A New Life Overseas

Austria was very much in the news in the late summer of 2000, when my husband, Walter, and I shipped the last box of our son’s baby toys to our new apartment in Salzburg. We were leaving the United States to pursue our dream of living and teaching abroad; Walter had accepted a job as the music teacher at the American International School, a storybook boarding school (green shutters, alpine views) that we later learned was popular with Eastern Europe’s new rich, who wanted to protect their children from the thuggish reality of their sudden wealth. As a member of the English department at the University of Salzburg, I would teach introductory courses on American English and culture to students who, after apologizing for their terrible language skills, gave flawless oral presentations on the media theories of Marshal MacLuhan and the finer points of Star Trek.

That we had both managed to secure visa-sponsoring positions in a city of only 120,000 never ceased to feel short of miraculous. And this glow of good fortune set the tone for our expatriate experience. At a stage in life when most people settle into a more stable and predictable routine, Walter and I were — toddler in tow — striking out on a great adventure. We were ready to leave the United States and its obsession with work and possessions behind. We also hoped that moving abroad would dilute America’s influence on the tabula rasa we believed (or hoped) was our son.We wanted to raise Peter in a culture that was less saturated with violence. A place where his imagination wouldn’t be kneaded, sculpted, and fired into a Disney figurine. Although we had spent the last two nights of our honeymoon in Salzburg, we knew nothing about the city’s life beyond the confines of the tourist-heavy Altstadt, or Old Town. Salzburg existed for us as the ultimate European cliché, a Sound of Music-themed, baroque-accented backdrop for the photographs that documented the dreamy early days of our new marriage.

When in late 1999 we read that the far-right Freedom Party won almost 30 percent of the votes in Austria’s general election, we were as shocked as the rest of the world. The Freedom Party was led by Jörg Haider, a young and charismatic leader whose easy manner, salon tan, and passion for sports cars were a hip and sexy cover for ideas that were blatantly racist and anti-Semitic. He had been forced to step down as governor of Carinthia state for publicly praising Nazi Germany’s employment policies. But like any savvy politician of the new millennium, he was adept at spin control. And he was a master at knowing which buttons to press to advance his agenda. For his 2000 campaign as the leader of the Freedom Party, Haider railed against Austria’s liberal immigration policies. (Presumably, Walter and I, both fair-haired with distinctly northern European surnames, were not the kind of immigrants Haider was worried about.)

As a result of his success at the polls, the Freedom Party was asked to join the conservative People’s Party in a ruling coalition. Reaction around the world was swift. The European Union took the unprecedented step of acting against one of its own members and imposed political sanctions on Austria. Israel recalled its ambassador. Belgium urged it citizens to take ski vacations elsewhere. Catherine Deneuve declined an invitation to be the guest of honor at the Vienna Opera Ball. Foreign newspaper editorials suggested it was time for Austria to come to terms with its role in the rise of Nazi Germany, noting that more than 98 percent of Austrians voted in favor of Germany’s absorption of Austria in 1938. Austria’s president had no choice but to approve the coalition, but rejected two cabinet members from the Freedom Party and forced both leaders to sign a statement renouncing the nation’s Nazi past and promising to respect European values. Several of our friends questioned our decision to move and others politely turned down our offers to come visit us in our new home. Walter and I were also disgusted by Haider’s politics. But we viewed moving to Austria at the time when Eastern and Western Europe were coming back together as a great opportunity. We told each other that this was the perfect time to live in Austria, that we would be in a unique position to look past its storied good life and understand firsthand why rotten seeds were sprouting in its vineyards and high meadows.

Then we moved. The first frenzied months felt like an urban episode of Survivor. We needed work visas, day care, car insurance (Walter purchased a very used Honda through a combination of hand signals and the mechanic’s high school English), bank accounts, and bikes. We also needed to find out where on Ignaz-Harrer Strasse to buy tofu, how to decipher the paperwork of a health care system that makes HMOs look like a model of efficiency. I had studied German for exactly six weeks. Walter decided he could coast on the thin fumes of his junior high lessons. Eventually we learned the words for diapers and pacifier and I felt a certain sense of accomplishment the day I somehow managed to inform Peter’s day-care provider that he had diarrhea. As we mastered the patterns of our daily life, we were increasingly able to take in the fact that we had moved to a city with a quality of life that would be almost impossible for a middle-class family to match in America. Salzburg is small enough that it’s common to wait behind a tractor (or horse-drawn wagon) at a stoplight. As the birthplace of Mozart, it is also intensely linked to classical music. People move there from all over the world to study at the Mozarteum, and in late summer, tuxedos and ball gowns float over the cobblestones on their way to the Salzburg Festival. The practice notes of a piano or flute or violin echoed across the courtyards of our street every afternoon.

We explored the city’s bike paths and plotted out a route to Peter’s day care that took us past canals, peat bogs, and snow-topped mountains. We discovered nude beaches tucked into pine-shaded coves of glacial lakes. Because the majority of stores close at six in the evening and at noon on all but one Saturday each month, we learned to speed through our errands and then enjoy having nothing to do but spend time together as a family. We picnicked on the lawn of the local castle and hiked through the nearby countryside from one mountain gasthaus to the next. We memorized the names of our neighbors’ dogs and taught Peter to say danke when the grandmotherly woman who lived upstairs offered him a chocolate bar.

