Back on the Chain Gang – (MYoM – Part 13)

Today was my first day back at work.

We had all taken off from the school on the last day of our “Post-readying Week” with all sorts of projects in progress: books and materials were strewn all over the classrooms in semi-sorted piles. Catalogs for the half-done schoolbook order were scattered around the computer on the desk and floor. Dishes were rinsed and piled in the sink waiting for the ever slower dishwasher to get done. Stuff left behind by various kids was all over the coatroom and halls and classrooms . . . We all said it was just too hot and we would come back sometime in the next week to put things in order. None of us did.

I arrived this morning for my first day of work fairly fuzzy headed from having tossed and turned for most of the night. I think I got about 2 hours of sleep total. As it turned out, the rest of my colleagues were in a similar condition.

There were quite a few surprises awaiting us. Over the summer the dishwasher had broken down and flooded the kitchen. There was enough mold in the compost pail and the fridge for several new cures for diseases. The door of the school was left unlocked for most of the summer because no one could find the key. The ivy had grown over several of the first floor windows. The answering machine was dead and the WiFi didn’t work.

We got the kitchen in good enough shape to have our first meeting – which only four of us attended because one team member had slipped a disc last week and can hardly move. We aren’t sure when he will be ready to come back. A second colleague informed us that he has a schedule conflict with his other job, so the school week plan we spent four hours on in July has to be redone. We also heard the news that one, or maybe two, kids won’t be attending this year – and that means no budget for shelves for all those piles of materials in the classrooms and no new chairs for the kids. Also no new dishwasher. Or answering machine. It also seems that the only solution for our scheduling problem is for me to come in four mornings a week instead of three, and there is really no budget for that either.

We spent six hours there and the only thing we really accomplished in that time was to compile a list of things we have to do (in the next six days!)

I can hardly believe I am saying this – but it is nice to be back.

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The Doggie B&B

When my husband and I were considering a move out to the country 26 years ago, one of my conditions was that we get a dog. A week before the planned moving day, we started visiting the animal shelters – just to check out what kinds of dogs were available. Yeah, right. If anyone has ever been in one of those places and been accosted by dozens of puppies, they will know how hard it is to leave again without a dog. In our case, we were looking at a litter of Labrador/Schnauzer pups when a wiggly little black female ran over to us, her tail pumping back and forth so fast it was hardly visible. She jumped into my lap and greeted me like a long lost soulmate. Her attitude was a clear “Finally!! Can we go home now?” So began our 11 year relationship with First Dog.

First dogs, like first cars or first crushes, retain a special status in a person’s life – and so it was with ours. None of her three successors could ever live up to her perfection. She was obedient, but not in a particularly impressive way. She had personality and exuded harmlessness. She was smart enough to earn herself the nickname “Brainless Wimp”. And throughout our 11 years of struggling with childlessness, she filled up that hole in our souls.

After our move, it was not surprising that two of the first people I met in our new community were the local veterinarian and his wife. They lived in an old four-tract farmhouse where he had his practice and she ran a kennel – or a “Doggie B&B” as they call them here. My first visit there was somewhat startling – as I assume it was for most people. The place was a bit reminiscent of those homes you see on TV shows about hoarders. But the house itself was also somehow fantastic. It had so much potential! Or it would have, if not for the fact that the many animals living there clearly had the run of the place – and animals are not known for their decorating and housekeeping skills. As it was, all the places to sit down were covered by dogs and cats or blankets covered with dog and cat hairs. The animals ran freely all around the house, in and out of the courtyard or the large fenced in yard. Dog bowls coated with the last remnants of dog food could be found here and there on the floors of all the rooms and the grounds outside. It was impossible to tell which of the animals were resident pets and which were kennel guests because they all seemed to feel at home.

First Dog immediately loved the place. The vet’s wife was an anglophile who liked to speak English, so I soon felt at home there too. A sort of friendship developed and I dropped by now and then for coffee and a chat. Each time there was a new constellation of dogs and a new social hierarchy for First Dog to navigate. Most times the dogs were left to work all that out for themselves while my new friend and I chatted away about this and that. We always came home from those visits with First Dog exhausted and happy and with both of us in need of a bath.

