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.



We decided on a birthday dinner this year (as opposed to breakfast or lunch). I requested the classic steak and baked potatoes meal and it was yummy. Beforehand I surfed here and there, putzed at this or that, took two long dog walks, peeked around the house in search of a cardboard box holding my present – a new chicken or two. Couldn’t find one.

But it turns out I was right. Not only am I getting new chickens, but I am getting German Reich chickens!! Jawohl! Mensch, das ist ja dufte!!

There is one little catch . . .

The eggs are arriving by mail and I have to hatch them myself.

Wish us luck.


(Silent) Home (Horror) Movies


I have been getting some of our VCR tapes digitalized before they start decomposing and/or give up the ghost completely. One of those tapes was home movies from my childhood and I stayed up till about 3 am a few nights ago watching them.

Some of the films were classics – like one of our childhood Christmas shows, my ballet performance with dramatic final pose, or the King of the Raft battles during one of our many summer trips up north. Other films were only vaguely familiar to me – maybe those were the ones that tended to be left out on the occasions when my dad hauled out the projector and turned our living room into a movie theater. As we five kids tossed pillows on the floor and jockeyed for a comfortable spot with a good view, Dad stuck a reel of film on one of the arms of the projector, threaded the tape through the machine and on to the empty receiving reel. The lights were dimmed and then came that clackety-clack sound of the projector in motion, the humming of its fan, the initial ornery and dusty smell of an appliance that has not been used in a while being forced back into deployment.

As the youngest of five kids, I had to sit through a whole lot of scenes starring my elder siblings before I was born. It did not escape me that the number of films (or photographs) of each child was inversely proportional to the order of his/her birth (Child One has the most, Child Five the least.) But, to make up for this disadvantage, I also noticed that, in contrast to the black and white childhood of my brothers and sisters, at least mine was in color!  The films were also all silent, which turned out to be another advantage. We kids were free to talk and comment and reminisce and argue as the images danced in front of and past us. In that way, I was initiated into all the chapters of our family legend that pre-dated my membership.


While watching all these old movies again a few days ago, I started pausing and making screenshots of memorable moments. The resulting pictures turned out to have such an eerie quality to them – I guess because the images had been reincarnated over and over again. From camera to developed film reel, from film to video cassette (Thanks, Mom!), from video cassette to digital video, from digital video to image file . . .

And now . . . some of those images are about to be launched into the internetsphere with a mere click of a “Publish” button. They will blast off in a gazillion different directions, but only very few will eventually collide with physical entity capable of decoding them. Your laptop or computer screen, for instance. (Yes, Reader, I am talking to you!)

So here they are – a few captured specters of the binarily transcribed, inversely imprinted, silent visual reproductions of moments that have become – via this long insane string of coincidences – some of my earliest memories. It really is no wonder that they seem so ghostly!

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Kill ‘em With Kindness


My inner Chicken Whisperer keeps bugging my alter ego, Blackthumb, who loves the winter season hibernation period and the respite from agricultural responsibilities that it provides. Nevertheless, pesky CW wants an update posted on our shared blog about the fact that, for a week or two now, and despite the return of winter weather, we have been getting four (!) eggs a day. Blackthumb thinks big deal! pointing out that they are still the most expensive eggs in the country. CW retorts that such materialistic thinking is exactly what is wrong with this world. These are socially, politically, biologically, environmentally, organically and animal husbandry-ily correct eggs from happy chickens! Blackthumb responds: “Do these chickens look happy to you?!? Look at those soggy feathers! Look at those cold feet!!”

Having photographic evidence, Blackthumb wins the argument.





“I just gave Frau R. (aka ‘Mean Neighbor Lady’) some eggs.”

On hearing this, my daughter laughed out loud and added “Kill ‘em with kindness, hey?”

She is much too smart. (I’m not sure where I went wrong while raising her). What she was referring to was one of our often-retold family stories from her wee childhood . . .

It began when we received a hand-written letter from the elderly man who delivered our newspaper every morning. He was complaining about a flower box in front of our house that is partly in the street. He found it very difficult to drive past. The letter was full of indignation, unnecessary rudeness, and basic spelling mistakes. My husband was irked and wanted to write back, asking him where he got off. I said – what’s the point? This is an old guy who – instead of enjoying his retirement – has to get up at four in the morning to deliver papers – he can’t be in very good shape financially or have a particularly nice life. And he clearly didn’t understand that he was in a position of absolute zero authority. Let’s not pursue a fight. Let’s kill this with kindness.

