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The first night I babysat the children, Anna had been at an evening class. It had ended early, so she came home as I was in the process of reading the kids their bedtime stories (three children = SO many stories). We were all four squeezed onto Kilian’s bed, the bottom bunk of a twin sized bunk bed, when we heard the door front door open and a cheerful “Hallo!” echoed up the stairs.

Kilian responded with the clumsy urgency that only toddlers display. In bare feet and a blue pajama set, he bolted for the top of the stairs, where he pressed himself to the railing, straining to somehow get his face between the bars so he could see down to the entryway. As Anna started up the staircase and he caught a glimpse of her, he jumped and yelled “Mama” as his little body vibrated with excitement.

That, I thought. That is what I want someday. To have someone be so excited to see me that they cannot physically contain their joy.

Fast forward to yesterday. I’m walking from the Oberalm train stop back to the house after a 10 day trip to Greece with my mom. It’s overcast and there’s a slight drizzle as I trudge up the last hill to the house, eager to be able to put down my backpack. As I turn the corner to our street, I see the family’s small blue minivan coming down the drive towards me. I wave and they come to a stop next to me. Lena hops out of the far side of the car and as she runs around to greet me, I smile at Kilian through the car window. Inside, he strains against the bonds of his car seat, tiny fists and feet shaking in the air as he clearly mouths my name in joy. Lena leaps into my arms and I’m the happiest I’ve been in a very long time.

I never wrote about Christmas properly, and that is a shame. It would have felt out of place in the midst of my “Epic” posts, but it’s well worth recording. So it goes here now. Three months late.

Despite both being grounded in the Christian religion (obviously) there’s a fairly significant difference in folklore between Austrian and American Christmases. As you may/probably know, American Christmas is largely driven by Santa. We also talk about this Jesus fellow, but for the most part, he doesn’t play a driving force within the holiday. That is to say, he doesn’t have do anything. We celebrate his birthday and he just gets to hang out. Santa’s the one who has to travel all over the world in one night.

In contrast, the Austrian Christmas season is driven by three major figures – St. Nikolas, Krampus, and Der Christkind (the Christ-child). Technically, St. Nikolas and Krampus are part of a holiday entirely separate from Christmas that takes place on December 6th, appropriately named St Nikolas Day, which kind of serves as a kick off of the season.

The celebration of St. Nikolas will probably sound at least vaguely familiar to most of my American readers. Kids put their shoes/boots outside the door. If you’ve been good, St. Nikolas comes by in the night and drops toys and candy into them during the night. This part of things is celebrated in a fairly wide scale throughout Europe. What’s uniquely Austrian is Nikolas’s buddy, Krampus. While it’s technically St. Nikolas’s day, Krampus rules the night.

Krampus was first introduced to me by a German professor who had grown up in Austria. In his town, two men – one dressed as Nikolas, one as Krampus – would go door to door and ask if the children in that home had been good or bad. When they came to his door, he recalled clinging to his mother and begging her to say that he was good. Why?

Because if you’re bad, Krampus, who looks like a demon and travels in a pack, kidnaps you in a burlap sack and takes you to the forest and beats you with chains.

Merry Christmas!

In our town, Krampus is celebrated in what’s called a Krampuslauf, a parade which happens on the evening of the 4th. The tradition and effort behind these events is a little staggering.  Larger towns will each have their own, while smaller towns (like Oberalm) will band together with neighboring islets to host theirs.

Our decision to go to the lauf was made a bit late in the game. My host family had been living in Germany until earlier that year and so had never been to a Krampuslauf before. Lena desperately wanted to go, so plans had been made for she and I to go with her neighborhood friend Amina and her Julia. But, when the day actually came, Hannah refused to be left home and where Lena AND Hannah go, so goes Kilian (or so he likes to insist, in much simpler language). Anna was hesitant to bring Kilian, since she had heard that some of the marches actually got fairly violent. The neighbors pooh-poohed these worries, since traditionally the Oberalm marchers would stay within the parade route. When they heard that Anna had never actually been to a march before, they became even more insistent we all come. So we went, Kilian perched on Anna’s shoulders and Hannah, Lena, and Amina skittering excitedly ahead of us.

