Happy Easter, Here’s Some Bunnies and Stuff

Austria is, of course, a Catholic country, so you’d expect Easter to be a thing. Everything is closed on Easter Monday, for example. Schools are closed for two weeks. Strangers wish you a Happy Easter in the same way you might be wished Merry Christmas in the States (or Happy Holidays).

It’s pretty clear that the Viennese are also way into the whole pagan spring fertility festival as well. It is yet another way in which this city is actually quite Eastern European—shhhh, don’t tell!

Clue number one: the national obsession with decorating eggs. This was originally a pagan Slavic tradition, of course, and has been raised to the level of folk art all over the region. Here in Vienna, the markets sell piles of elaborately decorated eggs. Two years ago, I took a bunch of photos at the markets–they are here if you would like to enjoy them.

You might think I have a big collection of these eggs by now. You would be wrong. I do not pay $10 or more for an egg. Especially not one that will quickly become a cat toy. Nope.

And then there are the pussy willows. Yep, another pagan Slavic tradition from the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia (just across the river). When we lived in Prague, the tradition was for boys to spank girls with pussy willows on Easter Monday to make them more fertile. Read about it in hilarious detail here. An earthy tradition that has not quite made it to prim and proper Vienna, but pussy willows are still sold everywhere, decorated with eggs, and carried instead of palm leaves on Palm Sunday. (There may be a bit of spanking going on as well, but I haven’t personally witnessed it.)

Finally, the bunnies. They are omnipresent. I don’t think I need to explain why the bunny is a fertility symbol. Yesterday, I snapped a few of them while out walking.

Closing Ceremonies

I just calculated that we leave Vienna in exactly 101 days.

We already have our flight reservation because we have two cats that we wanted to get on the same cost-constructed, non-stop flight to DC. And not in cargo, because you know, late July and all. The geriatric kitty with no teeth and half a tail who has already crossed the Atlantic twice deserves better.

Packout dates are set. Pre-departure inspection is scheduled. My husband’s replacement is arriving a week before we leave. The calendar is filling up.

My daughter is sorting out her stuff for an early UAB shipment to her graduate school in California. It’s a very long way from Warsaw, but on the other hand, I might be convinced to go visit her, say, every February. She leaves Vienna for good in about three weeks.

My son still isn’t quite sure where he’ll end up. He’s applied and received “conditional offers” from five UK universities. Their system is a little different than the US system–he won’t know what his real choices are until after he (presumably) passes all his exams. But he doesn’t really care as long as he gets to go to school in England. I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet that he may not be able to take his electric guitars with him.

The donation pile by the front door grows, disappears every few weeks, then springs right back up again like mushrooms. With each move, we become less and less interested in moving our stuff, and more inclined to unload it. Except for my son who has 30 pairs of old sneakers in his closet that will not be accompanying us to Warsaw. I’m leaving his room until last!

We are eating weird things, and running out of stuff on purpose. Just used up the last of the vanilla. You can’t buy liquid vanilla flavoring here, so that’s it: no more vanilla for the duration. No more chocolate chips either. Nope. But Thai peanut sauce? We got two bottles of that.

Three years seems just about right. We’ve done a pretty good job of experiencing all the things in Vienna that interest us. Just a few more little things to check off the bucket list before departing. Mostly day trips to various palaces and parks outside the city. A few restaurants we want to enjoy just one more time. And we need to figure out a way to get inside the Opera House to see it without actually having to listen to any opera.

I asked myself the other day, if I had a chance to extend here, would I? Probably not. It’s been really nice, but we’re pretty much done.

I have to admit that we haven’t seen that much of the rest of Austria. The only other major city I’ve seen is Salzburg. Whenever we had time for a real vacation, we always seemed to end up in Italy some other nearby country. Shorter trips took us to places like Prague, Ljublana, and Krakow. But we’re really OK with that. After all, Vienna’s primary advantages for us were always its location and transit connections. We took full advantage of both! As well as the terrific hiking opportunities in and around the city.

