The Ambivalent Expat

I wrote a piece that I feared would offend everyone I know about life as an expat in Vienna. Luckily no one has written me hate mail who was offended has told me so! Yay!

2013-05-16 14.13.03

(Life as an expat: Lots of dirty baby clothes. No dryer.)

***

When my husband and I moved to Vienna, Austria, two years ago, we were frequently set up on friend dates. This is par for the course for a new expat — someone hears that you’ve moved to some faraway city, and their coworker’s cat’s former owner’s cousin always knows someone who — can you believe it? — just happens to be your neighbor. No matter how outlandish the setup — they were born-again Christians or Hassidic Jews, they were hated by the very people who’d put us in touch — we always went.

After these meetings, I would invariably turn to my husband and say: We’d never be friends with these people in real life.

Real life: this was my phrase. Not in New York, where I had lived for 12 years, or the vague back home, but in real life, as though I had skipped a track and found myself in a different, parallel universe.

Read the rest on Medium!

xoxo

The Secrets We Keep

It’s October! Which means that two years ago (!), right around this time, I thought I had the stomach flu found out that I was pregnant. It was a pretty miserable miraculous time; I felt very confused about the fact that I wasn’t supposed to share the news until I hit 12 or 13 weeks, when the pregnancy was deemed “viable.” So between watching serial episodes of The Good Wife trying to teach my students without puking, I wrote about it.

2013-03-15 14.51.17

This week, the Archipelago on Medium published my essay, I’m Pregnant. So Why Can’t I Tell You? (How’s that for a direct title?) This is a subject that people have wildly differing views about (SHARE! DON’T SHARE!). The discussion about it out there in the cyber world is already mind-blowing. (I especially love the comments made by people who clearly don’t read very closely.) I’m always curious to hear what you think. xo

Tea Time.

People, we have reached the stage where everyone here in Vienna is asking me, “Haven’t you had the baby yet?” “Have you started drinking the tea?”

To which I reply, of course, “40 weeks is ACTUALLY TEN MONTHS. IT’S A VERY, VERY LONG TIME.” “What tea?”

2011-11-26 17.22.08

Apparently once you hit 34 weeks, it is customary to start drinking mysterious teas that you must go to a special Apotheke to get. These aren’t of the standard raspberry leaf variety that you can pick up at any health food store and have been put together by, say, Lipton. You also can’t get it at a BIPA, which is akin to a CVS. From what I can gather — which, let’s be honest, is usually not the whole story — these are special concoctions made on the spot for you by a pharmacist/magician in an off-limits back room. My midwives gave me a whole booklet of items to ask for. It took me three hours of translate the seven-page leaflet and includes a recipe for a power bar I am meant to eat while half-clothed and screaming my head off in labor.

A list of concoctions I should be consuming.

I first heard about these teas from the women in my lovely Pregnant-and-Uncomfortable Ex-Pat-Ladies Weekly Bitch Fest Mom’s Group — a lifesaver, really, so far from home — since most of them are due a few weeks before me. Sitting around at a juice bar staring in jealousy at the ladies sucking on fresh Apple/Mango/Celery Drinks drinking water (because of my borderline Gestational Diabetes diet I can drink nothing else), I would hear them ask over and over again, “Are you drinking the tea?” and also, “Have you started acupuncture?”

In New York, I was addicted to acupuncture — in fact, I had the best acupuncturist ever — but I have yet to try it here, mostly because I am terrified of letting someone I can barely say hello to stick a needle in my ass/forehead/armpit. Back home, if you were to tell your O.B. that you were doing acupuncture to induce labor, the doctor would probably laugh at you might humor you.

Here it is standard practice at the end of pregnancy. In fact, you actually do it at the hospital.

Let me tell you what else is standard practice:

2013-05-25 12.55.19

This massage oil goes you know where.

According to my midwife — who got into a squat right in her office and demonstrated the technique for me — this makes labor easier because you’re all…oiled up. She also said that starting at 34 weeks, I could do it with Olive Oil.

There are so many reasons I am happy to be giving birth in Europe even though the Austrians won’t give the baby citizenship and apparently the nurses in maternity wards give newborns fennel tea — FENNEL TEA!!!: A midwife-centered birthing culture, Kindergelt (a monthly allowance for each kid), free health insurance, a law that makes women stop working up to two months before the baby is born, and a standard one-year-long paid maternity (or paternity) leave. But mostly for these hilarious moments. How often does someone tell you, with a totally straight face, to get your husband to massage olive oil up there?

xo

PS: I realize I’ve been woefully bad about updating you on the pregnancy. This is out of sheer laziness wanting to keep some things off the interwebs. If you’re feeling like the last time you checked, I wasn’t pregnant at all, here are two posts to get you up to date: Number One and Number Two.

Willkommen zurück*

Today I learned the German word “Wolle.” This is a word I should have learned months ago — it’s simple enough, and useful — but despite the fact that we now live in Vienna, I have avoided learning German a very small vocabulary.

