A Totally Serious Post on an Important Topic

Ask me what I did today. Go ahead – do it. I will tell you eventually, but first you need the back story . . .

I have lived in Austria for about 35 years now, speaking more German than English on the average day. And yet, I have never lost my American accent. When meeting someone for the first time, it usually only takes a sentence or two before they ask me where I come from. So I have had A LOT of conversations about cultural differences between these two countries. And when I say “a lot”, I mean a gazillion.

It has made me somewhat of an expert on Austrian/American conversational relations. When I was teaching, I sometimes did cultural lessons on the topic and developed a list of “Things You Should NOT Say to Americans” when meeting for the first time. For example, the Austrian might want to know how the American came to be in Austria at all – what brought them to this country. The question usually comes out jarringly direct as:

“Why are you here??”

Another point was that when an American says “Hi. How are you?” it is not a question. (Neither is “How do you do”, by the way.) Under no circumstances do they really want to know how you are – so don’t tell them.

The absolute Number One on this list was this:

“If an American has been in this country for more than 15 minutes, assume that, yes, they DO know what an “Oachkatzlschwoaf” is.”

It is dialect for “squirrel’s tail” and Austrians, for some reason, seem very proud of this word. I’ve been asked literally hundreds of times if I know what it means. What makes it doubly annoying is that I never once heard an Austrian actually use the word in normal conversation: “Oh look at that oachkatzl! What a bushy schwoaf he has!” If that happened, I think it would go a long way in making this all less irritating.

So, go ahead and ask me what I did today, because  I worked on my latest crocheting project – a squirrel for my sister-in-law.

I made the schwoaf.

oachkatzlschwoaf

Bonnie and Heather. In Rehab.

Since the last post, my vacation in Milwaukee ended and I went home. A week later my sister flew to Austria to accompany me for the first half of my three weeks in an oncological rehabilitation center – a place we affectionately refer to as “the Gulag” and where we have continued to have profound conversations that set off eruptions of giggles for two hours afterwards. (I say two hours, but I just had another one while writing this and it has been two days.) Anyway, here’s the latest one.

So, we are sitting on a bench in front of the center looking up at it, when Bonnie asks:

“What do you suppose the meaning of that logo is?”

“Pff. I don’t know. Maybe ‘Make a wish’?”

“Or maybe ‘He loves me’.

“Or . . . ‘You’ve got a one in eight chance.’

Feuersbrunst

It happened! I got my first blog request! A friend wasn’t satisfied by my second last post’s cryptic allusions to the fire in our house. She wants the whole story.

Who am I to deny one of my 15 loyal readers? So here we go.

Two days before I went in for Chemo 3 – I was resting on the couch in our first-floor guest room. The husband told me he was going running and left the house. A while later I was shaken out of my reverie by a god-awful smell that I couldn’t identify. My first thought was that maybe hubby had come home and was working with some chemical like paint remover in his basement workroom. When I got to the stairwell, I realized the stink was coming from above, so my second thought was the sauna in the upstairs bathroom – which the husband usually turns on before he goes running.

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Sure enough. I went up and opened the bathroom door only to see two walls in flames from floor to ceiling. The sauna wall was burning. So were the wooden cabinet, the towels, the curtains, and a bunch of mostly plastic containers with shampoo, shower gels, sauna oils, toothpaste, creams, and cat food. I guess that explains why the smell first seemed more chemical than fire-like. I slammed the door shut.

What does a person do in this situation? I ran back downstairs, found my cell and dialed for emergency help, but unfortunately, Austria has three different numbers for medical emergencies, fire and police. Was it 122, 133, or 144? I tried to remember the little rhyme we used at school with the young kids and got it totally wrong. I’d love to hear a recording of my talk with the ambulance guy. I only clearly remember telling him “Yes It’s burning! It’s burning!”. Luckily the three emergency numbers are all connected and so the message was passed on.

While talking on the phone, I made my way to the basement to get the fire extinguisher. I can’t say whether distraction or panic made me walk right past it – within a few inches and with it practically being on display, all alone there in the corner of the hallway, where it has been for the past 20 years. Instead, I looked around our messy workroom until my thinking cleared up and I looked again in the hallway. There it was! Like magic!

