Form Letter of Rejection


After two years of living in our village and waiting for their asylum applications to be processed, our refugee boys were just told that the home they live in is going to be closed down. Apparently it is too expensive for the government to maintain. The 18 boys still living there will have to be relocated. Dispersed. One option is a rooming house at a highway truck stop – in one half of what began as an overly optimistic brothel. (The other half will continue to be used for its original purpose.) We are working on a different arrangement for one of the boys (“H.”) who still wants to attend my husband’s school.

My husband and H. sat in the kitchen discussing his “options” now that he is about to be . . . displaced once again. They sat in their usual spots – my husband at the end of the table and H. around the corner to his left. I have seen them seated like this many times over the past months, as H. told his life story and my husband typed it into story form. They are up to page 6 now, and the story is long from over.

Mariabad – a Hazara enclave

H. was basically a refugee at birth. His young parents were already on the run from both the Taliban and his mother’s family (!) because of their honor–offending Hazara (Shiite)/Sunni love affair which had led to the birth of H.’s older sister. When the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, they had to leave the country altogether. They ended up in a place called Mariabad which is a sort of enclosed Hazara settlement within the larger Pakistani city of Quetta. H.’s childhood took place here. For ten years or so, the normal elements of early life – school, sports, work, games, family celebrations – were interspersed with police raids, an ever-increasing number of bombings and kidnappings. When H. was 13, his two younger brothers were abducted and severely beaten. Shortly thereafter, his elder sister disappeared while on her way to school. H.’s parents could only suspect that the mother’s family had discovered them. They decided it was too dangerous to stay there any longer. His father left first for Australia, hoping the family could follow, but he tragically drowned in the attempt to get there. Three years after that, H. made the next attempt – this time to Iran – only to be caught, imprisoned for a few months, and then deported. He made it back to his family in Pakistan. They made their next attempt to flee (again to Iran) as an entire family and this time they were successful. From there H. and his younger brother set off toward Germany via Turkey and Greece. Once they reached Austria, they decided to stay and try for asylum here. Almost exactly two years ago, H. arrived in our village . . .


It was already harsh for him to find out that he would need to move once again, but then he got a second piece of bad news in the same week: his asylum rejection letter with particularly offensive content and wording:

“Concerning the Reasons for Leaving Your Native Country:

The reasons supplied by you for leaving your native country are not credible. It cannot be established that you had to fear persecution in Afghanistan based on the reasons listed in the Geneva Convention on Refugees or that you are confronted currently with a relevant situation threatening your life or limb.

In connection with the existing information of this office on the general situation in Afghanistan, it could be established beyond a doubt that, in regard to the persecution you claim, flight alternatives within that country’s borders exist which are objectively and subjectively reasonable for you.”


This is pretty clearly some kind of standard form letter – it doesn’t make sense in light of H.’s situation. He is like the DACA kids who came to the States as babies due to other people’s decisions. And just like some politicians in the States with their “one size fits all” solution for those kids, it seems the Austrian government is pursuing a similar policy for the refugees. Automatic rejection in the first round.

The question is why they needed two years to come up with this answer.



We decided on a birthday dinner this year (as opposed to breakfast or lunch). I requested the classic steak and baked potatoes meal and it was yummy. Beforehand I surfed here and there, putzed at this or that, took two long dog walks, peeked around the house in search of a cardboard box holding my present – a new chicken or two. Couldn’t find one.

But it turns out I was right. Not only am I getting new chickens, but I am getting German Reich chickens!! Jawohl! Mensch, das ist ja dufte!!

There is one little catch . . .

The eggs are arriving by mail and I have to hatch them myself.

Wish us luck.


Teachers in Arms


Just when you think things can’t get any worse, the pwesident manages to find a new level even lower than last week’s rock bottom. I have been shaking my head and waving off comments all day long about his latest idea to arm 20% of every school’s faculty. (In the case of our school, one colleague noted, only one of us would have to start going to the shooting range and taking  lessons. Then they all turned and looked at me . . .)

The thought that I, or any teacher I have ever had, or worked with, or know (and that is a lot of them) could whip out a gun from . . . wherever (a purse? a classroom locker?) and then go out Rambo-style in search of an active school shooter to confront is,

to put it very simply,


(Silent) Home (Horror) Movies


I have been getting some of our VCR tapes digitalized before they start decomposing and/or give up the ghost completely. One of those tapes was home movies from my childhood and I stayed up till about 3 am a few nights ago watching them.

