washed), I felt quite accomplished.  For a normal trip, that’s the vast majority of the work.  I was feeling pretty proud about having most of the work done on Tuesday for a trip that doesn’t happen until Friday!  And then, I started adding in the Christmas stuff.  The stockings, the presents, the treats and sweets.  And, oh my, did that ever increase the complexity of the situation.  So many of the Christmas things need to be packed “just so” in order to arrive safely.  Each item I tried to add to the clothes and accessories already packed required nearly unpacking the suitcase to get everything back in.  And I”m not nearly done yet.  I’ve probably only packed half of the gifts.  Yikes.

The moral of the story is that instead of insisting on bringing truly Austrian things home for everyone for Christmas this year, I should have opted for mail-order.  And, for the first time in a while, I feel almost like a rookie traveller again . . . or at least list an uncertain one.  I know it will all work though, it always does.  That’s the miracle of the last-minute trip preparation, and the miracle of Christmas preparation.  With both of them on my side, everything is bound to come together.

Christmas crafts with Liam’s class


At least once a year, each of the boys’ classes at school takes an evening to invite the parents to come and do some kind of activity with the kids.  This year and last year, Benjamin’s teachers (very cleverly) had the parents come just before Lanternfest and help build lanterns.  1 hour, 20 lanterns.  Great plan!  I imagine it’s more efficient (though not really less crazy) than having the 4 teachers building lanterns with the kids.


Liam’s teachers instead opted for a Christmas activity.  They invited the parents to the school Thursday evening to build 5 Christmas crafts with our little ones — and Benjamin was invited to come, too.  It was great.  We made a placemat using stamps cut from potatoes, strung peanuts onto a wire and made a wreath, wove sticks together to make a candle holder, cut out paper stars to make a napkin ring, and paper mâchéd an angel.  (Lots of activites we probably will never do at an American school — metal wires, peanuts, glass candle holders . . . and Christmas.)  All in 2 hours, while the kids scarfed down as many cookies as possible from the snack table.  (We had a little help from the kids, but in all honesty, Dan & I did a lot of it.)  Whew.  It was quite a night!


We had a great time, and made some really cute things, but it wore us out!  I feel so fortunate to have found this school, and I’m incredibly grateful for the teachers, and the time and effort they put into this kind of thing.  I’m also completely amazed at the job they do every single day — after 2 hours of crafts with our two kids, when someone else made all the effort at setting everything up, and Dan & I needed a nap.  The teachers do it each day with 4 of them and 20 kids, with a permanent smile and more patience than I have.  Amazing.  What a great school, and a great night.


This year at the Christmas markets

Odd as it may seem, with both of the boys in school each morning, I’m finding that I have less time to visit the Christmas markets than I have in years past.  In fact, I’ve only been a few times so far this year, and only to 4 of the markets (which might sound like a lot, but it isn’t for me).

047I wish I had more time to see them, but with our schedule the way that it is right now, my mornings are packed full of dropping off the kids, running errands, going to the grocery store and exciting stuff like showering.  But, each time I’ve gotten to go so far this year has been as great as ever.  I love the Christmas markets.  I love how laid back and festive they are.  I love getting to go for a walk outside and shop at the same time.  I love not having to find a parking space and not having to deal with massive crowds.  I love getting to buy gifts from small shops, and often directly from the artists or artisans.  I just love Christmas shopping in Vienna.


My plan is to do some more shopping at the markets over the next few days, and to take the kids to the Rathaus market for the rides and lights one evening very soon.  10 days from today, we leave to go home, which I am immensely excited about.  But that also means we’re in a 10 day countdown to enjoy as much of Vienna’s Christmassy goodness as we can before we go.  I want to enjoy this lovely part of living in Vienna.  It’s my most favorite time of the year!


003Of all of the new holidays we’ve experienced since we came to Vienna, St. Nikolaus’ Day is the one we’ve adopted the most whole-heartedly.  At school, St. Nikolaus’ Day is built up and celebrated well, so, of course we’ve followed suit at home.

