The lost backpack

Getting the kids to and from school every day is controlled chaos.  We commute on the always crowded rush-hour trains and buses.  Last year, in the mornings, Dan would take both boys in, dropping B at his school first and then taking Liam to his school, 2 U-Bahn stops away.  Then, at noon, I would go to get L from his preschool, rush home for a quick lunch (and, some days, a short nap for L), and then go back to B’s school to pick him up with L in tow.  (We’ve changed things up a bit for this school year, but the basic principles are the same.)  By the end of the day, we’re all tired.  L is either desperately in need of a nap that he’s not going to get, or groggy from just having woken up from a too-short nap.  B is tired from a long day at school and sometimes PE or after school sports.  And I’m worn out from managing it all.  Our trip home can be relaxed, peaceful and comfortable, or it can be stressful, crowded and grouchy — it depends on the circumstances and on our own states of mind.  Such is the reality of traveling to two different schools each day via public transportation.

I try to not be the packhorse mom, laden down with bags, books, paper, sweatshirts, art projects, toys, gym clothes to be washed, and coats, for several reasons.  It makes me grouchy.  I’m already tired.  I don’t feel like it’s safe when my hands are over-occupied with STUFF when they should be free-ish to help the kids on and off the train, up stairs, onto an escalator, or through a crowd.  And, I feel that teaching the boys to be responsible for their own things shows them what a pain it is to drag around extra stuff and hopefully makes them more aware of the consequences of their own choices (and less likely to think that it’s absolutely necessary to drag every Beanie Boo on every outing).  That being said, last year B was carrying at least two bags home every day, and the choice was not his — it was school-mandated.  So, I would typically carry my purse and one of B’s bags, while B was responsible for his second bag, and they were each in charge of anything else they might have brought along.

But even with our routines, and our attempts to not be overburdened, it doesn’t take much to unravel the whole thing.

One day last April, we were headed home, as usual, and had gotten to the last leg of our trip before the last 2 block walk home — the bus.  L had recently been in the habit of collecting coins, and he saw a very cool Russian one on the floor of the bus, after we were already on and seated.  Since we were already underway, and I’m not in the habit of letting the kids run around a moving bus, I told him that if it was still there when we were getting out, he could pick it up.  He was very focused on it, and every time the bus so much as slowed down, he was poised to leap out of his seat and grab it.

My mind was on L and the coin, and preventing him from hurting or endangering himself trying to get it.

We finally arrived at our stop, the last one on the line, and L enthusiastically leapt down and retrieved his coin.  Yay!!!  We all got off the bus and made our way through a crowded flea market on our block.  We got home, went upstairs and inside, and then realized we were without B’s backpack.

The buses from our stop run every 5 minutes, so, in the hope that we would be fast enough, we threw our shoes on again, ran out onto the landing, realized the elevator was in use, rushed down five flights of stairs, dashed back downstairs, through the courtyard and the flea market and back to the bus stop, where a bus was waiting.  Though I was fairly certain, just by looking, that it was not our bus, we climbed aboard and checked anyway.

It was not our bus.  Our bus, and the backpack, were gone.  We were too late.

B, already panicky about having lost his backpack, was crushed.

We fought our way out again against the flow of embarking passengers.  And then, at a loss for what else we could do, we sat on the step of the bakery near the bus stop and waited.

From having lost many previous items on public transportation (the unseen cost of commuting with kids by train, rather than by car, is the insane number of times hats and gloves must be replaced), we knew that theoretically the backpack would be found and turned in to the transit authority’s central lost and found.  We also knew that despite the fact that Austrians are generally conscientious about getting things back to their owners (hanging up lost gloves and hats on the nearest fencepost is nearly a religion here) we had never before recovered anything that had been lost on public transportation.

The buses on that line run on a relatively short, 20 minute (ish) route through the center of the city.  So, I figured that shortly, the bus (if not the backpack) would be back.

We waited.  When the next bus pulled up, we hopped aboard behind the departing passengers to look for the backpack.  The interior of the bus was the wrong color.  Not it.

We waited some more.  The next bus pulled up, and we hopped aboard.  The driver scolded us for getting onto a bus that was not the next set to depart (the previous bus was still also waiting at the stop), and it was still not our bus.  We were getting discouraged.

The next bus pulled up and we hopped aboard.  Aha!  It was the right color inside!  And it had the same “One Direction” graffiti we’d had on our bus!  It was our bus!  But alas, when we climbed back to our seat, there was no bag.  The driver, confused at our excitement and enthusiasm, watched us as we walked up to the front.  “Bitte, hast du eine rucksack gefunden?”, Benjamin asked.

