Chickens in the Outhouse

 

Most people don’t know this, but there are two countries named “Austria”. Or at least in my mind there are. One is the place I came to after graduating from college and it was filled with highly educated professional people who were well-informed on social, cultural, economic, political and international issues. The second Austria was the one I spent two months in as an AFS student at the age of 17. It was a rural village of 108 people in about 15 houses, wedged between a military training base and the Iron Curtain. 99% of its inhabitants left school after the 8th Grade to become full-time farmers, butchers, seamstresses, mechanics, etc. before going on to intermarry. The time elapsed between my arrivals in these two Austrias was either only 5 years or an entire century. Take your pick.

It’s this earlier place that has been on my mind for a while now. After realizing that I was already starting to write this post in my head, I decided to skip ahead a few childhood journals in my “Cringe-worthy” series and read the one I wrote during that last high school summer and my first experience abroad.

It was a trip.

———————————————-

 

Shortly before I left, the long-awaited information package from the exchange program arrived. I ripped it open and intensively skimmed through the pages. The first surprise was that my host sisters were 2 and 3 years old, my host mother and father were only 22 and 26 respectively. Then I read that host grandpa was in his 50s and host grandma (“owner of the farm, practical head of the family”) was in her 70s. Hmmm? Oh yeah, and they were all farmers. Their daily life description consisted of work, watching TV and occasional day trips to relatives. The qualities they were looking for in the exchange student were “able to adapt, uncomplicated, not demanding any luxory (sic)”.

To be honest, there wasn’t much in these few lines to increase my excitement. I was the youngest child in my family with no experience of younger siblings. My baby-sitting jobs mostly had me watching TV downstairs from sleeping kids. I was also a city girl. With the exception of some horseback riding lessons, my exposure to country living was minimal. I’m fairly sure my only face to face encounters with farm animals up to that point had happened in the meat sections of supermarkets. I had almost no references to help me understand what I was heading toward. Despite all the hints in the information package, visions of the Sound of Music continued to happily dance in my head and my only real worry was whether I would be able to find a curling iron once I got there. I boarded a plane.

 

Epic Start

My first journal entry, the morning after arriving, was mostly about homesickness and . . . “feeling out of place”, but that first evening is one of the moments I can still remember distinctly 40 years later. I entered the kitchen and was led through the family bedroom to what would be “my room” for the next two months. That was it. The entire living space for the five of us when we weren’t sleeping was that kitchen. I remember then having to go to the bathroom and making the classic German language mistake of asking where the “Badezimmer” was. (In Austrian houses, the “bathroom” is for bathing and the toilet usually has its own separate room.) I was led back to a second room off the kitchen in which stood an old bathtub, a sink, a washing machine, and this thing. I stared at it and thought “What IS that?? It can’t be . . . ? . . .”. Then I noticed the electrical cord. My host mother, Edna, was clearly amused at me contemplating the laundry spinner and then led me back through the kitchen, out the door into the courtyard and on to the outhouse. As I wrote in my journal, “I almost cried when I saw [it].” There was a pile of old newspapers in there for wiping, but then Edna handed me a roll of toilet paper. She said it was just for me and asked me to keep it hidden and in my room. If her daughters saw it, they would demand to have some too.

My second biggest journal complaint was about the dinner they served me: “hot milk, bread and butter”. Little did I know then that it would be not only my dinner, but also my breakfast, every day for the next two months (except when pig lard was substituted for the butter). Food and the outhouse would become two of the recurring themes of the summer. It’s strange to see now that many of the others also showed up in that first journal entry. On my first full day, Edna showed me around the village, pointing out the Milk House and the “Club 3000” — an old chicken house that the village teenagers had transformed into a little disco. Later she took me to the nearby “city” (where I bought a curling iron). Most importantly, she gave me my first job.

 

“I did a new job today.”                

Bringing the full milk cans to the milk house, bringing back the emptied ones, and washing them out became my daily task for the summer. But each day brought other types of farm work to try out as well. I worked in the stalls and helped with harvests. I cut grass with a scythe and emptied wagonloads of hay into the cellar with a pitchfork. I hoed and chopped and raked and drove a tractor. I stripped bark from logs and stacked bales of straw. I hung up laundry. Lots of laundry. And I broke tools, lots of them, among other things.

