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.

 

Endings and How They Began

 

My husband called me to come into the kitchen a few weeks ago. He showed me a newspaper obituary of an old acquaintance/friend of ours. Our first boss. The principal of the school where we both had our first work experience after university.  The place where we two taught, and met, and began. The news slingshot me into the past.

I just tried to count how many bosses I have gone through in my 32 years of teaching English in Austria. I gave up after reaching 19, but I am sure I have forgotten a few. The vast majority of them were very hands off; they hovered off in the distance somewhere while I just did my thing the way I thought it should be done. They came and went without any noticeable difference in my working conditions. There was one exception though: my very first Austrian boss, this principal, this friend.

 

After college, I had gotten a job as teaching assistant through the Fulbright program (no, not the prestigious one, the other part) and was assigned to a school in a tiny village – so tiny that I couldn’t locate it on any map (and in those days, there was no internet or googling or email.) I wrote an old-fashioned letter to the program office to ask where this village was and a week later I learned that it was about 10 miles from Graz. Graz was a city I could find on a map. Shortly thereafter, a letter arrived from the school principal asking for my arrival date and if I needed their help finding a place to live. YES! PLEASE! Through snail mail, we arranged that he would meet me on my arrival.

He was about 50 years old with Santa-white hair, a take-charge-and-make-it-snappy manner, and a frighteningly aggressive driving style. After the first greeting we took off to . . . I had no idea where, while he told me the history of Graz based on the places we were zipping past too fast for me to take in. We parked and walked into the restaurant. The waitress brought us menus, but he waved them off and ordered for both of us: beer and roast beef vinaigrette salad. The waitress left and there was an awkward silence.

“So . . . is it customary here that men order for women in restaurants?” I asked.

That made him laugh (and I think he looked at me for the first time).

The salad was actually very tasty.

As we ate, he explained how he hadn’t found an apartment for me yet, but that his brother had an extra room and I could stay there for a few weeks until I found a place on my own. We could go look at the place after dinner. Unfortunately the brother was out of town till the next day, so did I have anywhere to stay for the first night? (Luckily I had met other TA’s during the orientation and had an emergency place to crash.) Within 30 seconds of his last bite, he had drained his beer glass, summoned the waitress, paid and stood up. I took a quick gulp from my own still half-full glass and followed him out the door.

Another crazy drive followed and we parked outside a non-descript building located wherever. Two flights of stairs later, we stood at the apartment door of what would be my home for the next few weeks. The middle-aged bachelor pad. We walked in and . . . it was huge. It was a family home complete with piano and dining room and chandeliers and trinkets and doilies. It looked like it had been decorated by a 1950s Austrian housewife.

Because it had. My boss explained that this is where he and his siblings had grown up. His father had died years earlier and his mother and brother had lived here until her death a month or so earlier.

He showed me what would be “my” room. It had clearly been an office. Three of the four walls were floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, all of them double parked. On the fourth wall was a weird long cabinet that turned out to be a fold out guest bed.

I did what anyone would do in my situation.

“Do you have a picture of your brother somewhere?” I asked.

 

portrait1My boss laughed for the second time and led me to the living room. He pointed out a family portrait. I stared at it for a while. The oldest boy was clearly my boss. About 25 years younger, but still recognizable. I stared at the younger of the two boys. My future roommate. The now approximately 40 year old man who had lived with his mother up until last month. He had a bow tie and was looking in the wrong direction . . .

“That’s him,” my boss said, pointing to the picture of the baby in the corner.

Now that he had had his fun with me, my boss explained that his other brother was 20 years younger. He was a university student – studying English no less! He would be back tomorrow and pick me up from my crash pad and help me move in. I said “okay”. What choice did I have?

I was teased for years about asking to see a picture.

Because the brother, who turned up at the crash pad the next day to help me move and, despite his serious demeanor and the dark rings under his eyes, gallantly insisted on carrying my suitcases to the car, was a good egg. He was attentive and helpful and generous in everything he did. And when he finally smiled – it was infectious. I knew within hours that he was my kind of person.

