A beautiful campus scene, as photographed by my daughter.
After delays due to travel and technology, this month’s post is a very exciting one for me. When I started this blog a few years ago, my daughter was a senior in high school. As I tried to wrap my head around watching her leave to live on another continent, I used some of my friends, who had already survived the experience, as inspiration. One friend from my time in Holland had a son and daughter who had both journeyed back to the U.S. from Asia prior to my daughter’s leaving. I watched her facebook pages with delight and took notice. I saw pictures of her on the opposite coast campuses of both son and daughter, and I realized she was doing something very right. It struck me just how incredibly important it can be to make the effort to visit our far-away college-aged kids on campus. And so this became a goal.
So for the last two years, I have been the person who stays behind while my husband and youngest daughter head back to Europe for high school obligations, to get my oldest daughter settled. And it has been a great experience, in which we’ve worked hard at creating some of the “regular” college prep experiences. Last year, for example, we hit up a Bed, Bath and Beyond near her campus to procure homey dorm supplies, even if we did have to snag a taxi to get our goods to the dorm.
But international students are often permitted early campus entry, so I was never there in the thick of things, so to speak. And although I thoroughly enjoy my catch-up facetime talks where I hear all the latest from my girl, I felt a bit disconnected and as if something was missing. Add to that a new client of my husband’s that put him in my daughter’s new city and in touch a couple times this year, and a sister spring break excursion planned for my youngest, and I felt I was missing out on something that was too important to overlook. In the midst of a full client load and lots of activities, my previous goal resurfaced in my memory, and I realized I simply needed to make the time.
Enter the international long weekend get-away. I finished my busy Friday schedule, jumped on an incredibly early flight on Saturday, and reached my destination by 1:30 p.m. local time. That gave me plenty of time to hit her roommate’s final improv performance of the year, spend some QT with the young man in her life, treat both of them and another dear friend to a Sushi smorgasboard, brunch and browse at a quirky favorite locale, stroll a chic shopping area (and, of course, treat my co-ed to some clothes) and hang out telling stories of years gone by in her home sweet home, the dorm.
Was the trip tiring? Yep. Did I drag a bit with my afternoon clients after touching back down on a post-whirlwind trip on Tuesday? MmmHmm. Was it worth it? ABSOLUTELY!
It was so great to watch my daughter interacting with all of the new important people in her life in a setting that she has made her own. It’s a fulfilling feeling to come to the realization that your now adult child has taken control of her new life, new campus, new city, and made the most of it. To see that, and share her world, even if briefly, was absolutely worth every penny and foggy,dazed, follow-up day.
To add to the college visit contingency, her younger sister followed me about a week later to spend the majority of her spring break chilling on campus. She came back totally psyched from the experience, having been able to put faces, voices and mannerisms, and now her own stories, with names she’s heard so much about, getting to participate in an improv group practice, taking public transit to explore another college that has her interest, and basically, just handling international travel, and all that entails, on her own. What a great introduction and preparation to college life for her. Living on campus for a while gave her new insights into clubs, classes, study time, meals, and yes, parties. She came back to Vienna loaded with luggage, memories and a maturity that comes from being a solo world traveler.
Global families can certainly get close. Isolation, lack of extended family, language and cultural challenges, all can result in families spending a lot of time together and really learning to enjoy, entertain, and cherish each other. When distance becomes part of their reality, it can definitely be helpful, to all parties involved, to make that extra effort to connect. I would highly recommend expending the small amount of time and effort it takes, to let your long distance loved one know, that in the great big world they are all too well aware of, their part of the world matters to you.
One of many mascots we met
My first post, about two years ago, was about my oldest daughter getting ready to head off to university back in her “home” country of the U.S. This post is continuing the college tradition with a look at my youngest daughter’s recent cross continent college tour experience, a common one for Third Culture Kids.
So here’s how it played out: looking ahead to our summer calendar, it became very apparent that with a Spanish immersion and service trip, a camp counselor job at our school’s summer camp, the traditional visit to see relatives in Ohio, and a possible visit to see friends in New Jersey, the summer was going to be an absolute, insanity causing, fiasco if we didn’t somehow jettison the college exploration tour that would take us to the West Coast. Luckily, my husband had work back at his corporate offices in that area, and thought it would be a great idea if we used this year’s “ski break” in mid February, to check off some college tours. Add in the bonus of really cheap flight tickets to the Pacific Northwest, and we were in.
The first step was having my daughter line up the tours. I really think it is key to have the college students-to-be take on this task of organization, correspondence and scheduling, to give them a warm-up to handling similar scenarios in their university years and later life. My youngest spent a lot of time on the computer with emails back and forth to admissions offices, and her father and me, to get a schedule that was workable for all involved, and, I have to say, she pretty much rocked it.
