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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Cold and Canadian

My friend in Austria texted me this afternoon asking me what I was doing. At that particular moment I was wandering around Home Depot, Starbucks in hand in my most comfortable well-worn pair of jeans and a t-shirt. In Kelowna.

The question made me give pause. I would never wander around my Vorarlberg home like that. First thing to note was that I was dressed inappropriately for the weather. But being Canadian, we often don’t bother with such formalities. We can usually be found dashing from our vehicle to whatever our destination happened to be in clothing that is anything but warm. When I first arrived back in Kelowna I was wandering around with my big scarf, warm jacket and a hat close at hand. Its now 10 days later and I have already resumed my Canadian ways. Its ironic really, the country most noted for its harsh climate and we seem committed to defying the reality of it all.

I must admit however, even though I am not a fan of the deep cold winters – I feel home in them. Just yesterday when the chairlift I was on came to a screeching halt we had a few moments to enjoy the fierce wind that blew the snow so hard it felt like little pin pricks on any exposed skin. As I pulled my neck warner over my face and shared comments of displeasure with my lift mates I couldn’t help but smile. This is the winter I know, not just the weather itself, but the common bond fellow Canadians share over it. We are too cold, too hot, and too humid – we are a country of extremes and we like it – even though we would never admit it.

That same day I skied into the resort village. A large inflated beaver anchored in the snow was inviting people to come celebrate. Only in Canada would we have a vicious, bucktooth reclusive animal as our countries mascot. The sight of the massive beaver made me laugh and in some odd way also feel proud. Generally speaking, Canadians don't take themselves too seriously.

I have indeed adapted to my European life. But one thing I did realize in that Home Depot moment – you can take the girl of out of Canada, but you cannot take the Canadian out of the girl…

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Plane, the Buzzard and No Regrets

Friday, October 18th could have ended much differently for me and many others. On a full flight from Panama to Newark I had that moment in life when you get to consider the fact that you have reached the end of your stay here on earth. As the plane sputtered and the smell of smoke filled the cabin I had nothing left but time.

I watched the people in the plane. There was no crying. No yelling. No tears. Only hope and acceptance. The cabin crew sprang to life and prepared the plane for impact. Their professionalism in this terrifying moment astounded me. I didn't get to lay eyes on the man behind the voice that kept his cool and managed to land a limping plane full of gas safely. I wish I could have told him how much his skill was appreciated by not only those on the plane but also by those who loved us.

To the captain and crew of Continental flight 1022 from Panama to Newark - thank you.

At first I was going to carry on with this blog and write about how much the people in my life mean to me. But the thing is they know this. In fact I make sure to tell those closest to me the difference they make in my life as much as I dare. So it was in these moments in the plane when I thought I would not have a chance to do this again I was not troubled. Although I am far from ready to leave this world, I know that one thing I have done and done well is love. I have beyond a shadow of a doubt the most incredible, brilliant, kind and giving people in my life. In fact, I promise myself daily never to take them for granted.

So in this moment of acceptance I realized that I really didn’t have any regrets - just was tremendously heartbroken that I would not see my amazing son again.

But then as my eventful day carried on, something else happened. While making my way back to the hotel in Panama City my taxis driver and I narrowly escaped a major car accident.

My reaction? Laughter. Like someone shaking me from a deep sleep came the acknowledgement how very alive I was. Fate had intercepted and given me a tremendous gift.

You see flying is one of my greatest fears. Rationalization fails me on this one thing. I do it, but I loathe it. Even try to avoid it. But no more. As I felt the plane struggle to gain altitude my fear became my reality. I had no choice but to face it. Accept it even.

As cliché as it sounds “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I certainly feel that way. I have lived a great life, but now it’s about to get even better – I simply won’t accept anything else.
Acceptance is for moments when you’ve given up on life – and frankly I don’t have time for that.

PS. For a bit more information on the Continental Flight 1022 see below...

Incident: Continental B739 at Panama City on Nov 18th 2011, bird strike

By Simon Hradecky, created Friday, Nov 18th 2011 18:46Z, last updated Friday, Nov 18th 2011 18:47Z

A Continental Airlines Boeing 737-900, registration N53442 performing flight CO-1022 from Panama City (Panama) to Newark,NJ (USA), was in the initial climb out of Panama when the left hand engine (CFM56) ingested a bird and repeatedly surged. The crew shut the engine down and returned to Panama City's Tocumen Airport for a safe landing on runway 03R.Panama's Civil Aviation Authority reported the aircraft was headed for Houston,TX (USA), however, this flight reached Houston on schedule.Continental Airlines confirmed their flight 1022 returned to Panama due to necessary maintenance.

Reader Comments:
panama birdBy enrico boehme on Friday, Nov 18th 2011 19:18Z
i was in an warehouse in the cargo area when the noise started like a turboprop is landing next to me.. we run outside and over my head i have seen fire and noises like explosiones from the left engine.. we thought first is going down and is not climbing anymore.. pilot was bringit it under control and left kerosin in the pacific before landing.. landed save with scared people. good pilot and the landing was good..however those stupid birds here always are treath beside of heavy rains and storms.. friend of mine was in airplane and she said stuff flying around, people screaming and big noises and vibrations.. good they turned the thing off before explosion..

For a video of the landing refer to the editorial link

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Greener Pastures & Inspiring Moments

My mother and I were chatting away at the main street light in downtown Dornbirn at about 4pm on a beautiful Saturday afternoon when the man on his bike beside us suddenly gave a holler.

