It Ain’t Over Till the Fat Lady Tumbles

In my second-to-last post, I let it slip that I had been to the opera. In Vienna. The Vienna State Opera. (Can you tell I am feeling pretty good about myself at this moment?) My mother-in-law (also known as “Omili”) had invited the whole family to performance of “L’Elisir D’Amore”  (which is Italian for “The Elixir of Love”) by Gaetano Donizetti. It is not one of those operas that make you wonder if there are worse things than death (think: Wagner) and it’s not one with an aria that can make a prostitute cry (ala “Pretty Woman”), but it was a nice, if somewhat shallow, story. It was basically “boy meets girl, boy gets girl”  . . . with a little help from a bottle of cheap red wine. What made the opera a success was the wonderful singer/actors who not only clearly gave their all, but who all seemed like . . . realpeople. The kind you want to have a conversation or a beer with and tell them how good they are. The kind who let the audience know that the long and exuberant applause they are getting really means something to them.

And then there were the historic surroundings. The impressive building that is the Viennese Opera House – finished over 150 years ago – in which an uncountable number of famous opera singers and audience members had since . . . engaged. Unfortunately, I only had a minute to take a few shots of the entrance and hall – the boxes, the ceiling, the cool monitor in front of me,

and the empty seat next to me . . .

The one my mother-in-law should have been sitting in.

But she didn’t make it to the opera that night – thanks to an instant of incredible bad luck on the way there – one of those “simply in the wrong place at the wrong time” accidents. The kind where you spend hours afterwards obsessing . . . “if we had only not stopped to go to the bathroom . . .” or “if we had only chosen a different route to the park . . .” But we didn’t. We chose the subway. That required us to change trains and the transfer included two steep escalators with one long hallway between them. We never made it to the second one, because the first turned out to be “la scala mobile della sfortuna” (which is Italian for “The Escalator of Bad Luck”).

An extremely rotund little lady standing one step above Omili lost her balance and tumbled backward. Omili was catapulted awkwardly backward too – but, luckily, my husband was behind her to break the fall. Still – with two hip operations behind her, the situation was scary. And painful.

We all managed to get off the escalator and helped Omili to take some careful steps to the nearest . . . nothing! There were no benches anywhere to be seen. No elevators to the street level either. Just that long hallway leading to the next set of escalators, leading to the next platform for the next set of subway trains, which all were obviously no longer an option . . .

Supported by a child on either side, Omili put on a brave face as we started along one of the long hallways in search of assistance.  We tried to assess the extent of her injury and thought it was a good sign that she could take steps. Then I saw a subway worker up ahead walking toward us. He stopped to talk to the rotund woman who had caused our misery. When I reached them, I asked if a wheelchair could be brought.

“Do I look like I am an EMT??” he asked me arrogantly.

We stood there and I stared at him as the rest of my family reached us. My sister-in-law had heard his answer and laid into him in a polite yet assertive way that awed me. He quickly became more helpful and called for an ambulance.

The next helpers to arrive were the police. Well, actually one policeman and one police woman. We were now standing at the bottom of the up-escalator to the next platform. We chatted for a minute or two about the accident. The policeman then decided to go up and wait for the ambulance while the policewoman took down our information. She asked for my mother-in-law’s name and address, and then . . . she seemed to have come to the end of her repertoire. There was a confused silence.

“So . . . are you enjoying your stay in Vienna?” she asked.

Despite her pain, Omili laughed a bit and admitted that she had had better visits.

We all stood there in an awkward silence. Luckily for the policewoman, the commuters coming down the escalator toward us helped her out.  One after another they saw her, breathlessly approached, and then reported “There is a groper up there!!” Or, “There is a man up there grabbing young women!” Six or seven people did this in rapid succession.

The policewoman seemed a bit confused. She asked us if we thought she should go up there, seeing as how the emergency services were on the way. We assured her that it was probably the right thing to do. She left.

Four EMT’s arrived very shortly after that, but they also didn’t have a wheelchair with them. So two of them left to go get one and the other two stood around and engaged in small talk. In the meantime, the policewoman came back. It seemed her partner had things basically under control up there. Another awkward silence ensued. Now that help was here, maybe she should go back upstairs to her partner, she said. We agreed that it seemed like a good idea. She said goodbye to Omili and added, cheerily:

“Have fun!”

