A different kind of Christmas

Yes, I’m still writing about pre-Christmas stuff.  I’ll get caught up.  Eventually.  Probably.  (Maybe.  After all, I still have posts to finish about our summer vacation last year . . . and the year before.)

1062One of my favorite times of year in Vienna is the Advent season.  From mid-November through Christmastime the Christmas markets are open, the weather is cool but not overly frigid, the city is lit up to celebrate and the Viennese are enjoying the season.  I just love it.  I love to be out and about, taking care of my Christmas shopping somewhere other than the mall, visiting the different markets, decorating the house, preparing (usually) to travel home to see our families.  I just love Vienna in the Advent season.  It hasn’t yet failed to be wonderful.

But this year was different.  From the day after the first market opened in November, all the way through the day before we left to fly home to see our families for Christmas, at least one of us was sick.  There were only 2 days during the entire month of December that none of us was sick enough to have to alter our daily schedule — we had only 2 “healthy” days during the entirety of the Christmas season.

996So, it was different than usual.  There were almost no Christmas market visits (and only one together as a family).  We didn’t go out to see the Christmas lights.  We didn’t ride on the Christmas train at the Rathaus, see the decorated trees or ride the carousel.  I didn’t take the boys out to choose gifts for their teachers (or for each other).  I wasn’t able to go to the Christmas party at Benjamin’s school, and Liam wasn’t able to go to the one for his own class.  The days I had set aside to shop and pack for our trip home were superseded by trips to the pediatrician and mornings spent rushing to school to pick up boys that had seemed fine in the morning, only to be feverish by snack time.

094It was entirely different than what I expected . . . but it was no less festive.  We went out less, and we were in more.  So there were fewer red-cheeked pictures under massive Christmas trees, and more afternoons spent painting trees and snowmen onto our own windows.  There were fewer warm treats scarfed up in the chill of the market, but much more baking in our own kitchen.  The boys’ teachers got shortbread that the kids helped to make themselves instead of something chosen from a shop.  And I spent an insane 48 hours before our departure to the US in a whirlwind of laundry, packing, trips to the pediatrician and to the pharmacy.

I know I have a tendency to be ve1012ry “Pollyanna” about just about everything, but (other than the kids being sick) it wasn’t awful.  It was a good reminder.  Our Christmas season wasn’t at all what I expected, and it wasn’t full of the things I usually say I want to do during Advent.  But what we lost in bustle we made up for in peace (the last 48 hours of mad packing not withstanding).  And having to accept the utter “imperfection” (i.e., lack of adherence to my “plan”) of preparing for our trip helped to put me in the right perspective — what mattered wasn’t really whether all of the “right” socks were clean or whether we got all of our presents wrapped before we packed them, but that we were going home to see our family, who were all overjoyed to see us, regardless of the chaotic and disheveled state we arrived in.

It wasn’t the Christmas season I would have planned, but it was no less wonderful.  It was lovely just how it was.


Running shoe shopping

On and off, I’ve been a runner for over a decade.  It started with the bizarre idea that I would train to run a marathon, which I did (and hated, and swore I would never do again).  But though I was done with marathoning, for some reason running stuck with me.  I’ve never quite enjoyed the running — not in the way I enjoy many of the other things I do — but I came to love the feelings I have afterwards:  accomplishment, exertion, challenge, and the satisfaction of having put in real effort and finishing what I set out to do.

I don’t look like a runner.  I can neither run very fast not very great distances.  My accomplishments are accrued slowly, through persistence.  But I do get out there and put the miles in.  After a bit of a hiatus, I came back to running last year.  I started in March, and by the end of the year I’d put in over 600 miles (counting both runs and athletic, fast walks).  I was feeling pretty proud, and increasingly fit.

I also, though, was feeling the pain of incredibly overworn running shoes.  I’ve lost track exactly, but I know for certain that I had not replaced my running shoes more than once since running the marathon … in 2001.  I was in dire need of new shoes, and endlessly putting it off.  I did not want to try to buy running shoes here, where I would most likely have to complete the transaction in German.  I wanted to try and wait until my next visit home, where I know a good place, and where I could make my purchase in English.