On the night of the 5th of December, children organize and set out their shoes, and while they sleep, St. Nikolaus comes and fills them with treats and small toys.  It’s a tradition much like Santa Claus filling stockings (though in Austria, it is the Christ child who brings the tree and gifts on Christmas Eve).  For naughty children, St. Nikolaus does not come (or leaves only sticks), but instead there is the worry that the Krampus (a kind of demon) 022might come and carry them off instead.  (We don’t talk much about Krampus, and the school doesn’t mention him at all, as far as I can tell.)  I kind of picture St. Nikolaus’ Day as a pre-Christmas report card — are you doing well enough to get a visit from St. Nikolaus, or will it be the Krampus instead? — while there’s still time to make a change before Christmas.  (We don’t use it that way, though — no threats of Krampus.)

The kids love it, and so do I.  They wake up to a little bit of chocolate and a small toy or two, then go to school for a big party and another visit from Nikolaus (he brings chocolate, fruit and nuts to school).  It’s a magical day for them, and a part of the fun and enthusiasm of 037the way Austria celebrates Advent.  So much of the holidays here are not about Christmas Day, but about the whole season, and that’s a change we really enjoy.  We’ve explained to the kids that St. Nikolaus pretty much only visits the children who life in Europe (which is why their friends and family in the US don’t know too much about it) but I suspect that he’ll make a special exception to visit our house, even after we’re living in the States again.

Breaking with tradition

Well, that didn’t go how we expected.

I love Dan.  Really, I do.  But, if he had a middle name (which he doesn’t) it might well be “flaky”.  He had one job.  His parents were visiting, it was Thanksgiving, and the only thing he had to do was to make a dinner reservation.  The first time I brought it up was Halloween.  (I remember because I’d had it on my mind for weeks even before that and I thought that bringing it up more than 4 weeks ahead might be counterproductive — he might not be able to make the reservation that far ahead, and I imagined that if he tried and wasn’t successful, he might forget to call back.)

Halloween.  In October.  4 weeks ago.

I reminded him, several times.  I tried not to harp on it, but I’d ask, once a week or so, if he’d gotten the reservation.  No luck.  He kept telling me he’d do it, that we had plenty of time, and that we didn’t need to make the reservation so far ahead.

But, as happens with these kinds of things, we suddenly went from “having plenty of time” to having almost no time.  He didn’t get around to emailing the restaurant until the night before, and when he didn’t hear back, he finally called around lunchtime on Thanksgiving.  But then it was too late — they didn’t have room for us.  We tried a few of the other restaurants around here.  They couldn’t find a spot for us, either.

057So.  There we were, with Dan’s parents visiting, with no plans for dinner on Thanksgiving.  Yikes.

So, we made a plan B.  Dan went to the store, bought some food and made a very nice dinner.  We had roast pork with sweet potatoes and pears.  It was great, and really very Thanksgiving-y.  After dinner, we still did go out for our “traditional” evening trip to a Christmas market.  We had a lovely, festive meal, and a nice day.  It wasn’t what we had planned, it wasn’t quite what we’d expected, but it was still a good day.

Österreichisch Danke Tag

Thanksgiving is an odd day, and sometimes a tough one, for an expat.  To everyone else here, tomorrow is nothing special — a busy work day early in the Christmas season.  Sunday is the first day of Advent, and for Austrians that’s the focus at the moment.

But for an American family living abroad, tomorrow is an important day.  A day for being together with friends and family, a day to take time out to be together, a day to enjoy and relax and be festive.  Except that here, it isn’t.  It would feel wrong to ignore Thanksgiving, but it feels weird (for me) to try to create an American Thanksgiving in our Austrian home (I know others who do exactly that, though, and love it).

So, what to do?  We want to mark the day, but we don’t want to force it to be something it isn’t.  So, we’ve come up with our own Austrian-Thanksgiving traditions.

