I’m an Austrian Who Can’t Live in Austria

I’m an Austrian who can’t live in Austria. I grew up in Vienna’s 23rd district, went to the Kollegium Kalksburg, and feasted on chicken Schnitzel. In the winter, I went to the thermal baths in Baden, in the summer, to my grandma’s lake house on Donau-Oder-Kanal in Lower Austria. I was a normal Austrian living in the country of my birth.

Then during university, I fell in love with an American from Alabama. After many visits back and forth and three years of long distance, we met half way in New York City. Two years later we got married, in the same park as Miranda and Steve in Sex and the City.

Every city has its traditions and its greetings. In Vienna, we say Servas. In New York, we say, “Where are you from?” This question is complicated for me. I am Austrian, born and raised. But I cannot go back.

It’s about family: My wife is the sole sibling to a brother with autism, Daniel. He’s loving and mischievous, but it took him a while to share that with me. It takes a long time for Daniel to feel comfortable with anyone new and devote the time it takes to remember them – for months he didn’t know my name. He called me “coach” – his catch-all name for the anonymous men in his life.

Daniel lives with my in-laws and requires their care 24-hours a day. My wife and I come most weekends to help, and, after many runs upstairs to his room to put on Elf or Bee Movie, and countless trips to 7-Eleven to buy slurpees, I finally became “Gabriel”.

We’ve been married for five years now, and, like most couples who have made it this far without having kids, people often ask about our future and where we want to live. We want kids, and we want them to be Austrian and American. We want them to speak German and English and to experience living in both countries. 

But as things stand, they won’t have that chance. My wife and I are the sole guardians for Daniel should her parents no longer be able to care for him. So if we live in Austria, we would have to be able to move to the US on a moment’s notice. And this is where it gets complicated: If I we’re out of the U.S. for more than six months, I would lose my green card and therefore my permanent residence in the US. But I can’t become a U.S. citizen, because Austria does not allow dual citizenship.

There are exceptions. One is through achievement (“service to the Republic”) – often academics, musicians, artists and sports figures –, another is through large investments, a third is for immigrants whose home countries do not recognize renunciation of citizenship (authorian regimes in Iran and Syria), and a fourth is for extenuating circumstances in private and family life. 

I first read about these exceptions as we began mapping out when we’d live in Austria. I wasn’t a professor; I could never sing at the Staatsoper; and I didn’t have the means to make a large investment. I naively thought the exentuating family clause was made for a case like mine.

But it wasn’t: My application was denied. One official suggested my wife could go back to the US to take care of Daniel without me or, presumably, our children. Another told me Daniel could live in an institution. I was ashamed to tell my wife.

I have never before been disappointed in my country. At dinner parties, I praise our food and culture, our universal healthcare, our lakes, and our mountains. But now I feel betrayed. I’m caught between my country and my family. 

I’m an Austrian who can’t live in Austria.

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