“Die Osterhasen”

20130316-150923.jpgThe Easter markets opened today in Vienna. Unlike the Christmas markets, which are plentiful and sprinkled throughout the city, there are only two major Easter markets in Vienna each year (that I know of, at least). One of these, the Altwiener Ostermarkt is on the Freyung, which is very close to our house (on the block directly across the street from our house).

We love the Easter markets. Not only are they fun and festive, with yummy treats and intricate, beautifully beaded and hand painted eggs, but their arrival informally marks our Viennese anniversary.

Our first spring here, Easter was later, in April, and one of the first fun, Viennese things we did after our arrival was to visit the very Easter market that is now across the street from our house. (We were living elsewhere at the time, which kind of makes it a fun coincidence that we once visited what would become our neighborhood, back before we knew it would be.)

20130316-150935.jpgI look forward to the markets each spring. We take the kids and wander through, sampling treats and window shopping. The amazing eggs are wonderful to admire (although I constantly worry about knocking over an entire display). And, tucked at the back of this market, there is always a stall where the bunnies live — just two or three, hanging out (usually sleeping or snacking). The kids can stop by and visit with the bunnies, watching them do their bunny thing.

Today, when we visited the bunny stall (the bunnies this year are HUGE), B was entranced. He stood and watched the bunnies — one slept while the other hopped around and had a snack. He turned to me, after a few minutes, and said, “You know, at school, I learned that these are called ‘Osterhasen’ in German.”

20130316-150946.jpgI think that is so cool. (I didn’t know that.) Watching B enjoy the Osterhasen, and remembering back to our first Easter market trip, nearly two years ago, I’m pretty amazed at how far we’ve come. Two years ago, we barely got through a visit like that, and it was far more stressful to do it. Now it feels like a familiar tradition, and we kind of even understand what’s going on.

Vorschule, here we come

In Austria, the year of education immediately prior to primary school is called Vorschule (preschool) and the years preceding that are called Kindergarten, opposite of what they’re called in the US.  Also, while the “official” start to Vorschule happens the September before first grade, the preliminary evaluations and the first structured lessons begin in March of that year, since nearly all Austrian children seem to attend Kindergarten.

So, for B, that means now.

As with everything else from his school experience, this is new to us.  We had no idea that the more formal part of his education was about to begin.  We went to an informational meeting at his school last night, expecting to hear only about things for next September, and were surprised to hear about the evaluations that are set to begin in the next few weeks.

I don’t know much about kindergarten in the US, and even less about Vorschule in Austria, but it seems to me that they focus on different things.  I have the impression that American kids entering kindergarten are supposed to already be started on reading and writing, able to count and recognize numbers, and capable of dressing themselves . . . so we’ve been watching B’s progress and encouraging him to develop these skills.  Although the kids in Austria will be evaluated on things like motor coordination, emotional maturity and math skills, the vast majority of the emphasis in Vorschule appears to be on language development.  Really, almost entirely.  As the principal said last night, “Without language, we cannot have any learning”.  (But, of course, she said it in German.  What’s more amazing is that I understood her.)

And, while B’s verbal and math skills are impressive, and his drawings get more detailed every day, the emphasis for his upcoming evaluations will be on language skills — vocabulary, sentence structure, prepositions, reading comprehension (when the teacher does the reading) and verb conjugation . . . all in German.

So, my first thought was to worry.  Actually, my first reaction was to freak out with stress.  Especially because I can’t even help him.  His German is equivalent to mine (if not better), and my “help” would probably hinder more than improve his skills.  But, I don’t need to worry.  First, we were happy to find out that there is a whole separate evaluation track for kids who are learning German as a second language.  Secondly . . . when we get back to the States, is anyone going to hold his problems constructing proper German sentences against him?

Since it’s “school”, it’s hard for me to not get worked up about it and instantly focus on how to improve his evaluation.  The overachieving perfectionist in me really wants to come out.  But, there’s no need.  He’s getting the education that he needs just by getting up every morning and going to school.  He’s learning that he can do hard things.  He’s learning to share, play well with others, take turns and ask when he doesn’t understand something.  He’s learning a whole new cultural perspective.  And he’s learning some German, too.  It’s *all* important and significant, and every day that he spends in the Austrian school system teaches him major life skills.  He’ll have his evaluation done, and the teachers know already that it will identify which areas he needs to work on.  Great!  And then they’ll work on improving those things.  What is there for me to get worked up about?