When we arrived, it was already dark and the crowd was building and sipping on hot gluehwein while horn music played from one of the adjacent houses. We ran into another family from the neighborhood and joined up with them. The air was thick with anticipation and the crowd was threaded with teenagers who pushed eagerly pushed to the front and then shoved each other into the No Man’s Land that the street had become. Despite my height (more specifically, my lack thereof), I was advised to stay back a bit, as that would ensure that the Krampii would leave me alone.

Then the horn music quieted and we were left in silence. Down the street on our left, flashes of light and smoke started going up from a source we were still too far off to identify and rock music filled the air the Christmas horns had vacated. One of the teenage girls shrieked and Lena gasped and grabbed Amina’s hand. Hannah pressed herself against me.

When the first two Krampuses came around the corner, I was amazed. The costume fully encased the person within in fur and wax to the point that you doubted there was anyone underneath. Chains clanked around their feet, and tiny glaring eyes were lit within their demonic masks. Horns curled up out of their foreheads and they stalked up the street with clubbing sticks in hand. The costume creation went much further than simple hobby. These are works of art that years have been spent on – all built in a garage and kept hidden until this one night.

As I said before, the Oberalm marchers normally stick to the route and only hassle those at the front of the crowd. If they move in any further, it’s only to harass their friends. But on this particular year, the magical 4th wall was broken and at an unknown signal the Krampuses began to push through the crowd, shoving bystanders indiscriminately out of the way to get to the children. They crept around the children, crouched down to look them in the eyes, and stroked their foreheads with one long, hairy finger before moving on, indicating the child in question passed the test of “goodness” required to sleep safely that night.

Lena and Amina took this in stride after their innocence was confirmed, moving from fear to the pleasure of adrenaline rush in seconds. Hannah clung to me and stared silent with massive eyes. Kilian… lost his mind. No amount of reassurance would calm him and he clung to the nearest known male (Gerd was out of town) while shrieking his head off and we were too deeply embedded in the crowd to move out. To their credit, the Krampuses tried to show they meant no harm once they saw his reaction, but he wasn’t buying it.

So, I know there’s likely to be some judgement of the encouragement of our neighbors and our final decision to bring a toddler to a demon parade. But Kilian was not the only child his age in the crowd. Most reacted in a MUCH calmer manner – many even showed outright joy and awe. I think now that the difference between Kilian’s reaction and the other similarly-aged-children’s is that they had been primed for this experience. It fit in the context of a story that they knew well. Because we were outsiders, the story of Krampus wasn’t a part of Kilian’s life and he didn’t understand that he would come out safely on the other side.

Probably something we should have considered. But we didn’t. It was a mistake on our part and, don’t worry, he got us back for it. Poor little dude had nightmares for the next week or two and made sure that we knew about every single one of them.

Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

Can you blame him?

Weirdly, the Talk didn’t happen until two weeks after my return from London. In the in-between, things had been strangely good. I had spent ten days in the UK and Ireland, basking in the certainty that comes with fluency and the comfort of traveling with a long-time friend. As I had boarded my plane back,  I still had no idea what I wanted to happen on my return. Mid-flight, I composed a long and rambling journal entry in the hopes of sorting out my thoughts. What I wound up creating was a small list of contingencies to my staying that gave me some idea of what I was looking for and helped assure me that the difficulties weren’t entirely on me. When I returned to Austria, the kids had returned to their whole and hale status and I had the mental space to re-notice the things that had enchanted me so in my first few months here.