And we made friends, primarily with other foreigners who were also scratching the itch of their wanderlust. An Italian concert pianist who was married to a sound engineer from Vienna invited us over for five course dinners. One of my best friends was a linguistics instructor from Sydney who was also teaching in my department at the university. She was resolutely anti- American, which for the most part wasn’t a problem because I was too, in my own way. But there were a few occasions when, loosened by a third or fourth glass of Reisling, our previously theoretical conversations about world power and the dispiriting evils of the American consumer mentality devolved into shouting matches, with me playing the surprising role of patriot. The majority of our Austrian friends were either work colleagues or married to Americans. The world of our Aus- trian counterparts — professional couples with children — was largely closed to us for the time-challenged reasons they would be if we moved to a new city in America. A few colleagues graciously invited us into their homes for dinner parties or holiday teas. Our conversations at these events tended to be about where to travel. Austrians have six weeks of vacation and celebrate every Catholic holiday, from Carnival to Corpus Christi to All Saints Day, with a day (or week) off from work. Vacationing is an integral part of Austrian life. As are meals that last an entire afternoon. Every gasthaus has a sandbox and a swing set (often rickety) to entertain children while their parents eat and talk.

A number of the Austrians we knew were children during World War II. Still more could remember the postwar Allied occupation. They talked of American GIs handing out fistfuls of chewing gum and the new American radio station that introduced them to jazz. They seemed gratified, if not a little surprised, by Walter’s and my genuine interest in their country’s history and folk customs. It was polite talk, but it was not artificial or forced.

I wanted to ask my dinner partners about the Freedom Party and the frightening turn it appeared Austria was taking back into the dark shadow of its past. But I had learned that Austrians still adhere to Old World social protocols. Our hosts were always older and at least several rungs higher than I was in the department hierarchy. Their invitation was considered an honor, which was why Walter always arrived wearing a coat and tie. I knew that Austria’s relationship to Nazism wasn’t a topic that people broached casually over dessert. Not wanting to be rude, I kept my questions to myself.

One June afternoon I was swimming laps in one of Salzburg’s marvelous public pool complexes. The sky was momentarily clear (constant rain is the only off-note in Salzburg’s fairy-tale setting) and every time I came up for air I could see the Untersberg, Salzburg’s own mountain. It was a stunning sight, and as I swam I marveled at how we’d managed to compose a life that was an idyllic combination of travel, dining, and daily conversations with people whose life stories transported me to places I now desperately wanted to experience in real life. It was like a permanent vacation. The problems in America, including the controversies about the 2000 presidential election, felt far away.

I’d had this realization before, but that day it suddenly didn’t seem like something I should congratulate myself for. I had lived in Salzburg for nine months, but my grasp of the Austrian political situation was only marginally more sophisticated than when I’d left. I’d moved to Austria with all these high-minded ideas about understanding the future of a Europe that was no longer chopped into distinct Eastern and Western halves. I had absorbed some of the dynamics at play. I’d listened to my beloved German teacher fret about Chinese restaurants marring the historic unity of the small town squares. And I’d smiled appreciatively at the billboards I saw in Vienna loudly proclaiming “Vienna needs more foreigners!” My students had confided to me the pressures they felt to conform to the norms of their small towns and discussed the cold stares they could feel whenever they traveled abroad and people heard them speaking German. The truth was that I’d been willingly seduced by the good life. But unlike the Austrians, I didn’t have a stake in the events taking place around me.

That day in the pool, I wondered for the first time what the consequences were to our charmed existence. As a parent, I felt an obligation to demonstrate my values to my young son. To grow up in Austria would mean that he would live detached from the issues that Walter and I understood best. I knew that the longer we stayed in Austria, the deeper our roots would have spread and the less timid I would be about risking offense to better understand and take part in my adopted culture. But like it or not, Walter and I are American. The best way for our son to understand our politics and passions, I decided, would be to watch his parents living with them. I understood for the first time that I wanted Peter to grow up watching me yell at the TV news, to hear his father rail against a tax cut over brunch with friends. Peter would learn to navigate a system he might not always agree with by watching his parents do it.

That August we repacked Peter’s toys — and his lederhosen — and said good-bye to our friends. Six weeks later I was driving along a Minneapolis freeway when a concerned voice on National Public Radio announced that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I returned home to an in box queued with concerned emails from our foreign friends, including a particularly touching one from my anti-American Australian colleague. In those panicky early days of the new world order, part of me wished we had never moved away from the quiet and safety of our apartment near the Alps. But I was also grateful not to be halfway across the world from our families and oldest and dearest friends.

Does our return to America mean that Walter and I have sworn off the expatriate life for good? Not a chance. Two years after moving home, we still believe that it is important for people, especially Americans, to experience the world from a different vantage point. We fantasize about Peter, and his new brother, Henrik, attending junior high in Cape Town or Quito or Tokyo. But the next time we move we will go with the understanding that the United States is, to invoke the most American of metaphors, home plate. It will always be the place we return to after circling the field.

Elizabeth Larsen, former senior editor of Utne and editor of Utne Online, is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis.

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