But I couldn’t hold out long enough.  By late October, my feet and knees were starting to feel sore, and I regularly had to pause during my runs to try and tighten my shoes — and I never could quite get them tight enough.  I had to admit that I couldn’t wait any longer — I needed new shoes.  I debated getting online and trying to choose some, but my previous experiences of being fitted by knowledgable professionals left me all too aware that choosing the “right” shoes out of a catalog was pretty unlikely.  I was left with only one daunting option — to shop for running shoes in person here in Vienna … in German.

After doing a little research, I was happy to discover that I at least wouldn’t have to go far — there is a good running shop right around the corner, on my block (and technically in my building).  One Saturday afternoon, I went for it.  I went to the shop and looked around, disheartened by the expense (and not daring to mentally convert to dollars).  I chose a few that I liked the look of (though I know that’s not the way to choose running shoes — choosing running shoes can’t be done by look, color or brand, you try them, then you know), and found someone to help me (who, thankfully, spoke a little English).

I discovered a few things.

First, I still have an inclination to choose marathon shoes.  Of all the running shoes in the shop, the three pairs I had selected were all more appropriate for long-distance running than for the short distances I do now. I also discovered that shopping for running shoes here is very much like shopping for running shoes at home. And runners don’t judge other runners the way that non-runners do — just like at home.  When I tell a non-runner that I run, they (always) take a look at my physique before uttering a (sometimes surprised, sometimes impressed) “Really?” (often) followed by, “Just jogging, though, right?”  When I tell another runner that I run, they usually don’t react.  No surprise, no nothing.  Just on to the next thing.  When I explained to the young guy at the shop that I was looking for running shoes, he had not a flicker of surprise or doubt, just immediately jumped into questions about distance, schedule and running surfaces … which was pretty great.

From there, he chose several pairs of shoes for me to try (none of which were ones I had selected), and then I tried them on in turn and ran around the shop — which is exactly the process I was familiar with from home.  (I like it — it’s like when Harry Potter goes to Ollivander’s to choose his wand!)

I finally selected a pair — not at all like the ones I thought I would have wanted — and went home very happy (but also a good bit poorer — running shoes are EXPENSIVE here).  But now my feet and knees feel better.

I used to be afraid

My natural state is one of efficiency.  I like to do things “on the way”, “kill two birds with one stone”, put in a little effort now to save myself a great effort later.  When I had kids, I had to learn to put that tendency aside — kids don’t always work that way.  Sometimes I have to make two trips to the same shop to prevent turning a single trip into a massive meltdown, or walk right past a shop where I have to run an errand in order to get everyone home in time for lunch.  That’s just life as a parent.  Sometimes we sacrifice efficiency for everyone’s greater good.

But there’s another way in which I’ve abandoned efficiency since I’ve moved abroad, and it’s less noble.  It’s because I was afraid.

I used to go into a shop and always plan out exactly what I needed to say before it was my turn.  If I found the person behind the counter was hard to communicate with, or impatient, I might leave without everything I needed.  I might go to another shop around the corner, come back another time, or simply do without what I needed.  If I had a coupon that I wanted to use, I would plan to ONLY but the thing the coupon was for so as not to complicate my transaction.  I would add up the total and have exact change waiting so I didn’t have to understand what the cashier said.  I was in a constant state of strategizing what I REALLY needed in order to make things overly simple.  I was afraid of trying to do too much, and of getting things wrong.  It made my life harder than it needed to be.

But at some point, I got over that.  I don’t know when or how it changed.  But I went into a shop today, and I didn’t plan out what I was going to say beforehand.  When the cashier asked for my order, I unashamedly asked for a moment to decide.  I added something to my order after she had rung it up, and then remembered a coupon I wanted to use for just part of my purchase.  In short, I had a totally normal transaction which didn’t require stress, strategy or pre-planning.