In fact, it was pretty much what I imagine rock concert tours to be; one after-high-school-graduation gig to the next. We covered seven colleges in five days, took in some of the surrounding areas to give my city girl a feel for the urban offerings, and, since we arrived in Seattle on a Saturday, and none of the relevant schools gave tours that day, we had the privilege to meet some former Vienna pals for a nice, reuniting brunch, before piling in the rental and setting the GPS.
We lucked out weather-wise, and truly had an informative, successful trip. What did we come away with? A nice feel for the genuine warmth and authenticity of the people in this area. A forward-thinking outlook that is well-matched to my worldly girl. Beautiful vistas of mountains, greenery and sunsets to compliment the architecture of the cities and campuses. Enough informational pamphlets and give-away promotional items to weigh down our carry-ons. And the realization that TCKs definitely need to take the time, even if jam packed, jet-lagged, and far from relaxing, to see their potential colleges up close and personal.
This daughter’s experience was definitely different from our first daughter’s summer college search (although she got the benefit of those tours, as well, and still has some interest in schools from big sis’s tour). Our eldest knew that after a very small international school experience, she was looking for bigger, so we didn’t even visit smaller schools.
Our youngest, who always has had a variety of likes and interests, wanted to experience the gamut. From about 2,000 to 60,000 students, we got a great feel for the vast variety of college experiences, and also learned that some of the smaller schools are more willing and wanting to personally welcome far-away students. Discussions of scholarships and financial opportunities were definitely more prevalent on this college outing. We also had individualized sessions with admissions representatives that sought and singled us out. And, she even got some time to chat with a basketball coach. These personalized interactions were new, and a nice touch.
So, definitely not a relaxing vacation, and still a few “hope to dos” that had to be crossed off the list for lack of time, energy, or ability to keep the eyes open and form complete sentences, but this college crash course was definitely worthwhile. Out of 7 visits, my daughter was able to eliminate 3 (always a plus for the girl who finds good in everything) and prioritize the others, giving two, top follow-up honors. And speaking of follow-ups, she has cards of admissions reps who she has sent additional questions, and is involved in online searches to answer questions that we didn’t quite have time for.
The first leg of my second daughter’s unique college search is complete. So now, I guess it’s time to peek back at that first post I wrote about not believing it was time for my oldest to leave, and wrap my head around the fact that it is now my youngest. My daughter just completed a step toward her independence, and my husband and I, a step toward an empty nest. Where can I find the informational pamphlets on that?
There’s currently a lot of talk in the mental health field about resilience. Resilience is defined as the ability to adapt to stress or adversity, or to recover from hardship or challenge. Life being what it is, it makes sense that developing these skills of brushing yourself off and moving on after a difficulty or setback would be a huge benefit. But as parents invest more in a protective style of parenting that strives to buffer our young people from pain or hardship, new research is showing that some kids are not developing coping strategies for moving on after hardship. Relatively new practices such as awards for all participants, complimenting and rewarding every effort, and parents stepping in to help or even take over challenging areas for youngsters, seem to also be contributing to a generation of young people who are not incredibly used to dealing with adversity when it comes their way.
So that’s another life skill that I’m going to offer as a positive of the Third Culture Kid experience. Quite simply, in moving to another part of the world, dealing with airline travel, learning new languages, customs and cultures, meeting, making and leaving friends, and more, Third Culture Kids get some pretty good practice in working through challenges and building resilience.
That doesn’t mean I can always see the benefits right away, but I am learning to notice some silver in the lining a bit earlier, or easier, than I used to. Case in point: my daughter’s recent return to The States from her holiday visit. Part of trying to be a modern “perfect parent” when you’re an expat is trying to look into the crystal ball that none of us have, but all wish we did, and find the ideal flights to and from the far away destination that has become “home”. Added considerations are language difficulties, length of layovers, dependability of airports, how easy they are to navigate, etc. etc. etc. And then we operate, still, under some optimistic or delusional idea that everything will go exactly as we have planned, and run smoothly.
About five hours into the day that my daughter has left with her father for an early airport drop-off and I’m feeling the droopy, heavy-hearted feelings that go with the end of our time as a “complete” family, I hear the lyrical music from my ipad that means she has sent me a message. But it’s not the “things are going fine” one I had wished for. After a two hour delay in Vienna, she writes that she is very late arriving at London Heathrow to catch her international flight, and is fearful she may have missed it. She is heading to the needed terminal, and we send encouraging words of how sometimes they will hold planes for missing passengers, etc. No need to worry.
Half an hour later, she is reaching the terminal she needs after “queuing” (when in England, as the saying goes) behind a multitude of late arrivals. My diligent husband has already googled the airlines to see they have two later flights that day, and messages her this information. She no more than leaves the connecting bus and enters the terminal when she hears an announcement from her airline that “All flights to the U.S. are cancelled today”.