Of course we glanced over, but it was what we saw that will forever remain imprinted in our minds. Waiting patiently behind the man was his heard of sheep. Once he gave his okay to cross the road the sheep literally began to gallop after the man as he pedalled his way home. And not only that, they pretty much stayed on the sidewalk.

Later we learned that the sheep belonged to the owner of a popular bakery and café (Cafe Stadelmann) in town. I had previously heard about the owner Marcus. Passionate about his craft, his actions often provide fodder for a few conversations, but the respect for the end result, is high. You see, Marcus frequently takes his sheep for a “walk” so that they can enjoy greener pastures elsewhere.

I love the fact that Marcus the Baker walks his sheep so they can enjoy greener pastures. I love even more the fact that they follow him. There is something about a person who lives life on the own terms that both inspires and scares us. To venture out of one’s comfort zone and abandon the innate desire to conform requires courage and commitment. We all want as much as we can possibly squeeze out of life but often we are so busy colouring within the lines that our truly extraordinary life passes us by.

I have to admit, I was a bit inspired - so I am taking this moment I experienced as a gentle reminder to live life with as much passion and abandon as I can possible muster.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Water and Mountain People

Canadians are water people. We gravitate towards it on our holidays. Whether the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean or one of the many fresh water lakes you will find us flocking towards it. We swim in it, ski on it, lay around it, look at it, fish in it, dive, snorkel and wind surf. Cabins are built around it for family getaways, and house prices soar if there is a view of it. You get the picture - Canadians love their water.

I have to admit, it took some time for me to adjust to life here in Vorarlberg. Although the Lake of Constance is minutes away, people here simply do not expel the same amount of energy enjoying it as say Canadians would. You see, Vorarlberger’s love their mountains.

Living at the base of a popular hiking area, I spent months marvelling at the number of people heading up the mountain every day when weather permitted – which is virtually all the time. I was invited countless time to “walk” and “hike” and for climbing lessons in the mountains. Beautiful restaurants are nuzzled in remote mountain areas. Spas, festivals, cafes, ski resorts and so on. Life here is in the mountains.

Tough adjustment for a water loving Canadian. I just didn’t get it. You see in Canada we don’t really do a whole bunch in the mountains – some hiking, skiing of course, but for the most part it is best used for access to the less densely populated lakes and rivers. The reasons for this are many, however when I share with friends here in Vorarlberg they do not understand why we refrain from the lifestyle they so enjoy. Although we do some mountain-ish activities, we also respect the fact that within the forest walls reside bears, cougars (the man eating kind), coyotes and all sorts of predatory animals. Trails are less blazed and people are few – it’s simply different.

Having called Vorarlberg home for the past 10 months I can honestly say that I have come to appreciate the lure of heading to the mountains. No matter what sort of physical challenge I am in the mood for, I can find it in there. I can also find the solitude, simplicity and peace not always readily found at home. It’s a grounding experience.

As an expat, I have come to appreciate that our roots, our culture form a fundamental part of who we are. I was naïve to the extent that this actually exists. But I have also learned that although Canadian, I am also a Vorarlberger (albeit a newbie one) and that means something too. Water may be a part of who I am, but this whole mountain thing is now too.

The Quest for the Famous Kaesspaetlze

The first time I had Kaesspaetlze was about a year ago - and late at night. What I quickly learned was that was a really bad idea. Delightfully rich, the cheesy and teeny tiny dumpling like noodles had me tossing and turning throughout a sleepless filled night.

However I have since learned that most people would not dream of eating this dish in the evening. Specifically for the often sleepless nights it may cause.

But I love it. And in Vorarlberg they are quite noted for this deliciously rich meal. So - that means I have a responsibility to share it with those new to Vorarlberg. Alas, because of the potential adverse impact it may have to the waistline, an energetic walk should precede Kaesspaetlze - for then it is nearly guilt free.

Today was the very last day to enjoy Kaesspaetlze in Schönebach, a cute little place tucked away seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The perfect setting for a guilt free Kasspatzle experience. A long walk in the mountains, an afternoon spent enjoying a perfect fall day while also taking in the beauty of the area - and soon thereafter an appetite that only Kaesspaetlze could satisfy.

Well, I did my part. I introduced yet another to the famous Vorarlberger treat. And the best part? I won't have to cook anyone dinner tonight.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Police and an Empty Wallet

In Canada, if you pay for something with cash it can really mess things up. First off it better not be in big bills because anything over a $20 is subjected to anti-counter fitting scanners. In fact often you will see a sign that says “we do not accept $50 or $100 bills” simply because they can’t be bothered to take the chance. I in fact have a friend that was busted with a counterfeit $20 that he received from a bank – but the hassle he had to endure over proving that it did not originate with him was substantial.

However here in Vorarlberg, Austria this is not the case. It is all about cash. I have even had the pleasure of experiencing the awkward moment when it came time to pay and as I handed over my visa was advised that they did not take cards.

So I now go to the bank. Or rather the bankomat. And it spews out Euros in denominations of €50’s and €100’s. The first time I handed over a €100 bill for a €5 purchase I did what any other Canadian might do – I sheepishly asked if I could pay with my €100 bill. They looked at me as if I was from another planet and promptly made change.

This weekend has been a busy one for me. I’ve had commitments all over the place and burned through cash like crazy until all that remained was 5 euros. Still busy I put off going to the bankomat until it was more convenient. As I was rushing off to the next thing and singing along to Maroon 5’s latest I suddenly saw two police officers jump out into the middle of the road in front of me and flag me over.