This wasn’t the first time — I’m sure I’ve been in this mode for a while now.  But it was the first time I was really aware of how nonchalant I’ve become.  I can go into a bakery or a deli or a grocery store and act just exactly like the slightly distracted, moderately disorganized mom that I am.  And, apparently, I can now do it in German.

Christmas shopping block

From a philosophical point of view, I do realize, and truly believe, that Christmas is about much more than gifts.  But, from a practical perspective, as the main Christmas-gift-shopper in the family, they do occupy a great deal of my time and mental energy in the months leading up to Christmas.  That’s just how it is.

Every year, I find the process of Christmas shopping somewhat overwhelming … especially getting started.  This year, it is even more so, because in addition to balancing the wish lists against the budget, thinking of the “right” things to get, and then actually making the purchases, I also want to keep in mind the limited space in our luggage for our return back to Austria after the holidays.

So I’ve been stuck.  I’ve had a list of ideas of things to look and shop for for at least a month, I’ve stopped in to toy stores, and added and deleted items from my Amazon cart at least a dozen times.  But I haven’t actually bought anything.  We leave for the US in less than a month.  The pressure of time has been starting to become as strong as the pressure to choose the “right” gifts.

Today, I stopped by our local toy store (again), not to shop for Christmas but to see if they had a particular toy that B wants to give a friend for his birthday this weekend.  While I was there, I saw something I’d been thinking of getting the boys for Christmas.  I hesitated and debated.  But then I remembered that this is Austria, and there is no back room stock of extra things.  Typically, they have what they have, and when they run out, it’s gone.  If I decide to think about it, and go back later, it may well be gone.  I went ahead and bought it.  I looked around a little longer and got some other ideas, too.

And, at last, I feel like I’m unstuck.  I feel so much better now.  Just buying a little thing for the boys seems to have broken my mental block.  I walked home, feeling enthusiastic and motivated about Christmas shopping, rather than feeling overwhelmed and stuck.  Now, instead of it feeling like a massive chore to shop for Christmas gifts, it feels like fun again.  I’m really glad, because I’ve got to get to work!

Getting ready for school

I still have lots of stories to recount from our recent trip to England, Scotland and Ireland, but I’m taking a break from that today for something much more immediate — school starts again next week.  For Liam, this will be his first time going to school, but I suspect that his experience will be very unlike Benjamin’s.  (B struggled through the first weeks and even months, taking a long time to adjust to being away from me.  I give Liam 3 days before he’s running off without looking over his shoulder.)

They are both so excited.  B can’t wait to see his friends and teachers again, and he is so excited to be a Vorschule Kind (kindergartener).  Liam can’t wait to go to school “with Benjamin” (even though they will only see each other every so often, since they’re in different classes — I’ve tried to explain that to Liam, and I hope he understands).  We’ve been busy with all kinds of preparations for going back to school, and this is the kind of stuff that’s always an extra challenge to do in German.

Over the weekend, we went shoe shopping — along with what seemed to be every other parent in Vienna.  The shoe store was crowded with impatient parents and busy salespeople, and kids were leaving with lots of shoes.  (We saw one girl leave with shoes, house shoes, rain boots, snow boots and socks.  Busy day!)  We were all a bit frustrated at the wait, but the kids were excellent.  Once we’d gotten their feet measured, they each tried on just one pair of shoes they wanted (B chose his in the first minute we were in the store, while Liam had to consider the selection for a few moments) and declared themselves satisfied.  We also got Liam his first pair of house shoes!

001Today was for hair cuts.  B is a seasoned expert, but it was Liam’s first salon haircut . . . and the English-speaking stylist was out, so we did it in German.  B did great, selecting his desired hairstyle, climbing into the seat and sitting peacefully for his haircut.  I was nervous about Liam — worried the stylist would cut off his curls, or that he’d become unruly and have to be left partly finished, or worse, that he’d squirm or thrash and get hurt.  He was awesome about it, though — he sat quietly, followed instructions, tolerated the hair clips she used (to protect his curls!) and actually almost fell asleep near the end.  The only person to get scolded all day was actually me — the stylist said, “Mama, nicht schneiden!”  (Mom, don’t cut!)  I’ve apparently been cutting the sides of his hair a bit short, and she’d like to let it grow out a bit.  (No problem — I’m more than happy to retire my scissors.  I’ll be the first to admit that I was unqualified, and also probably the most relieved.)

