Friday, April 30, 2010

Leaving Tipperary, Redux

Last weekend we were in South Tipperary for my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday party. Our house next door to hers has not yet been rented, so we camped out there, sleeping in the bedroom we had left furnished.

In March, leaving Tipperary and our house had been wrenching. In the minutes before locking the empty house for the last time, I had walked from room to room, trying but failing not to cry. My footsteps echoed as the sun cut across walls painted in colours we had so carefully chosen. I closed the blinds and curtains over views I had watched in all lights and weather.

But in the weeks since I had settled comfortably in Salzburg. Our flat by the wood, with its walnut panelled walls and ceilings and its views over the wood is peaceful, calm. Blackbirds and tits sing in its garden, their sweet music filling the air, rising into the office where I work or the living room as I read. Only last week I came up the stair and into the flat feeling the serenity of being at home. The longing I had for the house in Tipperary faded more quickly than I had imagined possible. On our drive from the Cork airport Saturday, I briefly felt nostalgic on passing a road sign in both English and Irish.

‘I’m back in another country where I don’t understand the signs,’ I remarked to Himself. But, in truth, I was less emotional than I had expected.

I had been up late the night before, unable to sleep, so my eyes burned with exhaustion. Arriving at our house, I made up the bed in our cheerful yellow bedroom and pulled the blackout blinds to take a nap. Pressing myself into the familiar mattress in the dimness of the familiar room, I felt it good to be there. ‘This is home. This is my bed,’ I repeated to myself as I tried to relax and sleep.

Later, refreshed, it was good to sit in my mother-in-law’s well-worn sitting room visiting with nephews over from Edinburgh and down from Dublin. It was good to have Sally, the Border Collie, roll over onto her back, and press her breastbone forward, her sole trick, pleading for a belly rub. It was good to walk the rough weedy garden, to see the pear and apple trees now in bloom, to explore the humid depths of the polythene house with its earthy perfume. In summer, it will be hot inside, the air fragrant with loam and ripe fruit, as insects buzz and ping against its taut plastic walls.

And it was good that evening to move through the crowded birthday party seeing friends, cousins and nieces and nephews, catching up while apologising for leaving so quickly we hadn’t had time to say goodbye to most of them. Stefan, the blind musician who plays for the area’s seniors at the Cahir Day Centre, played his guitar and sang, accompanied by his friend on accordion, the entire evening. They played old standards and traditional songs, including my favourite, Slievenamon. And The Wild Rover, the wildly inappropriate appropriate song another band had given us as the waltz at our wedding. And A Nation Once Again, the rebel song. We stayed late and left laughing.

Sunday, we took Sally up the track in the Galtees as we have done so many Sundays. We noticed the furled tips of the ferns rising through the bronze of last summer’s bracken. Tightly folded like green foetuses, they will open and within weeks the roadsides and tracks will be lined with fresh young growth. Tiny violets were vivid in the pale green moss lining the path we walked.

It was good to visit with family, some I hadn’t seen for a very long time. It was good to meet friends and neighbours, to keep alive relationships. But it is hard work living in a small community where families have lived side by side with other families for untold generations. Roots go deep, and recall can be long. The memory of slights or perceived slights can be as long standing as the moss-covered stones in the hedgerows.

When I failed to recognise a long-time friend of my husband’s family, prompting her to re-introduce herself, I felt obliged to shift into high gear as I engaged with her, as though this would patch over the insult. I should have known who she was, but in the crowded room, my glance slid over her as I greeted the woman next to her.

There are my husband’s many cousins, men and women he grew up with, whose personalities and faces he knows nearly as well as he knows his brothers and sisters. After 24 years of marriage and not quite three years living among them, I still confuse the women, the family resemblance being remarkable. Of the men, I search for names, trying to place all but the five or six I have come to know better. Had we stayed in South Tipperary, I’m sure names and faces would be recalled with more fluency, but building these relationships has been interrupted again. Rather than relaxing, I found myself working hard, wanting to avoid giving offense.

Another day  we had a meal at Kilcoran Lodge Hotel, the nearby country house that has hosted family parties over several generations. There we encountered family acquaintances my husband has known since childhood. I tried to gauge what I sensed was hesitancy in their greeting, the want of warmth, the pause before greeting us. They hadn’t failed to recognise us. I examined my conscience. Was it awareness of our slight, justified or not, of someone close to her? Was he remembering disagreements between his relations and ours? Conscious of the proximity of their table, we lowered our voices, muting the names we pronounce, hesitant of what may be overheard. In a community of 5,000, counting inhabitants of both town and countryside, one is always aware that there are no secrets and little anonymity.

There too are the entanglements of family, the decades-old hurts and jealousies always simmering that bubble to the surface under the pressure of special occasions. These require negotiating a landscape as treacherous as bog land lest one is forced to choose sides or listen again to accounts of past injustices. Also requiring effort are those personalities that rub uncomfortably, irritating like wool worn on a hot day, that must be borne with grace and compassion.

