Dumb Frat Boy Taunts

On a fateful day about 15 years ago, while out for a run with a few of his friends, my husband came up with the glorious idea of starting a sort of unofficial fraternity centered around jogging and red wine. Within a short time, the club of ten was established and given a name – the Latin translation of “The Dumb Brothers”. What began as a joke took a (suspiciously) serious turn as membership criteria, rules and statutes, a local charitable purpose and, eventually, traditional events developed. These events were categorized into three types: “F” meant frat boys only, “FF” meant frat boys and females (well, actually “Frauen” which means “wives”), and “FFF” which is for frat boys, females, and families. For instance there have been a few FF bike tours over the years and annual FFF house concerts. The two biggest “must attend” events (both F) are the Christmas dinner (where a new “Headman” is elected) and the New Year’s Eve morning run followed by a blind wine tasting. This lasts till about 4 o’clock in the afternoon and, as it so happens, takes place in my house. (I keep as much distance as I can from the living room while it is going on.) Four things are always a part of this event: the appetizer is Korean kimchi, the main dish is cabbage strudel, there is a manliness test involving hot chili peppers, and the second “F’s” get annoyed about the whole thing. They complain, understandably, that it complicates their evening plans.

Last night, as I was at home, on call for daughter-chauffeuring, and working on my euphoria post, my husband attended the Dumb Brothers Christmas Dinner. At 7:38 pm, my cell chimed as the first Whats App message of the evening arrived. Here it is and what ensued (recreated here visually with original pictures but translated text):

taunts-1-3

To be completely honest, it was getting a bit  . . . distracting. A bit . . . annoying. When the fourth message arrived, I had to take action.

taunts-4-and-5

Unfortunately, this didn’t slow the hubby down. A battle ensued.

taunts-6-and-7 taunts-8-and-9 taunts-10-and-11

Please notice who got the last word here.

 

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Back in the Land of the Living

After suffering through the flu for three days, it was so nice waking up to no alarm and realizing that . . . “hey! nothing hurts!”.  I put on my fleece bathrobe (Hi, Kate!) and went downstairs to have my first coffee in almost 72 hours.

And there was my cleaning lady.

I had sort of lost track of what day it was. I hadn’t been expecting her and here she was, already in the process of doing the spoiled food removal from the kitchen. Darn! Strike One. (Longer term readers of this blog will already know about my continual efforts to keep my cleaning lady happy.) My mind raced to what other surprises were lurking in the house for her to discover. I cringed at the thought of the front porch. A wind storm had blown a ton of leaves up onto it and we had been tracking them into the house for days. The folded laundry was still in piles in the living room. I noticed the dog blankets had been removed – they were hanging outside airing. Not a good sign – probably Strike Two right there.

While the coffee brewed, I quick ran upstairs with an armload of clothes and made my bed. I also shoveled all the clothes on the floor into the walk-in closet and shut the door. As I came back down with various dishes in my hands, I realized that – once again – I had forgotten to get the vacuum cleaner bags she had asked for twice now. Darn! Strike Three. Time for (a quick switch of the sports metaphor and) a Hail Mary.

I told her I was off to the store to get those bags and would be back in an hour.

It was at the store that the euphoria started to set in. Right about the time I took the last two packs of vacuum cleaner bags off the shelf. It occurred to me that, while I was at it, I should get some plastic to protect the porch from Dog Three’s mishaps. On the way to that aisle I saw a poinsettia that looked very festive and put that in my cart, and then I passed the laundry baskets and figured I would replace my old broken ones. There was also a nice wooden box. I had been looking for something like that to store keepsakes in. As I moved the poinsettia to make room for the box, I thought about getting some winter plants for the flower boxes in front of the house. That plan hatched into adding some Christmassy touches and so I chose two candle lanterns and a bag of advent decorations (dried orange slices, dried anise and vanilla shoots, pine cones . . .). By now I could sense that endorphins were rushing through my body. It would probably be a good idea to get out of that store before I got any more ideas. On the way to the check out, I spied some picture frames for my daughters’ school photos. That had been on my “To Do” list for ages – almost as long as “ironing”. Which reminded me of another thing I had contemplated buying . . . I turned and looked for the ironing board section.

