Being Ready

I’m in my new place. The bed has been assembled and has sheets on it, the bathroom has been cleaned to my mother’s exacting standard, and I have real food in the fridge. All I have to do is finish unpacking my things so I’m not rifling through piles of stuff on Monday morning when I’m trying to get to work.

It’s been a busy week. I flew back to the US on Tuesday, arriving in the evening, with just enough time to grab dinner before collapsing in a Raleigh hotel room. Since then, my parents and I have:

  • Picked up the key for my new place
  • Made up for lost time with an overdue dentist visit
  • Bought ALL the things for my new place (including a day-long marathon trip to IKEA)
  • Put together all the new furniture
  • Wasted 3+ hours at the DMV just so I could fail the written test to get my NC license
  • Got an American cell phone
  • Found a sturdy bike for getting to work and
  • Bought enough groceries to feed a small army/last until my first paycheck comes through

Somehow, we got it all done. It took several very long days, plus one surprisingly anxiety-inducing trip to the grocery store (reading labels and checking ingredient lists is VERY tiring) brought us to the point where I am suitably provisioned going forward.

What’s more surprising is how calm I feel about all of it. I’m used to feeling anxious before a big chance, as we’ve previously established. But this time, it’s all more or less okay. Sure, I feel pangs of regret and nostalgia every time I see an item from Vienna that got damaged in my suitcase, or when I see all of my friends there having fun without me, but it’s manageable. Besides, I am here now, surrounded by concrete things—my bed, my dresser, my massive stack of decorative pillows (the real sign, I am now convinced, of Adulthood). It certainly doesn’t hurt that this is the first time since I left my parents’ home that all my things are truly mine. They aren’t dorm furniture I’m stuck with, or towels that get changed by housekeeping, or not-very-nice things that I simply have to put up with for now because I’m a student. There’s something about simply having stuff that I find terribly comforting—and now, more of my stuff can come with me.

But however much it helps, it isn’t my stuff that is making things different. I’m different, too—different from the 10-year-old who cried during the fifth-grade overnight, and the 18-year-old who somehow ended up living in the “party dorm”, and even the 21-year-old who jetted off to Vienna. I’m not massively more together, or suddenly Mature, but I am ready, I think, to be exactly where I am. I am an employed person. I am living in a house. I am building a little nest, and a little life, for myself.

I am here.


Mastery: Achieved

A bunch of my colleagues at the DA will be officially receiving their MA’s tomorrow. I, however, think I deserve an MB: a Master’s in Bureaucracy.

I will hold my own special graduation ceremony (via

I will hold my own special graduation ceremony (via

Moving to a new place is always a pain; a new country, even more so. When I got here, I was able to manage the rigmarole of setting up a phone, getting a residence permit, applying for health insurance, and getting a semester card for the public transit. Now that I’m leaving, I’ve had to start undoing all of that.

Today, I went to the magistrate’s district office to deregister myself. You are required to do this before you leave, or else a trusted person can come and deregister you within three days of your departure. I wanted to make sure everything was taken care of, because in situations like this there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a bit of a control freak.

Unlike when I arrived, deregistration was a pretty straightforward process: no one was in line, and after showing some ID, I was in an out in under ten minutes. Believe me; no other encounter with Austrian government officials has gone this smoothly. None.

After that, I thought I should close my bank account—until it occurred to me that over the next day and a half, there were a couple of transactions where I might still want the use of my bank card. Plus, it had occurred to me that if I didn’t want to get another bill for my health insurance forwarded to the States, I should probably go deactivate that account. I knew there was some sort of center for WGKK on my way to church in the 3rd district, so I made my way over there. Surprise, surprise: I’m in the wrong place, because this is actually just a surgery. Thankfully, the receptionist decides to not treat me like I’m an incomparable idiot (she must not be from around here), and instead hands me a list of locations where I can handle my business.

Off to the correct address, and I am blown away by how well everything goes. The office within the building is clearly labeled, and I have to wait for fewer than 20 minutes before being called up to speak to someone (I would like to point out that this NEVER happened when I had to deal with the residence department). The woman I spoke to was straightforward and polite, and after filling out a quick form, I was on my way in a little under half an hour total. I’m not sure if this is because I happened to find the rare efficient offices in local government, or if I’ve just become a boss at dealing with forms and paperwork. I’d like to think it’s a bit of both. Clearly, residence permit bothers aside, not everyone in the public sector is bad at their job or resents you for asking them to do it. At the same time, it’s pleasant to realize that I’m enough of an adult/good enough at German that I can take care of these things with a minimum of fuss.

