Kinderwagen culture

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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.

As American as pumpkin pie

Living here is a constant adventure (as I think I may have mentioned once or twice).  We are trying new things, seeing new places, and challenging ourselves to learn and grow – constantly.  A lot of it is amazing and wonderful.  I’ve crossed a lifetime’s worth of experiences and travel destinations off of my wish list in the four years we’ve been here, and living in Europe is undeniably cool and enriching beyond what I could have imagined.  But, being far from home, away from our loved ones and outside of our familiar communities can also be intensely hard.  It’s usually worst around the holidays … and even more so when those holidays don’t exist here.  Christmas and Easter and beautiful, fun and festive here.  Thanksgiving and July 4th, not so much.  It causes us to bond strongly, and sometimes strangely, with our fellow Americans.

Anytime I meet an American here — tourist, ex-pat or immigrant — I feel immediately connected to them.  From the first moment, we have so much in common — language, social cues, cultural framework.  It’s just so easy to interact with another American.  We instantly “get” each other (in a way I always took for granted before).  When it’s someone I get to know a bit better, over time, the person is likely to feel like a friend, even if I only know them professionally.

With our pediatrician, who is not only American (and Austrian), but also roughly my age (she’s younger) and the mom to two small kids (her twins are nearly exactly between my boys in age), I have a particular tendency to accidentally sometimes treat her friend-ish, rather than doctor-ish.

But it’s not just down to me and my tendency to treat everyone I see a lot as a friend (which I do).  The nature of living abroad can sometimes change the situation and increase the blurriness between friends and professional acquaintances.  Which is how our pediatrician helped me make pumpkin cheesecake for Thanksgiving this year.

The boys and I were in her office in mid-November, because B had been having some asthma-like reactions to a nasty head cold that just wouldn’t go away (everything turned out fine, ultimately).  While I was paying the bill at the end of our visit (which, here, happens directly to the doctor, because most of them do not have receptionists, nurses, or office staff) we chatted about Thanksgiving, and lamented the difficulty of finding good Thanksgiving supplies so far from home.  Thanksgiving is so very American, and so many of the foods we eat for it are uncommon in Europe.  Sweet potatoes?  Good luck.  Turkey?  No way — besides, it won’t fit in the oven.  Graham cracker crust?  Better start smashing some graham crackers!  Pumpkin pie spice?  Ha ha ha ha — make your own.  And, in the course of chatting, I told her how I’d learned to roast my own pumpkin in order to make my own pumpkin purée for a pumpkin cheesecake I made for Halloween, but that it was kind of a pain, and that I was just going to skip it for Thanksgiving.  We both agreed (surprisingly enough, for Americans) that we weren’t really huge fans of pumpkin pie.  And then she remembered that she had, sitting on a shelf in her pantry, a can of pumpkin pie filling that she was not going to use.

And that’s how I ended up, the following Sunday evening, texting her to remember to bring it to the office, which she did, and B & I picked it up the next morning at his follow up appointment.  And so, our pediatrician helped us have the stuff to make pumpkin cheesecake for Thanksgiving — an Austrian Thanksgiving surprise.

Things you know now

One of the only things that comes even nearly close to being as wonderful as being a mom myself has been getting to be an aunt to my nephew.  Even though I’m very far away, and I’ve only ever spent a few days with him, I love him and miss him in a way that is quite unique.  Being an aunt is pretty fantastic.  I get to watch in awe as this little person grows and learns and changes and becomes more and more himself every day, but I don’t have any of the responsibility of actually raising him.  It’s a pretty sweet deal, actually, and I get now what everyone has meant all these years when they talk about their nieces and nephews.

In honor of his (not so recent) arrival, I wanted to share with his amazing parents some of the things that, being a parent myself, I know that they know now.  (Welcome to the club, guys!)

