Founding Fathers 2.0

“C! Come here quick! You gotta see this!”

It was my husband yelling out to me from the kitchen and, of course, I immediately came. That was how my own personal experience of January 6th, 2021 began. I stared at the images on the TV screen in confusion for a while as my husband filled me in on whatever sketchy information he knew. After a long silence, the first thought popped out of my mouth.

“This is going to backfire.”

Over the next few days, like most Americans, I assume, I underestimated the seriousness and violence of the event. The fact that the Congresspeople were able to reconvene and finish their business gave me a false impression of what they had all just gone through. More videos began to emerge with some of them including almost comical elements. In particular, the scene of some rioters entering the Senate chamber included this little gem when you can hear one of them saying:

“While we’re here we might as well set up a government.”

I confess, I laughed out loud. So much that I had to wipe my eyes and blow my nose. I allowed my imagination to embark on an absurd whimsical journey. I pictured these clowns attempting to hammer out the finer points of their new constitution on the fly, while their maskless moron compatriots in other parts of the building were sharing helpful clues for the FBI and evidence for their future criminal trials to social media. I imagined these drafters of America 2.0 pulling it off and how someday, far off into the future, history books would replace that stuffy old painting of men in their silly wigs with this image of our new Founding Fathers:

The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body

While watching those first videos, I discovered something else within the swirl of my emotions. What was it about this crowd that disturbed me most? It was not their rage or frustration, their willingness to commit acts of violence or their bent for conspiracy theories. It was the fact that they all seem so . . . DUMB. Anyone can fall prey to extreme emotions or manipulation at times in their lives. Those are universal human weaknesses. But something can always be done about dumb.

Now, after watching the first two days of the Impeachment Managers’ presentation, laughter is no longer possible. They have been doing their very best to provide some education, but it is not clear that the walls of the Capitol breaching brains are penetrable. I can imagine that as these people watch the very same, very disturbing videos, their reactions are the polar opposite of my own: where I feel sadness, they feel exhilaration, my fears are their empowerment, my humiliation is their pride.

Letter to 2020

Based on all the videos and memes being bounced around the internet, all the cards and Christmas letters and text messages I have gotten, there seems to be an absolutely universal agreement that the year 2020 was the worst. thing. ever. and can only be despised. “Good Riddance!” is attitude of the whole world. I was on that wavelength, too, beginning my own Christmas New Year`s letter with a note to 2020 that no one will miss it (except maybe that one guy, whom no one will miss either).

But then something happened.

On the very last day of the year, December 31st, 2020, I got some very good news. I’m talking life-changing news. Suddenly, my heart began to soften. I started feeling sorry for the year. I mean, Coronavirus is not 2020’s fault! The pwesident was not 2020’s fault – in fact it was the year we got rid of him! It was time break with the herd and find something nice to say. I added an epilogue to my letter:

 Dear 2020,

As much as you sucked, you WERE a year of spectacular sunsets. I still won’t miss you, but I am thankful that you – in contrast to that other guy – clearly know how to make a beautiful exit.

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Happy Times

It is a Halloween tradition of this blog to post something ghoulish. This year’s contribution comes to you thanks to the pwesident, coronavirus, my mother, and the latest book on my reading list.

While looking around for the next book to start, I first landed on “Factfulness” in which a cheery Swedish sociologist tries to convince the world that it really isn’t in a handbasket heading towards hell. In fact, all sorts of statistics show that in many issues  – infant mortality, overpopulation, girl’s education, extreme poverty, etc etc. – things have been improving for decades. After four or five chapters of this optimism, I found myself getting increasingly irritated. It all just didn’t jibe with my dark sense of the current world.

In an act of uncharacteristic perversity, I put “Factfulness” down and picked up this one instead:

I say perversity, because the other half of my brain has been feebly attempting to tune out all the sources of my constant low-grade anxiety. I no longer obsessively track the number of coronavirus cases in my home state. Now that my vote has been sent off (and officially received!), I try to tune out the daily political outrages from Twump & Co. I purposefully attempt to put myself into “travel mode” – that wonderful, peaceful state of mind I have whenever I am on the road with its blissful acceptance that “whatever happens now happens” and all will be good.