In Salzburg, for the first time in our marriage, we are living far from any family. Few know us here. I can slide into the crowd, invisible. Unlike in Ireland, the custom here is to ignore people you pass on the streets, to keep focussed on your own destination. People are friendly, but the community is less engulfing. Lacking, at least for now, the social and familial ties we have in Ireland, we have become less tethered, more able to focus on our own concerns.

Early Tuesday morning, the sky still dark, we emptied and unplugged the refrigerator, closed our luggage, and locked the house. As we drove the quiet road past the ruin of Whitechurch with its graves, past the big tree, past Millgrove and Tincurry, the headlamps of our hired car catching the gleam of the whitethorn blossoms in the hedge, I wasn’t emotional or teary. I was simply tired. I was ready to go home.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Fall

Even though it had rained on and off since morning, last Wednesday after lunch I set out  to run some errands: A trip to the bank, to the grocery market and to the local Tabak, one of the ubiquitous stalls that sell, along with sweets, newspapers, postcards, and tobacco, bus passes. But rolling along the narrow paved road that cuts through a field for a couple of kilometres before passing under a main thoroughfare, my wheels splashed through puddles, sending ripples of muddy water onto my clean trousers. Rain spotted my glasses and begun to soak into my trousers. The sheer unpleasantness of it made me want to turn back. But, no, this is what I signed up for. We were not going to get another car; I would have to get used to it.

I carried on as my imagination unreeled stories. It summoned the image of me flying off the bike onto the pavement, followed by the bleak scenario of someone calling Himself at the office as I lay motionless. Who would this stranger know to call?

I rounded a narrow bend and headed for the sharp steep footpath up the embankment to the thoroughfare. Preparing to make the ascent, I turned my wheel to mount a shallow kerb. My front tyre caught just at the edge of the kerb, slippery with the rain, and I was pitched off, landing prone on my left side, my face in the muddy grass, bike tossed to the right.

Stunned, frightened, a little angry, I gently pushed myself up. Everything seemed to work, and I stood. I shook with shock and cold and, yes, indignity. Mud coated my new black trousers and my favourite jacket. It beaded up and dripped from my thighs and knees. My jacket front was slick with it. I felt grit on my face, and my hands were brown. My hat . . . where was my hat, my lovely hat, where? . . . there, crown down in the mud.

I looked at the quiet dark apartment buildings across the road. No movement, no one raising a window to ask if I was okay. I was both relieved that apparently no one had seen my indignity and wounded that no one showed concern.

Lifting my bike out of the mud, I considered turning back. I couldn’t be seen like this, least of all in the calm neat interior of the bank. I hurt; my knee stung, my hip ached, my shoulder, the bad one, felt again twisted and wrenched. I wanted to slink home to safety, to comfort, dry clothes and a hot drink.

But I also wanted to go to yoga class that night, my first in Salzburg, and I needed money for the class fee. Our cash cards hadn’t arrived yet, so the only way to get it was from the teller. People must fall off their bikes all the time and carry on with their business. I would go on.

Shaking, I mounted the bike and peddled the few metres to the steep path up the embankment. I dismounted and pushed it up the hill to the busy thoroughfare and then peddled in the direction of the bank. This meant crossing a busy two-lane roundabout bringing traffic on and off a motorway that passes below. Soon the footpath had disappeared, and I was squeezing myself and the bike into the narrowest space possible between a weedy verge and the path of traffic. I dismounted again. Cars and trucks streamed along too fast for me see them coming around the curves.

The world seemed grey, hazy, out of focus. I hesitated, transfixed, at road’s edge, pushing the bike cautiously over the kerb, then pulling back as another car raced toward me. Finally the driver of a long-haul lorry paused, flashing his lights, and I hurried with the bike across the lanes and crossed the centre of the roundabout. On the far side, traffic was less thick, and I crossed again, then the last motor way exit, and I was at last on the footpath, safe on the other side, feeling relieved and very naïve.

I steadied my hat on my head and started pedalling down the footpath, which sloped away from the elevated roundabout. Seeing the bank ahead, I pedalled fast, wanting my stress to be over.

A gust of wind. My hat blew off. I pulled the brakes tight, dismounted and let the bike drop. My favourite hat, the motorway exit, the speeding cars. Don’t let it be blown onto the road. Don’t let it fly out of my reach.

I got the hat and, clutching it in my right hand as I held the handlebars, peddled along the footpath. Flying by a sign, I recognised among the string of words a single one, Fahrrader, and an arrow pointing to the street. So, I surmised, you’re not supposed to ride the bike on the sidewalk? People do it all the time.