My husband and I go into perfect protective parent mode, google-ing weather reports, London airline information, and more, to try to figure out the reasoning for this strange announcement. My husband takes to the phone to inquire if there is possibly another airline my daughter can get on, and is encouraged to learn that not every plane seems to be grounded in London. We are confused by the airlines no flight announcement, but hopeful that something else might work out. Meanwhile, I am obsessing over the decision for her to extend her break this year, as she returned so early last year to avoid jet-lag, that she felt like the lone survivor of a campus apocalypse. But now, she is risking arriving back when classes are already in session, with virtually no recovery time. How could my crystal ball not have foreseen this?
Next my daughter relays a representative came around saying that no further flights would be going out, and gathering people to lead them to find lodging for the night. To quote The Clash, her main question was, “Should I stay or should I go?” She had found a savvy business lady who had decided to stick it out in the labyrinth of a customer service line, as she needed to get to New York that night. As my daughter also really wanted to step foot on U.S. soil in the very near future, she had decided to stick it out in the line, but was not thrilled about the length of it.
In the end, she made a very wise choice, three hours and a few update texts later, my daughter and her new airport accomplice were close enough to the front of the line to hear that the people who stayed behind were getting rerouted on different airlines. Approaching the counter, she texted that she had her assertive argument ready, and then, sent a success text ten minutes later that she didn’t even need to use it.
Another couple hours wait, and she would have a direct evening flight, complete with upgrade to a better seat and service. Her last comments of the day before signing off with a low phone battery were revealing, reflective, and I would proudly say, resilient. “Haha it wasn’t so bad, just upsetting, but the last 30 minutes or so weren’t bad at all, because that’s when my line friend heard them give someone New York flights. And, hey, I even made airport friends. Remember how I was talking about never making airport friends?”
This moment, that can be a common one for our Third Culture Kids, is a moment of resilience training and success for my young adult. Did I love every minute of it? No way! Were there moments of wondering how we ever thought to book such awful connections, why we had to live so far from her college, and how we could do that to our flesh and blood who was just trying to make her way back to her haven of higher education? You betcha.
But the good news is, I could already see how she brushed herself off and got on with handling her hardship, learned some great lessons for later, and made her first airport friends, as a bonus. And even better, my resilient young adult daughter, at the tail end of her tiny trauma, could see those highlights, too.
First Sign of Christmas
One of the perks for Third Culture Kids and their families is the opportunity to experience holiday traditions from the country in which you are living. Vienna certainly has plenty of those around this time of year, and we have become huge fans of celebrating winter holidays the Wien way.
Typically the first sign of the approaching Christmas season for me is the abundance of candy-filled Advent calendars that appear in my local grocery store around early November. From delectable Lindt chocolate options (our choice this year both for home and a mini version sent to my college girl in the U.S.) to the famous Haribo gummies, festively adorned cardboard boxes numbered from 1 to 25 and filled with tasty treats behind pop-out doors, give me the first pangs of excitement for what’s to come.
Next on the list is the appearance of the holiday lights. In nearly every shopping area, and in roundabouts on the roads or well-traveled areas, Christmas lights line the streets and provide gorgeous glowing symbols of Christmas in the forms of bells, bulbs, baubles, and more. As dusk falls so early this time of year, the glittering lights help to add a dose of cheeriness to the darker days.
And once the lights are up, small stalls start popping up, and a holiday favorite begins. It’s time for the Christmas Markets, or Christkindlesmarkt (Christ child markets), to get into full swing. This tradition has grown tremendously in our time in Vienna, and tourists flock from far and wide to partake in the variety of Christmas Markets to be found in nearly every nook and cranny of the city. Small wooden stalls are set up with a variety of vendors selling their wares. Some items are hand-crafted and very artsy, others are kitschy and mass-produced, but those shopping for special gifts and stocking stuffers are in luck. Traditional wares include tin ornaments, hats, scarves and mittens, candles, wooden toys, and the all-time favorites, Gluehwein and Punsch.
Gluehwein is a hot, spiced wine, and the cinnamony smell will forever mean Christmas to me. The holiday season has not begun without a trip to one of the Christmas Markets and the chorus of “cheers and happy holidays” as friends clink festive, decorative mugs that offer warm spirits of both kinds. Punsch is a spicy, fruity punch, to which is added a variety of Schnapps and liquors to match any taste or desire. Other tasty staples of the Christmas Market experience are crepes,sausages, hot baked potatoes with toppings, roasted chestnuts and candied nuts, and more.
A couple friends and I had a good laugh as we headed in on the Strassenbahn (incredible public transportation including these Austrian red and white street cars assure that drinking and driving is not a problem), that you know you’ve been in Vienna for a long time when you are discussing the perfect Gluehwein experience, in which the beverage is served not so hot that you can’t take a much awaited sip right away, but hot enough that you get through the whole drink without it going cold on you. The discussion ended with the awareness that we are so fortunate to be able to know THAT MUCH about the ins and outs of guzzling Gluehwein! The Gluehwein aroma starts wafting around mid-November, and early December brings another tradition.
