Monday, December 20, 2010

Snow Days

Last week, Salzburg shivered in below-freezing temperatures all week. Snow covers the mountains and fields, buildings and monuments and, here on Katzenstraße, despite repeated shovelling, the street. The six-hundred metre walk to the bus stop is icy in places, deep in snow in others, and, on the main street that the city keeps salted, slushy. On Thursday, cold and tired, I stayed home rather than take my packages to the post office.

Still, it is beautiful. The towering trees in the wood next to the house are layered white on brown. There is a six-inch cushion of white covering the weathered timbers of the car port next to the house. The birds I feed – mainly blue tits and blackbirds – flit in under the high wide eaves over the veranda and perch briefly and then fit back to the snow-laden branches, which then bob and dislodge clumps of snow that fall to the white carpet underneath. Sometimes squabbles arise between the birds, and they squawk and swoop toward the thick beams supporting the eaves. Wednesday, a female blackbird and a blue tit got into it. The blackbird flew off toward the wood, the tit flew into the window pane with a great bang. It remained, nearly motionless, on the tiles for a long time, occasionally tipping its head as if to reassure itself – or me, anxious watcher – that it had survived and was just regaining its full senses.

Despite the cold, I did go to the Altstadt that morning to run a few errands and, mainly, to wander the city, taking in the sight of its buildings and monuments under the stark contrast of snow and dull sky, on the one hand, and the bright lights and brilliant Christmas decorations, on the other. On Wednesday morning, the Advent markets were not as crowded as they are on the weekends. The small wooden huts, brightened with colourful merchandise, signs and lights, fill the Domplatz and the Residenzplatz. Along the long stretch of Altermarkt stand a row of back-to-back stalls selling food and – everywhere – glühwein, each stall representing one of many social or service organisations. My favourite sells bosna, long thin spicy sausages heated in an electric frying pan and served on a long narrow bun with onions, mustard and a sprinkle of curry powder. I wolfed one down, eating rapidly, bare hands chapped and red, stamping my feet in the snow, as I tried to keep blood flowing. It was barely lunchtime, a bit early, but the glühwein, hot and spicy, went down well too.

I took a few minutes to wander through the old cemetery behind Stiftkirche St Peter. The icy path and cold didn’t encourage me to linger. The graves, usually bright with greenery and flowers, lay covered in snow. Snow clung settled into the crevices of the upright iron grave markers. Still, the dead were not forgotten. A wreath of tightly woven red berries was dusted with snow as it lay on one grave. In front of another, a couple in their late sixties had stopped; the man solemnly crossed himself and took off his hat as the woman waited at his side. Behind the grill of one of the family tombs stood a Christmas tree decorated with red tinsel and bulbs.

Inside the dim porch of the church itself, an old beggar sat by the door, his hat extended. It is his place; I’ve seen him there before. Past the second set of door, pale light shone through the windows at the top of the vaulted nave and illuminated the white ceiling with its green rococo mouldings. I sat for a while, letting the peace of the pure light wrap me as it descended on the dark paintings and gaudy life-sized statues of saints. It barely penetrated the dim recesses behind the piers and the dark wood of the confessionals, pews and kneelers.

Before leaving the Altstadt, I visited the Advent market in the Sternplatz. The smallest of the several markets, it is my favourite with its selection of wooden ornaments, hand painted sculptures, woollen hats, sheepskin gloves and pure wool socks, pashminas and more. I got chatting with the woman at the stall selling glühwein. It turns out she is the manager of this market and she sells some of the handmade hats. It also turns out she lived in the same area of Los Angeles 25 years ago when Himself and I lived there too. (She recognised me by the Trader Joe’s bag I  had on my arm.) I bought one of her hats but passed on the glühwein; one was enough.

Standing in the crowd at the bus stop I was tired and cold, wanting to get home and warm again. The pavement at our feet was not just slushy. In places there was brown nearly freezing water an inch or so deep. I was careful to stand back from the kerb because as the buses approached, they splashed dirty water up over the footpath, calling to mind Ezra Pound’s bitter parody of the Medieval song. Behind us, the Salzburg flowed sluggishly northward as white gulls swooped and shrieked, sounding like quarrelling and crying children. Even the beauty of the pastel coloured fin d’siecle buildings on the opposite bank, like jewels swathed in elegant white, were not compensation for the cold.

Looking at the dirty water under feet, I saw a pair of feet that were remarkable for not being booted like the rest. A woman’s, they wore only a pair of thin patent leather flat shoes, quite pointed at the toe, and no socks or stockings. The bare flesh flushed red. Why? I wondered, would someone go out like that in freezing temperature.

The bus arrived; I stamped my ticket and found a seat by a window. As I made to sit down, a tall thin woman, in her late seventies if not older, approached it too. I hesitated; she hung back. Then I sat down in the window seat and she in the one next to me. As I settled in and adjusted the packages on my lap, I looked down. She wore black patent pointed leather shoes and no socks.

Looking at her hands, I realised she wore no gloves either. She had on a light-weight quilted rust-coloured coat and a hat made of fur. But she wore no scarf and the sweater at the open neck of her coat was thin.

Why? Again I wondered. I studied her thick-knuckled fingers, chafed looking as she held them in front of her. Looking sidelong at her face, I worried. She stared steadily ahead, erect, self-contained and seeming independent but also, somehow, frail, bird-like, vulnerable.

I wanted to tell her she mustn’t be out in the weather without proper shoes, warm stockings and gloves. She needed a scarf. Impulsively, I wanted to speak to her. In fact, it may have been only my inability to speak German that stopped me. What would I have said, anyway? In what world does a stranger admonish an adult about dressing warmly, however kindly meant. No more than rushing to the aid of the stunned bird earlier would my interference have accomplished anything.

As we approached my stop, I made to stand, and she turned her thin legs sideways to let me out. With my back to the door I watched her, noting the protective way she held her cheap handbag to her side, still gazing steadily ahead. Then the bus shuddered to a stop, the doors opened, and I stepped carefully onto the crusted, snowy kerb.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Er kommt!

The other night Himself and I stood with a small crowd that began to gather at 5 pm at the top of Linzergaße. Having strolled up the gently rising street, past its shops glittering with clothing and shoes, past the small markets with trays of candied fruit coloured like shining marbles, past its small cafes and Konditoreis with their pastries and gühlwein, we shivered in the cold and waited anxiously. From a tiny courtyard at the end of a narrow alley near where we stood we heard the occasional deep knell of several iron bells, about the timber of a large cow bell.

‘Er kommt.’

‘Who comes?’

‘Der Krampus kommt.’

The sound of the bells grew more frequent and more insistent; the excitement of the crowd swelled as more people crowded in; my tension rose. I had heard the Krampus is truly frightening.

‘I don’t see why people take their children,’ someone had said. ‘It’s too terrifying.’

She was right, of course. Which is precisely the point, at least traditionally. The Krampus is St Nikolaus’ counterpart, a threat, the awful consequence of what may happen if child or adult is not good. In this part of the world the passive threat – a lump of coal, the absence of gifts, the punishment of void – does not suffice. The Krampus is an active presence, come to scourge with chains and punish with birch rods.

The clamour from the bells suddenly increased over a tumult of voices as a red figure appeared in the entrance of the alley. It was St Nikolaus dressed – appropriately enough for a saint – in a red cassock with a bishop’s mitre. In Austria, St Nikolaus is still a church man.

On either side of the saint were two ghouls covered in pale-grey fur. Small in stature, they didn’t grab my attention because I was riveted by the other figures rushing out of the narrow gap. Tall – no giant – figures covered in shaggy dark fur like Chewbacca, they had his slump-shouldered massiveness. But these were monsters with enormous heads over which rose horns in high, wide arcs, thick and spear-like. From the shadows they poured into the street, the clanging of their iron bells raucous and insistent. They rushed toward those of us watching, brandishing thick switches, pushing their way into the crowd. One of them came straight at me, extended a claw at me, grabbed my head, then forced my face into his hairy chest. My hat askew, my glasses shoved into my face, I shrieked with genuine alarm. Others of the creatures loomed, arms thrust forward, threatening, as they stormed the waiting crowd.

