Tuesdays with Dafi

During a small family gathering today at my mother-in-law’s house, I got . . . scolded . . . admonished . . . reprimanded . . . by my sister-in-law.  And by my younger sister-in-law, no less. (A younger s-i-l who should actually be just a little in awe of me, a bit less uppity in my presence . . . I mean, if we were in China, I could boss her around and she’d just have to stay silent and take it.) What she scolded me for was how little I have been writing in my blog lately. Now that is a sweet thing to hear for any blogger – especially one who worries that certain friends and relatives are only reading out of a sense of obligation. I used to think this about her.

Every Tuesday, I take the train to the university to teach my course there. Two years ago, I got a new (old) lecture hall that had only one saving grace – it was right next door to my sister-in-law’s office. Once I realized this, I called her from the train one day and said “Hey Dafi! I’ve got a half hour to kill. What are you up to?” (She never let me forget that formulation.) What followed were weekly short get-togethers in which she gave me free coffee and all the latest family news that my husband forgot to tell me about. I’m not quite sure what she got out of these talks. Not only am I a terrible source for juicy gossip, but, once when I arrived at her office, I noticed my blog on her computer screen. “Oh no!” I thought, “she’s cramming my blog for our coffee klatch!”

One wonderful thing about Dafi is that when you think a thing like that, you can feel free to just go ahead and say it out loud to her too.

“Oh, no!” I said, and then asked her, “Are you cramming my blog for our coffee klatch!?”

She laughed and said no. I didn’t completely believe her.

All the more reason that today’s scolding made me feel good. Even if it came from a younger sister-in-law who has no business scolding her elder.

So, here’s a post dedicated to Dafi and a promise to everyone I have been neglecting on the reading/commenting side that summer is here, time for catching up is upon me, and I will be back. As I have warned many of you at times before  – “watch out for incoming!!”  And once the bombardment starts, you can all say:

“Thanks, Dafi! Thanks a lot.” (How you intone this is your own choice.)


A Note on the Name “Dafi”:
  1. it is pronounced “dah-fee”
  2. it is spelled d-a-f-i by me, d-a-f-f-i by my husband, d-a-f-f-y by others
  3. for years I thought it had something to do with Daffy Duck
  4. according to the husband, it comes from the movie “Some Like It Hot” and Jack Lemmon (in drag) as Daphne. (Pronounced in German “dahf-na” which turned into “dahf-nee”, which lost its “n” and became “dah-fee”, which is where I came into the family and took up the nickname and to this day, 30+ years later, still use it, even though no one else does anymore.)


A Moment in Teaching

I encourage my university students to consume non-commercial media like BBC, PBS and NPR. I also try to turn them on to podcasts – there are so many good ones out there. This year, one student in particular took my advice to heart. Each week, he would come to class and tell me about some new English language show or podcast he had discovered. A lot of it was pretty sophisticated stuff.

One time he was really excited about a fascinating find – it was called “Dead Dogs”.

“Dead Dogs?!” I asked, incredulously, “That sounds awful! Are you sure that was the name?”

 “Yes, Dead Dogs. It’s about all different themes in science and technology . . . it gets millions of clicks every day.”

“And . . . so . . . why is it called ‘Dead Dogs’?”

 “I don’t know. I’m not sure what ‘Dead’ stands for.”

“Spell out the name for me, will you?”

“D – E – D . . .”

“Wait a sec. ‘Dead’ is spelled D – E – A – D.”

“No, I am sure that it is D – E – D.”


We stared at one another for a while in silence and confusion.


“I have an idea,” I said, “write down the name so I can see it.”


Here’s what he wrote:

TED Talks


The following week we did some work on pronunciation.



Women’s Work

It was just International Women’s Day, so I have decided to write on the topic of cleaning toilets.

It comes from the fact that I am going to have to do this job for the first time in years. (Unpaid! No one should have to do such a thing unpaid!) And that is due to the fact that my cleaning lady has pneumonia and can’t come again tomorrow. Please get well soon, Judy!

