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.

Advertisements

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.

At the Core

 

I’ve heard it said many times that Milwaukee is “the most segregated city” in the United States. It has been hard for me to believe this, because the particular area I live in here seems to be very multicultural. Not only do we see all colors in the rainbow, but the groups of people walking together are often a mixture too. On the other hand, there is a whole section of the city that we almost never enter on our trips home because there was no particular thing located in these streets to draw us there. When I was young, people used to refer to this area as “The Core”.

So I got to explore some of that part of the city when we decided to go to the Wisconsin Black Historical Society Museum at my daughters’ request. When we first arrived, I took in the neighborhood, which like so many in this part of town was hard to get a real sense of . . . mostly because of everything that was NOT there. There was a very nice looking public library with a green area around it, but the parking lot in the back could have come straight out of Addis Ababa. The road clearly should have been a commercial one, but a lot of the buildings seemed empty. There were no grocery stores, or pharmacies, or clothes stores, or hair salons or non-fast food restaurants. There were almost no pedestrians.

The museum was locked and we assumed closed, but we pushed the buzzer anyway. A friendly woman came and let us in. She said yes, the museum was open and that someone would come to show us around. In the meantime, we had the whole place to ourselves. We looked at some of the wall exhibits. Most seemed to be documents or pictures printed from computers, pasted on colored paper and then taped or tacked to the wall.  Many were showing signs of wear or exposure. The room seemed more like a classroom than a museum.

 

To be fair, I think we didn’t see the more professional exhibits because the main hall had been cleared for an event. The website, at any rate, has this picture:

But when we were there the hall was nearly empty:

 

So I don’t know what we missed due to unfortunate timing, but I don’t think it matters.

Because the curator walked in, introduced himself, and proceeded to devote the next two and a half hours to us. First there was a long but interesting talk filled with things I had never heard or known before. Then he discussed ideas with my daughter for the focus of her graduation research paper (the original reason we decided to go there). And then he went off to compile/photocopy articles for her.

While the curator talked, I found my mind and attention gravitating toward this picture:

I had seen it before. Was it something iconic (at least for Milwaukeeans?) – or was there something else about it that grabbed my attention? At one point I asked the curator who those people were and he said “I’ll be coming to that.” He went back to his talk which was somewhere between Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education. Eventually, he reached the 1960s.

It turns out that almost exactly 50 years ago today, Milwaukee experienced civil rights protests that earned this city the nickname “Selma of the North”.  A group of extremely courageous mostly black people began marching again and again, under the most dangerous of circumstances, FOR 200 DAYS IN A ROW (!) to protest unfair housing policy in the city. Looming large among these protesters was Father James Groppi – a Catholic priest (who happens to resemble my own father):

                  

Father Groppi had already traveled to the South to take part in many civil rights protests including some with Dr. Martin Luther King. At some point he realized that many outside activists were moved to fight against abuses in the South while ignoring the problems in their own northern cities. He returned to Milwaukee and got involved in raising consciousness about unfair housing policies that kept African American confined to certain parts of the city and in sometimes abysmal conditions.

All of this was news to me. And it captured my attention and imagination. While telling my sister about our museum visit, she mentioned that there were exhibitions and events going on in Milwaukee to commemorate the 50 year anniversary of the marches. She also suggested a book called “Evicted” which tries to elucidate why the problems identified in 1967 still haven’t been resolved. I am 100 pages into it and can already recommend it to anyone who cares about the fact that big profits can still be made from people in desperate circumstances – especially those trapped at the corners where Racism Road, Segregation Street, Poverty Lane, and Opioid Alley intersect.

 

Hail to the Chief

hail1

I have no idea where they came from, but we inherited this ancient German encyclopedia set and these books have spent most of their lives since collecting dust in my library. Recently, however, I took one off the shelf on a whim and gave it a closer look. My first discovery was the old Germhail2an script which I find quite difficult to read. Then I looked at the copyright and saw that these books were published in 1937 in Leipzig, Germany. Almost exactly 80 years ago.

