Bureaucratic Baby Steps

So. The deed is done. My application for US citizenship for my adopted daughters is in the mail. My nearly yearlong odyssey to make this happen is nearing its conclusion. Now it is Wait and See time.

I can’t believe how convoluted this process has been from the very onset. And, of course, there were a few more stumbling blocks set in our path through the second to last stretch. Like the fact that permission from the Austrian government for dual citizenship took over six (!) months, meaning that the time window is now very small. (Although, when I picked up the documents, I saw that they were dated October 10th 2016. Seems like we could have had them five months ago, but no one got around to notifying us . . .)

Then, there was a new version of the application form – now 13 pages long instead of the 8-page one I filled out last summer. If I had sent that one in, it would have been immediately rejected. I only stumbled across the new form through sheer dumb luck.

And then came the dilemma of how to pay the (discouragingly hefty) filing fee from abroad? After reading every square inch of the website and consulting its Avatar “Emma”, who answered each of my questions by directing me back to a webpage, I took the desperate step of trying to call our – in this case, frigging useless  – embassy.

Unfortunately, there are only two telephone numbers listed on the embassy website – one for visa questions and one for dire emergencies. I dialed the visa number and went through an endless series of “Press 1 for lahdeedah. Press 2 for weebeejeebee . . . Press 269 for zippowingo. Hold the line to talk to a human being.”  I held. After what seemed like two days – finally! – a voice of a real person. To keep a short story short, here’s what he told me. He doesn’t know anything about my situation except that he knows that I can’t pay the fee through the embassy and, no, he can’t connect me to anyone else there who might know, and, no, it won’t help to come in person.

So how do I pay this stupid fee? The website makes clear that the application will be rejected if the cash is not forked over upfront and that the money has to come from a US bank.

I was without options.

Time to call Sister Ambassador.

We hatched a plan. I filled out the form for credit card payment that is used for different type of application and then wrote a cover letter saying that if it was the wrong one, my sister would write a check. Here’s all her contact information. Please work it out with her!  And then, in a blind leap of faith, I stacked it all up – my cover letter, my G-1450 form, my G-1145 form, my N-600K application form, my thick folders full of supporting documents (with certified translations!) – and I stuffed it all into a bubble envelope and addressed it to the USCIS. I drove to the post office.

May the fates be merciful.

Best case scenario: The payment is accepted. The application is accepted. We are notified. No more documents are requested. No specialized visa is necessary which would require me to visit the US embassy. We get an interview appointment in the Milwaukee Field Office during the time period I suggested. The interviews go well. My daughters are handed their Certificates of Citizenship. We celebrate.

And then, sometime next fall, my daughters and I go to the embassy and we watch with gratification as they hand over the US passports. A small part of the world has been righted: adopted children DO have all the same rights as biological ones. It just requires some extra paperwork. And a flight or two across an ocean.

 

Worrywart Worries

It’s March 31st, 2017. I want to remember this date.

In March 2016, two things were set into motion that have kept me internally rocking and reeling ever since. In March 2016, I enrolled my daughter officially in the Milwaukee Public School System for her high school exchange year and in March 2016, my school team officially applied to take part in a two-year European Union project in partnership with institutes in Portugal and Italy. Had both “projects” gone smoothly, I would be heading for Vienna on Monday to take part in a big Kick-off Meeting. I would also probably be skyping daily with my distant daughter from my very quiet household.

Things didn’t go smoothly. In either case.

The first enrollment set off a series of visa nightmares and disappointments, but then – as a silver lining – a year+ long quest through the bowels of bureaucracy to get dual citizenship for my (adopted) daughters. The second application set off a yearlong series of frustrations and added stress that had my idealistic and hard-working colleagues nearing the burn-out point. (Did I mention that the EU project aimed to find good practices for preventing Burn-out?) Both issues have kept the back of my mind working on overdrive for most of the year.

Today, within a span of 3 hours, both issues resolved themselves abruptly and unexpectedly. Shortly before noon and six months (!) after our original application, the mailman arrived with a registered letter from the Austrian government granting my daughters permission for dual citizenship. Two hours later, I left a meeting at the school in which we had extricated ourselves successfully from the EU project – with no bad feelings, no lingering resentments and no danger of tanking the project as a whole.

My inner worrywart doesn’t know what hit her. It’s like she suddenly has no reason to exist. She’s dazed and confused and I almost feel sorry for her.

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.

 

Election Eve

austria-green  austria-blue

Tomorrow is Presidential Election Day here in Austria.

Again.

It is a do-over after the nearly 50/50 results of the second, run-off election were contested. So we will see in about 18 hours if the country is caught up in the big blue wave from the right. Will it be “First Brexit, then Trump, then Austria, and then . . . the world”? Or can little Austria stop the wave with a green light?

Again.cookies

Tomorrow is also the Open House day at the refugees’ home. Our guys came over tonight to bake cookies for the event. Afterwards, we had a nice dinner and played Level 8.

Again.

Tomorrow, a whole lot of my fellow villagers will go to the polling place and vote for the party who says migrants are not welcome and that they should not come here. Many others will go to the home of the migrants. They will be welcomed.  “Please come in! Have a cookie!”

Quite a few villagers will do both.