So, it is a strange time to pick up a book that “travels” back to a time and place of particular misery, desperation, death, insanity, tragedy, etc. in Wisconsin history. It is as if this choice is the ultimate anti-antidote to my current efforts to tune out. And yet, it has been strangely cathartic.

The actual physical book has a history of its own. It first spent about a decade on my mother’s coffee table. Over the years she asked me a multitude of times if I had read it, but I had never done more that pick it up, flip randomly through it and scan some of the pictures. She never stopped recommending it and so I eventually “borrowed” it. That was about 15 years ago. In the time since, it has switched from collecting my mother’s Wisconsin living room dust to collecting my Austrian library dust.

A few days ago, I dusted it off and cracked it open.

It’s the strangest thing I have ever read. There are no page numbers or chapter titles. It has three sections, but I see no real thematic reason for having them. Other than a loosely followed year-by-year chronology, there is no apparent organization in the selection and placement of the pictures. In between the years, there is a section of photographs that seem to bear no relation to the texts that precede or follow it. Here is a small sampling of ones that caught my attention:

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The text sections consist of snippets of newspaper articles, records from the state insane asylum, and short book excerpts by contemporaneous Wisconsinite authors. It is just a relentless piling on – like a mountain of carcasses outside a slaughterhouse – of suicides, murders, arson, epidemics, deadly snake oil cures, bank failures and economic ruin, commitments to insane asylums, looting vagabonds, religious delusions, and infant-sized coffins. Apparently, this period of economic depression in Wisconsin history (1890 – 1910) was a particularly bad one.

The high level of early voting has led Michael McDonald, the University of Florida professor who administers the U.S. Elections Project, to predict a record U.S. voter turnout of about 150 million, representing 65% of those eligible to vote, the highest rate since 1908.

By the time I finished the book, the year 2020 suddenly didn’t seem quite as bad. Now I know that there was at least one era in which life was nastier, more brutish and generally shorter. Coronavirus is awful but imagine how much worse it would be if it afflicted children first and foremost – the way many diseases of that period did. The Time of Twump has often made me feel something like despair, but lately it also seems to have set off the largest voter participation since  . . . well, since 1908 – as I just read yesterday.

It’s Halloween, which means there are just three more days until the election. I think I will be able to get through them, too, without throwing myself into a cistern or setting someone’s barn on fire.

Election Night in Loopyville

Let me start by saying that my daughters were NOT taking me seriously in my efforts to do absentee voting by the book. Thanks to Daughter 1’s boyfriend, I have dozens of pictures of each stage of the procedure to back me up.

There was the showing of the empty ballots
There was the anonymous filling out of ballots
There was the inserting into and sealing of the (naked) envelope
There was the signing of the certification form
There was the witness signing of the certification form
There was the affixing of the certification form to the naked envelope
There was the inserting of the naked envelope affixed with voter-signed and witness-signed certification form into a second envelope and addressing it
There was a Happy End

I mailed off our ballots two days ago. I can already say with certainty, even though I didn’t look, that the Loopyville contingent of Milwaukee’s Ward 132 went 0% for the current pwesident. I can also say that I feel different. Like maybe there is a proverbial light at the end of this crappy four-year-long tunnel. Like maybe it is no longer my civic responsibility to follow every outrageous or scandalous twist and every shitshow turn between now and November 3rd.

I have my final golf lesson tomorrow. After that I might do some gardening.

– – – – – – – – –

Postscript

I really should know better by now than to make predictions. After writing the above yesterday, I was too tired to post it and decided to wait until morning. The first thing I see after firing up my laptop is the news about the pwesident’s positive Covid test . . . .