I was still shaking. How do people manage, in this bicycle-friendly city, where everyone, including staid-looking women much older than myself and men bent and white haired, seems to pedal themselves routinely? There are bike racks everywhere. There are bike paths and signs pointing to mixed bicycle and pedestrian use. So how does one negotiate this stretch?

Entering the cool grey space of the bank, I brushed the hair from my face. It was bare.

‘My glasses. I’ve lost my glasses.’ In a panic, I spoke out loud.

Immediately in front of me was the bank manager, half turned saying goodbye to one of tellers, briefcase in hand, on his way out. He stared, mouth open. Mud-splattered, dazed, shaking and now babbling non sequiturs, I must have shocked him.

‘I fell off my bike.’

He recovered his equanimity before I did. Welcoming me, he asked if I were all right before introducing me to the teller and saying goodbye. The teller, a young man with very good English, got me some tissues and I swiped at the mud on my cheeks, forehead and hands. Black grit sifted over the counter in front of me as he handled my transaction and retrieved our new bank cards from the back. He asked me to sign the back of my card and some papers, which I did, unable to focus, the last letters of my name sprawling beyond the blanks.

His calm helped me recover my own. I began to relax, my breath slowed, and I felt once again the solidity of my body, its uprightness and strength. Self-consciously, I made small jokes, as if to demonstrate that, no, I’m not a crazy woman, and yes, I’m recovering my senses. He asked where I’d fallen, and I tried to picture the muddy patch of grass, near a tiny canal, thinking my glasses would most likely be there. They are my only pair other than reading glasses, and the thought of quickly replacing them was daunting.

Business finished, I was calmer now. I had at least made sense of my disorientation, that vague vertigo that comes of not seeing clearly. I mounted the bike and pedalled off. Ahead of me I spotted what I had missed before. There is a path that takes cyclists and pedestrians safely past the roundabout, as I should have known there would be. I followed it through a maze of tunnels under the interchanges above, eventually finding my way to where I had fallen. I retrieved my glasses, muddy but unbroken, and, before going home, went on to complete my other errands.

It was after nine that evening when I got off the bus after yoga and walked the six-and-a-half minutes back to the flat. My husband had dinner waiting, and he sat with me while I told him about the day. It had taken only 30 minutes to get to class, but the return trip meant waiting 15 minutes at each of two stops, stretching the trip home to an hour. The class was demanding physically. It had been a long time since I had practiced the sequence that moves from downward dog to plank and chaturanga to upward dog and back to downward dog. It takes great stamina to hold one’s upper weight on outstretched arms through the entire sequence, and the instructor had had us do it over and over without pause. My hands, arms and chest muscles burned with the effort, and my left shoulder and hip ached from the fall. I was exhausted.

As I ate, I described how the instructor had introduced me, explaining that I don’t speak German. She would, she told the rest of the class, try to give me brief instructions in English as she directed them in German. Naturally, I hadn’t understood what she was saying, but she had told me before class this was her intention. But the other class members suggested that she simply go forward in English alone. It would give them a chance to refresh their skills. So she did. Impromptu and for my benefit, she gave the entire class in English. She stopped a few minutes along to see if anyone had a problem with this, and not one in the group of about 40 objected.

‘So,’ asked Himself. ‘How did it feel to be the least educated person in the room?’

Stupid. It made me feel very stupid.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Living in Europe pours light on the vastness of my ignorance, despite my university education. I’m learning, among other things, how little experience I have with bells, church bells specifically.

In Ireland, of course, there are church bells. Bells toll just before mass, they toll for funerals, and they toll for the Angelus, twice a day, at noon and at six. I got used to the rhythm of each of these bells. A single bell striking repeatedly at moderate intervals calls one to mass. The Angelus is distinctive: three strikes in close succession, then a pause. Three notes and a pause. Again three notes and a pause. Then nine notes in succession. I find myself counting them out, as if ordering my day. By tradition, RTE, the national television and radio network of Ireland, broadcasts the Angelus every day at noon and six. The evening news begins not at 6 p.m., but at 6:01, immediately following the Angelus. In homes where the faith is taken seriously, one would pause, at least briefly, in respect.

I loved that, from our kitchen and bedroom, I could hear the Angelus drift across the fields between our house and the church in Ballylooby, 2 kilometres away. As I adjusted to the strangeness of early darkness in winter, I became accustomed to the rhythms of the devotion punctuating my day. One Saturday in December, that first year we were there, I spent making spaghetti sauce, keeping an eye on the clock to time the process as the sun set. Even so, when I was called out into the pitch-blackness of evening to meet a visitor, I was startled to hear the first notes of the Angelus, so dark it was, so early.

