Schwarzfahren

 

Riding home on the train yesterday, I had a new experience. It was the first time – I think in my whole life (!) – that I rode a train without a ticket. It wasn’t really my fault – neither the machine at the station nor in the train worked, so I had to wait till the fifth stop and its longer stay to get out and buy a ticket. That meant that for those five stops both on the way to the city and the way home again, I was . . . just a . . . hobo hopping trains. Riding the rails. Boxcar Betty. Queen of the Road. A tramp . . .

German speakers call this “Schwarzfahren”. Literally translated, that would be “black riding”. You can find signs in every train car, streetcar or bus warning against it. The most recent campaign imitates warning labels on cigarette packs, listing all the negative health benefits of “Schwarzfahren” – it leads to mood swings and muscle tension, high blood pressure and headaches:

I confess I didn’t suffer any of these consequences, which probably says something less than admirable about me. What is worse, though, is that my daughter accompanied me on my second crime spree. (She has her piano lessons in the city at the same time as my course and we take the train home together.) We met up at the station after our respective gigs and headed toward the train. As we were boarding, an elderly man asked us if we, too, were going to the town in Hungary that was the train’s final destination. I figured he was worried about being on the right one. We all got on, the man turned left, my daughter and I turned right and we took our usual seats.

A few minutes later, the elderly man popped up again. “We seem to be the only people on this train!” he said and then took a seat across the aisle from us. I assured him that we were very early boarders and that more would be coming.

This man was in his 70s I guess and he seemed friendly enough. He took my assurances as an invitation to chat, so in the next 10 minutes we learned all about him. He had been at an art exhibition, but had to leave early to catch this train. It was the last one that would still allow him to catch his connecting train home. He lived in Hungary part time and otherwise in Vienna – where he had many Nigerian friends.  His nationality was Austrian.

He paused while trying to figure out how to formulate his question.

We let him know that I was American and that my daughter had dual citizenship – Austrian American.

“Oh!” he said, clearly surprised. Then followed that up with “That Donald Trump . . . he’s a crazy guy, isn’t he?”

We rolled our eyes and I said “No. No no. We are not going to talk about that man.” And we all sort of half-smiled. There was a short silence as the man looked at my daughter.

He mentioned his Nigerian friends for a second time and was clearly trying to find out the – let’s say “ancestry” – of my brown-skinned daughter. One of us put him out of his misery and said “Ethiopian.”

“I had an Ethiopian girlfriend!” he blurted out excitedly. “For about three years. She was married off very young to a man that her father chose. That’s what those people do. She wanted to stay with me, but eventually she had to go back to her husband.”

I mentioned that Ethiopian customs differed a lot all over the country and then asked a few polite questions to figure out what kind of character we were dealing with here. The “romance” had happened years earlier when he was 57 and she was 25.  And, yes, he had wanted to marry her.

There was a lull in the conversation. He watched my daughter dig around in her backpack for her headphones. He started talking again:

“I saw a documentary once on Ethiopian TV about a young girl who left her family and went to work in a shoe factory. She lived in a tiny, dirty little house and earned just enough to feed herself. I thought, if I knew who she was, I would go save her. She could come live with me. Do some housework. Have a better life. . .”

My daughter piped up: “You know it often seems to us like all poorer people are miserable. But a lot of them know very little about how we live. They don’t have much, but neither do their friends and neighbors. They can still be happy. They don’t want to be saved.”

“Well,” replied the man, “I guess there wouldn’t be enough room here for all of them anyway.”

My daughter and I exchanged glances and then both chose that moment to insert our headphones and start the music (or in my case, podcast). I sat there marveling at my daughter’s grace and composure. She managed to stick up for herself and others confidently without being rude or provoking. She had shut the man down and was now shutting him out.

A new understanding rushed over me of how . . .  simply being in this world must feel to her at times. And then I thought of all those signs again, warning that “Schwarzfahren” can lead to headaches and high blood pressure and mood swings. It occurred to me that the word could also be translated as “Riding While Black” . . .  and the signs would still be true.