One of their troop, however, taller and even more fierce, emerged from the shadows riding a wickerwork chariot pulled by two smaller beasts. Its face was illuminated by an open fire burning in a bucket suspended from the curved rim of the chariot, a horned skull hung from the front. The other ten or fifteen Krampuses weaved and bobbed around the chariot, darting into the crowd then back again, bells jarring, stamping their feet, jumping and lunging at those of us watching. Hurling themselves at the crowd, occasionally one would skid in the icy slush-covered pavement and, almost gracefully, on huge feet, ski along the street for a metre or so. But always they kept moving, jostling and shoving, their rictus-like faces glaring like the demons of nightmares.

St Nikolaus and his escorts had moved away down the street and the band of Krampuses surrounding the chariot-mounted leader followed in rag-tag fashion. Behind them, another escort of red-jacketed security volunteers and uniformed Polizei formed a line, the security volunteers linking hands to form a cordon to keep the watchers from engulfing the Krampus troop. Slowly we all moved down the narrow street, lit by dangling Christmas lights. The baroque steeple of St Sebastian’s church gleamed serenely against the black sky; below, accompanied by their strident bells, the fiend-like creatures circled the chariot in a frenzy, faces in fixed grimaces, claws pointed into the crowd. The crowd, held back by the security patrol, gathered and heaved behind them.

Despite the press at my back, despite my alarm at both the creatures and the crowd, I was fascinated, drawn forward. Linking hands, Himself and I shouldered our way forward, not wanting to lose sight of the spectacle. I stared at the intricate masks, each one distinctive in its artfulness. Open mouths with permanent leers revealed fangs. Snout-like noses were squashed with gaping nostrils. Ears were pointed or wing like or torn and shredded. A tongue protruded from a lurid grin; bulging obscenely, it skewed sideways. Some masks were dark or dun; others had complexions of lurid colours – red, green, yellow and orange. The large, globe-like bells, strapped so they hung on the creatures’ backs just above the buttocks, appeared obscene at times, like protruding bulbous baboon bottoms.

On we pushed, the tribe of Krampuses keeping a frenetic beat, the clamour of the bells and primordial dance, round and round. Every few paces the vortex of swirling bodies, bells, chariot and fire stopped while the monsters turned outward to the watching crowd. We filled the narrow way, surging and swelling as we went. On either side of the street rose five-story and six-story faded pastel buildings from the 18th century. From upper stories, windows opened out as people leaned out into the chill, watching. We inched along, moving about 500 metres over a half hour, the press of the crowd becoming stronger. Himself and I had managed to keep, for the most part, immediately behind the security cordon; behind us, a handful of young men in their late teens shouted and pushed. I stiffened my body and locked my knees to avoid being shoved into the back of one of the police.

At last we came to a curve in the street. The Krampus troop bore to the right down an darker street; Himself and I went left where the street opened onto a platz by the river. My feet by this time were numb; I tried stomping them to get the blood flowing. We joined another crowd, much smaller, gathered around a stall selling gühlwein, the spiced hot wine ubiquitous in the Christmas markets.

Back home, safe and warm again, we considered the seething crowd and flailing, bobbing monsters in the eerie, sulphurous half light of the narrow street. It was genuinely alarming. From a child’s perspective, it must be terrifying. But the procession was led not just by the chariot-mounted Krampus but also by the gentle and benign St Nikolaus as well. Maybe, Himself observed, there’s something in facing out your demons – as in writing, for instance – and then coming home to a warm, well-lighted room, that makes some things come out okay. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Winter Arrives

Snow has come to Katzenstraße. There was a light dusting last weekend, the day before we shared with friends a scaled-back Thanksgiving dinner. There wasn't enough snow to shovel though. Sunday night it began snowing lightly, and by morning there was a good blanket of it up and down the street. So I had a ‘shovel experience’ for the first time since I left Salt Lake City over thirty years ago.

It wasn't too bad. We got most of it, save the icy tracks left by the cars that had already driven past the house. I showed our guests, over from Ireland, how to get to the river from the house, walking up the still snowy street, around the end of the fishing lake — really a man-made pond — and through the park to the riverside walk. The water on the pond had begun to go slushy with ice, freezing from one end toward the centre. That left a small contingent of ducks huddled at the still-liquid quadrant, dark against the snow, muttering softly among themselves as they nuzzled the snow with their bills. I don't know how they make it through the winter, but I expect they know what they're doing at this point.

The next day was a clear day with a pale blue-washed sky. I set out to walk along the riverside path myself, first taking a trail that runs alongside a wood on one side and horse pastures on the other. When I got to the beginning of the path, which is paved with tarmac, I found it hadn't been shovelled or gritted. It was treacherous with ice. First I tried keeping to the packed snow in the centre, then I tried walking along the edge of the path in the thicker snow. Still, I found that rather than stepping out boldly, stretching my legs in a good walk, I was having to place my feet carefully. When I felt my steps begin go out from under me, I gave it up and turned around, settling for a walk around the pond. It was not as entertaining — I dislike walking in circles — but at least my feet could find purchase on the dirt track.

It snowed again overnight, and I was up early shovelling it. Now it has begun snowing again, and there's at least twice as much on the ground as I removed this morning. I'm wondering if I should go out and start again. The pond too has now disappeared into whiteness. Only a slender margin of dark steel blue remains. Winter is closing in on the ducks.

Still, for all the shovelling and trouble walking, it is beautiful. The wood next to the house is a study in line, white on brown. The trees in the middle distance make a thick pattern of line against the blank sky that can be said neither to glow or to have colour. It's just a pale void. Seen from my window, the world in its stillness has a certain passivity, a kind of eternal earth-bound white gravity.

It's not entirely lifeless though. The snow capping the tree branches collapses and falls in rapid streams. Blackbirds and blue tits flit past the windows and fly up under the tall eaves of the veranda next to my office, where I've put out crumbs and nuts. The tits, tiny bright things, investigate the porous stone facings of the house, looking for seed or perhaps the husks of insects. A bird takes off from a branch, leaving the shell of a leaf vibrating in its wake.

There are tracks in the snow: those of birds, of course, and those of some small four-legged creature, a cat’s perhaps or some wild thing from the wood. The cat tracks haunt me. I look at the thick unblemished blanket of snow covering the deck over the garage, just beyond the bedroom window, and grief ambushes me again. It should be patterned with Mona’s prints.

I feel the end of the year rushing at me too quickly. I'd like to savour the days. But, truly, I'm glad November, which is a hard month, full of the memory of losses both recent and long past, is over.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Speech Lesson

More and more I am able to function, albeit at an extremely low level, in German. This is not to suggest fluency or anything more than a modicum of comprehension when reading signs or looking at newspaper headlines. And I can make myself understood, after a fashion, in small transactions. The other day, for instance, I was able to make an appointment at the hairdresser even though the receptionist on the other end of the phone spoke no English.

At the grocery market, the servers at the deli counter, where each week I select from a dazzling array of cured meats and sausages, no longer urge me to speak English because ‘It’s easier,’ as one of them used to tell me. They now coach me as I make my choices in halting German, patient, anticipating my choices – they now know my favourites – and naming the meats.

Yesterday I went to the small neighbourhood shop several blocks from the flat. Because of its limited choice and odd opening hours, I don’t often go there, but still the woman at the till recognises me and greets me in a friendly way. Our conversations have been limited to German for she claims to speak no English.

I asked for a baguette and she held one up from the bakery tray.