006Over the next week, preparations will continue — we need to get house shoes for B, pack up ALL of the stuff for the first day (extra clothes, sunscreen, hats, diapers for Liam), choose outfits for the big day, and continue to prep Liam for the experience (both with regular information like how the day will go, plus a crash course in basic survival German).  We’ve got a lot to do.

I’m excited because they’re excited, and because I truly believe that this is a great experience for both of them.  B gets to be back with his friends, this time as one of the biggest fish in the pond, and learning more than ever.  Liam gets to embark on a whole new adventure of friends, school, German, and playing outside . . . but all of it without me.  I’m a little excited to have some free time for myself each day — not having to schedule my showers for only the hours when Dan is home, and being able to run errands unencumbered — but mostly, I don’t know what it will be like to be without either of my boys for part of the day.  I’ve never done this since I’ve been a mom.  It’s a strange sensation, and I’m hoping that a little more free time will be good for me (and thus, good for all of us).

015It’s strange, too, to think about how different this week would be if we were living in the States right now.  B would have gotten on the big, yellow school bus yesterday to start full day kindergarten (in English) while Liam stayed home with me.  Having B at school for only half a day, with the same friends and teachers he already knows, feels right.  Liam getting to go to school and experience this part of life in Austria, learning German and making friends, feels right, too.  Right now, I think what we’re doing here is best for us.  But for me, although getting some early “time off” will be nice (I didn’t expect to have free time until Liam starts kindergarten, in 2016), I doubt it will be as nice as spending the day with my little ones.  I’m going to miss my guys.

New stroller

We went looking for a new stroller last night.  Since we had success there last year, we decided to go back to the same shop.  Unfortunately, there’s a laundromat there now, with no sign of the stroller store.  (Their website is still up & running and still lists that address as their only location, so I’m thinking they went out of business, but their web address is still paid up.)

It is so much easier to get things done with a stroller, and with our ski trip coming up later this week, we really wanted to get one as soon as possible.  (Certainly, we could do the ski trip without a stroller, but managing the trip to the train station, at least, would be so much simpler, so I’d rather have one.)  So, we did a quick Internet search and stopped by another shop, Dohnal, Haus des Kindes, which is actually much closer to our house.

They had a surprisingly good stroller selection, although nearly all of them high end.  Part of that is the store, but part of it is just Europe.  People spend a lot of money on strollers here.  The fanciest, most expensive strollers in the US are very commonplace here, and they just don’t have many less costly options.  In this particular shop, there were only two strollers — not two types, two actual strollers — under 200 Euros.  (Do the conversion to be truly horrified.)  Most of the options are in the 300-600 Euro range, with quite a few in the 700-900 Euro range.  Almost anything that isn’t an umbrella stroller will be over 300 Euro.  (As a side note, the double strollers here are roughly the same price as they are in the US, meaning that you can get a double stroller here for only a little bit more than a single of the same variety.)  Benjamin immediately fell in love with a Maclaren which was lovely (and one of the least expensive in the shop at 240 Euro) but being an umbrella stroller, it was a challenge to use one-handed.  That’s something I do a lot (one child rides while the other walks and holds my hand, leaving only one hand for stroller pushing) so it wouldn’t work.

We looked at a few others, but we were ultimately stumped.  Nothing seemed to quite fit our needs and price range, starting with the problem of needing the stroller to work for B — most strollers here go up to 15 kg only, and that’s just where B is now.  (Which is another interesting thing about Europe — they spend a ton on strollers, but almost no stroller will hold a child over the age of 4, so they aren’t making a long-term investment.)  I didn’t want to compromise and get something more frustrating than helpful, given that the stroller is the single piece of baby equipment that we use most (aside from the kids’ beds).