But the thing is, back in the US, I would have.  I would already be putting inadvertent pressure on him to succeed in a way that works for me.  Being here, and having to step back, gives me so much more appreciation for the system.  I have to trust and respect his teachers for their patience and expertise, for it’s perfectly clear that they are taking on a job that I could not do.  I hate to admit it, but I recognize that I might not have had the same willingness to trust in them, nor the same awareness of the need for me to stay out of it, if we were at home.  And an evaluation of “needs to improve”, in any area, would probably have put me on defensive mode instead of open acceptance, which is what I’ll most likely react with here.  But isn’t that what school is for?  Improving?  So why should that bother me?

As part of the meeting last night, we got to go through and do some of the activities B will be doing soon.  We did a rhyming game, a matching game, saw how they do “reading” comprehension, built stories with pictures, and worked on our prepositions.  And, as B will do, we did it all in German.  It was actually pretty fun, and just about at our skill level.  We learned quite a few things.  And after an hour or so of intently listening to German, trying to pull out relevant information and formulate intelligent questions, we were exhausted.

I’m kind of jealous, though.  I think I need Vorschule.  If I spent an hour each day playing those games, I’d be awesome at German.  Both Dan & I felt like we learned a lot last night — not just about the Austrian system, but some new German, too.

So, here we are.  B is about to start a new chapter of his academic career, and I’m already learning lessons about relaxing and accepting the process without obsessing over my natural desire for perfection.

In short, I think that Benjamin isn’t the only one getting an education here.

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.

In the city known as Venice

We left Rome yesterday for Venice.  We were very sad to say goodbye to Rome, but we’re very happy to be visiting Venice.

399Venice is so cool.  It’s romantic and beautiful and I love it.  When we first arrived in Venice, we stepped out of Santa Lucia train station, looking to catch the bus.  We *knew* we were looking for a water bus, but it was still a bit of a shock to realize the bus stop was a dock and the bus is a boat.

403We are just loving Venice.  The Grand Canal is bustling with boat traffic.  The locals seem genuinely interested in communicating and connecting — there aren’t the rolled eyes or exasperated sighs at our terrible attempts at the local language that we’ve had some places (although that was true in Rome, too, so maybe that’s Italy in general).411

The sound of spoken Italian seems to have two settings — seductive or angry (we saw more angry in Rome and see more seductive in Venice) although I don’t think the sound has a correlation to the actual demeanor of the speaker.  Everyone speaks with their hands, even when driving or on the phone.

438We’ve been to San Marco to chase pigeons and splash in puddles.  We’ve strolled to the Rialto bridge, gazed down at the boats on the water and done some great shopping.  We’ve discovered delicious pasta and amazing sandwiches (found by popping into the lunch bar that was most crammed with Italian speakers).  We’ve discovered the best gelato we’ve had since we’ve been in Italy (Gelato Fantasy near San Marco).  We’ve enjoyed walking along the winding alleys and climbing the bridges over the canals.  Venice is busy during the day and stunningly romantic at night.  (Benjamin declared, “It’s spooky!”, but in a completely complimentary way.)  It is so lovely.452

We loved Rome, but we are in love with Venice.


I would like to rent some ice skates to you!

Most of the time, I conduct my retail transactions here in German.  It’s something I do a lot, and the variations are relatively minimal, so I’ve gotten a lot of practice.  You walk up, present your item for purchase, you’re given a price, sometimes they ask if you want a bag, I ask if they take bank card (if that’s how I’m paying), I present my payment, receive my change (if applicable), they ask if I want a receipt, they thank me, I say goodbye.  I can do that, MOST of the time, without resorting to English.

Every so often I get a curve ball.  The other day, I was paying for the alterations to my dress for the ball, and in between telling them I wanted to pay with my bank card and the part where they give me my receipt, they asked me a question.  Not a typical question for that scenario, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.  It turns out that they were taking a survey and asking for everyone’s home town.  It wasn’t the usual “Woher kommen Sie?” (“Where do you come from?”) that I know how to answer, so I asked them to repeat it, twice, until they resorted to the standard question, which I knew how to answer.  But, most of the time, I do ok.