Geschnitten?’ she asked, making chopping motions with her hand.

‘Nein. Ganz, bitte.’ Then, having second thoughts about my grammar, I added, ‘Ganz oder ganze?’ I’m still trying to work out where the gender of the noun governs the adjective.

‘Ganz,’ she replied empathically. Gans ist’ – and here she made animated noises while waving her hands – ‘Squawk, squawk, squawk, squawk.’

I understood immediately. By failing to pronounce the Z properly – it requires a front-loaded T sound, like the Z in pizza – I had sounded an S. Ganz means whole; Gans means goose.

I nodded. ‘Ja, ja. Danke.’ She had spoken with kindness and a bit of humour, and I appreciated that she respected my efforts to learn.

Seeing I hadn’t been offended, she went on.‘Gans ist duck.’

Now I shook my head. ‘Duck ist “Ente”. Gans ist “goose”.’

I left the shop and bicycled home. In spite of the cold rain and gathering dusk, I was content. Across the ragged edges of disjointed language, the woman and I had connected, however briefly. There had been a bond created, however slight.

This is what I spoke of when I told my husband about the encounter later: the buoyancy of spirit that comes with seeing, really seeing, another. There was something accepting, even generous, in her pointing out my mistake.

‘See. You helped each other,’ Himself said. ‘She corrected your German, and you corrected her English.’


Monday, November 22, 2010

Autumn Light

I’ve been reading at William Fiennes’ The Snow Geese for several months now, slowly following his journey from Texas to the northern reaches of Canada as he tracks the spring migration of the birds. The book is in part an extended meditation on home and missing home, on homesickness, nostalgia and longing. And on days like today, with the dim light of a low-lying sun never seeming to reveal the sky, longing, homesickness and nostalgia are very present for me.

While I love autumn’s beauty, captivated by its palette of bright colours set against the austere neutrals, a contrast that quickens my pulse, it can be a difficult time. For me, death and other losses litter the autumnal landscape. The fading light of the dying year casts these losses in starker relief. The wood next to our flat is no longer a tall green wall. The bare branches of its tree now weave a dull brown screen that filters the light. Inside the flat, the wooden floors gleam darkly; only when I light the lamps – as early as 4:30 or 5 – is there brightness, and that willed.

That’s not to say we are giving into gloom. Yesterday – Sunday – we climbed Kapuzinerberg, one of the two mountains around which the core of the city is built. It is the taller of the two, 640 metres, and it is mostly green space with trails and a small fortress built during the Thirty Years War, now gasthaus serving snacks and beer, at the top. (The Festung, the city’s signature fortress, sits atop the more heavily developed Mönchsberg, the mountain on the other side of the Salzach.)

The last time we climbed Kapuzinerberg, it was a warm late May afternoon, and we panted under a tall canopy of green until we reached the top. Yesterday we climbed by a different route, and the dim light reflected off a thick carpet of copper-coloured beech leaves. We were warmed with exertion, but stopping at a precipice and looking north, we soon became chilled. However, we stood long enough to see that part of the city spread below us, and I was surprised at how many landmarks, strange to me not many months ago, seem familiar to me now.

At the top we stopped to look southeast, but here the landscape was less familiar. Some Sunday afternoon, we agreed, we should explore those street just to see what’s there. Then we descended, keeping to our left the city wall built on the steep flank at the same period as the small fortress above. Wall and fortress were so effective a deterrent they were never tested.

We didn’t stop for beer and wurstl in the gasthaus because we were going directly to Schloss Leopoldskron. Commissioned in 1736 by one of Salzburg’s prince-archbishops, Schloss Leopoldskron is an elaborate rococo palace that sits on the edge of a large pond in an expanse of green space.

In the early 20th century, it was bought by theatre and film director Max Reinhardt, famous locally as one of the founders of the Salzburg Festival. During the war it was confiscated by the Nazis as ‘Jewish property’. After the war it was bought by the American foundation, the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies, and is now used as a conference site. Fans of The Sound of Music recognise its lake as the location for some of the film’s outdoor shots and its grounds and one of its façades as models for the sound stage set of the Von Trapp villa.

However, it is closed to the public every day except one day a year, which was yesterday, when it was open for tours. By the lake, its small formal garden open for an Adventmarkt.

Along with other residents of Salzburg, we waited on line for nearly an hour to view this national treasure, with its stucco ceilings and chandeliers, its faded Chinoiserie room, the gilt and mirrored games room, and the elaborate neo-rococo library, with plaster cherubs and beautifully carved wood, the latter interior commissioned by Reinhart.

The tour was conducted, of course, in German. I was pleased to realise that though I could not follow word for word, description by description, the guide’s commentary, I was able to at least follow the general outline of her remarks. Even though Himself, better at German than I am, filled in some gaps, it is reassuring to find I’ve made even a little progress in German.

It was late and the dun-coloured light rapidly fading when we left the tour to wander the stalls of the small Adventmarkt. We inaugurated the Weihnachtsmarkt season with our first cup of Glühwein, mulled wine popular at the street markets that will soon be open all over Salzburg, as well as throughout most of this part of Europe.

Then, just as we were about to leave, a children’s chorus began singing, and we stopped to listen. They stood in a narrow gravelled path at the edge of the lake. Torches were burning around the grounds, and the lights on the far side of the lake as well as from the garden reflected in its dark waters. The faces of the chorus –  young children and older boys, their voices already deepened, along with a few adult women – were illuminated by a couple of lamps. We listeners were in near darkness, the flickering light occasionally catching a face in the crowd. The chorus sang what must be traditional German and Austrian Christmas music, of which I understood a word here and there.

Then came a familiar song, odd to me in the circumstance, knowing its commercial roots. But, as it happens, ‘I’d Like to Teach the World To Sing’, which began life as a Coco-Cola jingle in the seventies, became a popular Christmas song in Europe, as I learned while living in Ireland. Yesterday, the children sang it with enthusiasm.

Driving home in near darkness, through a part of Salzburg that seems remote from my daily life, I was pleased to realise how familiar have become the mysterious, winding streets of even this part of the city, tucked into the curve of Mönchsberg, where not many months ago I got lost. Last night I knew, almost without knowing, the way. Shops and street corners have become landmarks, if only subliminally. I felt as though, had we turned off Mavis, our Mistress of the GPS, I could have guided us home.

Which reminds me of William Fiennes and his reflection on homesickness and nostalgia. He writes of turning his longing for the home he loved in the past into ‘a desire to find that sense of belonging, that security and happiness, in some other place. . . . The yearning had to be forward-looking. You had to be homesick for somewhere you had not yet seen, nostalgic for things that had not yet happened.’

I am not sure who I am these days or what my job is, not sure what nationality I represent or where my home is. But every small bit of progress I make – in learning German, in knowing my way around Salzburg, in writing something new – makes me feel more grounded in where I am now and gives me more hope that I will be able to manage where I will be tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Queen of Katzenstrasse

Saturday night, three families from Katzenstrasse gathered in a kitchen for a evening of warm friendship. Our neighbours across the road, Sigrid and Gerard, who with their eight-year-old daughter had recently returned from a week in Barcelona, cooked a pan of paella and made sangria. Hannes and Edith, their neighbours next door were there, and Himself and I were made to feel very welcome.

With Tom Waits and Bob Dylan playing in the background, conversation around the candlelit table flowed with the wine until late in the evening. In German and in English, as well as my own stammering ‘Germlish’, talk ranged from the merits of analog over digital recordings, the romance of tube-powered electronic amplifiers, Barcelona hotels and cafes, American policy toward Cuba, the Tea Party movement, theatre, pregnancy and birth – I now know the German for a Caesarean Section is Kaiserschnitten – emigration and immigration, languages, lineage and ancestry.