008We decided to go home and check out the selection on Amazon.de to investigate our options.  After an hour or so of looking and comparing, we had narrowed it down to 3 good options.  Only one of those 3 was available at the local shop, and since we really wanted to get it before our trip this weekend, we went for that one.  Interestingly, it’s the exact same stroller we have in double form, only as a single — a Baby Jogger City Mini (this time, in red, since that is B’s favorite color).

I’m happy with it.  It’s a little bigger and heavier than the Chicco we had, but much sturdier.  It still has a basket underneath for stuff, and I can use it easily with one hand.  And, as a plus, it’s a real jogging stroller, so it should be very functional for walking and running.  So far, both kids have been thrilled by it, but neither has actually gone for a ride in it yet.  I can’t wait to take it out for a spin myself . . . and I hope this one lasts a little longer than its predecessor.

Bull in a stroller shop

Last November, our trusty stroller, which we had gotten before Benjamin was born, broke and had to be replaced.  Taking on a task like selecting and purchasing a new stroller, in German, and with a nearly unrecognizable selection of styles and models, was a pretty massive challenge.  Liam was just barely one, though, so we didn’t really have an option — we weren’t going to easily make it through the rest of our time here (especially without a car) without a convenient “single” stroller to complement our very functional, but also very bulky, double stroller.

Well, it’s happened again.  Our “new” stroller broke today, and we’re suddenly in the market for a new one.  Again.

I blame Dan (almost) entirely.  He’s pretty rough on strollers.  His mentality is, “if it won’t go, just push it harder”.  He was rough on the first one, and then again on this second one.  It lasted just over a year.

Granted, because we are without a car, and we walk everywhere, it had a year of very intense use.  That stroller travelled with us to 6 different countries, on trains, busses, planes, trams and in the trunks/boots of various cars.  It went to the top of a mountain in the Alps and to the top of the Eiffel Tower.  It’s been busy.  And, through all of it, the daily concussion of the cobblestones, as well as the all-too-often misjudged curb heights (which cause us to slam our entire moving weight onto the handle), were probably the most destructive.

But, whatever the cause, here we are again — a highly stroller-dependent family without an easy stroller to use.  The stroller shops aren’t open again until Monday, so we’ll go shopping then.  On the plus side, Liam, who is now over 2, is much more mobile without one (although we’re not quite yet to the point of not needing one at all).  I’m sure we’ll find something good.  In the meantime, it’s a lot of walking (and carrying of children) for everyone.  Curses to Dan and his cavalier stroller attitude!  (Actually, I’ll cancel the curses, and just make him carry the kids.  That’ll work.)

Shoe shopping

For reasons I may never understand, our movers decided that nearly every pair of shoes I own should go to storage, rather than coming here to Vienna.  Only about 6 pairs of my shoes made it to Vienna — and that includes a pair of snow boots.  Although this would have been an emergency for a lot of women, I managed to get through my first 9 months here with only one shoe purchase, but with the ball coming up next week, I need a pair of shoes that isn’t snow boots or sandals.

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Stroller shopping

Yesterday, our stroller died.  Trying to lift it up into the restaurant where we went for dinner, the whole top section, including the handle and the place where the top of the canopy attaches, snapped off.  As frustrating as it was for that to be the beginning of our “Thanksgiving” dinner, I was immensely grateful that it broke in such benign circumstances, not while crossing the street, getting onto or off of a train, or while being carried up or down stairs — all of which are daily occurrences here.  We had that stroller for over 3 years, it carried both of our children on two continents, and it served us very well.  I’m very sad to see it go.  But, much as it’s too bad to be without our daily stroller (and it made getting home last night a little tricky) it really could have been much worse.

I used that stroller every day to carry Liam to Benjamin’s school for pick-up time, as well as for my daily walks around the city.  We have a larger double stroller, but it doesn’t fit easily into our elevator, and is a little big for every day use on the train, so we really needed to get something new . . . preferably before Monday morning.  So today, we shopped.

