When my husband and I moved to Vienna, Austria, two years ago, we were frequently set up on friend dates. This is par for the course for a new expat — someone hears that you’ve moved to some faraway city, and their coworker’s cat’s former owner’s cousin always knows someone who — can you believe it? — just happens to be your neighbor. No matter how outlandish the setup — they were born-again Christians or Hassidic Jews, they were hated by the very people who’d put us in touch — we always went.
After these meetings, I would invariably turn to my husband and say: We’d never be friends with these people in real life.
Real life: this was my phrase. Not in New York, where I had lived for 12 years, or the vague back home, but in real life, as though I had skipped a track and found myself in a different, parallel universe.
Like almost all the expats I’ve met here, we relocated because of my husband’s job. When my husband (whom I’ll call Jonah) was offered a teaching and research position in Vienna, we were living in Munich, Germany, while he completed a post-doc and I wrote my master’s thesis. (He had been there for two years; I joined for the last five months.) Landing an academic job means jumping through umpteen hoops over the course of up to six months — application, initial interview, fly-back, job talk, teaching, more interviews, approval by committee, etc., etc. The process usually ends in a No.
This offer fell out of the sky at the tail end of the job season and involved virtually no hoop jumping.
When Jonah and I rode the train from Munich to weigh our options — he’d also been offered a one-year post in the U.S. — we had been engaged for two days, together for less than a year. Despite being awed by the Viennese architecture and infrastructure — everything was ancient and unspeakably beautiful and it all worked — I sobbed for most of the trip: in the Prater park, as families happily rode by on their tandem bikes; on Skype at Starbucks with my parents and sister and friends; in the bed in our pensione, twisting my engagement ring around my finger. I had no more fantasized about moving to Vienna than I had Kentucky or Moscow.
Other cities, yes. I had felt a magnetic draw to New York at 22. While living in Brooklyn, I had occasionally daydreamed about being swept away to Europe by a Brit or a Frenchman. There seemed to be a lack of stable, kind single guys in New York, but this thinking was more likely borne out of some sort of Freudian reaction to my parents’ life: My mother, a Californian who had planned to live out her adult life in Manhattan, was taken away to London and then Paris by my father in 1969, when she was 29, seven years into her life as a New Yorker. (My dad was avoiding a change in the U.S. draft law that would force a Canadian medical resident in the U.S. to serve as a medic in Vietnam. My mother was so unhappy about this that she missed the plane to London.) They later settled in Montreal, where I grew up. During lonely winters in Brooklyn where I drank through one dreary date after another, the idea that this might happen — that I could be saved from myself, transplanted, loved — circulated pathetically through my head.
That’s not exactly what happened, but what did wasn’t so far off: Jonah is American, and although he was living in Germany when we met, his European fellowship was almost over. He expected his next job to be in North America. I was so blinded by love, I vowed to go wherever he landed and launched a new series of relocation fantasies: Madison, Amherst, Berkeley, Austin. Maybe we’d even end up back in New York.
Instead, I found myself facing a half-dozen years in a city I’d never dreamed of. Is this what people did for love? Move to a random place that offers your partner an unparalleled opportunity, and offers you — you aren’t quite sure what yet, but surely something magical (or awful?), something worth taking the leap for?
From the moment we moved, Vienna refused to shed its air of randomness. Despite all the time I spent on deciding to come, I still struggle with why I’m here, at the very Eastern edge of the Western world, a six-hour time difference from my parents and best friends, nine from my sister and in-laws. Within the large expat group I belong to, I often have to curb the urge to ask, “Why would you move here?” Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Adam Gopnik famously moved to Paris at least in part because of their overwhelming love for the city (a love I share). I’m trying to make my way here without that passionate draw, and while letting go of the love I once unabashedly proclaimed for New York.