Finally, one night when the kids had been put to bed, Anna and I sat down on the couch. We had started out talking about something else and each settled with our backs against the arms of the sofa, facing each other. As we acknowledged the Anticipated Conversation that had been hanging in the air, what had been a relaxed attitude eventually came to feel more confrontational. What followed was a strange and meandering conversation wherein I spoke English and she spoke German. My contingencies had been voiced (not for the first time) and given a strange non-acknowledgement acknowledgement (not for the first time, and ultimately, the decision was thrown into my court. They had signed a contract with me that they didn’t want to renege on. Which felt (feels) a little strange to be honest. If I stayed, Anna would pick up a few classes in Philosophy – which was the focus she was thinking of moving to – and if I didn’t, she would just wait until the next year. I asked for some time and was granted it.

Over the next few days, my decision ultimately came down to the realization that I wasn’t quite ready to give up on Europe (I still have a two month summer trip to accomplish, friends coming to visit, and family members to travel with), but going through the hassle of finding a new family doesn’t seem like a good idea. I’ve started to build a life here and the task of finding a family to transfer that life to is daunting at best, likely impossible, at realistic.

So, I’m staying. Because I’m not sure I’d ever forgive myself if I gave up on this quite yet. I’m in love with this language and remembering why I love these children and in love with the possibilities this continent represents. Even though it’s now a little beat up and bruised, this is still a long-time, big-scale dream. For better or worse, I’m not convinced that it’s time to wake up.

Things have been changing a lot over the past few months and only now is it kind of settling into a place where I can actually comprehend everything that’s happened. Because of time limits, I’m gonna have to do this in sections, so bear with me.

About four days after I last posted, Kilian came home from preschool with a stomach flu. He was feverish and throwing up and passed the plague onto Lena. Lena thankfully was better after about 24 hours, but with Kilian it clung. That Monday, Anna and Gerd were scheduled to fly out to London and I was going to have the kids alone for three days, with aid from the neighbors/substitute grandparents.

That morning, Kilian was still sick, Lena wasn’t totally healed, and Hannah was pretty cranky, which was reading as a sign she would get sick too. So Gerd decided to stay home and Anna flew out alone. Which turned out to be a miracle, because about half hour after they left the house, I was sitting at the kitchen table with my head down because I felt like I was going to vomit. In the end, only Gerd and Hannah were spared, but Anna did her vomiting in London.

The next week was drastically below par and, in fact, my time here had never really reached what we all hoped it would be. Anna, feeling dissatisfied with Biology, had stopped going to classes about the same time that I started to get good enough at the language to be comfortable and her constant presence felt stifling to me. I quickly started questioning every decision I made because she was always there as a second authority and every decision felt like it was going to be a misstep.

It also blurred the line between what was my time and what was work time. Suddenly my job had shifted between about 25 hours of clearly defined work a week, to this strange fuzzy place, where I had no clear off time outside of the three hours the kids spend at school in the morning. Add into this that, while they were sick, Kilian and Hannah were desperate that their mother should care for them and that I should have nothing to do with them and you have a very exhausting situation in which I am always working and always failing.

December 26th, I flew out for a trip to London. I had spend Christmas with the family and it was adorable and good, but I still hadn’t shaken the longing to leave that had developed during the Sick Time, probably because now we were all dealing with the cold that had picked up right as the stomach flu was fading, particularly with Kilian. As Gerd drove me out to the airport, he informed me that there was a pretty good chance that Anna would be taking a break from college the next semester and we needed to have a Talk upon my return in order to decide whether or not I would be staying, and what I would be doing were I to stay.

The news came as a relief. An opening. An option. I could leave if I needed to. If I wanted to.

But we all needed time to think and so we agreed to think about it over New Years and that there would be a decision on their side by the 6th when I was scheduled to return. And so I flew off to the most needed vacation I had ever taken.

Subservience

Okay, so I’m not going to say which child I had this conversation with, all I’m going to say is that it happened.

Now, the family has a small minivan that they use when transporting the whole family. It has five normal seats (two front, three middle) and then an extra seat that can be removed. The seat in the back has to be accessed from the trunk. For practical reasons, this back seat is my seat. I think it’s a bit funny that I get in and out through the trunk, and it really is the only thing that makes sense. However, when Gerd or Anna isn’t with, I sit up in front. So it’s not like I’m permanently exiled to the back or something.

