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.

———————————————-

 

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?”

 

America Report – Day (Minus) One

It hasn’t been mentioned here before (as far as I can remember) but I’m back in Milwaukee for Mom’s 90th birthday party slash family reunion. It’s 10:00 am on Day One and I have already been up for about six hours. I’ve had a pot of coffee and listened to a couple of podcasts on yesterday’s impeachment hearings, which I find oddly calming. I have taken a long walk, bought a Christmas present, and written a blog post longhand – this one – which I am now trying to type up on an IPAD. (It is my first time using this particular device and it is not going quickly.) I have also started my latest crocheting project. It is another symbolic one – a pink flamingo – to bookend the bat (-shit crazy) one I made during my last visit . . .

(screeching brakes sound)

Back up to Day Minus One.

There is nothing like flying direct on a decent airline (Austrian). Having stayed overnight in Vienna at my generous brother-in-law’s apartment with its impressive collection of single malts, I awoke at a civilized hour, had an unhurried coffee and shower and then meandered casually the two blocks to the airport train station (with its convenient check in counter where I relieved myself of my heavy suitcase. ) I arrived at the airport with plenty of time for duty-free shopping and podcast downloading and breakfasting.

The plane started boarding and, as always, the first impression was that the plane would not be full. Of course things changed. A half hour after we should have been I the air, passengers kept straggling in – most of them harried American senior citizens who had had the misfortune of being randomly selected for an extra security check. They were NOT a happy bunch. Women in a tizzy shared their stories of being “tickled”. The men were more angry and the baseball capped specimen in the seat behind me was particularly enraged. After his first sentence, the thought “Twump voter” passed through my mind. He went on with his complaining:

“This is just a third rate country trying to act important,” he said. “We should strike Austria off the list for the next trip.”

I went through a myriad of unspoken responses to this affront to my adopted country, but finally landed on “Austria says thank you”. Later I leaned my seat back at the first opportunity.

Despite delays, we made up all the lost time, the food was actually good (haven’t said THAT in years!), the landing soft, the arrival procedures quick and my bus to Milwaukee left just ten minutes after my leaving the terminal. My sister was there to pick me up, and when I brought my suitcase up to my room in her house, what did I find?

Next it was all talk talk talk talk until Rachel Maddow finally gave my sister some respite from me. Ten minutes into her A block on the impeachment hearings I was fast asleep.

It is going to be a wonderful week.

From the Country with No Government

 

Greetings from a country with no government.

For anyone out there reading this who is not versed in Austrian politics – and I’m guessing that is all but one of you (Hi Ly!) – here is the shortest possible synopsis of the political situation here.

After the last election in 2017, the Right party with its 17 year old leader joined together with the Far Right to form a coalition to govern. I can’t think of any particular principles these two groups had beyond ambition and opportunism, but they set off together to set things right and get things done and drain the swamp and make Austria great again. A Far Right guy bagged the coveted Minister of the Interior post where he got to boss around the cops and make life as uncomfortable as possible for all the refugees that had been allowed in the previous year. This Minister Kickout proceeded to make a string of authoritarian, nationalistic, and xenophobic statements such as a suggestion that they be ‘concentrated’ in  . . . well, I guess something like camps. Meanwhile he mucked around in the asylum policies in ways that repeatedly pulled the rug out from under the applicants. Being forbidden to work or start learning a trade, and this over waiting periods of four or more years, many of the young men drifted around in packs, had trouble learning the language or integrating. Some turned to unofficial work with exploitation wages. Some turned to dealing. Others, like my unofficially adopted third child, H. from Afghanistan, have managed to go to and stay in school, but he goes through periods of anxiety or near despair as he waits and waits and waits for a decision on his asylum application. We’ve learned to recognize the signs of one of these phases coming on. He’ll start skipping classes or talk about taking off for France . . . We talk him through these times.

But I digress. Back to Austrian politics.

 

Fast forward to May 17, 2019 when a video appeared and broke the Austrian internet. It was seven hours long and showed the head of the Far Right party in a Spanish bungalow colluding with a woman he thought was the niece of a Russian oligarch. You publish nice articles about us and we will give you fat public construction contracts . . . stuff like that. It came out later that the whole thing was a set up.