 

1937 . . .

If memory and my high school history teachers serve, 1937 was four years after Hitler’s election to German Chancellor and one year before he annexed Austria, kicking off the march toward World War II in the process. I wondered, what was the mindset of the people who let these developments happen? What were the facts of their world? Here on my library shelf were five volumes with the answers to my questions.

I first tried to think of non-political things I could look up. Things that might have been new at that time. My husband suggested “Jazz”.

After struggling a while with the kooky letters, I learned that Jazz “arose out of English and Scottish folksongs and operetta music as well as the plantation work songs and religious singing of the North American negro and their dances which stemmed from Africa. Jazz is foreign to the German music sensibility.”

The word “negro” stood out. In German it was “Neger” and that is a word that is no longer socially acceptable around here. I assume, however, that no one in 1937 Germany had a problem with it.

I looked it up and read about where the negros come from and all the places they were shipped off to as slaves (“See ‘the Negro Question’”), a litany of their – seemingly unattractive – physical attributes, and (dubious) cultural influences, leading to the fact that: “The power of state-building is inherently lacking in the negro.”

Apparently, (I’m paraphrasing now) their industry is limited and mostly agricultural. Only one tribe in Liberia developed a real written language. Their mostly religious artwork only reached any heights in one part of West Africa. There seems to be a general musical talent. “Intellectually they rapidly developed, but the negro quickly lagged behind the people of European cultures; he is not suited to autonomous cultural work but does not die out when coming into contact with higher cultures, rather resigns himself to it.”

This little nugget of wisdom was immediately followed by the term “Negerfrage” (“the Negro Question”), meaning the dangers of racial mixing and the “negro-ification” of white peoples in places where they live in close proximity. It is a long, convoluted, and disgraceful entry which I stopped reading after the third sentence.

Of course there was one more thing I had to look up.

 

hail3I read about Adolf’s youth and long (seemingly heroic) struggle to finally be elected leader (with 36.8% of the votes). I “learned” how “very early on he became a decisive enemy of narcissism as well as Judaism and realized that nationalism and socialism only seemed to be antithetical, and that the German worker had to be restored to his traditional role.” How he turned a small Workers’ Party into a movement. How after gaining power, he successfully dismantled the longstanding dominance of political parties and the parliamentary establishment. “In foreign policy, he stood for a policy of peace and accommodation based on German honor and equal status.” Or, in simpler terms, he promised to make Germany great again. After that, he consolidated all the power and proceeded to get over 90% of the votes for basically everything he wanted. And there the story ended. For the time being.

To be continued . . .

 

I’ve heard we are living in a “post-factual” world – probably because we have become used to powerful people saying things in front of live cameras and then denying having said it two days later.

But that can’t be true because, clearly, facts are not static things – they are the always changing, commonly accepted perceptions of reality as we grow and learn.

I would say we are living in an era where facts are simply buried under a mountain of manure. Sort of like in Germany in 1937.

Our outgoing president reaffirmed his faith in people just yesterday and I agree with him. I still hope and believe that 80 years from now, people will look back at the encyclopedias of 2017 and have no trouble distinguishing truth from today’s transient turds.

69th Street

Our wise, conscientious and more-educated-than-the-common-rabble electors have spoken – not with any partisan blindness or pecuniary self-interest, mind you – and I now have to finally come to terms with the impending inauguration. As much as it pains me, (sigh), it seems America has no alternative but to become white, oops! I mean “great” again. Like it was in the Happy Days or the pre-Sixties 60s. The time when I was a child and life was wonderful.

 

It really was wonderful, my childhood.

69-gangBorn originally in one of those industrial subdivisions, my parents moved me and my four siblings into a different community with a fabulous school system when I – the youngest – was just 3 years old. We inhabited an enchanted place on an elm lined street full of not technically modest houses. 69th Street. With 7 houses on each side of the block between the road on the crest of the hill and Pickle Alley at the bottom, a sufficient number of 3 to 16 year olds spilled out into the streets daily to ensure me an endless supply of group games and seminal experiences.