Now, I will stipulate that there are probably millions of men around the world who do or have done toilet cleaning too. Many out of necessity in their college apartments or bachelor pads. But I am willing to bet that the vast majority immediately assumed they no longer had to do this work the minute they began co-habitating with a female.

(Am I being unfair?)

This was just one of many unwritten rules that confronted me after my immigration to Austria and the start of a relationship with an Austrian man.  At the very beginning of our romance, I was once at my future husband’s apartment and watched as he packed to go home to his parents for the weekend. He was stuffing dirty laundry into a bag. I asked,

“Oh! Do you do your laundry at your parents’ house?”

“No. My mom does it.”

I started to laugh. My (then boyfriend) stopped what he was doing and stared at me with a quizzical look. I stared back.

“What is so funny?” he asked.

“Well, you were joking, weren’t you? I mean . . . you are 25 years old. Your mom still does your laundry??”

My question seemed to surprise him and it took him a moment to respond:

“She . . . she . . . likes to do it!”


That was my first hint at what might be expected of me if I were to marry an Austrian. I had no intention of being a housewife and luckily, my husband turned out to be very enlightened. When we moved into our first apartment together, we divvied up the big household jobs – he took on the cooking and I took on the laundry. He vacuumed and shopped. I dusted and mopped. He took care of the heating and I ironed. I don’t remember who cleaned the bathrooms. There were some adjustments over the years depending on who was working more hours at the time and whether or not we currently had a cleaning lady.

What neither of us could control was how others would view our household arrangements. Raised eyebrows and second-hand reports of critical comments were not uncommon. In those moments, I channeled my film heroine, Maude (as in “Harold and Maude”) and reminded myself that “You can’t let people judge you too much.”

Of course, this is also a generational thing. My young university students often scoffed at the idea that gender equality had not been reached. I ended up tricking them into recognizing their own gender biases in this area.

At the beginning of the course on social issues, I had them take a questionnaire on a variety of issues that might be covered that semester. It consisted of a list of statements to which they should circle a number between 1 and 5. (1= I agree completely; 5= I disagree completely.) One of those statements was:

“A man should help his wife/girlfriend/partner with the household work.”

My enlightened students all dutifully circled either 1 or, sometimes, 2.  I circled 5. Then I showed them the results of the survey and they all laughed at the one person who circled 5. I told them it was me and assured them that I was serious. They stared at me with a quizzical look until one of them finally asked


“Why do you think?”

In most cases, one of the brighter students mentioned the word “help” in that sentence and asked if that was the reason. Of course it was. How can it be that when my husband does some housecleaning that he is helping me with (implicitly: “my”) work?

What ensued was a discussion of deep-seated beliefs and assumptions that household work is women’s work and whether they – this young, knowledgeable-about-feminism crowd – might still, deep down, believe this. Many students insisted they didn’t.

So I asked them how they would have responded to the statement with the genders switched:

“A woman should help her husband/boyfriend/partner with the household work.”

That made them laugh. Until it didn’t.

I can’t tell you how many times a bunch of female students hung around after class to talk to me when the debate topic was women’s rights. Many of them were distraught. They told me that the statements of some of their male – and female! – classmates had shocked them. They had had no idea that such ideas were still so predominant in their age group.


People who decide to live together in a shared space in any sort of relationship should be free to arrange their responsibilities in whatever way works for them. They shouldn’t be ooched toward any particular arrangement based on the expectations of others or social norms or  government policies. As long as women still generally earn less than their male counterparts and fathers are generally considered less important than mothers to a child’s well-being, people will continue to conform to old patterns.

I’ll be cleaning the bathrooms tomorrow. Because I have a free day, my cleaning lady is sick, and my husband now has a 60+ hour work week. I will not do it out of sense of responsibility.

I tell myself.



Mission Creep


(My Years of Montessori – Part 35)


It is my sixth year in my beloved little alternative school. Before that I spent 25 years teaching in a university Business School. The two worlds could not be more different. In fact, it strikes me now as just a little strange how these two worlds can co-exist on the same planet. No . . . “co-exist” is not the right word. Each of these worlds politely ignores the existence of the other. The Business faculty continues to preach the established world economic order and does very well for itself in the process. The Hummingbird School lives on a perpetual shoestring, finding creative new ways to buck the system, continually re-defining itself always in contrast to establishment principles. If I had to create a social/political/economic Venn diagram of these two worlds, it would look like this:


The little red dot is me.