On my way back upstairs, I wondered how to use a fire extinguisher, having never done it before. All I knew was that there was a pin to pull first – like on a hand grenade. I stopped at the first floor to lock Dog Four outside on the screen porch because the smell was so noxious, and then went upstairs. All the electricity was out up there so I had to feel for the the pin in the dark and pull it out. I opened the bathroom door for a second time and as a big cloud of black smoke washed over me, I grabbed the tube, aimed, and squeezed the trigger.

Whoosh, woosh, woosh, woosh, woosh. In about five seconds, there were no more flames to be seen. I could hardly believe how well it worked! But I also realized then that I was in danger of smoke inhalation, so I closed the door, left the extinguisher standing there, opened up a bunch of windows and ran back downstairs to the porch. I took a bunch of deep breaths of fresh air. Then, very intelligently, I had a cigarette.

What now? The firemen hadn’t arrived and there were no approaching sirens to be heard. So I decided to go up one more time and check if the fire was really out, first wrapping a towel around my face. Opening the door for the third time, there were still no flames, but an even bigger black cloud flew past me. This time I heard water running and very briefly considered how to turn it off. But I knew I didn’t have time to go groping around for . . . that little wheely thing that shuts of the water supply. (Does that thing have a name? Neither the husband nor I can think of one in either German or English.)

I kept holding my breath and bolted again. According to my cell phone log, I then called the husband. Something I don’t remember at all, but he tells me his cell was ringing when he got back from his run and saw the black smoke coming out of the bathroom window. From that same log, I know that just eight minutes had passed since my emergency call and so maybe nine since my first seeing the flames. Nine minutes that now seem like a flash in the pan or a lifetime. I can’t decide which.

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The husband immediately went up to try and turn off the water and at the same time, the fire trucks started coming – four of them! one from each of the four surrounding villages – plus police and ambulance and emergency doctor and fire inspector and sundry other vehicles – at least ten in all. After four months of letting NO ONE in the house without a Covid test, about 20 firemen and women traipsed in, only to find a fire that was already out. They managed to shut off the water and monitored the site. They ripped out some of the wall and ceiling, checking the roof beams and for any ember nests. They took our statements and then two EMT’s took me to the parked ambulance to check for smoke inhalation. At first they figured I would have to go with them to the clinic for a few hours of observation, but I guess I convinced them I was feeling fine. Maybe it was when I happily exclaimed with excitement “Hey! I have never been inside an ambulance before! This is cool!”

So those are the events as best we can remember. Now to the weird stuff:

  • My husband told me I was awesome – twice! And in front of witnesses!
  • Just two days earlier, in a zoom conversation with two dear high school friends, I admitted that – after covid and cancer – yes, I did sometimes ask the cosmos what it had in store for me next. Now I know – it planned to set my house on fire.
  • I learned in the aftermath that the real damage doesn`t necessarily come from the fire, but from the smoke, water and soot that follow. The representative of a professional cleaning and repairing company estimated that we would have to renovate the entire second floor, along with repainting the bathroom, WC and guestroom on the first. They figured it would all come to about $40,000. Included in that estimate were new floors and roof windows. And a deep-cleaning team would come in to deal with the soot. Part of their work would be to take ALL of our clothes for special laundering as well as all of our books, games and DVDs which were packed up and carted off. We will get them all back next week, free of soot and smoke stink.
  • I had made myself a long list of house projects that would keep me busy during my first year of retirement. bty Over the five weeks after the fire, I watched a team of professionals – cleaners, floorers, window installers, plumber, carpenters, electrician and painters – come in and tick off my projects one after another at an amazing tempo. All we had to do was schlepp furniture and our masses of junk from one room to another to clear the way for them. As I followed their progress, I felt almost excited – I caught myself giggling on the inside about how great this all was. All I had really lost was some toiletries and twenty-year-old bath towels, and here I was getting practically a whole new house. And someone else was paying for it all! I joked to people that “if I had known this would happen, I would have torched the bathroom myself!” But then I started to think that I should stop saying that when . . .
  • . . . the household insurance took its sweet time in officially declaring their coverage of the repairs. We had gotten winks and nods and partial okays, but nothing in writing. Then rumors started that our case had been “randomly chosen” for investigation of insurance fraud. We joked that maybe our house was bugged and started having loud, badly delivered and canned conversations about how traumatic and scary the fire was, how lucky we were that it wasn’t worse, how weird it was that an appliance we used almost every day would suddenly go up in flames like that Who would have ever thought . . .?!
  • After 6 weeks of this, we finally got the written confirmation of coverage. And then, yesterday, these letters arrived from the Austrian Ministry of Justice, Criminal Division, addressed to the husband and me separately. It took me a nervous while to decipher the German legalese, but the upshot was this: they were informing us that the investigation of negligent arson . . . not by us two, but by “unknown perpetrators” was being closed. In other words, we weren’t personally charged with anything and those charges were being dropped anyway. A classic Austrian solution to a sticky situation: “No problem! Problem solved!” While reading this letter, I also added a new word to my German vocabulary when they wrote that there was no “Feuersbrunst”. I think they just meant a large fire, but the archaic meaning of “Brunst” has to do with the increased and audibly noticeable excitement in the animal kingdom that comes in the spring. So I first translated this term as “fire horniness” or maybe the less crude “fire giddiness”. It is somehow fitting because . . .
  • . . . my own reactions to this whole experience have been downright bizarre. It is not unusual for me to shut off all emotion during a critical event or moment of crisis, but normally, they come out slowly after the fact in fits and spurts. In this case . . . nope, nothing there. Most of my memories bring no feelings of trauma or panic, but something more like bemusement. I remember using the fire extinguisher as being sort of cool. Made me feel like Rambo. Instead of feeling loss, I keep smiling about all the refurbishing going on in my house. I love redecorating and I get to do just the fun parts, with all the yucky work and heavy lifting being done by someone else. I wonder at the sheer size of the silver lining of this minor, non-disastrous close call. And let’s face it: compared to cancer, this was all just a tiny bump in the road, not to mention an almost welcome distraction from the chemo.

