Public transpor-tantrum

We love the public transportation system in Vienna.  Truly.  It’s clean, it’s reliable, it’s inexpensive, and it’s nearly as fast as getting around by car (not that we have one).  And, since we don’t have a car, it’s our primary mode of transportation.

But HAVING to commute by public transportation, every weekday, with both kids, can also be a challenge.  I take the boys to school most mornings — a 40 minute trip during morning rush hour on an U-Bahn (subway) train and a city bus.  And the major trick is that my boys are 3 and 5, AND there are other people who want to use the train to get where they’re going, too.  (Imagine that!)

It’s really hard to have an audience for all of the difficult times that can happen in the morning.  For those of you who take your kids to school or daycare by car, just think back to every morning car ride that’s hard — rides that feature screaming, throwing things, poking each other, looking at each other the wrong way or 1,000,000 times of asking the same question (at increasingly louder volumes).  We have those, too, and we have a train car full of strangers as an audience.  And, because our “audience” is primarily Austrian, so they are, by nature, some of the most shockingly quiet people on the planet.  What an American considers normal conversational volume on a train is effectively shouting on an Austrian train, so the normal volume at which my children speak is almost always the loudest sound on the train.  And that’s on a good day.

Most days are fine.  On days when the train isn’t too crowded and we get our own space, things generally go well.  If the boys each get a window seat, and I can sit next to whoever is the most fragile on that particular day, I can typically manage a head off any problems.  But there’s no way to guarantee that.  Even when things go “badly”, it’s usually ok.  The boys like to sit by themselves in their seats, so usually a warning that bad behavior will result in having to sit in my lap is enough to save a potentially bad trip . . . but not always.

This morning was a tough one.  In fact, it undoubtedly goes on the list of top 5 worst trips to school ever.  We ended up in a crowded train car.  B sat by the window, but Liam didn’t get to.  I sat next to B, and across from Liam.  Liam kept leaning on the woman sitting next to him.  He wouldn’t stop, so I picked him up and held him, which resulted in him screaming, trying to wiggle out of my arms, and kicking me … a pretty normal 3 year old tantrum.  It’s part of life as a parent.  But to go through that while literally surrounded by other people is rough.  In the course of his tantrum, he managed to kick 3 other passengers, hit me twice and have literally every eye in the train on us.  I just held onto him and tried to restrain him and calm him down as best I could.  He cried and screamed and flailed, but we really had no options.  The train was quite full and we were lucky to have seats at all.  We just had to get through it.  As a last resort, Liam even asked if the guy sitting across from him (a complete stranger) could hold him instead.  (Nice.)

By the time we got on the bus, all was well.  The rest of our trip to school was fun and peaceful.  But these are the mornings when I really wish we had a car, so I could strap them safely into their car seats and handle any screaming meltdowns in private.

Library train

Naturally, there are many cultural differences between Americans and Austrians.  Austrians are generally more orderly than Americans.  They are more careful about disposing of their garbage (and recycling, all of which is separated at the point of disposal here — i.e., there are separate bins for trash, paper, plastic and glass, even in the subway stations).  The bus and train systems here operate on nearly an honor system, which is rarely checked (although highly fined for violators).  On the other hand, Austrians hate to wait in lines and they almost never form an organized queue for anything.  Customer service here is nothing like what we’re used to in the US.  And although Austrians greet people in shops by habit and always stop to talk to neighbors and people they know, they almost never smile at or speak to strangers.

One of the most striking differences has to do with personal volume.  When in a public space in Austria, tourists and new arrivals stick out because they’re loud.  Really loud.  Obnoxiously loud.  Even speaking at what we consider to be normal conversational volume, we’re likely to be the loudest people around, in almost any setting.  I’ve gotten used to this, but it’s still a striking enough contrast to catch my attention.  Sitting at Starbucks, having a German lesson, I sometimes have to strain to hear my teacher.  She’s not unusually quiet, she’s just Austrian, and they have a cultural habit of keeping the noise down.

Yesterday morning, on the train with Benjamin, I was reminded of this again.  We were on the train, packed — standing room only — with morning commuters.  Benjamin and I were lucky enough to get a seat, and he was sitting on my lap and playing with a new toy.  His new toy is a little robotic fish that flaps its tail fin if you push a button.  It’s a quiet, mechanical noise, quieter than clicking the tip of a pen in and out.  It was, by far, the loudest sound on the train.  People who were talking were doing it in a near whisper, and headphones were quiet enough to be heard only by the wearer.  No one was bothered by Benjamin (kids are generally given a lot of allowances here for that kind of thing) but I was reminded of how different things are here.  The volume on this crowded morning train was more like that of a library than of a segment of public transportation.  That’s just what it’s like here.  That’s just Vienna.