In retrospect, I don’t think I ever fully engaged with this post. It’s the largest one we have ever served at. There are three American embassies, for heaven’s sakes, and my husband doesn’t even work at the primary mission. The first year, we basically didn’t have a Community Liaison Office coordinator, so there were no meet-and-greets of the type you would normally have on arrival at a post. There are some activities now, but they are mostly kid- or newbie- centered and don’t interest me. I speak only rudimentary German, which is entirely my own fault–I’m already signed up for the FAST course in Polish so hopefully language won’t be such a barrier next time!

I don’t work in the embassy (though I did try). I work in cyberspace, from my apartment, which is an American bubble. That’s exactly how I like it. It is, however, located downtown, a good distance from most other family housing, because most other families have kids at the American school. My son attends a British school and doesn’t do any sports or extracurricular activities so I never got to know other school parents. (To be fair, you don’t normally get to know other parents in high school they way you would with your kids in earlier grades anyway.)

I’m not complaining–far from it! Aside from all the awesome traveling, hiking, and dining out, until recently, I participated in a lively stitch-and-bitch group that was lots of fun. The local women’s group has great activities–language and yoga classes, tours, hikes–that I have enjoyed a lot. And I did contribute something to the mission community by co-founding a community website and Facebook group. I’m really proud of those efforts and so pleased that other volunteers have stepped up to take them over after our departure.

What it comes down to is this: it is a different experience being overseas at 1.) a huge first world post and 2.) without young children. Since I was doing both for the first time in Vienna, I had to learn. Now I know that I really prefer smaller posts, which is good, because that’s what we’ll get in Warsaw. I also know that when your life doesn’t center around your kids anymore, it’s a good idea to expand your network beyond the embassy community in order to meet more people of a similar age and stage. I’ll focus on that earlier next time, and jump right in.

I’m also getting the bits and pieces of my working life in order, just in case something interesting comes up job-wise. I have a bit of a conundrum in that my skills are really best suited to telecommuting, but I’d kind of like to work outside the home for a change. I may have to come up with some combination of jobs: skilled telework plus semi-skilled EFM work or volunteering to round it all out.

Or maybe I’ll just shop and travel a lot :)


Thank You, Wayback Machine!

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, we were posted to Prague. I had a sort of proto-blog back then, which I had backed up on a hard drive that subsequently fried itself. For years, I thought those journal entries were lost for good, but I just found them using the Wayback Machine!

I’ve been going through them this week, reminiscing about the days when my rugrats were still cute, and we all had a sense of wonder about living in Europe. These posts are now archived here.

Things I learned while reading through my old journal.

I have never, ever liked winter. In fact, I showed pretty clear signs of winter blues our first winter in Prague. And Eastern Europe was a tough adjustment for me. But we had many weird and wonderful experiences there. My memories of other, much more difficult posts were also clearly fresher back then.

Old people in Central Europe have been grumpy for a very long time. They also really like throwing off their kit in warm(ish) weather.

I was always pretty skeptical about Hapsburg bling. In fact, I displayed some rather socialist tendencies when confronted with it for the first time, which have not entirely faded since.

Austrian food is much better than Czech food–at least circa 2001. But grocery shopping in either country hasn’t changed very much.

9/11 was a transformative experience for the Foreign Service as well as in the larger expatriate community. Nothing has ever really been the same since. Even reading my own post on the subject was a bit difficult. Still, it was nice to remember the days when people still liked us.

What a long, strange trip it has been!

More Gaudiness in Barcelona

Gaudi’s other big project in Barcelona was Park Güell. This was meant to be an exclusive housing development on the outskirts of the city, centering around a park designed by Gaudi himself. The housing development never really got off the ground–it was too far from the city center and public transportation. But the park was taken over by the city. Most of it is public, with just a small portion roped off as a paying tourist attraction.

