Schwarzfahren

 

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.

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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!

 

Other People’s Secrets

 

For the first two and a half years of bloglife, I was skipping along . . . riding a wave . . . whistling my way down Easy Street. Meeting my self-imposed, randomly chosen goal of posting three times a week turned out to be no prob. Ideas arose, ran down from my brain through my nervous system to fingertips on a laptop keyboard and then on to the WordPress Dashboard and then out into the ether. I had no qualms about publishing my own personal stuff for the world to see (albeit when I say “the world” here, I am talking about a total of zero to 20 readers). Surprisingly, the husband and daughters were also okay with me telling their stories from time to time – possibly as a way to make up for not being part of my blog’s reading audience. Having a job in the real world that I loved and no ambition to see my name on a book jacket helped me to concentrate on the fun factor. It propelled me along hummingly in my hobby.

Something changed.

It is now fall, which has always been my undisputed favorite season. It reminds me of my childhood excitement for the first day of school and how I always laid out my carefully chosen outfit the night before, next to my beautiful new school supplies in an un-customarily neat room. Fall reminds me of later pleasant backaches induced by hours of stacking firewood or gathering chestnuts to roast and then not eat because they don’t really taste good, but still somehow manage to seem romantic. Fall is the time when everything begins anew even as it is changing into glorious colors shortly before dying.

This fall has been different. It seems to be ALL about endings and few foreseeable beginnings. As I navigate my way through a successful start of the school year with my three new English groups, I can’t ignore the world around them disintegrating. My beloved school is in deep trouble on the parental level. Some new personal conflict arises among them every week, spreading quickly through the social network and ultimately to the kids in the classroom. Our sociocratic experiment has hit a rough patch. Something tells me the path to resolution will be a long and disruptive one. I assume the school will continue on for the next four years – my last four before retirement. But I am preparing myself anyway for eventuality that it won’t.

At the same time, in the other half of my professional life, I am also realizing that the end is nigh. The stream of students into Business or Economics majors at the university has been drying up because, on graduating, too many of them find they are over-educated for the jobs most companies want to fill these days. (They want lower level staff and techies.) With fewer and fewer students enrolling, my GDE course tailored to them is also shrinking out of existence. This is officially my 30th year teaching this course, but I think it will be the last.

Then there is my expatriate life and morbid fascination in the quagmire American politics has become. Unfortunately the daily twumpian absurdities combined with the sheer distance between me and my ability to affect anything there are leading me to detach.

And my more immediate private life? It has revolved completely around – been infiltrated and consumed by – Other People’s Business.

 

In this autumn of endings, day after day, week after week, my thoughts have been chock full of events and concerns and news and ideas and developments and amateur psychology sessions – none of which are technically my own and none suitable for blogging.

 

So, once again, I will write about chickens.

They also incessantly squawk and squabble and peck at one another and make everything a mess. But they are chickens. So it kind of suits them. And night after night, they all waddle into the coop together where a few sorry ones on the lower bar get pooped on by others who managed to get a better perch higher up.  I suppose it is still better than being outdoors at night and risking being eaten up by a weasel or a fox.

After that glorious first egg my alter-ego, Blackthumb, told you about, a second one was found – lying on the grass and broken. After a closer look around, we discovered a pile of destroyed egg shells – maybe four or five of them. One of our chickens was breaking and eating the eggs (of another one, I assume). As for the layer of the destroyed eggs, I suspect the Sulmtaler (“Trump”). Despite being the same breed as our rooster, he doesn’t give her the time of day. She spends the day waddle-darting from here to there, acting all nervous and confused (not to mention looking silly with that awful hairstyle). As for the Egg Killer, I immediately suspected the Swedish Flower Bully. She then further incriminated herself by beginning to lay one egg a day in the quarantine coop. A half dozen so far. Thanks to this whole episode, she finally has a name: we call her Darwin.

 

Tomorrow her six eggs will be fried or scrambled and eaten along with some bacon and buttered toast. I will do my best to find them distasteful.

 

Dam Cracked

 

Not to diminish the insult or pain caused by Confederate statues, but it strikes me that discussions around them take our attention away from the true horror of Charlottesville. There were Nazi’s and KKK people marching proudly and openly in front of live cameras!  With guns and torches. Quoting first Hitler and then Donald Trump. In an American city.

Take a moment and really consider that.

It demands a response from every thinking person with a conscience. But what can possibly be written that hasn’t been said already by 1000 talking heads and one or two Republican senators?

As my subconscious gnawed on these recent events, a childhood story popped into my head. The one about the little boy who plugs a hole in a dike with his finger and saves the town (or was it the whole country?) I guess I thought of this story because it was somehow the metaphorical opposite of what I want to see happen.