Dan takes the day off of work, and the boys don’t go to school, so we make it into a real holiday.  Actually, in order to help us all feel properly festive, they take off Thursday and Friday, too, so we can all enjoy a good, long weekend.  We sleep in (as best we can) spend a quiet morning, and then go out to celebrate.

I’m not much of a cook.  I can make a few things pretty well, but it’s not a strength or a passion of mine.  Attempting to assemble a big meal using our tiny Austrian oven would be a chore for me, not a joy, so it’s no surprise that our Austrian Thanksgiving means going out, not staying in.  We go to one of our favorite Viennese restaurants, and have turkey, potatoes and cranberry sauce — turkey schnitzel, potato salad and cranberry sauce, actually.  It’s our Austrian Thanksgiving feast.

After our meal, we head out to a Christmas market for treats, rides (for the kids) and general festivity.

And, to end our day in the true spirit of the holiday, we finish up with a Skype with family back home.  We get to say hello, chat a bit with everyone and be, just a little, part of Thanksgiving at home.

We love our Austrian Thanksgiving traditions.  They’ve served us well, and it’s become a fun celebration of the holiday.  I feel like we honor the day, but do it in a way that works in our current surroundings.  I’m looking forward to another great Austrian Thanksgiving Day tomorrow.

Happy Thanksgiving to all, here and at home.


I never really appreciated Thanksgiving.  I’ve always been a bigger fan of Christmas and Halloween.  Thanksgiving has always been nice, but I don’t think I ever figured it out.

Thanksgiving, in my mind, has always mostly been the unofficial gateway to Christmas — the time to break out the Christmas sweaters and holiday music.  The time to start decorating and counting down the days until Christmas.  It’s the first day that it’s socially acceptable to wish someone a happy holiday, the first day Christmas lights would start popping up all around.  For that, I’ve always loved Thanksgiving.

Other than that, my favorite thing about Thanksgiving was spending the day with my family.  The bountiful feast is fun, but it was the company of my family I enjoyed most of all.  In a family whose members rarely worked typical business hours, a shared day off for all of us was a very rare thing, and that was what I always liked best — spending the day together.  No matter how crazy all of our schedules were, we would all have at least some part of Thanksgiving off from work, and we would get to be together.

This will be my third year not being home for Thanksgiving, and (like so many other things) being away from it for so long has finally helped me realize how important it is.  I miss the traditions — the cooking, the favorite dishes, the football game.  But mostly, I miss the together time.  I miss the time with my family.  I miss the shared decision to take a collective pause in our over busy lives to spend the day together.  To cook together, to pass down traditions, to visit, to share, just to be together.

That is what I hadn’t really figured out about it before.  I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about it, but, other than as is stated in the name (a day to reflect and be thankful for what we have), I hadn’t ever really figured out what the day is all supposed to be about.  But, now I know.  It isn’t about the meal.  I don’t think it’s even about being thankful for WHAT we have.  It is about being together — about being thankful for WHO we have.

Christmas shares that purpose, a little.  We take time to be together on Christmas, too.  But while Christmas is also about being together, our attention is divided — shopping, gifts, decorating AND cooking.  Thanksgiving, having less fanfare, lets us spend our energy appreciating our company, allows us to be grateful that we are together.  Whatever meal we share, however grand or simple, we share it together, with the people we love the most.

I miss it.  I miss planning the meal with my mom.  I miss Thanksgiving breakfast with my dad.  I miss sitting with my brothers while they watch football.  I miss “helping” with the cooking with my mom and sister (and always suspecting I was causing more trouble than anything).  I miss the conversations and the debates we’d all get into during or after the meal.  I miss it all.  I didn’t get it before.  I didn’t appreciate any of those things enough.  Spending the past 3 years without a Thanksgiving has, surprisingly, transformed into one of my favorite holidays.

Ich gehe mit meiner Lanterne


Liam getting set

Last night, we attended our third lantern fest at the kids’ school.  It is my favorite Austrian tradition, and it was extra special because this time, both boys participated.