There were the Grands – a weird brother and sister I never really connected with but they had the greatest tree swing in their yard. (Decades later they visited me in Austria and I found them both charming.)

There was Ellie – my very first friend. We were so loyal to one another that we could be cruel and distant with impunity, never threatening the core connection. (She later had a hard life of serial losses and intermittent addictions/institutionalizations. A few years ago, I even heard that might not be alive anymore. Lately, I did some internet research and found evidence that she had recently remarried. That heartened me.)

There were the Champions – the most beautiful family that ever existed, but who somehow struck me as unhappy. Even unhappier were the Aspens, who lived right next door.  The kids were standoffish and the parents universally disapproving. My one experience with Mrs. Aspen was when she decided to take us kids to the opera shortly after our dad’s death. I was 8 or 9 at the time and was not exactly enthralled with Madame Butterfly. When I dozed off, Mrs. Aspen was deeply offended and proceeded to scold me on the ride home – much more harshly than my mother ever had. I avoided her like the Plague after that.

69th Street was also home to the Savage family with an uncountable number of kids. The youngest one was my age and had older twin sisters, one of whom was a witch. But, boy (!) could she play piano! And tell wild stories!  At the same time!

Then there was the house that seemed to change occupants every two years. For a short time, Katy, the Reverend’s daughter, lived there and she became my fast and furious best friend (“Sorry Ellie!”) until she moved away (“Hello, Ellie!”)

And then there were the Olders – all of them blindingly red-headed. Scott was my age. He was weird. He needed a comb and to lose the handkerchief he blew his nose into and then stuffed back into his pocket.  He was my first official boyfriend. (And he died on his bicycle two blocks from home at the ripe old age of 15.)

Those kids were my gang. We met up regularly in different constellations and in different flashpoints. We secretly explored the yards of the childless houses on the block. We played statue-maker and kick-the-can and (when it rained) Monopoly. We made hysterical attempts at strip poker after first donning layer upon layer of extra clothes and then arguing about whether we had to take off both or just one sock after a loss.  We made excursions to the Village for ice cream. Sometimes, this or that pairing would succeed in separating themselves from the pack on the way home. They would share an awkward moment of twosome-ness in Pickle Alley, then rejoin the pack and proceed to whisperingly ignore one another. For a while, some of us turned an old car on blocks into a clubhouse. Once, when Savage Boy wanted to come in, one of us told him he had to guess the (non-existent) password first. It quickly went from funny to cruel. After that, the clubhouse lost its charm and was abandoned. And we were all nicer to SB for a while.

In winter there were magical snow days with their social perfection. Everyone was released from prison for a day. First we all pitched in to shovel out driveways, but after that, there were a billion new toys to play with and no adult supervision. And then there was hot cocoa.

As I grew older, there were days when I didn’t automatically go out and meet the neighborhood gang after school. I stayed inside and watched TV. It was the afternoon and there were reruns – mostly of popular series from the preceding decade. Brady Bunch, Beverly Hillbillies, Dick Van Dyke, Green Acres, I Dream of Jeannie, Leave It to Beaver, My Three Sons . . .

Of all the shows I watched, the one with the most diverse cast of characters was probably Gilligan’s Island.

What I didn’t understand until much later was the demographics of my childhood. Whether it was my neighbors, the TV I consumed or the snow days . . . they were all completely white. The city was about 99.9% white and, I’m guessing, 90% Republican.  The vast majority of my friends had dads who left for work in the morning and housewife mothers who didn’t. (If any of my other classmates also carried a house key to school, I didn’t hear about it.)  In economic terms, we all landed smack-dab in the center of the middle class.  We were suburban. We were monotone and . . . bland.

Enter Josephine.

She was my mom’s household help. From my perspective an incredibly large black woman who entered my life once a week. There were a few times when I stayed home sick from school on one of Josephine’s days. She made me scrambled eggs and they were runny and sort of slimy. I gagged just a little when I swallowed them. I might have wished that mom would find a new cleaning lady – one who made better eggs. But that feeling didn’t stick. Josephine was kind and she checked up on me throughout the day.

