TAKING CHANCES

 

TAKING CHANCES

 

May 2019
VIENNA, AUSTRIA

When the American expat in Vienna, Amanda, met her Austrian husband, Christof, she knew right away that the relationship was going to last. In our conversation she speaks homesickness, redefining her identity and recounts all the wonders and struggles that life throws in your way when you move countries for love.

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"I walk through the door, he stands up, looks right at me, and literally from that moment I knew that we were going to be together."

It is a clear-skied Sunday in mid-December when I rush to the local bakery to buy a few pastries to bring along to Amanda's flat. She tells me, Christof - her husband - will be out of town, so we'll have a girls' "day" in on the couch and chitchat. There is something very pally about her, and I can't help but accredit this to being an American. We don't know each other well, through a mutual friend, but she happily tells me about the details of her marriage to the handsome Austrian who she moved countries, well, continents for five years ago. Coming from a small town in Arkansas, Vienna is the biggest city Amanda's lived in so far. "Actually, by American standards, Vienna is the size of the third biggest city in the US, I think," she reveals to me enthusiastically while we make ourselves comfortable on the couch. (Surprising but quite true: Vienna (414,6 km²) is slightly smaller than Chicago (606,1 km²))

Amanda is radiant and looks the part: wavy blonde hair, piercing blue eyes and a beaming smile. And yet, she doesn't feel particularly good today. "[My husband and I] had a few drinks at the Christmas market yesterday, so I am a bit hungover," she admits, but quickly collects her thoughts and hands me over her pink slippers - a sign of true Southern hospitality. Raised in Mountain Home (quite frankly, they are hills, not mountians), Arkansas with a population of 12,000 people, she is a true small-town girl. I wonder, does she ever get homesick?

"I do still get homesick occasionally, when there are major life events happening in my family and I can't be there. This year I'm particularly sad I can't be home for Christmas."

She sets the scene effortlessly, and I immediately feel transported to the holiday celebrations at her family home, which sound like a replica from a Hollywood Christmas film. But essentially, this time of year usually means quality time with her mother.

"We get up early, well, maybe not early, but we get up on Christmas Eve day and spend it getting ready, baking and prepping food," she explains. "We'll pop some champagne, Christmas music is playing in the background, it's a high-energy atmosphere, and I love that."

The Austrian Christmas spent with her husband's family is more traditional, involving going to church for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and morning service on the 25th. The celebration is more intimate, which Amanda says she appreciates, but once in a while homesickness - understandably - takes over. "Sometimes, I just wanna have some stuffing and a mimosa!" Can't blame her.

When I ask if she's introduced any American traditions into her Austrian home, she gives me the answer I anticipated.

"Thanksgiving has become a really important holiday for me,  because it's very American," she says. "
I do the whole spread, like everything you can imagine. I actually try to make it as much like Thanksgiving is at my parents' place, down to the drinks that we drink, the types of food that we cook. I try to make it just as it is at home."

Ironically, she is usually the only American at her party, referring to a table full of Austrian guests - her husbands' friends.

"We weren't totally ready to be married, but we were ready to take that on for the sake of getting to be together."

She met Christof at a pub in Salzburg during her semester abroad at university. They immediately hit it off and ended up going long distance for three years.

"I am really the one that made this relationship happen," she admits. "He was not so sure if long distance was such a good idea. I think what helped us get through those three years was that we kind of always had our next meeting planned."

Nonetheless, the affects of spending months apart lingered. "You want to be able to talk when you want but you can't because of the time difference, and we were both busy. It just gets tiring, you've gotta maintain your life that you're living, but you've got someone else who is also part your life and you've gotta find time to squeeze in those interactions and communication."

The pair followed this scenario for years until being apart wasn't sustainable anymore.
"[When we reunited] it was a little bit awkward at first because it had been so long," she recalls not seeing Christmas for four months. "I think it was after that that we said we are done with the travel. Our options were me going back to school, which I did not want to do, or getting married."