 

As I sat there staring at the selection. I realized that in the past three days I had had only one cup of coffee, (almost) no nicotine, no alcohol, no sugar. I had slept for about 40 hours and drunk gallons of water and tea. My total food consumption had consisted of some pretzel sticks and one bowl of soup. And, yet, I felt great. Cleansed. Energetic.

But . . . not that energetic. I turned and headed for the check out.

A half hour later, I handed my cleaning lady the peace offering vacuum bags and she smiled.

the plant that cost me about 100 bucks today
the plant that cost me about 100 bucks today

Still in a state of post-pain euphoria, I then I went on a cleaning, sweeping, de-leafing, mopping, weeding, planting, decorating, organizing rampage. I hauled out all the advent wreath/calendar boxes, the Christmas deco and the crèche collection. In the late afternoon, my husband came home with an armload of fir branches and I dived into my last projects of the day. The final decorative touch was potting the poinsettia that started this all.

 

Here, now are the results of my efforts today. First the advent wreath – before and after:

wreath1  wreath2

The crèche collection inside and outside:

(That’s a lot of Babies Jesus for a somewhat heathenish household!) And here are the flower boxes after being freed from the wilted leftovers of the summer petunias:

(What is it about getting older that you suddenly start liking kitsch. Twenty years ago I would have hated all of this. Suddenly now, I find myself drawn to cutesy things, butterfly motifs, knickknacks . . .) And, speaking of kitch, brace yourself for the coup de grâce  – the staircase plus candy-filled advent calendar – back by popular (= my two daughters’) demand:

  staircase1   staircase2

So there you have it. My endorphin-powered achievements of the day. I am officially now ready for Christmas.

And it is only November 26th.

What am I going to do for the next four weeks?

No Holiday for Ingrates

If not for the internet, I would have completely forgotten what day it is. Thanksgiving is one the holidays that has fallen by the wayside in my emigration. I attribute this to the fact that I don’t like: 1) stuffing, 2) cranberry sauce, or 3) pumpkin pie. And I am not thrilled by turkey either. I also attribute it to the fact that the Thanksgiving family gatherings of my childhood were often nerve-wracking affairs with the one and only upshot being we all resolved to behave ourselves better at the next celebration 4 weeks later.

You’d think I would be a bit more patriotic about the whole thing – seeing as how my ancestry on one side has been traced back through the Civil and Revolutionary Wars, all the way to the Mayflower. There is some discussion among the genealogists in the family which of several paths is the truest, but all agree on direct descent. I could join the DAR (“Daughters of the American Revolution”)!! And yet, I have never felt the remotest inclination to do so. I feel no affinity to those people and suspect they would return the feeling. In modern terms I would consider the Pilgrims to be obnoxious religious fanatics and in turn, they would take one look at the riffraff assembled around my family’s turkey and think “Look at this pack of gluttonous heathens! Is this what I puked my way across the Atlantic for?!”

I didn’t always feel this way. In Grade School I got the same romanticized and whitewashed stories of America’s “discovery” and the intrepid first settlers as I assume most American kids do. I even vaguely remember a picolumbuscture in my history book showing the savage “Indians” bowing down to the god-like Columbus – like this one I just picked off the internet:

 

Thanks to more honest High School teachers interested in promoting critical thinking, my knowledge of these events was slowly updated and revised. After literature studies at college and a slow resurgence of Native American culture and arts, I got to fold in new information on these events from other perspectives. But it is a more comemade-in-americadic “historian” (although, maybe not the most academically serious one) who has implanted a truly resilient image of those Pilgrims into my brain . . . Bill Bryson who wrote “Made in America”. After relating how the crew of the Mayflower “referred to them as puke stockings, on account of their apparently boundless ability to spatter the latter with the former,”  Bryson continues his description of the Pilgrims:

 

It would be difficult to imagine a group of people more ill-suited to a life in the wilderness. They packed as if they had misunderstood the purpose of the trip. They found room for sundials and candle snuffers, a drum, a trumpet, and a complete history of Turkey. One William Mullins packed 126 pairs of shoes and thirteen pairs of boots. Yet they failed to bring a single cow or horse, plow or fishing line. Among the professions represented on the Mayflower’s manifest were two tailors, a printer, several merchants, a silk worker, a shopkeeper, and a hatter­–occupations whose indispensability is not immediately evident when one thinks of surviving in a hostile environment.’ ( . . . )
They were, in short, dangerously unprepared for the rigors ahead, and they demonstrated their incompetence in the most dramatic possi­ble way: by dying in droves. Six expired in the first two weeks, eight the next month, seventeen more in February, a further thirteen in March. By April, when the Mayflower set sail back to England,* just fifty-four people, nearly half of them children, were left to begin the long work of turning this tenuous toehold into a self-sustaining colony.’ ( . . . )
For two months they tried to make contact with the natives, but ev­ery time they spotted any, the Indians ran off. Then one day in February a young brave of friendly mien approached a party of Pilgrims on a beach. His name was Samoset and he was a stranger in the region him­self. But he had a friend named Tisquantum from the local Wampanoag tribe, to whom he introduced them. Samoset and Tisquantum became the Pilgrims’ fast friends. They showed them how to plant corn and catch wildfowl and helped them to establish friendly relations with the local sachem, or chief. Before long, as every schoolchild knows, the Pil­grims were thriving, and Indians and settlers were sitting down to a cor­dial Thanksgiving feast. Life was grand.
A question that naturally arises is how they managed this. ( . . . )
The answer, surpris­ingly glossed over by most history books, is that the Pilgrims didn’t have to learn Algonquian for the happy and convenient reason that Samoset and Squanto spoke English-Samoset only a little, but Squanto with to­tal assurance (and some Spanish into the bargain).
That a straggly band of English settlers could in 1620 cross a vast ocean and find a pair of Indians able to welcome them in their own tongue seems little short of miraculous. It was certainly lucky-the Pil­grims would very probably have perished or been slaughtered without them-but not as wildly improbable as it at first seems. The fact is that by 1620 the New World wasn’t really so new at all . . .

 

So there you have it. My mental image of my ancestors – and it is not a pretty one. Particularly now, having battled a stomach flu for the past two days, it seems the only thing I inherited from these distant relatives is the ability to puke.

It suddenly occurs to me that I have managed to write a Thanksgiving post on the subject of ingratitude, which is kind of weird. So let me rectify the situation quick before I click on “Publish”.

On this particular Fourth Thursday in November I am thankful for NeoCitran, pretzel sticks, 7-up, saltines and stomach-friendly herbal tea. I am thankful for my coworkers who covered for me. I’m thankful for my elder daughters’ ability to cook her own lunch. I’m thankful for the friend who will give my younger daughter a ride to her Hip Hop class. I’m thankful for the living room couch. I’m thankful for my husband’s homemade beef soup – the first thing in two days that has made a one-way trip to my stomach and not returned. And now that I am feeling a bit better, I am thankful for Samoset and Tisquantum.

Calling all Bloggers

Confession: I haven’t put much effort into figuring out what exactly blogging is – or the inner workings of WordPress, for that matter. Basically I just write stuff and publish it. My statistics plod along with the occasional inexplicable spike followed by a resettling. (On the bright side, though, I have made some connections with wonderful people – which gives me a lot of enjoyment.) Anyway, some questions have arisen over these two years that have kept me wondering about this whole blog business. I decided to make a little survey. Please take a minute to enlighten me on a few things:

______________________

1) Do the bloggers you follow also tend to stop writing shortly thereafter?

a) Yes

b) Occasionally

c) No. Never. You following someone’s blog must be like the WP Kiss of Death.