  

“Chickens are the most disgusting creatures.”       

I didn’t mind most of the jobs (though I did write that “shoveling manure is revolting”). It was nice to have something to do and all these activities were new to me. There was one big exception. One day Oma signaled to me by way of crooking her up-turned finger that I should follow her. As we walked toward the chopping block, she scooped up a chicken with one hand and then picked up an axe with the other. WHACK! She handed me the upside-down flapping headless thing and said “Pluck!” Trying hard not to gag, I daintily pulled one feather out and then the next before Edna came and saved me. In under a minute, that bird was nude.

My objection to this particular job had nothing to do with sympathy for the dead bird. In fact, one of the funniest things for me to read in this journal was how much I hated chickens.

 

“little monsters”         

There were two other little creatures that I complained about almost as much as chickens – my two host-sisters.  There are stories in there of them taking food away from me, hitting me with an umbrella, calling me stupid . . . the list continues. Edna left me pretty much on my own when it came to dealing with them, which I found even more exasperating. But as the summer progressed, occasional nice moments with them pop up. Near the end I write about how each day began with them running into my room at 8 am to wake me up . . .

 

“going out”

The fact that my host sisters were so young was not such a problem in the end because, it turned out, there were a lot of other teenagers in the village to meet and party with. On my second day there, it was already arranged that a neighbor girl would come and get me: Destination Club 3000. Basically, every teenager in the village was there that night (I wonder why). It was the beginning of what would become an issue over the summer: me “going out”.  I did it a lot.

As I got to know the kids, I started to understand all the interrelationships in the village as well as the external perspective of my living situation and my host family. The biggest revelation, though, had – of course! – to do with plumbing.

 

Drama

 Me being 17 years old and . . . well, . . . me (“never met a boy I couldn’t get a crush on”), there ensued a series of somewhat sorry flirtations that set the village tongues a-wagging. The first was the village butcher/bad boy and I liked him till he went skinny-dipping right in front of all of us. (“I was so shocked!” I declared dramatically in my journal on Day 9.) I moved on to Crush Number Two, whose two most attractive qualities, if I am honest, were his driver’s license and old piece of clunk car. That one lasted about three weeks – until the car died, quickly followed by my interest. The third (potential) crush never went anywhere, because he was a cousin to my host family and much too smart to get himself entangled. The fact that he already had two girlfriends (and I, at least according to the locals, had two boyfriends) might also have had something to do with it.

The funny thing is that, even with my tentative command of German, I wrote often about how much easier it was to talk to these boys than to my (reserved) boyfriend back home. I realized even way back then that the pre-determined ending date of these relationships freed me to just be myself. Still, once a letter finally arrived from said boyfriend, he became my new crush for the final two weeks of the summer.

 

Gossip Generator

Despite the fact these flirtations included almost no physical contact, village gossipers had a field day with my exploits and corrupting influence on the local youth. I unintentionally fanned the flames by becoming close to the one girl in the village (the sister of Crush #2) who was attending high school and spoke excellent English. As I eventually found out, their two (much younger) siblings were born well after the death of their father, and that it was my host Opa who had been spending a lot of time there “helping the young widow out”.  After learning that village open secret, I understood some of the dynamics in my own household better, not to mention why my own host Oma was the biggest gossip generator of them all.

 

“Oma is a killer.”

Oma made it clear to me in a myriad of ways that 1) she didn’t approve of my being there, 2) so I should at least work, and 3) even though I was working, she didn`t approve of me or my work. My journal is filled with episodes where she demonstrated her feelings. She told me repeatedly how bad my cooking was. She yelled at me when I used the phone or the wrong pan. She turned off the lights on leaving a room, even if I was still sitting there. I eventually learned not to take her seriously, but for a few exceptions. The first was the way she promoted rivalry between her two granddaughters, always praising one of them and criticizing the other. Or making only one bottle of milk and letting them fight over it. The second unforgivable transgression was when I was finally let in on the big secret – and I’m not talking about her husband’s affair and love children. No, this was something much worse. It turned out that over in her rooms in a different tract of the farmhouse, there was a perfectly modern bathroom with a flush toilet. No one else in the family was allowed to use it. Scandalous!