From the very first day of my employment there, I represented an intersection point between this alternative world and most everything outside of it. Over these six years, I have slowly staked out my place in this very complex place as an insider/outsider. The only teacher whose own children do not attend the school. The only teacher who does not participate in the parental organizational structures or pay dues/school fees or commit 30 hours a year to janitorial and organizational duties. The only teacher for whom this work is only a job and not part of some larger, life changing communal project.

So far I have gotten away with it. I’m an integrated foreigner, allowed to be a little different now that I have learned the language. But it also works out because slowly and surely, I have increased my voluntary contributions to the school. I have taken over supervision of the Secondary group. I have taken over the school book ordering. I have taken over the organizing of photos and make the school year slideshow. I’ve started offering lessons to the grade school and kindergarten kids. I attend the weekly team meetings in which we basically administrate the entire school as a group of five. I’ve arranged excursions and camping trips and weeks in London. I’ve gone to seminars to learn more about Montessori. I’ve attended weddings and parties and team-building weekends. I’ve listened to others for hours on end.

I didn’t envision most or all of this when I started. It just happened. When you work with a bunch of idealistic people who are all willing to pull extra unpaid weight, you do it too or you go. It is mission creep. I keep re-evaluating the extent of my commitment and where the borders are.

All of the above became an issue again, because we had a “Supervision” today. It is sort of a group therapy for the teaching team led by a psychologist/coach and it was my fourth experience with this. For the fourth time, I basically listened like a voyeur to other people working out their problems with the help of a mediator and in front of witnesses. This time it was all about one incident way back in fall. The two coworkers involved both felt that the other had acted arrogantly. There were tears.

Some of my thoughts during the session:

“Geez, I have so many other things I could be doing right now.”

“I had no idea these two had a problem with one another.”

“Why don’t they just apologize and move on?”

“Boy, I am really really insensitive compare to everyone else here.”

“This whole week has really sucked.”

“How, pray tell, is this going to help?”

“I wonder if anyone else here feels like I do?”

After about an hour of these two coworkers expressing (non-violently!) their facts, their feelings and their wishes, it didn’t seem to me that they were any closer to an understanding than at the start. A bizarre silence ensued.

“Please don’t ask us to weigh in on this!” I thought.

“So, I think it would be good if the rest of you now weighed in on this,” the mediator said.


This is my world now.

Strangely enough, it was memories of my old, coldly professional and highly competitive workplace that made me feel better. I imagined my former colleagues – almost all of whom were arrogant – in this situation. A bunch of old, white-haired (male) college professors in suits, sitting in a circle on the floor, two of them facing one another, looking into one another’s eyes, each telling the other in turn how their statements or behavior had made them feel, with the rest of the faculty watching and then weighing in with understanding and constructive statements. Then the dean asks the two professors if the situation is resolved for them and adds how deeply appreciated they both are as part of the team. The dean then hands one of the professors a tissue . . .

The mental image made me laugh.

Soooo . . . .

Three hours of my today were basically lost and I will never get them back. My butt hurt and my back ached at the end of them. I’ll add those three hours to the mission creep tally.

But in the grander scheme of things, I wasn’t cold. And I am still glad to be here and not back in the real world.

Driver’s Education

drivers-edA good friend scared the crap out of me over coffee today. She was telling me about her 16 year old daughter’s first attempts behind the wheel. In itself, the tale was not shocking, but I immediately had to think of my own 16 year old, who is exactly two days older than hers. (In fact, it was us both having new babies that kicked off our friendship.) Mitzi driving? No way! I only got used to her riding a Vespa about . . . 15 minutes ago. And that only happened as a direct result of (briefly) contemplating the alternative. Why oh why do things keep changing? And so fast!

When I first arrived in Graz at the ripe old age of 22, I thought it was strange that the drinking age was 16 and the driving age was 18 (the exact reverse of the Wisconsin laws at that time). How did Austrian high school students get to their keg parties? It made no sense.

