Celebrating at school


029Though it can be a bit hard to tell now (most days he hovers between being vaguely lukewarm and basically unenthusiastic about going to school), there were a lot of things Liam really looked forward to about starting school and getting to be just like Benjamin — field trips, Lanternenfest, playing in the garden.  But none was so eagerly anticipated as celebrating his birthday at school (and yes, I’m still writing about stuff that happened back in September — I’ll catch up eventually).

Last year, which was his first year at school, he had a great time at his school birthday party, but having a September birthday, and being one of the first to celebrate, I think it was a bit overwhelming for him.  I think he was a little uncomfortable with having the attention of his entire class focused on him.  This year, though, he was ready.  He knew it was coming, and he was really looking forward to it.

031The way things work at the school (with parent involvement being limited to a few particular events each year), I don’t get to be there.  (Since not every parent would be able to come to celebrate their child’s birthday, no parents are allowed to come.  “It wouldn’t be fair.”  Which is a bummer for me — getting to help out at the boys’ schools was one of the parts of being a stay at home mom that I most looked forward to).  But, based on his stories, and on the pictures, he really enjoyed himself.  He got to blow out the candles, have cake, be sung to by his whole class, and open up a few gifts.  One, a stuffed dolphin, was a gift from his teachers, while a few others, containing puzzles, were from us and destined to remain at school, rather than come home with him.  (So he didn’t get to KEEP those, just OPEN them, which he wasn’t 100% on board with.)

643Generally, though he was so happy.  He was so excited that morning that it was his big day to celebrate at school, and he was so pleased when I picked him up.  As with the key chain his teacher made for him last year, he absolutely treasures his new dolphin.  He spent days afterwards cuddling with it and singing to it.  He was a very happy birthday boy, and he loved getting to celebrate at school.  Nothing really says, “I’m so big” like celebrating a birthday at school.  My little guy is getting to be so grown up.

B’s birthday party

I sat down today to start writing about our summer vacation, and in doing so, mentioned Benjamin’s birthday party (the one with his friends).  And then I realized I hadn’t yet written about THAT … and since that came before the vacation, that’s what I’m going to write about today.  (And yes, we do a lot for birthdays around here.  If you’re counting, B had one birthday party at school, one here with his friends in June — the one I’m about to write about, one day of illness hindered festivity on his actual birthday and one day at the pool with the family, which was supposed to happen ON his birthday but couldn’t due to the aforementioned illnesses.  That’s 4.  My plan is to start the vacation stories tomorrow.  We’ll see if that actually happens.)

214Last year, B really wanted to have a birthday party with his friends — his first.  He wanted to invite his whole class (20 kids) plus some other friends, which was very sweet but also very impractical.  This year, having a better sense of how birthday parties work here, I gave him license to invite 6 kids (one for each year of his age — stole that idea from a friend) … but he didn’t want to.  He decided that he only wanted to invite his best friend and his best friend’s little brother (conveniently, also Liam’s best buddy from school).  So, that’s what we did.

That changed the feeling of it from a party to more of a playdate with fun decorations and cake, which was actually great because it made the whole thing pretty laid back.  The kids played.  We parents talked.  I encouraged the boys to play a few games we had set up, but mostly they played together really well on their own. The cake turned out pretty well (it was my first time attempting to serve a fondant cake to anyone outside of the family, so I was a little nervous).  Good times were had.

259My favorite part of the day was during the water balloon game I had invented — which was basically just an excuse to get the boys out onto the terrace and playing in some water on a hot day.  There weren’t any rules, just some chalk drawings of pigs (it was an Angry Bird party) as targets for the boys’ water balloons.  The idea was to toss the balloons, splash each other and generally to be silly.  But it didn’t work that way.  As it turns out, I don’t really have any idea how to properly fill water balloons.  My first few attempts resulted in a soaked bathroom floor, so I took a conservative approach and didn’t fill them to capacity.  Turns out, though, that underfilled water balloons are nearly impossible to break.  So, the kids spent about half an hour attempting to break the same balloons over and over again.  Every so often they’d manage to get one, but generally, it took 6 or 7 tries per balloon.  I was worried they’d tear through them and be finished in 5 minutes, but that wasn’t a problem.  It was generally hilarious.  Luckily, they enjoyed the process (and the results) enough to not particularly mind.  They remained both determined and entertained throughout, everyone got sufficiently soaked, and a good time was had by all.