We ended up writing a really nice letter apologizing for the inconvenience and explaining that the box was there to slow cars down and to stop our young kids from running out of the house straight into the road. We attached the letter to a bottle of wine and left it out for him.

We became his favorite people after that. Our newspaper was lying on the welcome mat each morning as if placed there carefully.




Of course, Mean Neighbor Lady was a much more complicated situation than Newspaper Guy. For the first 10 years or so of our . . . neighborliness . . . she simply scared the crap out of me. She lived way downhill in the valley below us, and yet she was omnipresent. She walked past our house regularly to spy and inspect things. I began to call it the “Daily Disapproval Tour”.

Once she rang the bell. She told me that my Dog One had jumped up on her and torn her apron. She wanted ten dollars from me to replace it. She hadn’t bothered to bring the apron to show me. I paid.

Fifteen years ago, her daughter built a new house for both of them halfway down the hill between us and MNL’s old farmhouse in the valley. Not only did the DDT’s increase in frequency, but the new house was right along the path where I take my daily walk. I kept my dogs on leashes whenever we passed the house. Sometimes I whistled.

MNL once told my daughters that she wouldn’t allow her grandson to play with them in our yard because it was an “Urwald” (= jungle).

She also clearly had a crush on my husband.  Whenever I ran into her, she sometimes grunted at best. But when my husband was there too, she smiled (at him) and engaged in pleasant banter.

So, now Mrs. R. and I have been neighbors for thirty years. And except for the fact that I am a lousy gardener, she has little or no clue about who I am. She seems to know almost nothing about America or even that I come from there. I doubt she knows much at all about English literature, Economics, Business Administration, Maria Montessori, blog writing or Constitutional crises.

But she does know about chickens, so, for the first time, we have something to talk about.


I not only gave her eggs this morning, but I also made an effort to give her five different eggs from five different chickens. She seemed a bit confused, even flustered. Her contorted facial expression was hard to discern, but it was definitely reminiscent of something smile-like. She kind of ran away from me after I handed them over.

Blackthumb may have won the argument on the happiness of my flock this morning, but Chicken Whisperer definitely wins the day.




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.

A Bit Fitter Fitbitter

So . . .  I got my Year Four of blogging off to a bang-up start. Turns out the first post of this year sort of just erupted out of me. And, as with most unpleasant things these past two years, I blame it on the pwesident.
But never fear! Things are looking up! The first post has been redacted and I am calling a Mulligan. A “Do-Over!!” Here, now, is the first true post of the year:


A Bit Fitter Fitbitter

It has been 10 days since my blog’s third birthday and 15 since I vaguely formulated a few resolutions for 2018 that I really had no intention of keeping. So . . . no new leaf has been turned, but, thanks to a Christmas present, there is ever so slight a chance that somewhat healthier living is in my future.

For years, my physical exercise consisted almost exclusively of housework and dog walking. Occasionally, I would concoct some plan to start a fitness regimen, but most of those never really got off the ground. My state of health remained curiously good – with one recurring exception.

Every other year, in the dead of winter, I contract some bizarre malady. Two years ago it was that sudden bursitis in my shoulder that gave me a whole week off from work, not to mention my first experiences with physical therapy (See: “Miss Peevish and the Bruiser”). If I remember right, that was the same year I intended to take up ballet, after joining my sister in her half hour daily routine during our summer visit. One of the first things I did on returning home was to go out and buy appropriate home-ballet attire and some mats. The clothes have since disappeared and the mats spent well over a year in a corner of my library – still sealed in their packaging. But I digress.

Four years ago in the dead of winter, I started getting red itchy bumps or patches on my fingers – usually in the evenings. The red blotches would move from digit to digit and then eventually, all of my fingers swelled up and started aching. I started worrying about arthritis or rheumatism. Four medical examinations later, including one internist and the top guru dermatologist in the province, I found out that I had . . . (drum roll) . . . dry skin. Hand cream solved the problem I think that was the same year I got my e-bike which I have only rarely ridden.

About two years before that, once again in the dead of winter, my right foot swelled up (on the inner side, by the lower big toe joint.) It really hurt badly and I could barely walk. The doctor declared that it was “Gicht”, which, on returning home,  I immediately looked up in my German-English dictionary.  “That can’t be!!” I thought. The only occurrences of “gout” I had ever heard of had all happened in 18th and 19th century novels – and those characters were all old, rich, fat and male. Of those four adjectives, only one came close to describing me – and I am not talking about “fat”. If you do the math, that was around my 50th birthday and also the one and only time in the past three decades I ever considered jogging. My husband made a 6 week plan for me. I got through “Week One, Day One”.