It doesn’t help that our situation is necessarily transient: We are here until one of us gets a permanent offer. This isn’t because of our feelings for Vienna; it is simply the reality of the job market. When we arrived, we weren’t sure whether we’d be here one year or six, so we moved with four suitcases and shipped half a dozen boxes of books. We’ve since sublet one furnished apartment after the other, moving into other peoples’ homes and then pretending that the beautiful Le Creuset pots, garish floral paintings, and Schönbrunnergelb paint — a kind of mustard yellow particular to Vienna — on the living-room walls are ours. We’ve built our own home on top of and around other people’s taste.
My mother and father lived in Paris when my sister was a toddler, which is the age our daughter is now. Over time, their memories about it have diverged: Paris was a cultural haven for my father, but for my mother, it was a trap. I wonder if it will be the same for us — will my husband and I disagree, a few decades from now, about what it was really like? Will I look back on it as the best time in our lives, tearing up, like my father, thinking of afternoons at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, watching my husband teach our daughter about ancient ruins as she toddled from room to room? Or like my mother, will I only remember how stupid I felt trying to order meat from the butcher, who yelled Wass? Wie bitte? at me from behind the glass?
Will this be the place where I stopped working when our daughter was born and lost myself almost completely to early motherhood? Where I finally learned to roast a chicken, to make a proper grocery list, to keep our small fridge stocked? Where I texted all day long with other new moms about frosting recipes and nap schedules and what to make for dinner, all the while wondering where the “real” me had gone? Where I felt like life was on pause; that I was only holding out until our so-called “permanent” life in North America resumed, and I’d be me again, not just someone’s mother, someone’s wife? Would this have happened anyway, anywhere I had a child? Is there no other me anymore?
Will Vienna be the place where I was only trying to survive?
Or will it be the city where my daughter was born, a city that often humbles me with gratitude? Will it be the place where I failed — and then slowly began — to see how truly good I had it: a culturally-mandated (and financially-supported) year at home with my daughter; a beloved babysitter; a few hours a week to myself to teach and write and swim? A dozen more when the baby started daycare at 14 months? Will I remember it as the city that provided my family with endless amenities: free healthcare, top-of-the-line midwifery care, maternity and paternity leave, 80€/month daycare, a monthly government stipend for the kid, cheap swimming pools, safe and well-kept playgrounds, designated spaces for strollers on the subway, buses and trams? Where I lived in a place I grew to think of as the very definition of civilized and humane; where the realities of having a child were understood and valued by the government and the society at large? Where, like all mothers, I started to truly live the shaky architecture of balance, of family?
Recently I’ve stopped pulling out my “we’d never be friends in real life” phrase. I’d like to say that’s because I’ve finally realized that the life I’m living here is actually real, and that’s partly true — but I’m also realizing that friendship is strange so far from home, and it’s hard for me to predict who will stick around. The first woman I believed to be a true friend — an expat with whom I shared a hometown and a graduate school, and who had also just married her boyfriend to move to Europe legally — wrote me a “breakup” email three months into our friendship. The letter declared that though she was sure that Jonah saw good qualities in me (he had married me, after all!), she could not figure out what they were.
I would later learn that expat friendships form at an accelerated pace out of desperation for companionship — and often collapse equally quickly, and dramatically, under the weight of outsized expectation.
The next few connections faded or disappointed, but a handful of people I thought would be mere acquaintances have turned out to be some of our closest friends. I continue to laugh at how little I know myself here.
For over a decade I lived in Brooklyn surrounded by girlfriends I’ve now known for almost 20 years, so many women that it was a struggle to choose bridesmaids and godmothers. When Jonah and I moved, it just didn’t seem possible — or desirable — to replace them. Anyone I met was filler for when we’d return — even though as the wife of an academic, I had no idea where “back” would be.
But in the two years we’ve been in Vienna, my life has become unrecognizable: Each day is spent with other expat moms or alone with the baby, tripping through the simplest tasks — grocery shopping, phone calls, filling out of forms — in German. Unlike in New York, where I was locked into a large community of writer and artist friends, I know only two other writers here. Academic or artistic circles have been swapped in for mommy circles. “Old friends” are ones I’ve known for two years.