Sigrid and Gerard, Edith and Hannes, were very kind to move so freely between German and English, switching fluently and frequently between the two, so Himself and I could join the conversation. Himself is better at German than me. I recognise some percentage of words in any sentence, but their sense lies just beyond my grasp, tantalising and mocking me. I can tell by the context what's being discussed, but sentence by sentence, I don't understand it.

The German speakers, on the other hand, were interested in the differences between American, Irish and British English. We discussed words that have different meaning in each culture. ‘Bold’, for instance, generally means courageous or audacious in American English. In Ireland, however, a ‘bold’ child is one who ignores or challenges adult authority. Or one might be ‘as bold as a dog’ and behave contrary to community standards. These usages clearly share a common source, but the nuances of their meaning have shifted.

We talked about cats, too. For cats were among the assembled. Jimmy, the ancient cat of Sigrid and Gerard, came in the sliding door, wandered toward his dish, and ate briefly. Then he stood at the door to be let out again and, not long after, stood looking in the glass door to be let back in. Jimmy, at 95 in human terms, limps with arthritis now; he sometimes stands stock still for minutes on end, as if wondering why it is he has come into the room, what it is that has now slipped his mind.

Hannes’ and Edith’s Mona, the queen of Katzenstrasse, was there too, threading her way between our feet and majestically inspecting the room. An established member of the household next door, Mona is famous for making herself at home in Gerard’s and Sigrid’s house as well as in ours. Nearly daily we have found her on our step, pressing herself against the door frame as we fumble with the key. We are used to her presence most mornings at the bedroom window as she waits on the deck over the garage, ready to curl up on the bed at our feet. That very afternoon we had returned from the grocery market to find her on the doorstep. We unlocked the outer door and then, seeing Sigrid in the street, stopped to visit with her.

‘Die Katze wartet,’ she said, greeting us.

Indeed, the cat did wait. When we climbed the stairs with our groceries after chatting briefly, we found Mona, regal and serene, reposing on the chair outside our flat door. She came in with us and settled on the cushioned breakfast bench. She was still there, three hours later, and we had to carry her downstairs to put her out when we left the house to join the dinner party.

At dinner, Edith told of the fish Mona had brought into the house that afternoon, bait stolen from one of the fishermen on the lake behind the house. Hannes recalled finding another fish, still flopping, on the living room floor. He took it to the lake and tossed it in. Moments later, Mona returned and laid the same fish at his feet. There were tales, too, of her gifts of the creeping, fur-covered things from the wood next to house.

Himself and I reminded Edith and Hannes of the week they were in Rome over the summer. Mona, always ready to be held and cuddled, presented herself at the door even more frequently. We left the bedroom window ajar each night; each morning we would find her, a grey lump at the end of the bed. Waking, she would catch at our feet moving under the covers, capturing toes with teeth and claws. At breakfast, she found her place between us on the breakfast bench and, rolling onto her back, graciously presented a wide, white belly to be caressed.

Telling these stories, we joked that Mona must be surprised to find her three families assembled in one room. ‘What are you doing here?’ we imagined her saying. When she went through the sliding door and out into the darkness, we bid her goodnight. ‘See you, Mona!’

Near midnight, the dinner party broke up and, saluting each other with pecks on both cheeks, we said goodnight. The fledgling friendship between us, the foreign recent arrivals, and the long-time friends and neighbours, had strengthened. We parted, promising to meet again soon, the next time at our house. Discussing the evening the morning after, Himself and I remarked on how thoughtfully the others had included us by speaking both English and German. And we recalled with great pleasure the liveliness and intelligence of the conversation.

It was Gerard and eight-year-old Olivia who found Mona, on Monday morning sometime about 8. She had probably darted out from behind a wall just as a car pulled away. The car couldn’t have been going fast, not from the end of the street. The driver, whoever it was, probably doesn’t realise he or she hit the cat.

I saw Gerard from our kitchen window as we were eating breakfast. He was standing at a ground floor window staring uncharacteristically into the street. It turns out he was considering phoning us with the news, but he decided to wait until my husband came out of the house on his way work so he could tell him in person. My husband rinsed clean the site with our garden hose, then came back into the house to tell me.

As with all news of sudden death, there was that instant, lasting seconds or microseconds – who can say – of a kind of dual reality; I was momentarily numb and dumb in that short space during which the apperception of a piece of information I didn’t want to acknowledge as other than fiction gradually became real. Mona would never again jump onto the breakfast bench beside me or stand on the step arching her back into the door jamb or knead my stomach as I petted her or stare into the bedroom window, waiting to be let in.

On the street, I stood with Edith and Gerard staring down at the place in front of our house, now washed clean and terribly empty, where Mona had lain. Behind us, Hannes busied himself with the shovel. Our eyes were raw and our expressions wondering. How could this have happened? Katzenstrasse is a safe street, remote from traffic and, with its wood and nearby lake well stocked with fish, a kind of paradise for cats, as Gerard remarked. How could Mona have been hit?

Mona, the queen of Katzenstrasse, was bold in both the Irish and the American sense of the word. It was as if, more than most cats, she acknowledged no master or authority. She moved between the three families in the three houses with an attitude of entitlement, secure in her welcome in each. She found her way onto the deck beside our window and waited calmly until we let her in. Once inside she headed to her favourite spots. If we sat next to her, she calmly inserted herself onto our laps and nudged her head into the crook of an elbow, her front paws kneading away. I kept a towel for her on the chair in the living room where she liked to watch as I did my morning stretches. Then, when breakfast was over and Himself had left for work, she’d sleep for two hours or more as I worked.

Mona was round and soft, obviously well looked after, so we didn’t feed her. But if she was in the kitchen as I prepared a meal, she would jump down from her favourite perch on the bench and weave her body between my feet, loudly meowing. If I had meat out to thaw and left the kitchen, she would boldly jump onto the worktop and seize it, once wrestling the plastic-wrapped treasure to the floor. She was audacious in going after what she wanted.

Mona was our first guest in the house, and she knew it intimately from the time when the previous tenants, a family with children, had welcomed her. She frequently ran up the stairs to sit at the attic door, waiting to be let in. We’re not sure what attractions it held for her. Jacob, the man who carved the doors and ceilings of walnut and cherry, had his workshop there. Himself often joked that she was drawn there by his ghost. Maybe now, he says, Mona’s ghost is there along side Jacob’s.

Perhaps her ghost will keep us company. This morning, though, we were aware of the empty space between us on the breakfast bench. The sun shone through the window behind me in the office, but Mona did not leap up to sit in its warmth. The chair next to my yoga mat was empty too, the grey towel folded and pointless beside it. And each time I pass the bedroom window, I look away from it, not wanting to see the blankness there.

On Monday morning, as Gerard, Edith and I stood in the street remembering Mona, we recalled with a smile our joke the night of the dinner party, when all three of her families were gathered in the same room.

Edith said, ‘Maybe she decided her work was done. Maybe she thought, “I’ve brought them together now, put them in one room, pointed them toward friendship, and that’s enough.”’

Perhaps she’s right. Mona did draw us together. Sigrid and Edith take care of each other’s cats when they travel; the first real conversation I had with Gerard and Sigrid was about the strange grey-and-white cat who came into our house with such assurance. The friendships grew when I was able to look after the cats when both families were away on the same weekend. By making herself at home in our homes, she wove three households into a community.

Now, with Mona’s death, our shared sadness draws us together even more. As our friendship flowers, the dinner party will be just the first of many evenings of shared conversation and laughter. And when we meet, we’ll remember the queen of Katzenstrasse.

To Mona. Prost.’

Monday, November 8, 2010

Katzenstrasse Autumn

Autumn has brought beauty and melancholy to Katzenstrasse. The wood at the end of the street is a tangle of brown trunks.  Through them, I can see the bronze litter of beech leaves carpeting the ground. Just in front of them, the leaves of the quince tree still shine bright yellow. A sweet gum tree blazes crimson and copper next to a slate grey roof. Beyond the bare trees, beyond the field to the south, the bulk of Untersberg, hidden all summer by a dense fence of towering trees, now can be seen blue on the horizon.