But every time we’ve been over to the Rathaus to go ice skating, we’ve failed at renting skates.  We do fine with purchasing our tickets and getting a locker key, but we’ve failed each time when we’ve tried to rent skates.  Several times, we had to resort to English, and the one time we thought we’d managed in German it turned out we had accidentally purchased a pass to have our (non-existent) skates sharpened.  We had to go back and fix it, in English.

I couldn’t understand it.  I was reading the German right off of the sign!  Why wasn’t it working?  Why, in this one instance, were we having so much trouble?

So, I asked my German teacher last night, and now I know.  I assumed that what I was reading off of the sign translated to “skate rental” . . . because the sign *has* an English translation, and that’s what it said underneath.  So I was saying, “We would like skate rental”, which, although maybe not perfect, was close enough.  Or so I thought.  A more accurate translation of what I was saying was, “We would like to rent you skates.”  And, because my German pronunciation is pretty good, I was very confusing.  If I’d been butchering the pronunciation, they probably would have huffed at me and rolled their eyes and figured it out.  But I was very confidently and correctly saying, “I’d like to rent you some skates, please!”, and then, I would repeat it when asked.

It turns out, “I would like to rent some skates” is a whole different sentence with a whole different verb.  I think next time will go a lot better.

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.

Regrets in education

I excelled in school.  I was a great student — bright, enthusiastic, engaged, interested.  Generally, my teachers loved me, and I did very well.  Mostly, academic achievement came pretty easily — I studied, all the time, but when I studied, I learned, and I got good grades.  Only rarely did I particularly struggle with something, and very rarely did I come across a subject that was a challenge for me when I was putting in the effort required to learn it.

I took advanced classes when they were available.  In high school, I always wished my grade point average was higher (I graduated with a 3.86 — and we didn’t get “extra points” for taking tough classes).  In college, I pursued a double major, in philosophy and in physics.  I studied physics because it was my intention to go on to study astronomy (one summer position as an astronomy research assistant convinced me that it wasn’t for me) and I studied philosophy because I like to write.  In truth, I studied both of these because I was good at them.  They were (relatively) challenging subjects that I succeeded in easily.

Professionally, I’ve never applied either major directly to any of my work (although I used a lot of the math required for physics when I worked as a software engineer, and writing code was something I learned to do for my advanced math and physics courses in college).  But, my greatest regret in my education is not that I studied subjects I never “really used”, but that I studied things I had an aptitude for.  I spent most of my academic energy focused on things I learned easily.  (I thought that was what I was supposed to do.)  I studied difficult subjects, but I focused on those that worked the same way my brain works.

Instead, I should have focused on things that I struggled with — like languages — when I was in a focused learning environment with excellent teachers and tons of time to work through my struggles.  In school, when I found a subject that was a true challenge — one that I could study intently and still not learn easily — I would finish the course and then give up on that subject, in favor of things that came more easily to me.  Now, in the “real world”, time to learn and study is spare and has to be fit in amongst larger responsibilities.  I’m still not great at learning languages, but now I have neither the access to the kinds of classes I once did, nor the option of bailing after a tough semester.  It’s sink or swim, and I find myself paddling pretty hard with precious little progress.

I had access to amazing teachers and wonderful resources, from the time I started school.  Looking back, I wish I had been more willing to struggle, and perhaps to fail.  The fact that I failed so rarely is a sign that I wasn’t working hard enough.  I had such a great environment in which to learn — I wish I had understood what a golden moment it was, and taken full advantage.  I wish I’d gotten all the help I could have to learn the things I’m not good at.  I was so focused on succeeding, on getting good grades, and on setting myself up for success in the “next step” (whatever that was at the time) that I kind of missed the point.  Education is for trying, education is for stretching, and that means that sometimes, education is for failing.  Education means learning HOW to learn even more than passing tests.  Education means learning that struggle, or setback, or even failure aren’t fatal.  When I had dedicated, thoughtful, kind teachers available to me, I should have made more use of them.  I should have bugged them.  I should have asked more questions, and taken more risks and allowed myself permission to feel stupid and make mistakes.  I was too busy trying to be perfect.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve gotten much more comfortable with asking dumb questions and making mistakes, but in the “real world” it can be so hard to find those valuable opportunities to learn from great teachers.  I’ve had a great education, and I feel fortunate for the opportunities that I’ve had.  But I wish I had made more of them.  As my kids get older, and start their own educational path, I want to be mindful of what’s really important, and how much there is to learn.  So much of it is a challenge, but the challenge is where the good stuff is.