As I handed over my British Columbia driver’s license and every single official looking paper I could find in the glove box the police officer informed me that I had been going 30 over the speed limit. Now in Canada I wouldn’t have been able to manufacture enough tears to get out of that one – not only would I lose a ton of points but I would also receive about a $300 ticket and a letter from my insurance company informing me how displeased they were with my driving habits. So I was clearly nervous. I had no idea how they would feel about my driver’s license and if I gave them the correct papers and if I was off to the nearest Austrian jail as a result of the combination. (By the way, in my defence I have been driving in Germany a fair bit lately and getting into the no speed limit highway driving).

You can imagine my absolute shock that once the police officers had completed their examination of my ID and papers that they then asked me for €35. Now. Of course it was then that I opened my wallet saw the remaining €5 bill. It was now time for the officer to look shocked. I am sure he was thinking “how can someone speed without cash? That’s not very organized.” Instead he said “there is a bankomat up the street.”

Doing as I was told I headed off to the bankomat and returned immediately to the scene of the crime just as I had been instructed to do. I handed the €50 over and the officer gave me change and a receipt.

As I drove away I couldn’t help but smile. I had just handed a police officer a 50 after being caught speeding – try doing that in Canada and see what happens.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

To Dirndl or Not to Dirndl

“You have to wear your dirndl,” says the man to me. Then he pauses and adds, “You know what that is - right?”

“Of course,” I reply. “It’s the cleavage dress.”

I don’t know what it is, but my Vorarlberg experience has taught me that men LOVE the dirndl. We are talking all men – young and old. Initially I could not comprehend what would have women happily running around in a traditional dress that also required an apron. The skirt is long, the sleeves are often ruffled. The whole thing is incredibly girlie and seriously old fashioned. But what the whole get up does allow for is a spectacular showing of cleavage.

Let me stop here as I have a bit of confession to make - I am actually considering buying a dirndl. I know, clearly I have lived here too long for such a thought to even enter my mind and perhaps am in need of some sort of Austrian assimilation intervention. I think in some ways I just want to walk around in one - see what it feels like. Will I feel old school and old fashioned? Maybe a little sexy? Though that seems hard to believe - there is an apron involved after all. What exactly is it that keep women wearing them? Or why men love seeing a woman in one? In many ways, I have to think that for a man the dirndl is like watching a woman in maid uniform, a little bit of dress up fun perhaps? I don’t know what it is, but a woman wearing a dirndl is clearing exciting for a lot of Vorarlberger men.

But –do women find lederhosen hot on men? It’s a good question, because most often when the woman is wearing her dirndl, the man will often accompany her in his lederhosen.

Let me help you with the lederhosen visual. Man in leather knickers with suspenders, shirt embroidered with flowers, knee high socks and hopefully no hat walking towards you.

It’s not happening is it?

Where there are dirndl’s – there are certain to be lederhosen. Its part of the whole thing they have going on here. And the man who invited me to his wife’s 40th party and told me to wear a dirndl – you can rest assured that the men are being told to wear their lederhosen.

I dont know for certain if I will actually one day don a dirndl, but I have to admit; somehow knowing men will be prancing around in their lederhosen makes the whole dirndl thing seem a lot more reasonable. And maybe even a little fun...

Ps. here are a couple links – one for the dirndl and the other lederhosen.,or.r_gc.r_pw.,cf.osb&biw=1350&bih=610&wrapid=tlif131757768029610&um=1&ie=UTF-8&tbm=isch&source=og&sa=N&tab=wi

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Banana Hammocks and Spandex

A few months back I was at the gym and enjoying a long cardio workout when I noticed the man in front of me. He had on light grey spandex shorts that were completely see-through. He too was enjoying a long cardio work out - his long hair flopping around while energetically expelling countless calories from his lean frame. Having been here a while I am somewhat accustomed to the amount of spandex men wear albeit the see-through thing was a new one. At the pool I have had to come to accept that a regular “swimmer-sunbather” will climb out of the pool and change his wet speedo for a dry one - poolside.

I know that I blogged once before about the nudity, but I decided that perhaps it deserved one more. The trigger being a friend who happened to visit me from Vancouver and the look of panic on her face as she watched a huge amount of sweaty, spandexed men crowd in around her on a small gondola. There had been a large group of men who had climbed the mountain and now that it was dark, were taking the gondola down. All eager to get home, they crammed in taking every available inch.

My friend was mortified. To a Canadian, this was akin to being smushed in an elevator of naked men. However, these Austrian men were only wearing what they have deemed appropriate work out attire. Not wishing to get too close to these men my friend declined holding onto a bar and instead firmly planted her feet on the floor. Short lived, the initial jerk of the gondola commencing decent left her tumbling into the arms of the men she most wanted to avoid. Delighted they uttered greetings in German to which my normally outspoken friend could only reply with a timid “danke.”

The next day I took my friend to the pool. Although perhaps a little mean, I still had to do it. As soon as I saw the banana hammock man I made sure my friend was in the appropriate place to witness the inevitable. Mr. Banana Hammock did not disappoint.

I watched my friends face once again fill with a look of both horror and shock.

In Canada we are uptight about nudity. And if someone dares to show their body, our culture dictates that it must be young and toned to perfection. Banana Hammocks are not tolerated, and spandex shorts belong only on a bike. We also have unofficial rules - like not engaging in polite conversation with a man wearing spandex bike shorts, or publicly shunning any man who dons a speedo and calling 911 if someone strips down poolside.