December 5 marks the celebration of Nikolo, or St. Nikolas, who fills the children’s shoes with treats. As Jimmy Fallon and Christoph Waltz made clear on The Tonight Show this year, Nikolo is accompanied by truly terrifying demonic creatures called Krampus, who are Austria’s answer to the spying elves and coal that go along with being naughty in North America. We went to our first viewing of these Krampus creatures a couple years ago, and it felt like a heavy metal rock concert, with speakers playing loud, screeching guitar music and fires and flames as accompaniment as these monsters of the night made their way through the crowd, taunting, teasing and jeering (see this link to get a feel for the festivities). Luckily, the Bishop-like dressed Nikolo next appeared to pass out smiles and candies. From a child who spent a month having sleepless nights after hearing a radio ad for The Exorcist when I was young, I have no idea how these toddlers and tots make it through a Krampus experience!
Typical in Vienna is spending Christmas eve with family. The Christmas tree is often decorated on this day, and can be adorned with glowing candles. We bought the little metal candle holders and small candles one year and tried this tradition, but chose to opt for Christmas lights to lessen the fire fear element of such a tradition. Austrians often opt for fish as a traditional main course, and the Christkind, or Christ child himself, often delivers the Christmas gifts. Traditional advent wreaths, with four candles, are abundant, and the lighting of the last candle can also be part of the festivities. We spent a few Christmases at a ski resort in The Alps, and were charmed by all guests gathering around the sitting room tree to sing Stille Nacht (silent night) and receive a visit from a Santa-like figure with a gift for each child.
No sooner are the Christmas Market stalls taken down, then the Sylvester stalls pop up. Sylvester is the New Year’s celebration, and lots of stands selling traditional “good luck” charms begin hawking their wares. Nothing says good fortune in the New Year in Vienna like a Gluecksschwein (lucky pig), a lady bug or a chimney sweep. Coming from Cincinnati, where flying pigs are the city’s mascot, lucky pigs were not much of a stretch for me. Sylvester is not simply about good luck charms, though, throughout the day on December 31, a multitude of stages are set up for bands playing festive music, from traditional waltzes to modern day pop. People celebrate into the night, and ring in the New Year with an abundance of fireworks. One of our traditional places to be at 12:00 is outside, on one of the multitude of steep paths in the vineyards around our home, looking down at the beautiful city lit with fireworks of all shapes, sizes and shines.
So just when you think you couldn’t possibly celebrate anymore, the Three Kings come to make a visit around January 6, or Epiphany, and bring an altruistic end to the Christmas season. Three young kids (sometimes a fourth holding a star) go from house to house to wish good tidings (sometimes with a song), bless your house for the year (often with a chalk signing of initials above your door to symbolize the names of the three kings) and collect some coins for a designated charity.
The traditionally Catholic country of Austria has done its best to spread joy, good cheer, and okay, a little bit of Krampus terror, to end the calendar year and start a new one. It’s been a real pleasure to partake in these holiday traditions over the years, and as we draw close to the end of 2014 and get closer to staking our spot on a steep hill to celebrate Sylvester and ring in 2015, I am happy to be able to share a bit of the unique holiday view from Vienna, with all of you. All the best for 2015, and happy holidays from Wien!
Soup and Spa Receipts – New Thanksgiving Tradition?
So Thanksgiving weekend came and went, and, with all the activity, I couldn’t help thinking about another reality for Third Culture Kids. Often the celebrations of global families are a lot less traditional (long standing and handed down from generation to generation) and a lot more transient (fleeting, not permanent and full of change).
As usual, my own family experiences are my basis for this insight, and can, hopefully, illustrate what I mean. When living in the Netherlands, the first overseas Thanksgiving experience that I clearly remember, was one of bringing our native tradition to special Dutch friends. When my oldest daughter was just a toddler, we went to the local Albert Heijn grocery store, and invested in some Dutch products that could serve as a sort of “to go” substitute for a Thanksgiving meal. We bought turkey breast fillets, a cream soup to substitute as gravy, and some bread dumplings that had a resemblance to stuffing. Then we prepared a casserole from the ingredients, and, armed with Thanksgiving dinner in a dish, we crossed the street to share an American tradition with our Dutch “family”. We had become close to this family through fate. The woman and I learned we were both pregnant at a neighborhood party. Then we discovered our due dates were the same. Last, but not least, my Dutch girl and this family’s Dutch boy were born only three hours apart, with the shared midwife keeping us posted on each others’ progress throughout the births. It seemed fitting to be sharing some of our culture and tradition with a family that had shared so much of their life with us.
Later, when we lived in our first small, cozy home in Vienna, the November holiday rolled around and we took a look at our local grocery store, and then took a look at our very compact European oven, and we decided a Thanksgiving chicken would be our newest tradition. The girls still enjoyed choosing white or dark meat, and had the chance to break a small wishbone. Compromise and flexibility are definite strengths that come from living in a culture that doesn’t revere a massive Butterball, or the means to cook it.