And, he had.  With a quick but kind reminder that we might not be as lucky next time, he happily lifted the bag over his little divider and presented it to B.

Everything inside was accounted for, and we happily headed home, grateful for the kindness of strangers, and for the Austrian tendency to help lost items get back to their owners.

The 11th hour

Before we came here, we just naturally assumed that due to the nature of the work, the UN/IAEA would be really good at certain things.  Since they relocate people from all over the world to the various UN sites (New York, Geneva, Vienna, and more), we figured they’d be particularly practiced at getting people oriented, situated and settled in.

As we discovered, this was not the case.

We’ve been consistently surprised with not only our own difficult relocation experience, but the fact that our experience seems pretty standard, not unusual at all.

Likewise, since the UN/IAEA employees are on a variety of different contracts, varying from very short term (as little as a month) to many years, we assumed they’d be fantastic at arranging and taking care of getting the various contracts ironed out, followed through on, and, most importantly, SIGNED.

Alas, also not the case.  And, again, it’s not just us.

When we first came here, Dan was on a 2 year contract with a provisional period of 1 year.  Meaning, basically, that though the contract was for 2 years, they could let him go (and send us home) any time in the first 12 months.  Luckily, it didn’t come to that, because even in the early days here, when I was not entirely sold on being here, I did NOT want to get settled in just to turn around and leave.  After those first two years, he got another 2 year contract, which was set to end in mid-April of this year.

They wanted us to stay.  We were prepared to stay.  Everyone was in agreement on the fact that we were going to stay.  Without a contract extension, our ability to stay in the country (in any Schengen agreement country, actually) would have expired on Dan’s last day of work.  We literally would have had to have been on a plane before we went to bed that night.

So, you’d imagine that MONTHS before the end of his contract, all “t”s would be crossed, all “i”s would be dotted, and we’d be all squared away.

But again, no.

My personal comfort range was 3 months.  All through last fall, I repeatedly asked Dan to make sure that the contract stuff was getting figured out, because, as I reminded him, I needed at least 2-3 months to manage getting the household relocated if, by some fluke of paperwork or change of heart, we had to leave.  He agreed that January was a reasonable deadline for having the contract figured out, and assured me that would happen.

But again, no.

Mid-January (and the 3 month deadline) came and went.  Early February came and went.  Valentine’s Day and the IAEA Ball in mid-February.  Still, nothing.  Lots of assurances and personal guarantees that all would be well and that we wouldn’t be deported in mid-April, but no actual papers, and thus, very little peace of mind for me.

We finally had a contract for Dan to sign on February 18, just 2 months before we all turned into pumpkins and would have had to leave the party.

But even though the contract was READY didn’t mean it was done.

This contract was a new kind for Dan (I’ll spare everyone the details, but it switched him from a special kind of employee to a full staff position), so we (naturally) had questions.  There were changes to the retirement plan, questions about the other benefits, a lack of certainty over exactly how long it would be for, and there was a surprising pay cut attached to it.

Again, you’d think that with thousands of employees around the world, the UN/IAEA would be skilled at handling these fairly simple (and utterly predictable) questions.  But again, you’d be wrong.

It took us a further 6 weeks to get those questions answered.  In the end, the contract was finally signed on March 30, just 2 days before it went into effect.  (Did I mention that this contract was effective April 1, not April 25 as we expected?  No?  Neither did they.)

And so, though it happened nail-bitingly close to the deadline, we finally did get the contract signed, and so, here we (still) are.

Exactly as it was

I have a natural tendency to get worked up about things.  I worry.  I stress.  I fret.  I am, by nature, an anxious person.  It doesn’t serve me well.  Though I believe, in the deep and rarely examined recesses of my mind, that my worry and anxiety will ultimately benefit me, they don’t.  Somewhere along the line, I became convinced that conceiving of, and preparing for, every eventuality would give me some influence or control over situations.  It doesn’t.  I read once that  “Worry doesn’t rob tomorrow of its problems, it robs today of its joy.”  That pretty much sums up the reality, but still, somewhere in my mind, I equate worry with control and control with happiness.  Thus, I somehow think that worrying will make me happy, even though it never, ever has.