I can’t say that I am used to being around a culture so comfortable with their bodies – perfect or not. But I now know what to expect and that has eliminated the discomfort I initially experienced after moving here. And my Vancouver friend? As hard as I tried, there was no way I could get her to the sauna.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Expensive Princess

As months have gone, it has been an eventful one. Every time I turned around my task list grew. Unexpected bills came my way. Water pipes blew up. And on the last day of August I had one more event that left me both amused and bewildered.

Instead of heading home, I decided to head to downtown Dornbirn and enjoy both a glass of wine and what may have been the last of the warm summer evening - and lucky for me I did not have to do it alone.

My mood was feisty. And over here that also makes me a bit different. The culture is more formal and I am more casual in nature – like most Canadians. Of my two companions I knew one a bit better than the other. The less familiar one seemingly more proper and reserved. However, he too had a day or month that had taken its toll.

One thing I do enjoy about being here is that I can push humour a little more and get away with it. People are just so darn polite – and my being Canadian is a bit of a get-out-of-jail-free-card. One of which I use constantly. Being in a feisty mood only made it worse. However this time my dry humour was being tested and challenged.

It was right about there that I was suddenly called “an expensive princess.”

I have to admit I was shocked. In my nine months of living here I have never had anyone say anything close to such a thing. Maybe from my long-time friend here or from those back home– but not in the circle of my recently acquired Vorarlberg friends. I was used to being treated more “gently”.

The conversation continued for a while longer. The unfiltered sarcasm, barbs and jabs did as well. At one point I noticeably refrained from a response in fear that I would go too far. “Oh go on” said my friend who was quietly watching the evening progress and the conversation digress.

It was my first real evening like that here. Although it is nice being treated gently and with kindness – it felt like a relief to not feel that I had to watch my words and instead just be me - and that it’s not just back home in Kelowna that people will push back.

One thing I have learned is that feeling homesick can manifest itself in different ways. I miss my son more than words can express - my family, friends and home. But what you don’t anticipate is the change that you go through when living elsewhere. As much as I would like to think I have not, I know I have changed a little. I have had to adapt to the unfamiliar structure of society here, and the overall formality. My words are slightly guarded and I am a bit more reserved. But for a few hours I was just me. Unguarded words, loud laugh and pushing the boundaries to see how far I could go…

Sunday, August 21, 2011

You Can't Say That Here

“You can’t say that here,” said the fellow in my office.

When I asked why, his reply was simply, “you just can’t.” And with that, he left.

First let me paint the scene. The temperature outside was 30 degrees Celsius. My office was about 35 degrees. My face was covered in perspiration. The clothing I had decided to wear was completely inappropriate for the heat. And, although I can handle soaring temperatures with little problem, this day was a definite exception. With hours left in my work day, I contemplating how I would both make it – and cool down.

That’s about when my visitor walked in and inquired if I was “cranky.” To which I replied, “No, I’m just really hot.”

A few days later while enjoying both a coffee and the blazing sunshine, I was once again feeling the heat. It seemed the perfect moment to ask my friend about my colleague's comment.

“You can’t say that,” was my friend’s quick comment. “Especially at work.”
For the most part, I know that I am forgiven the seeming misuse of statements and phrases. I may go so far as to say that my friends and colleagues are amused when I make them. But it also works both ways. Like the word “toilet.” Here in Austria people often excuse themselves to go to the “toilet.” When I rented my flat I told someone one I had one and a half bathrooms to which they replied “You have one bathroom and a toilet.”

At home we do not say this word in polite conversation. In fact, many would say it is more acceptable to swear, than use the word “toilet.” I literally cringe every time I hear it. To even write it in this blog makes me feel uncomfortable. I keep thinking ‘I sure hope my mother doesn’t read this one.’ I know my discomfort with this word is a source of amusement to those close to me here.

But so it goes. I’m learning. By trial and error. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I am off to the pool. It’s another beautiful 30 degree day and I am, well, you know…

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Another 13 Things I Have Learned Living in Austria

1. Most Austrians think they are very similar to Canadians. I think perhaps after a spin on the 401 or attending a Canuck playoff game will cure them of that sentiment.

2. Formality rules. This is a bit of a mind bender for me being a west coast Canadian. I have had to re-evaluate how to write an email. Frau Antle.

3. Ceilings are made of cement. Particularly delightful when drilling holes for light fixtures.

4. Smoke detectors are no big deal here. See above.

5. Austrians don’t care about rhythm when they dance. It’s all about having fun – rhythm just just gets in the way of that. (Okay, that’s not completely true. I was just surprised by those normally reserved tearing it up on the floor. Who knew?)

6. Duck, lamb, rabbit, deer – it will be on the menu.

7. You don’t wait for things in the pharmacy. It’s instantaneous. No four hour prescription waits here.

8. Big brother is watching. I am still getting used to cameras being everywhere.

9. When travelling elsewhere and I tell people I work in Austria they think “Australia.” Seriously.

10. Binders. We don’t do folders and filing cabinets here. It’s all done in binders. I have yet to embrace the concept.

11. People are kind. I like that about living here.

12. Bicycles. It’s not unusual for someone to have three. One used for running errands. Another for street biking and then another for mountain biking.

13. Don’t order a highball.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

It's Time

A dear friend once suggested that I not speak English with an accent when I am speaking with native German speaking friends.

It’s a totally cheesy thing to do but I cannot help it. As hard as I try not to, I begin structuring my sentences like an English as a second language speaker. And then I throw in an accent on top.

“Now it sounds like you speak poor English as well,” said my friend.

I can’t win.

The other day while out for lunch I was asked something in German. “Ja Ja” I replied. It’s what I say to nearly everything. As my understanding of German continues to grow so does the uncertainty of speaking it – “ja ja” works almost always.

