We’ll Always Have Pittsburgh

 

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume everyone reading this has had a relationship-gone-bad somewhere in his/her past. In the beginning, you seemed to be in complete agreement when it came to world view, passions, dislikes, etc. When other things were getting you down, this person could make you feel great again. Your contact intensified, consumed more and more of your time, and you didn’t notice for a long time that the slow and stealthy cycle of self-destructiveness had begun.

It started with little things – maybe a smug quip that rubbed you the wrong way. You began to notice how they repeated the same words and phrases and stories. You got tired of rants about the unprecedented outrageous-ness of others. Then lying became an issue. You suddenly recognized how they felt superior to – and simultaneously put upon by – the entire world. If you didn’t watch your step, you might just fall out of favor, too. At some point, the last straw dropped and you realized it was time to get out.

That’s where I am now. I’ve made my decision.

I am breaking up with MSNBC.

 

(You thought I was talking about the disillusioned Twump voter, didn’t you? I admit, the description would probably fit . . . )

 

Something snapped in my brain while listening to the coverage of Twump’s rosy garden speech on the Paris climate treaty. The MSNBC commentary dutifully pointed out his relentless string of lies, and yet, it was . . . lacking. I care deeply about this issue and it seemed to me that they cared more deeply about something else . . . exactly what, I am not sure – righteousness? ratings? I started surfing for something more . . . something more real . . . and there he was – my dream man:

You might think I am kidding, but I am not. I listened to this discussion four times and was moved each time: (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/shields-brooks-trumps-climate-pact-consequences/ ).  It seemed to me that, in 12 short minutes, they cut to the core of everything that is wrong with the current administration and the world right now.  And they did it in a serious, honest and heartfelt way – two people coming from different perspectives, in mutual respect, agreeing on essential core truths:

people who think and feel differently from us are not our enemies,

we may disagree on the best method, but helping other people to do better is good, and

there are very, very, minuscule-ly!  few people out there who are truly “out to get us”.

 

When it comes to following political developments, it is time for me to shift gears. I now believe that a couple of hours of PBS each week is all I really want and need.

It is not like I want to cut MSNBC out of my life entirely. A part of me will always love them.  I sincerely hope that we will stay good friends.

 

Heavenly Blast From the Past

 

Shortly after coming to Austria, I began understanding what it meant when a country does not separate church and state. I found certain norms creepy or irritating – like Religion class in schools or the way all the stores shut down at noon on Saturday and didn’t reopen till Monday morning. The worst thing, though, was church taxes – what a concept!

But I later came to see the bright side of this setup – all those funky extra religious holidays like Pentecost or Corpus Christi. I used to joke that every time a saint sneezes, Austrians take a holiday. And if that sneeze happens to be on a Thursday, they just go ahead and take the Friday off too. Today is the start of one of those wonderful long weekends – it’s Ascension. That’s why I finally finished the Gingerbread Man, reinstalled my printer, planted my flowers, prepared my next university course, cooked lunch and am now finally returning to WordPress after a somewhat unintentional break.

Ascension is kind of my favorite, not only because it is the first of three long weekends in rapid succession, but also because it has such a great name in German. This needs a little explaining.

Way back in high school German class, there were a few words that set most of us off – either giggling or blushing, depending on the personality type. One of those was the German word for the number 6. The other was the word Fahrt (meaning “trip” or “drive” or “ride”). With our bad accents, it always came out as “fart”. To make matters worse, Germans like to create a lot of new words by simply adding a pronoun to something else. So . . .

“entrance” is Zufahrt

“driveway” or “onramp” is Einfahrt

“exit” is Ausfahrt

“the way there/back” are Hinfahrt and Rückfahrt

“passage” is Durchfahrt

. . . and there were dozens more.

But the very best one of all was the name of today’s holiday.

 

Happy Christi Himmelfahrt, everyone!

The Lemonade Stand

Ever since mailing off my daughters’ applications for US citizenship, I have been tracking the package in my mind. On Saturday I thought, “OK, now it is in motion.” On Tuesday I figured it had left European soil. Friday was the first time I thought, “It must be there by now.” Meanwhile, my mind has shifted to what comes next. I’ve been (uncharacteristically) checking my mailbox and email inbox more frequently. I’ve started answering the landline when it rings.

Experience should have taught me by now to be prepared for more obstacles and bureaucratic hassles coming my way – maybe even a big disappointment. Instead, I find myself thinking positively, wondering what preparations we should make for their interviews in summer. Will they be asked questions about the US government and history? Should I make them memorize the Pledge of Allegiance?  What qualifications and experience are necessary for applying to be American?

In a way I have been preparing them their entire lives.

We have been incredibly lucky to be able to travel to the States every other year and to spend basically the whole summer there – thanks to my generous sister, her equally gracious husband, and their roomy house. That means my younger daughter, Lily, has spent over 6 months there all together and the elder, Mitzi, about 9. In all of those trips, it was important to me that they have some of the same quintessentially American childhood experiences that I had growing up. Little stuff like running through sprinklers and drinking from bubblers. Wandering the Streets of old Milwaukee and pushing the rattlesnake button at the museum. Going to festivals and watching airshows. Bike rides through the park and trips to the mall. The taste of custard, the clickety-clack of the Zoo train, the song of the Ice Cream Truck, the smell of brewery yeast, the flash and bang of fireworks.

One summer, my sister discovered that they had never heard of lemonade stands. She was appalled. Such a gap in their cultural education had to be addressed! Brother-in-law put up the starting capital for cookie dough and lemonade concentrate and Sister helped them with the signs and the baking – right down to the fork prints on the peanut butter cookies. Brother helped in setting up the stand at the edge of the park across the street from the house. Sister took on the photo-documentation of the enterprise.

 

 

      

Business got off to a booming start. Within a half hour they were already running back to the house to replenish their stock. Later, though, things slowed a bit. Sister suggested they offer “free Cheetos with every purchase” and made them a new sign. Later, Mitzi started a delivery service. She walked up to people on benches and blankets in the park and made her pitch. Meanwhile, Lily held down the fort.

 

The girls’ supplies of both lemonade and patience were almost depleted, but not quite gone, when some nice neighbors came (to the rescue) with their bulk orders, bringing about an abrupt and successful close of the business day. The girls came rushing back to the house with wads of cash in their box. The next step was working out how much they needed to reimburse their start-up investors. Once all debts were repaid, their eyes shone with excitement about their 500% ROI and Mitzi proclaimed that she had a new favorite English phrase: “Keep the change.”

 

They were officially American kids now, fully initiated into the wondrous rewards of free market capitalism. The way to have cookies and sugary drinks while still making easy money! I confess little bubbles of my own skepticism of this system rose to the surface.

“Can we do this again?” one of the girls asked excitedly.

“Sure,” I answered.

And when that time comes, I thought, maybe I should throw in a few new elements. For instance, sales tax, advertising costs, rental fees for equipment and furniture, trading license, health inspectors, insurance, maybe even arrange for a policeman to come by and fine them for selling in the park. And if any money is left over, I can confiscate half of it for the IRS.  We can call it “Capitalism – Lesson 2”. It will be good for them.

 

Women’s Work

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:

“A man should help his wife/girlfriend/partner with the household work.”

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?”

“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:

“A woman should help her husband/boyfriend/partner with the household work.”

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.

 

 

Trash Wednesday

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:

cook

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.

 

It Is Worth Doing

 

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.