I’m also a perfectionist.  (Being a perfectionist might not mean what you think.  It doesn’t mean “doing everything perfectly”.  It means “not being able to let go of the idea of doing everything perfectly”.  Which is crazy-making, because no matter how well you ever do anything, you can always find a way that it isn’t “perfect”.)  If I don’t work on it, I naturally revert to a state where I am constantly anxious about how I can make things perfect.  So, I basically make myself miserable pursuing an impossible goal.  And perfection isn’t even a good goal!  Again, in some back room in my mind, I got the idea that perfect = happy.  Also, not true.  Trying to be perfect, at everything, all the time, is actually a pretty great way to NOT be happy.

I’m working on this in myself, and I’ve made good progress.  I can now see that somewhere in my mind I think that worry = happy, and I can see the nonsense of that idea.  I can also see that my life is actually happier when I don’t worry about anything being “perfect”.  Which is great.  But I’m not totally immune to it yet.

When I was preparing to go home for Christmas this year (yes, back in December), amongst sick kids, sick me, a break-in across the hall and all the usual frenzy of the Christmas season, I slipped back into this thinking.  I spent a lot of time in the weeks before my trip home contemplating (aka worrying about) all the things I could do to make the holiday at home with my family go perfectly.  I worried about what I would pack.  I wanted to make sure we all had the right sweaters, the perfect pajamas, the best outfits that we could for our weeks at home.  I tied myself in mental knots trying to figure out how to maximize every moment of our time at home so that we could see all of the people we wanted to see and do all the things we wanted to do in order to ensure a perfect holiday.  I stayed up late doing laundry, wrote up complicated planning calendars of people and events, and lost sleep over things like whether or not I had packed all of the most perfectly appropriate socks.

Before I made myself sick, crazy or miserable, I got things straightened out, though.  A few days before we left, in the midst of the chaos of that week, I realized that the only thing that truly mattered is that we were going home.  We were travelling across the ocean to see our family and our friends.  We would spend time with people that we love.  We would do fun things.  We would also not get to see everyone we wanted to, because time is finite, the holidays are busy and kids have a limit on how much activity they can handle happily.  No one would care if we had our best Christmas sweaters or the best possible collection of socks on hand.  Whether or not we made the connections on our flights was not going to make or break our trip.  None of the stuff I was agonizing over was going to make the difference between having a wonderful holiday and not.  What was going to make the difference was me NOT trying to make it be perfect.  In trying to make it be perfect, I was going to miss the fact that it was going to be absolutely wonderful regardless.  I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy it as well, and in not enjoying it, I would have gradually eroded the enjoyment of the people around me.  In reality, it didn’t have to be anything different than exactly what it was to be a happy holiday.

In the end, it wasn’t perfect.  We didn’t get to see everyone we wanted, and we didn’t get to see anyone for as much time as we wanted.  There were tons of things we wanted to do that we didn’t (there always are when we go home).  There were peaceful moments, busy moments, quiet moments, festive moments and lots and lots of love and fun.  It didn’t have to be any different.  It was exactly right as it was.

(I mean, really — how could we have improved on this?)

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What have I done?

Yesterday, several of my friends’ kids started kindergarten, just like B would have been if we were living in the States.  Seeing images of 5 year olds boarding school buses with sweet name tags and setting off for a familiar kindergarten experience got me a little panicky.  Because now I’m wondering, what have I done to my kids?  What am I doing to them by deviating from the “normal” (for me, as an American) experience?  Now I feel like we’ve really turned a corner and stepped off of the path I know.  Now it seems really real that the lives we’re living here are different.

My friends’ kids are going to kindergarten, on the school bus, in English, and learning how all of that works while mine . . . aren’t.  Next year, when we’re back in the US, B will be expected to know how those things work (more or less) but he isn’t getting the benefit of being “new” right along with everyone else.  They’re all expected to be new right now, to not really know how things work, and they’re all learning together.  Next year, he won’t know, but he’ll be the only one.

Basically, I’m left wondering if the things he’s gaining by being here this year truly outweigh the things he’s missing.  I’m freaking out a little.  I hope I’m changing their experiences, not ruining them, enriching their lives, not making a mess of them, allowing them to learn new things, not setting them back.  I hope, I hope, I hope.  Only time will tell, really, but I also hope that as long as we all look at these altered experiences through the lens of “different, not less than”, that it helps.

(I also haven’t had a good expat freak out in a while, so I guess I was due.)

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!

Out of rhythm

Having house guests can be stressful.  It isn’t anyone’s fault — it’s just that adding on to an already busy “to do” list, while disrupting the rhythm and schedule of life, can cause chaos.  We’ve just had 10 days of house guests.  Our schedule was a disaster, the boundaries and rules with the kids were bent all over the place, we all shared a bathroom, we gave up our bedroom and slept in the living room, we stayed up too late every night.  I’m really glad they came to see us, but we are all exhausted now.