Sometimes during these visits, a new client and guest dog would arrive. I started to enjoy watching these encounters – the slightly fearful looks of the owners as their eyes took in the surroundings. The way they explained the characters and eating habits of their treasured dogs. The wife listened politely, making small talk and necessary assurances until the clients sighed and, haltingly, forked over the cash. They made their farewells to their pets, handed over the leash and left. As soon as their cars had disappeared around the first bend, their canine darlings were released into the pack and left to fend for themselves.

One day, an elderly woman came with her yappy little Foofy, fresh from the doggie hairdresser, and three type-written pages of information and instructions. She gave the vet’s wife some advice on choosing the appropriate spot for Foofy’s bed and selecting suitable canine playmates. She pointed out the different sections of her instructions covering special dietary habits – which treats Foofy got when – as well as her walking times and the schedule for her various medications. She emphasized Foofy’s need for special attention due to her sensitive nature. When the woman finally left, the three pages of instructions were promptly stuffed into a folder unread and little Foofy began what was quite probably the greatest week of her life.

Before my next visit to the vet’s wife, I prepared some “Instructions for First Dog” to add to her collection:


 

First DogFirst Dog

Address: Our House 10, Small Village, Austria
Telephone: 123-4567
Birthdate: April 22, 1989
Breed: pure bred “Noah’s Ark”
Health Issues: itchy ears, brain cell deficiency, chronic loss of hair, addicted to chocolate
Diet: likes pieces of cheese and beer, doesn’t like carrots or potatoes, undecided about peas
Character: good with children, good with other dogs, likes cats except when they get fed and she doesn’t, really likes cow pies, confused by balls and bones (prefers pieces of wood)
Special needs:

  • When feeding the cat allow her to lick the spoon.
  • At least ten times a day kiss her on the nose and say in a high voice “Are you my mousie?” or “Are you my stinky mousie?” or “Are you my sweet mousie?” (Vary the adjective depending on the situation.)
  • Five times a day roll her over on her back, scratch her and say in a stupid sounding voice “You got a big fat belly?” Wait for sigh.
  • When playing with a stick: Pretend to spit on stick. Throw stick and say “Go get it.” Watch her run in the wrong direction. Go pick up stick yourself. Repeat.
  • When playing with a ball: Bounce ball two times. Throw ball and say “Where’s the ball?” Watch her run in the wrong direction. Go pick up ball yourself. Repeat.
  • Never say the word “Chappy”. If necessary, spell it out.

Seeing is Believing – (Reunions – Chapter 4)

Note: This is part of a longer story broken into blog-sized parts. Here are the links to the previous chapters:
Color Blind,
Reunions – The Prologue,
The Decision – (Reunions – Chapter 1½,
Nine Months – (Reunions – Chapter 2),
The Four O’clock Ten O’clock Man – (Reunions – Chapter 3)

____________________________

Confusion. There was no sound coming from the telephone receiver I was holding to my ear except for a tiny bit of static. Something had just been said though. And it was something big. So big that it drove all other thoughts out of my head – there was only room for this one thing. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand it.

“Hello? Hello? Are you still there?”

A second thought emerged amid the confusion: If I don’t say something now, he is going to hang up! So, in desperation, I sputtered out the first thing that came into my head.

“Does she . . . have a name?”

There was another brief silence on the other end. Then I heard “I forgot to ask. I will hang up now and call the orphanage. You call me back in ten minutes.” And he was gone.
I hung up the phone. I stared at the clock on the phone display, trying to figure out what time it would be ten minutes from now. The solution eluded me.

I went to find my husband, who had not gone golfing, but had put himself out of earshot of the telephone call. I told him about the conversation and noticed as I did so that it was starting to become comprehensible to me, if not exactly real yet. We went back to the telephone together and started the dialing process again, which reverted to being the usual frustrating experience. On attempt number 12 or 13, we finally heard a ringing sound on the other end. Mr T. picked up.