After two weeks, we decided that I would not find a new apartment. Instead, I would stay and sublet a room from him (which I could redecorate). Meanwhile, my boss patted himself on the back for work well done. He had brought an optimistic American into the life of his troubled brother and he had absolved himself of the commitment to find me an apartment.

Of course, the fact that I became semi-family affected the work relationship between me and my boss. Originally he insisted that I attend all teacher conferences even though they barely concerned me. Month after month, I listened to hour-long discussions about slippers or no slippers? This law or that regulation? All of which had absolutely nothing to do with me or my work. I started to bring knitting or crocheting projects to conferences. That initiated discussions about whether needlework should be forbidden. Later in the year, he gave me an official pamphlet on “Foreign Language Teaching Assistants” issued by the Ministry of Education. I should read it and then report on it to him directly. Two weeks later, I sat across from him at his desk in the Principal’s Office. I quoted: “Assistants should be encouraged to participate in one or two conferences during the year.”

Then I added,

“I will no longer be participating in conferences.”

He did not disagree.

 

My one and only Alpha-boss. He accepted me and my statements because he had a sense of humor. And because I was somehow family.

Thank you, First Boss.

Your younger brother was not only my flat mate. He was my first true Austrian friend. Then a best friend. Then something more – more like a brother. Then the godfather of my first child. Years go by and we don’t talk as much as we should. But we both know we are always there for one another.

And we had such a nice dinner last night.

Two Mountain Weekend Bookends

The worst week of my blogging career to date was definitely the last one. In my non-virtual life I spent the entire five days scrambling at work and feeling guilty at home. Blog friends were neglected, notifications dried up and statistics bottomed out. But it was kind of worth it – as you will soon see . . .

The reason for my absence is that I spent two weekends in a row – before and after Scramble Week – in the mountains.  The first trip was all the way to Innsbruck in Tyrol for a cousin’s wedding. Unfortunately, lots of traffic jams turned our trip there into a 7-hour drive rather than the 5-hour one Chantall originally promised us.  (Chantall is the name we have given to the GPS Navigator voice in my husband’s car – there will surely be some future blog post about her.) The longer than expected drive ended with me to changing into wedding clothes in the passenger seat at 90 miles per hour while my husband purposely pulled up next to trucks whose drivers had a great vantage point from which to watch me doing so. (#33 on the Grounds for Divorce List). We arrived just in time to catch the last five minutes of the ceremony.

wedding02As far as weddings go, though, this one made it into my Top Five. Not only were the bride and groom a happy, easy-going and convincing match, but the view from the venue overlooking the city and surrounding mountains was stunning. There were a lot of great reunions with far-flung, humorous relatives, some spontaneous performance art in which I actually partook, and I got almost 4 hours of sleep before getting back in the car to head home again.

wedding01

So those were the mountains at the starting end of Scramble Week. The mountains constituting the other bookend were the chosen destination for a long planned siblings+partners hiking weekend. We rented a little vacation lodge in a place called Tauplitz in beautiful surroundings:

I had agreed to these plans in a weak moment months earlier, but was kind of dreading it. As the only flatlander-by-birth in the crowd, I worried they would pick some strenuous updownupdown-pant-pant-updown-heartpumping-updown-kneecaving-updown route – in other words, something normal for the average Austrian and potentially nightmarish for the average Wisconsinite. Instead, it turned out to be a beautiful “Seven Alpine Lakes” tour with a bearable amount of updown – sort of the best of both worlds combined.

mountains06

There were some extra treats along the way. We chanced upon an outdoor church service which was really moving. Music and singing work their magic even more strongly way up in the mountains, reverberating over such majestic displays of nature. It was almost enough to evoke religiosity-like feelings, even in a heathen like me.

mountains07  mountains08

After the fourth lake, there was a long strenuous stretch that made the sight of our mountain “restaurant” stop such a treat. You’d be amazed at how comforting a hard wooden bench or how tasty pig lard spread on brown bread can be.

mountains10 mountains11

mountains12On the return stretch, we crossed paths with some hunters wheeling their bounty down the mountain – an “18 pronged buck”, they told us. We had to take their word for it because the poor creature’s head was missing. (It had been cut off with the antlers by another hunter and transported away separately.) I found it amusing that they had so modestly covered the decapitated buck’s other prized parts.