  • Your parents were really serious all those times they said that you didn’t really understand the way that they loved you.  But now you do.
  • You have a whole new appreciation for how well your parents really did all those years, especially given that you know now that they really didn’t have any idea what they were doing a lot of the time.
  • Now you get why all of your parent-friends and parent-relatives are sometimes unexpectedly late or absent from social events.  Because: baby.
  • Most likely, you know more now about prayer than you ever have before in your life.
  • You now know that for reasons that no one will ever understand, babies always wake up early on days you could possibly sleep in, and sleep in on days you have to be somewhere early.
  • You know now that all parents are profoundly insecure.  None of us actually knows what we’re doing, and we all make (sometimes massive) mistakes.
  • You know now that your nose will always be itchiest in the middle of the worst diaper changes.
  • You know now that you absolutely could and would harm anyone who tried to hurt your child.
  • You know now that the fantasy and the reality of curling up for a nap with your little one are completely different.
  • You know now how terrified you can be because of a little fever in the middle of the night.
  • You now wish you could kick yourself for all the times you wanted to skip a nap as a child.
  • You now know that the cards you made with macaroni and glitter really WERE your parents’ favorite gifts.
  • You know now that the world is full of people who feel all these same things about their children . . . and that changes your view of the world quite a bit.

I love you guys, and I love my wonderful little nephew.  Welcome to the big, wonderful, terrifying world of parenting.  It’s a gigantic adventure!

Liam and the dentist

When I was little, my dad always used to say, “If you ignore your teeth, they’ll go away”.  I don’t know if that’s what did it, but I’ve always taken good care of my teeth.  I floss and brush carefully and religiously, and I’ve tried to instill the same respect for oral hygiene in my kids.  I know, though, that along with good home care comes the requirement for a good dentist to aid in the protection of our teeth.  I was so lucky to have a great dentist when I was a kid, who helped me create good habits and, possibly most importantly, never gave me cause to be afraid of going to the dentist.

As a mom, it’s been very important to me to make my kids’ early dental appointments as positive as possible.  I know that if they get in the habit now, they’re more likely to keep it up as they get older.  I also know that even one bad experience now can turn them into the type of adults who would rather do anything than go to the dentist.  It’s not always easy, though.  Little kids aren’t always up for letting a stranger get close to them, let alone for opening up their mouth for one, no matter how many reassurances they get.  And the process of a dental cleaning can be uncomfortable, awkward and scary, even if you aren’t a little kid.

With Benjamin, we’ve been really lucky.  First, he is just a generally cooperative kid.  He wants to do the things we ask, most of the time.  In fact, the vast majority of the time, simply asking him to do something — even something as “awful” as putting away his toys, or walking away from the ipad — is enough to get it to happen.  We did once make a visit to a pediatric dentist who explained that if the kids were difficult, they’d be strapped down … but we only stayed long enough for them to “count” Benjamin’s teeth — code for getting the kid to allow this stranger to put a mirror in their mouth and do a quick exam — and we did not go back.  Instead, we subsequently took Benjamin to our own wonderful dentist and excellent hygienist back in the US, and by the time we relocated to Vienna, he already had a positive foundation to build on.  Once he realized that the dentist here had a toy bin that he could choose from after his cleanings, just like the dentist back home, he was perfectly happy to have his teeth cleaned in Austria.

With Liam, we have not been as lucky.  When we moved to Austria, he hadn’t yet gotten any teeth, so he didn’t have any “pre-Austria” experience to draw on.  Liam is also not generally what I would call a compliant kid.  He’s not fundamentally uncooperative, either, but Liam is very unlikely to be bribed, cajoled, encouraged, pushed, led, strong-armed or threatened into doing ANYTHING that he really doesn’t want to do.  You can sometimes convince him, but you can’t coerce him.  When pushed, he pushes back.  So while lots of praise, encouragement and baby steps got us easily through Benjamin’s first dental cleanings, nothing could get us through Liam’s.  Starting when he was about 18 months old, we started having him accompany us (including Benjamin) on our cleanings, just so he could watch the goings on and get used to the idea.  This part went fine.  It took a bit of patience on the part of our dentist, but after some very kind requests, Liam did once let the dentist count his teeth without complaint.  Once.