Making a dress, a comedy in three languages

I have 17 days until the ball, and, as yet, no fairy godmother has surfaced to wave a wand and create a gown made just for me (although, that might be one of those things that you have to wait until the actual last minute, not almost the last minute, and your bird-made gown might first have to be destroyed by your evil step-sisters, of which I have none, so I may never know).  I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands (not literally) and have a dress made.

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Learning to talk, and learning German

Liam is learning to talk.  Other than getting “mama” out a few times a couple of months ago, he hasn’t really said anything consistently.  In the past month, he’s learned “No!”, but that’s his answer to absolutely every question you ask him, so although he was “talking” it didn’t really count as communicating.

IMG_2500But, he’s moving on from there.  First, we started noticing that the “no” that means no and the “no” that means yes have a definitely different inflection.  Then, in the past few days, he started following Bailey around the house yelling, “Vuh!  Vuh!  Vuh!” (which is the sound a dog makes, if you didn’t know).  Now, he’s added, “Dah!” (dog) to his canine monologue.  It is so cute.  And, in addition to occasionally chasing Bailey around shouting, “Dah!  Vuh!  Vuh!  Vuh!  Dah!”, which we now understand, he also looks enthusiastically in all of Bailey’s hiding places if you ask him “What sound does a dog make?” (because I guess he wants the answer from the source).  He’s been a great communicator for a while (more of a pointer and gesturer than B was) but it’s really fun to see him adding actual words (more or less) to his repertoire.

Benjamin’s doing the same thing.  Just this week, he’s started to use words and phrases we don’t understand.  We’re not sure how to separate the actual words from the nonsense words (he’s recently started inventing words, too, which I think comes from a combination of hanging out with Liam and being bombarded daily by a lot of words that are effectively nonsense to him).  The other night at the doctor’s office, though, he said to Liam “Schau ma, Liam!” (or something like that) when showing him a new toy.  The doctor immediately recognized it and told us he was telling Liam to “look here”.  Since that night, it’s the only way I’ve heard him address Liam if he wants to show him something.  His pronunciation, too, of words in German is impressive (his ü is way better than mine).

I’m impressed, with both of my boys.  Learning a language is a lot of work, and they’re both doing great.

Danke, Amigo!

There are a lot of things we’re hoping to take from this experience of living abroad — memories of travel throughout Europe, the calm confidence that comes from having conquered a massive challenge, the perspective that comes from living out of your comfort zone.  And, for the kids (if not also for us) hopefully a little bit of German speaking ability.

With Benjamin being in school, I imagine that he, at least, will leave here with a good working knowledge of German.  As he gets more comfortable at school, they’ll be phasing the English out and the German in, and I’m confident that he’ll pick it up.  It’s amazing to me how much he’s learning already.

As much as TV is maligned when it comes to toddlers and preschoolers, I actually have to give the shows we’ve been watching a lot of the credit so far.  Probably about half of the TV that Benjamin watches in a day (and he probably averages about 3-4 hours per day — I know, that’s a lot) is in German.  Much as I am sheepish about the amount that he watches, I can’t deny that he’s learning something from it.  He will often recite words in German that I recognize solely from the TV he watches, and he’s now showing a preference for the shows that are in German — he’ll even ask me to change the soundtrack on many of his favorite English language shows to German.

In fact, he’s picking up a surprising variety of language from TV.  In addition to the German, he’s learned several words of Chinese from “Ni Hao, Kai Lan” and he’s learning Spanish from “Diego”.  So far, though, his mental categories of language include “English” and an “other” that can be called German, Spanish or Chinese but which consists of all the same words.  In other words, he comfortably mixes words he’s learned from each language together, and even gets frustrated with the inconsistency — the other day, he sternly told Diego on TV that the word for “pull” isn’t “jala” (Spanish) it’s “la” (Chinese).

Just today, he was telling one of his toys, “Danke, Amigo!”  Not only was it impossibly cute, but it makes me hopeful for his future linguistic understanding.  He’s only 3, but with learning things like this, it’s an advantage.  What a souvenir to take with him when we go home — not just the ability to speak and understand German, but the confidence that it will give him to go out in the world.