erinohsays

three days in buschberghütte

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on monday this week isabelle and i packed up all of the supplies we would need to spend two nights, three days with 12 children in a small hut in the mountains in lower austria. the hut is called buschberghutte and it is one of about 40 huts scattered throughout the austrian mountains, where hikers and campers can stop to eat and sleep. buschberghutte happens to be stationed at the lowest altitude, compared to the other huts.

after a 1 hour bus ride from vienna to lower austria, we unloaded all of the children at a bus stop in a tiny village situated at the base of rolling hills, and then with all of our backpacks and sleeping bags, we began hiking away from the village along a tiny path into the forest with nothing to guide us but an occasional sign post with an arrow and the words buschberghutte written across it.

i think that first day of hiking from the bus stop to the hut was the most difficult of the three days, especially for the six american children. they expected the bus to drop us off right in front of the hut, and not to carry all of their bags up a winding path in and out of the forest and the hot sun. at some points, we stopped to set our things down and sing songs in the middle of fields, which did seem to help a bit.

when we finally arrived at the hut, the american children were especially surprised at how cramped their living quarters would be for the next three days. there were complaints from the children of not wanting to be there and missing their family, and it was honestly a difficult first day. thankfully isabelle and i work really well together so after lunch we facilitated a group discussion about how everyone was feeling and why. we then created group rules for our time at the camp, including how to treat everyone, what time we would wake up and go to sleep, and what inclusion would look like.

we then talked about what cultural differences the children have noticed during their time first in the united states and then in austria. the austrian children talked about how difficult it was to live with air conditioning in the united states – too cold! – and how the food servings were way too big. they also noticed that people who work in the service industry are so friendly and attentive – in austria they barely make eye contact with you! – the kids said.

over the next two days, we played countless physical activity and running games. isabelle and i had made jerseys from an old sheet for each of the children and then wrote numbers with permanent marker on each jersey. the kids were then split into two groups – odd vs. even numbers – and had to hide throughout the hills and then begin to catch one another. a bit like hide and seek combined with tag but you also have to call out the person´s name and number before you get them out. the kids loved this game.

we also hiked to another nearby village – this time without carrying our bags – and visited a school museum that was really beautiful. in the lobby there was a knowledge chair which was a silly invention from germany that involved pouring books into a large funnel which was then placed next to the pupil´s ear. it was meant as a way to learn subjects very quickly without actually having to read! this made for a great photo op with the kids. we then toured the school which had been operating since the 1800s and were quizzed by our tour guide on a bit of mathematics, literature, and science, as we moved through each room.

on our last day at the hut i worked with an austrian man named norbert in the kitchen to prepare a typical american meal for all of the children as well as the families of the austrian children – about 30 people total. the american children decided that this meal would consist of baked beans, sloppy joe´s, french fries, and corn on the cob. i had actually brought two gigantic cans of bush´s baked beans and several packets of sloppy joe seasoning from pittsburgh especially for this dinner. the kids then performed a skit for the families as donald trump vs. hillary clinton in a debate ranging from gun control to gay rights. it was really entertaining.

oh – and just before the families arrived, one of the austrian girls was doing a cartwheel and landed on her foot awkwardly. she was taken to the hospital that night and we just learned today that she actually broke her foot. as sad as i am that she broke her foot i am also relieved that it happened on the last day. so there it is – we survived three days in the austrian mountains with 12 children and only one broken bone.

 

 

marriage in mariahilferstraße

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today isabelle and i went shopping in mariahilferstraße, a beautiful, old district that recently became pedestrian only. as we were crossing the street she pointed out how the pedestrian stop lights show couples walking together with a little heart between their heads. i thought this was so adorable that i took a photo. there are female couples, male couples, and male/female couples.

later in the day as we were walking out of a shop, a couple greeted us with a tape recorder and asked, “what do you think about marriage?”

without missing a beat, isabelle explained that she feels no need to get married any time soon but that she can understand why people feel the need to get married, especially if they are raising children.

i told them that i consider myself to be married currently but with less of the state, religious, or gender roles that so often come with marriage.

we asked them what they were using the interview for and they said simply, “an art project.” unfortunately there is no website yet. it would be interesting to read what other people in vienna have to say about marriage.

immediately after this interaction, i went to buy a coffee and while i was waiting in line i began chatting with the couple behind me. the man and woman, who were about my age, told me that they are getting married on wednesday this week. when i told them congratulations, the woman rolled her eyes and excused herself to the bathroom.

the man then said to me, “marriage. welcome to the beginning of the end.”

he said they were getting married in a huge old castle in vienna and that they had spent a ton of money and time planning it. well, he admitted, actually she has spent all of the time planning it. he said they are both extremely stressed out now that they are down to the last few days before the wedding.