The funeral bell has its own rhythm, an agonisingly slow beat and long pause, beat and long pause, a pace so slow that each pause stretches out over accumulating seconds, mourners standing in the grey light as pall bearers struggle up the church aisle, shaky with the unexpected burden shouldered, the community waiting as if to take the next breath when the bell strikes again. I never ascertained how long the tolling went on, how many strokes, how many minutes. It could be simply that it begins tolling with the arrival of the hearse and continues until the coffin is in place before the altar and the principal mourners are seated. But rhythm of a funeral bell is unmistakeable. Hearing the slow notes drifting over the bustle of a morning in town, one reflects on the solemnity of the moment.

I write, of course, of my experience near a small town and even smaller village. My experience of larger towns and cities was more limited. I recall one Sunday morning in Dublin hearing from our hotel window the bells of first one church and then another tolling for mass. As in the country, they were single bells, one stately note repeated, calling the people to church.

Last summer, we attended a wedding in Valderrobles, Spain, staying for three nights a couple of hundred metres away from the ancient vaulted church that crowns a hill down which cobble streets wind. From its heights just above our wood-shuttered window, the church bell marked each quarter hour, through the sun-struck day, through the shimmering velvet night, into the cool golden dawn. I loved its sonorous commanding voice ordering the day, minding the hours of the night.

But we were unprepared for the bells of Salzburg.

We moved into our flat on the afternoon of Palm Sunday. Throughout that Holy Week, in the early evenings when I was alone in the flat, I heard chiming of bells from across the wood and the field beyond, coming from an unseen church. This was not the tolling of a single bell but a volley of notes, like song. The chiming continued for some minutes, five or ten or more. Other times, I heard pealing from another direction. There were bells from two churches, each close enough for the tolling to drift in an open window or even, more faintly, a closed one.

Easter morning we awoke to extravagantly pealing bells, the notes dancing in on the golden sunlight streaming through the windows.

‘See, I told you,’ I said to Himself, who, when I told him about the bells, had teased me about having gone cracked.

I hear them still of an evening, not necessarily on the hour or half hour. I don’t know whether they signal services or a particular devotion as the Angelus does. Perhaps it is simply bell-ringing practice, if there are bell ringers at all rather than a mechanical programme. Sometimes I am confused, hearing in the thrum of the radiators chimes that, on opening the window to hear them more clearly, I discover didn’t drift in from outside at all, only from within my excitable imagination, eager for new stimulation. Since that first week, I’ve located the two churches, each barely over a kilometre away, each with a narrow pastel nave under an arrow-shaped roof and a thick, tall bulb-topped steeple. I can see one from the flat, just across the river, illuminated gold in the blue-black night. I haven’t visited either.

But Sunday morning, as I sat alone in the early quiet of the living room that looks west over the wood and south over the field, I listened, more carefully, to the tolling, trying to create the space in my mind to describe it. It was then I first realised there are several bells chiming at once, each with its unique voice. It began with the deep note of a single bass bell. Then others joined in, chorus like, the tempo increasing, higher voices thrilling in a rising melody, exuberant, calling out over and over, the deeper bell heavy beneath them marking time, all the notes bubbling up like a Baroque extravagance above an altarpiece, a swelling golden cloud rising into heaven. I listened, hearing as well the piping voice of the tit and the sweet, clear blackbird note in the wood rising from the garden, as the bells’ song filled the sky, wave after wave of chime over chime, cresting to tumescent crescendo. Then, gradually, the notes began to calm, the roiling melody falling slightly, the chorus muting, until, at last, the deep bell struck unaccompanied. One. Two. Three.

And it was done.

The bell song died away. And still I listened to the call of the tit, three notes like double chimes, then silent, then repeated, rising in the wood, high and pure, at last echoing in my mind like the deep distant reverberations of the bells.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Country Mice

Nearly on the spur of the moment – on the principle that life is short, so keep moving – we decided to drive to Vienna Saturday evening, stay the night and spend Sunday sightseeing. After the grocery marketing and a trip to the hardware store, which is just over the border in Germany, we Googled hotels, booked a room and took off at 5:30.

Most of what I knew about Vienna comes from Andrew Wheatcroft’s Enemy at the Gate (Basic Books, 2009) about the Ottoman siege of 1683. Other than that, I had only vague associations – waltzes, pastries and coffee, Freud, Strauss and the Hapsburgs, and art, lots of art. And, in our rush, we didn’t have time to do any research. So Sunday morning, when we came up out of the underground in the city centre, I could think only of going directly to Stephansdom, the church that figured in the defence of the city against the Turk’s attack.

Coming into the enormous cathedral, we were overwhelmed by its Gothic splendour, even more so than St Peter’s in Salzburg had impressed us on Easter. Mass was in progress, the priest had just finished his sermon, and again there was an orchestra and choir performing, this time Haydn’s Mariazellermesse, No 8 in C Major. So we slipped past the tourists with their cameras and backpacks crowded in the back and found our way forward to stand near the transept.