I’ve been turning over in my mind why these scenes are so moving. There is in the contrast of the bright warm colours laid against a background of neutral browns and cool blues and greys an emotional charge, like the striking of a minor chord, that moves in a particular way. Seen by the weak light of short days, the charge is potent.

It was late in the afternoon one day a week or so ago that I got off the bus at our stop, the last one on the route. The light was soft brown, as it is so often these days, filtered as it was through the veil of the trees, their slender twigs forming tracery like that of cathedral windows. Another woman had gotten off just steps ahead of me, and I followed her as she turned right at the corner. I lengthened my steps to keep up with her as we passed under gold of the beech leaves along the street. When she turn left at my turn, my curiosity was piqued. Usually I walk from the bus alone, for few come as far as my stop and fewer still head in the same direction as I do.

We approached the field; its strips of brown earth and alternating green lay under a light dusting of the morning's snow. In the middle distance, white steam from the Stiegl brewery smoke stack rose against a silver sky; Untersberg's bulk loomed blue-grey in the distance. When she turned right at the small wooden shrine that stands at the edge of the field I hurried after the woman. There are only a handful of houses lying in this direction; I didn’t want to lose sight of her. More and more it seemed the woman must be a neighbour of mine, yet I didn’t recognise her at all.

Her boot heels tapped the pavement, my own echoed hers. She passed the three houses on the right; she didn’t turn into the street on the left. When sheat last turned down Katzenstrasse, I quickened my steps even more, lest she disappear before I could see where she went.

At a gate about four houses along, she stopped and turned toward me. As I approached, she spoke to me, some friendly query, I supposed.

‘Es tut mir leid,’ I replied. ‘Ich spreche nur ein wenig Deutsch.’ It’s my standard reply, trotted out now in shops, on the bus, in the street, in doctor’s office: I speak only a little German.

I could see comprehension in her eyes as she nodded her head in the direction of our house at the end of the street. She knew who I was. Then, without a word, she turned away from me, into her gate, leaving me standing in the street.

Before she could go, I stuck out my hand. ‘Ich heisse Lorraine,’ I said, and she stopped long enough to take my hand and tell me her name. We managed to smile at one another, and parted then with some faint warmth between us. Still, it shook me a little. She is a woman near enough my age, not unlike me in dress or manner, and yet the barrier between us was as great as that.

Hands in my pockets, I continued under the thickening light toward our house at edge of the towering wood. Mona, the grey-and-white queen of Katzenstrasse, met me at my doorway. She ran lightly ahead of me up the red stone stairs and waited at the carved wooden door. Once inside, she jumped onto the cushioned bench in the kitchen and, purring, set about grooming her smooth, clean fur.

In the gloom of the autumn evening, it was good to have her company, someone to talk to.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


It was sometime after three in the afternoon, and we had been walking the quiet valley in Southern Bohemia for about three hours. Coming out from the wood, up a gentle grade past summer cottages clustered at the edge of a meadow, then past several at the edge of a stream, we began to hear traffic passing on a nearby road. The forest gave way to fields, then the occasional industrial building. Next we walked along a narrow road lined on both sides with compact houses. A mother in a doorway could be heard loudly giving out to her child before finally relenting. In ways, the neighbourhood reminded me of certain streets I’ve walked along in Southern California. It was not a prosperous or impressive street, but the houses, each with its small garden, some with wreaths of autumn colours on the doors, reflected pride and a sense of belonging, the acknowledgement of being ‘at home’ felt by the homeowner.

Himself and I, on the other hand, were not feeling at home. We were hoping that, when we came to the end of the street, we would recognise enough of the landscape to discover where we had parked the car. Though neither of us said it to the other, with each step this hope seemed increasingly dim. We were not even sure we were coming into the right village.

There was not much traffic on the road we came out onto. Nor were there signs to identify where we were. I approached a man walking out of the gate of the yard before a small machine shop. ‘Do you speak English?’, I asked.

He shook his head.

‘German?’, I tried, then added quickly, ‘Deutsch?’

By this time, Himself, normally reluctant to ask directions, had reached my side.

‘Bahnhof?’ he asked. The stranger didn’t seem to speak German either, but this much he understood and pointed around the bend to our left.

How far? ‘Wie weit?’, asked Himself.

The man held up fingers. ‘Vier.’ Four. Zero. Zero. Only 400 meters. Good news. Except I was pretty certain by now that we were not in the right village after all. And by now, we were unable to agree on even its name, retaining only the vague sense that it began ‘Tri’ and ended with a V. Or maybe an R.

We were lost.

All Saints Day is a holiday in Austria and, for the first time since we arrived, the holiday fell on a Monday, giving us a long weekend. We decided on a short holiday stay in our favourite Český Krumlov pension. We spent a lazy Sunday afternoon on our room’s balcony, wrapped up against the chill and looking across the river at the fantasy-like painted tower. Later we strolled the streets, quiet and nearly deserted this cool Halloween evening, stopping to watch the play of light on the dark river. In the morning, after an indulgent and late breakfast, we set off to explore the surrounding country, following directions in an old guide book.

Leaving the road from Český Krumlov to České Budějovic, we wound around a small neighbourhood of houses, through fields and into the faded village of Zlata Koruna, site of a 14th century monastery. Another five kilometres farther, in another village, we turned right to find the railroad station we were looking for, really just a open-fronted shelter at the edge the tracks. We parked in the small car park and a few metres away found the shrine the guide book had mentioned and just beyond it the dusty track also mentioned. Two tracks in fact, one turning to the left and down a shady leaf-strewn hill, the other forking to the right. Studying the posted sign and map at the trailhead – in Czech, of course – we came to the conclusion it was loop trail and decided to take the path to the right and walk full circle on the return. So off we went, crossing a broad field that smelled of a recent application of natural fertilizer. The broad path headed toward a copse of tree away in the distance. Reaching that, it descended under the shade of trees into a valley where the river ran.

Our destination was Dívčí Kámen, the ruins of a castle built in the first half of the 14th century and abandoned two centuries later, in 1506. It lies in a valley between the Vltava river and one of its tributaries, a stream called Křemežský. Following red-and-white markers painted on trees, we walked along the winding path as it crossed and recrossed the stream, shaded by dense wood, a drift of golden leaves underfoot. Then, following iron markers indicating hrad, we started climbing again, up the rocky outcropping on which the castle is built. Soon we were climbing stone steps and walking along what must have been the barbican before entering the arch of a stone bastion. We could see the hollow in the wall that must have housed the enormous beam to bar the gate.

The castle stands high above the valley floor, and many of its walls are intact, though crumbling. It is impressively large, and walking around its perimeter, we looked down at the steep hill falling sharply away beneath the walls. The remains of a tower at an outer defensive wall stand, giving a view over the valley. From the floor of the castle interior, you can see massive red, white and grey boulders incorporated into the walls, the stone fissured in neat straight lines. The residence of the castle, at the end of an enclosed courtyard, apparently stood three or four stories high. At the top of the wall large windows also look out across the valley, too high to have been vulnerable to arrows or other missiles. It must have seemed impregnable, surrounded by water, its walls rises several hundred metres above the valley floor. It is currently under restoration; in fact a pair of men were at work with mortar and stone. Still, it is surprisingly accessible, open to all who take the trouble to find it. Rough timber benches have been assembled, suggesting the availability of informational talks and concerts.