The word came up today as I did laundry, which I have done nearly every single day a few times a week since we moved here (because apparently I have become a housewife). In New York, I sent my dirties off to the ladies on the corner when I was flat out of underwear once a week, but for various reasons — the lack of a dryer, a husband, a very small machine — I seem to constantly be hanging our wet socks and pants all over the apartment.

Image

In Europe, we call this a dryer.

Anyway, socks and T-shirts in hand, today I faced the washing machine and took in this daunting image:

Seriously. What would you choose?

Seriously. What would you choose?

Okay, the words might be too small here for you to read, but let me reassure you that there are a lot of them. A plethora of cycles! One of them washes for 90 minutes (!), another for 8 (this must be to wash your thongs dish towels). All through the fall, I picked a setting at random because I don’t really know how to do laundry couldn’t be bothered to actually look up any of the words. But since I am about to enter linguistic hell take a five-day-a-week German course, I decided to turn over a new leaf, so I picked up my husband’s our Deutsch/English dictionary and discovered what any moron mildly curious person could have guessed eons ago: Wolle means wool. I’m practically trilingual already.

 

This is the Vienna that greeted us at the airport.

This is the Vienna that greeted us at the airport.

 

We just returned to Austria from a whirlwind winter in sunny California, Nevada, Montreal and New York. In all those places we were visiting family and friends and were surrounded by people who speak English we love and know well. In New York, especially, once I no longer wanted to hurl where I lived for 12 years, I relished my ability to eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations fend for myself. I also loved having dozens of friends right at my fingertips (literally, since for the first time in 5 months I had a phone that actually worked).

This story of moving across the world and starting a new life is an old one — so many people have done it, with incredible success and aplomb. My parents lived in Paris when my sister was a toddler, and although my mother hated it it wasn’t all Pinot Noir and warm baguettes, their eyes still get a little twinkly when they talk about wandering in and out of galleries on Saturday afternoons and consuming vast amounts of unpasteurized cheese. I thought I’d be one of those people who took to Europe without a hitch. But I am continually startled by my resistance: to adapting to life here, to admitting that we actually live here, to the reality that learning German is not a fun hobby but a necessity.

 

2012-10-17 02.05.49

 

Or perhaps there is a larger, beautiful shock to it all: As a friend pointed out to me in New York last week, “If someone had told you two years ago that you’d be pregnant and living in Vienna with your husband, would you ever have believed her?” Despite the fact that I often have to pinch myself when I think of my great good fortune in the husband and pregnancy department, and even though I am over the moon about the idea of living a European life, maybe sometimes it takes us a while to align our realities with the unexamined fantasies — or presumed life — we had built for ourselves. (Mine basically involved all the things I am now so lucky to have, but in a Brooklyn brownstone. Forgive me, it was a fantasy.)

 

2013-02-24 18.00.01

And yet, it is never that simple. When my husband and I spent last summer in a sauna, AKA: the hottest apartment in Brooklyn New York, I thought my fantasy had come true: I had my love and my friends and my job and my city all in one place. And yet. It felt a little like fitting a square peg into a round hole. Like trying to jam two separate lives into one old one. This isn’t to say we didn’t have a blast, but it wasn’t the perfect merging of worlds I had imagined.

This is all to say, perhaps this is a moment when my fantasies have to bend to my reality — or maybe my reality has to become more of the fantasy my friends imagine it to be. Or maybe I should just throw out the idea of fantasy altogether and just live the life that is before me: exciting, unexpected, foreign, challenging, lucky.

*Welcome Back

On Being Bold

Many of you know that I have a fondness for pools. Today, my husband and I decided that we are officially old to go for an early-morning swim. Arrive after noon or 1pm, and it’s impossible to not have a head-on collision in the water get across the pool. In typical bureaucratic fashion For some mysterious reason, 99% of pools in Vienna are closed for most of September and October (probably in order to clean a summer’s worth of crap out of them give the lifeguards some time off). As a result, we’ve been forced to swim at a pool in Germany at the very edge of the city. It takes us a good 40 minutes to get there. For New Yorkers, this is nothing, so forgive me for the complaint. But this is Vienna, and there is literally a pool up the street. If only it weren’t closed forever under construction until 2014.

After we did our laps and were feeling smug for having gotten off our fat asses stretching on the side, I noticed something sweet as can be: A group of 10 or so middle-aged women were learning to jump off the diving board.

Now, if I’m being generous, this diving board was about half a foot two feet off the ground. We’re not talking about Greg Louganis here. The gaggle of ladies lined up like they were in nursery school, and one after the other, sort of…fell into the pool. They even had a special preparatory stance: Arms out to the side, legs scissored open. Most of them stood on the board, looked out at their shivering cohorts in horror — how I can I possibly do this? — opened their limbs, took a big breath in, sealed their mouths shut, and slid into the pool. Or crashed into it. One woman, who was wearing pants, a dress and a bathing cap, got onto the board, stood there for some time mulling it over, dismounted, watched a friend jump in, and then tried again. On the second go, she made it into the water.

They were so pleased with themselves! So proud, as they got in and out of the water, in and out, in and out.

It got me thinking about being bold — about taking physical risks. Of course I don’t know the first thing about these women, but I cannot imagine that there was some vital reason that they learn to jump off a diving board at age 40. But they were doing it anyway.

