The Path of Totality

 

With all of America being in Solar Eclipse Fever, I was reminded of my own past luck to find myself in “the path of totality” for one of these. Austria, August 11th, 1999. My husband (of ten years at the time) and I decided to throw a garden party for the occasion.

It took me a while to locate these pictures in my many photo albums. I had started with the 2001 book because I was convinced that my elder daughter was a baby in attendance; I could picture the buggy standing in the shade and her sleeping peacefully inside. But it turns out that I must have conflated this party with my husband’s 40th birthday bash two years later – the one with the “End of the World” theme. I found those pictures in a later album and there was a baby in a buggy with shades on, it just wasn’t ours. And he had the sunglasses because of eye troubles, not because of an eclipse. While looking through those pictures, I couldn’t find the crazy invitation we had made for this party and started getting suspicious again . . .

More foraging through photo albums revealed that my memory was conflating this second party with his 50th Birthday Bash (also a garden party). That was the one that coincided with some religious prophecy about the coming of Judgment Day – May 21st, 2011. Our invitations for that party read:

(That party was a really good time!)

Now, after all sorts of rummaging through albums and the recesses of my brain, I have it all straightened out. So back to the Solar Eclipse Party . . .

We had a perfect cloudless day and as you can see, being in the shadow of the moon really makes day turn into night. The later pictures in the album show bright sunshine again. This being the days before digital cameras and the internet, I didn’t get a good shot of the ring, but I did look at it for a few seconds with my own eyes.

    

As I look at these pictures, the ugliness of our house and general lack of foliage in our garden at that time strikes me. It is also strange to realize my elder daughter wouldn’t be born until a full year later, and that, at this time, I had no idea we would even be adopting a child. Then I look at all the people in attendance and see her two godfathers. I see the two couples who I later helped with the paperwork so that they could secretly  get married in Las Vegas. One of these two also later asked for our advice about adopting and now are deliriously happy with their permanent foster daughter. I see another woman who would become my daughter’s singing teacher. She and her husband together celebrated their “100th” birthday just two days ago and I was in attendance. My daughter sang there. I see pictures of babies who will be graduating from high school this year, young kids who are now done with university. And of all these people, I see only a handful that I have lost contact with.

I had no idea at the time that these people would stay a big part of my life over the next two decades and most likely beyond. That they would be the same crowd pictured at that 40th bash and the 50th ten years later, and presumably the 60th just a few years from now.

– – – – – – – – – – –

I didn’t see the eclipse today because I was a third of the way around the world from the path of totality. Instead I took a jog down Memory Lane and then livestreamed NASA coverage via NPR. And because the experience wasn’t exactly action packed, I played some Solitaire at the same time while trying to get my head around time differences and where the sun was compared to here and why the moon path went from west to east:

  

 

I was lucky to get these screenshots  – right after the second one, my crappy wifi broke down and the stream was interrupted.

I got up and went out onto my porch just in time to catch the sunset. Ten seconds earlier I had been tracking the sun’s path over Oregon en route to my family and friends in Wisconsin. And here it was, by me, the way it always is.

Things suddenly reset and were back to normal. To the way they should be. There was a feeling. And I want to remember it.

Morning in America

There are two soundtracks running in my head as I sip my hazelnut coffee and watch the sunrise on my first morning in Milwaukee and they couldn’t be more different. They compete with one another for my brain’s favor. First I envision the West Side Story dancers and hear:

I like to be in America!
O.K. by me in America!
Ev’rything free in America
(For a small fee in America!)

 

Suddenly there is a mental scratch of the needle on the record and the music changes to sultry sounds of Nina Simone  – or Muse – singing:

 It’s a new dawn, It’s a new day,

It’s a new life,

And I’m feeling good.

 

I think my brain cannot decide on the soundtrack for this day because it feels there is just a bit more waiting to do before this vacation can really begin. Just as it evades sensory input of people smoking around me, it refuses to accept the reality of our arrival here. So when we passed this view yesterday – one that had evoked the feeling of finally being home the previous 20+ times I saw it – there was no excitement (or at least none I allowed myself to feel.) And last night when we all sat together on my sister’s porch and reeled off a litany of possible activities for the next three weeks, I thought a lot of them sounded nice, but that it was too early to start planning . . .

And all of that is so, because my brain pushed the “Pause” button on receiving this message off my computer screen several weeks ago, along with the subsequent letter telling us to appear for our interviews on July 19th.

July 19th. That is tomorrow. (Wish us luck.)

 

Tomorrow, one of two things will happen.

EITHER . . .

my daughters will officially become certified citizens of the U.S. and this long, at times nightmarish, bureaucratic odyssey will be over,

OR . . .

the odyssey will continue and the vacation will be over (at least for me.)

On the bright side I will probably be able to finally decide on a soundtrack – will it be the lightly cynical but happy patriotism? or the moody and dark irony of a new day dawning?

 

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