Riding the rails

Today was Pam & Joshua’s fifth day in Vienna.  Their trip has, unfortunately, been interrupted frequently by various members of our family getting ill.  Even though Liam is still sick (our pediatrician made a house call today to see him) and Dan & I are still not yet quite well (but we didn’t require house calls today), I decided to help poor Pam and Joshua beat cabin fever today, so Benjamin and I took them out.

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Just go

Innsbruck was wonderful.  We had a good time, we played in the snow, we explored, we saw the Alpine part of Austria.  I now feel comfortable saying “I like Austria”, rather than just “I like Vienna” (I’ve been saying, “I like Austria”  but I really didn’t have much data beyond Vienna).  We’re already planning for the next time we go to Innsbruck — what we’ll see again, what we’ll do differently.  I want to go again in the winter and also in the summer, but I also have a long list of other places we want to explore, so we’ll have to see exactly how it works out.

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To Innsbruck

First off, I’m going to brag a little: I think I may be the world’s best packer. When we laid out all of the things we needed to bring with us on this trip, I thought there was no way we were going to get away with only packing two suitcases and a backpack . . . but we did. It’s impossible to really pack light with kids, and winter weather makes it harder (snow pants, wool socks, long underwear, hats, gloves, mittens, etc., times two) but we got away with only a little luggage.

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Benjamin’s first mountains

Later this week, we’re taking our first multi-day trip outside of Vienna, to Innsbruck.  Innsbruck is in western Austria, 5 hours from Vienna by train, in the Alps (and probably most famous for twice hosting the Winter Olympics).  We’re all very excited about seeing the mountainous part of Austria, and about getting to (hopefully) play in some significant snow.

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Austrians and elevators

On the whole, Austrians are courteous, helpful and generally polite when I encounter them out in public.  People seem to generally do what they’re supposed to do (throw their trash in the trash cans, sit where they should on the train, give up their seat to someone older or less able than themselves, hold doors, cross at crosswalks, etc.).

The example I get to experience, frequently, is how helpful they can be with a stroller.  The trains are generally set up to work well with strollers — there’s designated stroller parking areas on the trains, and doors that are marked which are stroller accessible (generally, but not always, they’ll even accommodate our double stroller) and all of the underground trains are accessible by elevator.

Every so often, though, an elevator might be out of service.  And although I prefer to travel up and down by elevator, I will use an escalator in a pinch — but not every station has an escalator going down, and often the staircase is too long to try to manage a stroller on my own down a flight of stairs (what’s possible isn’t always safe).  And some of the trams and out-of-town trains have several steps up to get inside.  Both can be difficult, if not impossible, to manage with a stroller.  100% of the time that I’ve run in to a difficult situation I have had one or more complete strangers offer to assist by helping me carry the stroller up or down the stairs, helping us on or off the tram or helping us carry excess stuff that isn’t easy to manage on an escalator.  (I had one particularly memorable situation where I had Liam in the stroller, B on his bike and the elevator was broken.  I had no idea what I was going to do — I simply didn’t have enough hands to get everyone safely up the escalator.  But then a woman who had just come down the escalator I was trying to go up stopped and offered to help.  She carried the bike while I managed the stroller and Benjamin — and she even missed her train to do it.)  This kind of kindness is a normal part of daily life here in Vienna.  I’m still a little surprised when it happens, but people generally count on it, and it is incredibly reliable.  I am incredibly grateful for this help when I need it, and truly impressed by the culture of responsibility and thoughtfulness that has created it.

But this leaves me all the more perplexed by the behavior I see regarding Austrians and elevators.  Every single day, I see people go out of their way to walk to take an elevator when they could, more easily and more quickly, have taken an escalator or the stairs.  They will wait for the elevator to come (the elevators here aren’t usually very fast) and pack themselves in.  There are signs on the elevators stating that priority is to be given to strollers, people in wheelchairs, and the elderly, but no one seems to care.  I have, on several occasions, been pushed aside so that seemingly fit people can take the elevator that they had to walk out of their way to get to.  (I’ve seen wheelchairs pushed aside, too.)  Generally, the people here don’t shrink away from physical activity, and the sense of courtesy and responsibility seems so strong that I just can’t make sense of this one weird little thing.  It just seems so out of character based on everything else I experience here, but it’s also remarkably pervasive.  (I wonder if it’s related to the dislike of waiting in lines that seems to be common here, too.)

I am impressed and amazed by the amount of kindness and help I’ve gotten here when I need it — it’s part of what made my mind up to move here when the opportunity came up.  The strangeness with the elevators doesn’t undo that — it’s just a piece of the puzzle that I don’t understand yet (and there are still a lot of those).