It’s March 31st, 2017. I want to remember this date.
In March 2016, two things were set into motion that have kept me internally rocking and reeling ever since. In March 2016, I enrolled my daughter officially in the Milwaukee Public School System for her high school exchange year and in March 2016, my school team officially applied to take part in a two-year European Union project in partnership with institutes in Portugal and Italy. Had both “projects” gone smoothly, I would be heading for Vienna on Monday to take part in a big Kick-off Meeting. I would also probably be skyping daily with my distant daughter from my very quiet household.
Things didn’t go smoothly. In either case.
The first enrollment set off a series of visa nightmares and disappointments, but then – as a silver lining – a year+ long quest through the bowels of bureaucracy to get dual citizenship for my (adopted) daughters. The second application set off a yearlong series of frustrations and added stress that had my idealistic and hard-working colleagues nearing the burn-out point. (Did I mention that the EU project aimed to find good practices for preventing Burn-out?) Both issues have kept the back of my mind working on overdrive for most of the year.
Today, within a span of 3 hours, both issues resolved themselves abruptly and unexpectedly. Shortly before noon and six months (!) after our original application, the mailman arrived with a registered letter from the Austrian government granting my daughters permission for dual citizenship. Two hours later, I left a meeting at the school in which we had extricated ourselves successfully from the EU project – with no bad feelings, no lingering resentments and no danger of tanking the project as a whole.
My inner worrywart doesn’t know what hit her. It’s like she suddenly has no reason to exist. She’s dazed and confused and I almost feel sorry for her.
It was just International Women’s Day, so I have decided to write on the topic of cleaning toilets.
It comes from the fact that I am going to have to do this job for the first time in years. (Unpaid! No one should have to do such a thing unpaid!) And that is due to the fact that my cleaning lady has pneumonia and can’t come again tomorrow. Please get well soon, Judy!
Now, I will stipulate that there are probably millions of men around the world who do or have done toilet cleaning too. Many out of necessity in their college apartments or bachelor pads. But I am willing to bet that the vast majority immediately assumed they no longer had to do this work the minute they began co-habitating with a female.
(Am I being unfair?)
This was just one of many unwritten rules that confronted me after my immigration to Austria and the start of a relationship with an Austrian man. At the very beginning of our romance, I was once at my future husband’s apartment and watched as he packed to go home to his parents for the weekend. He was stuffing dirty laundry into a bag. I asked,
“Oh! Do you do your laundry at your parents’ house?”
“No. My mom does it.”
I started to laugh. My (then boyfriend) stopped what he was doing and stared at me with a quizzical look. I stared back.
“What is so funny?” he asked.
“Well, you were joking, weren’t you? I mean . . . you are 25 years old. Your mom still does your laundry??”
My question seemed to surprise him and it took him a moment to respond:
“She . . . she . . . likes to do it!”
That was my first hint at what might be expected of me if I were to marry an Austrian. I had no intention of being a housewife and luckily, my husband turned out to be very enlightened. When we moved into our first apartment together, we divvied up the big household jobs – he took on the cooking and I took on the laundry. He vacuumed and shopped. I dusted and mopped. He took care of the heating and I ironed. I don’t remember who cleaned the bathrooms. There were some adjustments over the years depending on who was working more hours at the time and whether or not we currently had a cleaning lady.
What neither of us could control was how others would view our household arrangements. Raised eyebrows and second-hand reports of critical comments were not uncommon. In those moments, I channeled my film heroine, Maude (as in “Harold and Maude”) and reminded myself that “You can’t let people judge you too much.”
Of course, this is also a generational thing. My young university students often scoffed at the idea that gender equality had not been reached. I ended up tricking them into recognizing their own gender biases in this area.
At the beginning of the course on social issues, I had them take a questionnaire on a variety of issues that might be covered that semester. It consisted of a list of statements to which they should circle a number between 1 and 5. (1= I agree completely; 5= I disagree completely.) One of those statements was:
My enlightened students all dutifully circled either 1 or, sometimes, 2. I circled 5. Then I showed them the results of the survey and they all laughed at the one person who circled 5. I told them it was me and assured them that I was serious. They stared at me with a quizzical look until one of them finally asked
“Why do you think?”
In most cases, one of the brighter students mentioned the word “help” in that sentence and asked if that was the reason. Of course it was. How can it be that when my husband does some housecleaning that he is helping me with (implicitly: “my”) work?
What ensued was a discussion of deep-seated beliefs and assumptions that household work is women’s work and whether they – this young, knowledgeable-about-feminism crowd – might still, deep down, believe this. Many students insisted they didn’t.
So I asked them how they would have responded to the statement with the genders switched:
That made them laugh. Until it didn’t.