I have a new respect for those who speak a second language with which they are not 100% comfortable. They know absolutely that they will make mistakes and that they could very possibly look silly. It takes a level of bravery that I know I struggle with in some situations. But I know I have to go there if want to learn.

Overall the patience of people is astounding. No matter if I am in Austria or elsewhere. I have to admit that although I do not venture out of my comfort zone as often as I should, when I do, I am inspired by the way people respond. Another experience for which I am grateful.

I also understand now the comfort people can find in commiserating with a stranger in their familiar language. It is a momentary comfort.

My “ja ja” was not completely accepted at lunch the other day. As my time continues here in Austria so does the impatience with my limited language skills. They want to not hear my accented English, but rather me bumble my way through their language. I understand that too. Its time

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Good Life

I made the mad dash to grocery store – just in time. I quickly found my new favourite Austrian wine to have with dinner. The cloth bag for my groceries was tucked under my arm. Once at the checkout I was able to answer all the questions asked of me – in German. When I walked in the door I noticed that the big bouquet of white roses I had bought myself had filled my flat with a beautifully fragrant air.

Earlier today I had a wonderful exchange with my son back home. Then a few texts with a special friend reminded me that I am indeed loved.

As I make dinner tonight I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I have learned so much since moving Austria. Particularly about myself. My personal idealism of how to be a good mother has been challenged. I have had to count on the kindness of others to help me make my way at times, and without that, my days would have been much more empty and difficult. I know now the tremendous gratification that can result from knowing how to answer someone in an unfamiliar language, if only a handful of times. I have learned to ask for help.

I know that the small triumphs and beautiful moments that made up my day today were the result of the many amazing people that have entered my life. Whether it’s my son who makes me feel like the world’s best mom even though I am an ocean away, or the friend up the street that feeds me when I have not the time, or the colleague who helps me book a hair appointment when I am too shy to make the phone attempt –I am lucky. It’s the small moments that make up a life, and because of the support of everyone in my life, I can enjoy and savour them.

I have a good life. Thanks for being in it.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

13 Things I Have Learned

After five months of living in Voralberg, Austria, this is what I have learned thus far,

1. Speeding is bad. There are cameras everywhere and they don’t fall for tear filled stories here.

2. Police here are scary. I don’t know why, but they frighten the heck out of me.

3. Never call an Austrian – German. That’s akin to calling a Canadian an American.

4. Three kisses. Some countries it’s a kiss on each cheek, but in Austria it’s two and one. Got it.

5. Furniture takes six to eight weeks. If you are looking for instant gratification, skip furniture shopping. Ain’t gunna happen.

6. Flats do not come with lights. Not even bulbs!

7. Forget the carb free diet. Bread, bread, everywhere bread. Life is too short not to indulge when surrounded by so many amazing bakeries.

8. People smoke. Everyone! Kids, adults, athletes – I simply can’t wrap my head around that one.

9. Mahlzeit. That means good eating. People say that nonstop between 11am and 2pm. Sometimes event at dinner time.

10. Austrians are passionate. Don’t let the structure and formalities fool you. Underneath that calm, rational exterior is an outburst just waiting to happen.

11. Friend means lover, colleague means friend. I think. I am not 100% on that one, but I am sticking with colleague - it reduces the potential of a seriously awkward moment.

12. Aperol Spritz is great on a hot day. Particularly with Prosecco.

13. Caipirinha’s are not for wimps. Don’t drink one of those at the end of the night. Trust me on that one.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

I came. I weighed. I conquered.

I bought lemons today. Oh yeah. I rocked this whole Austria thing big time. For months I have been terrified of the produce section – but today no longer.

This past week I shared with someone from the office how intimidated I was by the produce department. The weighing in and tagging prior to the cashier hadn’t worked out so well for me in the past and lead to some pretty embarrassing moments. He took his time and explained the process. Produce on the scale. Type in number that is displayed on the items sign. Sticker comes out. Place on bag with produce.

Got it.

But first I needed cash and I had none so off I went to the bank machine to use my Austrian bank card for the first time.

Not good. The English language button was nowhere to be found and my attempt to logically select the right buttons was failing miserably. The machine kept spitting my card back. No money. This was a bit of a problem. I needed food and a pair of shoes was calling my name. So I did what any other person in my predicament would do. I went to my favorite bakery and ordered a cappuccino to go and pondered my options.

That’s when I heard “hey American girl!”

Seems walking around with a coffee is not a very Austrian thing to do. Nonetheless, that cappuccino proved to be the perfect Segway for a little bank machine tutorial. Money now in hand I decided it was time to head to the busy Interspar and stock up my weeks groceries.

First stop produce section. I circle the area. I decide to only try one thing just in case I did it wrong – one oops is much less embarrassing than 10. So I decide on lemons. Just three little lemons. I bag them and begin searching for the machine. Instantly I panic. There is a line up at the weigh scales. I nearly bail, but instead go back to the lemon sign and double check the number. “You can do this,” I silently assure myself.

My turn arrives. Place on scale. Check. Push button. Hmm…where is the tag? Nonchalantly I start examining all sides of the machine. I start looking for an enter button, something, anything that I could have overlooked. Nothing. Just before I am about to walk away I notice the sticker. I place it on the bag and head to the till. Reading the label I think whatever it happens to say does not look much like the word “lemon.” Should have taught us lemon in German class I think.

In the end, my lemons were accepted at the till. It was a euphoric moment for me. I paid for them with the money I took from the bank machine.