Every September, some of our neighbors put together a block party – a Hoffest – which more correctly translates as a “courtyard party”, which makes sense, since it’s held in one of the four courtyards of our building.  Everyone in the building is invited, whether they live or work here.  We all bring some food or drink to share, someone brings a grill, someone puts up balloons.  Our first year here, we went, and we made an effort to meet people and connect, but being new and knowing almost no German, it was daunting (although we did get a very neat tour of the hidden catacombs below our building).  Last year, we were on vacation in early September.  But last Friday we got to go to our second Hoffest, and it was a great success.

006It was really lovely, and our comfort and ease with our neighbors and with the language were a striking contrast to last time.  We ate, we socialized, we met new people.  The kids ran around and played, made new friends and ate too much cake.  We stayed for hours and visited with our friends and neighbors.  Last time, I remember gritting my teeth and smiling anyway and getting through it.  This time I chatted and smiled and left because it was getting late, but I had a few more people I wish I’d gotten to talk to.  It was exactly what a neighborhood party should be, and we were definitely a part of it.  It felt so normal . . . that it actually felt strange.  We’re so unaccustomed to not fitting in and being on the outside that being included was odd (but so very nice).

We feel pretty well accepted here.  We’re still “the Americans”, but we’re no longer “the new people”.  We still don’t speak a lot of German, but we don’t have to begin every conversation by asking if the other people speak English.  We have friends here, we know our neighbors.  It is so nice, and normal, and comfortable.  It seems like a little thing, but it’s a milestone I wasn’t sure we’d ever reach.

Birthday party, international style

009We did it!  Benjamin’s birthday party went very well on Saturday.  We had 11 kids and 9 adults — 2 kids who hadn’t RSVPed (including 1 we didn’t actually invite, the older brother of an invitee . . . but if we’d known he had an older brother, we would have invited him), 1 child who said he was coming but didn’t, 1 set of twins whose parents dropped them off and left (which surprised me, but as one of my friends observed, it was 2 fewer people to entertain), 2 kids and 1 parent who spoke absolutely no English, 2 kids who barely spoke English, and 4 different nationalities represented (and no other Americans, aside from us).

012It was great.  The kids all seemed to have a good time, including, most importantly, the birthday boy.  The whole party was Angry Birds themed, just like B wanted — cake, decorations, games, and all.  I think it ended up being quite festive.  I was able to visit with each of the adults a little (and thus even practice my German a bit!), and play a lot with the kids.  We played games, had cake (which was beautiful, tasty and plenty big enough) and ice cream, and even opened presents.  (I had planned to skip opening presents, but was persuaded to do it.  I’m glad we did — it was fun for everyone.)


Mostly, I’m glad that Benjamin had a good time.  It was his first time hosting his school friends at his house, and since we hadn’t hosted a play date at home in a while at all, having a house full of friends was a real treat.  Liam had a great time playing with everyone, too.  He also gets credit for the sweetest mistake of the party — he misheard Leonie’s name as Lambie, has been persistently asking when “Lambie” is coming back to visit again.  We all had a great time, and I think we managed to be reasonably decent hosts.  At the very least, we didn’t create any kind of international incident.  It was a success.









Party prep

So, this is it — 24 hours from now, my house will have been full of 2-6 year olds and accompanying parents for several hours, and, probably, they’ll all already be headed home.  How many will be here is still a mystery, although we have gotten 2 more “yes” RSVPs and one more “no” since last week.  I checked with some Austrian friends (a grand total of 2), and they report that I shouldn’t put too much stock in the RSVPs I have or have not gotten — people who have not responded will probably show up, and it’s equally possible that people who have said they’ll be here won’t come.  So, we’ll see.  We could end up with 5 kids here, or we could end up with 15.  I’ll know tomorrow.  (Note for the next party I throw in Austria — inviting fewer people makes things much simpler.)