Things ended up working out about as well as could be hoped for. Omili was taken to the hospital and checked out. Nothing was broken to everyone’s relief. She opted to stay the night there and insisted that the rest of us still go to the opera as planned.

When freak accidents like this happen there are at least three ways to look at it.

1) You can say it was just simply dumb bad luck. Shit happens. Or . . .

2) You can look for some reason why it happened. What brought this on? Or . . .

3) You can look for some silver lining. Actually we were lucky because it could have been much worse . . .

I am torn between options 2 and 3.

On the one hand, take a close look at the first picture at the start of this post. It is the unused ticket – Seat 13 in Row 13. Isn’t that a sign?

On the other hand, what if the fat lady hadn’t tumbled and we had made it up that second escalator and on to the platform where the groper was standing? And what if he had seen us?  Then again, one of the witnesses had said he was grabbing “young” girls – so we probably would have been safe. Thanks to Omili, we will never know.

 

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Form Letter of Rejection

 

After two years of living in our village and waiting for their asylum applications to be processed, our refugee boys were just told that the home they live in is going to be closed down. Apparently it is too expensive for the government to maintain. The 18 boys still living there will have to be relocated. Dispersed. One option is a rooming house at a highway truck stop – in one half of what began as an overly optimistic brothel. (The other half will continue to be used for its original purpose.) We are working on a different arrangement for one of the boys (“H.”) who still wants to attend my husband’s school.

My husband and H. sat in the kitchen discussing his “options” now that he is about to be . . . displaced once again. They sat in their usual spots – my husband at the end of the table and H. around the corner to his left. I have seen them seated like this many times over the past months, as H. told his life story and my husband typed it into story form. They are up to page 6 now, and the story is long from over.

Mariabad – a Hazara enclave

H. was basically a refugee at birth. His young parents were already on the run from both the Taliban and his mother’s family (!) because of their honor–offending Hazara (Shiite)/Sunni love affair which had led to the birth of H.’s older sister. When the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, they had to leave the country altogether. They ended up in a place called Mariabad which is a sort of enclosed Hazara settlement within the larger Pakistani city of Quetta. H.’s childhood took place here. For ten years or so, the normal elements of early life – school, sports, work, games, family celebrations – were interspersed with police raids, an ever-increasing number of bombings and kidnappings. When H. was 13, his two younger brothers were abducted and severely beaten. Shortly thereafter, his elder sister disappeared while on her way to school. H.’s parents could only suspect that the mother’s family had discovered them. They decided it was too dangerous to stay there any longer. His father left first for Australia, hoping the family could follow, but he tragically drowned in the attempt to get there. Three years after that, H. made the next attempt – this time to Iran – only to be caught, imprisoned for a few months, and then deported. He made it back to his family in Pakistan. They made their next attempt to flee (again to Iran) as an entire family and this time they were successful. From there H. and his younger brother set off toward Germany via Turkey and Greece. Once they reached Austria, they decided to stay and try for asylum here. Almost exactly two years ago, H. arrived in our village . . .

 

It was already harsh for him to find out that he would need to move once again, but then he got a second piece of bad news in the same week: his asylum rejection letter with particularly offensive content and wording:

“Concerning the Reasons for Leaving Your Native Country:

The reasons supplied by you for leaving your native country are not credible. It cannot be established that you had to fear persecution in Afghanistan based on the reasons listed in the Geneva Convention on Refugees or that you are confronted currently with a relevant situation threatening your life or limb.

In connection with the existing information of this office on the general situation in Afghanistan, it could be established beyond a doubt that, in regard to the persecution you claim, flight alternatives within that country’s borders exist which are objectively and subjectively reasonable for you.”

 

This is pretty clearly some kind of standard form letter – it doesn’t make sense in light of H.’s situation. He is like the DACA kids who came to the States as babies due to other people’s decisions. And just like some politicians in the States with their “one size fits all” solution for those kids, it seems the Austrian government is pursuing a similar policy for the refugees. Automatic rejection in the first round.

The question is why they needed two years to come up with this answer.