Damals war ich vierzehn

 

When I was 14, it was the year 1976. The year of the American Bicentennial. A celebration of 200 years of freedom and democracy. In commemoration, I baked a cake and decorated it with an approximation of the original American flag. (Please don’t count the number of stars or stripes. I wasn’t a perfectionist back then.) The only reason I still know this is because there is a picture in my childhood photo album. I stare at it now and feel that it represents the peak of my patriotism, not to mention my baking skills.

The reason I have dredged up this particular memory is that I have just finished reading this book: “Damals war ich vierzehn”. In English, the title would be something like “I Was Fourteen Back Then: Youth in the Third Reich”. It’s a collection of short stories/essays/memoirs of Austrian writers who were children of various ages during the reign of Hitler. The experiences and perspectives were wildly different, but all of them moving. There was the boy whose torment by his fellow aspiring Hitler youth only made him want to belong more. There was the man piecing together memory fragments from his four-year old self who emerged as an orphan from the rubble of a bombed-out air raid shelter and somehow managed to travel all alone to his grandmother hundreds of miles away. There was the little girl who started singing a song while waiting in line at the butcher’s, only to be slapped viciously and repeatedly by her beloved Grandma. (She didn’t know it was an anti-Hitler song. It was just something her dad sang.) There was the young Jewish girl whose family (or what was left of it) returned to Austria right after the war – “now that it was all over” – only to learn painfully over and over again that it was all far from being over.

The one that got to me most, for some reason, was the story of two neighbor kids who were ordered by the Führer to bring their pet dogs to a sort of army physical to see if they were fit for service on the front lines. The kids proceeded to “train” (= torment) their dogs with loud bangs, sirens, and pain to make sure they cowered and ran off during the test (and were therefore rejected and spared). While reading this story, a realization washed over me of just how far-reaching and deeply implanted the tentacles of the Nazis had become by that point, interfering in daily family life even down to the relationships between little kids and their dogs.

This book is one of two perennial favorites of teachers in Austria who have to teach about the Second World War*. The other is called “The Wave” and it tells the story of a Californian teacher who conducted an experiment on his students after they rejected the idea that fascism could take hold in America. He began a movement in his class based on principles of “strength through discipline, strength through community, strength through action, strength through pride.”** He then added in symbols, and slogans and salutes. His experiment took on a life of its own, spread throughout the school and quickly got out of his control. Brutality and torment ensued.***

 

“How could they?!” I remember thinking the exact same thing as my German teacher in high school taught us about that historical period, including her own youthful experiences. She told us how at some point a critical mass of followers was reached, after which dissent became life-threatening.  She told us how parents eventually became afraid of their own children and could no longer speak freely in front of them. (Think about the song in the butcher’s shop – that grandma surely acted not out of political conviction, but out of fear.) My teacher let us know the whole story, including all the ultimate atrocities. I still thought “How could they??! That could never happen here!”

I must have been about 14 at the time, maybe a little older, but in any case, still near the peak of my patriotism and baking skills.

 

And here I sit, about 44 years later and 45 days before the next election, wondering not only if it could happen, but if it will happen. Fascism in America. Or if our institutions (or what is left of them), our Constitution (or what is left of it), our Free Press (or whatever that is now), and our liberty loving people (who is that exactly? which liberties do they care about? whose liberties do they care about?) may pull off a last-minute reversal.

The American people beating back fascism would go a long way in restoring the entire world’s faith in our country, not to mention my own. Will it happen?

Or will more brutality and torment ensue?

