To Grandmother’s House

201I’ve completely lost count of our transatlantic journeys as a family.  I actually just tried to count, and can’t quite resolve the trips in my head anymore.  I *think* we’ve taken 4 round-trip transatlantic trips together, plus the one-way trip that brought us here (or, if you like, you can think of that as the round-trip we just haven’t completed yet) but I could be missing one.  So, we’ve done at least 9 transatlantic flights together as a family, and though I’m not sure we’re experts, we’re certainly pretty well experienced.  (I mean, seriously.  My kids have each made at least 9 transatlantic flights so far.  I was 37 before I could say that.)  But all of our experience does very little to mitigate the unscripted insanity that invariably awaits us every time we do it.  Every trip has been a little different, and each one has presented its own challenges.  It is, as I often say, always an adventure.

In the past, we’ve usually (always?) flown direct from Vienna to Washington or stopped in Paris.  Direct is great, but pricey, and though Austrian Airlines is pretty wonderful, their planes are not always the most comfortable.  Last year, we opted to fly through Charles de Gaulle in Paris so that we could fly to Washington on the new A380 — the gigantic, double-decker plane.  I said I wanted to try it out because I thought it would be fun for the kids, but the truth is that my years working in aviation left me as kind of a plane nerd and *I* really wanted to try it out.

227

It was great — comfortable, quiet and convenient, and Air France has stellar service.  But Charles de Gaulle is a headache of an airport, and no matter how long we allow for a connection there (we’ve connected through Paris in the past, flying to other European destinations) we always end up running for the plane, which is a crummy beginning to a trip.  (Last year was no exception.)

So this year, I thought we’d try something a little different.  I was fine with connecting through Paris, but I wanted to allow more time than last year, and I wasn’t set on it being anywhere in particular.  As it turned out, the A380 now flies between Washington and Heathrow, too.  We’ve had some decent experiences at Heathrow before, and it’s a bonus that people in London speak English.  Sold!  We booked our tickets with a connection through Heathrow.

We had no delays getting from Vienna to Heathrow, so I expected than having nearly 2 hours to get to our next plane would be no problem.  Ha!  I had never realized that connecting from intra-European travel to transatlantic travel at Heathrow makes it every bit as much of a headache as connecting through Charles de Gaulle.  It was not pleasant.

We had to wait for a shuttle bus which ran only every 15 minutes, and which took 20 minutes to get to its destination.  Which sounds fine, except that the entire flight of people from Vienna had to get on the shuttle, and we had to wait through 3 rounds of shuttle buses before we got on.  Then we had to go through security again, and there were insanely long lines.  When we finally got to the front of the line, we were told that Liam’s antibiotic (remember how we were all sick for most of December?) couldn’t clear security.  Huh???  No, really.  It couldn’t go through because nowhere on the bottle did it say how bit it was (though it was, quite clearly, the same 100 mL size as the children’s ibuprofen we had — which DID say 100 mL on the bottle, so that was clear to go).  Apparently, it would have been ok if we’d had the doctor’s written prescription with us (but we didn’t), even though it was in its original bottle from the pharmacy, all official-looking and everything.  I explained that antibiotics are the kind of medicine where it’s very bad if you miss a dose.  I offered to take some of the medicine.  I offered to let them gas chromatograph it.  I asked Dan to find someone to call our gate and tell them we were coming while I pleaded with the (not unsympathetic, but unbudging) security guy.  Our flight was due to take off in less than 15 minutes, and we still had a shuttle train to take.  We had to choose between leaving the medicine and running for our flight, or staying to argue about the medicine and getting on a later plane.  We ran.  (Again.)

213I’m not exaggerating when I say that by the time we left security, we had just over 10 minutes to get to our gate.  I was 95% certain we were going to miss our plane.  I figured that, at least, our seats had been given away to someone on standby at this point.  We ran, flat out, to the train terminal.  We ran, flat out to the gate.  We arrived, with about 90 seconds to spare before departure time.  The gate agent said that the only reason our seats weren’t given away is that so many people had missed their connections that there were more open seats than standby passengers.  He told us that if we hadn’t called from security to say we were coming, they would have left without us.  We were the last people across the jetway, they closed the door as soon as we were through it, and we were still walking down the (admittedly very long) aisle when the plane pushed back.  We were red-faced, sweaty, stressed, exhausted and without antibiotic, but we made our flight.  (So much for not repeating the experience we had the year before!)  I wanted to email our pediatrician, to ask if she could email or fax a replacement prescription, but between the dash for the plane and the actual takeoff, there was not a single moment to do it.