 

2) Do you ever suspect that the majority of your followers are actually computer-generated algorithms?

a) Yes

b) Occasionally

c) No. Never. Maybe you are some kind of magnet for those things.

 

3) Are you ever overwhelmed by the reading/commenting part of blogging?

a) Yes

b) Occasionally

c) No. Now stop whining.

 

4) Do the tag terms you use matter?

a) No

b) Occasionally

c) Of course! (How long have you been doing this??)

 

5) Do you also enjoy reading your spam comments?

a) Yes

b) Occasionally

c) Um . . . no. What is wrong with you?

______________________

Let me say “Thanks!” in advance to anyone who takes the survey. As an extra incentive, I will honor you in my next post with a little pyramidblog-and-chain-award-scheme chain letter blogger award that I created myself. I even made a logo for it – see?

And then you can annoy pass it on to 10 other blog friends with a list of 5 (or 50) questions they have to answer before passing it on to ten more annoyed bloggers who have to make up their own questions, and so on and so forth and anyone who breaks the chain will risk dire consequences like burning in hell for all eternity,  but – never fear – if they really like you they will share the joy.

Thanks for all your help!

Love,

C.

Endings and How They Began

 

My husband called me to come into the kitchen a few weeks ago. He showed me a newspaper obituary of an old acquaintance/friend of ours. Our first boss. The principal of the school where we both had our first work experience after university.  The place where we two taught, and met, and began. The news slingshot me into the past.

I just tried to count how many bosses I have gone through in my 32 years of teaching English in Austria. I gave up after reaching 19, but I am sure I have forgotten a few. The vast majority of them were very hands off; they hovered off in the distance somewhere while I just did my thing the way I thought it should be done. They came and went without any noticeable difference in my working conditions. There was one exception though: my very first Austrian boss, this principal, this friend.

 

After college, I had gotten a job as teaching assistant through the Fulbright program (no, not the prestigious one, the other part) and was assigned to a school in a tiny village – so tiny that I couldn’t locate it on any map (and in those days, there was no internet or googling or email.) I wrote an old-fashioned letter to the program office to ask where this village was and a week later I learned that it was about 10 miles from Graz. Graz was a city I could find on a map. Shortly thereafter, a letter arrived from the school principal asking for my arrival date and if I needed their help finding a place to live. YES! PLEASE! Through snail mail, we arranged that he would meet me on my arrival.

He was about 50 years old with Santa-white hair, a take-charge-and-make-it-snappy manner, and a frighteningly aggressive driving style. After the first greeting we took off to . . . I had no idea where, while he told me the history of Graz based on the places we were zipping past too fast for me to take in. We parked and walked into the restaurant. The waitress brought us menus, but he waved them off and ordered for both of us: beer and roast beef vinaigrette salad. The waitress left and there was an awkward silence.

“So . . . is it customary here that men order for women in restaurants?” I asked.

That made him laugh (and I think he looked at me for the first time).

The salad was actually very tasty.

As we ate, he explained how he hadn’t found an apartment for me yet, but that his brother had an extra room and I could stay there for a few weeks until I found a place on my own. We could go look at the place after dinner. Unfortunately the brother was out of town till the next day, so did I have anywhere to stay for the first night? (Luckily I had met other TA’s during the orientation and had an emergency place to crash.) Within 30 seconds of his last bite, he had drained his beer glass, summoned the waitress, paid and stood up. I took a quick gulp from my own still half-full glass and followed him out the door.

Another crazy drive followed and we parked outside a non-descript building located wherever. Two flights of stairs later, we stood at the apartment door of what would be my home for the next few weeks. The middle-aged bachelor pad. We walked in and . . . it was huge. It was a family home complete with piano and dining room and chandeliers and trinkets and doilies. It looked like it had been decorated by a 1950s Austrian housewife.

