El Pasoan: “Where are you from?”
Me: “From Austria.”
El Pasoan: “Oh, Down Under!”
Me: “No, it’s the other Australia in Europe, Austria.”
The above dialog ranks only second in my list of favorite responses from El Pasoans after they hear where I am from. Nevertheless, it serves well to illustrate not only how many Austrians there are in El Paso, but moreover how important a role our tiny little country plays on the world stage. And yet surprisingly, the land of the Lederhosen and the mountains, located at the heart of Europe, has airports; and if you don’t mind changing planes several times, one can travel from Vienna to El Paso, which I have done at least three times within the last two years.
My special relationship to the city in the desert on the U.S./Mexico border started to take shape in August 2007 when I first arrived in El Paso via the International Study Exchange Program as a regular 22-year-old exchange student.
After a month or so of experiencing severe cultural shock and asking myself whether I had really been sent to a place within the United States, I started to regard this city as the single most fascinating place I had ever been to —both from a personal perspective as well as from a professional perspective (I am a graduate student of geography).
People are without exception, the most welcoming kind I could ever have imagined and it was not hard at all after a relatively short period of time to call El Paso a second home; a second home populated with people that I would describe as extremely polite, respectful and hospitable. Maybe I should have written the last word in capital letters to express my gratitude toward so many people that helped me feel comfortable in a place that is very different from where I am from —and I do not only mean the heat and Jalapeños.
From a geographical viewpoint, the El Paso/Ciudad Juárez international metroplex is undoubtedly one of the most intriguing places on earth. The significance of El Paso del Norte for both the U.S. and Mexico has long been documented by various scholars and writers across a broad range of disciplines.
I, too, had a chance to take a closer look at what some scholars refer to as the “crossroads,” after I had been given the chance to stay in El Paso to do an internship with the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at UTEP. That was during the fall semester of 2008 and it was also this internship that sparked my interest in the present research, my master’s thesis titled “El Paso – A Buffer between Two Worlds,” for which I had returned to El Paso from Sept. 14 to Oct. 6. (What year?) Right now, besides writing this blog-entry, I am transcribing the seemingly never-ending expert interviews that I conducted during this latest rendezvous with El Paso.
The pictures that I took of the colonias —waiting in the form of a little icon on the desktop of my computer to be orderly enumerated and stored— take me back to the field trips I undertook and remind me of my shamefully limited knowledge of Spanish.
Now I am back in the land of the Lederhosen and the mountains, far away from the colonias, which certainly add to the special buffer-character that El Paso embodies (at least 30 percent of which lack even basic infrastructure). I am far away from the United States and far away from Mexico and my Mexican friends. It has been two days since I returned and I miss El Paso already. And I do not mean just the heat and Jalapeños.
This short text was just a quick introduction of who I am and what I did in El Paso. In the next entries I will provide you with a few anecdotes as far as my personal life in El Paso. Of course, I will also give away a few more things about my master’s thesis. Also, I will do my best to post my view as an almost-outsider of some issues currently affecting the lives of El Paso borderlanders. If there is anything you would like to know about what it feels like for an Austrian in El Paso, or if there are any comments or questions concerning my thesis (what do you think about my conceptualization of El Paso as a buffer?) or my view of certain El Paso-related topics, I would be more than glad to pick them up in the next entry of this blog.
P.S.: In the last few days of my most recent stay in El Paso a person came up to me and asked me where I was from. Her reaction to my saying I am from Austria is the unchallenged number one of the responses I have gotten from people so far: “How is the weather DOWN there?”