Nevertheless, the party leader resigned the very next day. Eight hours later the 17 year old Chancellor broke up with entire party and asked the President for new elections to be called.

Two days later, the Chancellor tried to get Mr. Kickout fired and all of the ministers from his party resigned in protest. They retaliated further in joining a no-confidence vote which happened the following week. The Chancellor lost his job.

The President called for new elections in September and, for the interim, he installed experts to run the various ministries as well as a non-partisan temporary leader. Austria had its first female Chancellor (of sorts).

 

I sat there and marveled at the efficiency of this implosion. Americans have suffered an onslaught of daily outrageousness for two and a half years with no end in sight, but here, one lousy video toppled the government in the space of 10 days.

In the following four months I started thinking Hey! This no government thing is not so bad. Everything seemed to be going smoothly. The economy chugged along. The post was being delivered and the trains were running on time. After a wildly destructive thunderstorm in June, the road workers were out the very next day fixing everything up. A week later new roadside ditches had been dug to prevent similar flooding in the future. The evening news reports were scandal free and did not induce a single flinch.

Of course it couldn’t last. About two weeks ago the political roundtable discussions began on TV in earnest. The entire old cast of characters was back. Political videos began ping-ponging around the internet. H. came into my office to show me one of Kickout. He was spitting cynical venom about Austria’s ‘Triple A rating’ in dealing with migrants. He said what ‘AAA’ really stood for was ’aggressive Afghani asylum seekers’ and bragged to the crowd about how he was going to deal with them. They loved it.

And the campaign signs started appearing on the side of the road. All these earnest or friendly faces underlined with the corresponding slogan. I’m not sure how things look in other parts of the country, but the Far Right party signs are the most ubiquitous around here.

And they are usually placed in pairs. The new top candidate’s happy face followed quickly by mean Mr. Kickout, peeking out from behind him, hovering over his shoulder, whispering into his ear . . .

 

Tomorrow is Election Day. I’m thinking about moving to France.

 

He That Soweth

“Lock her up” was bad enough, but yesterday’s “Send her back” made something snap in my brain.

Enough!

I am done trying to “understand” the Trump supporter. Especially the ones claiming to be evangelical.

I can’t find a single reason for wanting this man in the White House that doesn’t derive from one of the following:

https://www.bibleinfo.com/en/questions/what-are-seven-deadly-sins

 

But don’t take it from me.

 

Proverbs 6:16-19 (KJV)

16 These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him:

17 A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood,

18 An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief,

19 A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.

 

The World is Theirs

 

My three yearlong (!) quest to get the American citizenship for my adopted daughters reached its finale today. This last act began when we took a mini-mother/daughter trip to Vienna. Our first stop: the American Embassy where we had appointments to hand in their passport applications along with a bunch of documents and photos (no glasses!) and self-addressed stamped envelopes and . . .

The extremely friendly security guards greeted us with big smiles and asked us each in turn to put our bags in the scanner. When mine went in, a picture sort of like one this (taken from the internet) popped up on the screen:

I stared at it in horror. A string of theories about how a gun could be in my bag – all of them ludicrous – began spinning around in my head. The guard began to laugh and said “Don’t worry! That is a fake picture. It’s put there to test me – to make sure I am paying attention.” He handed me my bag.

I remained in a state of mild shock as we made our way to Window 1, which was probably a good thing, because it temporarily supplanted my nervousness. Almost three years earlier I had visited this place and it turned out to be an awful experience. I was scared that something would go wrong again – maybe I had filled out the wrong form? Should I have brought the birth certificates and adoption decrees? The girls’ baby teeth?

But the woman at the counter was both officious and friendly. She stayed patient as I confusedly fumbled through the documents and then handed one over for the wrong daughter. When she learned what our situation was, she peered at me knowingly and said “You must have had to do a mountain of paperwork!”

“You have no idea!” I replied. “I think when these passports arrive, I’m going break out in tears.”

“Please don’t cry in here!” she half-whispered to me and then glanced quickly back over her shoulder.