The third transgression that I just couldn’t get over was when she complained and gossiped about Edna – saying she was lazy and never worked when that was all she did from morning to night! Unfortunately, my host father, Lou (Edna’s husband and Oma’s son) was not much help. I think he had learned to stay clear of the fray.

 

 

 

“I had a long talk with Edna today and I’m feeling much better.”

 One of the strangest surprises on rereading my journal 40 years later, was how important my friendship with Edna became for the entire experience. She and I would talk a lot while we were working together, and her kindness and openness always helped. She made me feel better about going out with the village kids by telling me that their previous AFS student never went anywhere and that it was a much bigger problem. (“I just cause family strife and break a lot of tools.”)  Apparently, homesickness got the best of my predecessor and she ended up leaving early. Edna also accepted my close friendship with the one girl in the village most likely to cause conflict in the host family (and Edna was the one to explain the whole sordid history to me). When she saw that I didn’t like a particular type of work (like shovelling manure or plucking chickens), she never asked me to do it again. When one of the ridiculous rumors about me reached my ears, Edna and I could laugh about it together. She admitted that she also had to deal with gossip and that she had trouble getting along with Oma too; she advised me to do what she did: just tune her out. The bond between us grew slowly and consistently throughout the summer. One time, she told me about a crime show she had seen the night before – it was about a woman who murdered her mother-in-law. Our eyes met and we both tried hard to hide our smiles because Oma was sitting nearby.

I eventually realized why I was there. It was not only to supply some companionship, but also to serve as a new target for Oma, taking the heat off of Edna for a while. I fulfilled that second purpose exceptionally well. As the date of my departure approached, she began to get weepy at random moments. I understood the full palette of emotions behind those tears.

Near the very end of my stay, I finally succeeded in merging my two circles. I persuaded Edna and Lou to come with me to the Club 3000 for what I guess now was my farewell party. In one of my favorite pictures of them, they are sitting in the club, Lou’s arm is around her and he is kissing her cheek. Her laughing face is positively beaming.

——————————————————–

I have gone back to visit the village and my host family twice over the years: once during my Junior Year Abroad in Germany and again, 15 years later with my husband. I was surprised to see that almost everything looked exactly the same, right down to the wallpaper in the kitchen. (My husband was even more surprised that there were people in Austria who still lived like this.) There were a few new additions, though, like a porcelain seat in the outhouse and two more daughters. If I remember right, Oma had passed away and my closest girlfriend had married the family’s cousin. (I suppose those two events weren’t entirely unrelated.) We had a really nice visit.

Despite the brief intersection of these two worlds, I still have trouble – even to this day – merging the two Austrias in my head. But I am beginning to suspect that has less to do with their differences than with my own psychology. . . .

 

Two Worlds

. . . . because my biggest discoveries in reading this old journal were about me. I recognized the quirks and qualities in my 17-year-old self that would lead me to become a lifelong traveler, the most obvious of which were my roving eye and my roving heart. But it went deeper. I felt free to be myself in foreign environments. I saw the benefits of relationships with pre-determined expiration dates. I found it easy to lead a dual life – to handle the cognitive dissonance that allowed me to write “I love this place!” and follow it with something like “In just two days I will be able to say I am going home in a week!” At 17 I could already allow myself to feel Heimweh (homesickness) and Fernweh (wanderlust) at the same time which somehow freed me to live in the moment. They struck a compromise and coexisted peacefully side-by-side within me. “I live in two worlds” is a statement I have made many times, in many different contexts. It’s a feeling I have carried with me my entire life. It has allowed me to leave places and people, knowing simultaneously that I may never see them again and that they will always be there. It has given me my somewhat harsh ability to silently say, “Goodbye and have a nice life! What’s next?”

 

Forgotten Boyfriend #1

 

Cringe-worthy – Part 5

 

First Best Austrian Friend and I once debated the greatest capacities of human nature. He said “love” and “tolerance” and I countered with “generosity” and “respect”. Love – or at least romantic love – I told him, was really a self-centered emotion at its core, not to mention the fact that it has been made trite through overuse. And tolerance was a downright arrogant attitude. “I tolerate you. I tolerate that your existence occurs simultaneously with my own.” Should one be grateful for being tolerated? That might be a good first step, but it is entirely insufficient to truly dismantling prejudice. No, people could do better than that.