   mountains13On the home stretch, I found myself hiking alone for about an hour, doing the updownupdown and feeling increasingly sulky. The sportier among us had raced farther and farther ahead (my husband included – Grounds for Divorce #34), while the slower hikers kept lagging farther behind me. mountains14As I passed such beautiful sights, I began to formulate my devastatingly rebuking remarks to the husband about leaving me in the lurch. When I finally caught up to him, though, the wind was immediately taken from my sails. There he was, holding a tray of Swiss/Arolla/Stone Pine Schnapps for all of us (It is such a local delicacy that there is no real English name for it.) mountains15Basically, it is distilled pine or pinecone sap – proving that, in a pinch, you can turn anything into alcohol. Austrians swear that it is good for your health. I’m not sure I swallow that line, but swallowing the schnapps was certainly good for the health of my marriage. It got him halfway to redemption. From there it was another half hour till we were back at the mountains16parking lot where he went right into the tourist office and bought me a pin for my hiking stick (which is a very touristy and therefore slightly humiliating thing for a real Austrian to do.) My husband was now fully redeemed.

On returning to the lodge, I took stock of the day. We had had about seven hours of updownupdown. As the only flatlander and contrary to everyone’s expectations, I had not come in last place when it came to: tempo, pain, number of blisters, moaning, aching, or injury. I call that success. And I have a new metal pin on my hiking stick to commemorate it all. So here’s how I will remember the weekend:

mountains09

Past the Peak

I’m back home from our mountain hiking weekend and have to admit, unwillingly, that the summer is coming to an end. There are – count them – five more days till I have to be back at work. So I am happy to be able to write about something . . . new, something . . . that never was before, which happened over the weekend.

To backtrack a bit first, we have had Dog Four for two years now and I have become convinced that this girl simply never sleeps. At least I have never witnessed it. There was that drug-induced, post-operative slumber once, but that doesn’t really count. No matter how late I stay up, she is always alert and ready to go whenever I change positions. It’s like she has to wait until the entire herd is tucked away for the night before she can rest. It must be her Border Collie blood.

This weekend we took her along on our hiking vacation. (Dog Three, being too old and weak, had to stay behind with the house sitter.) During our first tour, Dog Four proved herself to be the best hiking dog we have ever had (including the infallible Dog One!) There were twelve kids ranging from three to 14 years old in the group and she was fabulous with all of them. She never strayed more than 10 meters from us and came instantly when we called her. She greeted other hikers in a friendly way and was cordial to their dogs. She had a good time. Best vacation of her life.

The final tour on the third day was an ambitious one – long and with one steep rocky section. I listened to the description of the route and decided to pass. I don’t mind steep climbs, but steep descents scare me – mostly because of one particularly painful past experience when my knees betrayed me halfway down the mountain. So I stayed back and did cabin-sitting while the others did the tour, happy to get regular WhatsApp pictures of their progress throughout the day. Here’s the one from the highest point:

peak

Did I feel a tinge of regret as I looked at this picture on my cell phone? Did I sort of wish I was there? Yes, of course. But then, there is something to be said for knowing your own limitations, for deciding to forego pain and to age gracefully.

But then again, I quickly set off on a little hike of my own – ostensibly to look for mushrooms. About 15 minutes into it (around the time I encountered the first free range cow and realized I didn’t have my trusty walking stick with me) I discovered that hiking wasn’t nearly as fun without a dog in tow. I turned back toward the cabin.

The group returned around dinnertime generally enthusiastic about the day. Dog Four ran into the house and basically launched herself into my face. Then she ran around nervously trying to figure out where the center of the action was. Some of hikers headed for the showers, some of them for a bit of rest in their beds, some still had the energy to start a campfire and prepare extra dishes for the dinner. Eventually, we all ended up in the kitchen of one of the cabins eating up a smorgasbord of leftovers, freshly fried mushrooms, vegetable medley, and cold pork roast.

And then it happened.