It’s pretty cool, and was especially interesting to me because it is now very clear where Pedro Silva, the artist who designed “Dragon Park” in Nashville, got his ideas! This park is just a few blocks from the house where I grew up. I helped with the mosaics on the sea serpent there when I was a little kid, and later, the park became a hangout in high school. Much, much later, my kids played there with their grandmother. So, full circle, or something like that.

The Dragon

The rest of the photos are just randomly taken around town. We visited the Picasso Museum (expensive but worth it), the Museum of Catalunya (very nice), and the Catalonian National Museum of Art (awesome). We also strolled around the waterfront, the Gothic quarter and La Rambla, eating and drinking very well along the way. Lots of great chorizo, beans, Serrano ham, cheeses, Spanish wine, gelato, and not one schnitzel to be seen anywhere. It was so much fun. We will be back!

Gaudy Barcelona

Last weekend, we took off to Barcelona for a couple of days. Though we served in three Latin American countries, and Spanish is the only foreign language that I have ever really learned to speak, I had never actually been to Spain. So, it was long past time for a visit!

Spain is now right up there with Italy on my Places I Really Should be Posted list. Great food, good wine, nice weather (nicer than Vienna, anyway), friendly people, and gosh it was fun to be able to communicate for a change. OK, we were actually in Catalunya, but everything was bilingual Catalonian/Spanish. I was pleased to find that I could still get by pretty well–though I did keep accidentally tossing in “bitte” at restaurants.

What I most enjoyed, though, was the sense of style. Barcelona is a treasure chest of Art Nouveau and Modernist design, which I love. I ended up taking around 200 photos of all kinds of stuff, from great works of art to street lamps.

Here’s the first batch, from Sagrada Familia. The UNESCO world heritage site was the life’s work of Catalan artist, architect, and all-around genius Antonio Gaudi. It is was started in 1883, and is not due to be finished for another fifty years or so. But the interior is largely complete, and totally unique. It follows the basic forms of a Gothic church, but with an entirely new interpretation.

I think it is beautiful, and I am so glad I got to see it.


I Am Now Ready for the Zombie Apocalypse

With my new off-the-grid sewing machine.

I found it at the charity shop here for 50 Euros. Fortunately, my daughter was with me, and didn’t think it was entirely crazy to help me carry it home. I mean, after all, you could pay twice that much just for the cast-iron stand, right? Who cares if the machine works?

sewing (1 of 8)

We looked up the model number online, and found that it was a German-made Singer, from a factory in Wittenberg that also made munitions in WWII. After the war, the factory ended up in the Russian sector and was looted. So, no literature available on this baby. But as best we can tell, it dates from well before the war, because it has no indication of any hookups for the optional electric motors that Singer started adding to later machines. So, it is probably about 100 years old.

It was just filthy, and judging from the bits and pieces of sewing notions left in the drawers, had clearly been in someone’s basement or attic for a few decades.

Vacuum, then wash down with soap and water.

Vacuum, then wash down with soap and water.

I loves me a project just like this one. I come from a long line of grease monkeys, and taking something like this apart is my idea of a good time. I don’t get nearly enough of these activities when living in government housing overseas.

Cleaning and shining up.

Cleaning and shining up.

All cleaned up.

All cleaned up.

Of course it was missing a few parts, but did you know that it is actually quite easy to find parts for these old treadle-powered Singers online? They are still used in parts of the world with unreliable electricity. Since they are pretty much indestructible, and actually quite useful for sewing heavy materials like canvas and leather, there are many still in use even in first world countries. I learned how to sew on one myself, when I was a little kid. I think my mother figured it was probably safer than an electric machine.

eBay replacement parts.

eBay replacement parts.

In fact, as often happens with these things, while looking for instructions online, I stumbled into a whole world of passionate collectors of old sewing machines. It turns out that my German machine is the rough equivalent of a Singer series 15 that was manufactured in Scotland during the same period. So, I learned how to thread and run it from delightful British videos like this one and this one.

