Editors’ note: The “Life in” series provides readers a window into daily life in different places around the world by sharing the stories of women living abroad.
Verily contributor Megan Madden fell in love with the beauty and culture of Europe as a child when her family lived and traveled abroad for her father’s career as a diplomat. In 2017, Megan and her husband had the opportunity to move their own family to Trumau, Austria for her husband to pursue graduate studies and a teaching career, and they jumped at the chance. Then, in 2019, they had the opportunity to make another dream come true: to live in Poland, a country they had first learned to love while studying abroad during college.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background? Where did you grow up? What do you do now?
I was born in Maryland, but I lived all over the United States because of my dad's work. He was a diplomat, so I ended up finishing high school in Athens, Greece. I really fell in love with Europe during that time.
I met my husband Josh in high school when I was fifteen before I moved to Greece. We broke up because I was moving, and we got back together in university and ended up getting married right out of college. So, Europe has kind of been a part of my life for many years at this point.
What brought you to Austria?
My husband and I got married 10 years ago this year, and he ended up going to graduate school in Florida (where I am right now). Right after he finished his Ph.D. in theology, we had this option of staying and getting a typical university job or going abroad and getting a second degree which is called a Licentiate of Sacred Theology (STL). We ended up taking the nontraditional route, and he went for an STL at the International Theological Institute (ITI) in Trumau, Austria, right outside Vienna. That is what brought us there.
What were some of your first impressions of Austria?
We had a really developed community where we were living in Florida, which was very hard to leave. But I was excited to get back to Europe because something that Josh and I are passionate about is the culture in Europe and especially beauty and giving our children true beauty.
At that time, we had three children; we have four now. We wanted to have them be well traveled and have them engage in different cultures and see what is so truly beautiful: the beautiful architecture, the ballet, taking them to the art museums to see all this artwork. I was really excited to give our children that. I also started graduate studies at the ITI, though, I did not complete those studies as our family grew and I was home schooling our children.
What are some of the differences you observed between American and Austrian culture?
In Austria in particular, they are very high culture which really struck us. They really like their orchestras. They really like their ballets. They really like their artwork, specifically in Vienna. I was very struck when I walked down the streets to see women so beautifully dressed, and men in their suits and ties every single day. There is a high culture there that I’ve never experienced anywhere else, including in other places I lived in Europe.
In America, there’s a strong emphasis, which I think is good, on work. There’s also emphasis on individualism and personal pursuits and these sorts of things. In Austria, I noticed a greater sense of real leisure. I don’t mean “just doing nothing”; rather, an emphasis on engaging in and consuming things that are very beautiful.
Also, the Austrians very much focus on community and building up a greater good within the community. That was another very big cultural difference that we noticed.
What were some of the harder things for you to get used to in Austrian culture?
One of the things that we found a little bit challenging and that stretched us, but I think for the better, was shopping, specifically, our shopping habits and consumerism. In the United States, we were used to being able to get whatever we need, whatever we want, when we want it. In Austria, it was very difficult to get what we needed. Grocery stores there are much smaller, and there are fewer choices of brands, and also, at the end of the day, things can be gone; for example, produce can be gone. So, you had to go to the grocery store, at specific times.
If you were looking to buy a frame for a photo, for instance, you had to go to a particular store. So, all of our purchases had to be very well thought out. I learned to think ahead of what groceries I needed to buy, what I needed to get for the children, and then, where I could get it, and then actually make the time to go at the appropriate time.
The other thing was that all of the stores were closed on Sundays. Every single Sunday, everything is shut down. Keeping that in mind and planning ahead for that was a total shift in lifestyle for us. But it was good.
Were there any other aspects of life there that you really loved?
I think the slowing down was really good for us, because we were very fast paced in America. My husband and I both love to work and get things done. Living in Austria made us slow down and be together, because life is just much slower there. I really can’t put my finger on why, but it’s truly cultural.
We were living in a farming town right outside of Vienna. There were many “Heuriger,” which are wine taverns that Viennese wine makers set up at their vineyards for visitors to taste their wines. You go and eat the traditional food and drink wine and the children play. Just being and slowing down in that way was like a breath of fresh air.
In 2019 you and your family moved to Krakow, Poland?
