The Undercover Familiar

“Ich habe gedacht, Sie sind Oesterreicherin!”

Someone said this to me today (“I thought you were Austrian!”). Yes, they genuinely thought I was an Austrian, that I grew up here. And the reality is not so far from the truth. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio but Vienna is where I came of age. Surprising, though, even post 50 how muddled and mixed I portray my own identity in this special context – on Austrian soil, in my adopted homeland.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“I live in Vienna but grew up in the US.”

That was a new description. It felt a bit like flipping the script. Where I previously tended to confess the American citizenship first before adding up my decades of residence in this German speaking country, I decided on the spot that this description is far more accurate. Vienna is home, home, home.

Vienna is where I have lived in one district for 15 out of 25 years, where both of my sons were born, where I’ve worked at the same school for two decades – home. But I’ve never been Austrian. I neither have citizenship nor do I look the part (stereotypically speaking). I am an immigrant, not an expat. I am here by choice and this is my life.

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So while I’m out at my favorite mountain lake in a very different part of the country, enjoying the best speedskating conditions one could hope for, my unexpected presence as black woman traveling in the singular raises questions among fellow hotel guests and skaters. The attention I receive is friendly curiosity from the Dutch and German table neighbors. It’s funny to recognize that we belong to a common age range of well past 40 and maxing out probably under 65. Middle-agers mostly in couple formations, I probably fit right in – economically, socially.

Meanwhile, my language usage gives me away. I no longer sound very American when I speak German. Austrian service personnel usually need a moment to size me up and make that split second guess as to whether I will understand whatever query they might have in store for me:

“Sind Sie Frau Spelic?” (Are you Ms. Spelic?)

“Zum trinken, was moechten Sie?” (To drink, what would you like?)

“Haben Sie eine angenehme Anreise gehabt?” (Did you have a pleasant trip here?)

The relief when I respond without hesitation in a clear and comprehensible German is immediate¬† and visible. This often gives rise to another, different level of curiosity. Often people want to understand how this is possible: such clear German, so colloquial and familiar. That’s what throws people – the familiarity. How could she, how does she seem so comfortable, so at home here?

I left home without my passport as I usually do when I travel within the country. I’m driving my own car, I have an Austrian driver’s license and my residence permit with me. I also know where I’m going. I’ve been in this particular place often. Just yesterday I ran into the owner of another hotel down the road who greeted me warmly and we shared news of our respective children. Another reminder that my presence here is not incidental, it has a history and background. This place is familiar and so too am I.

I am a domestic foreigner. Outwardly, because of my skin color I am readily perceived as a foreigner, a non-native for sure. Once I speak and engage in easy conversation, then things change. I am that unexpected foreigner who defies the stereotype. I become a source of fascination. Internally however, I am working with a full deck of previous experience and local savvy. When I move about in this country I become the undercover familiar.

images ©Sherri Spelic / @edifiedlistener 2017