In between the two tables, surrounded by the din of 10 loud jovial adults and 12 loud rambunctious kids, all of us eating, Dog Four lay down and . . . for once . . . just let go.

Here she is.

Sleeping.

sleep

Pigs-in-a-Box Premiere Party!

My husband is always getting these ideas. He sees something new and immediately starts researching and planning. Before I know what’s happening, packages start arriving in the mail or he is off to the DIY store.  The living room turns into a workshop, or greenhouse, or laboratory . . .

This year his project was a wooden box with heavy stainless steel lining:

Box 1   Box 2

The next steps were attaching wheels to the bottom and having a cover made – a heavy metal, tray-like thing with handles. Upon arrival of the thermometer, the date could be set and the party invitations made. Yesterday was that day.

Because the weather forecast didn’t rule out rain, my husband rolled the box out to the carport. He then proceeded to dump stuff into it: several huge chunks of pig, some vegetables and spices . . . (Sorry I can’t be more specific – I am not much of a cook.) He then built a little campfire on the cover of the box, sat down and cracked open a beer.

Box 3

Over the next 5 to 6 hours, the meat slow-cooked at about 100°C, while the fire was maintained and the cabbage and dumplings were made. (No, not by me. I was demoted to Chief Dishwasher years, actually decades, ago and will probably remain in that position for the duration of our marriage.) Guests started arriving at about Hour Four, including my friend N³, fresh from a trip home with a bottle of authentic Cuban rum in her hand. AnothePokemonr friend – who happens to be the only person I know personally who plays the game – arrived and informed me that my yard is something of a Pokémon Hot Spot. (Oh NO!!) She demonstrated how the game is played – Austrian style!

 

Finally it was time to remove the lid and marvel at the perfectly roasted pork.

Box 4      Box 5

We all piled heaps of it on our plates and went to the screen porch to chow down in a way that gives the title of this post its second meaning. It really was delicious. Whoever that pig was, he certainly left this world in a deeply appreciated blaze of glory.

RumHaving forgotten about dessert in our planning, it came in liquid form. Sampling high quality rums was my husband’s New Hobby 2015. You’d be surprised just how good some of them are. I recommend the Don Papa from the Philippines for beginners. Unless, of course, you know any Cubans who can get you the real stuff privately exported. Anyway, yesterday’s dessert might be the reason why my today began at about 4 pm. It also might explain why it has taken me almost four hours to write this short post.

Binders Full of Women

All my encounters with government officials over recent weeks have gotten me reminiscing about various run-ins I’ve had with the Austrian police over the years. There really have been quite a lot of them, starting with my first registration with the “Fremdenpolizei” (the “foreigner police”) when I first came here as a Fulbright assistant over thirty years ago. Even though the process only took about ten minutes, I was appalled by the whole incident – and even more so when I learned that ALL Austrian citizens have to register their place of residence at some “central reporting office”. This was Big Brother big time!

When I returned to Austria after a yearlong jaunt through Southeast Asia, I decided to stay a while and look for work. (There is a past blog post about this somewhere, but I am too lazy to look for the link.) I dutifully went to the Foreigner Police only to find out that, without the backing of the prestigious(-sounding) Fulbright program, I couldn’t just declare that I was staying. In order to register a place of residence, I would need a work permit first. And in order to get a work permit, I would need a job. And in order to get a job, I would need an official residence. I asked them directly what I should do about this Catch 22. What I understood of their answer was “la la la la la la la la.” I thanked them and left.

Enter the university. Basically due to a misunderstanding, I managed to get two courses at the university on my first day of job searching. While filling out the forms, no one asked to see my registration. I went back to the Foreigner Police and they immediately registered me. Apparently the university was exempt from the whole work permit requirement thing. Interesting.

