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.
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.
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 . . .
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.
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.
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. . . .
. . . . 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?”