Great columns of red marble soar in the late Gothic manner as they do in Westminster Abbey and Notre Dame. Everywhere we looked, altars were decorated with paintings and sculpture. We stood not far from a large gilded altarpiece, a triptych. On three levels, it depicts Mary and – I now learn from researching it – Saints Barbara and Catherine surmounted by the Coronation of the Virgin. It is beautiful, and I stood trying to see across the short distance its details and make out the images. Around us, the music reverberated in the vast height and space, the sound expanding and lifting me with it.

Mass ended and we explored the church, taking particular pleasure in a carved self portrait of the architect and stone mason as he leans out, as from a window, at the top of an altarpiece, his face wistful and compelling. Not far from this sculpture is an elevator that, for €4.50, whisked us to the top of the tower that houses the huge iron bell called the Pummerin, one of the largest in Europe.

Coming out of the elevator, we found ourselves on a narrow, railed platform high over the city. From there we climbed more stairs around the exterior of the tower, as I clutched the rails with both hand, breathing shallowly, feeling that elemental terror felt on heights, no matter how safe. The views of Vienna were wonderful, even enlightening, making the effort worth it, though a cold wind blew and, briefly, hail pelted us. Still I felt the whole time a thrill of terror and trembled not just with the cold but with awareness of the narrow steel-mesh platform on which we moved and at the sight of the tower rising opposite us and the roofs beneath us and the streets so far below. I wondered how anyone could contain that fear to work at such heights.

Leaving Stephansdom, we moved in the general direction of the imperial palace, equipped only with a flimsy, advertisement-filled, tourist map from the hotel. Passing another church, a smaller domed church with an elaborate Baroque façade, we climbed the steps to its porch and opened the door. Organ music welled up from within the interior, and so we went in.

I was, as they say in Ireland, gobsmacked by the ornate decorations of the church, called Peterskirche. Its dome is covered with rich with frescoes depicting the Coronation of the Virgin surrounded by an orchestra of angels with instruments. Eight windows pierce the dome, brightly illuminating the frescoes. In the top of the cupola, a dove hovers. Around the walls of the compact, oval nave stand huge marble altarpieces, paintings, gold and silver. The pulpit is a frenzy of gold rococo excess, sculptures writhing over a tasselled canopy supported by more gold sculptures. Attached to the oval of the sanctuary is a rectangular apse filled by a monumental Baroque altarpiece under a trompe d’oeil arch and dome.

As we wandered, the unseen organist continued to play, practicing, I believe, for a recital scheduled for that evening. Again our senses were charged by music as well by visual extravagance. There is something gem-like about St Peter’s; its compactness is complemented by its gracefulness, inside and out. We could have looked and looked and still have found more treasure. Its richness was marred for me, however, when I noticed a lacklustre, obviously modern, portrait of a man wearing glasses, Josemaría Escrivá. I immediately recognised him as the founder of Opus Dei, an organisation I find repugnant. An altar is dedicated to him; it turns out the care of the church has been transferred from the Archbishop of Vienna to Opus Dei, which explains, to my mind, a particular tone of exaggerated veneration in the literature we found there.

We left the church and again wandered, crossing a wide platz dominated by a monumental Baroque sculpture. We continued in the direction of imperial residence, walking past art galleries and antique shops, past windows displaying charming works of glass and of jewellery. At last we came to the third church we entered, the Augustinian church attached to the Hofburg, the winter palace of the Hapsburgs.

After the sumptuous, not to say overwrought, decoration of the Stephansdom and Peterskirche, the nearly bare cool grey interior of Ausgustinerkirche felt peaceful. The vaults of its nave soar high and narrow, and, in its austerity, it seems older and more secure, even more stately, than the other two churches we visited. Two remarkable ornaments stand out, a large Gothic altarpiece and the hauntingly beautiful monument to Archduchess Maria Christina by Canova. The cenotaph, of white marble, depicts dejected figures entering the door of a tomb, shoulders drooping, watched by a reclining lion and a winged angel. It is a masterpiece. We stood in front of it, fascinated and moved, not realising until later whose work it was. By which I mean, Canova's mastery spoke for itself.

It was about 3, and we wanted to begin our drive to Salzburg by about 5. Yet we hadn’t seen the palace, which was just beyond the church. We pushed on, down a narrow passageway and through courtyards and round corners into even grander courtyards, past statues and through grander-still courtyards, until at last we passed under a final arch, me a few paces ahead of Himself, who had paused to read a sign, and I stopped still, mouth open, amazed at the monumental Renaissance palace with its formal garden rolling out over acres in front of it, the palace majestic, huge, with more Renaissance buildings just beyond, elegance in all directions, with the Gothic spires of the Rathhaus rising in the distance.

Gobsmacked, again. After Dublin, after Salzburg (not even considering Thousand Oaks, California), Vienna is indeed a revelation. Grand on the scale of Paris, it is beyond my power to describe.