I can’t tell you how many times a bunch of female students hung around after class to talk to me when the debate topic was women’s rights. Many of them were distraught. They told me that the statements of some of their male – and female! – classmates had shocked them. They had had no idea that such ideas were still so predominant in their age group.
People who decide to live together in a shared space in any sort of relationship should be free to arrange their responsibilities in whatever way works for them. They shouldn’t be ooched toward any particular arrangement based on the expectations of others or social norms or government policies. As long as women still generally earn less than their male counterparts and fathers are generally considered less important than mothers to a child’s well-being, people will continue to conform to old patterns.
I’ll be cleaning the bathrooms tomorrow. Because I have a free day, my cleaning lady is sick, and my husband now has a 60+ hour work week. I will not do it out of sense of responsibility.
I tell myself.
Well, actually “Ash Wednesday”. Which means yesterday Austria celebrated what they call “Fasching”. It has nothing to do fascism – quite the opposite really. It is the big blow out before we all, or most of us, or actually just some of us give up something we really like until Easter, or at least for a few days, or sometimes maybe for just for a few hours. Nowadays on Fasching Tuesday, Austrians of all ages either make themselves ugly, or they don the usual Halloween-type costumes – witch, pirate, cowboy, angel, devil, etc. But I have read that the old tradition was to slip into the opposite of one’s usual role. So men dress up like women and women like men. A king (- in American terms, the president) dresses up like a court jester while a fool becomes a president.
With that old tradition in mind, I chose my costume for our school party:
Full disclosure: that last sentence was a fib. Actually, my husband bought and wore this costume at his own school’s Fasching party last year. And, no, I am not this large. The costume has a little motorized fan that blows it up like a balloon.
As I walked into each classroom yesterday, a loud round of shrieking broke out first. The kids then approached me carefully and made little tentative pokes. Those became jabs. After 10 minutes, I felt less like a cook than a punching bag and had to reassert my teacher authority to stop the abuse. The wooden spoon came in handy. The best part of the celebration was dancing in the disco in this get up – doing all the hip-hop moves I learned from my daughter as my students freaked out. Some of them were laughing, but others were staring at me with a questioning look on their faces: “Who ARE you?? And what did you do with my English teacher??” I am fairly sure there are quite a few pictures of me currently floating around in various teenage WhatsApp groups.
I don’t care at all.
I used to really dislike Fasching and everything connected with it. I didn’t have this tradition growing up, so seeing all these grown-ups dressed strangely and acting crazy was sort of creepy. And the village festivals were just obnoxious puke parties as far as I was concerned. Ash Wednesday became one of my favorite days, because 1) being a heathen, I enjoyed not having to give up stuff I like for six weeks, and 2) it meant Fasching Tuesday was over. Then I changed jobs.
During my first two years in the school, I had to jump over my own shadow to participate at all in these parties and the enjoyment factor was non-existent. Slowly, but surely, I started to get into it. I slipped more and more into my new role-for-the-day and had fun with it. This year I came the closest yet to that coveted feeling of abandonment. One NOT achieved in a cheating way with chemical help (see “puke parties” above.)
As an immigrant to this country, it has become very clear to me how much a person’s character is defined by the culture they grow up in. I used to tell my (university) students that, as far as I could tell, it is impossible to “become an Austrian”. People’s identity here is so tied up with the real estate they were born on – the country, the province, the city, the village. The Carinthians make fun of the Styrians and vice versa, the Lower Austrians make fun of the Upper Austrians and vice versa. Everyone makes fun of the Burgenlanders. No one outside of Vienna likes the Viennese . . . When my husband is asked where he comes from, he answers with the name of a city he spent only his first five years in. I couldn’t imagine myself ever saying “I come from Brown Deer.”
I basically emigrated from the States at the ripe old age of 20. I came back for one year to finish my undergrad studies. I came back again for 7 months to finish grad school. I have had many month long vacations there over the years. But . . . total it all together, it still doesn’t come close to the 31+ years that I have lived here in Austria.
Have those 31 years gotten me closer to being Austrian? Hardly. But yesterday, dancing in the disco along with my bearded colleague in his fairy butterfly bride costume and a hoard of young costumed confetti-throwing kids, I moved a tiny notch closer.
We said goodbye to one of our three refugee-adoptees a few weeks back. Our Somalian. Of all three, he had made maybe the greatest effort on the social side of his particular equation. He did everything he could to fit in and make friends. He had a huge contagious smile and laugh, accepted every invitation to our house, was determined to finally win a round of Level 8, participated in my husband’s cooking lessons with enthusiasm, and gave us thoughtful Christmas presents. He went to school and learned German. He liked almost everything here except that there were no other Somalians left in his house, in fact, no other Africans. Most refugees feel alone, but that made him feel even more alone. With a lot of help, he found a new place to live in Vienna – an apartment with 8 young men of various nations – two of them Somalian – with friendly and welcomed supervision of the local social welfare office. He has kept in regular contact with my husband since leaving here – so far he seems to be doing well. He is currently looking for a new school that will accept him.