I believe in kindness. I believe in giving what you can with no expectation of payback. And I believe that if someone reads this and thinks it is a bunch of sentimental crap and that the world doesn’t work this way, then he/she will have reasons and experiences to back that idea up and they are right. That’s where respect comes in. It doesn’t mean I will change my own views one iota.

I thought I was always this way – that it was in my nature – and that my upbringing and all the luck I have had in life simply reinforced my natural inclinations.  I thought I would get glimpses of this essential nature as I read through my childhood journals.

I didn’t.

On March 21st 1978 (at the ripe old age of 16) I wrote about a silly argument I had had with my boyfriend “C” at a party. (It should be noted here that I had since completely erased this boyfriend from my memory.)

Here’s March 22nd :

C. called me and apologized & I did too. We’re all made up. J
He was in a bad mood because he had just found out that his dad told his mom that after the divorce, (which coincidentally is on C’s birthday), he didn’t want any ties with that house. That is so shitty. C. & his dad are, or were, really close too. It hurt C. so much that he started to cry. The whole thing gets me sick. His family (except for the brother) is so shitty. It depresses me . . . .

journal-3

 

 

Cringe-worthy – The Series – Christmas Edition

I wanted to write a nostalgic Christmas post, so I scoured my old childhood diaries for entries dated December 24th or 25th. Here is a typical example:

xmas-2016

So . . .  not so nostalgic. What am I going to do now? Technically there is still 1 hour and 19 minutes left of Christmas (9 hours and 19 minutes, no, make that 18 minutes, if you are on American time.) So I can still get a meaningful message out to my blogworld friends just under the wire . . .

 

I decided to write about last night’s Christmas Eve celebration. Our family unit plus mother-in-law plus our three refugee sons. My husband and I had decided that we would keep to all our usual traditions – the wreath, the visit to dear neighbors, the incense, the tree, the toasts, the music, the candles, the presents, the feast . . .

I worried in advance if it would all be weird. There would be 8 of us:

3 Christians,

1 Agnostic,

2 devout Muslims,

1 slightly less devout Muslim, and

1 Heathen.

All together, all ostensibly celebrating the birth of Christ.

 

It wasn’t weird – it was wonderful. Our boys came with presents wrapped in Santa-themed paper. Their only problem in singing along to “Silent Night” was that the German version was playing (“Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht . . . “) and they only knew the English version. During dinner, we clearly identified the pork, beef, chicken and fish dishes so that everyone could observe their own religious (and culinary) traditions. As the heathen in the crowd, I have no such traditions, but, nevertheless, I religiously avoided eating the chicken. The best part of the evening was being able to hug them all – both at the tree and then when saying goodbye. Up to then, it had all been only smiles and polite handshakes.

For the past half year I have been worried about  . . . (to steal from both Kate and Joan) – where is the world heading and why are we sitting in this handbasket?  Yesterday made me feel better about all these questions again.  Concentrate on those around you. Notice their goodness and be good to them in return.

I’m satisfied.

B(i)ffs

Cringe-worthy – Part 3

I just finished my youthful Journal #3 – my “sweet sixteen” one. Another blast from the past. It was obnoxious and revelatory in equal parts.

Despite my hopes that my earlier relationship fickleness and politically incorrect language would be gone – only the second of those two was (essentially) fulfilled. There were more names of classmates – lots of names! – that I had to look up in old yearbooks to identify, despite the fact that these people (well, actually “kids” back then) were obviously very important to me at particular moments of that time. Of the ones I remembered, it turns out that the sequence and length of these “relationships” was different to the memories I had – different to the way I have told my stories over the years. And I’m not talking about boys here – I am talking about my girlfriends. My bff’s as they call them now.

Before reading Journal #3, I would have told you this:

  1. I wasn’t part of a clique. I simply had a manageable number of friends for organizing weekend activities. There were 12 of us in all.
  2. I had four boyfriends in High School.

