Once every two years, my family and I fly to the States for what’s called “furlough”, a time of work related reporting and personal renewal. This is our third time to make such a trip, and as much has changed within our lives in terms of life experience and age, so too changes our perspective on furlough which I intend to document along the way.
With rare exceptions, my kids only know Austrian culture. American culture is this confusing, far off land that houses both sets of their grandparents and a smattering of their parent’s friends who sleep in their playroom sometimes. Is Oklahoma the same thing as America? Is America Oklahoma? How come when we drive a long time to Germany, it’s a country, but when we drive a long time to Texas, it’s— What is it again?
I didn’t excel in geography, either.
To add to the kids’ locational confusion, several culturally questionable customs in the States make all the sense to their parents but remain a mystery, surprise, or point of conflict for them. As the parent, it’s fascinating, humorous, frustrating, and at times, heartbreaking to watch two little humans navigate this unfamiliar cultural context.
5 Differences Seen Through the Eyes of Austrian/American Kids
They are simultaneously intrigued, amused, and grossed out by American bathrooms. The kids keep looking for the buttons we press in Austria to flush the toilet, but in most public restrooms, there’s that “stick” mom has to “kick” to make the toilet work. Or! Even crazier, the toilets flush by themselves like a tornado, which is super cool unless the toilets flush too early, and then it’s not cool anymore, just terrifying.
To Lucy’s relief, most public restrooms offer paper towels, whereas Austrian bathrooms have all but left paper towels behind in favor of high-pressure air, which terrifies her. Elliott was impressed to the 9s after he discovered waving at a black box rewarded him with a paper towel. So impressed in fact that he told a nearby employee how to use the automatic machine should she need to wash her hands, which I hope she did, because diseases.
2. Yellow School Buses
Austria does not have yellow school buses, or school buses at all, for that matter. Kids ride the regular city buses with the rest of us to get around, so to my kids, buses come in red. The only yellow school bus they know about is the one driven by the one-and-only Miss Frizzle of one of the best shows the 90s ever produced – The Magic School Bus.
So as we drive around, going from place to place, it’s at this point a guarantee that Will and I will hear “ANOTHER MAGIC SCHOOL BUS!” shouted from the backseat of the car. And it’s adorable.
3. Language and Etiquette
In Austria, folks keep to themselves. There’s no such thing as a chatty waiter or talkative seatmate. Austrians want personal space in public, quietness when in transit, and a job accomplished quickly with little fuss within the service industry.
No one’s going to ask how you’re doing before you order a Schnitzel, and they’re not going to check on you while you eat unless your hand has been up for at least five minutes.
It’s not unfriendly. Just different.
So it’s incredibly difficult for Elliott to understand that just because a waiter or waitress asks, “How’re we doing today?” as we get settled into a booth doesn’t mean we intimately know the person. Indeed, each time Elliott hears this, he immediately asks, “Do you know them?” We say no. “But… she asked how you’re doing.”
Another challenge we’ve seen is how he chooses to use his English and German. If he knows the person speaks English, he’ll use his English. But if he doesn’t know someone and needs help, he uses German, much to the surprise of the person on the receiving end of his German query. While we were in Tennessee, Elliott needed to use the hotel lobby bathroom, and rather than wait for me to find it, he walked right up to the most southern of old lady employees and confidently asked, “Entschuldigung, wo ist die Toilette?”
Keep in mind that this woman was no younger than two hundred years old. She stared at Elliott, wide-eyed and thoroughly confused, then finally came back with, “… I’m sorry, hun. Whut?” Elliott repeated himself. “… Toy-let-tah? OH. Toilet?!”
Lucy hasn’t noticed such cultural differences quite yet, but she has noticed there are a whole lot more strangers who think they have permission to talk to her, and they do not.
It’s somewhat challenging to spot Austria’s national flag flying in the public eye. Flag placement is limited to governmental buildings and national landmarks, and thus not seen on the hood of a car or waving from multiple apartment balconies. While my kids don’t know the significance behind this cultural decision, they have managed to internalize where they see flags around their home city of Vienna.
To then arrive in the States where flags are overwhelmingly everywhere, it boggles the mind, especially the minds of two tinies who think the sight of a flag is an automatic alert that a castle or abandoned fortress is nearby. While in Tennessee, Lucy spotted a giant flag waving triumphantly within an auto dealership. She excitedly questioned, “Where’s the castle for the flag?”
I have yet to see a castle in the hills of Tennessee, but I have seen a house that looks like a spaceship. Does that count?
Heaven help me. I don’t know what to feed these kids.
Because the cheddar cheese is orange and not white, won’t touch it. Because the pears are super green and not yellow, won’t touch ‘em. Because the ground beef doesn’t look like our ground beef (?), won’t look at it.
It’s hard to keep up. Elliott is all about the ice over here, while Lucy is very much against it. Lucy likes the chicken, Elliott does not. Bread is hit or miss. Milk over tap water.
Dessert has, so far, not caused any disagreements.