Today there is an extra bounce in step as well as a renewed sense of pride. And I will likely share this anyone and everyone who is misguided enough to ask me how my day went. And why not? I conquered the heck out of it!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Queen of Consumption

Family. Food. Friends. Food. Easter. Even more food.

Am I complaining? Not a chance. Life doesn’t get much better than this. Everywhere I turn in the kitchen and pantry I can see my favourite foods. Two meals out of three are sure to be either a wonderful comfort food from my youth or a tantalizing culinary experience.

Don’t even get me started on the baking.

I am home. And by home I mean enjoying the pampering and fuss that a mother seems only to be able to do when she hasn’t seen her daughter in over three months. My primary responsibility is to devour and enjoy what is put in front of me. I’m worthy of the task.

So busy was I enjoying my role as the Queen of Consumption that I failed to notice anything else around me. One could say I was rather focused.

All this came to a screeching halt one fateful afternoon. “Let’s go to the gym,” says my son with 1% body fat. So off I went.

While at the gym I caught my profile in one of those ginormous mirrors that fitness clubs seem to line every available wall with and had what can only be called a Buddha moment.

Surely my shirt was all bunched I thought and smoothed it out over my stomach. Nope. Maybe it is the angle I am standing in I decide and reposition myself. Nope, not that either. I smooth my shirt again and ponder how many hours of hard core cardio it will take to right this most undesirable turn of events. A lot I decide.

I’ve never really experienced “going home” to my parents before. It’s certainly a time filled with love, comfort and quality time. Although I miss my parents dearly, it is also pretty cool to be able to enjoy this new experience. Sure it is calorie laden, but that’s okay, next time will pack some stretchy pants…

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Rethinking a Goodbye

I don’t like goodbyes. Not one little bit. They are an unnecessary dramatic conclusion. To me a goodbye signifies an end. And most often an end is a negative thing – so why goodbye?

When my son was around two years old he refused to say goodbye. He would hug people, say “love you” and then quickly leave the rest of us to our dramatic send off. I think he was on to something.

My long time email/pen pal used to sign every email to me with some sort of “goodbye.” Each time I would read through the email and enjoy the inevitable chuckle it provoked, but then it would lead to a formal “have a nice life” sort of ending. It made me crazy.

As I head off for a three week leave from my Austrian home, I found myself once again dealing with “goodbyes.” I appreciate the effort certainly, but being the sensitive soul that I am, I am horribly uncomfortable with the finality of a goodbye. I accept that things change and that sometimes it can be painful to part. But it does not have to be a goodbye. Does it?

I would like to think that a goodbye is more like the end of a chapter. And as you turn the pages to another chapter and perhaps another you will soon find that there was no need for a goodbye. Whether it is three weeks, 10 years or a lifetime – why say goodbye? How about see you soon? Then we can just keep turning the pages and see what the next chapter holds.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Orange Envy

Over two months in and I have to say it is the grocery store that causes me the most grief. I love fruits and vegetables. The problem is I don’t know how to buy them.

A week back I put some oranges on the store conveyer belt. Not a big deal – right? At home in Canada they just weigh those suckers for me, enter in how much I owe and I am on my way.

Not here.

The cashier stopped, examined my oranges and said something to me at warp speed in dialect riddled German. I am completely clueless except that there is a problem with the oranges and she is not very happy with me. Everyone around is now watching and wondering how the orange issue is going to turn out. The cashier continues to stare at me as she picks up the phone to call someone.

Excellent. She was calling back up. This wasn’t going to get embarrassing at all.

At this point I declared that I no longer wanted the oranges while at the same time pausing to scan the rest of conveyer belt for any other possibly awkward produce moments. Fortunately the rest of my selection was straight forward.

Days later I share my produce story with a fellow at work. Being ever so helpful, he launched into the most complicated explanation of how I must select, weigh and tag my produce prior to the till. At the end of my verbal tutorial he decided that these produce machines were in fact so incredibly complicated that I should make every effort to avoid them. After his explanation I was inclined to agree.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Navigating Through Da with a Ding

Its German class tonight and I am late. The navigation in my car keeps taking me to a location that is making me doubtful.

A few weeks ago I was treated to a traffic sign information session by some friends. There are round signs everywhere here. Some with X's through them, some with lines, and some with round circles. During this same discussion, they also gave me an abundance of information on everything Austrian. The result was the retention of a few facts, most of them not the slightest bit useful, but fascinating to me nonetheless. Facts such as learning that a reclusive man lives nearby in the mountains and makes boots so cool that he has had to outsource making them in order to keep up with demand.

Not at all helpful, and I am now filled with a nagging hesitation as I stare at a round sign with a line through the middle of it. My cars navigation is telling me to proceed on through and frankly I am not so sure. I find I am really wishing I had paid more attention to the traffic sign talk. The large planter in the middle of the road is also telling me in it’s of so subtle way that this way is likely forbidden. But damn it, the navigation says that in order to get to where I need to go, I must proceed.

Fifteen minutes late for German class. Surely they are already conjugating a whole new set of verbs and I will be clueless in the room full of keeners. Fun.

Slowly I inch towards the planter and consider driving on through the area and pleading ignorance if it is indeed a forbidden route. The problem is that although I believe that rules are meant to be challenged, Austrian society is incredibly respectful of them and this makes me a little bit nervous. I call my Swiss friend who in turn makes me annoyed because he has no idea about the sign I am trying to describe.

“Please proceed to the planned route,” says the navigation.

Twenty minutes late. I consider skipping it.