 

Back to the future, here is the now updated version:

  1. I apparently had several experiences in which soon-to-be-new bff told me all the nasty things soon-to-be-former bff was saying about me behind my back. In some cases, I swallowed it all whole hog. It never occurred to me that new bff might have an agenda. I bounced around like a jai alai ball from (girlfriend) allegiance to allegiance with nearly the same ferocity as I did from (boyfriend) crush to crush, because . . .
  2. There were more than four. But the majority of them strike me now as fairly fluid and short-lived affairs, regardless of how very seriously I took them at the time. Based on the fact that the word “jerk” gets used a lot after-the-fact, I suspect that I was willing to “go with” a fair number of Biffs.

The upshot of Journal #3 is that it told me a different story of my own young adulthood. It showed me that there was fluidity, velocity, bounce, and rebound in ALL of my relationships – with boys and girls alike. They had flux capacitators built into them. It turns out that half of them sped up to 88 miles per hour and were erased from time.

After finishing the last page and closing Journal #3, I found myself asking if this all said something about me.

Or is this just the way 16 year olds are?

Sweet.

 

“Do Over!”

 

Cringe-worthy – Part 2

Here’s hoping childhood Journal #2 represents the low point (– actually I should say “high point”) of my latest project. Covering approximately ¾’s of my time as a 15 year old, it continues the series of “Best Day of My Life!!” entries including the name of some boy I had to search for in an old yearbook to remember. These “relationships” had an average duration of three weeks, two of which I spent either worrying about “being used” or pining after some other, better (unattainable) option. (Do I need to point out the irony here?)

The obnoxiousness of this journal must have become apparent to me as I was writing it – although I never state that directly. All I know is that the notebook is only half-full and ends with a To Do list:

journals 2 and 3

Journal #3 (underneath) begins on the same date upon returning from the store. Based on the handwriting, the content, the writing style and the absence of exclamation points and heart-shaped doodles, it seems I matured about two years during that walk to Drew’s.

I’ve only read the first few entries of Journal #3, but am already hopeful that I have successfully passed the Point of Peak Cringe. Keeping my fingers crossed.

Cease Your Over-Manifestations

 

(Cringe-worthy – Part 1)

I just finished childhood journal #1 and it wasn’t quite as bad as I expected. Spanning two years, from age 13 to 15½, it wasn’t really like a diary. It contained a lot of doodles, jokes, lists, pictures I drew, a few Bionic Man stickers from my boxes of Lucky Charms, my favorite family sayings (“Cease your over-manifestations of anti-social tendencies!” and “But the theoretical implications are alone staggering!”) and one rant about my mom making me do chores (“So unfair!”), immediately followed by this written on the opposite page:

journal1

On a more humbling note, my 54 year old’s memory of her 13 year old self turned out to be fairly true. It seems I never met a boy I couldn’t get a crush on. And I never had a crush that lasted for more than a few weeks (mostly because some new boy came along). The only saving grace is that – just like with my mom rant – I seemed capable of some self-reflection even at that time. A few weeks before my 14th birthday, I catalogued “The Guys in My Life* – *As of Valentine’s Day, 1976”.  It’s a list of names (a lot of them unfamiliar to me now), each one followed by a short commentary:  sort of, eh, mistake, chased but never caught, the first real one, the second real one, I give up!, the third real one, could be never was, and  experience. This was followed by:

journal2

It’s kind of a miracle that I’ve stayed married for 27 years.

I did a lot of shifting around on the girlfriend and “best friend” fronts too. The journal starts with a euphoric declaration that K.S. was now my best friend. (“Best day of my life!!”). Four pages and two months later, we mutually decided that we were not best friends after all. (“But we’re still good friends.”)  K.S. then moved away and quickly disappeared completely from my life.

Later, I mention the “cool crowd” and the “cheerleader crowd” in my High School, neither of which I belonged to. I hatched a plan to find every girl these two cliques had cut and invited them all over to my house for a party. According to my journal, “we were really rowdy and had a blast”. Of course, I made a list of all their names. And just like with the list of boys above, I can’t remember now who half of these girls were. But the other half? They stayed my friends throughout high school and, even now, over thirty-five years and several thousand miles later, there’s still a connection.

