From the Country with No Government

 

Greetings from a country with no government.

For anyone out there reading this who is not versed in Austrian politics – and I’m guessing that is all but one of you (Hi Ly!) – here is the shortest possible synopsis of the political situation here.

After the last election in 2017, the Right party with its 17 year old leader joined together with the Far Right to form a coalition to govern. I can’t think of any particular principles these two groups had beyond ambition and opportunism, but they set off together to set things right and get things done and drain the swamp and make Austria great again. A Far Right guy bagged the coveted Minister of the Interior post where he got to boss around the cops and make life as uncomfortable as possible for all the refugees that had been allowed in the previous year. This Minister Kickout proceeded to make a string of authoritarian, nationalistic, and xenophobic statements such as a suggestion that they be ‘concentrated’ in  . . . well, I guess something like camps. Meanwhile he mucked around in the asylum policies in ways that repeatedly pulled the rug out from under the applicants. Being forbidden to work or start learning a trade, and this over waiting periods of four or more years, many of the young men drifted around in packs, had trouble learning the language or integrating. Some turned to unofficial work with exploitation wages. Some turned to dealing. Others, like my unofficially adopted third child, H. from Afghanistan, have managed to go to and stay in school, but he goes through periods of anxiety or near despair as he waits and waits and waits for a decision on his asylum application. We’ve learned to recognize the signs of one of these phases coming on. He’ll start skipping classes or talk about taking off for France . . . We talk him through these times.

But I digress. Back to Austrian politics.

 

Fast forward to May 17, 2019 when a video appeared and broke the Austrian internet. It was seven hours long and showed the head of the Far Right party in a Spanish bungalow colluding with a woman he thought was the niece of a Russian oligarch. You publish nice articles about us and we will give you fat public construction contracts . . . stuff like that. It came out later that the whole thing was a set up.

Nevertheless, the party leader resigned the very next day. Eight hours later the 17 year old Chancellor broke up with entire party and asked the President for new elections to be called.

Two days later, the Chancellor tried to get Mr. Kickout fired and all of the ministers from his party resigned in protest. They retaliated further in joining a no-confidence vote which happened the following week. The Chancellor lost his job.

The President called for new elections in September and, for the interim, he installed experts to run the various ministries as well as a non-partisan temporary leader. Austria had its first female Chancellor (of sorts).

 

I sat there and marveled at the efficiency of this implosion. Americans have suffered an onslaught of daily outrageousness for two and a half years with no end in sight, but here, one lousy video toppled the government in the space of 10 days.

In the following four months I started thinking Hey! This no government thing is not so bad. Everything seemed to be going smoothly. The economy chugged along. The post was being delivered and the trains were running on time. After a wildly destructive thunderstorm in June, the road workers were out the very next day fixing everything up. A week later new roadside ditches had been dug to prevent similar flooding in the future. The evening news reports were scandal free and did not induce a single flinch.

Of course it couldn’t last. About two weeks ago the political roundtable discussions began on TV in earnest. The entire old cast of characters was back. Political videos began ping-ponging around the internet. H. came into my office to show me one of Kickout. He was spitting cynical venom about Austria’s ‘Triple A rating’ in dealing with migrants. He said what ‘AAA’ really stood for was ’aggressive Afghani asylum seekers’ and bragged to the crowd about how he was going to deal with them. They loved it.

And the campaign signs started appearing on the side of the road. All these earnest or friendly faces underlined with the corresponding slogan. I’m not sure how things look in other parts of the country, but the Far Right party signs are the most ubiquitous around here.

And they are usually placed in pairs. The new top candidate’s happy face followed quickly by mean Mr. Kickout, peeking out from behind him, hovering over his shoulder, whispering into his ear . . .

 

Tomorrow is Election Day. I’m thinking about moving to France.

 

Dispatch

Years ago, someone gave me a magnetic poetry kit and like so many of my (and my daughters’) personal possessions – books, games, toys, etc. – it ended up in the school for my students to use. In the first week of the year, a few boys discovered the word magnets and started creating . . . well, not exactly poems, but rows of funny, somewhat disconnected, grammatically challenged sentences on the metal door of the Language Room. As suspected, these works of art did not last long, because other kids kept coming into the room and rearranging the words. So far it has not become an issue.

 

I went and sat in the Language Room after school today because I had a meeting with two other teachers and a social worker. He had recently started working with the family of some of our kids. The case history was a long one, full of periods of intense turbulence, imploding relationships, spur of the moment resettlements, battles with substance abuse . . . the list goes on. The one constant, the one stable thing, in the lives of these kids was our school. The family did go through periods of relative calm as well, and the arrival of the social worker was a sign that we were in one of those. We teachers and he filled one another in on some past history before moving on to the progress being made at the moment. We agreed on a few common measures and goals to keep this forward momentum going.

