5 lessons I have learned from the Austrians

I love this week’s topic for Amanda’s blog link up … except that I really struggled to choose just 5 things!  I have learned so much from the Austrians, and I am so grateful for these lessons.  They’ve changed my outlook, my priorities, and (I hope) helped me to become a happier and more relaxed person.

1.  Public transportation can be VERY functional
The Viennese public transportation system, made up of buses, subway trains and trams is truly impressive.  (The nationwide and local rail services are equally noteworthy.)  The system is clean, safe and reliable.  They’ve obviously invested a lot in the system — not just in its purchase, but in its maintenance, as well.  The people who use the system take a lot of pride in it, too — outside of a bit of graffiti, everyone takes good care of it, and the public transport system will take you wherever you want to go in Vienna.  We don’t have a car, and honestly don’t need one.


2.  Play should include actual challenges
I’ve remarked on this again and again, ever since my earliest days in Vienna.  The playgrounds here are significantly less safe here than in the US — full of hard surfaces, high things to climb, pinching hazards, and actual wood, metal and rocks — and that’s a GOOD thing.  Since moving to Vienna, my kids have learned to push themselves, to conquer challenges, and to dust themselves off when they fail.  As an American mother, I didn’t appreciate how overprotective I was being before.

And this practice of not protecting people from everything (including their own poor decisions) exists everywhere here.  “Personal responsibility” is very much expected (and thus is the norm).


3.  We all need to get over how we look (and how everyone else looks)
In America, we have a nationwide love/hate relationship with food and our bodies.  We are obsessed about eating, and yet we are filled with shame about what we eat and judgement over what other people eat.  We are obsessed with fitness and the pursuit of physical perfection while being the most obese nation in the world.  We have a collective national eating disorder, and we don’t even see it.

Living in Austria, I’ve learned that food is for eating (yes, both fat and skinny people have to eat).  I’ve also learned that neat and tidy presentation of our personal appearance is important, but that we look how we look — trying to create physical perfection is as absurd as ignoring our health.  No one is perfect.  People in Austria also get less worked up about nudity and scant clothing — not every bit of nakedness is something to get excited about.

4.  Free time is so important
I love the Austrian attitude about vacation.  They get a lot of time off from work each year … and they use it.  5-6 weeks of vacation time is typical, and that’s in addition to the numerous holidays and nearly unlimited sick time.  It is simply an expected part of the culture that people must take time off to spend with family and to relax.  There’s no guilt about it from the employee and no stinginess about it from the employer.

Along with this is the Austrian cultural attitude that evenings and Sunday are for rest and for family, instead of time to get errands run.  I love it, and I hope to never forget it.

20140326-153017.jpg5.  How to shift the focus of the holidays
Christmas is, of course, a religious holiday.  But additionally, Christmas is meant to be about being together with family and celebrating the magic of the season.  I’d always found myself, instead, stressed about shopping, rushing from one gathering to the next and looking forward to Christmas not just as a fantastic day spent with my loved ones but also as the finish line for the craziness of the holiday season.  The Austrian focus really IS on time together, on religious observation and enjoying the entire holiday season.  Advent is as much a part of Christmas as the day before and the day itself.  Shopping for gifts happens in a more modest manner, and often amidst the festivity of a neighborhood market.  Living in Austria, I’ve learned that the entire season IS the celebration, and that rather than rushing to complete my checklist by a deadline, the Christmas season can be about spending time preparing together — shopping, seeing the lights, baking, cooking and decorating — not just about THE DAY.  The holidays really are about celebrating, being together, and bringing light and wonder into the darkest part of the year.

I have learned so many things by being here these past few years, and there are so many ways in which I hope I have been permanently changed by the lessons that I’ve learned.  I have also so enjoyed participating in this blog link up, sharing my experiences and reading about others’.  (Thanks Amanda!)

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

What we did wrong

Having been here two years, I think we’ve finally got some distance and perspective on the trauma that was our relocation.  And even though it’s most likely nearly a year away, I’ve already begun to contemplate the logistics of returning home.  (Oddly, in some ways, it seems even more daunting to be moving home.  When we came here, we were expected to be overwhelmed and clueless for a while — when we move home, I think we’re going to feel a lot of pressure to have our feet under us right away, which I doubt very seriously that we will.)  In thinking about all of that, I’ve realized some things we really didn’t do the right way when we moved here, or at least some things I would do differently if I had it to do over again.

First, I really wish we hadn’t come over nearly a month before Dan started work.  We had visions of getting our house hunting done, getting moved in, having our phones and cable set up and being completely settled before Dan had to go off to work, leaving me at home alone with two small children.  But, it didn’t work that way at all.  Instead, because Dan wasn’t working yet, there was a ton of stuff, for legal and logistical reasons, that we couldn’t do at all.  We couldn’t sign a lease without being able to prove employment, we couldn’t get phones, and we had no income.  The IAEA provides a relocation stipend, which we were counting on as income for that first month, but we couldn’t start the paperwork on that until Dan signed his contract . . . which couldn’t happen until his first day of work.  So, although we were able to do some house hunting, it didn’t save us a lot of time, and mostly, we were just living here for a month without an income and with very little that we could accomplish.  If I had it to do again, I would come 5-7 days before Dan’s first day of work, maybe do a little sightseeing and/or house hunting, and then take the weekends of his first month of work to finalize getting a place.