The only truly disconcerting thing about Journal #1 was some of the words I used. It stunned me to read them and discover they were ever a part of my vocabulary. I can’t even bring myself to type them now. The least offensive one was “quier” (sic), which I am pretty sure just meant “strange” at the time and was not yet used to insult gay people (geez, I hope not!) Where did that budding capacity for self-reflection go when it came to my word choices? Were these words I tossed around outside the confines of my journal? Was I so oblivious to their meanings? Or was I just trying them out or, even worse, trying to sound cool? If it was the last one, I can say definitively to my 13 year old self that it was the uncoolest thing about you.

Cringe-worthy (The Prologue)

 

I have strayed.

When I started this blog almost two years ago (anonymously, unpublished except to Lyart, and on a different platform) I had a sort of amorphous idea about what I was doing.

First, I wanted to write.

I have always loved writing – the process itself – the way the words just came out and formed unexpected ideas in mysterious ways. I especially loved those moments when The Flow happened. Sitting with pen in hand, (or later with fingers poised over the typewriter, and then later the word processor, the PC, and finally the laptop keyboard), I would get to a place where firings from some indiscriminate part of my brain between the conscious and subconscious realms would streak their way from nerve to nerve, all the way down to my fingers who then seemed to move of their own accord as words, sentences, paragraphs almost magically appeared on paper or screen before my eyes. It was cathartic. It was magic. The words weren’t all that special in themselves; in fact, they were mostly unworthy of even banal consumption, much less critical acclaim. But they came from a surprising place whose existence had been unknown to me. They made me realize how much there must be in there, and then out there, to discover and explore. They turned me into a traveler.

Second, I wanted to write my stories – before they disappear into the Land of the Demented Forgotten. My original concept was to take impulses from my current life and use them as a springboard into some story or significant moment of my past. I wanted to reflect how life is not really linear, but rounded. We keep circling back, returning to places and things we know. We have routines and comforting habits and seasonal rituals . . . I stuck to that concept pretty well for quite a few months weeks. Then slowly but surely, this blog turned into something my sister accurately described as “memoirs in real time”. In other words, an online diary.

That wasn’t the plan.

All this introspection probably comes from the fact that I made great strides in getting my sister to start a blog of her own. I’ve been following her first experiments and her process of figuring out what she wants to do and how she wants to do it. Naturally it has made me think about my own blog’s evolution. Since I don’t really know where I am going at the moment, I feel the urge to return to my roots. And now I have found someone to help me. My younger self.

I suppose I had a lot of possessions when I left the States over 30 years ago. There was a huge stamp collection, for one thing, that finally got sold just a few years ago. There was probably some furniture and a stereo. Lots of books. Clothes that didn’t fit into the two suitcases I brought with me. And I’m sure a lot more. Over the years it mostly got tossed, or lost in a shuffle, or given away, or transported across the Atlantic in a giant canvas US Mail bag. Eventuamailbaglly, all that was left in the States was my ten-speed (“The Rejuvenator”) and the contents of one black footlocker in my sister’s guest room closet.

 

footlocker

I figure I have been back to visit that footlocker between 20 and 25 times. Each time I opened it up and there they were: my childhood journals. (Not “diaries” mind you; diaries were lame and for prisses.) Each time I briefly contemplated taking them back with me when I left. And then I picked up one and opened it to a random page and read. Cringe. I picked up a different one and read a paragraph. Again, cringe. I tossed the notebook back in and shut the lid. Maybe next visit, I thought.

Well, this year, the notebooks finally got to accompany me on my flight back to Austria. I have set myself the task of reading all of them in order and know already that it is going to be a humbling experience. From the little snatches I have read so far (while figuring out what order they go in), I assume I will be reading a lot about the boys I grew up and went to school with. Lots and lots of boys’ names are in there, often two in a single entry. (And no, I didn’t have a lot of boyfriends during my school years, although, apparently, not

definitely not diaries
                     definitely not diaries

for lack of trying.) I also seem to use the words “depressed” and “rowdy” a lot. On the bright side, there are no smiley faces or hearts. I don’t dot the letters “I” or “j” with little flowers. I also don’t end every sentence with an exclamation point. Those are little things, but they will help.

 

 

 

Time will tell if this plan will become the masochistic exercise I expect or if one or two little gems might be gleaned out of the rough. Best case scenario – maybe I will be able to start a new recurring blog feature. So, watch for it!

“Cringe-worthy. The Series.”

“Missives from My Teenage Self”