So, in the end, if I had to describe my feelings about this entire event in one word, it would have to be “fire-giddy”.

And I’m very glad that the insurance company and Justice Ministry don’t know this.

Letter to 2020

Based on all the videos and memes being bounced around the internet, all the cards and Christmas letters and text messages I have gotten, there seems to be an absolutely universal agreement that the year 2020 was the worst. thing. ever. and can only be despised. “Good Riddance!” is attitude of the whole world. I was on that wavelength, too, beginning my own Christmas New Year`s letter with a note to 2020 that no one will miss it (except maybe that one guy, whom no one will miss either).

But then something happened.

On the very last day of the year, December 31st, 2020, I got some very good news. I’m talking life-changing news. Suddenly, my heart began to soften. I started feeling sorry for the year. I mean, Coronavirus is not 2020’s fault! The pwesident was not 2020’s fault – in fact it was the year we got rid of him! It was time break with the herd and find something nice to say. I added an epilogue to my letter:

 Dear 2020,

As much as you sucked, you WERE a year of spectacular sunsets. I still won’t miss you, but I am thankful that you – in contrast to that other guy – clearly know how to make a beautiful exit.

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Pride Goeth

It was a Saturday three weeks ago, when I finally reserved the whole afternoon to start catching up on blog reading. I started, of course, with Ly and was horrified to discover that I had to scroll all the way back to early September to find where I had left off. (Yes, I am a terrible friend.) I spent an enjoyable few hours until being interrupted by a press conference. All schools were closing till the second week of December. I switched immediately into work mode and basically stayed there till . . . well . . . till yesterday. My cushy, reduced-to-two-days work week, now extended to seven days. For non-educators out there, I can tell you that distance-teaching is about three times as time intensive. It is also relentless and exhausting.

So, everyone was happy to hear that the schools were reopening next week. To celebrate our final online English lesson, I made a special quiz game for my class that they seemed to really enjoy. After gathering on the learning platform, all the kids turned on the “Chat” function. I asked a question and they all typed in their answers as quickly as they could. I awarded points to the first three correct ones. Minor spelling mistakes were allowed.

For the final question in the quiz, I decided to ask something really simple. I said, “Question Number 20. Ready? What is today’s date?”  The answers started rolling in:

After the first 10 or so tries, the shock and horror began bubbling up inside of me. I started giving them little tips about ordinal numbers and capitalization. They kept trying.

At this point I was holding my head in my hands. Tiny whimpering noises were escaping from me. Finally, one girl wrote an answer that I could technically accept. I ended the response period and typed in a few possible correct variations. Two more guesses straggled in as I was doing so.

After 39 years of teaching English, my memory houses a fairly large collection of meaningful moments, nice memories, special experiences, highlights . . .

December 3rd, 2020 will not be one of them.