There was nothing obviously traumatic about that visit, but after that one visit to the dentist when he was about 2, he was totally done with the idea.  We could explain to him what was going to happen, and he would simply say “no”.  We could ask if he was worried, and he’d say, “I just don’t want to”.  He would GO to the dentist without a problem — no tears, no worry, no fear — he would happily walk into the office, climb into my lap in the chair, and look at the dentist . . . he just wouldn’t open his mouth.  No promise of toys, pleading, stern insistence or threat of withholding treats made one ounce of difference.  Short of actual force, it was just not going to happen.

And so, it didn’t.  Every evening at home we’d brush and floss, and we’d brush every morning.  He didn’t love the process, and certainly complained more about it than B ever had, but we made it through, most every day, without major issue.  But when it came to the dentist, it was just not happening.

But, as time went on, as he turned 3, and then 4, the need to have his teeth actually checked and to get the process of cleaning them started became more pressing.  I would take him in every time B or myself had a cleaning, and we’d give it a try with Liam.  Each time, before we went, we’d talk about what was going to happen at the dentist’s office.  We’d practice at home during teeth brushing times.  We’d talk about how important it is, and how everyone needs to get their teeth cleaned.  B would reassure him that it had always gone fine for him.  A few times, Liam allowed the dentist to look in his mouth and count his teeth, but when it came to the idea of actually cleaning them, we had no luck.  He would clamp his mouth shut and completely refuse.  I’d try to convince him, and he’d cry.  The dentist suggested bringing him in on his own, not during someone else’s cleaning, so we tried that.  Still no.  The dentist suggested bringing him a month later, so he could find the surroundings more familiar.  Nope.

We tried again a month after that.  This time — success!  He allowed the hygenist to clean 3 of his teeth.  Yay!  Wonderful!  Lots of praise.  I was certain we were on our way!

We came back again about a month later.  No progress.  He was still only up for getting about 3 teeth cleaned (and I was a bit frustrated that the hygenist started over with the same 3 teeth — I’d been thinking that at least we could maybe get through his mouth 3 teeth at a time . . . but no).

I try, as best I can, to balance being empathetic with my kids against the fact that certain things really DO need to happen.  I get that they’re scared of the dark, but I’m not up for them sleeping with the lights on.  I know that going to school can be tiring and sometimes scary when you’re little, but it’s important to go and learn.  I know that vaccines hurt, but they’re essential.  In this case, I couldn’t tell whether I was being overly empathetic, and basically feeding into his fears by letting him say when he’d had enough, or if my forcing the issue of him getting his teeth cleaned was making a bad situation worse.  I wasn’t going to flat-out force him, and I wasn’t getting a lot of support or direction from the dental staff — I still don’t know if they thought I was going too easy on him or making too big a deal of it (and though I might not have been swayed by their opinion, I wish I had known what they thought, since they have much more experience with this than I do).

When we flew home for Christmas, I decided to try what had worked so well for Benjamin when he was little — we went to our dentist at home, had Liam watch Benjamin and I get our cleanings, and then it would be his turn.  Benjamin did great.  Liam got his teeth counted, but no more.  At the sight of the cleaning tools, he was done.  (Again.)

I was totally frustrated.  I was worried about Liam’s teeth.  I was tired of going to the dentist once a month.  I was embarassed that though I could clean his teeth at home, I couldn’t convince him to let the dentist clean his teeth (I’m fairly certain our dental hygenist here in Austria doesn’t believe me that I was brushing and flossing his teeth every day).  I was afraid of creating a lifelong phobia or setting him up for serious dentral trouble down the road.  I had no idea what else to do or try.

In January, after things had calmed down from the holidays, we went back again to our dentist here in Vienna.  I talked with Liam beforehand.  We’d talked about what I wanted the dentist to do and why.  I explained that he’d be safe.  I promised that I’d hold him.  I assured him that it wouldn’t be much different from what we did at home every night.  He said the dentist could count his teeth, and that the hygenist could clean a few of them.  I agreed that’s what we’d do.

And, for some reason, this time was completely differnt.

