Halfway into our fourth round of beer, Christian asked me how my orientation in St. Pölten had gone. We were standing at a table in the basement of Pinkafeld’s town museum, where a two-man band played Cat Stevens and chugged glasses of white wine that were refilled zealously by the museum staff and audience. Next to us stood Christian’s wife Elke and their friends, all nodding to the strumming of the acoustic guitar strings, chatting with the others while eating chocolate pastries, or running over to the concession stand for more bottles of Puntigamer. Cases of the beer could be seen stacked behind the tables of the concession stand, and we had constructed a skyline out of beer bottles on our table. Saturday evening had turned into Sunday morning eleven minutes ago, but the packed basement and the murmurs that echoed off its walls told me that people were just getting started.
“Dumpster fire,” I responded.
“Dumpster fire? Fantastic! How so?” I looked at Christian’s eager face, and then leaned back from our table and cuddled my Puntigamer close to my chest before diving into the details.
The other teaching assistants and I had arrived in St. Pölten, the capital of Niederösterreich, last Monday to take up residence in a bourgeois hostel for a week to learn the etiquettes of teaching in Austria. Having gone out drinking the night before, we drifted into a musty room on the second floor of the building on Tuesday morning. Standing next to the desk at the front of the classroom was our workshop teacher, Gabi Rekani.
Gabi circled the class without saying a word while we chatted with our neighbors and displayed the kind of congeniality that could only be seen at an orientation full of nervous acquaintances. Gabi’s entire outfit was focused around the part of the color wheel between pink and yellow: her red heels clacked against the wooden floor, her bright, yellow hair bobbed atop her orange face, and the pink blouse she wore clung too tightly onto her body. After a few minutes, she glided back to the front of the classroom and fired up the projector. Behind her, the projector screen displayed two lines that read, “Teaching Assistant Workshop” and “Frau Mag. Gabi Rekani.” The teaching assistants stopped talking and awaited an introduction. Gabi then asked if any of the teaching assistants wanted to know why her last name was not an Austrian name. One of the assistants decided to be polite and said that we would. Gabi smiled, nodded her head a couple of times, and clasped her freckled hands together near her waist.
“My husband, you see, he was a Kurdish refugee. Actually, I suppose I should say ex-husband. I had met him when I was very young – I was twenty at the time, too young of an age to have gotten married, really – and the Austrian government instructed me that, well, as long as he was with me, they would allow him to stay. So we got married. He used me for immigration purposes, essentially, because after thirty years, we ended up divorcing.”
I had looked around at the class to gauge my classmates’ reactions. An assistant from Ireland grimaced, and an OU-grad had sunk deeper into her chair. Kaight, one of the assistants I had befriended yesterday, kept her gaze focused onto Gabi and mouthed, “What the fuck.”
Christian stopped me to take a moment to laugh out loud.
“You’re making this up,” he chided me.
“Everything I’ve said is true, except for the parts that aren’t.”
“Fine, fine. Another beer?” I shrugged, and he ran off to grab another round for the table. The band had just finished playing “Supergirl,” and they set down their instruments to take a short break and mingle with the townsfolk who had gathered for the Lange Nacht Der Museen.
The Lange Nacht Der Museen, or “The Long Night of Museums,” took place in other parts of Austria as well, but in Pinkafeld, where almost a tenth of the town’s residents are members of the Museum Club, families dropped by to enjoy an evening with their neighbors and to let the kids go on a tour of the museum in the dark. The tour, led by Christian, showed off the heavy machinery that was used by the textile industry that flourished in the town before and after World War II as well as the history of Pinkafeld’s illustrious volunteer fire department. Each room of the museum displayed the ornate plaques covered in rust, the silver trophies with German cursive inscribed at the bases, and the proud but moldy mannequins that wore military and civil service outfits from Pinkafeld’s past that few remembered but the children ogled and admired. Outside, one of the barns had been converted into an exhibit room, and black-and-white photos of women weaving cloth hung on the wall next to hand-drawn illustrations that instructed young women on the proper use of looms.
After Christian had returned, expertly carrying the noses of the bottles between the fingers of both hands, I asked how long the Long Night of the Museums had been going on for. He answered that this was its sixteenth year in Austria.
“It’s great, isn’t it?”
The band members had returned to their seats and were adjusting the strings on their guitars. A hairy, elderly man sitting near the back of the basement and wearing a traditional Austrian jacket requested “Supergirl” again. One of the singers, Bernhard, told him to keep his pie-hole shut because they were now going to play the good stuff – the Austrian classics. The old man laughed, and the crowd cheered.
“Yeah, it is.”
“So, what else did your workshop instructor mention about her personal life? I’m assuming that next she told your class about her and her husband’s sex life?”
One of Christian’s friends who had overheard what he had just said looked over at us and interjected in German, “Sex life in marriage? No such thing!” The entire table heard the interjection and broke out in laughter.
As the night went on, friends bid farewell to neighbors and the museum began to quiet down. Having pushed their bedtime and now ready to go home, sleepy children held their parents’ hands or nodded off on the adults’ backs as families drifted out past the green, gated entrance. The band had stopped playing using sheet music; they belched out songs of home and childhood near the stairwell, where we sat on rickety tables and chairs that we had dragged from another room. The wine and the beers had finally run out, and we swayed to the beat as the guitar strings crooned and twanged early into the morning.