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.
My 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.