“i’m sure it will be beautiful!” i said. i mean, really, A CASTLE WEDDING?!

“maybe.” he replied.

 

 

 

first impressions in vienna

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it is my first time in europe since i lived in the netherlands when i was 20 years old. i am now 28 years old and in a cultural exchange program called cisv (children’s international summer village) that was started in the 1950s as a way to build world peace through intercultural understanding. i travelled here with 6 incredible 12 year olds, for whom i have legal guardianship for the next 2 weeks. these 12 year olds are each staying with their own host family, and each host family also has a 12 year old child who has been paired with one of our US children.

i am staying with isabelle in the 13th district of vienna, in a flat nestled at the foot of a green mountain range. isabelle is a 24 year old student in a master of social work program who nannies 2 and 3 year old siblings, does promotions for the local erasmus student exchange network, and works part time in a chocolate store. her flat has large glass windows that open up to a small balcony overlooking the neighborhood. today at 5am this is where i currently sit, unable to sleep, writing this entry.

yesterday was my first day in vienna. i woke up around 8am short of breath, achy, and with a horrible cough. my first thought was pneumonia! i have pneumonia! i need antibiotics! so into the neighborhood i went, in search of a doctor.

i wandered into a pharmacy just one block away and asked where the nearest doctor was. i said i was worried that i might have pneumonia and that this cold had been getting worse over the last 2 weeks. the pharmacist at first said, “the closest hospital is 500 meters down the street” but when i asked what they would charge a foreigner, she said, “one moment, i’ll be right back” and disappeared into the rear of the shop. when she returned, she said, “come with me, there is a doctor here who will see you for free.”

in the waiting room i chatted with a woman who was wearing a purse with a large yellow kangaroo and the words “no kangaroos in austria.” she explained that it is common for foreigners to confuse austria with australia. i agreed with her, “before i came on this trip,” i said, “co-workers and neighbors were asking what i would be doing in australia!” she said that she even had people from the south of italy (a country which borders austria) who did not know the difference between australia and austria.

after seeing the doctor (who diagnosed me with bronchitis and prescribed me a decongestant) i wandered back into the streets of the 13th district to find a store where i could buy some toiletries and breakfast goods.

the things that interest me most when visiting a new place are often the most basic, common things. here, i notice how the street signs are bolted to the sides of apartment buildings, not on stand-alone posts on the sidewalk. cars actually stop when a pedestrian enters the crosswalk. manual transmission micro cars halt to a stop then sputter back into action before zipping down the street. also public bathrooms! on every other block. of course there are public bathrooms! what else are you supposed to do when nature calls?

large public bins for recycling on every street corner. no need to stash all of that recycling away in your apartment until the recycling truck comes to you. and old people! old people everywhere! walking around unassisted, carrying their groceries, bicycling with their grandchild, shopping, walking, getting around quite easily on these flat, walkable streets.

after purchasing my necessities, i began to feel achy, feverish, and weak. i considered stopping for a coffee at a busy cafe but the thought of espresso in my stomach made me nauseous. instead i hurried home to meet isabelle.

 

 

 

why I dropped a “free education now” banner at my University of Toronto graduation ceremony

In June 2013, I graduated with a Master’s degree in the Sociology of Education from the University of Toronto. At the graduation ceremony in Convocation Hall, I walked across the stage, shook hands with one of the deans, walked to the front of the stage and unzipped my graduation gown. I pulled each side of the gown open as far as I could, and let the 6 foot by 4 foot banner unfurl from my shoulders. It read “FREE EDUCATION NOW” in bold, red letters.

