I’m thinking about applying for dual citizenship with Austria.
As of September 1, it is available to direct descendants of those killed or forced to leave the country when it became Nazified. I easily qualify on both sides of my family, with a mother and father born in Austria and residing there in 1938, not to mention grandparents who were unable to escape.
As “dual” suggests, I wouldn’t have to give up U.S. citizenship if I decide to do this, and I like the idea of having an EU-friendly passport. Just in case.
I have some reservations, however. Key among them: I don’t speak German.
Mother Tongue vs Sound of the Fatherland
On the surface, this makes little sense. German was my parents’ native language. You could hear it echoed in their every word of their accented English.
But if German was the language that nurtured them, it was also the one that betrayed them, the one they wanted to leave behind — and not just because immersing themselves in English was essential for navigating their new country. A few endearments aside, German was mostly spoken in my home in hushed tones, a secret language meant to exclude me and my older sister.
That should have spurred me to curiosity and rebellion like most forbidden things do.
I’ve made desultory attempts over the years to learn German, with little success. Sure, I know a few words, but no more than I know of Russian, which has a whole other alphabet. I’m far more fluent in Hebrew, French, and Spanish. Which isn’t saying much, but still.
I suspect that, instead of regarding German as my parents’ once-beloved mother tongue, I associate it with the Nazi fatherland, a harsh and deadly place to be avoided at all costs.
What say you, Dr. Freud?
Polly Want a Kräcker?
Still, this linguistic lack did not pose a major problem until I spent a week in Austria with a German-speaking parrot.
I’d been to the country only once before, with a college friend. It hadn’t topped my list of fun places to visit, but my parents insisted that, on our planned grand tour of Europe, we go to see Viennese relatives — hitherto strangers to me. Preparing to meet my father’s brother for the first time, I wanted to make a good impression, so my friend and I changed in a public toilet out of the jeans that were our backpacking uniform. On our way out, we were screamed at by the matron. We had no idea what she was yelling. Was this a particularly vigorous method of soliciting tips?
Relatives aside, I didn’t find the people in the land of my people very hospitable and had no inclination to return.
I changed my mind some ten years later, when an Austrian friend invited me to house sit for her.
I’d met Brigitte, a professor of American Studies at Innsbruck University, at the Special Collections department of UCSD’s Geisel Library, where we were both doing literary research. We stayed in touch after I went back home to New York to complete my NYU Ph.D. program.
Brigitte, who lived in a small town just north of Innsbruck, knew how stressed I was, trying to finish my dissertation. I was also feeling claustrophobic in my small dark Manhattan apartment. Her proposal of a week in a peaceful, idyllic setting was very appealing. I would be alone, with no distractions.
Except for one: A parrot named Giaco, pronounced Jocko and short for Giacometti. He was the reason that Brigitte needed someone to stay in her place.
I was to feed Giaco, clean his cage, and let him fly freely around the house until nighttime, when I would return him to his perch and cover up the cage for the night. He knew to soil only the newspaper in the cage, Brigitte assured me; I wouldn’t have track down parrot poop in rooms all over the house.
Free board in the Austrian alps in exchange for a bit of bird dropping disposal seemed like a good deal to me.
Getting to Know Giaco
I was jet lagged from the red-eye flight and complicated connection to Innsbruck from Vienna but quickly revived when Brigitte brought me to her home from the airport. It was everything I could have hoped for, a cozy A-frame with stunning vistas from floor-to-ceiling windows — right out of the Sound of Music.
Giaco was larger than I expected — I think I envisioned the parakeet I used to visit as a child in old Mrs. Tunick’s apartment in my Flatbush Avenue building, a bird that was, well, a parakeet — but his care seemed straightforward enough. I didn’t plan to let him kiss me on the lips, as I was appalled to discover Brigitte did, and I couldn’t duplicate her soothing words to him in German. Still, I wasn’t concerned.
Brigitte left me with a generous amount of food and showed me how to get to the small shop in the nearby village to pick up more. I bid her a grateful farewell. This was going to be just the respite from stress I needed, I knew it.