By now a few things should be clear. I am not a jock. (For those of you not familiar with 1970s teenage slang, that means: “I’m not athletic.”) And if the health patterns of the past years hold true, I can expect some gruesome affliction in my immediate future, seeing as how the dead of winter is approaching. I would really like to nip whatever it is going to be in the bud.

When I asked for a Fitbit for Christmas, it was NOT yet another fitness pipedream; it was mostly due to curiosity:  I wanted to know what distance I traverse in a normal morning at school.  I am basically in constant motion from 7 am to 1 pm – walking from room to room, going up and down stairs, doing deskside deep knee bends to help a kid with a question, bending over and touching the floor to pick up dropped papers or pencils, stretching my arms way up to write at the top of the blackboard . . . It can be a physical job, teaching. And sure enough, a morning of work at school and two dog walks gets me quite far along the path toward my supposed daily goal of 10,000 steps. But not all the way . . .

I have to admit, that this dumb rubber wristband has had an effect on me. A few days ago, I asked my husband to print out another jogging plan. I also finally unpacked the ballet mats, hung up the ballet routine, and did it.

Today I took the long dog walk route – not just around the cornfield but through the woods and past the spa. I haven’t done that in 15 years. And just as I was coming out of the woods in the final stretch toward home, I checked the boss:



I admit, I am feeling pretty good about myself. With a bit of determination, I should be able to wear my favorite jeans again soon.  And, fingers crossed, I won’t be writing anytime soon about my consumption or dropsy.

2017 in the Rear-view Mirror

I’m not sure I ever confessed this before, but I am one of those people who writes a year-in-review Christmas letter and mails it off to about 50 different people strewn across the globe.  Theoretically, I assume that none of the recipients groans on receiving it – though I can’t be entirely sure about that. I do get the sporadic positive feedback. The best part is that each year one or two of the readers are inspired to respond in kind. I get all sorts of news and pictures and updates from people I haven’t heard from in way too long.  That, alone, makes the whole exercise worthwhile.

A second perk of this year’s efforts was that – once I was done – I had to admit that 2017 did NOT suck as much as I had thought it would at the start. It was not all exhausting postandpresenttrumptraumamalaise after all! There were wonderful travels and reunions and moments in teaching. There were new (learning) experiences and moments of parental vicarious glory while listening to my children sing or perform.  My (originally African) daughters became dual citizens of Europe and the USA.  I rediscovered ice cubes and developed a taste for cooking. I got a boat named after me! . . .

Ok, ok, in that last one I am fudging a bit. It is not a yacht or anything. It’s a tiny remote-controlled bait boat. And it wasn’t actually my husband’s idea to name it after me, but his fishing buddy’s. And he only used it once before it broke down. But, still – I got a boat named after me! How many people out there can say that??

 . . . What else? . . . I hoed a hedgehog! I protested! I became a Chicken Whisperer! And right at the end of 2017, I discovered yet another new hobby.

It began at a Christmas market that I went to with my husband and my dear friend Lyart who was visiting. We stopped at a stand full of lovely, handmade birdhouses and Ly immediately bought us one.  A few mulled wines later, my husband disappeared and returned with a second, bigger birdhouse. In the following days, I excitedly purchased all sorts of birdfeed and then pressured the hubby to put up/hang up the houses in our yard. We filled them with seeds and then withdrew back into the house to watch.


The birds started arriving almost immediately. Mostly little white and blue ones. “What are those?” I asked my husband and he informed me that they were “Kohlmeise”. I looked that name up and found out that, unfortunately, these birds are called “great tits” in English. Then another bird appeared and caused a lot of excitement. “What is it?” I asked. My husband replied that it was a “Specht”. I google-translated that name and the word “pecker” popped up on my screen. I didn’t like where this was going . . .



I’m not sure I ever confessed this before, but I am something of a prude. I don’t run around the house in my underwear. I DO advise my teenage daughters to take their time and not rush into serious relationships. I don’t get racy jokes. I don’t use swearwords or “dirty” words and rarely hear them in my own household.

. . . What can I say? I still fully intend to continue this new hobby of bird-watching (though, I don’t intend on talking about it much). I’m hoping it will help me cope with whatever 2018 brings, the way chicken keeping did in 2017.

And speaking of 2018 – I’ll take this chance to wish all of you out there reading this a

Very Happy New Year!