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.

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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.

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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?”

 

Another No Resolution Resolution

It’s 12:30 on December 31st and – as tradition dictates – the table is set, the wine is aerating and Barbie stands ready to dance. The frat boys have straggled in one by one and taken their seats. As I type this, they are sampling the first of ten bottles. I have retired to my office to write the last post of 2019 – my 501st in all since starting this blog and my 1st on this new notebook. (A certain computer specialist informed me that one no longer uses the term “laptop”.)

Speaking of which, my transitioning has now entered Phase Five: transfer of photos and videos. (Un-?)fortunately, this required me to first finish up two long-on-the-list standing projects: a photo-book and a Year in Review slideshow for the school. From last year. That second one got done last night . . .

With the notebook taking the honorary place on my desk and the old laptop relegated to an extra table, I sat and listened to it huffing and puffing and wheezing and whining as it struggled to render the slideshow video with its 600+ photos, 8 music tracks and hundreds of transitions and motion effects . It was trying so hard that even the Devil Cat got concerned and went to comfort it. Finally, after three hours, the video was done, copied and secured. Old Laptop had successfully completed its final mission.

You’d think I would feel some relief being able to strike this point off my list of projects, but what I really felt was irritation that such a list exists at all.

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It’s now 6:22 pm and the last of the frat boys have just left. As tradition dictates, I will spend the rest of this evening in the usual way, some chauffeuring, some washing out of wine glasses, packing away the Barbie for the next 364 days, later some panicky dog-sitting during the fireworks. In between, I am sending this message out into blogworld that I love my traditions and don’t want them to change.

No more To Do lists. No more resolutions.

I am resolved.

Happy New Year!

 

Early Bird Special

I went out for dinner with two dear school friends last night and it was the fastest five hours of my life. They had arranged to go to a popular place that takes no reservations so we had to get there by 4:00 pm. As our plans were shaping up in a series of ping ponging WhatsApp messages, all sorts of idioms and cultural references to (mean and skimpy) old ladies popped up that were unfamiliar to me and needed explanation – finally prompting one of my friends to write “You have been gone too long.”

So, Blue Hair picked me up and we drove to the restaurant where Weenius would meet us. We all arrived within a minute of one another, but curiously, two of us spent the first half hour at a table with an empty seat while the third spent it on a bench across from the hostess station three feet away. We needed our cell phones to finally find one another. Another round of allusions to our aging processes ensued.

But at the same time, the rejuvenating magic of old friends started working. Conversation flowed fast and furiously, simply picking up where it left off last time. There was no feeling of “having been gone too long” – in fact, no time had passed at all it seemed. Giggling erupted and years started peeling off. Who is getting old? Not us! We are as immature as we ever were! And blessedly so.

The place was filling up and our consciences told us that we really should be leaving to free up the table for all the waiting customers. So we got our doggie bags and spent ten more minutes figuring out what 94 divided by 3 equals. Then we stiffed the waitress and left. Blue Hair drove off the curb with a clunk as we left the parking lot.

Mushroom Crowd

 

It’s become something of a tradition that we and seven other families spend a few days in mountain cabins in a place called Klippitztörl. A little googlie told me that name comes from the Slovenian word hlipica which means ʺwindy areaˮ and the Austrian word Törl which is ʺa steep rocky narrowing of valleys and pass routes across a range of mountainsˮ. You’d think that what would most excite the crowd would be the beautiful landscapes or the exhilaration of reaching rocky peaks after a long hike, but it quickly became clear that it was something else. My first clue was that everyone seemed to be hoping for rain. My second clue was how my fellow wanderers kept their eyes peeled on the ground around their feet or to the left and right of the paths. It was fungus they were after.

On Day One, I only halfheartedly joined in the fungus hunt, occasionally glancing here or there, hoping one would jump out in front of me. After two hours of hiking, here was my paltry contribution. Three tiny chanterelles:

Day Two went much better. Not only did I nab a porcini, but it was probably the biggest one found yet. And it is not like my husband helped me. Like by saying ʺC., come here . . . you might want to look over in that direction . . . no, a bit to your left . . . no, your other left . . . maybe look by the tree there . . . now right by your foot . . . watch out! Don’t step on it! . . . Yeaayy!!! Now that’s a nice mushroom! Good job!ˮ No, it was not like that at all. But he did let me in on an old fisherman’s trick when we took the picture. He told me to hold the mushroom way out in front of me and that would make it look bigger. See for yourself.

On our way home from our hike on Day Three – part of which I spent at a lodge reading while the others went all the way up to the top – we took one of the husband’s infamous ʺshortcutsˮ. After wandering around for an extra hour trying to find our way back to the original route, we chanced upon the chanterelle homeworld. It became hard NOT to find one. Believe me, I tried.

 

As you might guess, the grand finale / evening meal of our last day was a gorgeous mushroom goulash. Cooking was a group effort directed by my husband with his famous recipe.  Here it is, step by step, just in case anyone out there wants to try this. As they say in Austria – Mahlzeit!

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In Search of Lost Opportunities

 

This one is for Alison With One “L” for making me laugh out loud with her last post (“Lost Time, Indeed”) in which she deals with her PTSD (Proustian Traumatic Stress Disorder).