We were not even close to the Danube at this point, and no longer had the time or the energy to tour any of the Hofburg. All we could do is gape, two country mice surrounded by imperial splendour, before creeping home.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Easter in the Altstadt

The Stiftskirche is the church of St Peter’s Benedictine Abbey in Salzburg’s Altstadt. The abbey was founded in the 7th century by St Rupert. The Stiftskirche itself dates from the Romanesque period, but it was extensively rebuilt in the 17th and 18th century. I happened into it on the afternoon of Good Friday and, leaving, I noticed that the music on Easter Sunday’s 10.15 mass would include Mozart’s Mass in C Minor and Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. That would be interesting, I thought, if we could get ourselves there at that hour.

So Sunday morning we cycled 20 minutes along the bike path that runs beside the Salzach into the city centre and found our way through the maze of streets and platzes to the old church. We got off to a late start, so the priest was just finishing his sermon when we crept from the porch into the back of the nave. Others were entering as well, including a middle-aged couple just in front of us carrying a small basket covered with a cloth embroidered ‘JHS’ – Christ’s initials.

We breathed in thick incense as we stood in the crowd at the back, awed by the Baroque magnificence of the church. Its long barrel vault is white, ornamented closely with pale green rococo filigree plasterwork. Along its length, the vault is supported by an arched colonnade, above which hang enormous paintings. Where the vault joins the colonnade, there are lunette windows, through which light on this sunny morning poured.

Along the colonnaded nave stand monumental marble altarpieces, heavy with paintings and massive silver candlesticks. Above them are brightly painted and heavily gilded life-sized statures. Over the chancel rises a large dome; this morning, light from its cupola flooded the altar below. Flowers were massed on the altar, and statues and vessels on it glinted gold. A row of priests and altar servers in red or black vestments covered by white lace surplices stood as the priest lead the mass in musically intoned German, singing in the old style of the Latin mass.

Overwhelmed by sound, light, colour, smell, we took a while to find our bearings, but gradually we moved along the side aisle to midway the length of the church. Then, from the organ loft over the back of the nave, Mozart’s Mass resumed, with orchestra and chorus, the soprano’s voice rising clear and pure, more piercing than the light pouring through the cupola, as piercing, one wants to believe, as Constanze’s soprano when the work was first performed, in 1783, with Mozart conducting in this very church.

We stood through the rest of the mass, transfixed by the music, by colour and image, light and shadow, the melodic intonation of the mass itself. Gradually we moved from the side aisle to a position behind a bank of pew where we could see the altar more clearly. Periodically, Mozart’s music soared, punctuating the mass. I was half lost in a trance, succumbing to the ecstasy one feels sure the artistry and excess of ornamentation, gold, silver, light and scent were meant to inspire.

I felt this all without an scintilla of belief, even, at times, with a kind of simmering antipathy, given the complete collapse of moral authority the church is undergoing from the pope down. Yet the experience of the mass in this context has its own fascination, especially as a unifier of community, however briefly, as during the sign of peace, which I’ve always found moving.

The mass at last ended. At the end, the priest lifted his hands and, against the background of gold, blessed the food which people had brought in their baskets, an Easter tradition here. Then the organ began a sumptuous voluntary and the bell in the Romanesque tower began to toll. Leaving, we walked beside a father who looked down at his small daughter skipping beside him, swinging a basket with the Easter food. Amid the crowd we made our way out of the church and stood in the platz in front of it watching as Salzburgers poured out, many wearing traditional elements of dress – Bavarian jackets, lederhosen, wool hats and capes.

With the bells continuing to toll overhead, the notes deep and rich, we wandered around the side and to the back of St Peter’s to explore the St Petersfriedhof cemetery, the oldest in Salzburg, with its wrought-iron painted grave markers and freshly planted bright yellow flowers. Through I’m sure there are graves more ancient, the oldest marker I’ve spotted is dated 1717. A few metres away was a grave so new the ribbons on the burial wreaths were still fresh.

From from the cemetery, we passed through two more platzes before coming to the platz in front of the enormous Italianate cathedral, the Dom. St Peter’s bells were still ringing from a couple of hundred metres away. Then, just a few minutes later, mass ended in the Dom, and people streamed out of that building as its bells, more sonorous and elaborate, began to toll. All told, as we stood and wandered and watched, the bells from the two churches must have rung virtually continuously for a half hour, deep, loud, tremendous bell tolling, the sound vibrating right through me, as if the atoms of my body merged with the vibrating air around me.

And so we explored and absorbed the sounds and sights of Easter in Salzburg until it was time to find our bicycles in the maze of streets before cycling along side the Salzach, its waters pale blue-green, on a fresh spring morning, gradually leaving the city behind us.

Friday, April 2, 2010


It’s a bright, sunny and warming (to 11 C) morning, in contrast with the rain and cold of yesterday afternoon. May it continue. I intend take the bike and ride down the bike path to the Altstadt, perhaps to see something of the commemoration of the day in the platz in front of the Dom.

