Friday, March 02, 2007

Refugee, part 3: the living

Usually people who are going to the US stay in Vienna for a couple of weeks and then get sent to the next similar camp in Ladispoli, Italy, to wait for their visas for 2-3 months. My parents try to resist being sent there because grandpa is very sick and probably would not survive a train trip to Italy. We stay in Vienna for the whole three months.

Living in the refugee camp is quite enjoyable. It would not be a good place to stay permanently, but the three months are quite pleasant, or at least would be if grandpa did not try to die at least once a week. People who live there for a long time (mostly those who are waiting for Canadian visas) get tired of it after a while.

Joint pays for the rooms and for the medical care, and provides people with 45 shillings (about $4) per person per day for food, toilet paper and suchlike. They also give us a small lump sum in the beginning for the public transportation, but the weather in nice and we are not in a hurry, so we walk instead. The money is given for a week at a time, in cash, and then you have to come back for more.They also tell us where the flea market is (at Naschmarkt), and tell us about the place where a Finnish Eeva keeps a charity for Jewish (and sometimes goyish) refugees. They also tell us that the tourist info at Karlsplatz gives people free maps if they ask. The concept of free maps was very strange to me.

The culture shock is vast but not unpleasant, especially since we have time just to hang out and look at things. Hairy potatoes fascinate me, and at some point I see half of one (they are called kiwis) at the market and it turns out to be bright green inside and not a potato at all. I ask the seller how to eat it and buy one.

A few days after we come to Vienna grandpa gets sick. We have a phone in the apartment, but it works only for the incoming calls, so mom and I run outside to the payphone. The emergency number people speak no English, so we explain to them "Mein Grossvater Hertz Schmertz" in our best German and give them the address. They arrive in a couple of minutes and take grandpa to a hospital.

The hospital is just a few blocks away. There is a real live nun (only seen them in the movies before) sitting at the reception desk. I get a bit scared, suspecting that they only treat by prayers. Which was not all that far from the truth, after all.

The nun speaks English and asks me stuff about the grandpa. When she asks religion, I hesitate for a second. Grandpa is Jewish but the closest he'd ever been to Judaism is drinking up uncle Zyama's Passover wine. Do I say Jewish or atheist or what? After half a second of thinking I realize that saying "atheist" might earn poor grandpa a chat with a Catholic priest and say "Jewish". She writes "mosaische". I wonder whether "judische" has become a dirty word here after Nazis, or whether "mosaische" just sounds fancier to them, or whether they actually think that Jews believe in Moses.

Grandpa spends all his time in the hospital on the following schedule: they release him a week after admission, and we take him home. The next morning he is sick again and we call an ambulance, which comes and takes him to the hospital for a week. The treatment is very unimpressive - we kind of expected better in the West - but at least everything is clean, everyone is polite and the soup does not contain a genuine human ear, unlike in one hospital where he was treated in Russia.

More friends and acquaintances of ours arrive every week. They tell us that in the few weeks since we left the sugar became something that you can only buy with ration cards.

Austrians are fairly nice, at least the ones I've met. Many of them don't speak English though. There is a fair lot that speak French, surprisingly enough, but my own French was not very good back then. These people are unfortunately not blessed with a sense of direction, and it's usually pointless to ask anyone how to get anywhere. They scratch their heads and pull out a map, and they can't find anything on the map anyway, so your only chance is to take a look at the map yourself. Never seen a nation so topographically challenged.

Some of them disapprove of us. The most commonly voiced reason for disapproval is, quite amazingly, that socialism is great and we just left Russia because we did not understand it. I note that none of the people who say so (several Austrians and one Israeli) are in any hurry to the Socialist Workers' Paradise. Some people, especially in the hospital, also say that if we were good people we would not drag the old people around with us through the refugee camp but first build a new life in the new place and then have them come over. That is interesting, because both in the US and in Finland people more often tend to disapprove of refugees who leave their old people behind in the old country.

I got a job in Joint, as an English-Russian interpreter for sick Russian refugees in hospitals. I have no idea why they wanted me, for doctors usually did not speak any English and patients usually were in such a condition that they could not speak anything at all. Interpreting between non-English-speaking doctors and unconscious patients is not easy. They pay 35 shillings ($3) per hour, including trips to the hospitals (trips back are on our own time).

My boss in Joint is Sylvia, a 23-year-old student of Russian language and culture. Her Russian language was excellent; her knowledge of Russian culture apparently needed some work, because Russians were fooling her every way they could and usually she did not realize that.

For example, Joint decided that they are not paying for people's glasses anymore, except in extreme circumstances. A man comes to Sylvia's office:

"Help, help! My dog ate my glasses!"
"Oh my god! Do you need a veterinarian?"
"No, no, but I need new glasses! And can my wife have new glasses too while we are at it?"

I am amazed how Sylvia could stand us all.

Another amazing person was Eeva. She was keeping a place that helped refugees with clothing and stuff. She was a Finnish woman in her fifties, blond and what Finns call "kukkahattut├Ąti". Usually she was alone in her office or with another woman, but on bigger occasions there were other kukkahattut├Ądit. She provided refugees with second-hand clothes and kitchenware. Sometimes she also showed us movies, and she had a sewing machine for us to use, and she also gave out religious literature (holy books, both Christian and Jewish) to whoever wanted it.