This is another one of those things that would be a little frustrating at home (“I didn’t really plan to spend my Friday morning stroller shopping, but no big deal, let’s go to Babies R Us and pick up a new one”) but is really daunting here.  We didn’t have the first idea of where to go or what would be available (we can’t really wait for an ordered one to arrive).  We also haven’t shopped for a single stroller in over 3 years, so we weren’t really even sure what was out there, or whether the brands we know would exist here.  We also knew it was possible, if not likely, that wherever we went, we’d be conducting the entire transaction in German — this is another one of those things people don’t really do when they’re on the tour (“Oh, we’re visiting Vienna, let’s buy a stroller!” doesn’t seem to come up a lot).

The internet helped us out — I found a website that recommended a few places for stroller shopping, and we opted to check out the one that offered used as well as new strollers, and even advertised that they could do some stroller repairs.  So, this morning, we headed out to Kinderwagen Sedlak to to some shopping.  (Note: as of January 2013, this shop has gone out of business.)

036They weren’t able to repair our stroller (which didn’t surprise us) and after a bit of looking around, we settled on a new Chicco stroller.  It has a lot of storage underneath (essential, as we’ve been spoiled by our Graco), can be steered with one hand (which I do every day — because when you’re crossing the street with the stroller and a preschooler, the stroller can’t use up both of your hands), will fit in our elevator (it’s actually a bit smaller than the Graco was) and came with a bunting and a rain cover (neither of which we had for the Graco).  This particular one doesn’t seem to be available in the States, so I’d never heard of it.  It’s orange, which couldn’t be more opposite of our black & beige Graco, but it will stand out in a crowd.  The wheels are smaller than the Graco, which means we’re having to adjust to it being a least a little harder to hop up on curbs and trains.  Its smaller size makes it a little tougher to get on and off of trams, but it weighs less and takes up less space on the train itself, so that evens out, but I wonder how long Benjamin is going to be comfortable in it.

I think it was a good purchase, and we managed to buy it without spending a ton of money, and we did it using our German (the saleswoman spoke almost no English except for “rain cover”).  Both Liam and Benjamin have ridden in it so far and seem to like it — Liam fell asleep in it on the way home from the store, which I take as an endorsement.  It’s another one of those little victories in our big adventure.

Shopping struggles

Before we moved here, we asked people who lived here already what we should make sure to bring — not the obvious stuff, but the things we wouldn’t think of on our own but would kick ourselves that we hadn’t brought along.  One of the top answers was clothes, especially for kids.  This made no sense to us — we weren’t moving to the north slope of Everest — surely there would be plentiful clothing in Vienna?  Even not totally understanding, we stocked up anyway — we tried to anticipate which things we would need the most and bought some extras.  I went crazy at the end-of-winter sales last spring.  But, of course, there were things we couldn’t get.

Now that we’re here, we understand.  Of course there are lots of clothes to be purchased in Vienna, but most of them are outrageously expensive by our standards.  There are lots of expensive dressy clothes, but even the jeans, the t-shirts, the every day kid clothes that you don’t want to spend a ton on because they’re either going to get stained, ripped or lost, or they’re going to be outgrown in about a week (think:  Old Navy) are significantly more expensive than at home — and that’s BEFORE you do the dollar/Euro conversion.

I’ve just started doing some Christmas shopping online, and I’m running into the same problem — a lot of what I could buy relatively inexpensively and easily online at home is either two to three times as much purchased here (again, that’s before the currency conversion) or it just isn’t available here.  There are also very few US retailers that ship to Austria — at least when it comes to toys.

It’s adding a frustrating wrinkle to shopping.  We’re having our family mail some things over, but that’s an imposition and a pain for them, and for some things (a few items I really want to get the boys for Christmas) just impractical because of what it would cost to ship them.  (And that doesn’t even mention the fact that we’ve had things take nearly a month in transit from the US to here, so I’ve almost used up my window to ship things from the States for Christmas.)

I’m just going to have to be creative for the rest of our winter clothes, and for Christmas shopping.  I’m so glad we stocked up as much as we did before we moved, and I’ll have to bring an empty suitcase and plan for some shopping when we go home.  And if someone asked me what they should bring when they move here, I’d say lots of clothes, especially for kids.  Go to Old Navy and buy it all.