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At first, there was no response. I turned and faced the right side of the auditorium, then slowly turned to face the left side of the auditorium. I expected to be booed at and pulled off stage by security at any second, but what happened instead was remarkable.

As the room full of 1,500 people started to notice the banner, loud applause and cheering erupted. People pointed, waved, took pictures. But more than anything, they cheered and clapped. As I turned around to face the alumni and professors seated on stage, so that they too could see what the banner read, I saw confusion and shock, but what I remember seeing most were smiles. I turned around again to face the auditorium full of people, stood for a few seconds more, and then walked off stage to take my diploma which, to my surprise, was given to me.

Over the next few days, a photo of the banner drop was shared hundreds of times on Facebook and Twitter by student groups across Canada, the US, South America, and Europe. I saw a lot of supportive words and excitement, and I also saw some comments questioning the effectiveness of individual acts of protest.

Since then, I haven’t written about why I dropped the banner or what I hoped it would accomplish. I want to start off by saying that I was sure the spectacle in itself wouldn’t accomplish much, but that it would certainly generate visibility and discussion on the topic of free university tuition. On a personal level, it felt absolutely hypocritical to have spent my years at the University of Toronto discussing the benefits of free post-secondary education and the potential for education to be the single greatest equalizing force in society, only to silently accept my degree in education at one of the most expensive universities in the country, in the province with the highest tuition.

During my time at the University of Toronto, I was elected to represent the 14,000 graduate students at U of T on the executive of our Graduate Students’ Union (GSU). I took this job seriously and integrated it into most aspects of my academic work and personal life. While working for the GSU, I learned incredible lessons in student union organizing, mobilizing tactics, and how decisions are made at the University of Toronto. I organized campaigns, film screenings, talks, and delivered speeches to U of T’s highest decision making body, the Governing Council. I enjoyed my time with the GSU more than many things I’ve done in my life so far, and I will take those lessons learned with me throughout all I do.

While working for the GSU, I took courses at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education that focused on the role of education in society and how to improve this role. In a paper I wrote in 2012 for a graduate course on Frantz Fanon I discuss how broader understandings of violence can be used to further student union goals:

As a student union organizer, I am particularly interested in how students can employ a Fanonian understanding of violence that includes violence as spiritual, emotional, and mental. I wonder how we can develop a student movement that is concerned with large-scale social transformation rooted in both small and large acts. As Fanon writes in The Wretched of the Earth, “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it” (145). In relation to the present-day student movement then, we must understand our mission broadly as a struggle against the forces of the capitalist and colonial state.

I also wrote about the Quebec student movement and what lessons students in Ontario could learn from it:

The recent Quebec student movement is one of the most relevant examples of how local assemblies and direct forms of democracy can yield great successes for students. In response to the Liberal government’s proposal to implement an 82% tuition fee increase, residents of Quebec joined Quebec students in widespread strikes and protests that lasted for several months earlier this year. As a result of this mobilization, rooted entirely in local assemblies and direct democracy, Quebec students won on a number of fronts. Students in this province continue to pay the lowest tuition costs in Canada, and were also successful in overturning severe emergency legislation in the form of Bill 78, which passed to outlaw dissent.

Throughout my graduate degree, I spent time thinking about how student union organizing at U of T and throughout Quebec had succeeded in furthering anti-capitalist principles, but how it had failed, in large part, in furthering anti-colonial principles. Since my graduation ceremony, I have been paying attention to how student union organizing at U of T has taken on more active student involvement in university governance, and the degree to which local assemblies have been used as spaces for students to come together outside of the classroom to discuss the conditions of their study and to make binding decisions about how to transform these conditions.

The gains of the student movement at the University of Toronto and throughout Quebec are many. But it is only accurate to say that such gains were made as a result of revolutionary class politics resistance. Neither of these movements can purport to have had anti-colonial goals or been based on an anti-colonial pedagogy. In many instances, there was negotiation with the state and with university administrators and the focus of these negotiations was primarily on class-relations.

Since dropping that banner, I have been trying to re-imagine the function of the student union as integrally connecting class-based student demands to the larger context of a racist, patriarchal, and colonial settler state, all the while acknowledging the colonizing function of the university itself. Free education now would certainly be a step in the right direction, but even with that huge achievement, the struggle will have only started.

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