A few years went by and I got engaged. A week before our wedding, my husband and I moved into a crappy little house outside what was then a crappy little village in the countryside at the edge of the world. Time for a new registration with the local Foreigner Police in a nearby town.  It turned out that they didn’t need a whole building of their own and I could go register at the same place Austrians did (though in a special room). I walked in there and saw a somewhat harried looking young woman with a tall stack of files on her desk. I explained to her why I was there and we began a conversation. With each question and answer she became more relaxed and friendly. I was an American! I was married to an Austrian! I spoke fluent German! I worked at the university! I had all the paperwork she needed! She got right down to business and completed the processing right then and there. She offered me a coffee while I was waiting. She left me alone in the room while she went to make photocopies and I passed the time by looking around.

bindersThat was when I noticed the binders. Three very thick ones on the shelf behind her desk, each labelled with the name of a local brothel. I particularly noticed the name of one which was located smack-dab in the center of my village. It became clear to me why she seemed so elated to be working on my file.

 

I dutifully visited this woman once a year and we became friendly. Eventually, it got to the point where I felt I could ask her about those binders.

“I can’t help but notice those,” I said, pointing to the shelf behind her. “Do those women represent the majority of your work here?”

She was taken a bit by surprise at first, but then she opened up – at least as much as she could ethically do – and we had an amazing conversation. Thinking of the forms I had to fill out, I wondered what those women wrote as their “Profession”. (Prostitution is legal here, but obviously they didn’t write “prostitute” – it was “dancer” or “entertainer” or “escort”). I wondered what countries they came from and learned that “right then” it was mostly the Dominican Republic. Apparently, the home country of the majority comes in waves and changes every so often. I wondered if they were filling out the same forms I was and heard “Well . .. not exactly. For one thing, we don’t ask you for the results of your yearly AIDS test.” I wondered if they had been “invited” to come here, tricked into it under false pretenses, or something worse – but I knew enough not to ask that question directly. So I just looked at her intently, made a waving gesture with my hand toward the binders, and asked . . . “Are these women . . . are they . . . OK?”  Her eyes dropped and her head tilted. She answered, with some hesitation, “Yeah”. It came out like a qualified sigh.

 

One year I showed up as usual and my official friend was nervous and a little upset. She apologized to me and then explained that I would have to go to Graz to renew my residence permit this year. There had been changes to the law and the whole system was different now. (I assumed this had something to do with an anti-foreigner referendum that had taken place a year or two earlier.) She took some time in telling me exactly where I had to go and what I should bring with me. I really wondered about how bad she obviously felt. I looked up at the shelf behind her and noticed that the binders weren’t there anymore.

And then I drove to Graz.

I entered the building and was immediately confused. There was no information board or reception desk. No one around to ask where I should go. I eventually spotted a piece of paper taped to wall with the words “Residence Permits” and an arrow pointing to a long hallway.

I walked down the hallway with all sorts of unmarked doors left and right, heading toward a row of about ten chairs – all taken – at the very end of the hall in front of the last door. I stood beside the last chair in the row and took in the multi-cultural mix of people occupying them. They were all very quiet. I stood there for almost a half hour before the door opened and someone came out of the room. The door closed again and we all continued to wait for another 10 minutes. Then the door opened and a man appeared. He asked loudly “Where is Number 27?!” We, the waiting, all looked at one another in confusion.

“Didn’t you all take a number when you came in?! You have to take a number!” He pointed back down the hall. Then he went back into the room and closed the door.

We the Waiting all rushed down the hall and into the entrance foyer and looked around. Someone spotted what looked like a little metal squirt gun attached to the wall holding a roll of number tickets. Sure enough, the ticket sticking out had “27” on it. There were no signs or instructions near this device saying what we should do or where we should proceed to. We all aligned ourselves in the order we had been sitting (or in my case, standing) and, one by one, we each ripped a number ticket off the reel. Then we returned down the hall and to our places. A short discussion ensued in which the first woman in line was urged – or I should say, encouraged – to knock on the door, which she finally did.

Everyone moved up a seat and I could finally sit down. I cooled my heels. I looked at the row of people and was impressed by their quiet patience. I tried to figure out which country each one came from. I thought that they all looked small, but as they came out of the door, one after another, they mostly looked even smaller.