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

 

*One principle in the Austrian curriculum in History is called “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”, meaning “coming to terms with the past”. The idea behind this policy is fairly straightforward and Santayana-ish . . . “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Austrian students are confronted with the events and the atrocities of the time of their grandparents (or maybe now great-grandparents). In their Junior or Senior years, they all take a class trip to Mauthausen, which was the one major concentration camp in Austria.
We have no real concept of dealing with the past in the United States. On the contrary. As Gore Vidal wrote (about the issue of legalizing marijuana) in the New York Times: “It is a lucky thing for the American moralist that our country has always existed in a kind of time‐vacuum: we have no public memory of anything that happened before last Tuesday.” He wrote that in September 1970 – a half century ago. It still seems true today. Maybe more so than ever.
 ** In other words, “Law and Order, Build the Wall, America First, Make America Great Again”.
***Strangely enough, there was a scandal here in Austria just last year. A teacher was using this book to teach about WWII and, for some reason, his/her students started role-playing the same dynamics extra-curricularly. It got bad. Things are not perfect here either.
 

The Last Times Begin

 

On Monday I woke up and officially began the last week of my summer vacation. More shockingly, I began the final week of my last ever summer vacation! Next time this year, my 39-year teaching career will most likely be over. And if you don’t have work, you don’t have vacation, right?  Weird thought.

Of course, I should add here that I am notoriously bad at making predictions, so when I say that I am beginning the last year of my teaching career, you could be forgiven for a tiny bit of skepticism. I am, after all, the person who spent the better part of 2016 telling everyone “there is no Math” that would get Twump to an election victory. I also wrote in early July this year that I had an expanse of lethargic nothingness ahead of me, but now, in retrospect, the summer was full, and it sped by. I had my last week of my cure in Salzburg, followed by an even better cure week at my aunt and uncle’s in Tyrol, followed by a week of golf lessons (the  muscle aches from which I am still feeling!) followed by a week of relaxing and hiking in Carinthia. Here is a random sampling of impressions from those days:

Other activities during my final summer vacation included a lot of home projects (most of which came down to “putting shit away”). I did a six-hour braiding session with younger daughter and attended a performance or two of the older one. I supervised the building of blacksmith shop in my yard. I befriended a barking rat (my name for Chihuahuas). I ate two family-sized bags of Cheetos and then briefly considered immigrating to Australia when I read that the Dominos there is giving out free pizzas to women named “Karen”. I monitored the DNC and the RNP (“P” stands for “Pukefest”). I read two and half books and made two and half new friends. I requested my absentee ballot. I did lots of laundry and no ironing. My dog and I together lost 8 pounds.

 

It’s now Friday, which means I am officially into my last summer vacation weekend before work starts up again on Monday. From here on in, it’s going to be a long string of last times: My last preparation week, getting my last work schedule, my last first day of school, going on my last team-building excursion with the kids, making my last attendance/homework lists and year plans for my four English groups, attending my last “Start Weekend” with all the parents, designing my last chores wheel for my class . . . . And that is all in the coming two weeks. Assuming I resist getting talked into extending my stint, by the end of the year, this list of last times is going to be really long.

And then I will be done. For good.

I predict.

 

The Masque of the Orange Death

(Kur Report – Part 8)

 

My brother’s nickname for Austria is “Clean World”. It’s his way of contrasting what he hears from me about the Covid and political situations here to what he is experiencing in the States. Well, if my home is in Clean World, where I am right now is . . . I don’t know . . . Prospero’s Castle?

As announced in my last posts, I left for my third cure week at the health resort on Wednesday at the crack of dawn. After about 4 hours of travel, I arrived, got my room key and was instructed to isolate there. Twenty minutes later, someone from the Red Cross came to my room and stuck a Q-Tip up my nose. An hour after that, someone bought me a plate of food. Five hours after that, my phone rang. My test was negative. I could leave my room. My cure week had begun.

This place is almost hermetically sealed. Everyone here has been tested, some of them more than once (if they are employees or patients who come from hotspot areas). No one else is allowed in and we have strict rules to follow if we go out. We get our temperatures checked daily before lunch. We have to wear masks outside of our rooms and sanitize our hands when entering and leaving any of the seven therapy areas. Everything imaginable is being done to keep the plague out of this place.

