Off to London!

london3Here I go. Off on a trip back to my teenage years. Tramping through town for four days from one tourist trap to the next, hopping on and hopping off, eating at Subways and sleeping in a bunk bed at a youth hostel. Counting to twelve over and over, yelling “Look RIGHT!!” a lot, and answering the same question seven times in a row. My only breaks being a beer at the hostel bar with Barb after bedtimes. Don’t be surprised if I return to this blog a week from now sounding a whole lot older younger. Wish us luck!



I realized something major while sitting in the H&M fitting rooms today. I really hate shopping. Have for years. Maybe even decades. I took a picture to commemorate the moment.

H n M

Dinner Guests

Although our 30 new (refugee) neighbors have been here since Easter, I have had no real opportunity to meet and talk to any of them beyond greetings in the grocery store. My husband has allowed 8 of them attend his school and he also goes running with some of them, but I have had no pretext so far to initiate any kind of contact or acquaintance. Today the chance finally arose.

There are about 10 families in the village involved in the effort to help these young men integrate, and each of us were “assigned” three to focus on. My husband decided to make a kettle goulash over an open fire in the yard and invited “our” three over to join us. They pedaled their bikes up the steep hill, arriving fashionably late. I shook their hands and then mentally kicked myself for not doing some prep work on their names. I couldn’t even pronounce them correctly, much less remember them.

They were quiet and shy at first, politely answering my small talk questions – “Where are you from?” (Afghanistan) and “How long have you been here?” (a few months). Conversation happened on tiptoes and teetered a lot. There were uncomfortable silences. Inside, what I really wanted to know is “So . . . do you hate Americans? Is it our fault that you had to flee? (Please say ‘No’!)” They struggled to find the words in their mental piles of broken German to formulate answers. At one point I asked them if they were getting German lessons, and the one who was most proficient answered “Yes” – but in such a tone that we all started laughing. The ice wasn’t exactly broken, but it got its first big crack. I commiserated with him about how hard it was for me to learn German grammar. (I have been at it for 43 years and still make my husband proofread all my emails before I send them.)

dinner guestsAfter a half hour or so of this, my husband – who thinks sports are the answer to most of life’s problems – sort of coerced our guests and our daughters into a Ping-Pong tournament. They had fun. Meanwhile the goulash bubbled toward the edible stage and I started setting up a patio arrangement and hauling dishes down from the kitchen. The circle of chairs was slowly occupied, one after another with our guests interspersed among us. The conversation turned toward their refugee experiences and . . . something happened.

They became people to us. And, I think, we became people to them.

I learned that all three of them were Shiite and they were here because they had had to flee the Taliban. Both Rohulla and Shaban had lost their fathers. In their words, their fathers had been “stolen” – or “kidnapped” – by the Taliban, but there was something more to it than either of those words could convey. Heyaz had a different story. His parents had fled Afghanistan before his birth (in Pakistan). He was eventually imprisoned there and then deported to Afghanistan – a country he had never known. Rohulla had also experienced imprisonment in Iran and then deportation on his first (failed) attempt to flee. Heyaz and Rohulla had both made one of those treacherous sea crossings on a hopelessly overfilled boat. Heyaz’s boat had capsized and he ended up swimming to European shores. Shaban had come over the land route and, on entering Austria, was sent directly to the notorious refugee “center” in Traiskirchen. (Designed for about 800 people, but housing several thousand.) His one comment about it was that the portions at mealtimes were so small that he never got enough to eat.

We talked a lot about the Taliban and I finally got the chance to ask if the American and European troops there were a good thing or a bad thing.  All three were emphatic in their answers of “Good!” The thing they feared most was the Taliban gaining control over the entire country again and if the foreign troops left, that could still happen.

We talked about their situation now – what stage they were at in terms of seeking asylum. They showed us their ID cards – Heyaz and Rohulla were in relatively good shape with their white § 50 cards, but Shaban was worse off with his green § 51 card. (I might have those numbers reversed. They refer to different sections or paragraphs in the Austrian laws concerning asylum seekers.) We talked for a long time about what the difference is. Their answer was that white card holders were believed when they said they were under 18 years old. Green card holders were not believed completely.