In addition to the logistics, it’s hard to live with anyone for 10 days.  I don’t think 10 consecutive days have ever passed between Dan & I where one of us hasn’t gotten a little frustrated, irritable or snippy with the other.  In a marriage, you learn which battles to fight and which to leave, and you develop a give and take of how to handle these routine frustrations.  With guests, it’s harder.  There is, of course, still plenty of reason to get frustrated, irritable or snippy with each other, but you try really, really, really hard not to.  It’s rude, it seems petty (especially when you’re only spending a few days with each other), the damage done is disproportionally severe when compared to the impact of whatever little irritation caused the situation in the first place and, of course, you’re trying to be on your best behavior.  (I have a tendency to be irritable, especially when I’m stressed out — which is often — so this kind of “letting go” of little things is something I’ve been working on in myself for years.)

Our guests left this afternoon, after 10 days of, truly, a very nice visit.  But now, we’re all exhausted, and we’re out of sync with the way we usually do things.  Since they left (about 8 hours ago) Dan & I have snapped at each other at least twice, Benjamin has been in “time out” twice (up until today he had been in time out only twice since we’ve been in Austria), Dan has slammed a door, I’ve slapped my hand on the kitchen counter in frustration (ouch), Benjamin is currently crying in his room because he doesn’t want to go to sleep, Liam took three tries to get down to bed and he was even tricky to feed at dinner.  Basically, we’re a mess.  We’re trying to get back to normal, but we’re tired and we’re all at our limits, so we take it out on each other, a little bit, which I wish I could prevent.

Although this all sounds awful, I actually think we’re handling this level of stress better than we ever have before.  Our moments of frustration have been fleeting.  Benjamin sat quietly in his time outs and went right back to being his happy, playful (and mischievous!) self.  Liam is now sleeping peacefully . . . and I think Benjamin may be (finally) too.  We’re still tired.  I have a mountain of laundry to do (including the sheets for our bed, which are currently wet in the drier . . . sigh) and tomorrow, life goes back to normal.

Preparing for guests

Dan’s parents will arrive tomorrow — they’ll be our first guests since we moved here.  We’re all very excited to be able to show them around the fun stuff we’ve found in Vienna, and Benjamin is absolutely thrilled that his “Topes” are coming to see him.  We are very happy that they’re coming.

I’ve been busy over the past week or so preparing to have them visit:  we still have lots of unpacked boxes (which is not going to be completely addressed by the time of their arrival), cleaning the house as best we can (the moutons are putting up a good fight) and rearranging things so that everyone will have a place to sleep that is relatively comfortable.

All enthusiasm aside, I’m a little stressed out.  I think that a minimum of stress is unavoidable in my situation:  I’m dangerously close to the limit of my capabilities every day, so adding the work required to prepare for guests is asking a lot.  (In addition to that, this relationship is not the easiest or most comfortable one that I have, and that raises the stress levels, too.)  I woke up this morning irritable, with my nails chewed and my back aching — and our guests have yet to arrive.

We’ll see how things go.  We are excited to have them visit, and I am doing everything I can to prepare things to be as nice and hospitable as possible while still maintaining my sanity.

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can . . .

The rain

What a day.  I woke up this morning to my first humid day in Vienna.  (That is something I do NOT miss about home.)  It made the heat so much more unpleasant.  The kids and I were all sticky and grumpy by 10:00 in the morning.  It was forecasted to get warmer, and I was imagining just being miserable by mid-afternoon.

026But then, the rain came.  A real, torrential downpour.  We’ve had rain since we’ve been here (although it’s astounding how dry it is here) but nothing like this.  This was a good, pouring rain that lasted for a little while.  As the rain started in earnest, I ran around the house, closing windows, doors and the skylight to keep it outside (where it belongs).

The effect was glorious.  I got to sit in my attic apartment and experience the storm for a while, and when it cleared, the air was cooler, cleaner and drier.  (In fact, the air here is so dry that about 20 minutes after the rain had stopped, our terrace was completely dry.)  It was lovely.

Then, we had a heck of an evening.  Liam tried to choke (quite seriously) on a piece of a toy, which turned me into a trembling mess on the floor after rescuing him.  We went out to dinner and then the rain started again, so we walked home in a thunderstorm (which Benjamin later said was the best part of his day, so that wasn’t a total loss).  Then, Dan got stuck in the elevator coming home from dinner and had to be rescued by the fire department.

What a day.  The rain is nice.  I am tired.