As I grew older, I found my opinions shifting. I started appreciating the fact that there were no 16 and 17 year olds sharing the roads with me. Back in Wisconsin, when the drinking age went up to 21, I found it kind of nice that bars were devoid of college freshmen and sophomores. Now if we could only get Austria to raise its drinking age to at least 18, that would be progress!

In reality, the opposite happened. Driver’s Ed can be started at 15 here now. At age 16, kids with compliant parents can put an “L17” sign in their cars and start practicing with an experienced driver in the passenger seat. On their 17th birthdays and after clocking in 3000 practice kilometers, they can get their license. (And alcohol? It seems there is no problem whatsoever for 14 year olds to get served in bars here. The profits for bar owners far outweigh those pesky fines they periodically pay.)

So when Mitzi returns from the States in two weeks, I assume one of our earliest discussions is going to include the term “L17”. I also assume I will have no ally in my husband while working this out and that “Driving School” will be added to her long list of extracurricular activities.

What a horrendous thought! But I am not saying this because I don’t want her driving. That is going to happen whether I like it or not. I’m saying it because I, too, once had to go to Austrian Driving School.

In my first four years here, I lived in a city and never really needed to drive. But then my husband and I moved out to the country and I faced the prospect of commuting two or three times a week to work. Suddenly the fact that my Wisconsin license was not valid here became an issue. I looked for ways to get an international license and came up blank. So, despite having driven for 11 years, I had to go through the entire Austrian program – an expensive 8 week course and so-and-so many hours of driving lessons.

It was an eye-opening experience.

On the bright side, we were never shown any gruesome movies with names like “Highway to Death” or “Tragedy on Wheels”. But we were also not taught to drive defensively or keep a safe distance from the car ahead of us, or really anything of practical value. No, instead I learned all about how motors work and the German words for car parts I couldn’t name in English and insurance regulations and the history of the Autobahn . . .

The really educational part of it, though, was being on the other side of the classroom for once and living the Austrian school experience through the eyes of a student.

Our teacher-drone sat at the front desk and lethargically mumbled his text in some strange dialect for ages and then suddenly dropped his payload. A surprise question shot out of his mouth followed quickly by the second round – the name of a student who was expected to shoot back an answer in the same tempo. The teacher returned fire with – at best – sarcasm, at worst with an insult. Periodically I was startled awake by the sound of my name and had no idea what I was supposed to say. He finally asked me if I was having trouble understanding his accent, to which I stupidly answered “No, it’s okay” – even though I truly was. But it was more than that. I was having trouble understanding his entire reason for existing.

On the last evening, we had a mock oral exam. The same unintelligible questions were shot at us again and after two hours of this, the teacher-drone called out the names of the students who were to return again the following morning at 8:00 am for a second practice test. Mine was the first name he said.

I dutifully appeared the next morning along with the five other imbeciles and we each took one of the six seats facing a desk. I had the chair at the end of the row. The teacher walked in and sat down. He fired a question at the poor slob at the other end of the row who promptly got it wrong. The teacher told him the right answer. Then he asked the SAME question to the miniskirt in Chair #2. She got it wrong. He told her the right answer – again. Then he asked the poor slob in Chair #1 – again. He got it right! So did the miniskirt! The teacher then asked the severely hungover boy in Chair #3 the SAME question. Unfortunately he got it wrong. The teacher told him the right answer – again – then returned to the poor slob and – you guessed it – asked the SAME question.

Things continued this way until the question was answered correctly six times in a row. Then the teacher started the process again with Question #2.

This went on all day long.

By the time the questions got to me (Chair #6) I could have answered them in my sleep. A few times when the deer-in-the-headlights in Chair #4 or the boy-I-wish-you-had taken-a shower in Chair #5 answered incorrectly I think I groaned audibly. By mid-afternoon I started getting a little punchy and contemplated answering wrong on purpose – just to see if he would return to the poor slob and start over.

Sometime around 5:00 pm, the teacher announced that Hangover Guy, Deer in Headlights girl and I were done and could go sign up for the test now. Poor slob, Mini-skirt, and the Unshowered would have to return the next week for practice test #3. We were then all released back into the wild.