A few years down the road, and we relocated within Vienna to be closer to the International School where I worked and the girls were students. And in the district where more Americans lived, our friendly, neighborhood Merkur grocery store saw a profitable November opportunity, and started carrying large turkey breasts. Our Thanksgiving tradition changed to include this closer tie to American tradition. A few more years down the road, and Merkur started supplying small turkeys (our turkey this year weighed about 4.5 kilos, or 10 pounds, and also fit into the somewhat larger oven of our new house). With a turkey again front and center as a main dish, our American holiday roots took hold, and we expanded the meal to include family favorites such as sweet potato casserole and pie (no canned pumpkin on Merkur’s shelves and peeling and slicing somewhat available pumpkins from scratch was more than we really wanted to commit to), jellied cranberries (Preiselbeere preserves are a close substitute), mashed potatoes and my husband’s to-die-for stuffing, all became standard parts of the new holiday tradition. My husband did, however, add chestnuts and sliced Nuernberger sausages to the stuffing in an homage to our current homeland.
And as for family, well that can be transient as well. We originally started our overseas Vienna Thanksgiving with the four of us, but global families tend to create extended family from their friends. A couple years back, we joined another American family we had become close with at their home. Last year, missing our daughter who was away at college, we prepared our holiday meal, with a heaviness in our hearts, but took refuge in the fact she was at “home” celebrating with this very family who had moved back to the U.S. over the summer.
This year, we had a bit of a marathon celebration, starting with an early meal for our now family of three. We then took a plate to our elderly Austrian neighbor who lost his beloved wife last year. A bit later, we shared another nibble with Canadian friends who came to join us, then walked across the street to dear neighbors and a full house of friends to share dessert. The night was complete when we headed home for a virtual chat and cheers with our college girl and other friends who have become extended family in New Jersey. They were generous enough to welcome our daughter as part of their family this holiday weekend.
Last, but not least, my youngest daughter and I celebrated yet another change in tradition this Thanksgiving weekend. With no football or Thanksgiving day parade to watch, and forgoing the turkey soup, gumbo, a-la-king and other leftover turkey variations, we headed with our Canadian friends on a train excursion across the border into Hungary for a spa weekend. This year’s holiday weekend included saddling up to the bar in a Hungarian Wild West restaurant, eating potato chip kebabs at the local Christmas market, and finger-snapping along (with gorgeous nails) to a Hungarian swing band rendition of Santa Claus is Coming to Town.
So, for global families and Third Culture Kids, holidays can become a bit less about tradition and more about seizing opportunity and expanding upon tradition. There are a multitude of opportunities to learn about flexibility and adaptability, along with a good dose of humor. Third Culture Kids learn to adapt their traditions to new locations, the availability of ingredients, the absence of family, the adopting and coming and going of very special family friends, the lack of national football teams, and more. But throughout all of this morphing of traditions, one thing remains (and it’s not the inevitable turkey soup that was still here to greet us when my daughter and I got home). It’s the thankfulness. Even, or maybe, especially, for the often nontraditional, unique opportunities, and the incredible memories created while celebrating transient traditions.
Turkish Tea for Two
Last month I wrote about the perks of experiencing local life while living overseas as a TCK or TCK family member. This month, I’m going to address the benefits that come from crossing your “homeland” borders and experiencing other countries and cultures.
Our school community in Vienna just returned this week after fall break. Fall break is another one of the benefits we’ve enjoyed with our kids going to an international school. It’s been great to have a week off in October to give students and families time to regenerate, explore, and experience some time away from the busy schedules that come with a demanding school load. Some fall breaks we’ve enjoyed include a historical visit to Normandy and a Mediterranean Cruise. This year, we celebrated some incredible spouse-focused time celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary in Istanbul, Turkey, while our youngest daughter gained independence and fluency on a Spanish trip to Cardiz, Spain.
Such travel, and here, I emphasize travel separate from parents, has been one of the biggest benefits our children, now young adults, have received from their unique experience. Trips away from family begin in the Middle School years. Starting in grade 6, students start the school year with a class trip to an area outside of Vienna. Utilizing buses or trains, kids head off with faculty chaperones to youth hostels or hotels and participate in a variety of fun, team-building activities to get to better know their classmates and teachers. Hiking, scavenger hunts, campfires, skits, songs, meal time and rooming with classmates are all part of the package. As students reach the high school years, they can try some more challenging endeavors, such as white water rafting and rock climbing.
Along with all of these planned activities, these trips that put students some distance away from the family also develop other life skills, such as; planning, packing, decision making, time management, collaboration, conflict resolution, and more. Add in practice in the native tongue, and these kids are getting an education that can’t be found in the four walls of a classroom.
Also offered are the various educational, arts and sports related trips in which Third Culture Kids are able to participate. From track competitions where the Olympics originated in Athens, Greece, to Speech and Debate and Knowledge Bowl wins for both in Moscow, Russia, my girls have been fortunate to have a vast array of experiences in travel. I’ve watched them become not just comfortable, but adept, at airports, transportation, new cuisines, living with diverse host families and becoming the “cultural detectives” they need to be to thrive in new and varied cultural situations and contexts. With several airport family trips under my belt where the baton has been handed to my teenagers who now call the shots, pointing out areas for passport control and baggage retrieval, and breezing through various foreign locales like pros, I feel at ease letting them go and experience the world on their own.