From the barbican walls we looked across the quiet valley, trees still thickly leaved, though whole patches of deep yellow and orange stood out against green. Nearby is strange formation of rock, a narrow free-standing wall of shale-like grey-black stone. This natural rock wall stands about 70 metres high and extends possibly 20 metres deep, but it is remarkably narrow – as little as two or three metres at some points. It juts eerily into space, tall and narrow with irregular faceted face, water at its base, trees growing around it and from it. It too must have formed some natural defence for the castle.

The castle ruins, hidden in the wooded valley, the brooding wall balanced beside it, the dark waters of the winding stream and wider river, and the pale late-fall light seemed other worldly, as though we were lost in a mythical place, beyond time, beyond the familiar. And so it seemed as we picked the path, heading along the trail now marked with yellow-and-white symbols painted on trees. We considered how far we had walked. Two or three kilometres? More? I ventured it was as far as from our house in Ireland to the barracks at the juncture of the road to Cahir.

Did I really think it was that far, my husband wondered?

I didn’t know because we haven’t yet seen how far we had to go.

And so we walked, uncertain when we would return to the loop trailhead, talking of this and that, trying to remember how many bridges we had crossed along the way, stopping to look at overhanging rock formations, wondering if the summer houses we passed had been, before the Velvet Revolution, those of Communist party officials.

‘I don’t remember those red buildings,’ he said at last. Nor did I. Clearly we were not yet at the end of the trail.

The noise of traffic from the road was louder as we approached a slip road. But which way should we turn? Himself thought left; I favoured the right. And soon we were walking that direction, lured by the yellow-and-white symbols I saw along the way. Not long after that, we found ourselves on the small street of houses, then out on the main raod where the stranger pointed us in the direction of the bahnhof.

Which, when we found it, was not the train station where we had left the car. We were now in Holulov, and we had no idea how far it was to the car, or even which direction to turn. We stood near a mounted tourist map, though, and we were able to locate our starting point. It was Třísov, and it seemed to be about two kilometres away. A school boy, about 12, sitting on a bench near the station, didn’t speak either English or German. However, he gave directions in Czech, delivered with incomprehensible fluency and accompanied by a succession of motions indicating that we should go straight, then right, then left then right and . . . .

To us, bewildered tourists, they made no sense at all.

There was no one else about. The tourist office, signed with the familiar green i, was closed, as was the café next to it. We looked around at roads going right, left, up and back in the direction from which we came. At last, we looked at the train track, its twin rails pointing neatly, inevitably, unequivocally to our destination.

And so we started walking again, in the fading afternoon light, through the broad countryside, stepping from railroad tie to railroad tie between the iron tracks.

 I was nervous, periodically looking over my shoulder. Shouldn’t we walk along side the track, I urged, starting every time a car or truck engine roared in the distance.

‘Don’t worry,’ Himself assured me. ‘You’ll feel the vibration as well as hear it.’

I knew he was right; still I tried walking to the side of the rails. I found myself stumbling over rubble, scraggy shrub and the corners of ties, however. It went smoother stepping neatly along the ties, some of them creosoted timber, some smooth concrete. Passing markers every tenth of a kilometre, we counted down our progress. I was relieved when the rails crossed the river to find we were not on a narrow trestle but on a wide earthen bridge nearly indistinguishable from the surface we had been crossing.

The midday blue had drained from overhead; the sky faded to monochromatic pale tones. To our right, hills curved gently upward where here and there dark cattle and sheep grazed. To our left, the land dropped off into a shallow valley where the bright gold and russets of the trees were also dimming to shades of monochrome. Distant trees bristled blackly along the horizon. The grey tarmac road cut diagonally across the broad fields and the tracks, then disappeared. We wondered aloud at the strange sight to passing drivers we must make.

It was late now, and I was getting tired. I stepped from tie to tie with less energy than before. It had been many hours since breakfast, and I began to stumble, catching the toe of my boot on the edge of the ties or on the protruding spikes. I looked over my shoulder, wondering if, in the face of an on-rushing engine, we could jump clear in time.

At last, though, the gentle curve of track unreeled and I could see, in a grey-toned space at the edge of the world not far from a wood, half hidden by a red car behind a white one, a navy blue car.

‘The car. I see it!’

It was indeed our car, though we were still about five hundred metres from it. In my excitement, I began leaping again with enthusiasm, nearly running.

‘Slow down,’ said my husband. ‘Hang on!’

I did so, reluctantly. However, there were just a couple hundred metres to go. Then, finally, we were in the car and out of the chill, boots replaced with soft shoes, tucking into the food we had packed – cheese and ham and pâté, apples, rolls and fresh tart.

‘Hunger makes the best sauce of all,’ said Himself.

And he was right.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Český Krumlov

We arrived in Český Krumlov on a mellow fall afternoon, the sky blue and cloudless, the sun warming but not scalding. Perhaps because I had not seen pictures of this remarkable town and had little idea what to expect, on first sight it stunned me.

Located on a nearly perfectly round peninsula in the River Vltava, the same river that runs through Prague, Český Krumlov is late medieval-early Renaissance village in the Southern Bohemia region of the Czech Republic. On the recommendation of a neighbour, we had stopped there on our way to a week’s visit to Prague.

Overlooking the town from the top of a low outcropping is a large castle, the second largest in the country after Prague Castle. In one of its many courtyard stands a tall tower. This is painted with elaborate designs and motifs in russet, peach, pink and jade and topped by an arcaded galley and a domed copper roof gone green with age. It was this tower standing stark against the pale fall sky that I found so startling.

It fills the skyline and rises above a tall arcaded walkway that is almost as startling. Looking at the arcade from below, you stare through a series of high arches in a white wall that, on the day of our visit, framed the intensely blue sky. People standing on the loggia looking down seemed tiny in the distance. It reminded me of a painting by Italian surrealist Giorgio de Chirico, though not so brooding.

Virtually encircled by the river, the town is an UNESCO World Heritage site. Few cars are allowed in the city’s narrow cobbled streets and platzes; visitors park in one of three municipal car parks. (Lot 1 is the most convenient.) As we made our way from the car park through the town to our pension, our suitcases bumped behind us over the timber planks of the bridge crossing the river and then over wide, uneven cobbles, through narrow streets heaving with people.

After leaving the bags in our room, we climbed a steep narrow street and entered the broad main platz. It’s surrounded by Baroque buildings, each with its decorative façade of curves and pediments. People sat in benches in the sun watching the fountain. Others sipped coffees or beers in front of the cafes ringing the square. From an incline beyond, the steeple of St Vitus church rose above the square. The tower and large Renaissance-style castle dominated the view from the opposite side.

As a destination, Český Krumlov seems like a playground, an historic site qua theme park, filled with tourists of all types: Groups following tour guides, parents pushing strollers, families with children trailing, others with dogs on leads, middle-aged Americans in matching wind breakers and white athletic shoes, young couples holding hands, stopping to kiss each other deeply every few steps. Voices and accents revealed nationalities from all over Europe, America, Australia, Japan and China.

Narrow streets are lined with small museums, gift shops displaying carved wooden toys, amber, both honey-coloured and green, scarves and gloves, and typical souvenirs of the type found the world over. But it’s not only kitsch that’s available.

For a short time, Český Krumlov was the home of expressionist artist Egon Schiele, and a museum in his honour offers exhibitions of contemporary art and helps foster a lively cultural scene. There are galleries, too, selling original work, colourful art-glass, prints and reproductions. There’s even an English-language bookstore. (Imagine me as a kid with nose-pressed against the glass of a candy store.)

The river flows rapidly for most of its circuit around the town, but near the old mill, its waters collect in a wide placid pool before rushing over a weir. Next to the weir lies a submerged ramp, its incline sharp enough to produce shrieks from the paddlers of  canoes, inflatable rafts and kayaks as they plunge over it and splash into the brown waters below. Sometime the crafts capsize, and their passengers scramble for paddles before re-boarding and continuing downstream.