The problem here is that the road system makes no sense to me. In Canada, most cities with the exception of Vancouver, are built on a grid. Here everything twists and turns and feeds into places you never expect. Normally I love this, but twenty-two minutes late and I can find nothing positive about the situation.

I decide that I do not want to risk losing my license in rule filled Austria and will instead find the location on my own. It worked. And although I showed up 30 minutes late for class I was able to learn important words. Like “da” which means here, and “ding” which means thing. I love these words. I also learned that “nicht” or “not” is often the third word in a sentence. Now I can say things like “was is das ding?” (what is this thing) which is actually a whole of fun to say. Or better yet, “Das ding ist kaput!” which is exactly what I have to say about my navigation.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Heading Home

This evening as I was packing up, I announced “I can't wait to get home.”

Truth was I was tired and happy that the day was coming to an end, but my comment was met with raised eyebrows. My co-worker had assumed that I was on the next plane back to Canada. In that moment it hit me, I was calling home a teeny tiny hotel room when I was in actual fact homeless.

Of course this caused me to ponder the facts. My home in Kelowna was about to become someone else’s and I was still in the process of securing a flat to call my own here in Austria. Since I had arrived here with only four bags of stuff, I would be faced still with making my new residence, home.

When I think back to my beautiful town back in British Columbia, I think of home. It’s where my friends and family live. However, as I made my way back to my hotel, I also had to admit that it too was home to me. If only just for the moment - and that when I made it into my new flat, it would also become my home.

So I got to thinking, what was “home” exactly? It was clearly a place of emotional attachment because no matter when I say “I am going home” it makes me feel warm inside. It could be back to my roots in small town Ontario, or where my loved ones reside or where I climb into bed each night – even if it is a teeny tiny hotel room.

But is home just a place? I started to think not. If it can be so many different places, then it must be a feeling. When I see my son or speak to him on the phone, I am filled with feelings of peace, warmth and love that resonate even stronger than the sense I get when I head to a place that I geographically define as home. And, when I am in the arms of a special someone I know that there is no place I’d rather be. That special moment is home to me.

I’ve decided that there is absolute truth to the old adage “home is where the heart is.” But it isn’t geographical. Sure it can be a place you seek solace in at the end of the day, or a place you consider during a tough time - but it can also be sound of your childs laugh and the arms of someone you love the most. And that to me is an even better kind of "home."

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Naked Sauna

“This is a nudist area” says the battle axe in front of me. “Strip down.”

Well, one thing is for certain, I took a wrong turn in this fitness club. I can be a bit oblivious at times. Wandering around thinking about this and that, and unless something happens to startle me out of my internal daydream, then I can miss what’s happening around me. Right or wrong, it’s part of my “thing.”

So now I am startled. There are naked people everywhere, and am not only clothed, I have a big huge bathrobe on top too. But this woman is firm. And to be honest, I am a bit stressed about how to get out of the place. She hands me a towel, I strip as discretely as possible and duck into the nearest sauna with the towel wrapped around me. The sauna I selected was about 4000 degrees and had about six naked men sprawled out in it.

I am so far gone out of my comfort zone that I promise myself that I will never daydream a moment more in life. Carefully I make my way to the furthest, highest corner in the sweltering room. (Which also happens to be the hottest of course). Towel wrapped around I pretend that I am in my happy place and hope that no one notices me.

That was until the battle axe returned. She throws open the sauna door and says “English girl, towel is for your feet!”

Seriously? Who ever heard of such a thing! My towel was needed more for my feet than the rest of body. My invisible cloak had entirely crumbled as now people were asking me where I was from and so on. A part inside my mind is pushed so far beyond my comfort zone that I nearly convince myself that this is not happening. It’s all likely a dream that was probably brought on by some nightmare inducing kaesspaetzle eaten the night before. Now I am explaining to what can only be described as nakedness, that I am from Vancouver. Another mistake, they want to talk Olympics now.

I notice with envy everyone is drinking water. Not me. I am not supposed to be here so I am totally unprepared. One moment wandering aimlessly, and the next I am living my worst nightmare. A glance out the sauna window tells me that this is rush hour in nudist town. I vow to stay in my corner. Slowly the men leave, for that sauna was brutally hot. I want to leave too, but I am now filled with fear of getting stuck out in the naked sea of bodies out the window. I’d rather die in the sauna than go out there. Everyone is chatting away like this is normal everyday behaviour. By this time I am so parched I don’t even think I could talk if I wanted.

In the end, I stayed in that 4000 degree sauna until virtually every person had departed and was delirious from the heat and dehydration. But like I said, I was prepared to die in that corner. I’ve never been so happy to see a bathrobe in my life.

That’s one big cultural difference. Nudity. It’s not really a big deal here. I think it’s pretty cool that they can be so open and relaxed about the whole thing. However, at the end of the day, I am a Canadian. We feel really uncomfortable when some guy goes running down the beach in a banana hammock, never mind nudist saunas. Maybe it’s because of our long cold winters and our love of bundling up, I don’t know. What I do know, is that I won’t be venturing into that area again.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The First Ten Minutes

If you ask me within the first 10 minutes of an intense cardio workout if I am going to manage my 40 minutes I would not be able to tell you that answer.

The first 10 minutes kills me. My body resists and I feel sluggish and tired. Everything in me wants to quit. But it’s a mind game. I promise myself if I go really hard for one more minute then I can quit. This goes on minute by minute until I reach the ten minute point when my body wakes up and off we go. I love that moment. It’s a rush that continues on through for as long as I want to make it last.

