The Final Four (Times Four)

1

If you live anywhere in the world outside of the United States, then the Number One thing on your mind is probably not the pwesident’s latest outrage; it is the world soccer championship. It’s all anyone talks about around here. I would love to dive into that wonderful distraction, but, unfortunately, I don’t give a flying (insert your word of choice) about soccer. All I know is that there are four rounds of finales and we are halfway through the first of those. In German it’s the “Achtelfinale” – in English, it is the one that comes before the quarter-finals. (The translator tells me that is “the final 16” – i.e. the final 4 x 4).

2

I have also just finished the “Final Four” weeks of the teaching year, during which all non-work aspects of a normal life are suspended as one spends 24/7 on school-related activities. In my case, that included helping to organize and execute the sports week, three field trips, the school festival, the graduation ceremony and poster, the year-in-review slideshow, and the practice tests and university exams (written and oral). In the middle of all that I invited my 11 Sekundaria kids to a sleepover at my house, and, oh yeah, I wrote 24 individual “this was your school year” letters – which is our alternative to report cards.

3

So now the students are all set free and I just have the final “Post-readying Week” to get through – four more days and my summer vacation will officially begin!

4

Finally, and tragically, I am now down to the final four of my original chicken flock (of eight). After successfully re-homing my rooster, three of my original hens – the hatching ones – all died on the same day. It took us a while to figure out why. It was mites. Millions of them, infesting our henhouse. We have got it mostly under control now, but I still blame myself for not figuring out that we had a problem sooner.  I no longer call myself a chicken whisperer.

 

But I don’t want to end on a depressing note. So I will add that the number four comes up a fifth time in this post. Starting four days from now, on July 5th, (the same day the school year is over for real) the second half of my fourth year of blogging will officially begin. And I have a plan to find my way back to regular posting and reading.

I have approximately 16 special, loyal blog friends  – the kind where communication goes both ways – or it did until I went on my blog-hiatus. I want to find my way back and part of that is the need and want to catch up on these particular people.

I am going to do one a day. Read everything he or she has written. Do some liking and commenting. Maybe dedicate my own post of the day to this person. With some of the more prolific ones, this might take quite a while (Hi, Kate!). Others will be done quite quickly (Hi, Quirkyone – you really should post more often!) In any case, if I do one a day, I should be done exactly the day before my sister plus hubby arrive for their visit and four days before we all take off for Ireland. Clearly, it is all meant to be.

It feels great to have a life again. And a plan.

And if you happen to be one of those 16 blog friends, I can only shout out a virtual warning . . . prepare for incoming! Or to put it another way . . .

“Fore!!”

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It Ain’t Over Till the Fat Lady Tumbles

In my second-to-last post, I let it slip that I had been to the opera. In Vienna. The Vienna State Opera. (Can you tell I am feeling pretty good about myself at this moment?) My mother-in-law (also known as “Omili”) had invited the whole family to performance of “L’Elisir D’Amore”  (which is Italian for “The Elixir of Love”) by Gaetano Donizetti. It is not one of those operas that make you wonder if there are worse things than death (think: Wagner) and it’s not one with an aria that can make a prostitute cry (ala “Pretty Woman”), but it was a nice, if somewhat shallow, story. It was basically “boy meets girl, boy gets girl”  . . . with a little help from a bottle of cheap red wine. What made the opera a success was the wonderful singer/actors who not only clearly gave their all, but who all seemed like . . . realpeople. The kind you want to have a conversation or a beer with and tell them how good they are. The kind who let the audience know that the long and exuberant applause they are getting really means something to them.

And then there were the historic surroundings. The impressive building that is the Viennese Opera House – finished over 150 years ago – in which an uncountable number of famous opera singers and audience members had since . . . engaged. Unfortunately, I only had a minute to take a few shots of the entrance and hall – the boxes, the ceiling, the cool monitor in front of me,

and the empty seat next to me . . .

The one my mother-in-law should have been sitting in.

But she didn’t make it to the opera that night – thanks to an instant of incredible bad luck on the way there – one of those “simply in the wrong place at the wrong time” accidents. The kind where you spend hours afterwards obsessing . . . “if we had only not stopped to go to the bathroom . . .” or “if we had only chosen a different route to the park . . .” But we didn’t. We chose the subway. That required us to change trains and the transfer included two steep escalators with one long hallway between them. We never made it to the second one, because the first turned out to be “la scala mobile della sfortuna” (which is Italian for “The Escalator of Bad Luck”).