So, I guess it is no wonder that Edgar Allen Poe and his “Masque of the Red Death” keeps infiltrating my thoughts. What are we, if not a bunch of oblivious and merry guests concentrating only on having a pleasant time while a sickness rages outside our doors? Like the rest of the guests here, I considered tuning out the world for a week. But, unfortunately, the CNN breaking news on my TV and my list of political podcasts keep me informed about events outside, and I can’t seem to let them go. Twump’s clearly deteriorating mental state and increasingly demented actions have enabled him to sneak into this Castle of Clean World like an uninvited guest to wreak the same mental havoc here. But, of course, only for me. The rest of the people around me seem to be quite happy and fully enjoying the temporary good life.

I had free time yesterday and spent it in my room watching part of John Lewis’s funeral, including Obama’s powerful eulogy which really moved me. Afterwards, on the way down to the café terrace, I was deeply into thoughts about all the things he had said. Slowly, they got drowned out by the conversation of a group at a nearby table. It was the shallow talk of virtual strangers socializing out of necessity – complaints about the Covid restrictions and tips on how to get around them, a lengthy discussion about whether or not Hansi Hinterseer (an Austrian skier-turned-B-Grade-folk-singer) was gay, a mock feud between an Upper and a Lower Austrian, a debate about which receptionist is the rudest . . . It all struck me as so banal and meaningless. John Lewis is dead! Americans are dying and our democracy is on life support!! The “leader” is insane!

Which brings me back to Poe and another one of his stories. I remember some college professor telling us how Sigmund Freud was a Poe fan and that especially “The Fall of the House of Usher” was inspirational to him. It helped him to develop the theory of the subconscious. The upper floors house conscious, rational minds dealing – however feebly – with the world as it is. The crazy is buried in the basement – a place full of fear, obsession, and the irrationality of animalistic drives. Depending on how you see it, the protagonist either descends into madness or the crazy he tries to keep down resurfaces to destroy him. The whole house collapses in on itself.

Twump dwells in the basement of his mind. Years ago, I decided that he wakes up each morning with one thought in his head: “What dickish thing can I do today?” That has remained true up to and including today. It will be true tomorrow. It will be true on November 4th and on January 20th.

But! she says, with a budding, ever-so-slight sense of hope and change, Americans do seem to be waking up. Where locked doors fail to keep the orange menace from crashing the party and bringing the house down, the locked hands of various resisters just might: young BLM protesters shielded by a wall of moms, protected by leaf-blower dads, guarded by vets. Backing them up are the whistle-blowers, the Bulwark and Lincoln Project, the Squad, the leakers, the media monitors, the experts, the front-line doctors and nurses, the podcasters, the artists, the postal workers, the vote protectors, the voters . . .

Together they may finally pull off the orange one’s masque, revealing for once and for all that underneath, there is absolutely nothing.

 

Things Change

 

There have been some developments in the things I related in previous posts, so I want to update them in a somewhat rambling and random way, starting with:

Remasking

After a lot of speculation and delays, the government here has gone ahead and reinstated the national mask wearing order for stores, banks and post offices. Despite the starting date being set for today (Friday), many people began earlier – as in right away after the announcement, including us. Two days ago, we spent almost 3 hours in IKEA getting our daughters furnishings for their apartment. It was the longest time I have ever spent in a mask. I found it surprisingly suffocating. Then it occurred to me that long before Covid, just being in an IKEA with its massive crowds always made me feel that way, mask or no mask. Anyway, we don’t know the true reason behind or the end date of the current policy, but the general opinion among friends is that the government decided it was necessary to remind the population about how we should be behaving. With things opening up, we had gotten too relaxed about social distancing, etc.

 

Cure Continuation – With Conditions!

Speaking of opening up, the health center I went to for my cure can now start taking patients again. I just got the dates for my third cure week which was cancelled during the lockdown – it begins next Wednesday already. When the confirmation came, there were three extra forms attached about all the Covid restrictions and regulations. I had to sign them (i.e. basically swear to follow the rules) and send them back. I have to arrive there by 10:00 am on the first day in a mask, get a Covid test, and then self-isolate in my room for the rest of the day till the results come in (usually early evening the same day, they say). Masks are to be worn indoors at all times. I am not allowed to go to any other restaurants or cafes in the town. I can’t socialize with anyone who does not live in my household – so that means everyone – and I can’t have visitors. The list of rules goes on and on . . .