I remember my mom and Josephine sitting together over coffee and talking as equals in their very different languages. I remember Josephine taking bags and bags full of our old clothes and toys to her car.  I learned that she distributed these things among needy kids in her own neighborhood. She and my mom had created their own private goodwill network.

Years later I suspected that it was important for my mom that we have contact with people different from ourselves. Josephine was not the only example of my mom’s attempts to widen our horizons and diversify our experience of the world. Her own childhood coincided with the Great Depression which hadn’t left her family unscathed. I think she knew how very limited our worldview on 69th Street was – or, I should say, would have been. Or I should say, could have become.

69 was a number that could make young teens giggle and blush, but it was also the number most similar to yin and yang. Without Josephine, witho69-yin-yangut all of my mother’s Josephines, my childhood days could have been all yang with no yin – just a sort of upside-down apostrophe. More contracted.  Incomplete.

 

About four weeks from now, our nation will say goodbye to yin and then just hang there, symbolically and spiritually diminished. An upside-down apostrophe, signifying nothing.  A people who identifies themselves by what they are NOT, not realizing that the exercise alone makes them only half of what they once were.

Election Eve

austria-green  austria-blue

Tomorrow is Presidential Election Day here in Austria.

Again.

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

Again.cookies

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

Again.

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

Quite a few villagers will do both.

 

Home. Again. The Other One.

Leaving home is hard. Coming home – especially after an extended absence, is . . . tricky.  For me, having essentially two homes, there is always a double whammy as I travel from one to the other. And this year, it was slightly surreal.

 

There is always something idyllic about the time we spend in Milwaukee. Each day begins with a long, relaxed breakfast, sipping hazelnut coffee and looking out over the oceanic Lake Michigan. This year the day’s pace was even more relaxed than usual as the humidity zapped our energy (as 288 straight hours in the sauna would have the tendency to do). Still, we had beautiful weather the whole time. Just a little . . . . moist.

Now I’m home. Again. The other one. The one I own. The one I have lived in longer than any other place in my life. It is beautiful here. But also full of responsibilities. I’m missing the other, magical home where life takes a break for a while. On the other hand, I look out at the vista from my porch and think it is pretty idyllic too:

20160815_192807

No sauna conditions today. Here the weather gods prefer intermittent rainfall. There was even some thundering, but it was pretty half-hearted. Not like the wild storms at the start of summer. Now the gods are just phoning it in.

It seems like we always time our trips to long stretches of sunshine in Milwaukee. It occurred to me more than ever that the guests we bring along on our visits (this time it was Omili) experience the very best of the city – the lake and parks, the museums and festivals, the arts, the foods, the multicultural neighborhoods – not to mention the unbelievable graciousness and generosity of our hosts. We don’t bring them to the sketchier parts of town beyond invisible lines drawn through the city. Like the parts that have been burning for the past two nights.

Our departure from Milwaukee occurred exactly halfway between those two episodes of violence. Being busy getting ready to fly home, we missed the morning news coverage of the first night of protests and violence. We wouldn’t see those images until we watched the evening news on our first day back here in Austria.

20160815_200320 20160815_200349

It was hard to wrap my head around the idea that these pictures were coming from that beautiful place I just left.

As much as they disturb my own personal idyllic associations with that city, it is probably a good thing that they are drawing attention. Milwaukee is a place with deep-seated racial divisions and economic inequality issues that need to be brought out into the light. Just like in Cleveland, or Dallas, or Baltimore, or, or, or .  . .

And then there is my daughter, who is still there.

As I write this, she is about halfway through her first day of High School. She has probably just finished her first cafeteria experience. Right now she is in Gym class. I wonder if she was able to open her locker without help or get to her classes on time. Her school is a fabulous place – colorful, multi-cultural, academically serious, and socially conscious.

And, according to Google Maps, it is less than 3 miles as the bird flies from the center of the unrest.