 

Endings and How They Began

 

My husband called me to come into the kitchen a few weeks ago. He showed me a newspaper obituary of an old acquaintance/friend of ours. Our first boss. The principal of the school where we both had our first work experience after university.  The place where we two taught, and met, and began. The news slingshot me into the past.

I just tried to count how many bosses I have gone through in my 32 years of teaching English in Austria. I gave up after reaching 19, but I am sure I have forgotten a few. The vast majority of them were very hands off; they hovered off in the distance somewhere while I just did my thing the way I thought it should be done. They came and went without any noticeable difference in my working conditions. There was one exception though: my very first Austrian boss, this principal, this friend.

 

After college, I had gotten a job as teaching assistant through the Fulbright program (no, not the prestigious one, the other part) and was assigned to a school in a tiny village – so tiny that I couldn’t locate it on any map (and in those days, there was no internet or googling or email.) I wrote an old-fashioned letter to the program office to ask where this village was and a week later I learned that it was about 10 miles from Graz. Graz was a city I could find on a map. Shortly thereafter, a letter arrived from the school principal asking for my arrival date and if I needed their help finding a place to live. YES! PLEASE! Through snail mail, we arranged that he would meet me on my arrival.

He was about 50 years old with Santa-white hair, a take-charge-and-make-it-snappy manner, and a frighteningly aggressive driving style. After the first greeting we took off to . . . I had no idea where, while he told me the history of Graz based on the places we were zipping past too fast for me to take in. We parked and walked into the restaurant. The waitress brought us menus, but he waved them off and ordered for both of us: beer and roast beef vinaigrette salad. The waitress left and there was an awkward silence.

“So . . . is it customary here that men order for women in restaurants?” I asked.

That made him laugh (and I think he looked at me for the first time).

The salad was actually very tasty.

As we ate, he explained how he hadn’t found an apartment for me yet, but that his brother had an extra room and I could stay there for a few weeks until I found a place on my own. We could go look at the place after dinner. Unfortunately the brother was out of town till the next day, so did I have anywhere to stay for the first night? (Luckily I had met other TA’s during the orientation and had an emergency place to crash.) Within 30 seconds of his last bite, he had drained his beer glass, summoned the waitress, paid and stood up. I took a quick gulp from my own still half-full glass and followed him out the door.

Another crazy drive followed and we parked outside a non-descript building located wherever. Two flights of stairs later, we stood at the apartment door of what would be my home for the next few weeks. The middle-aged bachelor pad. We walked in and . . . it was huge. It was a family home complete with piano and dining room and chandeliers and trinkets and doilies. It looked like it had been decorated by a 1950s Austrian housewife.

Because it had. My boss explained that this is where he and his siblings had grown up. His father had died years earlier and his mother and brother had lived here until her death a month or so earlier.

He showed me what would be “my” room. It had clearly been an office. Three of the four walls were floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, all of them double parked. On the fourth wall was a weird long cabinet that turned out to be a fold out guest bed.

I did what anyone would do in my situation.

“Do you have a picture of your brother somewhere?” I asked.

 

portrait1My boss laughed for the second time and led me to the living room. He pointed out a family portrait. I stared at it for a while. The oldest boy was clearly my boss. About 25 years younger, but still recognizable. I stared at the younger of the two boys. My future roommate. The now approximately 40 year old man who had lived with his mother up until last month. He had a bow tie and was looking in the wrong direction . . .

“That’s him,” my boss said, pointing to the picture of the baby in the corner.

Now that he had had his fun with me, my boss explained that his other brother was 20 years younger. He was a university student – studying English no less! He would be back tomorrow and pick me up from my crash pad and help me move in. I said “okay”. What choice did I have?

I was teased for years about asking to see a picture.

Because the brother, who turned up at the crash pad the next day to help me move and, despite his serious demeanor and the dark rings under his eyes, gallantly insisted on carrying my suitcases to the car, was a good egg. He was attentive and helpful and generous in everything he did. And when he finally smiled – it was infectious. I knew within hours that he was my kind of person.

After two weeks, we decided that I would not find a new apartment. Instead, I would stay and sublet a room from him (which I could redecorate). Meanwhile, my boss patted himself on the back for work well done. He had brought an optimistic American into the life of his troubled brother and he had absolved himself of the commitment to find me an apartment.

Of course, the fact that I became semi-family affected the work relationship between me and my boss. Originally he insisted that I attend all teacher conferences even though they barely concerned me. Month after month, I listened to hour-long discussions about slippers or no slippers? This law or that regulation? All of which had absolutely nothing to do with me or my work. I started to bring knitting or crocheting projects to conferences. That initiated discussions about whether needlework should be forbidden. Later in the year, he gave me an official pamphlet on “Foreign Language Teaching Assistants” issued by the Ministry of Education. I should read it and then report on it to him directly. Two weeks later, I sat across from him at his desk in the Principal’s Office. I quoted: “Assistants should be encouraged to participate in one or two conferences during the year.”

Then I added,

“I will no longer be participating in conferences.”

He did not disagree.

 

My one and only Alpha-boss. He accepted me and my statements because he had a sense of humor. And because I was somehow family.

Thank you, First Boss.

Your younger brother was not only my flat mate. He was my first true Austrian friend. Then a best friend. Then something more – more like a brother. Then the godfather of my first child. Years go by and we don’t talk as much as we should. But we both know we are always there for one another.

And we had such a nice dinner last night.