For now, I’m meeting up with the family again in the afternoon for…doing something (still have to figure out what!) and then the musical is tonight! I’ll be singing “All I Want For Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey and feeling like that girl from Love, Actually (which is a delightful movie, no matter what you say).

And you! And you! And you! (via

And you! And you! And you! (via

Malina and Me

Because Malina and I wanted to see the Vienna we’d never seen before, we decided to take a trip on the AUSTROBUS

So begins one of Ingeborg Bachmann‘s short stories. I can’t remember which one, because I read it three years ago and Google is being surprisingly unhelpful in bringing up the reference (EDIT: My invaluable colleague tells me it’s from her story “Besichtitgung einer alten Stadt”, or “Visit to an Old City”, in English). In the story, the narrator and her partner, Malina, decide to try being tourists in their hometown. They hop on to a tour bus with a bunch of Americans, and pretend to be American academics visiting Austria. They hold conversations in their best Midwest-accented English, tour the castles and the churches, and end up by turns surprised and disappointed by the things they discover.

My sister and her husband arrived in Vienna today, which means that it truly is the beginning of the very end. Friday. It looms closer now; my days are punctuated by walks back to my little room from their hotel. We are scheduling trips to museums and markets around my inevitable administrative duties—trips to the magistrate’s office to deregister my address, closing my bank account, packing up my things and donating anything I can’t bring back to the States. In between, I am the tour guide, doing my best impersonation of Dr. Johnson, my program coordinator: “…the Karlskirche was built in the 18th century, and is unique among Vienna’s churches…”

I thought this would make things easier. I believed, as I so often do, that the busyness would save me from the waves of premature nostalgia and regret. I would have too much to do, that I couldn’t think about how terribly I’m going to miss this place, and these people, and how there just isn’t enough time to spend meaningfully with those who have given such meaning to my year. That is the worst of it—to know that I am going to have to slip away from people who are so dear to me, without much more than a quick “Hey, I hope I’ll see you soon,” casually tossed off at a party or in a hallway, because there is so much to do and so many people to say goodbye to. No time to watch that movie we always meant to, or go to that restaurant, or play that song.

In some ways, I feel like I ought to just let myself be present for this, in all its confusing grief; I ought to lean into whatever it is I’m feeling, because that is the honest way to experience the satisfaction and the loss graduating entails. But I don’t want to be honest. I want to, like Bachmann and Malina, see this city like an outsider for a while, to escape all of the meaning and difficulty that comes with living here—and leaving here.

I am still not sure which answer is right. I cannot pretend that I am a tourist here again, however much I might wish to right now. But I also cannot give myself over to grieving—it would be maudlin, and self-indulgent, and all of those things I talked about still need to get done. There simply isn’t time.

Model of an Austrobus (via

Model of an Austrobus (via

The Last Days of Old Vienna

We have arrived at my last week in Austria. It isn’t even a full week; I graduate on Thursday, and board a plane on Friday. I don’t know when I’ll be back. On the one hand, this is a good thing. I’ve successfully completed my degree; I’ve spent ten months studying and meeting people and generally expanding my horizons (and playing a lot of pool).

On the other hand, I really love this place. I love having great public transportation that isn’t expensive. I love the food (oh, how I love the food). More than anything, I love how beautiful the whole place is. You just step outside your front door and you’re surrounded by gorgeous architecture—buildings, fountains, cobblestone streets. I mean, my school is housed in what used to the Hapsburg summer palace. It’s enough to make your heart hurt.

But still, needs must, and it’s time for me to go. I will pack up my things, and move back to North Carolina—which is great because I have a job lined up that I think I’ll really like, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. As we’ve previously established, though, I’m not great with change. Particularly now: I mean, coming back to Vienna was all I wanted for a really long time, and then I got it, and now it’s over.

So now what? I’ll start my job, and I think I’ll be good at it (I hope I’ll be good at it). I’ll do Foreign Service prep, depending on my test scores. I’ll save money, and start paying off my loans, and hang out with my bestie from college, who’s also moving back to town (yay!). And I will work and scheme so that hopefully, I can come back again, and next time…

Next time, I’ll live in an Altbau with original floors and window casings reasonably near a subway station. I’ll have a real job, so I can occasionally shop at the nicer grocery stores and go out to Vienna’s amazing restaurants more often. I’ll go to the opera and the orchestra and the movies. I’ll finally understand what is with the European scarf obsession (anybody have any ideas? Anyone?) And I’ll keep building the life I want.