The following week, I went confidently into my real driving test and was asked to name all the lights on the dashboard. That, unfortunately, had NOT been one of the questions during Imbecile Day. So I winged it. I ended up passing mostly because the examiner was amused by my misnomers and cute accent. Disappointment came a few days later, though, during the practical test. The examiner spent the entire time peppering me with questions about “America”. I don’t think he even noticed my driving skills. Which is too bad. It was, I think, the only time in my life when I did a perfect parallel park in one gorgeous, smooth swing. He never actually uttered the words “You passed” but he did ask me to relay his greetings to his best buddy who just happened to be taking tennis lessons from my husband that very same week.

I can’t say for sure, but there is a slightly possibility that, unbeknownst to me, a call had been made.

Despite all the aggravation and wasted effort and expense, I will never regret having gone through Austrian Driving School.

In fall, I walked into my own lecture hall for the first class of the new academic year. I looked at the rows of students facing me and thought “I understand you better now.” They returned my looks passively. With feigned docility. Ready to flinch. Expecting little.


Admittedly Surprised

Today was my last day at the university for this academic year. My last two candidates took their oral exams and both passed. One, a very studious and conscientious young woman who did hours and hours of work each week – more than was even assigned, and the other, a very confident future businessman who did almost no work in the entire first semester, telling me straight out that he was 1) too busy and 2) simply lazy. I responded that, of course, it was his decision. I just hoped that he wouldn’t end up feeling he had wasted his time this year. I asked if he was sure he really wanted to study at the university if he had so little time. He kept coming week after week, with empty hands and a strange skeptical stare every time I explained grammar or answered a question. He liked to talk – a lot! I must have said to him fifty times: “Okay. Now say that in English.”

In the second half of the semester, he slowly started doing a little homework, and then more of it each time – mostly, I think, because he and Miss Conscientious formed a study group of two. About three weeks ago he handed in his first of a total of two texts for the year. I was happy to see that they weren’t catastrophic. He managed to come within three points of a passing score on the written and then hurled himself over the top with a very well prepared and delivered oral exam. I congratulated them both for coming one step closer to being admitted to the university and we went to a café for the traditional post exam celebration coffee (or sometimes, beer).

hummingbird giftIt’s not unheard of for students to give me presents at the end of the course. I was sort expecting a box of Merci chocolates or something like that from Miss Conscientious. So it was all the more disorienting when Mr. Brash handed me small package. Inside was this original and signed painting of a hummingbird which he had bought at an art fair in Germany months earlier. (I had told them a few stories about my alternative school over the year.) I really love this picture and the thoughtfulness of the giver was touching.

Sometimes people surprise you.

Room with a View

Somewhere in this blog, I have surely mentioned that I take a train to Graz once a week to teach a university course. It’s part of a program that helps people without high school diplomas get accepted into college (and I really love teaching it!) Over 29 years, the numbers of participants in the program/course has gone up and down. There were times when 50 people showed up in the first week. One year it was only 7. Lately, I usually have between 15 and 20 at the start, half of which are there voluntarily (meaning that they will be examined by someone other than me). Certain developments happen every year:

  • The number of people in my course goes up and down for a while as the late enrollees arrive and the program dropouts depart. The number then stabilizes midyear.
  • Attendance drops dramatically in the two weeks before Christmas break.
  • I lose about a third of the group when they pass the exam on the first test date in February.
  • As the academic year nears the end, all the students who are not tested by me start to drop away, leaving the hard core survivalists in the final weeks.

With two weeks to go, we are now at the hard core stage: I have my four remaining exam candidates who show up religiously each week and no one else.

But one thing has been new this year. The program’s current secretary (who makes the schedule and reserves the rooms) was utterly incompetent. She waited so long to do the work that all the usual course rooms were already booked. (Don’t you just hate procrastinators?!)  So each week, my course meets in a different place and sometimes at a different time. This week – today – was the best. Here’s the room the secretary booked for me and my four students:

lecture hall 1 lecture hall 2