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.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

 

The husband dragged me to a “Small Animal Show” to look at chickens last weekend. Okay, okay, I wasn’t completely against the idea. But his confession of wanting to purchase two more Wyandottes there . . . and one of them a rooster!  . . . AND with the idea of starting to breed them!! – well, that was too much. I had to go along if for no other reason than to stop this insanity.

The first thing we saw on arrival was an absolutely gorgeous Wyandotte couple – and so obviously in love! And a big blue ribbon was hanging on their cages. Suddenly I was half on board with the whole breeding idea. I wanted those chickens! But, alas, these particular two were not for sale. The ones we could have were clearly inferior. I was less on board. We needed a little time to come to a decision.

We walked around and looked at the other animals for a while – more chickens and other sundry, questionable species. Here is a sampling of the lovely specimens we saw.

 

And then came the moment when I saw her – the perfect chicken.

Beautiful form and coloring. According to the information by the cage, she was also a good layer of eggs AND a good meat breed (not that we’d ever eat one of our own chickens.) Sturdy. Uncomplicated. There was only one tiny problem: the name.

This was a “Deutsches Reichshuhn”. Translation: a “German Reich’s Chicken”.

There was no way my Austrian husband was going to welcome a German Reich’s Chicken into our flock.

 

How can I explain this?

. . . hhhmmm . . . ?

Have you seen the film “The Sound of Music”? (Of course you have!)  So, tell me, in what scenario would Captain von Trapp welcome a German Reich’s person into his beloved homeland? None!!  Never!! Think of my Austrian husband as Captain von T. Now . . . were I anything like Maria von Trapp – in the film, anyway – I would have understood my husband – maybe even admired and supported his stance . . .

There were a few problems though.

First – that German Reich’s hen really was an attractive chicken. Secondly, those Wyandotte’s were so obviously substandard. Thirdly, let’s face it – I am nothing like Maria von Trapp – at least the film version of her.

I do happen to know, though, that the real MvT was also nothing like Julie, because I actually read her book. It was . . . disappointing to say the least Only “The Thornbirds” supersedes it on the “Worst Book Ever” list. It did, however, give me a new insight into the real Maria – who didn’t want to be married off to a rich widower with seven snotty kids. She wanted to be a nun. She was coerced into the marriage gig by her Order and subsequently went through life with the martyr’s mantra “God’s Will Hath No Why”. She was certainly no part of any resistance.

So . . . I channeled her, meaning the true, non-julie-andrews, Maria von Trapp and argued with my husband about our poultry decision.

I said, or actually, I sort of . . . barked in a gruff 1930s German accent:

“I sink zis German Reich’s chicken is EXACTLY what our sorry flock needs! She will finally bring some ORDER to our chaos! JA WOHL!  Zere will be a new attitude! Our chickens, zhey will get back to work! Zhey will tear out all zose pesky Edelweiss weeds by zhe roots! Egg production will increase! Zhe neighbors will learn to respect us again!”

 

For some inexplicable reason, my arguments didn’t work.

 

We took the sorry, second class Wyandotte pair home with us. The rooster became Gustav’s special friend fairly quickly. The hen refuses to enter the stall at night. She sneaks under the fence and then waits there, in front of the hen house(or under it), for me to come down, pick her up, open the door and stuff her in. She clearly likes the special attention.

Egg production, in general, has not increased.

 

And then there were nine.

Country Mouse, City Mouse

or:

“Four Recent (Mostly Unrelated) Run-ins with Nature.”

 

For some reason (which might have something to do with the return of the Nemesis to my household) I have had this sense of Mother Nature stealthily inserting her tentacles into my daily routine and life like the roots of a staghorn sumac. All I know is that I keep having these various encounters with Greenworld. It’s all very odd.

Encounter Number One of course deals with chickens.

Thanks for all the support you all gave me for my frequent chicken posting, by the way. Alison added that I shouldn’t neglect the Gingerbread Man in the process, so . . . go ahead and blame her for this first part of the post. On her urging, GB Man (finally!) met the chickens. It was . . . well, let’s have him tell the story . . .