At some point in the meeting, when someone got up and closed the door, I noticed that most of the magnetic words had been removed and the rest shifted around haphazardly. One sentence had been written sideways, but it was too far away for me to make out.  After the discussion broke up, I went to take a closer look.

 

After contemplating which grammatical structures might be missing from this author’s repertoire in order for him to make his point, I took a step back. That was when I noticed a few magnets way down at the very bottom of the door. I pictured some kid crouching there in the corner, neatly placing his four word message. I crouched down in the same way to read it.

Laguz

 

Sometime in July:

My mother, my sister, my daughters and I were sitting on a porch talking when we decided somewhat spontaneously to consult the Runes about our various life issues. In turn, each of us concentrated on a current situation of our life, reached into the bag, felt around until one of the little clay tablets felt right to us, pulled it out and placed it on the table. Then we read the corresponding text out loud and proceeded to analyze it collectively. The miracles of selective perception and empathy kicked in and we came to a crystallized statement on what attitude would help each of us to move on in the world. It was . . . amazing.

Daughter 2 got a new idea on how to extricate herself from the melodramatic rivalries among her teenage girlfriends.

Daughter 1, who was conflicted about her imminent move out of our house to a new apartment and new life, was told that ‘Now is a time of separating paths’ and ‘to not be bound by old conditioning, by old authorities’. She took a picture of the text and plans to frame it and hang it in her new bedroom.

Mom, a woman born two weeks before the 1929 Stock Market crash and subsequent Depression, was hesitant to ‘splurge’ on redecorating her apartment in the way that would make her happy. The runes told her to go for it and we all agreed enthusiastically.

Sister, who skipped her turn, having been disappointed by earlier messages done in solitude, has since admitted that it might have been better to consult the runes in the company of four empathetic female relatives who love her.

And me? I thought about all of the conflicts of the previous school year as I pulled out my rune. It was ‘Laguz’. Alternative names: ‘Flow. Water. That Which Conducts’. ’It told me to go back to trusting my instincts, to pull back, and to concentrate on ‘the receptive side of my warrior nature’. It said to me that I don’t have to fight anymore. I had done enough.

I carried the attitude with me into the first day of work and, sure enough, the place had a whole new feel to it. My energy was back. Coworkers were noticeably more attentive to one another; there were fewer interruptions and digressions. Sticky topics that might raise tensions were assiduously avoided. We were disciplined and productive. The year got off to a smooth start.

 

Fast forward to Monday afternoon:

The meeting was going on forever. And once again, we had drifted off onto a subject irrelevant to objective – which was to prepare a one hour presentation of our pedagogical principles for a parents’ forum on Saturday. This was the second meeting. The first one was four hours long and had gotten us nowhere near an end result. Which was why we were all sitting together again for a second attempt.

At some point we began listing all of the professional development courses and seminars we had done in the past ten years. Someone mentioned ‘GfK’ which stands for ‘Gewaltfreie Kommunikation’  (nonviolent communication). I remembered that the term was being thrown around a lot when I first came to the school. It was a course some of the teachers and parents had done in the year before my arrival. In those early days, I slowly figured out that it was the source of a few curious phrases people in the school liked to use. ‘I feel I am not being heard’ was my particular favorite. It was also the reason most of our meetings had a certain group therapy feel to them. Why they often started in silence, with the participants looking within themselves, reflecting, and then stating in turn ‘how they were there’. The final block of this course took place during my first year, but because I had not been there for all the previous sessions, I didn’t attend it.

Eight years later – at this interminable Monday meeting – someone add ‘GfK’ to the list on the flipchart and I murmured ‘That was before my time’.

‘NO IT WASN’T!’ my neighbor to the right blurted out.

I just glanced at him and then turned back to the discussion of the others which had moved on. I had no intention of engaging. Seconds later my attention was forced back to the neighbor because he was jabbing his finger into my arm.

‘YOU JUST MANAGED TO GET YOURSELF OUT OF IT!’ he said.

The accusatory tone of his voice could not be overheard. I looked at my arm where he had poked me and then into his face for a second. I am fairly sure my irritation was obvious because he seemed to startle. I just shook my head a little and went back to listening to the other discussion. My peripheral vision registered an uncomfortable smile and I think there was a little laugh – as if to say it was all meant as a joke. My instincts told me to just tune him out from then on. Eventually, the meeting ended, but not until after a date and time for Meeting #3 had been arranged.

It took me quite a while to realize the utter irony of the situation.

 

An earlier version of me would have spent hours ruminating, trying to come up with the perfect retort after the fact. Something about his need for a refresher course in aggression-free communication. Or maybe questioning if this was a demonstration of what he had learned there?

Instead, I channeled Laguz. I was water and conducted that aggression through and out of me. It flowed from the point of the finger jabbing up to my voice, circumventing my heart, and came out as almost humorous dinner table conversation. It flowed down through my fingertips, into words on a screen, soon to be jettisoned out into the ether.

Meeting #3 today finally brought concrete and final results. In a return to the new normal, it was a careful and civilized affair.