On the Three Kings’ Day – a noteable holiday in Austria, where I’ve been living for the past year, and where every Catholic holiday seems to be of importance, the day on which everyone throws away their Christmas trees – there was a ring at the door. It was one of those special kinds of rings that occurs so rarely, an upstairs ring, at the entrance to the flat, not at the entrance to the apartment building. Not downstairs, where one would expect a ring to come from someone who tries to get a hold of you. Do you know this feeling? When it rings and suddenly you feel a slight panic, a reluctance to interact, a fear of what they may want? Clearly, nothing good has ever come from an unannounced ring: Some inspector politely accusing you of avoiding payment of the mandatory contribution to the Austrian public radio and television broadcasting network (you don’t own a TV nor a radio), a maintenance worker releasing the built-up air in all the heaters in the building (he turns out to be only half successful, so you will have to call him back, and not sleep much, because of all the bubbling water noises), two Red Cross guys expecting contributions, a fireman expecting the same. I mean, usually nothing really terrible happens when it rings. Policemen came once, but I’d called them myself, when twenty or so drunken teenagers where jumping on the roof right above my head, refusing to leave. For now, there were no missionaries, no messengers with a court subpoena, no unit for migrant extradition, no Neo-Nazi paramilitaries. As an EU citizen, I am a legal immigrant. For now. I do believe I have all the paperwork sorted out, but somehow I can’t shake the feeling that some people could suddenly appear and point out that I’ve missed something, that the deadline for some crucial matter has already passed, that there is something inherently wrong with my living situation and that the time for consequences has arrived.
Sadly, my door doesn’t have a peephole. It could be something important, I said to myself, and so I opened it.
The three holy kings were standing in front of me.
That is to say, three children dressed as the three holy kings (plus a surprisingly cute guy about my age accompanying them, who, as I looked at him, somewhat awkwardly disappeared behind the corner). So, there we were: The three kings, the hidden guy, and me, who was certainly no Mary hiding a little Jesus. I knew right away that I didn’t have much to expect. I’d clearly found myself on the wrong side of the storyline. It was yet another ‘collecting’ scenario. The kings were soon to set forth bearing gifts for some children in Costa Rica, and so they went door to door to collect. They started singing, their voices cracking a little at first, then they got a little more courageous while I, still a bit shaky from the slowly-vanishing ring-fear, wasn’t the most enthusiastic audience. I tried to turn my surprised face into the least-forced smile I could muster, but was probably not doing so well, since their masked faces were simply too strange a sight. One of the boys was wearing blackface, while another happened to be black. So, whoever sent them on their way, had managed to keep the restraint of not typecasting the black boy as Balthazar, whilst honouring the good old Catholic tradition of black-facing a white boy.
And so, still grinning at their singing, I couldn’t but be amazed that, in front of me, there stood a small condensation of today’s Austria. The Austria where a blackface and a black face can harmoniously be placed side-by-side, performing a traditional Catholic charity ritual, to cosmetically lighten the socio-economic impact that the exploitation of the Global South has been causing, a mess in which this country partakes. On one hand, Austria has a much higher racial, ethnic and religious diversity than it did only a few decades ago. Integration and acceptance are high on the political agenda, postcolonial discourse seems to be the issue at universities, cultural and art institutions while, on the other hand, racism is not only omnipresent, but systematic and traditional, and Catholicism is an integral part of this system. Every other party in Vienna is supposedly a safe and queer space, where no intolerance or violence of any sort are tolerated, while they are, in fact, overrun with drunken and stuffy-nosed cis-twenty-somethings with their aggressive breeder mentality. Seemingly softened neo-fascists are in power again, this time overseeing all the country’s armed forces and intelligence agencies. The right-far-right government, of which they are a part, is announcing harsh new policies against refugees: Centralised living facilities, dispossession of all the money that they have on them, a temporary dispossession of mobile phones and a stern reduction of welfare. The planned dismantling of the social state is, of course, not limited only to them.
I gave the kids some money, had a quick glance at the cute guy, who’d briefly appeared at the end and gave me a smile, and was very glad to have closed and locked the door again. The next day, there where heaps of dried-up Christmas trees on every corner of the city. Small armies of garbage collectors were throwing the wooden cadavers into trucks and were sweeping the floor, littered with endless spruce needles.
There has been no ring since.