He launched immediately into another torrent of words. Her name was “Maria” – but the way he pronounced it sounded more like “Marya” – and she was three weeks old, not three months. There were four other families who wanted her, but we got her (and he seemed quite proud of that fact.) He said he was trying to get us an early court date now. When I asked about the timing – when that date might be and when we could reasonably expect to come get her, he said something about “two weeks.” We arranged a day and time for our next phone call.

Two weeks?!? Had he really just implied that we could fly to Addis Ababa two weeks from now?

Our information so far had been that two court dates were necessary. In the first the adoption is initially approved. Then an announcement including a picture of the child is published for 30 days during which people can come forward and claim the child as a relative. If no one does, the adoption is finalized in a second court session. Mr. T. had mentioned something about the adoption getting approval – so was he talking about the second court date already? It seemed impossible except for the fact that nothing about our adoption so far had followed the usual procedures. We had a representative, Mrs. Herewego, from whom we hadn’t heard a peep, and this official at the Social Ministry, who seemed to have taken a personal interest in our case. We supposed it could be possible . . .

(Must stay theoretical. “Marya”. Three weeks old. Must stay theoretical . . . )

We called our contacts in Addis Ababa to tell them the news and ask them to visit Maria in the orphanage – maybe send us a picture – but otherwise made an agreement not to inform the family until we were more certain this was all really happening. Five minutes later, I broke that pact and called my mom. She was so excited, but tried, like me to hold back a while yet. We talked for ages. I finally forced myself to hang up and go to bed – I had to bring my beloved dog to the vet the next day for her operation, and there was a crew of 10 men coming to work on insulating and plastering the house the following two days. They had to be supplied with meals and drinks and be cleaned up after. Multiple trips to the store for materials were also part of the routine.

(What is it like for her in the orphanage? Is she being well taken care of? Does someone pick her up when she cries?)

There comes a point when the brain overloads and I was well beyond that point. I couldn’t feel my life anymore. Everything was intangible. Luckily I was mostly too busy and distracted to notice. A phone call from one of our contacts in Addis – the Viennese man who was down there finalizing his family’s adoption – set my mind off on a new rampage of questions. He had seen Maria and described her as “tiny” and “always sleeping”. He promised to send a picture as soon as he caught her awake. At that moment she began to become real.

(She is all alone. When can I come and get her?)

My dog survived the operation, but she was in bad shape and the prognosis was iffy at best. The tumor had been huge. I did my best not to annoy her too much with my attention and to shield her from all the workers stomping through the house. On Day Two, once all the men had left and my dog was asleep, I went to my computer and checked my email.

There it was – a message from the woman in the embassy in Addis with a picture attached to it. It took me a minute to work up the nerve, but I finally opened the attachment, took a quick peak, and immediately closed it again. I paced around the house aimlessly and nervously. A half hour or so later, I took a second peak and, again, closed it after only a few seconds. It was dark and fuzzy, but this time I took in just a little more. When my husband came home an hour later, we went straight to the computer and I finally had a long look. I held my hand up to the screen, placing my fingers over the adult ones in the picture – they were life-sized. I realized how very tiny this baby must be.

Mary1

This was Maria. She was real. She was beautiful. Who would be there when she woke up? When could I come and get her?

I spent the entire next day on the couch, sleeping, throwing up, and crying.

Not On Vacation Anymore

The trick to coming home after five glorious weeks on vacation is to hit the ground (as opposed to the hamster wheel) running. The ridiculously long haul that was our return trip (29 hours) and the state way beyond jet-lag we arrived home in made that a bit difficult. The “welcome home” greeting of our pets made it even harder. Around midnight last night, we unlocked the front door of our house and out came the animals as if shot from a rocket launcher. The old dog expressed her excitement by pooping in the front hall. The little dog did so by running off to the neighbor’s house. The cat ran to her feed dish and started shrieking. After dealing with those issues, my next act on returning home was to grab a broom and sweep up the thousand pieces of pillow stuffing and shredded newspaper that were scattered throughout the house. My mind started in on its first “To Do” list of the new year. I barely managed to stop myself from physically putting it to paper. I sifted through the mail instead, setting aside the letter from the “Finanzamt” (the Austrian IRS) and the Visa bill, telling myself “I’ll deal with those tomorrow.” I asked my husband if it seemed to him, too, that the past five weeks had been just a dream.