As the woman checked the application and all the documents, I pulled out one of the girls’ decrees granting them the right to dual citizenship and asked her if she needed that too. Her eyes widened a little at the sight of it and she asked “How did you manage to get that?!” Apparently, it is becoming nearly impossible to be granted such permission from the Austrian government. She said that she had had to deal with Austrians who became naturalized American citizens and were then rudely informed that their Austrian citizenship was being revoked. It was possibly the one saving grace of my last horrible visit to this embassy that someone made me aware of the need to apply for dual citizenship permission before taking the next step. I don’t remember this information showing up anywhere else in process and I am sure it wouldn’t have occurred to me on my own.

Once the paperwork was all handed over, we were sent off to Window 3 to fork over the cash and then it was back to Window 1. The girls signed their passport applications in front of the new official and he told us we could expect them in the mail in about 10 days. We were done. The whole thing had taken about 15 minutes. I was almost sorry to have to leave.

As we walked back toward the security guards and exit, I noticed for the first time that the place was entirely empty except for us. I had been at this embassy many times over the years and the waiting room was always packed. I wondered what that was about. The last thing we did before exiting was to pass by the pictures of Twump and Pence and Pompeo. I felt sorry for the guard sitting at the desk across from them – just imagine having to look at those three all day long every day!

My daughters and I had a nice day of shopping, had lunch, went to the movies (“The Green Book”) and stayed in a nice hotel. The next day we caught the train back home. That was seven days ago.

I confess I continued to worry that something could still go wrong.

But today, the world is mine again.

 

 

Absentee

 

I’ve been gone for quite a while.

About 34 years, all told.

But I never gave up my citizenship, so I now fall into the category of “Permanent Overseas Voter”. As I can only vote in federal elections, my ballot this year listed only the Senate and House races of my home State and district.

My elder daughter who became a citizen in July of 2017 and turned 18 in July of 2018 also voted. It was her first time (in a US election) and I think she found the whole process exciting, but also a bit . . . hinky.

We registered her online though a website called “VoteFromAbroad.Org where she had to supply surprisingly little information and no actual proof of identity or citizenship. Only two options were listed – a Social Security number or a State ID – and she has neither of those. But her registration went through even with those lines blank and the next day her Voter Certification arrived by email.  We printed that, she signed it, I witnessed it, we attached a photocopy of her certificate of citizenship to it and mailed it off to the Election Commission in our home State. Apparently, that worked, because a week later, her new Voter Certificate and her absentee ballot arrived by email along with four pages of instructions.

We printed everything out, got four envelopes, black ink pens, and Scotch tape and laid it all out on the kitchen table.

First step: fill out the ballots.

“Wait!” my daughter said. “First tell me about these candidates so I can decide who to vote for.”

I sat back. I didn’t want to discourage her instinct to be an informed voter and independent thinker. On the other hand . . . if she ended up voting for a Republican candidate at this particular moment in history, I would take it as proof that I had failed as a mother.

“Honey, you understand that this is not a normal year or a normal election, don’t you? I mean  . . .  can I assume that you don’t want to support anyone who supports Trump? That you want people elected who will be a check on his power?” She nodded. “Then in this particular election we should both simply vote straight Democratic.” She understood the logic of that.

We filled in the circles by the name of the first openly lesbian U.S. Senator, now running for reelection. Then we filled in the circle by the name of lovely African American women who represents my (sister’s) district and will reliably vote against anything the Pwesident is for and vice versa. It is fairly clear that both of these women will win – with or without our votes. It was still nice to add our voices to the Resistance Choir. My only regret was that our voting status didn’t allow us to chime in on State government positions. So we couldn’t also fill in the circle by What’s His Name – the guy who hopefully will be taking down our current ridiculous Republican governor.

The whole time we were doing this, I did not look at her ballot or what she was doing. The instructions had been explicit about this being a no-no.

 

Steps Two through Eight:

We each signed and dated our Voter Certifications. We exchanged them and each signed and dated the Witness Statement for one another. We traded back and then each taped our certificates onto one of the envelopes. We put our ballots inside and sealed them. Then we put these envelopes into another envelope and addressed it to the Executive Director of the Election Commission. And then we mailed them off.