When asked about their futures, they all said the same. They wanted to build a life here so that they could help their families back in Afghanistan. We asked if they hoped to bring family members here and they shook their heads. Their own experiences had taught them about how hard it would be to accomplish. The best they hoped for was to be able to send money home and maybe, someday, be able to return.

Other things happened during this conversation. We all leaned in. I discovered that Shaban spoke the best German after only three months here and that he had a terrific sense of humor. I recognized that Rohulla spoke impeccable English, but refrained because he understood how important it was to learn German now. Before fleeing, he had been in his last year of High School and intended to study Engineering. Heyaz, the Boxer, also spoke great English but had the tendency to mix up the languages completely – German words appeared in his English sentences and vice versa. His favorite school subject had been Chemistry and his dream was to go to New York. All three of them liked being at school again – but Shaban said the teachers all spoke too fast. He sometimes asked them to slow down, and they did so, but – he held up one finger – only for one minute. That made us all laugh again. (I thought about my own teaching – how I told students to alert me when I was talking too fast. I added that I would slow down for one minute and then speed up again. They would simply have to listen faster.)

The goulash was finally ready and we all moved to the tables to eat. Rohulla took the most extreme of my husband’s dried chili pepper mixes and doused his plate with it. We all watched him take his first spoonful and waited for his head to explode. All that came was a happy smile. Skinny Shaban stopped after the first plateful and declined when I offered seconds. I objected, saying “What’s this?? What you ate was just a Traiskirchen portion!” He laughed and accepted seconds.

As the visit wound down, my husband started making plans about when to meet up the next day for sprinting training. He suggested early afternoon and the boys countered with 7 am (because they get up at 6 am – typical teenagers!) We also asked them if they would like to come over again. As they answered “Yes!” their eyes lit up in a way that simply can’t be faked. They got on their donated bikes and took off down the hill to their new home.

This all may be incredibly boring to readers, but I can hardly express the emotions and revelations I went through today. Take some abstract concept like “refugee crisis” and it sounds frightening. Meet three refugees, hear their stories and see their smiles, laugh and share a meal with them . . .

It changes the world.

Goodbye, Mass Hysteria

A whole bunch of stuff . . . just . . . somehow . . . righted itself today.

I went to bed last night with all sorts of issues looming over me. I could almost feel their cold and creepy shadows on my skin as I tossed this way and turned that way and adjusted the pillow for the 10th time . . .

There was the undecided election. Would Austria be the very first country in Europe to elect an extreme right (“freedomish”) candidate to the Presidency? And if that happened – what would it mean for my daughters? For my life here? It was not the first time that I wondered “How do you know when it is time to go?”

Then there was the (possible, mild form of) rubella outbreak in the school. One worried mother had set a rampage in motion – words like “quarantine” and “birth defects” and “no fly list” and “dereliction of duty to report” were being used in a flurry of phone calls among parents and staff. How much would this complicate our trip to London next week?

And then there was the fact that I had waited too long to arrange our trip to the Vienna airport. By the time I got around to it, I realized that our school’s train discount card had expired and there wasn’t enough time to request and receive a new one. My discussion with their customer service guy last Thursday didn’t make me hopeful. I would either have to break the budget or go with the bus that arrived uncomfortably close to our departure time.

After a fitful night, I woke up strangely . . . fit.

Only three of my twelve students came to school, but we talked through the situation and decided that the whole thing was overblown. We skipped the planned English lesson and made a cool “Welcome” banner for our upcoming Summerfest.

During the break, the postman arrived with the new train cards.

After school, I stopped by my doctor’s office and explained the situation to him in detail. His professional opinion was, and I quote, “Go to London.”

I then went to pick up my daughter from the bus stop, and having an unexpected hour to kill, I knocked off one thing after another on my To Do list, some of which had been in the procrastination holding pattern for quite some time.  Check! Check! Check! It was all so . . . easy!