But that comes later, much later. This week, I have to give my final presentation and do the oral section of my German certification exam. I have to pick up my sister and her husband from the airport when they come to visit, and show them around this beautiful city that I love so much. I have to graduate, and pack up all my things, and leave this town behind me.

For now.

Soon. (via Wikipedia)

Soon. (via Wikipedia)

How Not To Attend A Conference

First, don’t read the invitation e-mail carefully. Just skim it, like you normally do with e-mails, and assume that the address for the conference just isn’t written down. Do look up directions to where you assume the conference will be, though. You are trying to be conscientious.

On the day of the conference, don’t mention to anyone that you are basically just guessing about where you’re supposed to go. You’ll show up after French, and it will be fine. Repeat: IT WILL BE FINE.

Do not rush out of class to make sure you arrive on time for the second session. Don’t run over cobblestones in heels, thinking you will break either a shoe or an ankle before you arrive. Do not proceed to run up four flights of stairs at full tilt, still in heels, because the elevator is broken. If you did, though, do take a moment or two to fix your Professional Grown-Up Hairstyle before ringing to be let in.

Do not be startled by the fact that pressing the doorbell turns on a video camera. Do not proceed to awkwardly talk to said camera, flashing your almost-expired driver’s license as proof that you are not, in fact, insane.

Don’t repeat this process for twenty minutes, becoming convinced that everyone is just so enamored of the panel discussions that they have forgotten that there is a doorbell in need of answering. Do not proceed to curse everyone involved in the conference, especially since you are still in the stairwell and your voice carries down all four flights of stairs.

Do text people who are supposed to be at the same conference. Do not expect them to answer, because they are sensible adults, who have almost certainly turned their phones off so as not to disrupt the conference with texts from crazy people like you.

Do not run home to check the first e-mail, or at least don’t repeat the same mistake of not reading it carefully. Do not repeat the rest of this process, until you are back on the fourth-floor landing (barefoot this time) and feeling pretty stupid.

So, what should you do?

Do decide to call it a day. Do go to McDonald’s, and discover the miraculous “Easy Order” kiosk that lets you just insert your debit card and order via touchscreen–without having to talk to a person! Do go home and eat a burger while wearing a bathrobe, because there is not a single godly reason to wear Spanx and heels a minute longer than is strictly necessary.

And for the next day of the conference, do go with someone who actually knows what they’re doing.

Sometimes, I should just quit while I'm slightly less behind.

Sometimes, I should just quit while I’m slightly less behind.


You Need To Watch “The Bletchley Circle”

From left: Rachael Stirling, Sophie Rundle, Anna Maxwell Martin, Julie Graham.

From left: Rachael Stirling, Sophie Rundle, Anna Maxwell Martin, Julie Graham.

During the Second World War, the code breakers at Bletchley Park did invaluable work for the Allies, interpreting German coded transmissions to uncover their plans. It was demanding, life-saving work—and after the war, those involved could not talk about the work they had done to save their country.

Susan (Bleak House’s Anna Maxwell Martin) was one of these code-breakers. In a tense opening scene, we see her and her co-workers discover that a series of coded transmissions about someone called Dietrich are doubly encoded, making a discovery that gives their forces a decided advantage over the German troops. Nine years later, Susan is a housewife, mother of two, married to a man who has no idea what kind of work she did in the war. As far as he knows, she simply “has a head for puzzles”.

It’s this head for puzzles Susan puts to use when she hears a news report on the radio about a young woman who was found murdered in an abandoned bomb shelter. Her attempts at talking to the police fruitless, she turns to her old team from Bletchley—maps expert Millie (Rachael Stirling), Lucy with the photographic memory (Sophie Rundle), and their former boss Jean (Julie Graham). Each has moved on from the war: they work in libraries or restaurants, have husbands. More importantly, each has been trying to pretend that their new lives are as satisfying as the ones they had to leave behind—lives where they were useful, where they felt like their skills were needed and valued.

This is particularly the case for Susan, our heroine. It’s clear she loves her children, and her husband, but none of this alleviates the fact that she is painfully bored. In a conversation with Millie, she talks about her life. “There’s balancing the books, making the meat last the week…” Small wonder our entry into her present life is the furious clacking of her knitting needles.

The Bletchley Circle isn’t just an entertaining mystery; it’s a powerful examination of how the women who fought the Second World War, having experienced the joys and hardships of work outside the home, had to come back to those homes and make themselves fit inside roles that seemed ever more confining. Susan’s marriage is largely a happy one, but it’s clear her husband’s ignorance of her skills impacts things negatively. He loves her, yes, he might even admire those of her capabilities that he sees—but because he doesn’t really know her, know what she can do and just how brilliant she is, he’s always just a bit patronizing, a little condescending.