As much as I would like to help you with your weightier existential questions, I am, unfortunately, a bit of an agnostic when it comes to packing peanuts and quantitative tomato decisions. I also won’t be much help when it comes to an obsessive need to finish every book, however recklessly started, because I share that particular quirk . . . ( . . . although! . . . I admit to the occasional skimming – e.g. the last 30 pages of “War and Peace” or the Mueller Report footnotes). How I CAN help, maybe, is by telling you the advice I would have given you had I known you were about to crack open a Proust – in the hope that it may positively influence your future choices in reading material and help you toward the non-remembrance of painful things past.

Belated Piece of Advice #1: To start off, I’m thinking what you need now is something  . . . shorter. So when fondling the next massive tome, stop and consider the alternatives. Behold:

Behold again (the novel you just finished in a nutshell):

 

Belated Piece of Advice #2: In case the above is a bit too superficial for your current frame of mind, here is a more philosophical yet still logical approach to decision making. Starting with some basic Math, I think we can agree that:

if A=B, and C=D, and B≠D, then A≠C.

Now let’s apply this logic to a certain French novelist.

Life is short. Proust is long. Short ≠ long. Therefore, Proust equals death.

 

I rest my case.

Happy future reading, Alison! May it be pithy.

 

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

P.S.

In case you liked the first sample from this book, here are a few more of my favorites . . .

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German, English, Norwegian, Scottish, Irish, and Roman

 

I’m back to talking chickens.

Loyal readers will know what that means: there has been too much NSFB (“not suitable for blogging”) stuff going on and occupying my thoughts lately. Add to that the fact that I also subjected blogworld to two political rants in a short space of time, making me feel like I have to make up for it somehow. I have been rooting around for a nice, easy, non-political topic I can spend some time on . . . now, let’s see . . . what could I write about? . . . I know! . . . chickens!

 

 “We’re going to be grandparents of three,” my husband said to me a few days back. He had just checked our third batch of incubator eggs with his special illuminator device, homemade out of a toilet paper roll and some tin foil. Of the six eggs, three of them had dark shadowy innards. It takes almost exactly 21 days for the eggs to hatch, so in about two weeks’ time, I will be able to tell you if he was right.

Our first attempt, some of you may remember, resulted in the deformed, short-lived Quasimodo and the equally doomed Fred, the German Reich’s chicken who was clearly too beautiful to live. Those two were accompanied for their short time by some hastily purchased Wyandotte chicks, all four of whom turned into roosters and, subsequently, three of whom turned into dinner. The fourth is the father of our current incubator batch. This time I am actually hoping for a rooster. I want to name him “Pete Buttig-Egg”.

Our second attempt at incubating was more successful – it produced four hearty Orpingtons who managed to survive the harsh winter in a small henhouse with an open door. They did it by sticking close together. By March we had three full grown hens and one rooster but, sadly, no eggs. For months I fed them, checked the empty laying box, and then informed them that they were a bunch of good-for-nothing losers. But then – on the very same day Mueller finally submitted his report to the aptly named Barr – one of them laid an egg:

Surely there will be more to come. There has to.

 

All this focus on progeneration naturally led me to other thoughts. What about me? Where do I come from? I still remember asking my mother about it way back in grade school when the topic of nationalities was first introduced into my consciousness. Just like Elizabeth Warren’s mother’s tale of a Native American ancestor, my mom had a theory of her own to tell:

“Well let’s see . . . you are German, English, Norwegian, Scottish, Irish and Roman. Pretty much in that order.”

“Roman?” I asked. “Where does that come from?”

Mom told me that her own mother was 100% English, but that she had dark hair and olive skin – so that probably went back to some Roman soldier from the Empire’s occupation of England in the first millennium. It seemed pretty feasible.

In defense of my mother, I assume now that she was being a little facetious and never thought I would go on to repeating that list of nationalities – including the last one – for the next two decades. Thank goodness there was no “Roman” box to tick on my college application form!

The mystery surrounding my heritage was further complicated by my elder sister who has spent years compiling a massive database of our genealogical tree. I only know a tiny bit of it, but I vaguely remember her correcting my version of our connection to the Mayflower and – more importantly – not being able to confirm the “Irish” part of my nationality list. This disturbs me greatly because I once distinctly heard the call of my ancestors while wandering around the peninsula of Dingle in Ireland. On the other hand, when I was in Rome a few years back, I listened for a similar call and . . . nothin’.

Fortunately, modern science might offer me a way to prove or disprove my mother’s and sister’s theories. My Cuban friend (whose mother told her she had some Chinese ancestry) did a DNA test through “MyHeritage” and got some surprising results. To cut to the chase, she now walks around feeling less connection with the Ming dynasty and more with the Massai.

Of course, after hearing her tale, I went online and ordered two kits for me and my husband. They have been sitting on a shelf for weeks, but I’ve decided that today is the day to force the hubby to swab. Once that is done, I will mail the spittle off. So . . . in about six weeks’ time, I will be able to tell you if my mother or sister was right. I’m curious to find out who, if anyone, will be exonerated.