I got the belt hooked up, replaced the bobbin tire, and wound a perfect bobbin. Yay!

Successful bobbin-winding.

Successful bobbin-winding.

The only real difference between American Singers and European Singers, I discovered after quite a bit of head-scratching, is that the bobbin case is made exactly the opposite way of an American one. Just because. So, once I figured that out, I ordered a “spulenkapsel” off of German eBay, and I was good to go. (Besides, I got to say “spulenkapsel” a lot, which was fun.)

Today, I put in the bobbin case, and used my perfectly operational century-old sewing machine. I love the sound that the treadle makes.

Now, you may ask, why on earth would I go to all this trouble for a treadle sewing machine? No reason, really, except that I like old stuff, and I like to fix things.

Also, after the zombies come, I want to be sure I can still take up my jeans.

Dead People. Millions of ‘em!

3.3 million at last count. All these souls are interred at Vienna’s Central Cemetery (Zentralfriedhof), a vast park-like space on the outskirts of the city.

Visiting the cemetery had been on my bucket list for a long time. Yesterday’s warm sunshine finally motivated me to hop on the number 71 tram and go out there. This tram goes directly to the cemetery gates, which is why the Viennese say “take the 71″ as a euphemism for death. It seemed like a pretty ordinary tram to me, though :)

The Central Cemetery was opened in 1874, after it became clear that there was no more space for burials inside the city limits. The rather progressive and controversial (at the time) decision was made to allow burials of all faiths. But, this being Austria, order was paramount. All God’s children are neatly divided into sections, separated by walkways and marked with cast-iron signposts. Recently, sections have been added for Muslims, Buddhists, and Mormons.

The Jewish section is especially interesting. It was heavily vandalized during Kristallnacht and inadvertently bombed during WWII. Because Vienna’s Jewish population was nearly eliminated by the Nazis, there are few local descendants left to take care of the graves. So, unlike other sections of the cemetery which are mostly well-manicured, it is quite overgrown and a bit spooky.

More information in the captions. I don’t think I even saw half of the cemetery, and the church was closed for the day. So, I intend to return on a day when it is open, explore some more sections and find some famous graves.


Have a Nice Day Vienna

I walk around the city for exercise almost every day. Now that it’s gotten warm enough to go without gloves, I have been taking my camera. I shot this batch of photos over the last couple of days.

I think this could be an excellent way to get ready to say goodbye to Vienna. While I enjoy living here, I have never been as nuts about the place as some people are. Three years will be just about right for this southern girl who has no interest in cold weather, Wiener schnitzel, opera, where Mozart slept, or dealing with cranky, uptight people. 

This week’s excursion included an old lady coming out of her crazy-expensive hat shop to yell at me to stop taking photos. She almost knocked my camera out of my hand. I gave her my sunniest smile and told her to “have a nice day.” A technique learned in the Czech Republic, this drives Austrians equally insane. Which is why I do it, of course. (I doubt they’d understand “bless your heart.”)

When I have a camera with me, I look at Vienna in an entirely different way. Though I do not like everything I see–the displays of conspicuous consumption in the downtown shops are getting especially old–there is a lot that is beautiful or interesting here.

For the next few months, I’m going to try and remember to look at Vienna through a lens whenever I can.

Deja Vu All Over Again

“Millennials” are unhappy with being so-called trailing spouses, or so I hear. Because, you know, they have education, and careers and stuff. And some of them are guys.

This is not surprising, because my generation felt the same way. We also thought we were something new and different. Now I understand why this made the previous generation roll their eyes at the time.

I am in my late forties, which makes me a GenXer. My husband, who just squeaked into the Baby Boom, joined the Foreign Service in 1988, shortly before I graduated from college.

Other than being more female, spouses back in that day were in pretty much the same demographic as new spouses are now. We were nearly all very well-educated, and had often left careers behind. In fact, the the average age of joining was higher back then, so many spouses would actually have been further along on their career trajectories when their officers signed up.