In that same thread, I wish we had just rented a temporary, furnished apartment for an entire month after our arrival.  To go along with our visions of finding a place really quickly, we rented our first temporary apartment for only 8 days, which was an unrealistically short time (we were trying to save money).  We should have just rented a place for a month.  Even *if* we had found a place sooner, it took 6+ weeks for our stuff to arrive.  Having a single place we could have stayed in while we got ourselves situated would have been easier (and, ultimately, cheaper).  Moving to another temporary place 8 days after our arrival was stressful and complicated (and the second place wasn’t as nice, or as well located, as the first).  I’d rather have paid for the temporary apartment for a month and had the “frustration” of having to pay for 2 places at the same time, if we’d been lucky enough to find a place quickly, than to deal with moving around during that first month.  Alternatively, Dan & I could have flown over a month or so early for a long weekend and done some house hunting and found a place, and then have moved directly into it when we arrived.  (Although our furniture and stuff STILL wouldn’t have arrived until 6 weeks after we left the States.)

Speaking of “stuff” . . . I would have handled that completely differently, too.  The IAEA provided us with movers and with long-term storage for while we’re abroad.  We also got to choose which things would be shipping quickly by air and which would be shipping (theoretically more slowly) by sea.  That’s great, but we over thought those decisions way too much.  I tried to micromanage which stuff came and which stuff didn’t — these towels stay, these go, these others go by air and some go by sea — and it completely backfired.  Either because I was giving too many instructions to be understood, or because they just didn’t care, a lot of things did not end up where we’d intended.  (Almost all of our sheets and towels ended up in storage, along with most of my shoes, while most of our candles and knickknacks ended up here although we wanted them in storage.)  If I had it to do again, I would only have stored our guest room furniture (we didn’t know how many rooms we would have, so that was the right call) and any appliances that wouldn’t run on European electrical current.  I would have brought everything else and sold/given away/donated/thrown out stuff we couldn’t find a home for.  Also, because we were “so sure” we would only be here for a maximum of 2 years, there are some things (Christmas decorations, the toddler conversion for Liam’s bed) that we left behind to be “practical” that now I really wish we had.  I think we should have just brought it all.  And, in the same way, trying to sort out what needed to come by air or by sea was a mess.  (Our sea shipment arrived a few days BEFORE our “quick” air shipment.)  I would have put only a few things in the air shipment — the double stroller, the kids’ bikes, some of their favorite toys, maybe a changing pad — and sent everything else by sea.  Our temporary place was furnished, so we didn’t really need anything, and our permanent place wasn’t, so then we needed everything.  There wasn’t really an in between.

So many of our mistakes came from being over-eager and trying to be overly efficient.  Life here is not as efficient as it is at home, and in trying to force it, we made things difficult.  Because we didn’t know where we’d be living, we registered Benjamin for kindergarten near Dan’s work, to ensure he got a spot.  Although that ultimately worked out, and we’re incredibly happy with B’s school, the location means that I have a 45 minute commute to take B to school, and then again to pick him up . . . each way.  If I did all of the dropping off and picking up eery day, that would be 3 hours of my day (he’s only in school for 3 hours — it’ll be 4 this fall).  So, I don’t — Dan picks him up every day.  But if we’d waited until we knew where we were living, we might have been able to get him into a school that was a 10-15 minute walk from here, and I could have easily dropped him off and picked him up each day.  In hindsight, it would have been worth him missing the first semester of school when we got here to have him in a more conveniently located place.

Speaking of unrealistic ideas, we shouldn’t have planned to travel outside of Austria (and very little inside of it) for the first year.  The first year is all about getting settled, figuring out how stuff works and taking care of logistical things.  And, it’s very expensive to relocate (even if the movers are paid for).  There were a ton of start-up expenses we didn’t plan for.  So we ended up frustrated and disappointed that we couldn’t travel, when it was pretty unrealistic that we thought we were going to.  The first year is for getting established.  The second year is GREAT for travel — we had a ton of vacation time saved up from not travelling the first year, so the second year was a chance to see so many things and take a lot of time off.  It was great, but our original plan was just not practical.

The only exception to the “don’t plan to travel the first year” thing is that I wish we HAD gone home to visit the first year.  We didn’t, because we thought, “We won’t be there that long, we don’t need to come rushing home right away, we should use our vacation time to see Austria.”  And, there is logic to all of that.  But, the truth is that being away from home is really, really hard.  Not getting to see everyone for a year or more makes it much more difficult than it needs to be.  I wish we’d gone home for Thanksgiving or for part of Christmastime during that first year.  I honestly wonder if we’d be struggling with missing home so badly right now if we’d been home more often.  (As it is we’ve been home twice in 2+ years, but the two times were last spring and summer, so it feels almost like we only went home once.)

So, if I had it to do all over again, that’s what I’d change.  And, a few of those definitely apply for our repatriation next year, so they’re worth me keeping in mind.  (For anyone contemplating an international move like this one, I hope you can put our hard-won lessons and words of relative wisdom to good use.)