Some of the films were classics – like one of our childhood Christmas shows, my ballet performance with dramatic final pose, or the King of the Raft battles during one of our many summer trips up north. Other films were only vaguely familiar to me – maybe those were the ones that tended to be left out on the occasions when my dad hauled out the projector and turned our living room into a movie theater. As we five kids tossed pillows on the floor and jockeyed for a comfortable spot with a good view, Dad stuck a reel of film on one of the arms of the projector, threaded the tape through the machine and on to the empty receiving reel. The lights were dimmed and then came that clackety-clack sound of the projector in motion, the humming of its fan, the initial ornery and dusty smell of an appliance that has not been used in a while being forced back into deployment.

As the youngest of five kids, I had to sit through a whole lot of scenes starring my elder siblings before I was born. It did not escape me that the number of films (or photographs) of each child was inversely proportional to the order of his/her birth (Child One has the most, Child Five the least.) But, to make up for this disadvantage, I also noticed that, in contrast to the black and white childhood of my brothers and sisters, at least mine was in color!  The films were also all silent, which turned out to be another advantage. We kids were free to talk and comment and reminisce and argue as the images danced in front of and past us. In that way, I was initiated into all the chapters of our family legend that pre-dated my membership.


While watching all these old movies again a few days ago, I started pausing and making screenshots of memorable moments. The resulting pictures turned out to have such an eerie quality to them – I guess because the images had been reincarnated over and over again. From camera to developed film reel, from film to video cassette (Thanks, Mom!), from video cassette to digital video, from digital video to image file . . .

And now . . . some of those images are about to be launched into the internetsphere with a mere click of a “Publish” button. They will blast off in a gazillion different directions, but only very few will eventually collide with physical entity capable of decoding them. Your laptop or computer screen, for instance. (Yes, Reader, I am talking to you!)

So here they are – a few captured specters of the binarily transcribed, inversely imprinted, silent visual reproductions of moments that have become – via this long insane string of coincidences – some of my earliest memories. It really is no wonder that they seem so ghostly!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Kill ‘em With Kindness


My inner Chicken Whisperer keeps bugging my alter ego, Blackthumb, who loves the winter season hibernation period and the respite from agricultural responsibilities that it provides. Nevertheless, pesky CW wants an update posted on our shared blog about the fact that, for a week or two now, and despite the return of winter weather, we have been getting four (!) eggs a day. Blackthumb thinks big deal! pointing out that they are still the most expensive eggs in the country. CW retorts that such materialistic thinking is exactly what is wrong with this world. These are socially, politically, biologically, environmentally, organically and animal husbandry-ily correct eggs from happy chickens! Blackthumb responds: “Do these chickens look happy to you?!? Look at those soggy feathers! Look at those cold feet!!”

Having photographic evidence, Blackthumb wins the argument.





“I just gave Frau R. (aka ‘Mean Neighbor Lady’) some eggs.”

On hearing this, my daughter laughed out loud and added “Kill ‘em with kindness, hey?”

She is much too smart. (I’m not sure where I went wrong while raising her). What she was referring to was one of our often-retold family stories from her wee childhood . . .

It began when we received a hand-written letter from the elderly man who delivered our newspaper every morning. He was complaining about a flower box in front of our house that is partly in the street. He found it very difficult to drive past. The letter was full of indignation, unnecessary rudeness, and basic spelling mistakes. My husband was irked and wanted to write back, asking him where he got off. I said – what’s the point? This is an old guy who – instead of enjoying his retirement – has to get up at four in the morning to deliver papers – he can’t be in very good shape financially or have a particularly nice life. And he clearly didn’t understand that he was in a position of absolute zero authority. Let’s not pursue a fight. Let’s kill this with kindness.

We ended up writing a really nice letter apologizing for the inconvenience and explaining that the box was there to slow cars down and to stop our young kids from running out of the house straight into the road. We attached the letter to a bottle of wine and left it out for him.

We became his favorite people after that. Our newspaper was lying on the welcome mat each morning as if placed there carefully.




Of course, Mean Neighbor Lady was a much more complicated situation than Newspaper Guy. For the first 10 years or so of our . . . neighborliness . . . she simply scared the crap out of me. She lived way downhill in the valley below us, and yet she was omnipresent. She walked past our house regularly to spy and inspect things. I began to call it the “Daily Disapproval Tour”.

Once she rang the bell. She told me that my Dog One had jumped up on her and torn her apron. She wanted ten dollars from me to replace it. She hadn’t bothered to bring the apron to show me. I paid.

Fifteen years ago, her daughter built a new house for both of them halfway down the hill between us and MNL’s old farmhouse in the valley. Not only did the DDT’s increase in frequency, but the new house was right along the path where I take my daily walk. I kept my dogs on leashes whenever we passed the house. Sometimes I whistled.

MNL once told my daughters that she wouldn’t allow her grandson to play with them in our yard because it was an “Urwald” (= jungle).

She also clearly had a crush on my husband.  Whenever I ran into her, she sometimes grunted at best. But when my husband was there too, she smiled (at him) and engaged in pleasant banter.