 
Luckily, a deep long sleep helped lift the malaise. This morning we borrowed breakfast foods from the neighbors after discovering that the batteries of all our motorized vehicles were dead. I slowly started unpacking the five suitcases full of goodies listed in that still unopened Visa bill. Then I started sifting through the 1000s of photos we took, choosing the best (people-less) ones for this blog post and thinking “See? It wasn’t a dream! It wasn’t!”

 
Here’s some proof:

Picto-Travel-Blog #3 – Milwaukee

Views from the Porch

Around Town

At the Zoo and the Museums

On the Dennis Sullivan

Special Treats

Back Home with Sam

I’ve been doing some posts about my talks with a young American teaching assistant in Austria and how they never failed to flash me back into my own past. (“Travels with Sam” – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) Well, this past weekend Sam visited us here in Milwaukee and it was a totally different feeling. A role reversal almost. Being on vacation – in this magical place where the morning hazelnut coffee brews itself, where there is always a bag of Cheetos in the cupboard and never any work to do – I was entirely in the present. On the flip side, Sam’s experiences in Austria had just recently ended and with us being a part of all that, he was the one reflecting on the past.

He arrived in the evening just in time for delicious homemade Reuben sandwiches and a beer or five on the porch. As we talked and he reminisced, we were interrupted by muted sounds of a ruckus going on in the next door neighbor’s yard. We looked over and discovered two other neighbors throwing rolls of toilet paper over her trees and bushes. They signaled to us to be quiet, then pointed at the house and whispershouted “Birthday!” My daughters were confused and asked us what was going on.

“Haven’t you ever heard of TP-ing?!?!” my sister asked them, equally surprised by this gaping hole in their cultural education. “Well this is your chance! Go up and get a few rolls – you can help!” My daughters got all excited and giggly as they ran out, armed with Charmin, and joined the other vandals.

The next day we had an invitation to a guided tour of the special exhibit at the art museum. We followed that up with a small “Art in the Park” fair and then gave Sam a mini-tour of the city’s hippest neighborhoods in their various stages of gentrification. It was not until the last 10 minutes of his stay – on our way to the train station – that Sam managed once again to get me reflecting back on my own past. He said how nice it had been to reconnect with people who shared in his Austrian life, because no one here seemed able to relate. He had prepared himself for a lot of conversations and curiosity about his life there, but the only question he ever got was “How was your trip?” – and even then, the expectation was a two sentence answer followed by a change of subject. These comments ignited a flashback in my mind to the time I returned home after my first full year in a foreign country. I remember getting that question and thinking: It wasn’t a “trip”! It was a life! I also remembered the terrible time I had re-acculturating – the “reverse culture shock” that made me bound and determined to finish my degree and get back to Europe as soon as I possibly could. I ended up taking my very last final exam of my studies on a Friday, moving out of my apartment on Saturday, and boarding a plane on Monday. At the time I thought I was just traveling – not emigrating. But, eventually, that is what it turned out to be.

Once you go beyond traveling and really start building a life in a foreign place, something becomes true about that saying “You can’t go home again.” You live a double existence and relating your experiences of one culture to a member of another can be nearly impossible. That is why I loved watching my girls vandalizing the neighbor’s house. It was one more quintessential experience of my Midwestern youth to add to their own lists. In the fifteen years of our extended visits here they have accumulated a lot of American childhood memories. They have drunk from bubblers and run through sprinklers. They have walked the Streets of Old Milwaukee and pushed the rattlesnake buzzer by the buffalo hunt diorama. They have melted at baseball games and frozen in shopping malls. They have made lemonade stands and heard the song of the ice cream truck. They have found the secret entrance to the Safehouse and eaten frozen custard at Gile’s. They have “gone up north” and tried the fudge in some kitschy “Ye Olde Ice Cream Shoppe”. At my insistence, they have even ridden the Ducks at the Wisconsin Dells – although that particular experience turned out to be a yawner despite my attempts to get them excited.