I miss him.
I’ve talked to so many people who have been involved in helping refugees and certain themes have crystallized. The most critical ones are those who had a “bad experience” and feel disappointment. They thought they were going to change the lives of the objects of their patronage. Make them see the light and realize the necessity of adopting Austrian cultural attitudes and norms. Turn them into desirable new citizens. As if a few dinners and talks could turn a forced-by-destiny survival artist into a socially conscientious, democratic participant. These patrons were baffled when their protect-ee continued to take full advantage of every freebie that came their way – and there are a lot of them right now – with no thought of paying it back.
I don’t know how many times I have asked people “How would you act if you had lost absolutely everything except the clothes on your back? Wouldn’t you take everything you could get?” It has little or no effect. The disappointed patron remains disappointed. The recipient of their social largess turned out to be undeserving. Payback never materialized.
I keep saying over and over – “You can’t do this work – helping the refugees – with rose-colored glasses.” You can’t change their destinies. You can’t save them.
You can be kind. You can be hospitable. And that is all you can do.
It is worth doing.
I have no idea where they came from, but we inherited this ancient German encyclopedia set and these books have spent most of their lives since collecting dust in my library. Recently, however, I took one off the shelf on a whim and gave it a closer look. My first discovery was the old German script which I find quite difficult to read. Then I looked at the copyright and saw that these books were published in 1937 in Leipzig, Germany. Almost exactly 80 years ago.
1937 . . .
If memory and my high school history teachers serve, 1937 was four years after Hitler’s election to German Chancellor and one year before he annexed Austria, kicking off the march toward World War II in the process. I wondered, what was the mindset of the people who let these developments happen? What were the facts of their world? Here on my library shelf were five volumes with the answers to my questions.
I first tried to think of non-political things I could look up. Things that might have been new at that time. My husband suggested “Jazz”.
After struggling a while with the kooky letters, I learned that Jazz “arose out of English and Scottish folksongs and operetta music as well as the plantation work songs and religious singing of the North American negro and their dances which stemmed from Africa. Jazz is foreign to the German music sensibility.”
The word “negro” stood out. In German it was “Neger” and that is a word that is no longer socially acceptable around here. I assume, however, that no one in 1937 Germany had a problem with it.
I looked it up and read about where the negros come from and all the places they were shipped off to as slaves (“See ‘the Negro Question’”), a litany of their – seemingly unattractive – physical attributes, and (dubious) cultural influences, leading to the fact that: “The power of state-building is inherently lacking in the negro.”
Apparently, (I’m paraphrasing now) their industry is limited and mostly agricultural. Only one tribe in Liberia developed a real written language. Their mostly religious artwork only reached any heights in one part of West Africa. There seems to be a general musical talent. “Intellectually they rapidly developed, but the negro quickly lagged behind the people of European cultures; he is not suited to autonomous cultural work but does not die out when coming into contact with higher cultures, rather resigns himself to it.”
This little nugget of wisdom was immediately followed by the term “Negerfrage” (“the Negro Question”), meaning the dangers of racial mixing and the “negro-ification” of white peoples in places where they live in close proximity. It is a long, convoluted, and disgraceful entry which I stopped reading after the third sentence.
Of course there was one more thing I had to look up.
I read about Adolf’s youth and long (seemingly heroic) struggle to finally be elected leader (with 36.8% of the votes). I “learned” how “very early on he became a decisive enemy of narcissism as well as Judaism and realized that nationalism and socialism only seemed to be antithetical, and that the German worker had to be restored to his traditional role.” How he turned a small Workers’ Party into a movement. How after gaining power, he successfully dismantled the longstanding dominance of political parties and the parliamentary establishment. “In foreign policy, he stood for a policy of peace and accommodation based on German honor and equal status.” Or, in simpler terms, he promised to make Germany great again. After that, he consolidated all the power and proceeded to get over 90% of the votes for basically everything he wanted. And there the story ended. For the time being.
To be continued . . .
I’ve heard we are living in a “post-factual” world – probably because we have become used to powerful people saying things in front of live cameras and then denying having said it two days later.
But that can’t be true because, clearly, facts are not static things – they are the always changing, commonly accepted perceptions of reality as we grow and learn.
I would say we are living in an era where facts are simply buried under a mountain of manure. Sort of like in Germany in 1937.
Our outgoing president reaffirmed his faith in people just yesterday and I agree with him. I still hope and believe that 80 years from now, people will look back at the encyclopedias of 2017 and have no trouble distinguishing truth from today’s transient turds.