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The elusive male smile
Sometimes it finds us
The school year here in Vienna lasts until July, and I am still recovering. Compared to almost everyone, we had an easy time of it: no one in the immediate family had covid; more often than not the kids had physical school; and the program for home schooling was reasonable. Still, it was a slog. I recuperated from an earlier illness, taught my normal load of classes, wrote and spoke a fair bit, and did some public work. But my greatest achievement, from my own point of view, was getting the kids through the school year.
That's true every year, actually, but this year especially so. Thanks to covid, I realized how much I lean on other people. It was odd not knowing the other moms and dads in my children's classes. I am by no means an exemplary school dad even at the best of times; I am more the guy who asks dumb questions about things the better parents figured out long ago. I do like to share a smile in the morning with other people who have some of the same challenges in their day, and are at the same point in their routine.
As a foreigner with kids in a new school, I had a lot to learn. The schedules were complicated, and the school complex was big, with various gates from which the kids would emerge somewhat unpredictably, at least for me. I never quite got on top of the five electronic systems used to deliver school information. Because of covid, none of the parent meetings were held in person, so I couldn't just borrow from the experience of others. Since I didn't know the other parents from my kids' classes, I couldn't pester them in the morning by the schoolyard; in any event, most of them wouldn't have been there.
Because this is Vienna, most kids were getting to school by themselves. Children are allowed to ride the subway by themselves from the age of six, and many are doing so by third or fourth grade. Elementary school ends here in fourth grade; what we think of as fifth grade is already the first year of something very much like high school. At that point, at the age of ten, kids are expected to be able to move around the city by themselves. This relieves parents of the role of chauffeurs, and lifts some of the stress between them and their children.
My kids get around by themselves pretty well, but I took them to school each morning anyway. It was a nice walk back, or, covid permitting, an occasion to sit outside at a café across from the school, take a deep breath or two, and work. Each day I crossed paths with the same family groups. So the urban morning was a little like a scene from the movie Groundhog Day: after getting off the train, I saw the same people at the same places and times around the school. I never had a watch or a phone, but I knew whether I was early or late by where I intersected whom.
I got smiles from a mom every now and again. Fathers get extra credit for showing up. With the other dads it was trickier. About half of the accompanying parents were fathers. Every day I crossed paths with a guy in a blue suit, dressed for work, accompanying his teen-aged son. The kid grew four inches during the year. The dad was neat, the son was tousled, but they had the same dark glinting eyes. Some days they both stared angrily forward into space; usually they were in animated conversation. I got a look ahead at adolescence, and admired the father for spending that time every day with his son. It didn't seem easy. On none of the hundred or so mornings when I passed them did I make eye contact with either, let alone share a smile.
For some reason, when I think of the male smile, I think of three Czechs. The first novel I read in Czech was Jaroslav Hašek's Good Soldier Švejk, where the main character, a soldier in the First World War, apparently bumbling and foolish, stays out of danger and evades authority. He is always smiling, but people are rarely smiling at him. Švejk is a perplexing book; one reason it came to be regarded as a classic was its support by the Czech philosopher Karel Kosík, who spent the last months of the Second World War at the camp at Theresienstadt. Kosík spoke of an "everyday smile" as a form of recognition: I can reach you, and you can reach me. Václav Havel, the Czech dissident, playwright, and president, had a beautiful melancholic smile. The last time I saw it was in a bar, over a glass mug of beer.
Another father I saw near the school just about every day had a colorful range of suits and socks. Like most of these dads, like me, he was dressed for work. I think we smiled at each other once. My smile at him meant something like: "you are carrying a girl's purple backpack," and his return smile meant "you are, too." A third father did smile at me a few times, because he recognized me. Eventually he introduced himself, and we talked from time to time.
One father and mother (whether a couple or friends I don't know) hung out together every day by a public phone near the entrance to the elementary school part of the complex. They would stand there and quaff coffee and smoke cigarettes and talk with their hands, as if getting kids to school was an achievement. I liked that, since I have the same feeling. I never spoke to them, though, until the last week of school, when the routine was different, and I wasn't sure where I should be waiting to pick up the kids. The mom had figured out the communications, and had the information was on her phone. The dad gave me a smile before I hurried over to the other gate.
One striking thing about Austrian public life, at least for an American, is the routine presence of the disabled. Each morning I saw the same disabled woman, who followed the same route on her walk every day. In the tiny parking lot by one of the school entrances, a driver of a little bus awaited, each day, a group of young disabled people, whom he would take out for trips. At the café by the school, there would sometimes be a reservation for ten or twelve people, on five or six tables pushed together. This meant that a couple of counselors were bringing a group for breakfast. When they arrived, most of the disabled folks would be smiling: it's nice to be outside in the morning, it's nice to be able to ask for breakfast and have someone bring it to you.
During that last week of school, I did a lot of hustling back and forth between the gates. On my way from one to another I approached the driver of the little bus. He was masked up, and holding a young person by the hand. From behind I could see his boss, who was giving orders in a loud voice. Without thinking I gave the driver a big smile, and he gave me a big smile back, right through the mask.
And it occurred to me that the elusive male smile had been my own.