I was an exception, and at that time, probably one of the youngest spouses ever to follow my officer overseas. I had just turned 23 when we landed in La Paz. The ink on my Georgetown University diploma was barely dry. Was I annoyed to find out that the only job available to me at post was temporary secretary? What do you think?

I was terribly disappointed to discover that no one cared about my hard-won education, or even (in some cases) that I could form a complete sentence. “Devastated” might be a better word. I had been working since I was 16, and had certainly done my share of unskilled or semi-skilled labor, but to discover that was not just in my past but in my foreseeable future as well was a shock. Not to mention, I had all those student loans to pay off!

Top that off with the surreal world of women’s clubs and formal receptions. I am from a solidly middle class, middle-American background, and had zero experience with any kind of formal setting to begin with. Then, I went from keg parties in grungy dorms to tea parties at the Ambassador’s residence in a little more than a year.

I realize now that I had several kinds of culture shock going on at once. It was not pretty.

I had no idea what I was getting into. This was pre-Internet, so how could I? I didn’t understand why the few older spouses I met during my husband’s training were so cynical when I brightly said I would be working overseas. I just assumed that they hadn’t tried hard enough. My generation would be different, you see. Because we were smarter, better-educated, less traditional…or something.

In fact, we are different. But not because we are smarter or try harder. We are (theoretically) able to work at most posts overseas because those that came before us worked hard to make jobs available to spouses and to put bilateral work agreements in place. We are able to telecommute and freelance because of this amazing new invention called the Internet. And we are able to avoid most of the onerous responsibilities of previous generations of diplomatic spouses because society at large changed and State reluctantly followed. I’m pretty sure my own cranky cohort drove the last nail into that coffin…

The Foreign Service spouse situation is FAR from perfect. In fact, I wouldn’t even call it all that good. But it is definitely better than it was twenty years ago.

It is also possible now to enter this weird world with your eyes more or less open, thanks to blogs, online communities, and books written by Foreign Service family members. Of course, entering the Foreign Service universe is kind of like having children. You can read all the books you want, but it won’t truly prepare you for the havoc that having your first child will wreak upon your life. I get that. But there is definitely first-hand information out there.

A smart person should know to take everything State says with a grain of salt. After all, if you went to college, you know to always rely on primary sources whenever possible!

It’s easy to assume when you see older spouses who are more or less content with their lot that it was always the case. That they never gave up anything to be a Foreign Service spouse, or that they gave it up gladly. Um, no. Spouses who joined the Foreign Service community back when I did have done one of two things since:

1.) Left the Foreign Service, with or without their officers, or,

2.) Developed a plan for their career and life that works with being a Foreign Service spouse, rather than against it.

What you are seeing now, in short, are the ones who managed to make it work for them. And you can bet it was not an easy process. They may have become writers or artists, or developed other unexpected freelance careers as I have. They may have decided that working as a secretary is OK if it gets them out of the house and makes them feel like part of a team. Or they may have decided that paid work does not have to be part of their personal life fulfillment plan, and that volunteering is pretty cool after all.

Also, burnout happens. State does a lot of stupid stuff. When first presented with that stuff, the natural instinct is to rail against it and try to change it. This is GOOD. But, not everyone can keep up that momentum. Some people decide that State is kind of like a toxic relative that they need to keep out of their lives in order to be happy. That’s a perfectly reasonable approach.

I tried to do that–it didn’t work! What I did learn was to focus on one or two things that I understand and care about, and work to change just those things, at the post level or occasionally on a larger scale.

So, this is what I have to say to “millennials,” with love and affection:

You are so right, about just about everything you can possibly say about State. I agree with you at least 99 percent. But you are wrong about one thing. You are not special. Not because you are young, not because you have an impressive degree or C.V., and not because you want to be recognized for your skills and intelligence. The road you are on has been traveled before, many, many times.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get pissed off about the situation–and hopefully stay that way!


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