Right now, coming down to the wire, I feel like I should be more stressed than I am.  An unknown number of people are coming to my house tomorrow.  Many of them may be people I’ve never met before (parents of B’s classmates) and I may not be able to communicate with all of them.  We’re crossing a lot of cultures, and I truly have no idea what kinds of expectations people might have of a 5 year old’s birthday party in Austria.  (I’ve only been to one birthday party since I’ve been here.)

036But I’m actually feeling ok.  It will be whatever it will be, and if I break every Austrian etiquette rule, well, I’ll continue to play the “not from around here” card.  Actually, recognizing how out of my element I am is incredibly liberating.  It’s another one of those moments when I accept the probable imperfection of the situation, which allows me to relax and focus on what’s really important.  Do we have balloons?  Check.  Cake?  Not yet, but Austria is the land of cake, so even if something goes awry with our ordered-and-to-be-dropped-off-tomorrow cake, we’ll be able to figure something out.  Will there be kids here?  I think so.  Do we have enough snacks and drinks?  Close enough, I think.  Will Benjamin have a good time?  Most likely, and that’s what really matters.

We’re all really working together to make this party happen, which is making it fun just even to prepare.  We spent much of last weekend getting the house ready — cleaning, mostly — so that we would have less to do today and tomorrow and might have enough energy and good cheer left to actually enjoy the party.  The boys have been amazing at helping me get ready.  (Really.)  We’ve been working together on the decorations and the games we’re going to play:  Angry Bird basketball (regular basketball, but using Angry Bird stuffed animals as the ball), Angry Bird bowling (rolling/throwing stuffed Angry Birds at paper “bowling pins” with pictures of pigs on them) and a wall of repurposed cardboard boxes, at which we’re going to throw stuffed Angry Birds, thus knocking down the blocks.  The boys have done most of the “artwork” for the game supplies, and Benjamin came up with the idea we’re using to make the paper bowling pins keep their cylindrical shape.  They have also been entirely in charge of deciding which toys go in the “off-limits” room — the door will stay closed and no one will be able to play with anything inside — and for actually putting them away in there.  It’s been pretty amazing.

We’ve still got a fair bit to do this evening and tomorrow morning, but it’s not overwhelming.  I’m pretty sure we’ll be ready in time for our first guest’s arrival (which, considering this is Austria, will probably be very prompt).  In some ways, it really does feel like a lot of pressure — hosting a party for so many people, including so many that I don’t know, and having truly no idea what people will be expecting or how it’s going to go.  But, really, we can do what we want.  We’re the foreigners here, so whatever we do, we get to make it truly ours.  We can let go of anyone else’s expectations, and do it the way we want.  My greatest hope is that we allow ourselves to enjoy the day.  (I hope that Benjamin has a great time, of course, but I can’t guarantee that, either — it’s hard to know what expectations might still lurk in the mind of an almost 5 year old.)  We’ll see!


In less than 2 weeks, B turns 5.  Aside from the mingled feelings of shock and pride I feel about this, I’m also experiencing the frenetic anticipation of putting together B’s birthday party, which will be next Saturday.  He had a pretty big party when he turned 1, but he was too little to have much opinion in the matter, and I had a lot of help from my mom.  For his second birthday, we had a party, too — he was also too little to vote much, and I also had help.  His third birthday was party-less (aside from Dan, Liam & I), and last year we were at the beach with family, so we had a party, but pressure was minimal and help was plentiful.

This year is different.  This year B really wanted to have a party, with his friends, and he has lots of ideas about what it should entail.  He has very strong opinions, but he isn’t able to articulate some of them until I suggest something counter to his idea and he gets very frustrated with me for not (psychically) understanding.