It is hard to imagine that this week will be as therapeutic as the first two were. On the other hand, I have been saying that I don’t know a single person who has been tested and now, in just five more days, I will know one person. (I hope they aren’t still sticking swabs way up noses.) I imagine y’all will be hearing my thoughts as I sit in my room alone waiting for the results. It’s a good thing, too, that this will not be the only travels of the summer.

 

Staycation

The onset of summer vacation was delayed this year as the first week included three somewhat obligatory social gatherings with my coworkers during which all the tensions and melodrama and plot twists of the school year were rehashed ad nauseum. So, instead of the usual end-of-the-year, 1-day system crash (traditionally spent on the couch in the company of a box of aspirin, a pukey bowl and the remote control), I went through a prolonged sort of joyless malaise with no travel plans and no energy to come up with ideas about how to fill the seven weeks stretching out ahead of me. I finally booted myself out of it a few days ago, starting with a call to the health center to schedule my cure week. That quickly led to plans to follow it with a visit to my aunt and uncle in Tyrol. After that, there will only be a week at home before taking off for our annual hiking trip in Carinthia. Then there will be just one more week at home before . . . no . . . it can’t be . . . don’t want to even think about it . . . Something seems wrong about the math here. Within a day, the summer went from being a long empty expanse to being all filled up with plans. I’m confused.

 

Clutter Box

I guess it is a good thing I didn’t plan any major projects for the summer. Instead, I dove into one of those little things that has been on the back of my mind for months. Everywhere you look in my house – on every shelf or piece of furniture or windowsill or counter space – there is . . . stuff. A small proportion of the . . . stuff . . . is actually put there for decoration. The vast majority, however, is supposed to be somewhere else, but just got left there by someone in this household. Every so often, I go on a decluttering rampage and begin sweeping all these surfaces clean, sorting all the stuff, returning some of it to where it belongs, throwing some of it away and finding new places to store the rest.

When I am done, there is always about a handful of undefinable things left over. I can’t throw them away. They look like they could be part of something, but who knows what? I imagine some future time when the husband asks me “Have you seen the gizmo for my gadget? It’s a small curvy piece of black plastic with some holes in it and a doohickey on it?” And I, having tossed it out, would have to avoid eye contact while saying, “I have no idea whatsoever what you are talking about! Never in my life have a seen anything remotely like what you are describing!”

So, instead, I throw these thingamajigs in the “Clutter Box”, just in case. I tell myself that one day I will make a piece of modern sculpture out of it all. I will title the finished product “Bob” (and then keep it in a plastic box in the basement storage room).

 

While doing the above, I also managed to somehow declutter my mind. I got rid of or stored away all the little pieces left there by other people during this crazy year. I cleared a path out of malaise and into the enjoyment of summer.

 

Hope for the Future

Not only is the future looking brighter now, it is looking brighter orange! On a whim, I checked my junk food website and was delighted to see my favorite thing in the world is back in stock and ready to be delivered. I pounced. With any luck, they will arrive before I leave for my cure. In the case that all the Covid regulations ruin the week, it would be nice to have a back-up therapy at hand.

 

 

Life Among the Lemmings

 

There have been murmurings lately about masks being required again in the future – but so far only in certain areas  – like at bars in tourist hotspots or in the few communities where there have been local outbreaks. Two of those were traced back to church services – and in one, the congregation apparently not only sang and danced and hugged and kissed, they also all drank out of the same communion goblet. (She says, shaking her head.) So now everyone within a 10- or 20-mile radius is now in quarantine. I assume the Viennese will also have to go back to wearing masks in public spaces, being so densely packed together AND permeated with tourists. But where I am, the lockdowns and mask-wearing and disinfecting are all receding in our memories. People have gone back to regular habits with the exception of cheek-kissing and handshaking. (Replaced by hugging and elbow-bumping, respectively, which, if you ask me, are both improvements.) The only places left where masks are required are pharmacies and public transport.