So, now Mrs. R. and I have been neighbors for thirty years. And except for the fact that I am a lousy gardener, she has little or no clue about who I am. She seems to know almost nothing about America or even that I come from there. I doubt she knows much at all about English literature, Economics, Business Administration, Maria Montessori, blog writing or Constitutional crises.

But she does know about chickens, so, for the first time, we have something to talk about.


I not only gave her eggs this morning, but I also made an effort to give her five different eggs from five different chickens. She seemed a bit confused, even flustered. Her contorted facial expression was hard to discern, but it was definitely reminiscent of something smile-like. She kind of ran away from me after I handed them over.

Blackthumb may have won the argument on the happiness of my flock this morning, but Chicken Whisperer definitely wins the day.


Various Trespasses


I had this whole other blog post planned. It was going to be a series of (seemingly!!) Random Thoughts Which Occurred to Me While Administering a Three-Plus-One Hour Exam to My One (And Only) Student. I had already planned out how to sneakily take a picture of him (from behind, of course) in the seminar room, poring over his papers, scribbling away, with me thinking “boy oh boy, if you only knew that you have already passed and all of this here is just for those officious, paper-dependent bureaucrats”.  While he was working, I was going to simultaneously read and write – catching up on all the blog peeps I follow in real time while sneaking in various observations from the past week. For instance, that pretty much all of their blogs are better reads than the book I just finished.  (Mr. Wolf’s billion-copy-selling “Fire and Fury” may be great resistance candy, but it is also really poorly written.) I was going to wax pseudo-philosophically on the euphoria one feels post-pain – after a nauseating battle with the flu is over and the four-day headache dissipates. I was going to end the four hours with a gloriously clear conscience from having made amends and achieving a successful fresh start for my Trek*, all while helping a nice young man get one step closer to his dream of studying at the university.

All that was the plan.

Instead, I post this sorry picture with the statement “Forgive me blog friends, for I have . . . trespassed” (the Presbyterian word for “sinned”.) It has been . . . fifty-three years since my first and last confession. While killing an hour at the train station and deciding where to go for my daily bread, I led myself into temptation and delivered myself to evil. As I ate it, I wondered if there was a single food item anywhere at the station that was less healthy or more ecologically and socially damaging per calorie consumed. To make matters even worse, I couldn’t finish my fries so I threw them away. Now, hours later, back at home, sitting here with a big undigested McLump in my stomach (and still somehow hungry), I wonder at how quickly things can change.

My poor (as it turned out, non-)student had the same experience today. He showed up to the exam with a blue envelope ( = registered letter) in his hand – still unopened. It had arrived just under the wire – right before he left for the university; he assumed (and hoped) that it was his admission letter to the program (which he needs to be able to sign up for and take exams). I watched him open it and then stare in confusion. His hands started shaking a bit. “Oh no!” I thought, “He’s been rejected!” I asked if I could look at it and was surprised to see “Admission” written largely at the top. What was the problem? And then I skimmed down to the list of the five exams he had to pass before he could start his regular studies. English was not one of them.

He had no idea how this could have happened! Everyone had told him he would need English! He apologized profusely for my coming all the way to Graz for nothing. We sat and talked for a while till he calmed down. We hatched a plan for how he could deal with this situation.

It was during that conversation that a different mystery got cleared up. My (non-)student told me that he had originally wanted to study Business, but had been rejected for that field and so reapplied with a different major. It turns out, he wasn’t alone. Apparently, every single applicant who wanted to study Business this year was rejected – all by the same professor. When that fact became generally known, an official complaint was lodged, the job of reviewing applications was handed over to a different professor, and all the rejected applicants were contacted and allowed to reapply. All of this happened just last week. It goes a long way in explaining why I had no students this year.

Anyway, instead of giving the written and oral exams for four hours, I headed back to the train station to go home. I wasn’t even that irritated because learning that new information was well worth a trip to Graz. If only I hadn’t blown it by going to McDonald’s!

Once back home, I wondered how I could get back on track . . . how I could repair the damage, repent, restore the Karma, (and hopefully lose the McLump) . . .

I remembered an essay on the topic of McDonalds some student had handed in way back at the start of my university career. I had found it so inane at the time with all its sweepingly prejudicial and empty statements interspersed with pretty phrases (“it goes without saying that . . .”,  “it may well be that . . . “, “at first sight we might believe that . . . but on closer view. . .”). I had it hanging on my bulletin board for years and later it landed in a keepsake box. I actually found the thing. I held it in my hand and thought . . . maybe I could post it (here) on my blog, and confess that, maybe just maybe, this student had a point and I had been unfair.  I read the text again and . . . and . . .

Naaahh. It really is an awful essay. Beyond redemption. A trespass against us that cannot be forgiven.

Incredible as this may seem, it is perfectly true.

Judge for yourself.




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.