It was more than an hour before I was finally first in line. The door opened and I entered. There were three people in the room. One of them asked me arrogantly without looking at me what my name was and I told them. They began the search for my file. Unsuccessfully. A second man told me I was probably in the wrong place. They started asking me questions. With each answer, the three officials got more attentive and polite. One of them then made a phone call and the other two started addressing me with name and title. It was “Frau Magister” this and “Frau Magister” that. They apologized for the mix up – it seemed I should go back to the usual, local office to take care of my permit. And then the final insult: one of them said “I’m so sorry you had to wait. You didn’t have to wait. You should have just come right in!”

I couldn’t stand these people. I thanked them (for nothing) and left. I gave sympathetic and encouraging looks to the foreigners outside who had filled the seats behind me – any one of whom I would rather spend time with than those three people behind the door.

So I returned to my customary residence permit friend a few days later and told her about my experience in Graz. She truly commiserated with me and then apologized. I made it clear to her that SHE had NOTHING to apologize for.

During my visit to her the following year, I was so happy to see that the binders had reappeared on the shelf behind her. I can’t remember exactly what name was on my village’s binder that particular time – I drove past that place at least 10 times a week and noticed that the name and sign changed in fairly regular intervals. Was it Cloud Seven? Or The Witches’ Cauldron? Or Why Not?? Or Blue Rose’s? I assumed the nationality of its workforce changed with similar frequency. But, otherwise, the ugly cruddy little house looked the same. And the lovely woman, who watched out for the employees in that house as best she could within the limitations of her position, remained the same.

 

Visits to my foreign police lady came to an end a year or two later when she informed me with a happy smile that I now qualified for a permanent residence permit. I guess I had stayed in my marriage long enough to prove that it wasn’t all a ruse, perpetrated solely to gain me access to the Austrian social welfare system. From now on, I would only have to renew it each time I got a new passport. Unfortunately, pretty much at the same time, the Americans decided to reduce the validity period of their passports from 10 years to only 5.

 

Fast forward a decade. Another wave of anti-foreigner politics came and went in Austria with seemingly little effect on my personal situation, until one day when I got a call at work. It was my daughter, who had stayed home from school that day. She told me frantically that the police were at the door and she didn’t know what to do. I said she should stay on the line with me as she opened the door and talked to them. I heard the murmurs of a conversation, goodbyes, the sound of the door closing, and then she came back to the phone.

“They said you should come to the police station this afternoon and bring your ‘papers’ with you.”

She clearly didn’t understand what they had meant with “papers”. And she was upset. I assured her that it was probably nothing and not to worry about it. I would be home in two hours. We hung up. Then I got upset and worried about it.

At the police station in the afternoon, the mood was weird. I finally got invited into a room where it was explained to me that there were some new regulations. All foreigners had to be visited by the police at their homes once a year. The two officers who were talking to me seemed really uncomfortable – even embarrassed – about it all. I said as little as possible.

That was about four years ago. I haven’t seen them since and there have been no more visits. To be completely honest, I wasn’t really expecting any. But I still told the story many times and complained loudly about it all to anyone who was interested.

And I wondered again about all the women in those binders.

 

Last year, Austrian administration was streamlined and the small government offices scattered across the country were consolidated. Also last year, my passport expired so I needed to get a new permit as well. I discovered rudely that I could no longer go to my usual foreigner police friend. No, I had to drive 40 minutes to a different town.

They were perfectly nice and friendly there. Things went smoothly. An elderly gentleman explained to me with a straight face that, not only had the fees tripled, but it was no longer possible to process my file immediately or to send me my permit by mail. I had to come again in two weeks to pick it up in person. And then I would have to pay an additional 50 Euro “picking up” fee (for picking it up in person) before he could hand it over. He left the room to go make a few photocopies.

I looked over his entire office. There were no binders to be seen.

Meanwhile, one of the three local brothels has closed down. It was the most audacious one: a bright red building with a huge sphinx on the roof and two Egyptian statues on either side of the front door. Its closing might have something to do with the fact that it was located on a well-travelled road with no barriers around its parking lot to shield the license plate numbers from view of the many passing cars. All that survives from this enterprise is the name and the two statues which have found their way to the cruddy little house in the center of my village. Maybe a few of its employees have found their way too. The move probably required some official paperwork.

gogo3