Just a few minutes after my husband left this morning, the doorbell rang for the first time since we’ve been in the flat. I had just started to sort the laundry to use in the new washing machine and, in fact, was still in my dressing gown and more disheveled than usual.

I was confused when I opened the door to an unfamiliar young woman, not older than 25, I’d say, wearing a jacket with a logo and three lime green boxes under her arm. Odd. I wasn't expecting any packages.

As always – it happens afresh with each encounter – I was disconcerted when she addressed me in German. Isolated as I am in the flat all day, moving in my narrowly defined world, continuing to relate to it in English through books and magazines, the internet and in conversations with Himself, it is disorienting to be confronted again with the reality of a German-speaking world just beyond our door.

In the stream of German I caught at last our surname and the penny dropped. She was from Telekom Austria and the boxes contained our new landline phone and broadband modem. At last, after only a week, we would be connected. We had been told it would be two weeks. (When we moved to Ireland, we waited three months for a landline; broadband took many months more.)

The young woman, with very short breached-blonde hair and capable working hands, was disconcerted as well, her English being not particularly fluent. And we needed to have a conversation. Where were the phone outlets? Did we want the phone and the internet connected in the same room? And more.

I found my mobile and dialed my husband’s Blackberry. When I held it out to her, she reeled back just slightly, her look saying, ‘Don’t do this to me!’ However, she took the phone. The first thing she said into the phone was, ‘Do you speak German?’ and it turns out that Rosetta Stone is paying off. Soon they were conversing auf Deutsch, and we were on our way. (He tells me now that he handed his phone over to the German-speaker he was meeting with, so it was a three-way conversation.)

As she worked away, I got dressed and continued with the laundry in the nearly child-like state I inhabit these day. Unable to communicate beyond a few stammered words and sign language, I feel at times a kind of lightness, the lack of responsibility that accompanies my inability to understand or be understood.

That doesn’t compensate for the frustrations though. We bought new washing machine last week, and it was delivered complete with instructions and manual, auf Deutsch, of course. Downstairs I stared at the control panel. I recognise for word for ‘cotton’ and the word for wool, but what is Koch-/Buntwäsche? I came upstairs and typed it into the Google translator. Something cooking?

The young woman had just come into the room. I showed her the manual. ‘Ah, so,’ she said. ‘Neu?

I pointed to the phrase. What does this mean?

Ah. ‘Not black. Not white. Coloured.’

A mixed load. That would work.

Downstairs I turned the knob to Buntwäsche Eco and set the temperature to 40. Pressing the button labelled Tür, I felt a bit reckless. At least it was all socks, underwear and assorted towels – nothing that required special care. I’d just have to see if it works.

This is me, the obsessive worrier about instructions and procedures. Who keeps a file of every manual for every appliance I’ve ever owned. Including watches and pocket calculators. Who wants to know How Things Work. Who figures if the engineers designed the machine to work a particular way, that’s the way it should be done.

I walked away.

Upstairs the young woman had the line working. ‘Your husband said you had a' – gesturing, she fumbled unsuccessfully for the words  – 'from Ireland?' Ah, yes, the phone itself.

She continued. ‘He didn’t know if it would work here.’

We were in the shared office, which is still piled with cartons to be unpacked. The handset had been in my office in Ireland, so it must be in one of these. I started pulling things out of one box and pointed to another, indicating she should root through it. And we were lucky; eventually we pulled out the base and then one, then another, of the handsets.

We tested it and it worked. We were set to go. After she had explained to me, seeming more confident in her English, where the cables needed to connect to the wiring, how to install the software for the modem and what light – she called it a lamp – on the modem had to be steady, I complimented her on her English.

She was pleased but dismissive. ‘Everyone learns it in school. But school is long time ago now.’

‘I must learn German,’ I told her.

‘I think German is very hard to learn. Very hard. Even I, I have problems writing it. So many rules. For writing. And they change every week.’

I doubted that was true, but we were nearing the limit of mutual comprehension.

‘I’m a writer,’ I tried to explain. ‘And it’s hard not being able to speak to people. Not being able to use words.’

I didn’t think she got me. I tried a different way.

‘My work is writing. Words are my work.’

‘Yes,’ she said, as though she understood. ‘Words are work.’

We shook hands on the landing. I was sorry to see her go.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


In a country dominated by dogs, we have moved onto a street full of cats – Katzenstrasse. There are no dogs on this street, our neighbours tell me. That’s odd, given that dogs are everywhere in Salzburg, on the street, in shops, even in restaurants.