Rebel with Feathers
The week started off well. I caught up on light reading and spent a great deal of time gazing out through soaring picture windows at the surrounding pines and, in the distance, snow-capped mountains. I took short walks in the area, long enough to enjoy the invigorating alpine air but not far enough to worry about getting lost.
Then it all began going south.
The first night, I had no problem getting Giaco back into his cage. He hopped in to get his dinner, as Brigitte predicted he would, and made nary a squawk when I brought out the dark cloth.
The second night, Giaco seemed a bit reluctant to re-enter his enclosure but, with a little coaxing, complied.
The third night, the bird decided to fly the coop.
I could see the situation from his perspective. Here was an intruder who neither cozied up to him for a kiss — are you kidding? that beak looked sharp — nor spoke to him in the harsh guttural tones his mistress had accustomed him to. I had no standing to make demands. I begged. I cajoled. I put additional food in the cage. Finally, after about two hours, he gave it up and hopped atop his perch.
I quickly shut the door, exhausted from my efforts.
The next morning I vowed not to repeat that experience. I had visions of avian excretia all over the immaculately kept house after a day or so outside the cage; birds do not poop in easy-to-collect pellets and I couldn’t cover every inch of the living room in newspaper. I made a hard decision: Giaco was going under house arrest. For the remainder of my stay, I would feed him, clean up after him, give him fresh water, and talk to him, but wouldn’t risk letting him out again.
I felt guilty but what the hell. He’d never tell.
As the days wore on, I wasn’t so sure. Paranoia began to set in, fed by my sole shopping excursion.
It was a pleasant, easy walk to the village store. Entering the small grocery, I was greeted by a stocky middle-aged clerk with a shout that sounded like “scoot.”* I was prepared for any potential social interactions with three phrases: guten Tag, bitte, and auf Wiedersehen. The single word — as I heard it — did not resemble any of these. The woman was not smiling. Uh, oh, I thought, another irate-matron-in-public-toilet situation. Pretending comprehension, I nodded and worked my way around the shelves and cold cases, gathering cheeses, sausages, and bottles of beer in my basket along the way.
When it was time to pay, I fumbled with the unfamiliar money. And with a way to get my groceries home. Brigitte had warned me that I needed to bring my own shopping bag and left me several of them, but I’d forgotten. The clerk looked even more annoyed than she had when I walked in, but gave me a plastic bag for the items I’d acquired.
I scooted out of there.
The Sound of German
So there I was, a stranger in a strange and increasingly unfriendly-feeling land with no one to talk to but a hostile German-speaking parrot. I craved the sound of a human voice. Brigitte did not have a TV — reception was impossible in the mountains without a satellite dish — and these were the pre-internet 1980s. No Netflix, no smart phones, no international texting, no WhatsApp.
I started remembering all the articles I’d read about how smart parrots are. I became convinced that Giaco had language skills beyond mere mimicry, that he would tell Brigitte that he hadn’t been out of the cage for days. She was due home after dark, so the cage covering would be fine initially, but the next morning… who knew?
Even the natural setting couldn’t compensate. It rained for several days, making short walks away from Giaco’s domain impossible. Sitting in the living room gazing out the window, I felt the parrot’s glare and the tacit rebuke of his incomprehensible words.
At night, strange noises — animal? human? — amidst the eerie silence of the Austrian countryside kept me awake. What can I say? I am a city girl at heart.
I recalled, too, how much my mother hated the “Sound of Music.” Rarely remarked-upon fact: It was not only the nauseatingly good and brave Von Trapp family who were Austrian; all the Nazis in the film were from Österreich too.
Post-Parrot, Post-Freud’s Butcher
In the end, it all worked out.
I got away with my deception, as far as I know. If Giaco spilled the beans — or is that birdseed? — I never heard. My small dark noisy but parrotless apartment looked newly appealing when I returned home, while the not-so-idyllic country idyll made me appreciate the pleasures of Manhattan.
De-stress mission accomplished, inadvertently.
But I also realized just how much fear and loathing I retained towards Austria.
Which brings me back to the question of dual citizenship. I’ve only illustrated my hate-hate relationship with the country, the fact that my inability to learn German is a symptom of a larger problem.
Did my attitude towards the country change after I started writing this blog and visited Vienna several more times?
Did my parrot paranoia abate?