We moved there to run a study abroad program that some friends had started there, and my husband was teaching at a university there. Also, we love Poland. We had been to Poland a few different times. My husband and I studied abroad in college in the Czech Republic and visited Poland. And it was our dream to go back there.
What did you love about Poland the first time you visited and then moving back?
The first time we really appreciated the culture in Poland. They had great food and it was so focused on family and faith and all of these rooted things that we were really attracted to. We really liked Old Town; it was very beautiful to walk around and a great atmosphere. After moving there, I completely fell in love with it. It feels so back in time in a way. Things are very, very simple there. It’s a city, but it’s a small city. So, you get to know a lot of different people.
The Polish people are so welcoming. They’re quiet at first, you know, so it takes a while. But I think the American personality and the Polish personality mix really well, because we tend to be more expressive and they’re more introverted. So, it makes for a very good friendship. So, we ended up making some really good friends there, too.
Are there any aspects of life in Austria or Poland that have made you rethink the way you traditionally did something or thought about something?
Yes, sharing beautiful cultural experiences with our children. For instance, I was able to take my oldest daughter, who is eight now, to the Slovakian ballet in Bratislava and then the Viennese ballet. It was a really beautiful experience to have with her. I know if we move back, I’m going to seek out those cultural experiences that I wouldn’t have otherwise, making sure to go to the theater, making sure to go to the ballet, seeking out orchestra. Also just getting art cards and putting art at my children’s levels for them to see and engage with. Because I saw how beauty struck me and my husband and how it was so transcendent. It’s just good; it brings peace. We would want to bring that wherever we went.
I also would say that travel itself has opened up our eyes to the fact that there are so many different kinds of people, different cultures, different ways people think. I think it’s good to recognize that, to see that there are so many people outside of our little bubble of where we grow up or what we’re comfortable with. And sometimes being uncomfortable in this way is good because it stretches us, and it brings a sense of compassion and love for others and understanding that we’re all on this journey.
You were in Krakow when the pandemic began. What was that experience of lock down like in Krakow? And then the experience of coming back to the United States?
It was very intense. At the time, we had a flat on the same floor as all our students who were studying abroad. Most of them had come from the United States, and we had to send them back during the pandemic. When everything went on lock down, they were very scared.
We thought for a long time that we would stick it out. But then it went on complete lock down. If you think of the places in the United States that went the furthest, it was like that and probably went a bit further. We weren’t allowed outside at all, or you could get fined. My children and I didn’t leave our home for a couple of months. We had a porch we would go on, and that was it. My husband would go to the grocery store. They had the grocery store open for a limited amount of people and a limited amount of time. And he could get stopped at any given moment by police to ask where he was going and what he is doing when he was walking to the grocery store.
We were completely isolated, and we had no family there. By May, we hit this breaking point where we thought, “we have to go home.” We contacted the American embassy in Krakow, and they had a charter flight for Americans to get back to America. Within a couple of days, we put all our things in boxes and put them in storage, and we traveled back to the United States with three suitcases. We bought tickets to come back to Poland eight weeks later.
Then we got stuck here. Our flights kept getting canceled because borders are closed. But we’ve seen the good of being here. Because we do have a life, we are able to go outside. I can take my children outside. We can go places and put masks on. We have so much more freedom here right now. And I need that with four kids.
If someone had a weekend in Krakow, what are three things you would recommend they do while there?
Visit the Main Square in Old Town Krakow, which is a very beautiful part of Krakow. Visit the Mariacki Basilica and the Cloth Hall, which is home to all these little shops in the Old Town.
Second, visit the monastery where Saint Faustina (a nineteenth-century Polish nun) lived, which is now a shrine, and the John Paul II Sanctuary. Catholicism is a big part of Polish culture. So, seeing that helps you understand the history of the Polish people and what they really value in their culture.
Third, visit Auschwitz, which is right outside of Krakow. Poland has gone through so much in their history and in in their identity. So much happened on those grounds, specifically with World War II and Communism. Auschwitz is a really dark place, and it's not exactly pleasant to go to. But it’s really valuable and a good place to go in order to open up our horizons and see that so many people have suffered so much. I think it brings gratitude and puts things in perspective.