My Austrian Homecoming

Some readers may already know this, but when I was seventeen, I moved abroad for the first time. It was in Austria, as an exchange student (through AFS, a fantastic organization, might I add!), that I first got a taste of a world outside of my own. I lived with a family who, ironically, was Croatian in origin but spoke German while I was around and went to a Gymnasium (high school) during the day. It was the first time I created a world completely outside of my own. I had friends, a family, old teachers and even some dirty laundry in Bad Radkersburg, Austria, a small city on the border of Slovenia. (You haven’t lived in a place until you’ve got dirty laundry there, amiright?)

Leaving was heartbreaking, but I visited twice in the next two years; once, for my host sister and classmates’ graduation party (called Maturaball) in 2008 and another time in 2009, when I got to see the big city of Vienna and spend some time with old friends in the nearby city of Graz. Shortly after, University swung into full effect, I joined a sorority (goodbye money, but hello friends!) and began blazing a trail in other, new parts of the world. I studied abroad in Argentina, graduated and moved to South Korea to teach English, and suddenly it had been nearly five years since I’d visited with my other life in Austria.

So when I planned five months in Europe, and my parents moved to Germany, there was absolutely no question about it. I was headed back to Styria, Austria, where my travel feet were first grown. I was going home.

 Cue music: I’m coming home, I’m coming home. Tell the world I’m coming home.

Seventeen-year-old American on the loose in Austria... beer in hand. Sounds about right.
Seventeen-year-old American on the loose in Austria… beer in hand. Sounds about right.

I arrived in Graz, Austria in a rather tumultuous emotional state. I’d just spent the past week with my boyfriend in Switzerland, who’d flown in from South Korea to see me for the first time in four months. In a week I won’t be writing much about, we swung from fight to hugs to fights to tears to a strange, mellow last few days of peace. It all sounded like a romantic love story: girl meets boy in a foreign country, they endure long distance for a time and have a romantic week in one of the most beautiful countries on earth, sitting together, talking while staring out onto a lake surrounded by towering mountains. But life isn’t a storybook and I left that week confused, because it didn’t feel right and I couldn’t pinpoint why.

Walking out of the train station in Graz, I found my way to Claudia‘s apartment, who had offered to put me up while I was in town. It was a strange feeling; I’d been in Graz before, but I had no orientation whatsoever as to where certain things were or where I was. Grabbing a map first thing from the tourism stand seemed a bit odd to me, but I was lost without it. In the first few days, I wandered around, map in hand, and saw corners or streets that suddenly hit me in the face with a memory.

DSCF2522
Most unfortunately, I didn’t rediscover this delicious schnitzel restaurant.

Ah, that’s where Hjördis and I took the bus home at 6 am, that first time I ever stayed out bar-hopping an entire night!

My two host sisters live and study in Graz, and seeing them was one of the highlights of my time there. (My third host sister has moved to Vienna to be a big-shot singer! Yay!) We met for drinks, caught up on the last five years of our respective lives, and then settled into laughing and group meals as if we’d been living together all along. I’d later move myself to Nika’s couch for my last few days, so I had time to catch up on blogging and a shorter walk to the center of the city. Seeing them was everything I’d hoped, with a little extra joy sprinkled in. It was also exactly what I needed; talking through my then-current boyfriend situation helped me see clearly that it didn’t matter if I could pinpoint it or not, something didn’t fit. (I made the difficult Skype call sometime later, once I was alone in Croatia.)

graz 1
Circa 2007.

Yes, I remember now! That weird organ-like building I kept picturing as Vienna is actually here, in Graz, and it’s an art museum!

I also got to reconnect with ancient friends, some of the few I have from my teenage years. Mona, who’s since grown dreads, spent significant time in India and is as sweet and intelligent as ever, introduced me to pumpkin seed oil ice cream (only in Styria…) and we spent a few hours laying out in the sun on some of the city’s green. Sigi took me on an amazing tour of Zotter’s Chocolate Factory which included so much tasting, my stomach rebelled for several hours afterwards. I also met another friend whom I haven’t kept in touch with, but who remembered not only me but most of my horrible, drunken shenanigans from that semester abroad seven years ago. (It wouldn’t be a visit home without more of that dirty laundry coming out of the woodwork, amiright, amiright?) In a lucky turn of events, I also caught up with my host dad and we took a nice selfie together to commemorate.

SELFIE WITH MARIO!
SELFIE WITH MARIO!

Graz, Austria is where most of my friends now live, but it isn’t the city I studied in all those years ago. I took one day to stroll down memory lane and visit the small border town where I went to school: Bad Radkersburg.

There’s a very special family that lives in Bad Radkersburg, and I’m not talking about my first (unsuccessful) host family. It’s the family that saw me through it all; the uncomfortable beginning, my host family transition and the ever-too-soon end of my time. We passed so many evenings with dinner and a bottle of wine, talking late into the night on the outdoor porch. When I get a package of chocolate from Austria in the mail over Christmastime, I can guarantee it’s from the lovely family who watched me grow up in Bad Radkersburg: Claudia, her mom and sister, and when he’s in town, Uncle Edmond. (Plus the endless kitties!) They met me at the train station and I was able to spend one night in the good old way, with wine and real conversation and chicken and stars soup, minus the chicken. It was hard to tear myself away the next afternoon; those 24 hours were a visit long overdue, much enjoyed and over much, much too quickly.

Just as my slightly longer visit in Styria was also over much, much too quickly.

The Hauptplatz in Bad Radkersburg, Austria where I spent 5 months in high school.
The Hauptplatz in Bad Radkersburg, Austria where I spent 5 months in high school.

I remember this H&M! Sara and I went shopping here, one time, and I bought that awful striped purple tank top.

A lot of hugs and new (but just as beautiful) memories with old friends later, I gathered my belongings into my little blue suitcase and made my way to the train station. Just like I did in Berlin, in Geneva and as I would again do in Zagreb, I turned my head up to locate the correct track for my train. Coming to Graz, I’d been home for a moment. But it was once again time to move.

I settled into my window seat. The train rolled on.

squiggle3

Do you have another life in another country that feels like home when you visit? Was this super depressing? (Sorry!) Have you ever tried delicious pumpkin seed oil ice cream or does it freak you out a little bit?

You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page or subscribe to the email list, if you’d like.