Ugly Chicken Update

As readers will know, I wrote a while back about my slightly deformed and unfeathered chick, Quasi the Second. At the time, I showed the pictures to expert chicken keepers, among whom the general consensus was that this bird would not be long for this world.

But she kept bopping along despite being ostracized and banned from the henhouse. Despite almost drowning in the duck pond. Despite the massive second wave of red fowl mites that had the husband cleaning out the henhouse in a Hazmat suit wielding a blowtorch.

Take a look at her now:

Okay, so not exactly a beautiful swan, but also no longer the world’s ugliest chicken. And more importantly, still hanging in there.

Speaking of loners and survivors, check out the latest “New infections in the past 14 days” map of Austria.

See the little green speck in the bottom right corner of the country? The only district in the entire country with no new infections? That’s where we are.

Our ears are filled with the crashing sounds of second waves all around us, but, apparently, we’re still hanging in there.

Ten Ten Twenty Twenty

 

I like today’s date. I like the sound and the numerical symmetry of it. Seems like a day to do something with. Something memorable. Maybe start something new or end something that has gotten old. Or both.

To get some inspiration, I turned to the Google and quickly arrived at the NationalDayCalendar.com website. Here’s what I found:

Apparently, angel food cake, handbags and costume-swapping all have their own holidays. I wasn’t aware of that, maybe because none of these things particularly interest me. I also don’t decorate cakes, play chess or ride motorcycles. All that leaves is yarn and mental health, but, fortunately, there is currently no crisis in my life for me to crochet my way through.

I would like to know, though, why there is a coffee stain on the calendar. And why is it circling the 11th instead of the 10th? And why do the week rows on this calendar start on Tuesdays and end on Mondays? These are mysteries I would like to get to the bottom of.

Maybe I’ll do that tomorrow.

 

Call Me Franz

 

(Kur Report – Part 10 + “The End”)

 

My third week at the health resort went by so fast that I couldn’t really keep up with these reports. I left yesterday with quite different feelings than after my first two weeks. But let’s start with what was similar.

In my free time, I repeated some of the activities from my earlier visit – except this time it was summer, so the views were quite altered. First, I walked along the river to the Soldiers’ Cemetery again. With the gravestones no longer nearly buried in snow, the feeling was less poignant. On the other hand, I was struck by the dates on so many of them which I could now read – April or May 1945 – in other words, the very bitter end of the war here in Austria. I might do some research on that mystery . . .

 

My second re-visit was to the waterfall that runs straight through the town, basically slicing it into two halves. This time there was a lot more of it. I also discovered a little secret door into the rockface next to the rushing water. Another mystery to solve:

My other re-visits were to the various therapy stations. I found myself back in the Radon bath rooms and the mud pack rooms, but, alas, there were no reunions with Ötzi, Spandex Butt, or Lederhosen Butt. There was one Goretex Upper Thigh, but that was about it. While revisiting the swimming pool, there were no meetings at all – I had the whole place to myself.

 

The biggest change came in the fitness center room. As I inserted my chip card into the first machine, I was surprised at the weight level it instructed me to set – it was about three stages higher than what I had been doing the first time around. I strained and huffed and puffed through the first few machines, not really considering that something might be off. The computer told me what to do and I just assumed it had its reasons. By Machine 6, I started to feel some guilt about being in such bad condition. At Machine 9, when I almost pulled my shoulder out of the socket (twice!), I finally realized something couldn’t be right. I called the trainer over and told her I thought the settings were all too high. She took my card and put it in the central computer. She then came back and asked if I might have switched with another patient, because this card was registered to Mr. Franz Habenmuskel (or something like that). Of course, by then it was too late to undo the damage.

On my second trip to fitness room, my card had stopped working all together and couldn’t be reprogrammed. So, I just did the machines on their default program – settings suitable for the average 30-year-old man. I cheated a lot when it came to setting the weights.

Of course, I paid for these mistakes in stiffness and aching muscles which are still around now two days after my departure. Last time I came home feeling stronger, pain-free, motivated and almost like a different person. That’s sort of true again, except for the “stronger, pain-free, and motivated” parts. This time, I came home feeling like Franz.