He wanted to invite his whole class at school (20 kids) in addition to his other friends.  I vetoed, and said he could choose 8 from school (which evolved into 11 once we accounted for their siblings).  Add to this the complication of having at least 5 different first languages represented amongst the invitees, and I think we’ll have our hands full as it is.

This is where crossing cultures becomes an adventure.  The invitations said RSVP, and I provided both my phone number and email (in case there was anyone who didn’t want to attempt English but didn’t trust my German), but although B’s party is next weekend, I currently have no idea how many kids will be there.  Of the 17 invitations we gave out for his birthday party, we only heard back from 5 of the kids.  We were able to contact 3 more to find out their plans, but for the other 9, kids from B’s school for whom we don’t have contact info, we have no idea if they’re coming, and, unless they decide to call, we won’t.

I’ve always heard that the rule of thumb is that most people who don’t RSVP won’t come — people who know they can be there let you know, people who can’t, or who aren’t sure, don’t feel as motivated about getting back in touch.  But the thing is, in a different culture, in a different country, I can’t really make that assumption.  Maybe RSVP doesn’t mean anything in German (I mean, it’s an abbreviation for a French phrase, so it doesn’t technically mean anything in English either).  Maybe, culturally, a “regrets only” mentality is typical, so I ought to take their silence as a yes.  Maybe we caught people just as they were leaving for summer holidays, and everyone is gone (in a country where 2-4 week summer vacations are common, a lot of people are gone for a lot of the summer).  Maybe everyone is just really busy and I’ll get a bunch of responses this coming week.  Or maybe they never got the invitations at all (they were left in the kids’ cubbies at school).  I just don’t know, but I can’t make too many assumptions.

So, at this point, we know we’ll have somewhere between 6 and 15 kids here for the party, plus parents.  That’s a bit of a wide range for planning purposes (somewhere between 12 and 35 people, I’m guessing, because of course, for the non-RSVPers, we have no clue how many adults might come, too).

It’ll be fine.  In fact, it’ll be great.  It’s 3 hours out of everyone’s life, and the only person whose opinion really counts is Benjamin, and he certainly isn’t going to care if we run out of paper cups or if there aren’t enough places for everyone to sit.  He’s going to have (I hope) a great time no matter what.  He’s excited to celebrate with his friends, and that he shall do.  I’m excited, too.


Yesterday, Benjamin invited us all to his school for Family Day.  It’s part end-of-the-year celebration, part open house, part excuse to go outside and enjoy the beautiful late spring/early summer weather.  Dan took the afternoon off of work, the boys skipped nap time, and we all ventured over to the school to enjoy the day.

014We had a better idea of what to expect this year, and we’ve all been looking forward to it for a few weeks.  B loves getting to bring us to school and show us around, and we all had a great time.  We went around to each of the stations and collected stamps at each spot.  We painted faces, decorated balloons, watched/helped the boys do an obstacle course, put together a big clown puzzle, did (and won!) a three-legged race, and knocked down cans with a ball.  Plus, the boys took lots of opportunities to run around with friends, kick soccer balls, swing on the swings and slide down the slide.  We also enjoyed some muffins and cakes made with help from the kids.  We played and laughed and thoroughly enjoyed a lovely afternoon at B’s school.  This year, we know a lot more of the kids and the parents, plus we’ve gotten to know many of the teachers better.  I think we all felt like much more a part of the community this time around, and it made it even more fun.

026And Liam got a special treat — he got to visit with his teacher for next fall.  She even showed him around his new classroom.  (He’s very excited — they have trucks and cars to play with.  When it was time to go, he curled up on the floor and didn’t want to leave, which I think is a great sign for September.)  We had the thought that the next time a  family event comes around at school, Liam won’t be just tagging along — he’ll be a student there, too.  (Which is kind of mind-blowing.  He was just 6 months old when we arrived here, and this coming fall he’ll be participating in Lantern Fest!)

At the end, the boys brought their collection of stamps to the kitchen, where they each got a bag filled with popcorn.  And we got to take two very tired boys home.  Good times were had by all.