He was still nervous.  He still wanted to go slowly and only do a few teeth at a time.  But he ultimately let her clean all of his teeth.  We went from 3 teeth at a time to all of his teeth at once, and he was fine.  He wasn’t traumatized.  He didn’t cry.  He didn’t object at all.  I have no idea why.  I don’t know what changed.  He was so proud at the end.  I was so proud of him, and so relieved that we’d made that progress.  I was so grateful that we’d FINALLY gotten that first cleaning done, and that it was a positive experience.

Next month, we go back to try for a second time.  I’m hoping that he’ll remember that positive experience, and remember that it wasn’t as scary as he’d feared.

I’m an aunt!!!!

Back in November, I became an aunt, and I’m really happy about it.  My nephew is cute and sweet and absolutely wonderful, and his parents have been doing a truly AMAZING job of being new parents.  They’re way more relaxed, more comfortable, and significantly less stressed than I was in the first few months (or, perhaps, the first few  years).  This whole thing is pretty great.  We got to meet him when we were home over Christmas — he was just over a month old when we arrived home.  I miss him a lot, and it’s hard to see him growing and changing while we’re so far away.  I never would have expected that I would be so far away from home when my first niece or nephew was born.  I always imagined that I’d be nearby, able to come over, to bring dinner, to babysit, to answer endless “did your kids …” and “is it normal when …” questions.  I haven’t been able to do much of that, and though I know that my mental image may have been based more on fantasy than in fact, it’s undeniable that being so far away has fundamentally changed the dynamic that would have existed if we still lived 45 minutes away.

Adults change slowly.  We keep in touch pretty well over Skype, text, email, Facebook.  But babies change quickly, and they only get to know the people who are around them a lot.  It’s hard to have not been there for his first few months, and for the next few months, and for the rest of however long we are here.  I love this adventure, and I am glad that we are here and are doing what we are doing, but I wish we could be having this experience and be about 15 minutes away from our family at the same time.

I am a proud auntie, and I think my nephew is super cool.  Thanks to Adam and Kristin for having him and for being amazing parents to him.  (And thanks for finally making me Auntie Em!)

Lanternfest . . . or not

515I’ve often said that of all the new traditions we’ve discovered in Vienna, Lanternfest is my favorite.  I love watching the kids with their homemade lanterns out in the autumn evening, I love their songs, I love the story of St. Martin and the moral of charity and kindness.  I’m a fan.  Benjamin got to do Lanternfest all 3 years he was in preschool, and last year the boys got to do it together (which I particularly loved).

Because it happens in the dark, it can be tough to see — especially for the kids, who are holding lanterns, it’s hard for them to pick out the faces of their parents beyond the glow of their own lanterns.  So, even though the school practices for a few weeks leading up to it (but only in the daytime), there are always a few of the little ones who dissolve into tears once the parade and singing start.

518It happened to Benjamin his first year — he got freaked out by not being able to find us in the dark.  One of his teachers brought him to us (because, in the dark, it was equally impossible for us to tell that he was the one who was upset) and he was able to finish up the performance, just holding my hand.  After that first year, he was fine.

With Liam, we were lucky, since he had the advantage of having seen the whole thing several times by the time it was his turn to do it.  He was finally getting his wish and was up there with the “big kids”, so he was more excited than worried!  Besides, Benjamin was participating too, so he wasn’t there alone (not that any of them is there alone — there are 60+ kids at the school, plus teachers and parents, but a lot of the kids still experience it as being “alone”).  He did great last year.

527So this year, our collective fourth Lanternfest, and Liam’s second as a participant, we expected smooth sailing.  B was a little sad to not be involved, so we dug out his old lantern from last year and he brought that along to hold while he watched.  We took Liam to his class, dropped him off with his teacher and went to find a good spot to watch the show.

Liam didn’t make it to the show, though.  For reasons I don’t entirely understand, Liam freaked out before it was even time for the kids to line up.  He was so upset that his teachers simply brought him out to us, where we were waiting in the dark.  He was too freaked out to participate.  Last year, we dropped Benjamin off first, so he was unfazed by us dropping him at his class.  This year, I guess the thought of us leaving him inside while we all went out just worried or upset him.  I offered to walk with him, or to stand by him.  I tried (repeatedly) to convince him to rejoin his class.  I reminded him of how much he’d been 551looking forward to it and how much he’d enjoyed it the year before.  He declined.  I was surprised, but he was firm.  So, rather than walking and singing with his lantern, Liam stood with us and watched.