Because it had. My boss explained that this is where he and his siblings had grown up. His father had died years earlier and his mother and brother had lived here until her death a month or so earlier.

He showed me what would be “my” room. It had clearly been an office. Three of the four walls were floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, all of them double parked. On the fourth wall was a weird long cabinet that turned out to be a fold out guest bed.

I did what anyone would do in my situation.

“Do you have a picture of your brother somewhere?” I asked.

 

portrait1My boss laughed for the second time and led me to the living room. He pointed out a family portrait. I stared at it for a while. The oldest boy was clearly my boss. About 25 years younger, but still recognizable. I stared at the younger of the two boys. My future roommate. The now approximately 40 year old man who had lived with his mother up until last month. He had a bow tie and was looking in the wrong direction . . .

“That’s him,” my boss said, pointing to the picture of the baby in the corner.

Now that he had had his fun with me, my boss explained that his other brother was 20 years younger. He was a university student – studying English no less! He would be back tomorrow and pick me up from my crash pad and help me move in. I said “okay”. What choice did I have?

I was teased for years about asking to see a picture.

Because the brother, who turned up at the crash pad the next day to help me move and, despite his serious demeanor and the dark rings under his eyes, gallantly insisted on carrying my suitcases to the car, was a good egg. He was attentive and helpful and generous in everything he did. And when he finally smiled – it was infectious. I knew within hours that he was my kind of person.

After two weeks, we decided that I would not find a new apartment. Instead, I would stay and sublet a room from him (which I could redecorate). Meanwhile, my boss patted himself on the back for work well done. He had brought an optimistic American into the life of his troubled brother and he had absolved himself of the commitment to find me an apartment.

Of course, the fact that I became semi-family affected the work relationship between me and my boss. Originally he insisted that I attend all teacher conferences even though they barely concerned me. Month after month, I listened to hour-long discussions about slippers or no slippers? This law or that regulation? All of which had absolutely nothing to do with me or my work. I started to bring knitting or crocheting projects to conferences. That initiated discussions about whether needlework should be forbidden. Later in the year, he gave me an official pamphlet on “Foreign Language Teaching Assistants” issued by the Ministry of Education. I should read it and then report on it to him directly. Two weeks later, I sat across from him at his desk in the Principal’s Office. I quoted: “Assistants should be encouraged to participate in one or two conferences during the year.”

Then I added,

“I will no longer be participating in conferences.”

He did not disagree.

 

My one and only Alpha-boss. He accepted me and my statements because he had a sense of humor. And because I was somehow family.

Thank you, First Boss.

Your younger brother was not only my flat mate. He was my first true Austrian friend. Then a best friend. Then something more – more like a brother. Then the godfather of my first child. Years go by and we don’t talk as much as we should. But we both know we are always there for one another.

And we had such a nice dinner last night.

Snippets of Conversations I Had This Week

 

Wednesday, November 9th

The whole world is still unspeakable. My cell rings and I see it is Mark, my colleague. I hesitate. This will be the first post-travesty conversation. I pick up and say

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

There is an awkward silence.

“So,” Mark says, “are you studying for your (Austrian) citizenship test?”

It felt good to laugh.

 

Wednesday, November 9th (later)

I text my friend 2T – a fellow American living in Austria:

“How are you holding up?”

She answers, “Surprisingly well. I have accepted it. You?”

“In complete denial.”

30 seconds later, my cell rings.

 

Thursday, November 10th

I watch the news and tell my husband how much I wish I could join the protests. Go out into the streets.

“What would that help?” he asked.

 

It would help me. I could make a sign saying “I’m with the 75%!” or  “#notmypresident” and go be with like-minded people. I could stop feeling despair and fear and start sending a message. It would empower me.