Maxwell Martin gives an excellent performance as Susan. She’s no stranger to playing intelligent women—her performance in South Riding was easily the best part of the series—and her skills are particularly on display here, as you see the wheels turning in her head, the millions of small calculations that go into seeing the patterns most people miss.

The Bletchley Circle creates a satisfying mystery in a fully-realized world with an engaging cast of characters. Not only that, it is a show about women and women’s relationships that doesn’t fall prey to reductive thinking and lazy stereotypes—something that is all too rare in television. I would urge you to give it a watch.

The Bletchley Circle airs on PBS Sunday nights. Please check your local listings. 

Airports I Have Known

On Friday, I flew back to Vienna from Brussels. It was a bit of a drawn-out affair—bus to the train station, train to the airport, flight to Amsterdam, flight to Vienna, train into the city, subway back home. Needless to say, it gave me some time to think. About airports.airports

I have spent a lot of time in airports. I first started flying when I was twelve, and my mom took me and my sister to Boston for the Fourth of July. I flew to visit my father as a teenager. When I went away to college, I flew back and forth between North Carolina and Utah, and later between the US and Europe. At a rough estimate, I’ve flown more than twenty times, and I would consider myself something of an expert on the various gates, terminals, and overpriced sandwich shops you might pass on your next journey. So here are a few of the highlights.

  • Salt Lake City International: home base. While the drive to this airport never feels that long, the trip back is always interminable. Are we sure it took this long the first time? However, the SLC airport has its advantages, mostly in familiarity and using the dollar (I’ve gotten really sensitive to airport prices in Euros). Also, there’s a Cinnabon! How can you not love that?
  • Vienna International (Schwechat): mixed feelings. On the one hand, this is the gateway to Vienna, city of my heart and dreams. That said, it feels inconvenient to get to (multiple trains, or else a 40 Euro taxi ride), and it has a really loose layout. Most importantly, VIE lacks an essential airport component: moving walkways. Seriously, you have to get everywhere entirely under your own steam, which is as best monstrously inconvenient. When you are running to make your flight (because the one time you need the *$%^ trains to run on time, they can’t be bothered!), you would like all the help you can get, please and thank you.
  • Amsterdam Schipol: an unexpected pleasure. I think it’s because they have lined their hallways with lush green plants. You don’t even register immediately why it feels so much more restful; it’s just a little wave of well-being that hits you, suddenly. Airports generally tend to be quite sterile, efficient sorts of places; they need to be, transporting all those people every day, and yet it can be so wearying. The harsh light, the gleaming floors, the fluorescent neatly-lettered signage—it’s a bit soul-killing, which makes the sight of these avenues of full, dark, glossy leaves such a necessary (yet unexpected) pleasure. Fun fact: they also have charging stations for your electronic devices that are powered by bicycle! Even though my own products were fully charged, it was tempting to set down that oh-so-heavy carry-on and do a bit of pedaling.
  • Dulles International: hell on earth. My sole experience here was wandering through its shiny interminable corridors while having to wait seven hours for my flight the next morning. The shops and restaurants were all closed; I was starving and very tired. I had hoped to get some sleep, but the banks of seats at the departure gates aren’t really conducive to rest. Besides, I had no pillow, no blanket, no way to stop shivering. It was just miserable. Until I heard someone talk to me. “Miss?” I raise my head. It’s one of the night janitors, a man I guess to be in his fifties, from Indonesia, I think. He’s left his mop and rolling bucket somewhere down the hall, and in his hands he has a blanket: it’s thin, dark blue, and wrapped in plastic, the sort they hand out to first-class people on their flights. I have no idea where he got it, but I accept it gratefully—tearfully, even. Eventually, I get a bit of rest; the restaurants open up again, and I can grab a muffin and some tea before my flight finally departs. We move on.

The act of travel, of simply getting from Point A to Point B, has been stripped down to its barest parts: stand in line, bags on the table, keep moving, stand to right, walk to the left. Airports, then, are spaces outside of our normal conceptions of space and time: you’re somewhere, but also nowhere in particular. You need to be on time, and yet the minutes and hours bleed and blur into each other, and you lost track of how long you’ve been waiting and queuing and sitting. It makes the brain fuzzy.

Which is why it’s all the more precious to come across those things that pull you from the airport fugue state, that connect you to something concrete and connected. The bicycles, the wall of full green plants, the man on the late shift who can offer a blanket to a tearfully exhausted nineteen-year-old—they ground us, and in so doing make the whole process of getting somewhere a little less hellish, and a little more human.