 

 

Things Change

 

There have been some developments in the things I related in previous posts, so I want to update them in a somewhat rambling and random way, starting with:

Remasking

After a lot of speculation and delays, the government here has gone ahead and reinstated the national mask wearing order for stores, banks and post offices. Despite the starting date being set for today (Friday), many people began earlier – as in right away after the announcement, including us. Two days ago, we spent almost 3 hours in IKEA getting our daughters furnishings for their apartment. It was the longest time I have ever spent in a mask. I found it surprisingly suffocating. Then it occurred to me that long before Covid, just being in an IKEA with its massive crowds always made me feel that way, mask or no mask. Anyway, we don’t know the true reason behind or the end date of the current policy, but the general opinion among friends is that the government decided it was necessary to remind the population about how we should be behaving. With things opening up, we had gotten too relaxed about social distancing, etc.

 

Cure Continuation – With Conditions!

Speaking of opening up, the health center I went to for my cure can now start taking patients again. I just got the dates for my third cure week which was cancelled during the lockdown – it begins next Wednesday already. When the confirmation came, there were three extra forms attached about all the Covid restrictions and regulations. I had to sign them (i.e. basically swear to follow the rules) and send them back. I have to arrive there by 10:00 am on the first day in a mask, get a Covid test, and then self-isolate in my room for the rest of the day till the results come in (usually early evening the same day, they say). Masks are to be worn indoors at all times. I am not allowed to go to any other restaurants or cafes in the town. I can’t socialize with anyone who does not live in my household – so that means everyone – and I can’t have visitors. The list of rules goes on and on . . .

It is hard to imagine that this week will be as therapeutic as the first two were. On the other hand, I have been saying that I don’t know a single person who has been tested and now, in just five more days, I will know one person. (I hope they aren’t still sticking swabs way up noses.) I imagine y’all will be hearing my thoughts as I sit in my room alone waiting for the results. It’s a good thing, too, that this will not be the only travels of the summer.

 

Staycation

The onset of summer vacation was delayed this year as the first week included three somewhat obligatory social gatherings with my coworkers during which all the tensions and melodrama and plot twists of the school year were rehashed ad nauseum. So, instead of the usual end-of-the-year, 1-day system crash (traditionally spent on the couch in the company of a box of aspirin, a pukey bowl and the remote control), I went through a prolonged sort of joyless malaise with no travel plans and no energy to come up with ideas about how to fill the seven weeks stretching out ahead of me. I finally booted myself out of it a few days ago, starting with a call to the health center to schedule my cure week. That quickly led to plans to follow it with a visit to my aunt and uncle in Tyrol. After that, there will only be a week at home before taking off for our annual hiking trip in Carinthia. Then there will be just one more week at home before . . . no . . . it can’t be . . . don’t want to even think about it . . . Something seems wrong about the math here. Within a day, the summer went from being a long empty expanse to being all filled up with plans. I’m confused.

 

Clutter Box

I guess it is a good thing I didn’t plan any major projects for the summer. Instead, I dove into one of those little things that has been on the back of my mind for months. Everywhere you look in my house – on every shelf or piece of furniture or windowsill or counter space – there is . . . stuff. A small proportion of the . . . stuff . . . is actually put there for decoration. The vast majority, however, is supposed to be somewhere else, but just got left there by someone in this household. Every so often, I go on a decluttering rampage and begin sweeping all these surfaces clean, sorting all the stuff, returning some of it to where it belongs, throwing some of it away and finding new places to store the rest.

When I am done, there is always about a handful of undefinable things left over. I can’t throw them away. They look like they could be part of something, but who knows what? I imagine some future time when the husband asks me “Have you seen the gizmo for my gadget? It’s a small curvy piece of black plastic with some holes in it and a doohickey on it?” And I, having tossed it out, would have to avoid eye contact while saying, “I have no idea whatsoever what you are talking about! Never in my life have a seen anything remotely like what you are describing!”

So, instead, I throw these thingamajigs in the “Clutter Box”, just in case. I tell myself that one day I will make a piece of modern sculpture out of it all. I will title the finished product “Bob” (and then keep it in a plastic box in the basement storage room).

 

While doing the above, I also managed to somehow declutter my mind. I got rid of or stored away all the little pieces left there by other people during this crazy year. I cleared a path out of malaise and into the enjoyment of summer.

 

Hope for the Future

Not only is the future looking brighter now, it is looking brighter orange! On a whim, I checked my junk food website and was delighted to see my favorite thing in the world is back in stock and ready to be delivered. I pounced. With any luck, they will arrive before I leave for my cure. In the case that all the Covid regulations ruin the week, it would be nice to have a back-up therapy at hand.