 

Friday, November 11th

My (Hungarian) cleaning lady arrives in the morning. I talk about how cold the weather is suddenly. She laughs and answers,

“Yes. Yes.”

 

Saturday, November 12th

I finally reach my mom on Skype. She tells me a story about her visit to the doctor and a conversation with the receptionist there. This woman told my mom how Hillary had 100s of classified emails on her private server and that 1000s of people had died as a result.

“I didn’t even know what to say to her!” my mom said. “I just left.”

 

Sunday, November 13th

Invited to a family lunch, no one knows if or how to start the conversation. I put them out of their misery by bringing it up myself. One of my well-meaning relatives tries to console me by saying,

“And who knows? Maybe it won’t be that bad, maybe it will all turn out okay.”

Everyone in the room starts to laugh.

 

Monday, November 14th

I call my friend and fellow teacher to confirm our dinner plans for tomorrow. I haven’t seen him in ages. He says he has been stressed out non-stop since the school year started.

“Yeah, it was like that for me too,”  I replied, “but now that the world is coming to an end, everything seems easier.”

We both laugh.

I’m looking forward to tomorrow.

 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

 

As I have been glued to the news this week and fighting off dark thoughts (yes I know, sort of a counterproductive activity), my husband has been hopping from project to project. Keeping himself busy. Soldiering away. Three huge sacks of old clothes finally got toted to the collection center as I scoured news commentators’ words for signs of what is to come. Will the next president ditch the fascist playbook he used for his campaign once he starts governing? Hmmmm . . . not repealing Obamacare after all – good sign. Muslim ban still on the books – bad sign. Very bad sign. I went to refill my coffee and discovered my husband sewing. He has a support bandage for his thigh muscles that he wears when he goes running and it keeps slipping. He was attaching a little loop to it so he could pull a string through and tie it around his waist.

I returned to my internet forays and I forced myself to read some of words and explanations of Trump voters, now out of the closet. After declaring “I’m not a racist, I have black friends” they go on to very rationally explain their willingness to trade in their own vague frustrations and anxieties for other people’s very clear and present fear. Ahhh, so much empathy to be found there. Rationality disappears for good when it comes to his adversary. Some hotly professed to having no choice, because, you know, the emails. At some point my husband walked passed my office door. In a delayed reaction, I realized he had a watering can in his hand. And then I realized, “hey! there is only one plant in the direction he was walking” . . . I jumped up and checked the soil. It was moist.

TRAITOR!!  My husband is secretly in league with the Nemesis! Suddenly it is all very clear how that weed has managed to survive this long.

Item #37 on the Grounds for Divorce list.

 

Today I fed on feuding political messages – calls for revolution alternating with calls for unity, the first amendment fully on display and yet in grave danger as both investigative journalists and riot police prepare to shift into a higher gear. It’s time to organize! And unfriend! My husband (the traitor) interrupted me to ask if we should invite the (refugee) boys over for dinner again tonight. He thought he would make potato pancakes for them. He then went shopping.

An hour or two later, he came home from the DIY store with a bunch of plastic pipe pieces and a Tupperware cake holder. It seems he got himself another idea. I’ve been hearing sawing and hammering and he’s been running up and down the stairs to the basement. Here’s what it looks like so far:

tinkerer

I’m not going to tell you what my husband is up to – I’ll let you guess.  Maybe it will take your mind off the state of the world for a few minutes. But here’s a hint – eventually a propeller will be attached.

I confess, I’m starting to think I should follow his example. Maybe the way to deal with the aftermath of Election 2016 and its long string of grand distractions is to occupy myself for a while with little ones. I should find things to tinker with. There are a lot of old, nearly empty shampoo bottles that could be removed from my bathrooms. And my jewelry boxes are a mess. It might be interesting to learn how potato pancakes are made. There is also that embroidery project I never finished . . . I think I’ll start by posting this and then shutting off the laptop. First project: hide the watering can.