232

The kids were great.  Though it’s not great that we keep ending up in that situation, they’re at least getting used to it, and they know that it’s not a calamity.  (Besides, they’re getting bigger, so they’re getting pretty fast!)  The rest of the flight was relatively uneventful.  The boys are definitely getting more and more accustomed to long flights.  The service on British Airways was as good as Air France (though the configuration of the plane was slightly less comfortable).

246And it was so, so wonderful to see our family again when we arrived.  That is the absolute BEST feeling about being abroad — how magical it feels to come home again.  There are all of these wonderful people that you miss SO much, and then you get to see them, and they’re just as happy to see you as you are to see them, and they don’t care too much what state you’re in when you arrive.  It is the BEST.  (And, we got to meet our new nephew/cousin!!!!)

But after we gave hugs and kisses, collected our things, packed everything up, got to my mom’s house and got semi-settled in . . . we still had the antibiotic to deal with.

303By the time we got to Maryland, it was late at night in Vienna, so I couldn’t reach our pediatrician (though I left her a message).  We had no recourse, except to go to a 24 hour pharmacy and beg for them to give us a single dose of amoxicillin (we figured we could come back with an emailed prescription in the morning, but we didn’t want him to miss a dose).  If at all possible, we didn’t want to have to take poor, exhausted Liam to the ER or an urgent care place to get them to write a new prescription that night.  I discovered that, randomly, I’d taken a picture of the prescription when the doctor gave it to us (I have no idea why — I never do that) so Dan was able to take that with him to the pharmacy.  (It’s too bad that I didn’t realize I had that at Heathrow — he might have let us through with that.)

When Dan went to the pharmacy, he explained the situation.  We were fortunate that the pharmacist was as outraged by the fact that the antibiotic had been confiscated as we were, and he refilled the entire prescription for us, based just on the picture from my phone.  And so, just 22 hours after leaving our apartment in Vienna, after running through the airport, going over the ocean and through the hassle of getting Liam’s medicine, we were, finally, tucked in, safe and sound, at Grandma’s house.

254271

 

267

296309

 

317

Rauber

December was kind of crazy in terms of our daily schedule.  The kids and I took turns being sick with various things, and we ended up with very few days that were at all normal.  So, the last Tuesday morning before we headed home for Christmas, I was home with Liam instead of helping out at B’s school (which was my usual plan for Tuesday mornings).  We had a doctor’s appointment, so we could check whether his congestion and fever was turning into an ear infection — I didn’t want to take any chances with an intercontinental flight coming up.  I was just getting over being sick myself, too, and I still had tons of laundry to do and all of the packing, all with less than 48 hours to go before our departure.  I was a bit overwhelmed and exhausted, so after our doctor’s visit (sinus infection, antibiotics prescribed) and our trip to the pharmacy to pick up the necessary medicine, I decided to stop and pick up lunch on the way home rather than making something once we got there.

We got home, rode up on the elevator, got out on our floor . . . and found this across the hall:

151
I had no idea what I was looking at.  We’d only been gone for about an hour and a half, and when we left, everything was quiet in our building.  Our across-the-hall neighbor is very rarely around, and I hadn’t seen him in weeks.  Looking at the destruction, I couldn’t tell if there had been some urgent purpose in breaking down the door — had there been a flood, or a medical emergency?  I stood on the landing (there are only 2 apartments on our floor, ours and his) and called out, expecting our neighbor, or maybe our building superintendent, to answer.  Nothing.  As we stood there, I got scared.  It hadn’t occurred to me initially, but I suddenly realized that there might have been a more nefarious explanation to the broken-down door, and that I had no way of knowing if the person responsible was still there (there are no other exits).  Our building was completely quiet.  I was fairly certain that no one else was around, which is not unusual for mid-day on a Tuesday (though I have several retirees as neighbors, and a doctor who works out of her home downstairs, so I’m not always alone during the day).  I was completely freaked out, and not sure what to do.