In my three weeks in the States, I detected changes in the vocabulary people used to discuss the latest daily Twump farce. Way back during the campaign we had heard tentative expressions about “false statements”, “untruths”, “misrepresentations” and “distortions” – now people were saying straight out “he lied again”. An earlier “unprecedented outrage” was now yet another “idiotic” stunt. Words like “narcissist”, “pathological”, “obsession”, “unhinged”, etc. were now being thrown around with impunity. Newscasters began to smirk when saying the words “The president tweeted today that . . . .”  and no one talked about his brilliance in business or deal making anymore. And yet, everyone still danced on tiptoes around two topics. The first was his mental state. The second was fascism. Any remark comparing Trump’s playbook to that of historical fascist regimes was immediately pronounced “out of bounds”.

Still, it seemed to me that the vocabulary of dissent was growing in volume and intensity. I discussed this with my sister many times to make sure it was not just wishful thinking or me hearing what I wanted to hear. I was sure this drip drip had turned into a trickle at least. I wondered what it would take to turn this dribble into a stream and then, finally, maybe a torrent. What would make the dam break? Access Hollywood didn’t do it. Nor did the Comey firing. None of his many nasty attacks got his party members running, nor did the fact that he lied five times a day on average since taking office. Could Charlottesville be the thing? – the one that finally could not be simply waited out? When an important senator openly questioned the pwesident’s mental fitness for office and CNN started debating the question the next day, I thought this might really be it. The three words “on many sides” would open the flood gates. I braced myself and . . .

dribble . . . dribble . . . dribble . . .

I should have known that the senator’s words would not equate with metaphorically unplugging the hole in the dike. (His name was “Corker”. It was a sign.)

I googled the story anyway (search terms: boy finger dike) and discovered a lot of confusion. No one seems to know the origins of the story, but it was made famous by an American woman in the 19th century when she included it in her book about life in Holland: “Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates”. This woman had never been to Holland when she wrote it and apparently most Dutch people were not and are not familiar with the story. (This detail doesn’t surprise me at all. I have met literally thousands of Austrians and can only name three who have seen “The Sound of Music”.) Even so, there are (erroneously named) “Hans Brinker” statues in many cities in the Netherlands today. Wikipedia suggests they were put up for the benefit of American tourists.

And now I am back to statues.

It seems our objectionable statues have about as much true connection to our country’s heritage and traditions as the Hans Brinker ones do to Holland’s. Who believes that these ugly monuments, put up during Jim Crow, were meant to glorify a bunch of 19th century generals fighting a lost and immoral cause or the man who occupied a short-lived and illegitimate presidency? No, they had a different purpose and it surely wasn’t to attract tourists. And who believes that the present day defenders of these pieces of concrete are there to honor history? If anything, it is a bunch of 21st century generals fighting a different lost cause they are chanting for, along with the current man occupying a (short-lived?) and illegitimate presidency. The man whose words encouraged them to creep out of the closets and remove the hoods. These people clearly have an affinity to and recognize a common cause with the pwesident.

So . . . it seems that self proclaimed neo-nazi’s can say publicly that “he is one of us” but the rest of us are still not allowed to say “he is one of you”.

I am almost desperate in my need to hear Washington lawmakers and serious news people start openly discussing this man’s true political leanings as well as his mental capacity and health. He keeps going lower and he’s taking the country down with him.

There were Nazi’s and KKK people marching proudly and openly in front of live cameras!  With guns and torches. Quoting first Hitler and then Donald Trump. In an American city.

Take a moment and really consider that.

Day 10

So.

When I go to bed tonight, I will mentally pat myself on the back for going 10 straight days without . . .  self-administered carbon monoxide, tar and approximately 6997 other chemical poisonings. I can’t yet brag about giving up nicotine yet, because in weaker moments, I am falling back on various other delivery systems for that particular drug. The plan is to make it through the first month in this way and then detox completely when my stress levels plummet precipitously on July 1st.

I did look into a few other commonly used methods to conquer addiction, but none of them seemed particularly auspicious. There are all sorts of natural and/or homeopathic products, but deep down, I believe that you have to believe that they will work for them to work and I am not much of a believer. The same problem arose when I googled “12 Step Program”. Somehow I don’t see myself taking a fearless moral inventory of my character, admitting my defects to a higher Power and then humbly asking Him to remove these shortcomings. I also don’t plan to become missionary among my many MANY smoking friends. No, I will use my own (if I may say so myself, impressive) powers of denial to get me through.

This I know:

Thinking about quitting sucks big time. It is truly awful in its futile endlessness.

Quitting, at least so far, has been easy in its awesome finality.

The Pompitous of 1973

It all started back in the 5th Grade with Secret Valentines. Two weeks after the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, I started finding little Sweetheart candies on my school desk. Then on February 14th,  the big reveal came. MC had drawn my name out of the hat and he handed my present off to me in an embarrassed walk-by. It was a 45 – “The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band. That record set off a month-long unrequited crush and an awakening to music’s power to incite and amplify emotions. I played that single to death while somewhere in the background, the troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were finished – making them briefly the world’s tallest buildings – and the Watergate hearings began. Only that third one really registered with me because it upset Grandpa so much. It also vindicated me after losing the class debate on the ’72 Presidential Election earlier in the fall. My attention was much more attuned to “Maurice” ‘cause  he spoke “of the pompitous of love” (whatever that meant). That was the first record in what would become a fairly large collection of vinyl.