In the final five minutes of my wait, I checked the news headlines and heard that . . .

vdbAustria has elected its (and I assume Europe’s) first Green Party President!!

Don’t you just love days when everything goes left?


Historic May 22nd

Today is an important day. Maybe even historic.

Not because I went to a community meeting to help plan a big “Welcome! Let’s Get to Know Each Other!” party for our 30 new refugee villagers (along with the mere 20 other villagers who actually welcome them).

And not because one of my school kids has caught some mild childhood disease and, today, hysterically sent out a WhatsApp to all the other kids that our London trip is going to be called off. (That kept me on the phone for several hours. The bright spot: I now know what “Slapped Cheek Syndrome” is.)

And not because today might turn out to be, in the words of cabaret artist, Christof Spörk, the last day of Austria’s 2nd Republic.

And not because the closest election I have ever witnessed happened today – the results of which are still not in. (The winner will be determined by several thousand absentee ballots to be counted tomorrow, one of which is from my friend Lyart.)

fifty fifty

No, none of those things are why today is so important.

Happy Birthday, Ly!!

Truth Teller

I know words. I have the best words. But unlike the presumptive Republican nominee, I am not averse to using them. So, here we go:

Donald Trump is a floccinaucinihilipilificating hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobic pseudopseudoantidisestablishmentarianist.

How is that for a crushing denunciation?

Wait . . . back up . . .

When I was in the 3rd Grade, I learned that the longest word in the English language was “antidisestablishmentarianism”. Being a young school kid and having no Wikipedia to fact check, I just assumed what my teacher told me was true.

All of the recent political talk about “the establishment” made me remember this childhood lesson, which, in turn, got me google researching (or “research googling?”). I discovered that either Mrs. Peterson was wrong, or that her choice for the longest word has since slipped in the rankings to 9th Place. On closer examination, though, there seems to have been a lot of cheating going on.

I hereby reject Numbers 1-4 for being too absurdly scientific, not to mention “coined” for the purpose of making it into the charts. They are the linguistic equivalents of a boy band. Number 6 (“supercalifragi . . .”) gets the boot because you have to sing that one, not say it. Number 7 invalidates itself by beginning with “pseudopseudo-“. Mrs. Peterson’s word is now in third place. The two above it are both facetious, but not enough so to be tossed off the list. One of them even passes muster with my Spellchecker.

“Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia” is, ironically, the fear of long words.

“Floccinaucinihilipilification” is the act or habit of describing or regarding something as unimportant, of having no value or being worthless.

Which brings me back to Donald Trump. Both of these words seem to apply to him – to his clear preference for using words of the four-or-five-letter variety to declare everyone other than himself as unimportant or worthless. If anyone doesn’t believe that, they can ask Little Marco, Lying Ted, Crooked Hillary, Pussy Bernie, the Stupid State Department or the useless editorial board of that old rag, The New York Times. So, two of the three longest words in the English language apply to Trump. The question remains if he is also an antidisestablishmentarianist.

I think so.

For all his establishment bashing, he did join a party and is currently making nice with its members. All that other stuff was window-dressing. He will not be changing the “stupid” system now that it is working for him. On the other hand – all this making nice is probably opportunistic – so a “pseudoantidis . . .”. And seeing as how he has proven to be a pathological liar, I’ll add one more “pseudo-“ for good measure.

There you have it.

Donald Trump is a floccinaucinihilipilificating hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobic pseudopseudoantidisestablishmentarianist.

the best words

What is the conclusion of all of this? Well, if you judge a thing’s value on the basis of its length – and I think he does – then Donald Trump truly does own the three best words.

When it rains, it . . .

. . . comes sloshing down in a tempo and force that make your head spin as you run for cover and then realize you are basically on the equivalent of some Iowa cornfield and the next tree is two states over!



Why, oh why does everyone and his uncle suddenly need a translation or proofreading done ( – by yesterday, please, and, if possible, for free?)