You could come there any time and pick clothes from a pile. The better clothes and kitchenware was kept out of view, and you had to ask for it, so the people who knew what they wanted got better stuff than the ones who were just browsing. Some people would just take anything and sell it at a flea market.

We saw a movie there once. Before the movie there were many rolls of toilet paper in the toilet. After the movie there were none: refugees stole everything.

Refugees also stole Eeva's sewing machine. After that Eeva prayed to her god for help, and her god saw the suffering of this righteous woman and sent her a humongous sewing machine that no number of refugees would be able to carry out of the building.

Our friend Marina comes with her family. She speaks very good German, and immediately gets a job as an interpreter in Joint, and hopes that it would help her to stay in Vienna rather than being sent to Italy. Joint bureaucrats send her to Italy anyway, thus getting rid of their one and only functional German interpreter.

While Marina is still in Vienna, she comes to grandpa's hospital to interpret for him. She tells the doctors he is her uncle. Before that the doctors discharged him every week, conversed with me in broken English and French, and always mentioned Jesus and his possible help without actually doing much useful. My parents say that that's because he is a poor refugee. In any case, after Marina shows up the attitude changes magically. I am not sure whether it's because she speaks good German, or because she is "frau Professor" or why, but now he is a "worthy patient". Not that it does that much good anyway, but at least some.

My own work is rather absurd at times. Once they call me and tell me to go to the hospital in the middle of nowhere (right outside ot Vienna) to interpret for the woman named Livia. In a cab, no less, and in a hurry, because Livia is not making sense to the doctors. I get there, and of course Livia is not making any sense: she is stark raving mad, and is very close to a diabetic coma on top of that, which they can see without talking to her. They are giving her insulin already. She tells me that everyone is conspiring to kill her and that her diabetes is the result of deliberate poisoning by antisemitic neighbors. She also tells me to call her sister in New York collect and tell her about it. I do that in the evening, and the sister sounds like a perfectly sensible person.

There are all the kinds of sick people in the refugee camp: the two that I especially remembered was a woman with one lung, who had lung cancer and smoked like a chimney; her husband had been murdered some years ago, and she was going to Washington, DC, in order to bring her son to her friends and die; the second one was a woman from Gomel who had gotten a good dose or radiation; instead of temporarily losing her hair, like most people do under the circumstances, she has grown hair all over, including a beard and moustache that would put Fidel Castro to shame.

In fact pretty much all the misery I see in the camp comes from people being physically sick, in the ways that are either unfixable or beyond the local medical care.

Since we are staying in Vienna for 3 months we get Alien Passports, valid for 6 months.

The interview in the US Consulate is rather uneventful and seems to be routine for them. Jews? Yes. Discriminated? Yes. Are you some kind of bad guys (criminals, terrorists, etc.)? No. OK, you may go, and then go to that address for a medical checkup. There is one guy at the consulate who picks out interesting people for individual interviews on scientific topics. My father is an interesting person; the rest of us aren't.

The medical checkup picks out contagious diseases and retarded children. The US does not want the retarded, and they have to go somewhere else or stay in Austria.

Our landlady, the woman who rents our apartment to Joint, has bought the apartment next to ours and decided to make one big apartment out of them. We get new neighbors: a family from Vilnius, a family from around Moscow, and a Bulgarian family who ran away from Mosambique. They are one of the few non-Jewish families served by HIAS and Joint. HIAS picked them up because there are no refugee organizations specifically for Bulgarians, because there are so few Bulgarian refugees. Bulgaria is very hard to get out of, harder than Russia. That is, if you are trying to go to the West. If you are going to some socialist paradise shithole, they let you.

Nikolai and Elena (the Bulgarian couple - they also had a small child and somebody's mother with them) and their family went to work in Mosambique, which is a shithole of such epic proportions that even a Bulgarian has to see it to believe it. If you are a foreign worker, Mosambique does not suck quite as much as for the locals. They pay a Bulgarian 5 times less than to his or her Portuguese colleagues, but still much more than to locals and much more than a Bulgarian gets in Bulgaria.

After arriving in this particular socialist paradise they started planning an escape. Originally they planned to walk over the border to Swaziland, but then there was too many robbers and gangsters on and around the border. Then they switched to a more expensive plan B, which Nikolai actually discussed in the local US consulate, in order to go in which he had to paint his face black. The people in the consulate told them to fly to Europe and to use HIAS's help, which they did.

The money that I earn in Joint is enough to afford an ice cream a couple of times a day, a couple of books, and a tank top. My parents also save a bit of Joint food money so that we can go to museums. In general when I am not at work and the grandpa is not in any kind of acute distress we spend most of our time doing a budget tourist thing and checking out the city and its various tourist attractions. We can't afford theatre or a movie or a cafe, but the museums are cheap and one can always buy ice cream from a store and sit down with it in a park.

In general the refugee camp is quite a pleasant memory for me. There are much worse ways to spend a summer.

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