For the second part, where the kids and parents go on a stroll around the block, he was happy to join in.  We all took a walk together and shared a kipferl (kind of a hard croissant) at the end, as is traditional.  Liam was clingy, but happy.  Benjamin was wistful, but also happy.  It was another good Lanternfest, and I’ve officially decided to quit thinking that I have any idea of how these things are going to go from one year to the next.

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Monkipark

Vienna’s winters are very dark, with relatively few hours of daylight.  Between November and February, my kids leave the house before the sun has properly risen, and come home after it has set.  We spend months only playing outside on the weekends, or in the dark (and cold) of early evening.  It’s tough on all of us.  The boys go a bit stir-crazy with tons of unspent energy, bouncing off the walls and bothering each other a lot more than usual, and I get absolutely frozen keeping vigil in the dusky playground while they brave the cold to climb and slide and swing a little.

I suspect that principally because of these long winter months, Vienna has several indoor “play parks”, but, until recently, we had never been to one.  I only had a vague idea of what they entailed, but I imagined massive McDonald’s-play-area-style ball pits and plagues of flu and stomach virus running through the revelers, so we had never gone.  Plus, my kids had never heard of them, so they weren’t asking to go.  I would have happily lived through our Vienna experience, and just skipped it entirely.

But last fall, B and Liam were invited to a friend’s birthday party at “Monkipark“, one of these indoor play places at a shopping mall we’d never been to.  B had heard all about it from the birthday boy, and he was so excited.  I was still apprehensive, but happy to try it out.

445It was not quite what I expected.  It was HUGE inside, and crazy, and chaotic.  In true Viennese style, the parents weren’t particularly hovering over their kids … and there were SO MANY kids, from toddlers to teenagers, running free in the play area.  There was a massive, inflatable climbing and sliding area, where my boys ran first.  (Being me, I did hover, so I went right along with them.)  It was crazy, but it was great fun.  It was like a giant, inflatable obstacle course.  The boys climbed, balanced, swung, bounced, and slid down a two-story-high slide.  And then they did it again.  And again.  And when they got tired of that, there was an indoor climbing wall, and soccer court, a ropes course (which was only for bigger kids), a bank of trampolines and a go-kart track.  And that was in addition to the snack bar and the private party rooms where the birthday boy invited us all for chicken nuggets and birthday cake.  It was impressive, and we all had a great time (though I still imagine that most kids come out of there with some illness they didn’t have before).  We really enjoyed it, and I understand it better now.  And it’s good that we liked it, because I’d put even odds that at least one of my guys will want to have their birthdays there this year.

The light in autumn

The light here is different than it was at home.  The summer days are longer, the winter days are shorter.  The angle of the light changes more noticeably throughout the year — in the winter here, even at noon, the sun is not overhead and we get, at best, a kind of weak sunlight that is neither very cheering nor very warming, even on the brightest of days.  In the autumn, the light is beautiful.  It is mostly golden, and has that wonderful “late afternoon” look all day long.  Everything touched by the sunlight looks like it’s glowing, and the trees, already golden, look like they’re on fire when the light catches them.  Sometime in the fall, the sun stops coming in directly through our kitchen window in the afternoons, and in the mornings, it no longer comes through our living room windows.  We have to wait again until spring comes around again to see it streaming across the floor.  As the autumn moves towards winter, we lose the “afternoon” effect of the light and move into a state where it seems to be perpetually early evening — a state which persists throughout the winter.

Just now, it is spring again, and we’ve begun to get our sunlight back.  Sitting in the living room in the mornings, the sun shines directly on our couch now — something it hasn’t done since the fall.  Just a few days ago, I was suddenly blinded by a ray of sunlight coming through the window, and I had a moment of confusion until I remembered that yes, that is normal — we just haven’t seen it for a while.  Spring is here, and we’re finally getting our sunlight back.

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.