I just went through the painful exercise of editing an awful, ugly book and when it was finally over, I sent the manuscript back to the publisher. I swear on a stack of Jane Austen novels that the very second that email was sent off, I heard a “Ding!” and saw a new mail. (“INCOMING!! RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!!”) It was an inquiry from a company about me translating their advertising brochure – 10 pages of describing various types of wooden floor boards in detail. Now that sounds like a hoot. Did I say “No – I won’t  translate your stupid text”??  NOOOOOO! Of course not!

Today I got to the halfway mark on that and began wondering if there is anything in the world more tedious than floor boards. I don’t think so. Seriously. I challenge, no, I DEFY you all to come up with a topic more mind-numbingly boring. I am starting to miss Compliance Management.  Maybe I will take a break. Check my email . . .


A friend of a music mentor of my daughter needs her thesis corrected. She is not done with it yet and the due date is in two weeks. Could I correct it for her?  It’s only about 85 pages long – that is, so far. She’s writing about English literature, which is good. But she is also writing about James Joyce which is . . . just . . . horrendously bad. Did I say “No, I’m sorry, but you waited too long to ask me and I am going to be away in London all next week with 12 kids in the rages of puberty and someday you will thank me for teaching you this lesson about procrastinating”? NOOOOOO! Of course not. I said I would see what I can do.

The gods don’t want me to experience a weekend. It’s just that simple.

Oh, No, Not Lily – (Reunions – Chapter 11)

Note: This is part of a longer story. To read the earlier chapters, click on the category “Adoption Stories” (and read from the bottom up!)


The third time I brought up the idea of adopting another child, a loud and reflexive “NO!!” came shooting out of my husband’s mouth. The explosiveness of it was pretty effective in making me drop the subject. The second time I brought it up, though, his response was the opposite. Not only was he immediately open to the idea, but I was pretty sure he had already been thinking about it himself. The first time we had considered adoption, he had literally needed years to come around to yes, so it was something of a shock to realize within seconds that “We are going to do this.”


Where to begin? Since the pioneer work we had done to have Mitzi, the entire adoption landscape in Austria had changed. News had travelled like wildfire that Ethiopian adoptions were possible and couples were networking and sharing information all over the country. Mitzi had been the third Ethiopian child to come to Austria in this wave and since then, dozens and dozens more had already followed. Austria had quietly signed the Hague Convention which allowed agencies to be established and to begin “facilitating” adopting couples. We were even indirectly involved in the creation of one of these. Within a month or two, however, we were already questioning how involved we really wanted to be.

The first priority of this organization was declared to be promoting aid projects and adoption assistance came in a distant second. Generally that was fine with us, but the freshly elected functionaries had a conservative and paternalistic approach to their adoption tasks. One of the first decisions was to set age limits for applying couples – a maximum of 50 years old for the father and 45 for the mother. Up to that point, couples only had to meet the Ethiopian “rule of thumb” requirements that the combined age of the parents should not exceed 100 years. I wondered about the organization’s decision to make it just a little harder for couples. More galling was the fact that they were placing themselves squarely behind Ethiopia in terms of gender equality. What was the point of that 5 year difference between the sexes? It wasn’t a good sign.

My (own and vicarious) experience has been that every adoption brings its own unique troubles. With some couples they began with uncooperative social workers. Other couples created their own problems with unrealistic expectations or arrogant demands (after all, the “customer” is always right, right?). Each time a problem cropped up, the organization created a new blanket rule – a new loop for the next couple to jump through and a new fee to pay. Before long they officiously forbade couples from contacting their representative in Ethiopia directly while instituting a “Don’t call us; we’ll call you” policy. And, of course, the costs started going up and up – including a “mandatory donation” to their current aid project – while the waiting periods got longer and longer. And what did the adopting couples do every time a new rule or requirement was instituted? They did what everyone in this situation does (including us), they shut up, paid up, and did what they were told. Anything not to screw this chance up.

So when we decided to adopt again, we knew we didn’t want to do it via this new agency. But there was a hitch.