So that’s how my daughter ended up in Spain, texting me of her happenings after a few days of independence with no technology connection. I had another much-needed reassurance that our out-of-the-ordinary lifestyle has had some benefits for the children we pretty much forced into it, when she took the time to thank us for the opportunity, adding “I am learning to speak Spanish very well, I think, and can finally say what I want to without taking,like, eight thousand years. It’s pretty great!” Throw in a night of her watching “amazing” flamenco dancing, a cooking evening with her host “mom”, and a couple trips to the beach, and we can count this sans-parents trip of her “going the distance” as a success.
Such skills and experiences last our Third Culture Kids a lifetime and are a huge bonus of this sometimes challenging lifestyle. And enjoying a 25th anniversary celebration sans-offspring isn’t a bad way to travel, either!
One of the greatest perks of living in a culture different from your own, is living in the culture different from your own.
I realize this may sound kind of obvious, but the truth of the matter is, many Third Culture Kids and their families can have a tendency to stick to their comfort zones. Often the comfort zone becomes the International School the TCKs are attending and the work settings that have brought the families abroad in the first place. It can be familiar to speak English and enjoy hearing familiar phrases around you, and easy to slip into the comfort of what and who you know. But easy doesn’t necessarily mean better, and for TCKs, there’s a lot of living to be done outside of the comfort zone.
Last weekend was one example of what the local Austrian life has to offer. At the suggestion of a former colleague who relocated and encouraged a reunion, we made our way to the small Tyrolean town of Soll, Austria (there’s supposed to be the double dotted umlaut over the O, but I haven’t gone local enough to figure out how to make it work on my computer). Pairing up with other expats who were feeling adventurous, we loaded into a van and headed off for our first Almabtrieb. Basically, this term means a descent of the cows from their summer Alpen meadow vacations. And it also means a big party. Because the cows can’t come back to their farms to pass the winter months without a celebration. And boy, can the local villagers celebrate.
First there’s a parade in town as farm families head up the hills to gather their cows for their reappearance. People wear their finest Traechten, or traditional clothing, the women in colorful Dirndl dresses and the men in their durable Lederhosen, or leather shorts. They parade through town accompanied by tractors, as they head off to gather the cows. And then the onlookers wait. But there are a few diversions to keep them occupied.
Pretty young girls walk around with small tapped barrels dispensing local Schnapps of fruity varieties such as pear (Birne) and apricot (Marillen). Bands play traditional music that includes an awesome dose of oompah,well known waltzes and sing-along favorites. Regional delicacies such as Bratwurst and Schweinehaxe are abundant and enjoyed. Local shops display their finest in souvenirs such as linens, decorative bottles of Schnapps and cowbells.
For our first Almabtrieb, the day turns out so much warmer than expected, I have to do some shopping myself. Having opted for a pair of jeans and a traditional knitted, patterned sweater, I find myself hot even before I sample a Schnapps. Non-natives have a tendency to break tradition, and I opt for a pair of Lederhosen knock-off shorts to keep comfortable for the day. Okay, and I’ll admit to falling for the bottle of Edelweiss adorned Schnapps and a cool traditional hat, as well.
Not too far into our shopping spree, we start to hear cowbells and the first group of cows parades through the town. Did I forget to mention that it’s a bit of a bovine beauty pageant? Cows wear crowns of ornate flowers, weaved straw, and written blessings and sayings. The head-wear reminds me of Ascot attire, adorning the well-received dairy delegations who sporadically make their presence known, cowbells ringing and young and old farm hands chaperoning.
One of the best parts of going local, is mixing it up with the people of the town. We were fortunate enough to grab photos with an elegantly adorned senior couple, share a Schnapps bottle with some of the young farmhands who were doing their own celebrating after safely delivering their cow cargo, and pass many a hiker with a “Servus” on a late afternoon hike complete with a downpour that dampened our Lederhosen, but not our spirits.
By taking a chance on some of the local traditions and rubbing elbows with often proud and gracious natives, TCKs and their families can end up with a magnitude of incredible memories. And maybe even some truly mooving experiences.
So, here I am, down to the wire, trying to make my self-imposed deadline of one post per month while somewhat still in the throws of a syndrome with which every Third Culture Kid/ Expat/World Traveler is well-acquainted; jet lag. Trying to coax your body (and wandering mind) into sleeping after living in another time zone for the whole summer can be a challenge.
We’ve all come to know the routine. Try to sleep as much as possible on the night flight home, with whatever means is most helpful (Melatonin, Dramamine, motion sickness patch, allergy meds, noise reducing headphones or tranquil music, etc.). Frequent flyers and time zone jumpers have tried them all.