My first month here in Austria has been similar to that first 10 minutes. The whole thing got off to a rocky start. It began with a friend ambushing me with some pretty difficult news the moment I got off the plane. The hotel I was temporarily calling home became a party zone for a number of nights. I couldn’t find the food I wanted. My hair stylist made me a mousy brunette. You get the picture anyway.

Whine. Whine. Whine.

I was a bit cranky. Some days were worse than others, and if I were to be really honest, I was fairly unpleasant to be around. And, there were moments where I was feeling pretty close to throwing the towel in. Though, if you had asked me why I wanted to give up I would not have been able to give you a solid answer other than it was just too difficult.

Tonight at the gym, as I made it beyond that brutal first 10 minutes, I began to reflect on things. I made a decision to do exactly what I am doing for many reasons; including the fact that I knew it was not going to be easy. It’s like every time I head out for a run, or step on a stair machine, I know that I am going to have to struggle through those first 10 minutes. But it’s a struggle that is well worth every moment thereafter.

I like to think of my first month here like the first 10 minutes of cardio. It was just something that I had to fight through and now I am ready to do exactly what I came here to do.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Who Knew?

I am missing cooking. I swear hell must have frozen over, because I don’t think I ever expected to feel this way. If I said this to one of my friends, I am sure they would have assumed this lament was the result of a couple of well enjoyed glasses of wine.

But it is the truth.

I love going out for dinner. In fact, if eating out was an Olympic sport, I’d be a serious contender.

Maybe it is because I cannot. The place I call home at the moment is the size of a postage stamp. I sit up in bed and I am either instantly in the closet, or what they call the kitchen. It simply depends on which way I happen to be looking at the moment. My refrigerator is the size of a large shoebox. Actually a small shoebox. And the living quarters being what they are, I know that whatever I happened to cook, both my room and I would carry the aroma for days on end. So I don’t do it. I go out.

Now I have things I would never dream of for snacking. Baguettes, cheese. Chocolate. It’s a waistlines worst nightmare. However, it was a heck of a lot of fun at first. I could justify my guilty pleasures with the fact that I had no other real option. Going out to eat, two to three times a day is a time consuming endeavour, not to mention all that sitting.

Born in the land of drivethru’s , and having grown up in the age of Starbucks, I am used to having whatever I want, when I want it. I’m used to a refrigerator that can accommodate a Costco run.

Not having a kitchen or a sushi place on my speed dial is a new experience for me. As is a kitchen laden with all my guilty pleasures. Now, as I search for a place to call home, it is the kitchen that means the most to me. I can’t wait to cook. To have my new friends over, and my long-time friends to come and visit. As frustrating as this is at the moment, I am glad for the experience, because without it, I would not have known that I actually enjoyed my own cooking!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

You Don't Need to Understand

“But what about your son,” asks nearly everyone.

That is a loaded question, and not an easy one to hear. Its guilt inducing and does not help ease the pang I already feel for my decision.

But it wasn’t entirely my decision. This was a question that I put forth to my friends, family and most importantly my son. Of everyone, it was my son who told me to do what I wanted. It was not easy for him to say this, but I knew he wanted me to be happy, just as I did, and do, him.

I remember when as a “tween” he went through what we affectionately refer to as the “orange” phase. What ever he could wear that was orange he would. So many times I had to bite my tongue as he proudly came to me with his carefully selected attire. For in his effort was his independence. He knew that he was dressed differently from the other kids, but he dressed only to please himself – no one else. The orange phase was followed by many others, and while he exercised his creativity I watched how free he was in spirit. He always looked great, but what was most important is that he constantly took a chance and tried new things. Sometimes it didn’t work but sometimes it did. Through it all he was happy, and soon learned to not be afraid to make a decision, even an unpopular one with his peers – and at times, me.

Like my son, I too went through my phases. There was the tofu, garlic and juicing one. I remember the year I bought the most ridiculous sun gear known to mankind. To make life even more interesting, I published a regular column that transcribed the humour and drama of our everyday life. It was read by his teachers, some of his friends and parents. Not once did he ask me not to write something.

I won’t lie, there were moments that it took everything for me not to ask my son to change, and I know he took a few taunts over my columns, but at the end of the day he was as proud of me as I was him. We both knew that we were doing what we needed to do.

We’ve both learned that there is more to life when you colour outside of the lines. And we also know that geography doesn’t make a bond stronger; it simply makes it more convenient.

I guess where I am going with this is that no one else needs to understand my reasoning – just as long as we do.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

“Don’t be afraid to take that big step”

Day 5

“Don’t be afraid to take that big step” read my after dinner fortune cookie. It made me smile, because truly what could I do next? I was alone, and I had left everything familiar behind just five days ago.

Intuitively I’ve always known that life would change for me this year. And, if I was honest, I would have to say that I did not think it would have been work that forced the change. But it is what it is, and here I am.

There is something a bit exotic about being a Canadian here in Austria. I don’t know why. Last night when I shared that I was from Canada’s western wine region with a local proprietor, he declared that the table I was seated at was forever mine. Or maybe I said something wonderfully profound in my very broken German. Who knows? It doesn’t matter. Because less than a week in I have made friends, have a walking companion and managed to unpack a year’s worth of clothing in one teeny tiny hotel room closet.

Somehow I thought moving would be a lot like traveling, which I had done a bit of over the past year – but it is not. There is no end in sight. Whether I am ready or not, my life is here now. Which is why I think I will head on down to the friendly gang that called out “abend” in the hotel lounge and see what my broken German might lead me to discover tonight.

In many ways that fortune cookie had it bang on. Moving was the easy part. Its the little things that really push me out of my comfort zone and make me feel empowered.