Despite their playful shouts, and despite the profusion of shops and tourists, there is a serene air about Český Krumlov, as if one has stepped away from reality to enter another world, one as nearly cut off from the quotidian world as the town is islanded by the river.

On this gold-drenched day, it was peaceful wandering its river-side lanes. The trees on the steep hillside into which the town is tucked were just beginning to burnish; gentle light flashed and sparkled on the river’s surface. As evening set in and the sky paled, then darkened, we could see from the castle overhead pin-prick flashes as people tried to capture the experience digitally. It would be a hopeless effort, we agreed; the sense of the place was ineffable.

The next morning, we followed winding streets to the castle, then stood staring over a stone parapet into its moat where, about 50 metres below, a tame bear lumbered around a shallow pool. We climbed the steps to the top of the tower and looked out at the town below us and the hills that surround it.

We toured the castle and were guided through rooms filled with period furniture and lavish decorations. Many of its walls are covered with elaborate, fanciful frescos or coats of arms. Even the plain exterior walls are covered with trompe-l'œil paintings, giving the castle the appearance of a Renaissance palace decorated with bas relief sculpture.

From there, we passed through the arcaded walkway and climbed the hill to the castle’s large formal garden. In the sunny warm morning, we wandered among its clipped hedges and disciplined flower beds, stopping at a monumental fountain poised on a series of steps looking toward the castle in the distance.

At last, though, we followed the scent of wood smoke to a small building tucked away in a corner. Through the door we entered a dark passage that led to a low-ceilinged room. Here we found a chef barbecuing steaks, chops and sausages over a large wood-fired grill. We had not planned to stop for lunch, but the sweet scent of burning logs was enticing, and we settled at a plank table where we could watch the cook work. Moving ceaselessly, he placed thick cuts of pork and beef on the grill, meticulously repositioning them as necessary, adding logs to the fire as it burned low.

The beer was good, the food wonderful and we relaxed in the cabin-like retreat, warmed by the fire, for a time far from crowds and remote from the exotic grandeur of the castle, its courtyard, tower and gardens, lying just beyond the threshold. Then we walked out into the soft September light, heading toward our car and Prague.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

In Memoriam

24 April 1920 – 8 October 2010

 Fall was just beginning to soften the air and ripen the foliage when we moved to Ireland in 2007. In those early days, as I made the adjustment to a way of living very different from that I had known, often it was my mother-in-law, Peggy, who was by my side. She was with me when I entered the grocery market on our first shopping expedition. It was the Super Valu in Clonmel’s Poppy Fields Shopping Centre, a modern supermarket not a million miles different from the supermarket chains of America. Still, on entering the door, the juxtaposition of the familiar with the foreign coalesced in a wave of emotion that struck unexpectedly, and I burst into tears.

Though she had lived independently and on her own since the illness and death of my father-in-law a few years before, Peggy did not drive. So each week one of the family drove her to Clonmel to do her shopping, stopping on the way at the post office where she collected her pension. Because we were neighbours, and because I needed to do our marketing as well, frequently it was I who drove her. In those early days, as we drove the 20 kilometres or so to Clonmel, we shared with each other our pleasure in the beauty of the fall. The berries of the cotoneasters by her entrance were bright red, and she fretted as the blackbirds ate them, striping the bush of its colour. She tapped her chest discreetly in the sign of the cross as we passed the ruin of Whitechurch with its ancient and more recent graves. The beeches lining the road in Tincurry were golden; she remarked approvingly how Michael McCarthy had, as always, so reliably cut back the thick summer’s growth of the ditches dividing his fields. (In our part of Ireland, a hedge is a ditch.) Along the ‘top road’ – the old Cork road – into Cahir, she admired the dogwoods, their stems deep burgundy. Across from Cahir Castle, large hand-shaped leaves of the horse chestnuts drooped bronze over the bog-brown River Suir. Passing the square and leaving town, we rolled along through pastureland still green and fields rich brown-black with recent ploughing. Apples hung red in the trees; sumac blazed copper-crimson along the fields. At times, the sun caught the peaks of the Galtees, revealing the lavender-tinged brown heath on their smooth summits.

We enjoyed this beauty together, but we didn’t talk a lot. Peggy had a voice so low and faint – a whisper, the breath barely exhaled – that it was difficult to make out at times what she said. I can be expansive and voluble, but at other times I find conversation a strain. But even when we passed mile after mile in silence, it was a companionable one, and there was a sense of acceptance between us, no matter what our differences. For though we came from different cultures, and were weaned on different expectations of our paths in life, there were common bonds. 

She loved reading and spent her quiet afternoon hours with good authors: D. H. Lawrence, Tolstoy, Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Iris Murdoch, John McGahern, among them. She loved the garden, and even at 89 and 90 could be found pulling raspberries from the tangled canes behind the house. She filled vases and old jars with roses and shoots of flowering vines. Each spring, the pale yellow primroses appearing in the green along the ditches delighted her, taking her back to childhood. On May Day, she filled vases with flowers and set them before the blue-and-white statue of the Virgin Mary, recalling other childhood memories. Indeed, there remained always in her enthusiasm something childlike, visible in her spontaneous smile and the light suffusing her face, full of joy.

Most of my life has been spent in standardised suburban neighbourhoods California and Salt Lake City. Though I did live for 17 years in one house, there has been a transient quality about it. Though in the mid part of her life, Peggy did live in the Irish towns of Dundalk and Clonmel, for most of her 90 years, she lived in the very countryside where she was born. She knew its roads and houses, its birds and wild things, the flowers and trees, the mountains, rivers and streams.

Most of all, she knew its people. She had an encyclopaedic knowledge of and memory for the families  with whom she had grown up, their parents and grandparents, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The eldest of a family of eight, married to a man from a family of ten, and the mother of nine, she could call up out of memory a dizzying number of aunts, uncles, first and second cousins, the names of their children and their spouses, and the parents and siblings of the spouses, each with their own web of relations, an infinite chain of connections. Moreover, she knew the people we met on the streets of Clonmel, the town where for a few years the family lived when my husband was a school boy. And there were too the customers of my father-in-law’s once extensive rose business, the people they met in markets and fairs, where, even after the time of the rose business, she sold her garden produce. I could barely get a toehold of comprehension in this vast community of friends and relations. She remembered them all.

In early weeks of my life in Ireland, during those first two and a half months until our shipment arrived, we had enough furniture to live in the house – a dining room table and a bed, a working kitchen with borrowed pans and a cheap set of dishes bought in Dunnes – but little else. There was no reliable phone service, no internet connection, and my computer and books steamed in a hold somewhere on the Atlantic. Many days I drove the five kilometres to Cahir and wandered or sat in the square watching people, and checked email at the internet café or in the library. But the hours after dinner I found hard. Evening after evening I remained at the bedroom window, drink in hand, staring into the descending darkness. Himself, away at work all day, worried aloud to his mother about my inability to settle.

He tells me she asked, quite sensibly, ‘Does she have a comfortable place to sit?’

She shared with me her home-made soups, mysterious, thick, dark soups, carefully carried through the always-open gate and across the rough patch of ground between our houses. Smiling half apologetically, she entered the house and our kitchen through the back door, holding out the cling-film-covered Pyrex pint measuring jug.

‘I made some soup. I hope you don’t mind.’

It was always delicious soup, welcomed for its warmth, its ingredients drawn from frugality borne of desperately hard times in her youth, rich with flavour discovered over the course of a long life of diverse experience, dense with vegetables, meats and spices I would not have thought to combine. Her adventurous approach taught me to disregard the recipes I had sought and plunge ahead with whatever was at hand or in the cupboard. Before long, I was carrying my soup offerings into her kitchen, proud of my efforts and conscious of just a soupçon of competitiveness.