One cat, a large – no, bluntly, fat – dark grey-and-white cat with a delicate face and small pink nose, considers this flat an extension of her house across the street. She followed us up the stairs on Sunday as we brought our suitcases in and went directly to the kitchen, rubbing up against the table. From there, she went to the bedroom, as if she expected to find something, or someone, specific there. Back into the kitchen she came and sat, calmly watching. In fact, she didn’t run down the stairs and out the door until my husband, sitting in the office at the end of the long hall, loudly and unconsciously cleared his throat.

When I awoke at half six Monday morning and pulled back the curtain by the bed, I saw a pair of pale gold eyes, just on the other side of the glass, inches away.

Let me be clear. The flat is on the first floor – the second story by American reckoning. The cat was sitting on the flat roof of the garage, a kind of terrace accessible from the bedroom through a pair of glass doors next to the bed. I didn’t know how she got onto the roof, but she seemed to know I would be on the other side of the curtain.

The cat stared, mouth stretched wide with the plaintive cry I knew from hard experience. I let the curtain fall back and turned in the bed. Minutes later, I looked again. She was still there.

Himself had retreated from my thrashing and duvet snatching in the night to the spare bedroom, so I was alone. With full knowledge of my guilt, I opened the glass door. The cat came in. Soon she was an immobile, heavy and tightly wound knot next to me, secure in the peaceful down of the duvet.

Himself would not be pleased, I thought.

She followed me into the living room when I got up for my meditation. It’s a large room, now cluttered with our furniture and still-to-be unpacked boxes. She wandered the room, thrusting her body into the legs of each chair and table she met, crying pitifully when I ignored her. I settled her half on my lap, half on the sofa – she is too fat to fit comfortably on lap alone – as I began my meditation, concentration diluted by her heavy, soft stillness.

It’s been nearly four years now since we had had to let go of our cat, Puisín. A remarkable cat, intelligent, exceptionally brave and loyal, she was 16 and had reached the point of wandering the house crying in the night. She cried too when she was picked up, her joints knobby beneath her withered flesh. So I called the other Lorraine, our vet, who came to our house, and I held Puisín in my lap, stroking her long marmalade-coloured fur as her body relaxed for the last time.

That may have been the last time until this week that I had held a cat. The year that followed was the year the house in Ireland was finished; the summer following her death was a blur of selling the California house, packing or giving away all we owned and moving to Ireland. In Ireland, my mother-in-law’s dog Sally took a more-than proprietary interest in our house, having long seen the site as part of her jurisdiction. Besides, we didn’t want to be in thrall to litter boxes, yet an outdoor cat, I feared, would be a neat snack for the foxes, badgers, hawks and owls of the countryside.

The cat nuzzled my arm, pushing its face into the wide sleeve of my dressing gown. It had been a long time since a soft but demanding, tightly knotted creature had pressed itself insistently into my outstretched legs or onto my lap, pinning me in place.

My mind wandered, skirting the forest of irrationality, sidling into the wood of superstition. Perhaps this was someone making his or her presence known. Perhaps it was Jakob, the craftsman who had carved the walnut, cherry and oak that panel the walls and ceiling of this flat. Moving here, we acknowledged he may be looking over our shoulders, exhaling dusty breath, keeping watch on his creation. Was he making his presence felt more substantially?

‘It certainly knows this place,’ said my husband over breakfast a little later, as the cat roamed the kitchen.

It jumped onto the seat of Jakob’s carved cherry breakfast nook.

‘Hey! Get off!’ He brushed it off the bench. ‘Maybe it used to live here.’

Would we now be buying cat food? Surely the cat was too clean and well fed to be homeless.

I got some of the story the next day when, taking out the rubbish, I got talking with the neighbours across the street. (Many people in Salzburg speak English to a greater or lesser degree, but this couple met as part of an exchange program between the University of Salzburg and Bowling Green State College, where for a year they were enrolled in American Studies, so they are more articulate in English than most. Yesterday they left for Vienna for the long weekend, and already I miss them.) The owners themselves of a 17-year-old cat called Jimmy, they told me the wanderer belongs to their next-door neighbour. The cat is named Mona, and she has a sister, as shy as Mona is bold, named Lisa.

Yes. You read that right: Mona and Lisa. Someone has a sense of humour, I suppose one could call it.

Mona is friendly and adventuresome by nature, and it turns out the last occupants of our flat were a family with children, a girl, 8, and a boy, 6. Mona had been welcome here and the children had played with her, so she was, in fact, re-visiting a favourite place.

Perhaps we should have been more welcoming, because she hasn’t repeated her early-morning call. But no doubt our familiar will be back. In a street that’s home to about 20 cats, my neighbours estimate, Mona is well known for her wandering into flats and making herself at home. In fact, as I came out of the furnace room the other day, she was half way up the stairs before she saw me, turned and ran out the door.

Or maybe that was Lisa, the shy one. Who can say?

As for Jakob, I haven’t entirely left the wood. When he makes his presence felt, I’m sure he has no need of the corporeal.