If memory serves, I played my 45 on a portable record player in my own room. I don’t remember exactly how it looked, but while googling, this picture seemed most familiar to me, closest to my fuzzy recollections – especially those two white knobs on the front. Meanwhile, an exploration of our house had added two LP’s to my collection – the only two I found that weren’t classical music: “The Best of the Monkees” and the soundtrack to “Jesus Christ Superstar”. I played them to death. Secretariat won the Triple Crown and the Lakota people gave up their occupation of Wounded Knee with the government promising to investigate broken treaties, but I barely noticed. I wanted more. I wanted the stuff I was hearing on WKTI FM – the “non-stop stereo rock” station.

I had started the 6th Grade and the Vice-President had resigned, when I saw an ad on TV for “24 Golden Hits of 1973” and it was perfect. It had “Monster Mash” and “Superfly” and “Crocodile Rock” on it!! Amazingly my mother let me order it. (Possibly she was tired of hearing “The Joker” and Davey Jones?) When it arrived in the mail, I was so excited and then immediately deeply, deeply disappointed. Somehow I had missed the fact in the commercial that these weren’t the original songs. They were all covers done by a group called “The Sound Effects”. (To use my non-PC 1973 vocabulary): “What a gyp!”

 

I played that record to death.

And I began “appropriating” records from my brothers to grow my collection. Goodbye Pop Top 40, hello Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull.

By the time I was 13 or 14, Nixon was long gone, the world population had passed the 4 billion mark and Lucy’s discovery in Ethiopia had set its starting date back about 3 million years. I started to have a little mad money from babysitting, raking leaves, shoveling snow, etc. I had also stopped spending all of my allowance on Wacky Packages stickers and Bazooka bubble gum. One day, I finally did it. I entered a record store with the intention of actually buying something. The decision was excruciating, but I finally went for Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and the brand new Queen album – “A Night at the Opera”.  (“Hhmmm. Pretty good choices!” my later self would think 40 years in the future.)

From then on, music was a constant and continually changing companion. It helped me feel the world and helps me now to remember it. Every relationship got its theme song. Styx’s “Come Sail Away” will always evoke the basement of my high school house and the first boyfriend who lasted more than a few weeks, (now shrouded with an extra layer of sadness since the news of his suicide a few years ago.)  Toto’s “Hold the Line” still throws me back to my first real date – as in boy picks up girl in his dad’s car and gets grilled by the girl’s stepfather (who only looks mean) before driving her to a family restaurant with popcorn on the floor. Journey, Kansas, Genesis, Foreigner, The Cars, Kinks, Kings and Doors were some of my guides through the wild but romantically lean college years during which I scared away a succession of potential suitors by pointing out how their love of Bruce Springsteen contradicted their support for President Trickledown.  Later, a certain nameless artist’s now unmentionable song about violet precipitation remains the soundtrack to my one and only broken heart and still, 30 years later, makes me change the radio station went it comes on.

 

But it is not only romances I remember. Country music conjures the smell of the pine trees up in northern Wisconsin. Neue Deutsche Welle tastes like German wheat beer and pungent French filter-less cigarettes. Punk makes my shoes stick to the floor in an illegally occupied tenement turned even more illegal dancing bar. The sound of the accordion has me sitting in a cozy warm mountain lodge on a cold night sipping tea with schnapps. R.E.M. puts my first baby back in my arms. The fiddle wakes up ancestral memories stored in my DNA. Fusion Jazz tells me that my childhood is officially over. But never fear – a Davey Jones song can bring it back for a while if I ever need it to.

As I wrote a while back, my birthday present this year was the resurrection of long lost feelings and memories, raised from near-oblivion by the power of music – “the records of my past” in both meanings of the phrase. Something tells me this going-back-to-vinyl thing will be more than just a passing fancy. Last week I was in Graz and had some time on my hands before I had to catch my train. I googled record stores and actually found one. Here’s what my smile and I came home with:

Listening to these sometimes scratchy sounds takes me out of the present for a while, but while helping me with a dose of nostalgia, I also sense a faint and haunting echo.As the disc spins, it seems to me, here in 2017, that the world of 1973 has circled back on me – only now with its population doubled and its history slightly warped. There are big holes in the ground where the twin towers used to be, and yet, we are still living under their shadows. There’s another space cowboy/joker in the White House planning new onslaughts on Roe and the Lakota. There’s an old conflict in Southeast Asia ramping up just as the hearings on Watergate 2.0 begin. There is pompitous galore and the same old song being played to death.