“Look at that rock! It does sort of look like a grand piano! Don’t you think?”
“No. Not really.”

All this matters a great deal to me. Despite growing up in Austria, a part of my daughters’ childhoods has been an American one. I will never have to explain those things to them abstractly. They will remember them in years to come and feel nostalgia. And when they go home next week and are asked “How was your trip?” they won’t know where to begin.

Talking Flag Pin Heads

I have taken a lot of pictures with American flags in them this summer — though most of them have a backdrop that adds a dash of irony. It is symbolic of my ambivalence about patriotism – as a word, a concept or a feeling. But last week, I had the chance to see that flag through the eyes of 49 brand new citizens when we were lucky enough to be invited to watch a naturalization ceremony in the Federal Courthouse – and there wasn’t a hint of irony in the entire event.

The judge began by reading out the list of countries these immigrants came from. “Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belgium, Botswana, Bulgaria, Cambodia, . . .” She asked the people to raise their hands when their home countries were named. “. . . China, Colombia, Congo, Dominican Republic, Egypt, El Salvador, Ghana, . . . “ She told them to hold their hands high and say “Here!” with pride. “. . .  Guatemala, India, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Laos, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, . . .” Everyone smiled and greeted the people whose countries were just named. “. . . Peru, Somalia, Sudan, Taiwan, Turkey, Uganda, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe.” Some of them waved the little flags included in their citizenship packet as they smiled and loudly declared their presence.

Before they took the Oath of Allegiance, the judge told her own immigration story from Haiti – how she had lived for eight years without her parents as they built their lives in America to the point where they could bring their children over. She told us how she took the same pledge over 10 years later as a college student. She talked about the 49 different stories there in that room and then said to the new Americans:

“Tell us your stories. Celebrate your culture. Share your art and your music with us. Share your food! We like food! Be proud of where you came from and add your part of it to us.”

She also reminded them of the responsibilities that go along with citizenship –the first and foremost being voting. She pointed out that the League of Women Voters had a stand set up outside the courtroom where they could now register right away. She mentioned other ways they could make meaningful contributions to the country. And then they all stood up and recited the Oath.

Afterwards each one was individually congratulated as cameras flashed at huge smiles and quite a few tears. It was so obvious how important the day was to each and every one of them. I couldn’t help but feel that the country had just won 49 prizes. 49 patriots of the truest kind – people who didn’t take the freedoms this country offers for granted. Diverse people for whom patriotism was a complex concept and a new feeling – they would not be tossing the word around in a way that emptied it of all meaning.

         

On that same day in the evening, the A- and B-Teams of Republican presidential contenders had their turn in front of the cameras and almost all of them came wearing the obligatory flag pin. Throughout the debate “immigration” was equated with “protecting our borders” and universally identified as a major problem. We heard again how other countries send us their rejects and so “we need to build a wall, and it has to be built quickly.” (Trump) How “immigration without assimilation is an invasion.” (Jindal) We heard a plan for “reducing the level of immigration by 25 percent.” (Santorum) and how “there are a million people a year who legally immigrate to the United States, and people feel like we’re being taken advantage of.” (Rubio) It seems what we need is a “legal immigration system that gives priority to American working families and wages” (Walker) and that giving “amnesty” to immigrants would “fundamentally change this country”. (Cruz)

There was not a single statement from any of them celebrating us as a nation of immigrants or acknowledging the contributions and enrichment so many foreign-born, naturalized citizens have brought to this country. I wonder – what do these men see and feel when they look at a flag? When they put on those pins?

Three days later, I took a ferry to Ellis Island in New York. There was an excellent exhibition there about the Immigrant Experience and the 12 million new Americans who came through that place over a period of about 50 years. I guess all of those people coming off those boats would be “illegal immigrants” by today’s standards. My great grandparents included.