August 11, 2016
… was never as nice as what our waitress had on.
Our waitress Rosi always looked great, carrying all that food and drink to keep us happy, never spilling so much as a dollop of sauce down the front of the starched dirndls she wore. She must have had a closet full of these dirndls –red, green, brown, black versions of the Austrian national costume with its hug-me-tight bodice and full pleated skirt. This is a very corny garment, a dirndl, channelling Disney, oom-pah bands and that creepy strain of Nazi gemutlichkeit – think Eva Braun at play on the terraces of Berchtesgaden – but Rosi, a non-Austrian, managed to make it look cool.
The brown was her favourite, she told me (intimacy is inevitable with the person who knows all your dietary quirks – your preferred brand of vodka, your anxiety about meat touching veg) and the night she wore it you could see why: the color was perfect with her dark hair and eyes and the olive cast to her skin. Rosi is Greek. Every year she comes over to Austria to work the ski season, November through March. There are no jobs back in Greece, not since the economy tanked in 2008, and with the Austrian locals disinclined to take on those 12-hour shifts, six days a week, five months a year, Rosi’s annual migration is a win-win for everyone – not least the 18 of us in our corner of the dining room, cranky as toddlers after our day on the slopes.
In contrast to Rosi, we did not look great. The men shaved for dinner and one of the women showed some éclat with her nicely tailored trousers, but she was the exception and it was clear to anyone who bothered to notice that the rest of us were living out of not very promising suitcases. By the second night I was back in my old black jeans and, for a dash of color, the big red bruise I got when I tumbled off the tow lift. Of the younger members of the party, the boys came down to dinner in t-shirts and football jerseys and our last meal there two of the girls – my daughter was one of them – showed up in helmets and ski goggles. We were having fun, and we were noisy, voracious and confident that whatever we needed, Rosi would deliver.
We left Austria and Rosi’s care the end of March. Three months later the UK voted to leave the European Union. Come October it seems Austria may do the same: a far-right candidate named Norbert Hofer is predicted to win the re-run of the presidential election there. Hofer’s an extreme Euro-sceptic, with an extreme anti-immigration agenda –a Marine Le Pen without the awkward father. In the global context, Hofer’s expected win is a disquieting prospect: xenophobic, isolationist and a return to the kind of nationalism that in a country like Austria has nasty implications. On a personal level, it’s even more worrying. I’m not worried about Rosi – she’s a natural survivor, one of those people who’ll do fine wherever she ends up and look great in whatever national costume she’s required to wear — but I am worried for us, for me. If Hofer shuts the borders and boots out the immigrant workforce, then who’s going to put up with me in matters pertaining to vodka and the proximity of meat to veg? Every nation on earth, immigrants represent the group that works harder than any other, the group that, traditionally, will go the extra mile. That’s why employers hire them.
Hofer just hasn’t thought this one through.