Benjamin takes his place (second from the camera)

It’s a wonderful evening.  All of the preschool kids at the school (about 60 of them), each holding a homemade lantern constructed of cardboard and waxed paper and containing an actual, lit candle, parade around the garden with their lanterns, singing, while the parents all take tons of pictures.  After a brief performance by the bigger children, explaining the celebration of St. Martin (Benjamin was a tree!), the parents take their children by the hand and we all go for a walk around the block in the dark, singing.  After our parade around the neighborhood, we all return to the school for Kipferl (like a croissant, but not flaky), warm drinks and a little socializing.  It’s fun, festive, and very sweet (if always a little cold to be outside for an hour).


I love this tradition, and so do the kids.  For us, as Americans, it’s also a little astonishing — with the candles and paper lanterns, I’m certain something like this would never happen in the States.  (Some other parents we mentioned this to last night l042iterally did not believe us.  They thought we were exaggerating when we explained that it’s darn near impossible that a school in the US would allow 60 3-6 year olds to walk around in the dark carrying paper lanterns containing actual candles.  Their response was, “No way!  They’re just candles!”)

(Also, on further reflection, I’m pretty certain that this tradition is part of why Halloween hasn’t much caught on here.  The tradition of celebrating the Feast of St. Martin contains many of the same elements — lanterns, walking around the neighborhood in the dark — but without costumes or candy.)


Benjamin, Liam and their best friends

The boys both did great.  They looked for Dan and I right away and were so happy to have us there.  Liam was composed and happy throughout, and B performed excellently as a tree during the short play relating the story of St. Martin.  I walked around the block with Liam, while Dan walked with B and his class.  All of the kids did great with their candle-filled lanterns.  (Although injury seems inevitable to my mind, this is our third year, and no one has ever gotten hurt by the lanterns, nor set their lantern on fire, nor poked anyone with the sticks they’re carried by.  Go figure.)


I am so glad that my boys, and indeed our whole family, has gotten to participate in the tradition here.  I love it.  And now, officially, it’s time to start celebrating Christmas in Vienna.

We really WILL be home for Christmas this year

This year, for the first time since embarking on this adventure, we’ll be going home for Christmas.  It’ll also be our first trip home in 2013, and our first trip home in nearly a year and a half.  (Most of my family didn’t get to see Liam at all while he was 2 years old.)  It’s been way too long, and we’re all really looking forward to it.  I absolutely cannot wait.

Of course, the reality of it is a bit overwhelming.  In addition to all of my normal Christmas preparations (except maybe for getting a tree — I don’t think there’s any way to ensure it doesn’t spontaneously combust during the 2 weeks we’ll be gone) — decorations, gifts, wrapping — I also have to pack for a 2 week trip.  And, since we leave on the 20th, I have 5 fewer days to work with than usual.  Eek.

That’s ok though.  Whatever effort it takes us, it will be worth it.  It has been much too long since we’ve seen our family, and entirely too long since we’ve spent a Christmas together.  (I know that Liam doesn’t have any memories of Christmas anywhere other than Vienna, and I doubt that Benjamin does either.  And although Christmas in Vienna is pretty wonderful, being together with family is the most important part.)

Putting aside the stress I feel about the logistics, the mildly insecure worry I have about the gifts we’ve chosen for everyone (only in my head — we haven’t actually shopped yet), and the flashes I keep having of the scene in “Home Alone” where they run through Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris at Christmastime (we’re connecting through Paris on the way home and on the way back) I am completely beyond excited.  The boys, too, can’t wait — Liam asks, almost daily, if today is the day we’re going to Grandma’s for Christmas, and Benjamin has asked excitedly for many details about how Santa will know to deliver our gifts to Maryland instead of Vienna.

I already know the visit will feel too short.  (Just 2 weeks?!?  How can we possibly get all of the visiting, talking, playing and general merry-making that we’d like to into that time?)  But now that the visit is less than 6 weeks away, and Vienna is full of festive Christmas preparations (the Christmas markets open this weekend) it feels real.  And I am so excited.