Now, my old life in New York seems less real, less like a place I could actually return to. But perhaps this is simply the story of new parenthood. When we first moved to Vienna, I was on Skype with one of my best friends in New York, complaining about how much I missed her and everyone else back home. I was newly pregnant, constantly on the verge of throwing up, and miserable. I hated my job and most of the people we had met. She had an infant at home, and I envied her the fact that nothing in her life but the addition of her daughter had changed — she could still speak the language, had the same friends and job, still knew her way around, she still had New York.
“Having a kid is like moving to a new planet,” she said, her eyes deeply bruised from lack of sleep. Her patience with me was limited. “It doesn’t matter that I live in the same apartment. Nothing — absolutely nothing — is the same.”
Maybe it was actually easier to make a clean break: to leave my single, childless life behind in New York and to begin my life as a parent on new turf. (If I squint hard enough, I can still see that Brooklyn girl staying out late and sleeping until noon, lingering for hours over brunch and ordering more cocktails at the bar. Like a little sister, I wish her well.) Unlike my best friend with her baby in Brooklyn, I had no illusion that anything would be the same — life as an expat was already a disorienting, unfamiliar haze. My inadvertent reinvention had already started. Adding the baby to it only served to punctuate the size of the shift.
And now, given all that Austria has provided for our little family, I literally can’t imagine raising a baby in Brooklyn. On a recent solo trip to New York, I looked at the endless stairs in the subway and the boroughs that separated me from some of my closest friends and the price of daycare and the size of the apartments — apartments I had spent years happily hanging out in — and all at once, I stopped fantasizing about moving my family back.
And while those old girlfriends are just as important to me, my new acquaintances — though few and nascent — are, to my unending surprise, becoming actual friends. Rarely do we align philosophically or religiously (“You mean, you’ve never had a Christmas tree?” one of my now closer friends asked me last fall), but they represent something of where life has taken me that even my friends back home cannot understand. These women are new moms or expats; they wrestle with German or with life in Vienna — or, like me, they are all of these things. Other than sharing the first year of motherhood, we have no history together, but we can meet on many cylinders, even if only for a short time. Some are becoming much more than just a temporary cure for loneliness.
Still, as much as I try to make a life for myself in the present, part of me can’t stop looking at this from the future. This, too, however, might be the result of being steeped in these early, taxing years of parenthood, wondering who our little girl will become, or how I’ll look back on the sleepless nights and our rigid, repetitive schedule. I have found myself saying to my husband, “In fifteen years I can imagine going on yearly vacations with so-and-so.” Or, “Can’t you just picture our house back home, full of framed posters from dance performances at Tanzquartier and exhibitions at the Belvedere?” Or, “Do you think we’ll always call the baby Schatzi?”
Perhaps this is because of my parents’ experience: their basement houses many framed posters from Paris, and many of their best friends — friends of over 40 years — are from their years as expats. They remind us of this often — even my mother, who does not look back on her time in Paris with love.
Now, instead of just filling in the time, I have a compulsive need to make it something I can look back on fondly, something with a lasting effect on our lives: See these marvelous people we just couldn’t let go of? See how hard we fell for this stunning, ancient city? I am planning my nostalgia in advance.
And I am preparing myself for the inevitable: the next move, the question of where we came from. The moment when I say, “I used to live in Vienna,” and then look off into space, trying to remember exactly what life felt like then.
Abigail Rasminsky has written for The New York Times; O: The Oprah Magazine; Brain, Child Magazine; The Morning News; The Forward; The Toast; and Dance Magazine, among other publications. She is a graduate of Columbia’s MFA Writing Program and lives in Vienna, Austria, with her husband and daughter. More at abigailrasminsky.com.