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About the Graf Family

The city of Vienna has over two million residents, and according to all guidebooks and personal experience so far, the population is fairly homogenous. Everyone looks a lot like me – same height, similar build and hair color. Beyond ancestry, Wieners – the German word for “resident of Vienna,” not the meat tube you’re thinking of – are remarkably similar in customs, dress, and mannerisms as well. Imagine the over-thirty crowd at U-Village on a Saturday morning, and you’ve about got it.

How, then, in this city teeming with proto-yuppies, I managed to be placed with two honest-to-tupping-Christ hippies as host parents, is completely beyond me. But this is exactly what happened. They have Greenpeace stickers and posters all over the apartment, and everything they own is second-hand and organically grown.

The phrase “host parents,” however, is misleading, as would be any reference to them and her two children, with whom I share the flat, as a “host family”. “Landlords” is a more just label.

Allow me to spell out the difference between these terms, slowly and with relish. A host mother cooks meals for her host son gladly, considers it a joy. A landlady designates half a shelf on the fridge for his use, and yells at him in German for ten minutes when he uses olive oil he mistakenly believes is a shared commodity while cooking his meal. A host mother says kind words to her adopted son while eating breakfast in the morning. A landlady asks if her tenant’s parents pay for his schooling in Seattle with condesencion dripping from her voice. A host mother doesn’t mind the occasional, transitory mess in the kitchen or bathroom. A landlady reminds the tentant responsible about their duty to clean it before it has time to dry. She never misses an infraction or fails to correct it multiple times.

Regina is my landlady, make no mistake. Her boyfriend, Stephan, owns the apartment, but is infinitely more patient with my American, post-adolescent foibles. Her two children, Tara and Adrian, accept me as a fact of their existence as they would a new piece of furniture; their interaction with me so far, after my initial groping attempts, is as exciting.

Notice I’ve been referring to Tara and Adrian as Regina’s alone – this is in fact the case, and is no small source of tension in the household. Adrian, at 14, is fairly easy-going and stays out of everyone’s way most of the time, not giving much trouble to his mother or the man she’s shacking up with.

Tara, however, is a typhoon in pink eyeliner. At 16, she sucks on cigarettes with obvious pride, despite her mother’s aversion to the habit – Regina explicitly told me in the email I first receieved from her that the apartment was non-smoking – and does so with the air of a seasoned lung-killer. She speaks a little English, and the first three days of my stay was my sole guide to Vienna. During those days, before her mother and Stephan returned from the trip they were taking, I thought Tara was pleasant enough. She tried, giggling, to answer my questions, and whenever I used a word she didn’t know her eyes would bug out comically. Then her mother returned home and all hell broke loose.

That night I arrived home from hanging out with Kelly to the most dreadful German language screaming match to which I’ve ever been witness. I can’t begin to imagine the substance of the argument between Tara and her mother, as German is hard enough for me to understand when it’s not being blasted at 200 dB from a teenage diaghram, but I have a lurking fear that I entered it at least once. I slunk very, very quietly around the flat that night, believe you me. They’ve repeated the act once more since then – only been here a week, people – to rave reviews.

Yes, I’ve only been here about a week, and already I find myself avoiding contact with my ‘host family’ as much as possible. My room at the moment is just off the kitchen, with a paper-thin door – not good when I want to sleep, but perfect for calculating the proper moment to emerge and rush out the front door without speaking to anyone.

Mostly I just pretend they don’t live there, and smile propitiatingly to them when I have to face reality. I mean, come on. The apartment is a good one, and for €260 a month I can deal with the occasional awkward moment. We’ll see how our relationship progresses when I arrive home drunk at 3:30 am with 14 screaming Americans – maybe I should sell tickets.

Posted in Musings.


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  1. Bryan says

    Priceless. Just priceless. I remember how glad you were to be home when you arrived in Seattle at the end of the semester. And now I remember why.



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