Yesterday, however, we were driving to the girls gymnastics performance for Christmas. Kilian was sick and so Anna decided to stay at home with him. Grandma Isolde had made the trip in from Linz to see the girls though, so she obviously got to sit shotgun. Gerd was nice enough to pull Kilian’s car seat out and put it in the trunk so that I could sit up front with the girls. On the way there, I didn’t notice this until after I was set up in my usual seat though, so I just sat in the back. On the way home though, I nauturally sat in the middle row. As I climbed in I had the following conversation with the girl sitting next to me:

Child: “You can’t sit there.”
Me: “Normally not, but since Kilian can’t come your Dad put his seat in the back.”
Child: “But you can’t sit there. You have to sit in the back.”
Me: “Why?”
Child: “Because I have to put my bag there.”
Me: “Don’t talk nonsense. Sit down and I’ll buckle you up.”
Child: “You can’t sit there!”

At this point Gerd intervened and told her to sit down. The girl remained angry for the rest of the ride home and wouldn’t talk to me, unless I spoke loudly enough that Gerd would hear and force her to answer. But the feeling still stayed with me. At that point in time, this child felt as though her paper sack of peanuts was more deserving of the place next to her than I was. Really honestly thought that. And she’s the exception in the family, but it’s still striking.

Which kind of touches on a central awkwardness of this situation. I am essentially a servant, as much as we like to avoid that word these days. I live with a family and my job is to help them. Granted, I am a very well treated servant, and am very much treated like an equal, but when it comes down to it, the families needs and desires come before mine and if I’m not willing to acknowledge that term and condition, I’m not only out of a job, I’m out of a place to live.

And that’s a very strange place for a strong-headed, mid-upper class, American feminist to be in. On one hand, I’m ridiculously grateful for this place to live and food to eat and having everything provided in exchange for just watching their kids and helping with the housework, and on the other hand it’s very grating to feel subservient, even in the lightest sense. And it’s also interesting to see how it kind of makes Anna and Gerd uncomfortable as well.

I started running into this last summer as well, when I was working as a janitor at a bulldozer factory (I know, right?). I was working in this plant of union guys who probably did not think of themselves as being very high up on the totem pole of society. But they were skilled labor. And they were unionized. And then here I was cleaning up after them.

There’s this awkward feeling that happens when you’re cleaning up someones trash or mopping their floor while they’re still in the room. There’s this sense of guilt from them and this sense of uncertainty on your part. No one knows whether or not they should talk to one another. And so you just remained completely closed off, awkwardly asking them to get up so you can vacuum under their desk and they respond with a polite apology and then flee to the other side of the room. There’s a fear of acknowledging position of power.

And it raises questions of how we are supposed to handle things like this. The functioning of society seems to be based upon the ranking of people, either by wage or quality of work or permanence. But we behave in a way which tries to deny these facts and somehow seems to exacerbate them, as it did in my job last summer. I never felt more like a servant than when I was mopping around a conversation. But then in this situation, the denial is comforting and makes things go easier. Gaining a sense of security in my position in the house was a big turning point for me. Hearing affirmation that they were not planning on sending me back anytime soon, that they thought I was capable of doing this job, was what finally allowed me to start doing it.

I can’t really think of anyway to conclude this post, as I don’t really know what I’m thinking myself. Any of you got anything?

Random Story

Kilian asleep

That is what is going on in the room next to me. Isn’t it adorable?

We had been having a “discussion” about whether or not Kilian was going to allow me to change him, as he had recently pooped. Yes, it actually needs to be a discussion, because Kilian is freakishly strong for a two-year-old and if he is not convinced that his diaper needs changing, my pathetic attempts just end poorly.