“It went okay, basically. They were standoffish, mostly. Kind of clique-y. I spent most of the time alone at the feed trough. One chicken finally joined me, but didn’t say anything. Another one was all hectic and liked to call attention to herself. She had a haircut just like that guy I always see on my Person’s laptop. That was kind of creepy. I didn’t find any eggs. I’m not sure what all the hullaballoo is about.”

 

 

Encounter Number Two happened during my daily dog walks.

The autumn colors are spectacular this year. In the past two days there has also been an interesting assortment of clouds and a very thin haze, so it felt the whole time like I was walking through an impressionist painting. I remembered telling a student about Claude Monet and how he would paint the same scene over and over again at different times of the day and in different lighting. I tried the same thing, except with my camera. Here’s an example:

 

Encounter Three

My upstairs bathroom has officially been declared a natural habitat of the rodents, by the rodents and for the rodents. We had known there was a mouse – maybe two – in there for a while and we finally set a trap about five days ago. Within 10 minutes we heard a loud snap and had our first captive. The husband took it outside, walked quite a ways from the house, and set it free. He then reset the trap. By the end of the evening we had caught 5 mice.

Three days later we were up to Number 22 – here he is:

Since there is no way that 22 mice were living in our small upstairs bathroom without us noticing it, we decided that we were simply catching the same two or three mice over and over again. Somehow they were finding their way and sneaking back in.

The husband made a makeshift carrier for the next two mice and then took them to work with him the next morning (in a city 10 miles away). Here is Mouse 25 who is slated for relocation tomorrow. Note the useless Devil Cat posing nonchalantly next to him. No sense of shame there whatsoever.

Encounter Four required a road trip.

Now that the chicken project has lost its shiny new luster, the husband is on the lookout for a new project. He discovered a livestock breeder who had not only chickens, but also little dwarf goats and sheep. He asked me if I wanted to go along with him to look at them and for some reason, I actually said yes.

         

I’ve considered myself a city person who merely ended up in the country by accident 30 years ago and will probably keep living here for up to 30 more. But that doesn’t make me a rural person, no matter how many chickens I keep, walks in the countryside I take, or mice I relocate. I just don’t see myself as the keeper of miniature goats.

Although . . . they were pretty cute.

And I would find room for that donkey in a heartbeat.

 

 

Red (-White-Red) Wedding

 

I stopped reading the “Game of Thrones” books after Part Four. And the only reason I finished that book is because I had bought and started it, and I have this thing about finishing books. (That is also why I made it all the way to the end of “The Thornbirds” despite all the suffering it caused me to read the worst. book. ever. But I digress . . .) I actually detached emotionally from GoT in Book Three already. It was the Red Wedding. I never got over it. From that point on, I hated the sadism of the author – the way he manipulated us readers into liking a character, only to then have him or her die in some particularly gruesome way. I eventually coped by simply changing the events of Book Three in my mind – fantasizing up a whole scenario where everything turned out differently. Robb Stark lives, creates alliances, unites the kingdoms. The war ends. Winter isn’t coming. And all of that because a wolf was there, standing by and watching over the wedding.

That whole first paragraph is a very inappropriate introduction to what this post is supposed to be about: my husband’s nephew/godchild got married this weekend. It was a truly lovely ceremony in classic Austrian (“Red-White-Red”) style and not at all . . . games-of-thronesy. Let’s start with the fact that the bride and groom knew each other beforehand. They also love, like, and respect one another. And that’s only one of the many differences. Like the fact that the nephew got married with the uncle in attendance – in GoT it was the opposite.  Another difference that occurs to me offhand is that last Saturday, the bride and groom weren’t stripped naked by the guests in the middle of the celebration and then carried off to a bedchamber to consummate the marriage. There were also very few casualties and ALL of those involved wine glasses, not people.

That is not to say that Austrian weddings can’t be brutal in their own special way . . .

As is customary here, a Christian wedding consists of two ceremonies. The first is with a Justice of the Peace and the second takes place afterward in the church. The first part can often be officious and devoid of sentimentality, as the cramped guests in some undecorated, provincial courtroom try unsuccessfully to understand the inaudible droning of some nervous bureaucrat and then watch contracts being signed. Thereafter they shuffle onward to the church and basically sit through an hour plus of all the glorious trappings of Sunday-Morning-Among-the-Pious interspersed with five minutes of wedding stuff. A long administration of dry wafers and fermented grape juice happens. Meanwhile, collection baskets are passed through the congregation. The marrying couple waits patiently through it all, dwarfed by the picturesque pomp and gold grandiosity surrounding them.