I’ve done fairly well this round, with about three and a half hours of sleep on the flight, staying awake until 10:00 pm on the first day, and a first night sleep-through. But the next night found me up from 1:30 until about 5:00, even after another jet lag tip of taking a three hour hike for an abundance of exercise the day before. With jet lag, nothing is full-proof, and like many things in the life of a Third Culture Kid, or life in general, for that matter, jet lag cannot be controlled, even with a variety of attempts to do so.
So what goes on in the middle of the night when the rest of the house is quiet? The mind wanders through a sometimes foggy, sometimes highly alert state of wakefulness. In this state, one can experience many insights, some of them ridiculously mundane, and others more insightful. I thought it might be fun to share some of mine with you.
1. Feet can experience culture shock. After living for months in mostly carpeted environments, our marble and hardwood floors feel particularly solid and inflexible as I make my way downstairs when sleep is no longer an option.
2. Furniture, like humans, ages. One of my favorite furniture pieces, a painted chest bought in a nearby village in the beautiful Wachau region, seems to let out little creaks throughout the night, like bones popping. It makes me wonder if even chopped, sanded, and painted wood lives on and feels the discomforts of aging.
3. You can get a lot of work emails completed in a short span of time with the only company being a blanket of darkness and an eerily glowing computer screen.
4. Stomachs get jet lag, too. Thunder roars, loud enough to wake the house, emanate from my stomach as I realize it’s now the time I was enjoying sips and nibbles with New Jersey neighbors only a couple days ago.
5. European refrigerators look like somewhat embarrassed, shrunken strangers. After weeks of opening echoing caves of culinary delights, I can’t help looking at my compact Kuehlschrank in disbelief. The shelves seem so small, my middle-of-the-night mind is convinced the jam jar is slouching.
6. Jet lag dreams are not peaceful. The dreams in that half sleep/half wake reality are more vivid and BIZARRE than when in a typical sleep pattern. And somehow, they seem louder, as if I’m overhearing an argument I would have preferred to avoid.
7. Even jet leg has its perks. With dawn approaching quickly, I recline on the couch and try my deep-breathing exercises. A slide show of summer memories flashes through my mind, and a peacefulness comes over me. Soon before drifting into a few more hours of sleep, I realize we world travelers come back with much more than bulging luggage. We also carry with us the much lighter load of having shared in the mundane moments with people who we don’t get to see all the time, but who still very much matter to us. It’s reassuring to be included in those everyday moments that we aren’t always a part of.
So for my mom and dad who thanked us for helping them clean out their basement clutter, and my aunt and cousins who liked having extra hands around to splash with little ones, and a dear friend who asked for my watermelon salsa recipe, and my sister from another mister who couldn’t stop thanking me for helping her in-laws move, we summer visitors are the ones who really need to say THANK YOU! Being a part of loved ones’ normal lives and doing the common, day-to-day things that we sometimes miss by being so far away, is one of the greatest summertime gifts we can receive and give to our Third Culture Kids.
Even if it means we have to come to that realization between 1:30 and 4:45 in the morning.
Hi, I’m Tracy’s youngest daughter and I’m guest blogging for TCK Talk this month.
Oh America, it’s good to be back home. Except for the fact that it isn’t exactly my home. Being back in America is always a bit weird. In the beginning it’s all excitement and smiles as I step off the plane and get my first whiff of true American air (although at that point it is coupled with exhaust fumes). There are lots of pros and cons to being back in America.
Pro number one: Chipotle. Pro number two: Chipotle. Pro number three: shopping (wait, did I forget Chipotle?). In all seriousness, there are a lot of great things about being back in America. The two biggest pros for me are food and shopping. I have a long to-do list of malls to go to and restaurants to visit. I check off the items in absolute euphoria. Getting Cheetos – CHECK! Shopping at American Eagle – CHECK! You may find it shallow that I crave these things so intensely, but after having been deprived of them for a whole year, it gets pretty exciting.
Another pro is seeing family. We stay at my grandparents’ house and spend most of our days with them. We also visit with cousins and aunts, and it is always good to reconnect with them (it’s also great to get my birthday checks) ;). There are a lot of great things about being back in America. After all, it is the land of opportunity.
Con number one: the ‘food baby’ I get after eating Chipotle. Though this Chipotle hazard is definitely a con, the cons are a little trickier to flesh out. Remember how I said that it’s great that America is the land of opportunity? It is also terrifying.
Ever been in a Walmart? That place is probably one of the scariest places on earth for me. IT IS SO HUGE! At least compared to the tiny grocery stores in Vienna. It would be so easy to get lost in the vast expanse of products. Once I finally find the general area I need to be in, picking a product is nearly impossible. Take toothpaste, for example. Seems simple enough, right? It is not! Crest Total Health sounds great, until you see Arm & Hammer Ultra White. You think, ‘okay, I’ll get Crest Total Health because healthy teeth are more important than white teeth’, but then you think, ‘but don’t whiteness and health go hand in hand?’ You finally settle on Crest White and Healthy which seems like a good compromise. Then directly next to it, you see Colgate Healthy and White. Two of the exact same products for the exact same price. How are you supposed to pick one? If you are me, you don’t really. You just run away and hope your mom buys a good one. Too much selection definitely makes America scary.