Two years earlier, when we had to find a representative for Mitzi’s adoption, two women were suggested to us: a Mrs. Monty and a Mrs. Herewego. Jean and Arthur at the Austrian Embassy in Addis knew “Monty” and highly recommended her. But, unfortunately, she was out of the country for a few months at the time and we were not willing to wait for her return. Herewego it was.

After our experiences with the first adoption, the following couples all hired Monty and had wonderful things to say about her. In the meantime, Monty had many connections to Austria and eventually became the representative for all couples adopting through the new agency. How could we get her and bypass the organization?

Once again, destiny smiled on us.

Monty’s son was going to be studying in Austria and they were trying to decide between universities in Vienna and Graz (where I worked). One evening, an Austrian man – who I will call “Marvin” and who had also adopted an Ethiopian child  – called me out of the blue. He was helping Monty with arrangements for her son and needed to know some things about enrollment in Graz, accommodations, etc. My husband and I immediately offered to help in any way we could (and would have done so in any case), but to be honest, I also saw an opening.

So Monty and I started communicating back and forth and in one of those first conversations, I let her know that we were intending to adopt again. She thought that was wonderful news. Then I admitted that we didn’t really want to go through the agency and she immediately offered to do the work for us privately. Wouldn’t that be a problem for her, I asked? “Nooooo!” she answered, “I do not work exclusively for them!”

We had our representative. Let the paper chase begin!

Having gone through this process before, we were three times faster this time. Some of the documents we could use again and with others we saved ourselves a few “Ka-chings!” by getting originals already in English (so no translation costs were necessary). There were also couples flying regularly to Addis who could deliver files and down payments for us. At the same time, I was preparing the bureaucratic soil at the university for Monty’s son’s enrollment, and becoming friends with Marvin and his family who were officially sponsoring him. Meanwhile Monty was working at processing our adoption file in Ethiopia. In the midst of all this, she came to Austria for a short business trip and squeezed in a visit to us. She and Mitzi hit it off immediately and another lifelong friendship was formed.

The start of the university semester and the son’s arrival were fast approaching, when one evening the telephone rang. It was Monty. And she had news. A group of babies from an orphanage in northern Ethiopia had just been brought to Addis Ababa.

And Mitzi’s new sister was among them. She had seen this baby and was immediately reminded of Mitzi. She knew they were meant to be together.

We had a second daughter.

Oddly enough, my first question was exactly the same as the first time I got “The Call”.

“What is her name?”

Monty had to say it, pronounce it slowly and even spell it out several times. It was not exactly a name that just slipped off your lips. She told me it meant “Princess”.  Princess Lily. I don’t remember everything about the rest of the conversation, but she told me her son would be bringing pictures when he arrived the next week. And that I could probably come and get Lily about two or three weeks after that – she would let me know as soon as she had the court date. She said that another of the northern babies was going to Austria too, and that maybe we two families could come together. Oh yeah, and we should choose a birthday for Lily and let her know what it was.

Suddenly, I couldn’t wait for the son to arrive. It was arranged that Marvin would pick him up from the airport and bring him to Graz. We would get a few details taken care of and then I would take him home with me.

We all met up in a university parking lot and the son’s big toothy smile made me like him immediately. I chatted a bit with Marvin and then noticed an envelope in my hand. “What’s this?” I thought in confusion. And then I realized my daughter was inside. I excused myself and walked about 10 yards away from them. I opened the envelope. I looked.

lily 1 lily 2

I looked again. And again. I quickly found my favorite picture and looked again. She was so beautiful. And so sad.

A year or two later, Marvin’s family was visiting us and we were having a nice dinner in a local wine tavern. We started reminiscing and he said, “I will never forget what you said after you saw those first pictures of Lily.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “What did I say?” (I had no recollection of saying anything.)

He answered. “You said: ‘I have to see this little girl smile.’”

The next three weeks were a whirlwind of getting Monty’s son enrolled and settled, contacting the other adopting family, making decisions and travel arrangements. Mitzi kept a picture of her new “Sister Baby” by her at all times and the emails and phone calls flew back and forth between us and Monty almost daily. Things progressed fast and efficiently without a hitch until one evening about a week before my departure to Addis.

