Kinderwagen culture

At this point, both of my kids have pretty well outgrown the need for a stroller.  Liam rode in one until sometime during this past winter, when I finally decided that the inconvenience and physical strain of pushing him around outweighed the extra bit of comfort and convenience for him.  (He really still needs a nap most days, and the stroller was functional because it would allow him to doze while we made the daily 90+ minute round-trip to pick up B at school.  Now, without the stroller, he misses a nap most days, but my back is happier.  It’s not ideal, but it’s currently the best compromise.)

I was recently chatting with a friend about our shift away from using the stroller, and in explaining the pros and cons, I was surprised at how many had never occurred to her.  There were whole experiences that I consider commonplace that she had never had, and observations I’ve made about Vienna and the people here that she had never made.  Also, compared to my experience of having kids in the US, living in this city (or maybe it would be the same in any city) with children and without a car is vastly different than what it was like to move my kids around mostly by car, as I did in the States.  I’m not sure that many of the pitfalls and challenges of being dependant on a stroller would ever have occurred to me if I hadn’t experienced them firsthand.  After all, I did use a stroller in the States, but it was purely a convenience.  I almost never NEEDED it, and when I encountered circumstances that made its use tricky or inconvenient, I’d just skip it.  Here, our strollers have been essential pieces of urban child-rearing survival gear, making life simpler and safer for all of us.  (We’re on our third stroller since moving to Vienna.  The first two were used until they fell apart.)

Having little kids in Vienna means being part of a whole sub-culture of stroller-pushers.  If you’re not part of it, you frequently see and encounter those of us who are … but you don’t really know what it’s like.  So I’m going to offer a small guide to the less obvious aspects of raising small (stroller-bound) kids in Vienna.

Austrians have a weird thing about elevators.  It is incredibly common for able-bodied-looking people to speed walk past fully functional escalators to push in front of people in wheelchairs, with crutches, or with strollers, just to get a spot on an incredibly crowded, slow (and often smelly) elevator.  It’s posted on signs that priority on elevators is supposed to go to strollers, people with luggage, and people with handicaps (and Austrians are pretty rule-abiding in general), but, for reasons unknown, no one seems to care about the rules in an elevator.  It’s a mystery, but it happens all the time and it used to drive me crazy.

Taking a stroller on an escalator is really not a great idea.  Sometimes, out of ignorance, laziness, or actual need (like when an elevator is broken) parents will put a stroller, with a kid inside, onto an escalator to get upstairs or downstairs.  In general, this is not really a great practice, but sometimes, we do what we have to do.  Unfortunately, the fact that people sometimes do this contributes to the belief that it’s a perfectly fine thing to do, and thus complete strangers will suggest that I put my stroller on the escalator while they take the elevator.  Sorry, no.  I’ll wait.

033“But, when you’re out with a stroller, it must be so nice to have special spots on the trains and buses!”  Ha ha ha ha ha!  Well, it might be, if people actually made those spaces available for a stroller.  If trains or buses are even slightly crowded, people often don’t move aside for a stroller to park in a designated spot, leaving stroller-pushing parents having to park the strollers in less than ideal (and very much in the way) spaces, making everyone’s life a little more difficult.  Most of the time, if you see a stroller parked in an awful spot on public transport, it’s not because the parent thinks it would be fun to be in everyone’s way, but because they had no other option.  Also — what is it with people trying to get ON the train or bus before people have gotten OFF?  Wherever you are, this makes no sense.  And when trying to get out of a train with a stroller (and, as in my case, with another child in tow) things get especially crazy if people insist on getting in before we get out.  In general, the public transportation in Vienna is excellent, but it’s significantly more difficult to use (and requires a lot more pre-planning) when using a stroller.

On the other hand, Austrians are incredibly helpful with doors, stairs and getting into trains.  When I was out and about with the stroller, people would regularly hold doors for me, offer to help me lift the stroller into trains, even go completely out of their way to help me carry the stroller up or down stairs if there was no other alternative.  It was amazing, and so consistent that mothers with strollers can count on having someone help them if they’re in need.

