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

Vienna Gratitude

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September 2015 will mark the 30th anniversary of my arrival in Austria. At the time I was planning on a semester. That semester extended to a year and after a few years of back and forth between the US and Vienna, I settled here in 1991.

As a US Citizen and an African-American one at that, I am a foreigner here. While I did not grow-up here, this is the city and country in which I have come of age. When I move through town I know where I am going and people ask me for directions. I am a foreigner at home.

Vienna is an exceptionally beautiful city which is kept remarkably clean and well groomed. It has a clear and seemingly unconflicted understanding of itself as a primary tourist destination. The historical buildings, extensive parks and central pedestrian areas remind the locals  exactly what part of the economy is paying a good chunk of the bills. Having lived here so long it is easy to forget what a downright marvelous location this is. That’s how it is when you become local – you find faults much more easily than wonder.

At the same time, I didn’t settle in Vienna because of its imperial history or architectural gems. Rather I stayed because of the people I met: the welcome they offered, the interest they showed, the curiosity they shared, the enthusiasm I encountered when I spoke the language.  During my first few years here, brown people were not a particularly common sight. I fielded a lot of questions from Austrians about where I was from and how I liked it here “with us” (“Wie gefaellt es Dir hier bei uns?”).

Several years in I found that the question no longer fit. I had somehow outgrown it. When I asked myself I found that my questions had less to do with whether or not I liked it here, rather the emphasis was on what I liked here and what made it evident that I would stay; what made it unlikely that there would  be a return “home” (to the US). Small wonder, home was and is right here.

And the “what” that keeps me here? Let me count the ways:

  • Vienna is a remarkably safe city.
  • It’s clean, tidy and well-groomed to a fault.
  • Water and air quality are impeccable.
  • City services are numerous and work reliably well.
  • Public transportation deserves awards – it’s extensive, user-friendly and affordable.
  • City-run early childhood care (Kindergaerten) stands out as child-centered, family-friendly and simply well-planned.
  • Health care is guaranteed.
  • The city has green spaces large and small throughout and is buffered on 3 sides by the Vienna Woods.
  • Cultural offerings are off the charts in terms of quality and variety and access to public museums, concerts and opera is made possible through city support.
  • Stores are closed on Sundays (which means that people find other ways to spend their time and money).
  • Public education, while traditional, works.

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And those are just several external variables that make for an excellent quality of life. Of course, relationships to  family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances create the foundation for staying and flourishing here. That said, it seems important to point out those every day conveniences and privileges which contribute to a great life. They are huge blessings and not to be taken for granted.

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*Fotos: CC via Pixabay.com