My nephew-in-law and (now) niece-in-law-in-law managed all of this much much better, making their wedding not only a lovely pair of ceremonies, but an all-around nice day from beginning to end. It started with their choice of locations – in a south-Styrian village with a wonderful restaurant designed exactly for such occasions.

 

The sign we passed on the way to our chairs told us “Today two families will become one. So choose a seat, not a side”. (That would have been good advice for the Tullys and the Freys, too, I think.) We watched a sweet ceremony, thanks to a government official who made the effort to get to know the couple a little so that he could personalize the ceremony. The rain clouds also waited patiently till we were all safely under a roof again, sipping sparkling wine and snacking on yummy hors d’oeuvres.

 

From there we had a 90 second walk to a wonderful church that managed to be impressive and understated at the same time. If later internet research serves, it is a Franciscan church, i.e. related philosophically to our current Pope Francis (who even a heathen like me finds pretty awesome). The priest who conducted the ceremony was modest and pleasant to listen to. He framed his words around the concept of heaven on earth and even found ways to link the music selection to his messages and the occasion. It all somehow worked. It all somehow seemed right.

 

But the best part of this location was outside the church. A huge statue created by Bolivian artist, Fernando Crespo.

 

It depicts the story of Francis of Assisi and the Wolf of Gubbio which teaches the importance of finding a way to peaceful coexistence – even with feared and dangerous enemies. With this wolf watching over things, I can confidently predict a Happy End – for nephew and uncle alike.

          

 

 

From Night Owl to Early Bird

 

Speaking as a confirmed Night Owl, I’ve got a bone to pick (or as German speakers would say “a chicken to pluck”) with all the Early Birds out there. It is so unfair that you get to decide the timetable of the school day – and therefore my professional life, now that I have a day job. I didn’t notice this during the first 35 years of teaching because I almost exclusively had afternoon and evening courses. But then I switched to teaching at an elementary/middle school and – BAM! – I was confronted with the 6:00 am alarm clock alarm (which –after 6 years, I still find alarming). It was cruel and unusual. (Yeah, yeah, I know the cliché about he who “gets the worm”, but, honestly, who wants to get worms?)

My summer vacation has been long and relaxing and regenerating, and yet I am staring down the reality of the coming upheaval with a certain amount of trepidation. I have three more evenings/nights to enjoy my natural rhythm – that means going to bed when I feel like it and getting up when I wake up. That means being somewhat slow and lethargic during the Peak Sun hours and then being energetic and creative and productive after sunset.

Then it will be Sunday. I will try to force myself to be in bed by 11:00 pm, alarm set for 6:00 am. I will lie there, tossing and turning, eyes sending signals to my brain that they would prefer to be open, feet playing patty-cake of their own accord, various spots on my body alternately itching or aching, requiring me to scratch or adjust my position continually . . .

. . . and all this for at least three hours, possibly more, before I finally drift off . . .

. . . and then there will be the alarming start to a new school year.

 

Each year in fall, articles appear in newspapers or online about some initiative or another to change the school day to 9-3 rather than the current 7:30- 1:30. These articles make salient, pedagogically sound arguments about the futility of trying to teach teenage brains who are too tired to be receptive in the wee hours of the first period. Each time I read one of these, I feel a tiny glimmer of hope.

These hopes are then quickly dashed – usually by some Early Bird who is happy to be home from work in the afternoon, in time to partake in the last bits of Peak Sun. “It will never happen,” they tell me. “Too many lives would be thrown into chaos and stress. People have to get to work, and they have to have their kids safely sent off beforehand. Everything would have to change – store opening hours, factory shift hours, bus and train schedules – the list is endless!”

So, (sigh), no, this is not likely to change in the next and last five years of my career. We all will continue to conform to a 19th century farmer’s pre-electricity daily schedule, requiring us all to get up when the sun does and to go down a candle’s-length after twilight.

And I will force my body and mind to do the same. Resistance is futile.