The Viennese seem to really like children to be seen and (almost) not heard.  It is amazing to me the level of quiet that the locals here expect (and get!) from kids in public places.  Parks and playgrounds are, of course, free zones for loudness, but in all forms of public transportation, restaurants or other public spaces, the expectation is that children will keep themselves to near the level of adult conversation.  If you’re an American, and reading this, and thinking, “yeah, sure, that’s just common courtesy”, you don’t understand.  An adult Austrian having a public conversation would count as a whisper in the States.  Normal American dinner table conversation volume is out of place, incredibly noticeable and considered rude.  Having a conversation at a “normal” (American) volume guarantees you’ll be the loudest person on a train, and means you’ll probably be glared at, if not actually shushed by a stranger.  I’m amazed not only at the expectation, but at how well Austrian children seems to adhere to it (the occasional tantrum aside — those are universal).

045Want a kids’ menu?  Nope.  Viennese kids mostly eat smaller portions of adult foods here.  There are no macaroni and cheese or chicken nuggets on the menu (though one could argue that a chicken schnitzel really is just a giant chicken nugget).  Though this took me some getting used to, my kids don’t mind it, and I actually now kind of like that they’re not accustomed to ordering from a special list of tailored choices.  Though in other places, where I never would have expected it, there are likely to be special accommodations for kids (like on the regional and long-distance trains, which often have children’s areas and sometimes even family-friendly train cars).  And, at least when it comes to feeding babies, things are pretty easy here — no one has hangups about breastfeeding here.  Have a hungry baby?  Feed it.  No one cares how, where, or how much effort you make to conceal what you’re doing.

574The playgrounds here are amazing.  Even if you don’t have kids, stop by a Viennese playground if you ever get the chance.  They’re more challenging and less protective than what I was used to, and they very often incorporate water and other natural features (dirt, rocks, sand).  There are a lot more ways in which kids could potentially get hurt at these playgrounds, but there are also a lot more ways for them to challenge themselves.  And the parents “hover” less than I was used to at home, too.  When we first got here, I was definitely the most hovering parent at the playground.  These days, I’m more likely to hang back with the other parents (though I still hover more than is typical).  They also don’t lavish praise on (or “encourage”) their kids like we do in the States.  I’m usually the only mom at the playground saying, “Great job, guys!” (and not just because the other parents are speaking German).

232Austrians apparently own the entire sidewalk.  Walking anywhere here, you’ll encounter people walking the opposite way who will very happily crash right into you, or walk you right out into the street, rather than move over a few inches to make a space for you.  On even a very narrow sidewalk, two people will walk abreast rather than move to single file to allow foot traffic in the opposite direction to pass.  This is even true if you’re walking with a small child, or pushing a stroller.  Nobody is moving over.  I’m pretty sure this is why Austrians have the habit of walking in front of their kids, single file, instead of with their kids, holding hands (which is what I’m used to).  When I first saw this, I was horrified, because it looks like they’re just walking off without their kids.  Now I get it, though — sometimes there’s no other practical option.

Adults holding cigarettes inadvertently carry them at a child’s face height.  And Austria has the highest smoking rate in Europe.  Thus, I’m constantly freaked out about my kids getting burned in the face by a distracted person holding a cigarette.  I suspect this makes me much more aware of the number of people smoking around me than the average person.

Though a lot of this kind of came out as a list of grievances, by and large we’ve found Vienna to be a FANTASTIC place to raise our kids.  The culture, history, environment and education here are excellent and we love enjoying and exploring this city with our boys.  But there are definitely a few elements to life in Vienna that I’m not sure I would ever have seen so clearly if I hadn’t parented my very small kids here.  “Vienna”, and “Vienna — with kids”, can feel like two different places.

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).