In a phone call, Monty informed me that she was visiting the babies daily now because they were sick. Chicken pox and fevers.

“Lily?” I asked.

“Oh, no! Not Lily.”

Three days before my departure, I gave Monty all our arrival information and then asked how the babies were doing. She said she was monitoring the situation and would be visiting them again the next day.

The next day, the phone rang. It was Monty. I was surprised because our last call had ended with “So . . . see you in Addis!!”

Her English was more convoluted than usual, but I got the message: that she was very worried about some of the babies. She thought I should know. It was the measles now, not chicken pox. She was not sure all of them would make it.

Measles in Ethiopia is bad. Measles, not Malaria, is the Number One Cause of Death for Ethiopian infants.  It’s not like here where most babies are well fed, cared for, have access to doctors and antibiotics and where many are vaccinated so that the disease does not spread like wildfire.

“But . . . not Lily . . .?” I asked.

“Oh, No. Not, Lily.” she answered. And then there was silence.

Her voice was strange. She had said that strangely. And then there was the silence. I didn’t know what to make of it all. A question started to formulate in my mind . . . was she . . . telling me  . . . ? But then I quickly and desperately stifled the thought.

Everything had gone so smoothly so far. This time around, there had been no obstacles, or confusion, or moments of desperation. I had not had to take any blind leap of faith.

I thanked Monty for the call and for letting me know how the other babies were doing. I told her how much I was looking forward to seeing her in just 48 hours. We hung up.

And then I leapt.


Destination Rock Bottom

country squireIt says something about Wisconsin winters that my parents decided to pack all five kids into the Country Squire, tie the suitcases onto the roof, and head off on the 1300 mile drive to sunny Florida over Easter vacation. And we did this more than once, if I remember right. What an ordeal to go through, just to get a little sunshine! We weren’t even in Chicago yet, when the questions started coming:

“Are we there yet?”

“How many more minutes?”

“Look! There’s a Stuckey’s!!  Can we stop? I gotta go to the bathroom!”

“Mom I think I’m going to throw up!”

I still have some fairly vivid memories of my spot in “the way back” and the smell of carsickness, my father rolling down the window and resting his left arm on the car door so that he arrived in the Sunshine State with two differently colored arms. I remember my brothers reading “Hardy Boys” mysteries and the radio stations turning country with their DJs’ starting to drawl. We did not wear seat belts and sometimes traded places on the fly. We didn’t sing show tunes, but there were some games played. Who would be the first to find a word on a billboard or license plate that starts with “A”?

Sometimes the sun would set and the car would go quiet except for the soft murmurs coming from the front seat, my parents quietly discussing something I couldn’t quite make out and probably wouldn’t have understood anyway. But that sound was so comforting and soporific. They were in their thirties at the time. With their five kids asleep in the station wagon behind them and a week of sunshine and sandy beaches ahead.

Strangely, it was something utterly awful in today’s political news that steered my thoughts back in time to these ancient memory road trips – but I am not sure exactly why. I only know that I am suddenly nostalgic and mourning something lost.


I’ve been following the downs and downs of this election season too closely. I’m in danger of finally comprehending a concept that I’ve been lucky enough to elude my entire life: hatred.  I might have to unplug – say “Goodbye! See you next winter!” to Rachel and Chris – before politics turns any more of my innocent, inner child memories into nightmares.

I’m in “the way back” on a trip through Bizarroland and I still smell the puke. Instead of my father, Donald Trump is at the wheel with his butler historian riding shotgun. There are no soft murmurs coming from the front seat now, just one debasing, intelligence-insulting commentary after another, increasingly hateful and violent in tone as we all head south.  All the other drivers on this road are angry and aggressive too. There is no sunny destination at the end of this trip. We are just putting distance between ourselves and my hometown before the nukes are dropped to rid it of the “muzzies”. Part of me is morbidly curious about just how crazy bad this ride is going to get. Are we there yet? The other part just hatched plans to get out and run away at the next Stuckey’s. How many more minutes?