At home, I would have called the police.  But did I want to try to do that, with my poor German?  What if all was well, and I got things all crazy and complicated for no reason (and couldn’t explain what was going on)?  Without a good command of the language, I didn’t want to insert myself into the middle of a police investigation, but I had to do something.  I thought for a minute and called Dan.  I took Liam inside and locked the door, while Dan called our building manager, who came to check it out (immediately).  He took one look and then called the police himself.

Liam and I stayed inside, but I peeked out when I heard a commotion on the landing.  I saw two police officers guarding the door to the apartment across the hall while two other officers explored inside.  They were taking it very seriously (more seriously that I was when I first saw it) which makes sense — there was no way to know WHAT they would have found inside.

Shortly afterwards, there was a knock on the door, and I answered.  Fortunately, the police officer at the door spoke English (someone, probably our building manager, had explained that we didn’t speak German well).  He explained they needed to fingerprint the door to our apartment, since whoever had broken in to our neighbor’s place had apparently covered the peephole in our door, so that if we’d looked out during the destruction, we wouldn’t get a clear view!  (I am so glad that I wasn’t home, because I probably would have just opened the door to see what was happening.  I’m further glad that Liam and I stopped to get lunch while we were out, or we would have been home 20 minutes sooner.)

Later, when things were less exciting, Liam & I took Bailey outside for a walk, and we encountered our neighbor downstairs in the courtyard on the phone with the door replacement people.  After his call was finished, we talked, and it turned out that the burglars had made off with a lot (I can’t remember exactly how much, but it was in the thousands) of cash, and pretty much nothing else.  According to him, this kind of robbery is the most common kind in Vienna (other than pickpocketing).  They probably took advantage of the front door of our apartment being propped open (we share a door with the kitchen entrance to a restaurant, and the workers commonly leave the door propped open when they take out the garbage or take a smoke break . . . and they don’t always close it when they’re done), buzzed all the buzzers in our building, and when they didn’t get an answer, they went all the way upstairs, picked a door, smashed it down, grabbed what they could as quickly as possible and ran out.  Apparently they almost never take anything of significant size or weight — not even laptops.  By his reasoning, it was only a 50/50 chance that kept it from being our place instead of his.  (But I don’t know that I entirely believe his theory — had they broken into our place looking for cash, they would have been INCREDIBLY disappointed.  The only cash we keep at home is what’s in my purse and what the boys have in their piggy banks — and I had my purse with me.  By choosing his place, they got thousands of Euros . . . so I’m not entirely sure it was just a lucky choice.)  I wonder, though — did Bailey bark?  Did they care?  Is THAT why they didn’t pick our apartment?

It was definitely scary, and the fact that it took a few days for our neighbor’s door to get completely repaired didn’t help much.  In the interim, we were met with the harsh gray reminder of what had happened every time we got off of the elevator or walked out of our front door.  I tried to keep as calm as possible, because I didn’t want to scare the kids.  Both boys were a little nervous around the house for a few days, but nothing bad, and nothing lasting.  I was pretty anxious when I was home alone for the following few days — not that I expected them to come back, but I spend a good bit of time in the house by myself, and I don’t know how often I’m the only person in the building.  It was unsettling.

Luckily, we left just 2 days later to go home for Christmas, which helped put some physical and psychological distance between us and the scene of the crime.  Since then, there have been some changes around our building — the elevator now requires a key for access and the restaurant workers have been instructed not to leave the door propped open (though that isn’t perfect, and I make a point of closing it whenever I see it open).  We barely think about the robber anymore, and I don’t feel fearful at all in our building, though I did for a short while after — especially when someone would unexpectedly ring our buzzer in the middle of the day (though it always was, as it always had been before, typically the mail carrier with a package).  I know that we are generally safe here (statistically, much safer than at home in the US), but this added to my sense of insecurity, not just because it brought up general concern for our physical safety (as it would have for anyone anywhere), but because it highlighted yet another way in which I feel vulnerable because I live in a country where I don’t speak the language well.  There are many ways in which it’s hard to be the outsider, but this was a new one for us.

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.

1164

Kinderwagen culture

254
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.

572583