I have no idea when – or even if – these votes will be opened and counted. (And, no,  I didn’t mention this fact to my daughter.)

BUT! . . .

If control of the House of Representatives ends up coming down to two absentee overseas votes from a certain district of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, well, then, I’ll just say . . .

“You’re welcome”.

To the Poorhouse

 

Ireland 2018 – Part 3

 

I don’t suppose many of you readers will believe me when I say that I really did try to take a break from American politics while on vacation this year. I limited my news inputs to scrolling through headlines, reading a few breaking news alerts and watching one or two MSNBC videos a day. But seeing as how this trip to Ireland included more political content and history lessons than the last one, it was sometimes difficult not to note the occasional parallel or be reminded of current atrocities while learning about past ones.

One of those moments came when we took up my sister’s suggestion to tour the Portumna Workhouse Center. As an added enticement, the center also had an exhibit of works by the Irish sculptor Kieran Touhy,  who uses peat bog oak as his medium.  This is wood that is found underground in the bogs and can be 1000s of years old. The show was called “Dark Shadows” and poignantly conveyed the same themes as the workhouse tour. I’ve scattered some of his works throughout this post.

For my fellow historically-challenged people, I’ll start with a little background information on the workhouse (aka “poorhouse”) system in Ireland . . .

Even before the Potato Famine years (1846-51), Ireland’s problems with poverty, hunger and homelessness were severe and getting worse. Eventually, the government had no option but to find ways of dealing with the problem. Unfortunately, they did not see it as a problem of an inequitable economic system in which increasing numbers of people could not maintain a viable existence no matter how hard they worked. No, those in power and the position to “do something” saw the problem as one of “surplus people”. How do we rid the countryside of them?

One way was to assist emigration to Australia or North America. Another policy led to the construction of “workhouses” throughout the country. People facing starvation who had run out of options could enter these places and work for food and a place to sleep. Unlike those people in English workhouses, this was not stopover on the way to somewhere else – an interim after which they could leave and find work outside again. No, in Ireland, these houses were essentially the end of the road.

After this system was ended in the 1920s, many of these buildings were torn down or re-purposed; the one in Portumna remained abandoned, but largely intact. Now it is slowing being restored and turned into a sort of museum/education center. While touring it, out guide delicately pointed out some misconceptions about the system – making it clear to us why this was the most feared and hated institution ever established in Ireland”  as well as the general situation in the country at that time. One of the most significant points was that even though the potato crop failed, the farms were producing plenty of other crops – but much of that food ended up being sold and shipped off to England while the home population continued to starve.

 

Here, now, are some of pictures from the inside of the workhouse:

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The layout of the place was basically three rows of buildings around two courtyards. There were separate tracts for boys, girls, men, women, and nursing women with kids under 2 years old. The daily routines of the groups ensured that their paths didn’t cross in the courtyards or dining hall. The high windows ensured that they could not see the others when they were outside. The doors were locked in the evenings by the workhouse “managers”. So parents and kids could spend years just 50 or 100 yards apart from one another and never meet up.

At the end of the tour we ended up where we started and I looked again at the first display sign I had read on coming through the front door:

I asked our guide if the people who came here were all at the very end of their rope – desperate and with no more options. She answered yes.

“Can I ask you a personal question?”  I said. She nodded.

“When you hear about what is going on at the southern border of the US right now – about families being separated – does it remind you of this place?” I gestured toward the sign.

“Well, I guess it does . . . although you always want to think that we learn from history and won’t repeat things like this . . .” Her voice trailed off and she looked off into the distance.

 

– – – – – – – –

Back in the car and our way to Dublin, I scrolled through the days breaking news headlines.

“Trump administration falls short on reunifications before deadline”

“Gov’t: 650 children are ‘ineligible” for reunification”

Today, two weeks later, as I write this, there are still hundreds of state-created orphans in the US whose future is up in the air. And the government has just announced plans to put new limits on legal immigration as the second prong in their plan to decrease the surplus population. To rid the country of riffraff.