She bore with equanimity my driving as I discovered how to negotiate the narrow roads, drivers impatient to overtake my cautiousness or, myself impatient, my own overtaking of tractors with their loads of straw and jeeps towing horse boxes. She complimented me on my bravado as I timidly steered through the narrow streets of Clonmel’s Irishtown, looking for a place to park in the crowded streets near the post office so she could collect her pension. Earning my Irish driving license was a long, difficult process, yet she never flinched as the habits acquired on California’s wide even streets and freeways gave way to the requisites of driving through roundabouts and medieval town centres. Instead, she recalled her own driving lessons of years ago, suspended abruptly after a mishap, and praised me for my courage.

As with all in-laws, of course, the relationship had its complexities. The gulf between our values and expectations was sometimes laid bare. Too frequently, I tried with incomplete success to hold my tongue over the handling of her lively but undisciplined border collie, Sally. She said nothing about my infrequent attendance at mass, my irreverence and my too-often profane tongue. I writhed at the necessity of returning home before midnight on New Year’s Eve so she could receive phone calls at the stroke of twelve from her sister and daughters abroad; she politely ignored my rude irritability on the occasion. But more often, we found within ourselves the capacity to reach across the divide and welcome our shared experience. Most especially, that included our joy in the beauty of nature.

So on this fall day in Salzburg, surrounded by trees glowing gold and crimson, I watch as leaves drift down in flurries thick as snow, and I recall those first weeks in Ireland three years ago. I think of driving through another gold-and-crimson burnished landscape with her beside me in the passenger seat remarking on the line of colour against the grey horizon. In my imagination we speed along the Clonmel bypass and delight in the yellow birch trees that line its gentle curves. Or we admire the amber beech leaves as we approach the Western road, bright against the old grey limestone school. It is still an adventure to me, strange and wonderful after California, and she is in those days my companion and guide. Tears cloud my vision again as I realise that for the first time in three years, I am homesick. And it is Ireland in the fall, and Peggy, the fulcrum of the family’s life, the centre of gravity for our experience of home, that I miss.

Friday, October 15, 2010


I have been away due to a bereavement. I hope to resume posting next week.

Thank you for your patience;

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Another Harvest

Our house in Ireland is a compact white bungalow, sheltered on one side by a wall of towering Leyland cypresses and hidden behind a briar-threaded untamed hedge. Driving in one direction along the road it faces, you may not see the house until you’ve passed. Sometimes there are cattle pastured in the field on the other side of the cypresses. In the bedroom, I found myself frequently startled by sudden deep shuddering exhalations or violent snorts when the large beasts moved, unseen beyond the trees, only a few metres away. From the front windows a field is just visible over a low, tangled hedge; sometimes wheat or barley grows there, other times cattle graze it.

Here in Salzburg, we live on the first floor of stout two-story house, with wide overhanging eaves. From our front windows, we look out on another row of similar houses along a quiet, suburban street. From our veranda out the back, we also look onto a row of houses. Beyond them, however, lie several acres of fields that have been cultivated all summer.

When I first saw these fields, they lay under ragged patches of snow; where raw earth was visible, it was pock-marked by mole holes. The day we moved in, a hot day polished by a wind nearly as dry as a Santa Ana, the droning of an engine drifted in the open window, audible over the scurry of brittle leaves on the pavement. It was a single tractor moving forward and back, turning over black earth in a single long, narrow strip and leaving a trail of dust behind.

Over the summer, my husband and I have watched the progress of the crops growing in relatively small strips ranging over the fields. In the early summer months barley and wheat, threaded through with bright red poppies, ripened. Himself, who likes a good Pilsner and finds wheat beer an abomination, would chant as we passed, ‘Wheat is for brot, barley for bier.’ As the summer stretched on and the grain’s green burnished to dull gold, the heavy pale heads bowed forward, until at last they were nearly doubled over, ready to cut.

Potatoes, too, grew in a long narrow strip, about 15 metres wide and perhaps 300 metres long. Through July and August we watched as the plants sprouted, greened, flowered and then sat, squat and close to the ground, the spuds waiting to be dug. We joked about stealing out in the dark with a spade to test their goodness. One day, though, we passed and realised the plants were gone, the earth churned and brown.

More recently, even as the wheat and barley were harvested and the potatoes dug, a stand of corn remained. Corn in the American sense, it grew taller and taller. Not having seen this type of maize grown before, Himself remarked that for the first time, he understood the lyric: It was indeed as high as an elephant’s eye. In my imagination, I re-lived summer barbecues with ears of sweet corn dripping with butter, sweet kernels salted and savoury with pepper, spurting juice with each bite.

As we’ve driven through the Austrian and, recently, Czech Republic, countryside in the last two months, we’ve passed many acres of maize like this, standing in tall, dense rows, rising high over the grass beside it. Row after row of amassed stalks caught the late summer light; their tassels blazed bronze. It puzzled us.

The sweet corn I recall had been a feature of July and August feasts. Why had so much corn been planted for harvest this late in the summer? I hadn’t seen it in markets over the summer, nor did it seem like something I’d expect to see on an Austrian table. What would it be used for? Was it raised as vegetable crop, feed, corn oil, corn syrup, or, perhaps, even popcorn? The question became one more on our list of Things We Wonder About Austria.

As fall drew closer, each time I passed the corn, I tried to assess its readiness. I searched for the white silken strands emerging from the pale green ears. Young boys wheeled their bikes on the road in front of it, leaving a litter of familiar fibrous leaves in their wake. Were they hungering for it too? I imagined the sweet swelling ears, growing longer and thicker. When would it be ready for harvest? And how would the ears be cut from the stalks?

One morning last week, the quiet was broken by a low but steady mechanical yawl. It throbbed, rising and falling but always there, as the day went on. When I later rode out on my bike, I saw a tractor moving along the tall, green, even rows of corn. As it passed forward and back, the corn disappeared, one row at a time.

Fascinated, I stopped and stood under the trees at the roadside to watch. The tractor, a shiny new red Massey-Ferguson, pulled an faded green and timber trailer. Near the ground, two parallel angular yellow blades, like the arms of a toy transformer, projected from the tractor’s side, just in front of the trailer. As the tractor moved forward, these sheared way the entire corn stalk at its base. Quicker than I could see, the whole plant – stalk, leaves, cobs and all – was felled and swallowed by a side-mounted device. Then, within seconds, a silken veil of green and gold sprayed from a tall narrow spout into the trailer.

I stood there watching, the low-lying sun of the equinox white-hot on the side of my face. After a few runs, the farmer, a well-tanned man with white hair tonsured like a monk’s, wearing in the heat only loose white shorts, manoeuvred his rig along side two large trailers parked at the edge of the narrow road. Another, younger, man operated the mechanical jaws of an enormous scoop to lift the load from the small trailer into the two waiting ones. Then the white-hair man reversed his tractor and trailer, turned the rig around, and aligned it with the three remaining rows of corn. With a nod towards me, he lowered the heavy yellow shears into place and slowly rolled forward, corn stalks vanishing before him.

As the tractor rattled away, I called out to the younger man, ‘Do you speak English?’

Only a little, he told me. As I struggled to frame my question, I thought how his ‘little’ English was so much more than my poor store of German.

‘Was machst du . . . ?’ I gestured, mortified, suddenly aware I had addressed him using the familiar, as if he were a child.

If he was offended, he didn’t show it. He simply answered my ill-framed question. The produce would be used as animal feed, he said. One mystery had been solved.

The next morning, all was quiet. Beyond the houses opposite my office window I could see the alternating stripes of the field: deep green, brown, pale-green-and-yellow, then deeper brown. In the slanted morning light, they glistened with a silver sheen of dew. In a few weeks’ time, they could well be glistening with frost. The field was, as far as I could see, empty, save for a few crows, like black-coated burghers, ponderously nodding while they stepped from side to side, gleaning what was to be had.