Kilian was adamant that he did not want to be changed, no matter what I offered as a reward (Kilian, you can finish listening to that really annoying CD about a crawling ladybug! Kilian, you can have some cashews! Kilian, for the love of god, you smell terrible, let me change you! – Okay, so maybe I didn’t actually say the last one.)

When asked why he did not want to be changed, I was promptly told that he was angry. When asked why he was angry, I was given the simple response that he was angry because he was angry. When told that he was smelly and asked if he wanted to continue smelling and having poop in his diaper, he replied with a confident, albeit surprising, yes. There was simply no way out of this one.

My final attempt at coercion was that I simply do not play with stinky kids, and since he was choosing to continue stinking, he had to leave the kitchen and go somewhere else. I was hoping he would go upstairs to try play with Hannah, who would also promptly tell him he couldn’t play with her because he stank. After that, he normally comes and asks to be changed.

However, he decided to go into the living room. I waited a couple minutes for him to get bored and come ask to be changed. Instead, it just got really quiet and I walked around the corner to find him curled up on the armchair asleep.

I added the blanket though. Just because he still smells doesn’t mean he should be cold.

New photos on the flickr, from the first real snowfall of the year, Berlin, and a couple from my attempt at cooking Thanksgiving dinner last Saturday. The results from the dinner were about 50/50: The chicken (no turkey, because I really did not want to saddle them with that many leftovers) and the sweet potatoes came out amazing, while the gravy and stuffing were about mediocre. Of course, this was my first time making everything except the turkey/chicken, and the stuffing was from scratch, so i feel like it came out pretty well, all things considered.

And by the end of it, Anna and I had split an entire bottle of wine between the two of us, which always adds to a festive spirit.

Bis gleich!

– Amanda

An Explanation

Hey all,

Sorry there’s been this huge break. I’ve been hitting what I think could be thought of as the puberty stage of my time here, where things are all awkward and painful and full of acne, but ultimately comes out okay if you can just get through it. To overextend the metaphor, I’d say I’m hitting around 16 or 17 years old now, so we’re just about through the woods.

Which is also a way to explain why I haven’t been posting. Unsurprisingly, moving in with a family of strangers as a live in employee is not exactly the easiest transition one can go through, with a lot of frustration coming from adapting to communicating and living with these people that you don’t know or really care about yet. When I started this blog, I promised myself that I wouldn’t dedicate time to bitching about my family -either the parents or the children – in this forum, mostly because, not gonna lie, I worried they would find it.

And had I a normal job, bitching would be totally on the line. It would probably be a daily feature. But the thing is, I live with these people. I know way too much about my bosses and I worry that that in my vitriol I would divulge things to the world at large that really have no place in public. And these are not bad people – on the contrary, I consider myself ridiculously lucky, having gossiped with other au pairs about our families – it’s just that we’re new to each other and need to learn how to live together. However, this does not mean that I haven’t shared my vitriol in more private settings, just that I’m not going to do it here.

And so I haven’t been posting. Because if I did, it would just turn to spite and then to violations of privacy and trust. At the moment, I’m at the end of what has probably been my best week here, but just having hit on a Thing that needs Discussion. But things are starting to fall in place and feel the way they should. Anna and I had a pretty significant talk last week, which clarified the role that she would like me to play in the family and thankfully it lined up with what I had hoped. It did not however, line up with what I had been reading from cues, which is why we were having trouble. But after The Talk, I’m actually starting to feel like part of the family now. Now that I know what I can and should do, things are going much more smoothly. The homesickness has magically started to evaporate and I’m starting to feel more at home, which is a big relief. At the same time, I think I’ve pretty much decided that after this year, I am going back to the States again, at least for a while. I miss a lot about home and it will be nice to be able to focus on this year without having to worry about finding a way to legally stay here the next. And I mean, I know people do the illegal thing? But I don’t think I’m up for that.

Pictures from my trip to Vienna a few weeks ago are posted on my flickr and I will be posting pictures from Berlin in a few days. Also coming will be descriptions of the trips as, as usual, the pictures by themselves don’t really say much.

Bis dann!

– Amanda