An extremely rotund little lady standing one step above Omili lost her balance and tumbled backward. Omili was catapulted awkwardly backward too – but, luckily, my husband was behind her to break the fall. Still – with two hip operations behind her, the situation was scary. And painful.

We all managed to get off the escalator and helped Omili to take some careful steps to the nearest . . . nothing! There were no benches anywhere to be seen. No elevators to the street level either. Just that long hallway leading to the next set of escalators, leading to the next platform for the next set of subway trains, which all were obviously no longer an option . . .

Supported by a child on either side, Omili put on a brave face as we started along one of the long hallways in search of assistance.  We tried to assess the extent of her injury and thought it was a good sign that she could take steps. Then I saw a subway worker up ahead walking toward us. He stopped to talk to the rotund woman who had caused our misery. When I reached them, I asked if a wheelchair could be brought.

“Do I look like I am an EMT??” he asked me arrogantly.

We stood there and I stared at him as the rest of my family reached us. My sister-in-law had heard his answer and laid into him in a polite yet assertive way that awed me. He quickly became more helpful and called for an ambulance.

The next helpers to arrive were the police. Well, actually one policeman and one police woman. We were now standing at the bottom of the up-escalator to the next platform. We chatted for a minute or two about the accident. The policeman then decided to go up and wait for the ambulance while the policewoman took down our information. She asked for my mother-in-law’s name and address, and then . . . she seemed to have come to the end of her repertoire. There was a confused silence.

“So . . . are you enjoying your stay in Vienna?” she asked.

Despite her pain, Omili laughed a bit and admitted that she had had better visits.

We all stood there in an awkward silence. Luckily for the policewoman, the commuters coming down the escalator toward us helped her out.  One after another they saw her, breathlessly approached, and then reported “There is a groper up there!!” Or, “There is a man up there grabbing young women!” Six or seven people did this in rapid succession.

The policewoman seemed a bit confused. She asked us if we thought she should go up there, seeing as how the emergency services were on the way. We assured her that it was probably the right thing to do. She left.

Four EMT’s arrived very shortly after that, but they also didn’t have a wheelchair with them. So two of them left to go get one and the other two stood around and engaged in small talk. In the meantime, the policewoman came back. It seemed her partner had things basically under control up there. Another awkward silence ensued. Now that help was here, maybe she should go back upstairs to her partner, she said. We agreed that it seemed like a good idea. She said goodbye to Omili and added, cheerily:

“Have fun!”

Things ended up working out about as well as could be hoped for. Omili was taken to the hospital and checked out. Nothing was broken to everyone’s relief. She opted to stay the night there and insisted that the rest of us still go to the opera as planned.

When freak accidents like this happen there are at least three ways to look at it.

1) You can say it was just simply dumb bad luck. Shit happens. Or . . .

2) You can look for some reason why it happened. What brought this on? Or . . .

3) You can look for some silver lining. Actually we were lucky because it could have been much worse . . .

I am torn between options 2 and 3.

On the one hand, take a close look at the first picture at the start of this post. It is the unused ticket – Seat 13 in Row 13. Isn’t that a sign?

On the other hand, what if the fat lady hadn’t tumbled and we had made it up that second escalator and on to the platform where the groper was standing? And what if he had seen us?  Then again, one of the witnesses had said he was grabbing “young” girls – so we probably would have been safe. Thanks to Omili, we will never know.

 

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.

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,

ABSURD.

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.

 

Schwarzfahren

 

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.

Sh**thole American

 

Although I sometimes feel like one, I should explain upfront that the title of this blog post does not refer to me personally . . . .

. . . yet.

 

As the mother of two African children who became proud American citizens just six months ago today, I scream out to that whole continent:

“I am sorry!”

 

To the one Haitian American I know, a wonderful woman named Nancy, who just happens to be a judge in my hometown now and who invited us to watch an incredibly moving naturalization ceremony (an experience I consider a privilege to have had to  this day), I yell out:

“I am sorry!”

 

I am ashamed of our president.

It remains to be seen if I become ashamed of my country.