Happy Halloween – or else!


I always find it interesting to see everyday life from a different point of view. I had a pen pal from Austria (actually “e-mail pal” would be more accurate – this was the 90’s after all) named Astrid. I enjoyed hearing about life in Austria and her visits to France and England and Africa. I have never been to any of those places, so it was like having a personal tour guide.

In the fall of 1998, her travels took her to Chicago. Since she had been nice enough to tell me about all those far-off places, I felt the least I could do was show off the city I knew best.

Or thought I knew best.

Astrid and her friend had a book in German that listed all the points of interest in and around the city. Some of them I knew, but had never really bothered looking into. I took my first tour of Oak Park with Astrid, looking at the houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. We went up to the top of the Sears Tower. I hadn’t been up there since I was in high school for a field trip. They were amazed by Lake Michigan.

“It looks like the ocean!” they said as they took picture after picture. I tried to point out the sights I knew, but realized their book was much more informative. I knew my dad’s cousin worked on building the Sears Tower, but I had no idea which firm designed it. I always referred to the red steel sculpture in front of the Federal Building as the “boat anchor”. I didn’t know it had an actual name. They pointed out the statue on top of the Merchandise Mart. I had never noticed it before.

One of my neighbors in the suburbs liked to go all out decorating his house for the holidays. I think he owned stock in Menard’s. It was the week before Halloween and his house was surrounded by every spooky piece of plastic imaginable. There were spiders made of trash bags and webs made of polyester fiber fill. A fake cemetery covered the yard, complete with hokey jokey tombstones. Orange and purple pumpkin lights lined his downspouts and everything was covered in hay and lined with corn stalks. Astrid and her friend were amazed by this display and had no idea what it was about. Their guidebook was no help. It didn’t say anything about Halloween.

It was my chance to shine. I explained how Halloween worked in the United States. Basically, kids dress up in costumes. They can be whatever they want, though traditionally they tend to be something scary like a ghost or a vampire. They have bags for candy and they go from house to house shouting, “Trick or treat!”

I had to further explain as the idiom trick or treat didn’t seem to translate well into German. I said parents would give the kids treats, candy or some money, and then kids would go to the next house. If no one was home or they didn’t have any treats, the kids might play a prank on the house. They might cover the windows with soap or put toilet paper in the trees.

They nodded with understanding.   “It’s like blackmail!”

Uh, yeah. I had never thought of it like that before, but I had to admit they had a point.

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