Because of my back injury, I’ve taken very few physical risks in the last few years. At first this was earth-shattering frustrating. I loved trying the hardest yoga poses, the weirdest, most exhilarating partnering, leaping higher, faster, more boldly. The bruises on my elbows and scratched knees were proof. And then I just…couldn’t.

Back in the days when I loved living in mid-air.

In the last few weeks, I’ve rolled out my yoga mat for the first time in over 5 years. And I’ve practiced the most rudimentary poses you can imagine taken some real risks. The practice lasts about 12 minutes looks nothing like it used to when I could last more than 12 minutes balance on my hands, but I am spreading my limbs, and taking a big breath in (and out). There is no reason for this. Just the willingness to jump in again.

xo

Friday Haiku Post.

There is so much so little to say about this. Pass a barf bag spoon.

Sturm, on the other hand, might turn me into an alcoholic makes me want to stand up and cheer. Cold and fizzy and sweet — it sort of tastes like you’re drinking fresh berries — and full of alcohol.

Have I mentioned that Vienna is like going back in time? (Everyone beyond that sign is going to die of lung cancer smoking.)

After our Thank God we survived another week here Thursday night dinner of schnitzel & sturm, we got stuck in a rainstorm. It was actually quite wet romantic. While we waited for the tram under an awning I learned to say, “Can I please take this to go?” (Having only eaten half my schnitzel at dinner, I had the rest in a doggy bag. It was the size of a large dinner plate. Ask me about how my pants are fitting.) Can I remember it this morning? Are you kidding? Of course.

xo

Welcome to Wien, Or Why Didn’t You Know This Already?

I never feel quite at home anywhere unless I’m in Brooklyn until I have found the local swimming pool. David and I have been in Vienna for an eternity three weeks now, so we thought it was time to figure out how we could avoid becoming obese from the schnitzel and schlag where we could do some laps. Vienna, like Munich, supposedly has a million public pools (check out this incomprehensible website), which are never open open all the time. Our first two searches came up short: the pool right up the block (yippee!) is a demolition zone closed until December 2012. The one a little ways down the road turned out to be for naked sauna-ing not for swimming. Then we ended up here:

We were so far west, I swear we were almost in Paris out of the city limit. (As a side note, our tram driver got into an accident on our way there, so we got to witness him picking up the woman whose car he totaled how Austrians deal with car insurance forms.) The pool, it turned out, was actually more like an amusement park: It had one of those curly Q slides you find at Six Flags (David went down it, followed by a six year old); an outdoor wading pool; a pool for lane swimming; a naked sauna area (you had to pay more for this, and no, we haven’t been yet, and I will will not keep you posted); and, of course, a bar and a hot dog stand. The Viennese are experts at the combo-platter approach to things. Take, for instance, this:

A cafe/CD/record shop/business of some kind. We sat there for three hours, and not a single other person walked in. The espresso maker — which was literally one you might buy for yourself at Macy’s — was in a corner, next to a tiny fridge. Despite the lack of foot traffic, there seemed to be at least 45 a dozen people on staff. Or take this:

A bar and restaurant/hair salon. So if you hate your haircut, just get drunk. Or get drunk and cut your hair. Anyway, I digress: the pool. Unsatisfied with our experience in Paris out west, we went in search of another one. Instead we ended up in hell here:

See that blue ball flying around? There were about four doing the rounds, each part of its own game of water polo. Then add teenage boys canon-balling off a diving board, other kids careening themselves into the pool off every possible ledge, parents throwing their kids around, old women doing water ballet along the sides, and the smell of cigarette smoke wafting in from the folks tanning out on the lawn. This made swimming in Munich — which I once found frustrating — feel like making my way across this:

This is where David and I swam this summer, days before our wedding in the Catskills.

My surprise at the chaos I encountered in the Munich pools had to do with the fact that it seemed so un-German. Everywhere we went — post office, passport agency — there was a clear system — except in the water. In Vienna, this is not the case. Everything is a mess extremely fluid — rules and systems are vague, hidden and generally unclear. You are expected to be telepathic know things. The how is less important. Even when you get someone on the phone — whether it be about how to obtain a visa or a health insurance card — the person on the other end will talk at warp speed act like she’s telling you how to spell your own name. (Have I mentioned that I was more than two weeks into my job when I found out that I had an office and that a health insurance card had been ordered for me?) I recently learned from a friend that if you want something done — for instance, some gadget fixed at the local Radio Shack — you basically have to order the person behind the counter to do it, despite his claim that it can’t be done. His refusal, it turns out, has nothing to do with your gadget and everything to do with his mood.

I have a lot to learn. In related news, I bought my first new yoga mat in eight years. I will be unrolling it in our apartment. Without a pool to call home yet, I’ll try finding my way not in the company of Austrians on land.

xo

PS: If you haven’t seen our stint as Jewish celebrities, click here. We are currently the most-read story on the site. Yay, love.

PPS: If you like what you’re reading, please consider following the blog! There’s a button up there, on the right that you can press. Then you’ll be the first to know when I finally learn German have news.