So, it felt a bit strange last week to have to dig out my mask and put it on while riding the train and then the streetcars in Graz. In both cases, I found it comforting to look around and see all the other passengers wearing one too. There is a certain pressure toward social conformity here that apparently keeps most everyone in line. When the lockdown came, it was estimated that something like 90% or 95% percent of the population complied – or maybe I should say they respected it. I don’t remember hearing about any mask altercations in stores. No one showed up mask-less at the parliament with signs and guns to shout about freedom. There was one sorry, sparsely attended protest, but the people speaking there couldn’t seem to agree on whether masks, vaccines or 5G networks were the biggest threat.

 

I keep wondering what all this says about us. Are we all lemmings following the pack? Are we somehow . . . less free?

Or simply more unified?

I was impressed from the start how the government coalition of Conservatives and Greens took charge and spoke with one voice. Daily press conferences kept the population well and honestly informed while preparing us carefully for the next steps to expect. Experts in every area of communal life (health system, welfare system, school system, public transport and public safety, banking, tourism, and commerce . . .) came up with thoughtful and detailed policies which were constantly updated and adapted. Just to give one example, when the schools closed down and switched to distance learning, my husband was asked by the school board how many and which of his students did not have access to a computer and/or internet at home. There were only two in his school. A few weeks later, packages arrived at their doors with brand new HP laptops inside along with a letter saying they should be returned to the school at the end of the year. I was amazed that someone in the government even thought about these kids, much less arranged for a solution in such an efficient and trusting way. You’d think they would have a thousand other more pressing issues to deal with.

It was the same for me when I had my two months of unemployment. I was dreading the humiliation and bureaucracy, but it turned out that I only needed 10 minutes to fill out a very unobtrusive online form and click “Send”. Three days later, an already complete application for benefits arrived in the mail. I had to fill in three short missing pieces of information (such as my bank account number for the money transfers) and sign it. I mailed it back the same day, postage free. Two months later, I sent a one sentence email informing them that I was employed again. That was the entirety of the “red tape”. Not exactly a socialist nightmare.

 

There was one incident in Graz where I encountered  “free” people. After taking a seat in a streetcar, I looked up and noticed an unmasked couple across from me. They looked familiar. I think they were a part of a loosely organized group who disperse themselves regularly among the various small train stations along my route and then spend the day asking commuters for money. I’ve had (very short) interactions with some of them for years. And so, here in the streetcar, I was not surprised when the man immediately asked me for money. I gave my practiced response of staring him in the eyes silently for six seconds and then turning away. (My alternate reaction in cases when a child is with them is to point at the child and ask why she isn’t in school. Both of these seem to work pretty effectively.) Five minutes later, the ticket checkers showed up. They approached the couple. Did they have tickets? No. Did they have masks? No. (The checker opened his bag, took out two masks and handed them over.) Did they have identification? No. Did they want to buy a ticket now? Yeah, maybe. Did they have money? No. During the entire conversation, the checkers remained calm and polite, even friendly. At that point we had reached the final stop and we all got off. I never found out how the situation resolved itself. But I am 99.9% sure no one ended up on the ground or in handcuffs. I am also sure that I will be passing these same people again in some train station or another next year, and the year after that.

 

With such catastrophic numbers and trends in the US news each day, this seems like such an insignificant little story, so it has taken me a long time to figure out why it has been on my mind. On the one hand, I DO believe that people here in Austria are generally under more pressure to conform. But the streetcar incident also shows a measure of tolerance and accommodation for those who don’t. This is a well-governed place and, especially lately, I’ve been appreciating that fact a whole lot.