A Bit Fitter Fitbitter

So . . .  I got my Year Four of blogging off to a bang-up start. Turns out the first post of this year sort of just erupted out of me. And, as with most unpleasant things these past two years, I blame it on the pwesident.
But never fear! Things are looking up! The first post has been redacted and I am calling a Mulligan. A “Do-Over!!” Here, now, is the first true post of the year:

 

A Bit Fitter Fitbitter

It has been 10 days since my blog’s third birthday and 15 since I vaguely formulated a few resolutions for 2018 that I really had no intention of keeping. So . . . no new leaf has been turned, but, thanks to a Christmas present, there is ever so slight a chance that somewhat healthier living is in my future.

For years, my physical exercise consisted almost exclusively of housework and dog walking. Occasionally, I would concoct some plan to start a fitness regimen, but most of those never really got off the ground. My state of health remained curiously good – with one recurring exception.

Every other year, in the dead of winter, I contract some bizarre malady. Two years ago it was that sudden bursitis in my shoulder that gave me a whole week off from work, not to mention my first experiences with physical therapy (See: “Miss Peevish and the Bruiser”). If I remember right, that was the same year I intended to take up ballet, after joining my sister in her half hour daily routine during our summer visit. One of the first things I did on returning home was to go out and buy appropriate home-ballet attire and some mats. The clothes have since disappeared and the mats spent well over a year in a corner of my library – still sealed in their packaging. But I digress.

Four years ago in the dead of winter, I started getting red itchy bumps or patches on my fingers – usually in the evenings. The red blotches would move from digit to digit and then eventually, all of my fingers swelled up and started aching. I started worrying about arthritis or rheumatism. Four medical examinations later, including one internist and the top guru dermatologist in the province, I found out that I had . . . (drum roll) . . . dry skin. Hand cream solved the problem I think that was the same year I got my e-bike which I have only rarely ridden.

About two years before that, once again in the dead of winter, my right foot swelled up (on the inner side, by the lower big toe joint.) It really hurt badly and I could barely walk. The doctor declared that it was “Gicht”, which, on returning home,  I immediately looked up in my German-English dictionary.  “That can’t be!!” I thought. The only occurrences of “gout” I had ever heard of had all happened in 18th and 19th century novels – and those characters were all old, rich, fat and male. Of those four adjectives, only one came close to describing me – and I am not talking about “fat”. If you do the math, that was around my 50th birthday and also the one and only time in the past three decades I ever considered jogging. My husband made a 6 week plan for me. I got through “Week One, Day One”.

By now a few things should be clear. I am not a jock. (For those of you not familiar with 1970s teenage slang, that means: “I’m not athletic.”) And if the health patterns of the past years hold true, I can expect some gruesome affliction in my immediate future, seeing as how the dead of winter is approaching. I would really like to nip whatever it is going to be in the bud.

When I asked for a Fitbit for Christmas, it was NOT yet another fitness pipedream; it was mostly due to curiosity:  I wanted to know what distance I traverse in a normal morning at school.  I am basically in constant motion from 7 am to 1 pm – walking from room to room, going up and down stairs, doing deskside deep knee bends to help a kid with a question, bending over and touching the floor to pick up dropped papers or pencils, stretching my arms way up to write at the top of the blackboard . . . It can be a physical job, teaching. And sure enough, a morning of work at school and two dog walks gets me quite far along the path toward my supposed daily goal of 10,000 steps. But not all the way . . .

I have to admit, that this dumb rubber wristband has had an effect on me. A few days ago, I asked my husband to print out another jogging plan. I also finally unpacked the ballet mats, hung up the ballet routine, and did it.

Today I took the long dog walk route – not just around the cornfield but through the woods and past the spa. I haven’t done that in 15 years. And just as I was coming out of the woods in the final stretch toward home, I checked the boss:

 

 

I admit, I am feeling pretty good about myself. With a bit of determination, I should be able to wear my favorite jeans again soon.  And, fingers crossed, I won’t be writing anytime soon about my consumption or dropsy.

Sh**thole American

 

Although I sometimes feel like one, I should explain upfront that the title of this blog post does not refer to me personally . . . .

. . . yet.

 

As the mother of two African children who became proud American citizens just six months ago today, I scream out to that whole continent:

“I am sorry!”

 

To the one Haitian American I know, a wonderful woman named Nancy, who just happens to be a judge in my hometown now and who invited us to watch an incredibly moving naturalization ceremony (an experience I consider a privilege to have had to  this day), I yell out:

“I am sorry!”

 

I am ashamed of our president.

It remains to be seen if I become ashamed of my country.