Heavenly Blast From the Past

 

Shortly after coming to Austria, I began understanding what it meant when a country does not separate church and state. I found certain norms creepy or irritating – like Religion class in schools or the way all the stores shut down at noon on Saturday and didn’t reopen till Monday morning. The worst thing, though, was church taxes – what a concept!

But I later came to see the bright side of this setup – all those funky extra religious holidays like Pentecost or Corpus Christi. I used to joke that every time a saint sneezes, Austrians take a holiday. And if that sneeze happens to be on a Thursday, they just go ahead and take the Friday off too. Today is the start of one of those wonderful long weekends – it’s Ascension. That’s why I finally finished the Gingerbread Man, reinstalled my printer, planted my flowers, prepared my next university course, cooked lunch and am now finally returning to WordPress after a somewhat unintentional break.

Ascension is kind of my favorite, not only because it is the first of three long weekends in rapid succession, but also because it has such a great name in German. This needs a little explaining.

Way back in high school German class, there were a few words that set most of us off – either giggling or blushing, depending on the personality type. One of those was the German word for the number 6. The other was the word Fahrt (meaning “trip” or “drive” or “ride”). With our bad accents, it always came out as “fart”. To make matters worse, Germans like to create a lot of new words by simply adding a pronoun to something else. So . . .

“entrance” is Zufahrt

“driveway” or “onramp” is Einfahrt

“exit” is Ausfahrt

“the way there/back” are Hinfahrt and Rückfahrt

“passage” is Durchfahrt

. . . and there were dozens more.

But the very best one of all was the name of today’s holiday.

 

Happy Christi Himmelfahrt, everyone!

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.