So, obviously, they opted for the latter, and Amanda started planning the move right away. It's always been implied that she move to Austria because she had already graduated college and working in a job she was dissatisfied with. She credits her determined personality for getting things done.

"I've always been a very confident person as far as my decision-making. I don't think about it too long, I just decide and go for it. This whole relationship has been like that," she says. "Christof and I weren't totally maybe ready to be married, we were ready to take that on for the sake of getting to be together."

"I find myself, like, almost rehearsing scenarios in my head, because I wanna be prepared for what's gonna come at me, because I wanna make sure I can respond in the appropriate way."

Moving to another continent tested her resolve, however, because living in a foreign culture brings a whole new set of struggles.

"Communication has been a big subject since I moved. I never thought twice about how I communicated with someone when I was living in the States. Now it's a constant obstacle, 'okay, how am I going to say what I need to say?' I find myself, like, almost rehearsing scenarios in my head, because I wanna be prepared for what's gonna come at me, because I want to make sure I can respond in the appropriate way."

Before Amanda moved to Vienna, her German was basic, "enough to order in restaurants", and Christof's English (which has "dramatically improved" in the last few years), was far from fluent either. The lingustic barrier caused a few too many fights when the little nuances in the word choice would be enough to be misinterpreted.

"When you finally figure out what the other person was trying to say all along you realise this fight didn't have to happen in the first place and then you're just exhausted," she says with a laugh.

She speaks confidently and clearly, almost as if she had rehearsed the entire conversation before meeting me. She is surprised when I tell her that she seems to have her life perfectly in order.

"That's funny that you say that because I find myself to be an overly emotional person," she says, and I can't hide my astonishment.

"I think I just put out this vibe of like 'I don't give a shit' to help me not just lose it during times when I feel really vulnerable or sad." So what makes her feel bad?

"When I've left someone down," she responds as-a-matter-of-factly. She brings the example of speaking German to her husband and feeling like she's failing if getting too many corrections.

"When I feel like I'm not doing enough or I'm not living up to like some kind of  standard or potential that [I've] set for myself or I think someone else has set for me. It'll just paralyse me almost and make me really sad," she explains. "I'll cry at anything. Commercials, really sad movies just bring me to tears, but, for some reason, with life things that would normally make other people really emotional, I have a really hard time being sad or showing emotion."


"I'll cry at anything. Commercials, really sad movies just bring me to tears, but life things that would normally make other people really emotional, I have a really hard time [with] being sad or showing emotion."

As most would, I ask her about her childhood in hopes she'll reveal what could be the reason for this seemingly distant aproach to life changing situations. She recalls a the moment her parents told her and her sister that they were getting a divorce.

"I was completely unemotional about the whole thing. I was kind of like 'Okay, what are we gonna have for dinner tonight?!' I knew my dad wasn't leaving town, and I knew my mom was gonna be there. My dad doesn't have to physically be in the house for me to be okay,  or for the family to be happy. So I really just acccepted it and moved on and I think that's definitely what I did when I decided to move to Austria. I accepted it, did the things that I had to do and then I left."

She may not usually be the type to show emotion, but she does get candid about her struggles with confidence. She freely speaks about the inevitability of having to rely on other people's help with mundane things because of the language issue. Scrolling down her Instagram feed, you notice a tendency towards healthy-ish lifestyle, smoothies and workouts, that's her lane. But her work is where she finds her independency.

"I work from home, so I get to be the boss in every decision that I make. This gives me freedom."

As the conversation organically wraps up, I ask her what home means to her today. She takes the time to collect her thoughts and, when she is ready, gives me a well-thought-out answer.

"Home is somewhere that I feel safe and accepted. Whether that's physically safe because I've got a roof over my head and a locked door or emotionally safe, because it's somewhere where I can be vulnerable or can make mistakes or do something wrong and it not be held against me. It's where I can be who I am with someone who come from a totally different background than I do, but that's okay because we accept each other as we are."

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What You Call Home is an audio series, exploring the meaning of home through personal memoirs of people like you and me.

What You Call Home is an audio series, exploring the meaning of home through personal memoirs of people like you and me.