Another con is that I don’t have any friends here, because I’ve never actually lived in the same state as my extended family, and I need friends to relate to and hang out with. After a while, you need people your age, and I don’t really have that in our U.S. summers.
Coming back to America is always tricky, but overall it’s good to be back. Still, I’m looking forward to returning to Vienna, my real home.
Summer is officially upon us. School for my college girl ended in the middle of May (hence the guest post last month), school for my youngest ended mid June, and I am down to seeing only two clients after a (thankfully) full and fulfilling school year of lending support in the Vienna international community. If that isn’t indicator enough, the longest day of the year has come and gone, and the extra hours of sunshine are a welcome sight outside our windows.
I’m going to show my age again, and mention a song I half remember from many years ago, the refrain of which has been going through my head as we prepare for our summer journey; The Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer. I think for Third Culture Kids and their families, crazy can be the key summer adjective in that refrain. At least that has been our reality.
When you’re living in an international community, one of the givens of summer is that your community will become a ghost town as people head “home” to do the extended break reconnecting that is so important to this lifestyle. Planning, booking tickets, packing suitcases for all kinds of weather and multiple locations, gathering passports (even for the dog, who also needs doggie downers and a health check document from the vet before jumping the big pond), packing items for the plane rides…the list goes on. This is when crazy starts feeling a lot more apt than lazy in relation to summer.
As my daughters have gotten older, summer friends and events from Vienna have started to compete with summer events back in the U.S. (as we spend a large amount of time with family in Ohio, where they’ve never lived, friends have never been in surplus). It’s hard to leave Vienna when you can make a few euro at the school’s summer camp and your Austrian friends are heading to the musical jamboree on the island of the famous blue Danube. As time has passed, we’ve dropped the added stress of leaving with the masses the second school is out, and lingered for a while to try for a touch of lazy in the midst of the crazy of summers on the go.
Still, like many expat families, we spend a good month or more living with Grammy and Grampy, spending time with our extended family and enjoying the summer traditions of “The States” that are important for our kids to experience: fourth of July parades and running around with sparklers, braving The Beast at the amusement park of my youth, attending an acting camp at Playhouse in the Park where I saw my first Shakespeare in high school, creating a tradition of hiking a nature park trail with young cousins that includes feeding the turtles and picnicking.
Visits “home” also include some other not-so-lazy traditions like yearly eye appointments, hitting mall sales and our beloved TJ Maxx to look for less expensive than euro sale items, getting snipped and styled in a salon where we don’t have to search for words like layering or bangs in German, and crossing our favorite restaurants and junk food from a list of must-nibbles (Skyline Chili, Montgomery Inn Ribs, Mio’s Pizza, Cheetos and Mac and Cheese, among other items missing in the Viennese culinary scene).
Thanks to social media, getting to reconnect with friends has become a step easier. I used to occasionally meet up with people I’d lost track of (often at said TJ Maxx or Kroger’s grocery store) and get to meet up for a drink or dinner. Now, I can post a notice to Facebook and have a much better chance of seeing several blasts from the past. This year, since my graduating high school class is celebrating a milestone birthday, it would be great to get a big group of Fifty and Fabs together for some fun.
With my husband’s family living north a few hours, we usually make a visit that way to check in and catch up with them, as well. This year provides another family reunion we’re hoping to attend. We’ve been lucky enough to make a few of these in the past and even head off with the “farthest traveled” prize.
And speaking of heading off with merchandise, that brings me to one of the most difficult challenges of these extended visits, the return-flight luggage limits. I’ve spent the last few days testing out yet another strategy for packing that, much like the Garanimals clothing of my youth, involves focusing on a certain color scheme and only packing things that will mix and match. This year’s color: blue. We all try to pack light on the way, knowing we will purchase some items over the summer, and we always end up cramming suitcases to zipper-burst capacity and sweating it at the airport weigh-ins.
To end our trip “home”, we also typically hit up another one. Prior to moving to Vienna, we lived in New Jersey, and we love to reconnect with favorite friends who became like family in the time we were there. My friend is always willing to drive to the airport and help load our multitude of luggage into her SUV, as well as host other friends for reunion cook-outs, make trips to the shore, and share countless laughs with a potential glass of wine or two thrown in (maybe that fulfills the hazy of the previously mentioned song).
So, our summers might not be lazy, but I think, as most international families will agree, we’ve got the crazy thing down. This year we’ll be dividing and conquering for that return flight, with Dad and younger daughter heading back to school in Vienna and Mom dropping the college girl on campus before heading back.
If you happen to see me in the airport, be sure to give me a wave. I’ll be the one standing by the luggage scales, nervously humming an old song about summer while sweating through my blue.